Friday, November 20, 2009

Plans of Religious Instruction--Hodge, Pt. 1

The following is an abbreviated reprint of "Religious Education Enforced in a Discussion of Different Plans," an address delivered by Professor Charles Hodge to the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1847.

The Presbyterian church at that time was concerned about the education of their covenant children. The local school system--so long a bastion of conservatism--was becoming neutered by the influx of immigrants and sectarian Christians. The local leaders and school districts were beginning to limit the amount and type of religious instruction in the schools to make way for a common denominator. In some cases the Bible was no longer being read; in most cases the unique denominational distinctives--Presbyterian, Congregational, etc.--were no longer being taught.

This alarmed the Presbyterians, those so proud of their history of catechizing and schooling. As a body they decided to create parochial schools. This address was a learned outline of the issues facing the church and her children. It points to interesting historical conditions. In light of today's discussion, it is quite illuminating. Read on:

"Our subject refers to the early, constant, and faithful religious instruction of children by the assiduous inculcation of the truths and duties taught in the Bible.

... If the soul were uncorrupted, if still by nature, as at the creation, it were instinct, with holy desires and aspirations, it would gather knowledge and nourishment from every thing within and without, and grow, by the law of its being, as do the flowers of the field, to be beautiful exceedingly, through the comeliness which God gives to all creatures in fellowship with himself. It is precisely because the mind is by nature dark, that it needs illumination from without; it is because the conscience is callous and perverse, that it needs to be roused and guided; it is because evil propensities are so strong, that they must be counteracted. To leave a fallen human being, therefore, to grow up without religious instruction, is to render its perdition-certain.

The same cause which makes religious instruction necessary at all, requires that it should be assiduous and long continued. It is not enough that the means of knowledge be afforded to the child: it is not enough that he should be once told the truth; such is his indisposition to divine knowledge, such the darkness and feebleness of his mind, that he must be taught little by little, early and assiduously; or as the Lord said to Moses, "when thou sittest in thy house, when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up." It is a slow, painful, long continued process to bring a child born in sin, and imbued with evil, to a competent knowledge of God, and truth and duty, and to cultivate in such an ungenial soil the seed of eternal life. This, however, is the process which our apostasy renders necessary, it is that which God has enjoined, it is the one which he has promised to bless, the neglect of which is followed by his severe displeasure, and the all but certain ruin of our children.

This, therefore, is not the point which needs to be argued. It is universally conceded. The great questions are, On whom is this duty incumbent ? How is it to be discharged ? On whom does the Responsibility OF The RELIGIOUS EDUCATION OF THE YOUNG BEST?

In the First instance, on Parents. As to this there .can be no dispute. The relation in which parents stand to their children, implies an obligation not only to support, but to educate them, because they are bound to do all they can to promote the well being of those whom God has committed to their charge. Parents also have facilities for the discharge of this duty, which none others can enjoy; they have at least the competency for the work which strong interest in the welfare of their children can supply; and on them this duty has been laid by the express and repeated command of God. The neglect of this duty is at once one of the greatest injuries a parent can inflict on his children, and one of the greatest offences he can commit against society and against God. But while it is universally conceded that the obligation to provide for the religious instruction of the young, rests primarily on parents, it is almost as generally acknowledged that the responsibility does not rest on them alone. If a parent cannot support a child, it cannot be left to perish; the obligation to provide for its support, must rest somewhere. The ability of the parent failing, there must he some other person or persons on whom the duty devolves. In like manner, if parents are unable to provide for the religious education of their children, those children cannot innocently be allowed to grow up in ignorance of God; the responsibility of their education must find another resting-place. Men do not stand so isolated, that they may say, Are we our brother's keeper? they cannot innocently sit still and see either the bodies or souls of their fellow-men perish, without an effort to save them. This is too evident to be denied. Nor will it be questioned that so large a portion of parents are unable to provide adequately for the religious education of their children, as in all places and at all times, to throw a heavy responsibility as to this duty, on the community to which they belong. The inability in question arises in many, cases from the moral character of the parents; rendering them at once indifferent and incompetent. In other cases from ignorance. They need themselves to be taught what are the first principles of the oracles of God. And in other cases still from poverty, i. e. from the necessity of devoting so much time to secure the mere means of life, and of calling their children so early to share in their labours, that they are unable to attend in any suitable manner to the education of those whom God has committed to their charge.

