Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Sneaky Eight Month Old

She smiled her sweet smile--that innocent smile--up at Mom.

"Open up, baby-girl," Mom sweetly coxed.

The Baby opened her mouth wide, taking in the tasty sensation of food, "HMMmmmm..."  While swallowing, she turned her head to the left, straining to watch the morning weather--she liked the pretty colors so.

"No," Mom reprimanded.  She quickly swiveled her head toward Mom. Looking intently (having pouting lips and furrowed eyebrows) at Mom, she just as quickly smiled.

"Have some more food," Mom continued, scooping more carrots onto the Gerber spoon.  The Baby moved her head to the left again, halting half-way when Mom reminded her again: "No t.v."  She slowly moved her head back toward the spoon.  Looking at it, she opened her mouth for more goodies.

By now, she knew the house rule: no t.v. watching while eating.  Even with the, she would look for more amazing colors.  But of late, she looked less often when Mom was watching her.

Today that changed.

While Mom went for more food, Baby tried a "new" tactic. She sneaked a peek.  She thought Mom didn't notice. But the Baby quickly learned what all children learn: Moms have eyes on the back of their heads.

Monday, January 18, 2010

VI. Means of Grace: What Exactly Is a Sacrament?

VI. Understanding the Means of Grace: What Exactly Is a Sacrament?

The first thing I thought when I first heard the word 'sacrament' come out of the mouth of a Presbyterian was "Roman Catholic"! I suspect I am not the last. However, simply reading the writings of the Reformed readily dispel any such notions. In the first place, the Romish church understands the sacraments as mechanical means of obtaining grace; explicit faith is not a requisite. Pull the lever and out comes more infused grace.

In contrast, question 91 of the Shorter Catechism asks how the sacraments function: "The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them;[1] but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them."

Thus, any mechanistic view of the sacraments are precluded before the Catechism even defines them! Romish sacerdotalism is ruled out.

But, then, what is a sacrament? The Shorter Catechism summarizes the Biblical doctrine of the sacraments thusly:

A92: A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented,[1] sealed, and applied to believers.[2]
1. Gen. 17:10 2. Rom. 4:11

It is "sensible"-pertaining to the senses of sight, touch, feel and taste; it is a sign-representing outwardly those inward realities. And it is more than a sign. To stop here is to endorse "memorialism," a view that rejects the sealing aspect of the sacraments and emphasizes the human-response element. (Many Christians do not realize that God is present in worship with His Word. There is an objective dimension, not simply a human side only. )

However, if it is granted that the Older Testament was the church in infancy (Gal. 4:1ff.), with a body of spiritual truths to imitate (1 Cor. 10:1ff.), then Paul's contention that circumcision was a "seal of the righteousness of the faith" that Abraham had before he was circumcised (Rom. 4:11) demonstrates that the sacraments of the New Testament are for substance the same as the Old (I Cor. 10:1-4; Rom. 4:11; Col. 2:11-12; cp. WCF 27:5). They were signs and seals for the saints of Old as well as the New; the outward trappings have simply changed.

In short, they are instruments-means-used by God to seal our faith. They help us grow in the Spirit. Our Creator-Father made us with a body. So, simply from the creation account alone we should understand that material things are not wrong in and of themselves. And because of the weakness of our flesh, God uses simple and despised means to strengthen our faith. Men mock preaching, for is it not mere sound-waves bouncing upon the ear? So, too, some Christians despise the sacraments as so much materialistic activity. Perhaps the fear is that to understand the sacraments as means of grace, as seals of redemption, is to follow the path to Rome.

Fear not. The Bible and any informed Presbyterian knows that the sacraments have no power in themselves. Faith is needed. Saving faith "is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word,[3] by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened" (WCF 14:1). The sacraments are not converting ordinances. They save no one. The Spirit especially uses the Word for that. Rather, the sacraments increase our weak faith. God stoops to our level and kindly draws us through audio and visual means. He is encouraging us, saying that He understands our frailties, our doubts.

They are not merely memorials; they are more. They are not merely signs; they are more. As a seal firmly confirms upon our conscience (1 Pet. 3:21) the truth of the content of the letter, so the sacraments confirm the truth of the Word. It is sometimes described as a hug or a kiss that shows "I-really-mean-it"-a token of that Communion already enjoyed through the Word.

"A college graduate receives a diploma to which an official seal is affixed. The seal is of benefit to the recipient, not the giver. The seal does not make the recipient an education person, however; it merely declares officially that the authorities so regard him. The message of Ahasuerus [Est. 3:12] was authentic without the seal; it actually was the king's decree. The seal was added to convince the king's subjects that the message really was his. It is so with the sacraments. Sacraments do not cause grace. Neither is grace dependent upon the sacraments. The sacrament is of benefit only to that man who is the receiver of grace. It is of benefit because it makes known, or declares, the salvation which the believer receives distinct from the sacrament. It is a confirming testimony to the believer concerning what he has received." [The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, G. I. Williamson, p. 200ff.]

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

Monday, January 11, 2010

Selling Webster's Speller

Noah Webster's American Spelling Book (aka, Blue-back Speller) is currently being republished. As the product description from one site declares:

"His goal was to provide a uniquely American, Christ-centered approach to training children. Little did he know that this remarkable gem would become the staple for parents and educators for more than a century and would help to build the most literate nation in the history of the West. Many of the Founding Fathers used this book to home school their children, including Benjamin Franklin who taught his granddaughter..."

What are Christians to make of these assertions? Is this book even worth buying?

Let us peal back the claims in reverse order.

First of all, the claim that many of the Founding Fathers used this to homeschool their children is dubious. In my experience, many historical claims have been circulated that have no foundation in fact (e.g. Jefferson, Witherspoon and John Jay were homeschooled, more here). The book was published in 1783. A little late for mass circulation for some Founder's children. Yet it could be the case that many of the Founders used Webster's book for their children. Not having easy access to the facts, I can only hold this assertion in abeyance.

Second, the book appears to have been a staple for education and helped raise literacy. This claim is true as far as it goes. It must be remembered, however, that this does not mean that literacy was not already being propagated by other means. The blue-book was popular but did not singlehandedly create a literate society. In fact, in 1765 John Adams noted:

"A native of America who cannot read and write is as rare an appearance as a Jacobite or a Roman Catholic, that is, as rare as a comet or an earthquake." (here)

Third, the book was written for schools. Webster notes in the preface,

"THE design of this Grammatical institute is to furnish schools in this country with an easy, accurate and comprehensive system of rules and lessons for teaching the English language."

Of course, it can be used for homeschooling. The irony is simply that the publisher and catalog are part of an organization that pushes, promotes and proposes homeschooling as the Biblical approach (here).

Fourth, the claims of a "Christ-centered approach" is dubious at best. Using an online transcript of the 1800 text, I searched for common words a presumed "Christ-centered approach" text would use. Here are some results:

Searching for sin and its cognates yielded a total of seven times in one section (lessons of easy words and moral duty). The word is mentioned eight more times in a similar fashion, most notably:

"He that covereth his sins shall not pros-per; but he that confesseth and forsaketh them shall find mercy."

Next, I searched for cognates of 'Christ'. It is used about ten times and once for pronunciation. Another few times it refers to what Christ said. The bulk was in the Moral Catechism section, making no mention of the Gospel.

The word 'Gospel' does not exist. 'Repent' and its cognates occurs once. 'Faith' occurs once as an example of a monosyllabic word. 'Believe' is never used with respect to God or Christ. 'Cross' is found in a list of words and part of a proverb.

Thus far the evidence is a far cry from a "Christ-centered approach." In fact,there is evidence to the contrary: in the appendix is a Moral Catechism. A Catechism without reference to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Although the Catechism does not mention the Gospel, it does mention the pure in heart:

Q. What reward is promised to the pure in heart?
A. Christ has declared "they shall see God." A pure heart is like God, and those who possess it shall dwell in his presence, and enjoy his favour forever.

Furthermore, in the section describing a "Good Boy" and a "Bad Boy" any reference to God, church and Christ are missing.

In contrast, Christ-centered instruction would point out that Christians (and "good boys") can only see God through the merits of Christ.

Lastly, the biography of Webster explains why this Speller--although useful--was not Christ-centered: he was not converted until 1808. He admits that before that time he preferred the more "rational" religion of doing good to one's neighbor over the more "emotional" doctrines of grace. But God's omnipotent love moved his heart to eschew moralism and accept a Christ-centered education in his life.

The conclusion of the matter is that this book is a mixed bag. It is heavy on the Law with no corresponding Gospel message. With today's weak Christian culture, this book can easily turn into simple moralism.

That does not mean that one cannot use it. It means that a father or mother must use it in an environment that has a clear presentation of the Gospel of Christ's righteousness. Hopefully, with these facts at hand parents will be better able to evaluate the selling and buying of Webster's Blue-back Speller.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Summary of Gatto's Methods

Over at Homeschooling Research Notes, the author reviews the latest work of Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction.  For those not in the know, Gatto is well-known in many homeschooling circles for his book, The Underground History of American Education.