If therefore, we look over any community, or over the history of the Church at any period, we shall find that a very large and constantly increasing portion of the young are left to grow up without religious instruction, where that duty has been left exclusively to parents. If, therefore, the work must be done; if the best interests of society, the prosperity of the Church, the salvation of souls, demand that the young should be brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, others, besides parents, must undertake the work. Accordingly in every age of the Church, among every people calling themselves Christians, provision has been made, beyond the family circle, for the religious education of the young.

[to be continued]

III. Means of Grace: Benefits of the Word

The first and foremost theological relationship of the Word is with the Spirit. The Bible, either preached or read, is mightily used by the Holy Spirit to convert, sanctify and preserve the elect. As Ezekiel 37 demonstrates, the Spirit of Christ is pleased to use this humble tool of the Word to even resurrect spiritual Israel from the dead.

The Confession clearly echoes the Bible's own insistence that the Word of God is the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17). It is an instrument so closely aligned with the work of the Spirit that Paul claims that those who call upon God need the Word preached (Rom. 10:14ff.), for "it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe" (1 Cor. 1:21). Indeed, the power of preaching the Word is the power of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:4). Turretin explains:

He [the Spirit] is not given to us in order to introduce new revelations, but to impress the written word on our hearts; so that here the word must never be separated from the Spirit (Is. 59:21). The former works objectively, the latter efficiently; the former strikes the ears from without, the latter opens the heart within. The Spirit is the teacher; Scripture is the doctrine which he teaches us.

Thus the Word has no intrinsic power but only that which the Spirit is pleased to bestow through it. Through the history of redemption, we find the Word of God commanding, explaining, transforming, admonishing and even chiding the people of God. It brings revival, reformation, renewal as well as discipline, rebuke and judgment. We see the transformation of Israel under Josiah's discovery of the Pentateuch (2 Kgs. 22:1ff). The New Testament Israel exemplifies this fact by its life-sustaining growth through the Word (Acts 4:4; 6:7; 8:4; 13:49; 19:20).

Of the various means of grace (Sacraments, prayer, family worship, etc.), only the Word of God inscripturated is the means of grace par excellence; it is the means of the Spirit upon which the other means depend. Any conscience event in the life of the believer--prayer, worship, fellowship, Bible study and all other means broadly considered--necessarily builds upon and requires the Word. From it flows the efficacy of the Spirit: whether the Sacraments, public or private worship, prayer or any other means of Christian growth, the Bible as read, and especially preached, is the foundational and continuous primary instrument of spiritual growth. This is manifested in the nature of the Word and its functions.

Firstly, the nature of the inscripturated Word is that it is the will of God to the Church. It is the mind of God in written form and as such is infallible, inerrant and God-breathed (1 Tim. 3:15ff.). It abides forever (Is. 40:8); it is living, active and sharper than any two-edged sword (Heb. 4:12); it is sanctifying truth (John 17:17); and it is spirit and life (John 6:63). These characteristics set it apart from the other means of grace: the power and energy of the Spirit is closely aligned with the Word. Indeed, faith operating in the environment of the other means, whether public or private, cannot exist without the object of Christ, and Christ is found nowhere else than in the truthful and inspired Word.

Secondly, the Word functions in a much broader manner than the other means of grace. Broadly it is profitable for every aspect of the Christian's life: "...that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16). Narrowly, as it contains the Law of God it convicts, restrains and guides. It exposes sin, holds back wickedness in society and shows the will of God for believers. As it contains the Gospel of God it calls men to salvation, converts the sinner, and strengthens believers in the Spirit of Christ.

The Spirit is the prime mover and energizer in the life-birthing and spiritual growth of Christians, but He is pleased to ordinarily utilize the Word as the foundation of the believers who were "born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever..." (1 Pet. 1:23). The Word convicts sinners and calls them to repentance, and it places Christ and Him crucified vividly before the sinner as the object of faith and conversion (1 Cor. 1:18ff; Gal. 3:1). Within this context regeneration by the immediate hand of the Spirit marvelously transpires.