What is of particular note, is the author's opening evaluation of Gatto's general methodology. It is striking how this also summarizes some home education leaders general approach as well:

"First, regarding methodology, it needs to be noted that Gatto has a very frustrating tendency to make claims, quote sources, refer to documents, and so on without ever providing citations that would allow the researcher to check up on him.  Sometimes in the body of the text he gives enough information for the assiduous student, with effort, to possibly find his source, but often not.  His Underground History suffers from the same flaw, though it does include a brief note at the end promising the reader that he has consulted “somewhat more than three thousand” documents."

I found that book online a year back.  I, too, found the paucity of references troubling while reading his Underground.

Another methodological concern also parallels the style of some contemporary leadership:

"A second methodological affliction, common among polemicists, is Gatto’s tendency to cherry pick anecdotes and facts that paint his opposition (public education) in its worst possible light and to do the reverse for his own side.  In Gatto’s world every child is infantalized, deformed, and dehumanized by schools, while all dropouts become self-made millionaires.  Gatto loves to tell stories of self-made men and women.  In every case the moral is that if one can escape the poison of compulsory schooling, a rich and fulfilling life awaits.  He also loves to tell horror stories of administrative incompetence, curricular foolishness, and bureaucratic pointlessness in public schools.  Nowhere in his prose is there any hint that a child could possibly find school enriching, fulfilling, life-changing.  One of the principles I try to teach all of my students is that when engaging an opponent in an argument you want to do your very best to represent the other side fairly."

This is a common advertisement trick. It is fairly common in our society overall.  And it (unfortunately) saturates Christian marketing as well.  Even the marketing of homeschooling.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Should Your Children Learn Latin?

My recent rebuttal of North's paper brought a legitimate question: should we teach our covenant children Latin?

Here is a reprint of my response:

Hello ----,

My take on education in general is that the classes needed for children are the classes that first equip them for the glory of God. Thus the basics are required to read the bible and listen to sermons. Beyond that additional training is needed to equip the children for their vocation in life. This part is very flexible since part of equipping children for their vocation in the kingdom of God involves finding out what it is!

Thus, when used aright the great number of options today (compared to our Puritan forefathers) are opportunities to see if these are avenues for our children to further explore. These are the intro classes that may wet their taste buds for advanced studies.

Latin could be such a class. Dr. Coppes taught a summer of Latin for each of his children. This had the double-purpose of giving them a foreign language (one which is primal to many others) that can help them with their vocabulary and the like. And it also gave them a taste of a foreign language to see if they hand language-skills waiting to be expanded.

As for a child aspiring to the ministry, Latin is not required in the least bit. However, it could be useful for the child to get comfortable with foreign languages (such as Greek). And it may help stretch his mind with the memorization and the required logical thinking needed to translate.

Hope that helps,

Monday, January 4, 2010

PolyMathis: Year in Review, 2009

I thought about doing a year in review the last few years. Finally, after reading my fellow blogger's 2009 in review posting, I decided to go for it! (Hope he appreciates the free plug!)

2009 started out with a bang. I brought out my years-long research on home education to the public with Some Observations about Homeschooling and the Future of Homeschooling. Tired of all the misinformation about Christian education history being perpetuated in some homeschooling circles (and creating false expectations and false guilt), I simultaneously brought a new blog online, Christian Nurture.

This new blog raised some ruckus behind the scenes. Yet all the counter-claims and declamations never rose to a public refutation about my research of the true statistics of homeschooling nor my rebuttal of the amazing claim that homeschooling is a revival. To the surprise of many, I, too, was homeschooled and even defended home education.

This education theme continued with the five-part posting of a Very Short History of Christian Education (on both blogs). I also began an analysis of radical homeschooling and raised a number of eyebrows with a short comparison between some types of homeschooling and Rousseau. Some of these articles were posted on both blogs as well.

But that was not all. This was the Year of Calvinism. This six-part series was dedicated to all the Reformed work in the world, for their encouragement. Several other articles dedicated to this year-long theme, included famous American Calvinists--that surprised many--and a call for a Second Reformation. The church was challenged to focus on the basics instead of being detracted by the culture wars.

Although I tend to write about and for the church, I am never far from politics and a spiritual interpretation thereof. This goes doubly with the Gospel According to Obama. And I once again brought out a gem of religio-political history to shame the ignorance of our politicians.

In the midst of this increase in writing, we were waiting for our first child! This life-changing event was a God-sent. After 8 months of babyhood, we still stand in awe of the Lord's mercy.

Of course, these blogs do not reflect the work of the ministry in the background. My witnessing to atheists on the college campus prepared me for a surprising opportunity to write for a national news source as the Denver Christian Apologist.

This new position gave me an opportunity to defend the Calvinistic roots of America in an ambitious six-part series, October Revolution, reprinted in this blog. It also brought me closer to the New Atheism. So, I critiqued, God: The Failed Hypothesis, written by a local college professor.

Naturally, all this heavy writing can wear on the soul, so I throw in humor at times. Or even comment on the weather.

I ended the year with two critiques. One was requested by a reader, asking my opinion about a "Christian Education Manifesto". The other was a first-time critique of a public Reformed writer. I still have no idea what possessed him to write that article.

It's been a busy year and fatherhood increased that load. But it is a blessed load. And I hope and pray for more opportunities to spread the Gospel in the new year.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

V. Means of Grace: The Foolishness of God

Preaching is highly prized among conservative Evangelicals--even if it may be questionable preaching. Ministers are know in Evangelicaldom by their preaching prowess, stupendous speaking and charismatic chats. In some ways this is a good thing, yet, I fear, in today's inbred entertainment mentality, many churches follow the man and not the message. They like a good speaker, not because of what he says as much as how he says it. His highly charged presentation, flashy outfits, well-timed sighs and bold presence entertain the masses. The flash, the glamor, the ambiance of the stage create an atmosphere readily molded to the visual generation than the audio-rational mentality of yesteryear.

In fact, do many conservatives even understand why preaching has been so highly valued in our past? Or do we just follow along out of blind traditionalism? In true Protestant fashion, we must ask: what says the Lord?

In 1 Corinthians chapter one, Paul begins this book with the famous diatribe against Christian tribalism (group pride) [an upcoming article-see my blog]: "Now I say this, that each of you says, " 'I am of Paul,' or 'I am of Apollos,' or 'I am of Cephas,' or 'I am of Christ.' " (v.12). Paul is quite amazed that the Corinthians so quickly fell away. In remedy to such man-centeredness, Paul reminds them of the supremacy of the Word, specifically preaching: "For Christ did not send me to baptize [or give the Lord's Supper], but to preach the gospel..." He tells them that they should not look to the man but to the message. True, if he is preaching the message it will be reflected in the man, but the root of the matter is preaching.

And such preaching is not based upon clever manipulation of words or rhetorical flourish (as the Greek speakers were wont to do), but upon the power of the doctrine presented. It is a message that is foolish to those drowning in their sins: "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing...."

Yet to we who are saved and being saved, it is the power of God! Gospel doctrine is power; biblical ignorance is impotence. Paul continues his reprimand by connecting the message with the method:

" pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe." It is not only the Gospel that is the power of God, it is specifically that Gospel as preached that the Spirit is pleased to use.

Naturally, being inspired, Paul was consistent in his presentation. In that other famous book, Romans, Paul again aligns preaching with salvation in chapter ten:

"How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?" (v.14)

Of note is the fact that writing existed during Paul's time. Thus, the Spirit through Paul could have easily said: "And how shall they read without a reader?" It is the hearing, and, thus, the preaching, that is emphasized in these verses. That is why Paul quotes Isaiah in blessing the feet of the minister who brings the Good News through his speech (v.15). Paul concludes his line of reasoning just as he did in 1 Corinthians: "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (v.17)

Again, latter in the Epistles, Paul ties the Spirit of truth with the message of truth:

"For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, *you welcomed it not as the word of men*, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe." (1 Thess. 2:13, emphasis added)

This is the foolishness of God that transforms lives, families and churches. This is the power of God! Paul is only echoing Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones: preach and if the Spirit pleases, he will raise up the dead bones and bring life! The Reformation began this way; the first and second Great Awakening began this way; and any future revival will begin this way. These passages are summarized in our catechism: "The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means [of salvation]..." (LCQ 155).

Preaching, in an age of sports, internet, television and other more entertaining mediums, is foolishness because it does not please the flesh, that old man. It takes work to sit still, more work to listen, and yet more work to listen intelligently and write notes! But if we take seriously these passages, we will be blessed, we will grow and we will persevere.

The means of grace, those tools used by the sovereign Spirit in His time and way, must begin with the Word. Nowhere else is Christ found. And Christ and His Words are our life. That is why four sections were used to expound the Scriptures as the foundation of the Christian faith and life. It all depends upon the Spirit, but for our part we must obey by reading the Word, inviting friends to hear the truth, and finding good, faithful preaching. Pray that we will.

[Next: What Are Sacraments?]

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