Moreover, the Word continues its function through initiation into the covenant by the Spirit who seals with the Word (Eph. 1:13). The Church, by Christ's power, is sanctified and cleansed by "washing of water by the word" (Eph. 5:26). Her fellowship and unity are based upon it (Acts. 2:46). The Bible as used by the Spirit of Christ guides believers into a closer walk with God (Prov. 3:1ff). Pointing out the depths of sin and the wiles of the devil, it lightens the path of godliness (Ps. 119:105, 130).

These truths alone should attract us to the Word and to find ways to learn more about Jesus as He is in the Scriptures. The Spirit is the energizing power of the Church, but He works in an environment of His choosing. And that is the Word heard, read, memorized, studied, proclaimed and practiced. Thus, why would we wish to spend less time in the Word?

Next: The Power of God

Understanding the Means of Grace Series:

I.   What Are They?
II.  Passion for the Word
III. Benefits of the Word
IV. Power of God
V.  Foolishness of God
VI. What is a Sacrament?
VII.The Initiatory Rite

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

II. Means of Grace: Passion for the Word

II. Understanding the Means of Grace: Passion for the Word

We live in a society saturated with images: from still photos and billboards to magazines and television, to movies and Internet, Christians are bombarded with demands upon their time, energy and attention. Quiet (or even passionate) discourse and reflective thinking is not the excitement of the day: if there are no raging, emotional debates, then C-SPAN 2 is ignored for the easier-to-digest shallow one-minute sound-bytes on CBS. The visual medium lends itself readily to the exciting and exhilarating-as far as our eyes are concerned.

Adult Americans spend almost 4.5 hours a day watching television-this does not even count Internet or videos! Children watch even more television, not to mention video games. We are a society inundated with the visual. It can be very alluring. These mediums (TV, movie, art, etc.) are not evil per se, but they can be entrapments (and every age has its weaknesses) to a generation reared on the visual medium of stunning images and one-hour "documentaries." It is not simply that society teaches us to follow temptation with our eyes; we ourselves know the allurement of images and the difficulty of reading words. It is hard to concentrate on a book. Images are more "real" to us than the abstract words on a page.

Indeed, these images are so real that people are more excited when they find themselves on TV than with the simple fact that they actually participated in the televised event. These images become an existential moment-a personal encounter that rises above (below?) rational discourse. It is so real and personal that words are lost. When watching a movie we tend to suspend reality to such an extent that we are moved to tears, rage or joy. That is the power of the image. So, we need reminders of the supremacy of the Word and to have a passion in our lives and in our families that rivals Mel's Passion.

The positive side of the second commandment is further illustrated by the history of redemption. God spoke creation into existence; God spoke judgment and salvation to Adam and Eve; God spoke and Noah believed; God spoke and Abraham followed; God spoke His will to Moses, as the great prophet of the Old Testament, and spoke it to all subsequent prophets. Miracles did occur; visual surprises did arise; but these symbols were never suspended in the air, they were explained by the Word.

But there is more. The spoken Word, however powerful, was still not enough: God inscripturated His spoken Word. The Old Testament was as a child under age (Gal. 4:1ff.), but we have been privileged to live even beyond that age when the Bible was still incomplete. As even children today first learn through pictures and concrete items and then grow into adulthood-words and abstract thoughts-so the Israelites of old were given many visual signs. But in the New Age these have been vastly reduced to two: baptism and the Lord's Supper. Since God is merciful and knows our frailties, He has given us these visible signs and seals for our infirmities and weakness. Yet, these sacraments are useless without the preached Word Jn. 6:63). There must still be a passion for the Word.

The images of this world can be extremely alluring. I John 2:16 warns us against the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. Thus, this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed in our day and age. We must recall our Biblical roots. From the temptation of the fruit in Eden that was attractive to the eyes to the temptation of Christ with a vision of the world's kingdoms, we know from the Bible the dangers of the eye-gate. On the flip side, there is a positive presentation of what should be done to combat this weakness in our flesh: the Word of God stresses the written or spoken,not the visual. Consider:

1) "In the beginning was the Word...."
2) The Bible gives little to no physically pictorial information about its heroes and villains, let alone about Christ.
3) The Second Commandment emphasizes the dangers of images.
4) From God's stern reproach in the Garden to the audible chiding by Christ on the
Damascus Road, God's revelation of salvation is predominately through words.
5) God chose the foolishness of preaching to raise the dead, Ezek.37:1ff.
6) The Bible itself is written-it is not a picture book for children.

Why is this important? Because when we realize and practice the centrality of the Bible in our lives, we will be daily transformed more and more into the image of Christ while dying unto sin. Thus, it should be our passion.

How is this so? Why is sanctification so tied to the Word? And in what ways does the Word challenge our lives? That's the next installment.

Understanding the Means of Grace Series:

I.   What Are They?
II.  Passion for the Word
III. Benefits of the Word
IV. Power of God
V.  Foolishness of God
VI. What is a Sacrament?
VII.The Initiatory Rite

Sunday, November 1, 2009

I. Means of Grace: What Are They?

Today there is little understanding of the public means of grace, what they are and how they impact our lives. This is especially so in the realm of Christian nurture: children and adults are properly encouraged to read the Bible and pray but public worship is omitted. How can there be growth and revival in the nurture of our children and our own lives if we ignore mother church and the public means of grace? It is my prayer this series will help remedy this defect.

I. Understanding the Means of Grace: What Are They?

In today's Christian bookstores you can barely find one book on the subject of the means of grace. Indeed, many Christians are not even sure what that phrase entails. Furthermore, these means of grace are either ignored (think of the many Christians wandering from church to church without a regular diet) or taken lightly (think of the lack of proper preparation). Hopefully, in this upcoming series the significance and proper place of the public means of grace will be explained in a useful fashion for all of us.

The Larger Catechism summarizes exactly what these means of grace--"outward means"--are:

Q154: What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation?
A154: The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation. [Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 2:42,

Just as exercising and eating helps create a healthy body, so, too, spiritual exercise, using the means of grace (both private and public), helps us grow our spiritual body. Many Christians intuitively understand this fact. Thus, they strive for a five-step plan toward better living, or seek after forty-days of a purposeful life. Yet, examining the Bible shows a more simple approach to spiritual growth: the Word, sacraments and prayer. The proof texts used above show that continuing in the truths of the Bible (Acts. 2:42 "apostles' doctrine"), partaking of the sacraments ("breaking bread", v. 42; baptism in Matt. 28), and exercising prayer endorses a healthy church: "And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved." These "outward means" are used by the Spirit of God to grow the church. This is proper church growth. Again, many Christian friends of ours intuitively understand this fact and attend weekly worship.

In the Reformed faith we distinguish between public and private means of grace. Such a distinction is implied in the above Catechism answer when it differentiates between "all his ordinances" and "especially the word, sacraments and prayer."

As used in theological works and the Confessions, the means of grace are strictly limited as public and official elements of public worship. It is not simply any such action of a believer that is a means of grace in this stricter sense, but only the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments and prayer. It can be argued that there is also a broader, private or unofficial means of grace in the lives of the Christians: Bible reading, study and memorization, daily prayers, fellowship, and private and familial worship. Although neither public nor official, the reason these could be called "means of grace" is found in the fact that they are tools used by the Spirit for spiritual growth--it is inconceivable that Reformed communities would downplay the significance of private and familial worship let alone Bible reading, Bible studies or private prayers. Thus, there must be some sense in which these are means of grace.

The importance of this distinction is discovered in the balance that it presents. If the public ordinances are emphasized to the neglect of the private ordinances, an unnatural Christian life develops. Amongst other problems, believers more readily become mechanical in their worship and less spontaneous in their private devotional lives. On the other hand, with a neglect of the public ordinances through a disproportionate emphasis on the private means (as especially demonstrated in contemporary Evangelical circles), the public ordinances are regulated to a position between tradition and irrelevance. In short, both sets of means are needful for a healthy Christian life. They must be properly integrated. (excerpt from Words of Life, Mathis)

Christ does not call us to be spiritual couch potatoes. Rather he calls us to an active life of faith and obedience through the power of the Spirit and the tools He fashions for our benefit. Most Christians grasp the private means of grace. So, it behooves us to take seriously the public means of grace.

Next: the Word.

Understanding the Means of Grace Series:

I.   What Are They?
II.  Passion for the Word
III. Benefits of the Word
IV. Power of God
V.  Foolishness of God
VI. What is a Sacrament?
VII.The Initiatory Rite