Tom Hervey

The Blasphemy of Infidels and Professing Believers Compared

The blasphemy of most contemporary unbelievers is pathetic. And it is pathetic precisely because it is ignorant: it does not understand what it attacks, and sets up a caricature to beat to pieces. For example, in the early 90s the rock band Nirvana covered a parody of “I’ll Be a Sunbeam” called “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam.” The lyrics are not substantive, as only 28 of the 182 words are unique. By contrast, 58 of “I’ll Be a Sunbeam’s” 113 words are unique. Which is to say that the parody is more simplistic by far than a song meant for 4 year-olds.
But to our point here, it fails, both as a parody of “I’ll Be a Sunbeam,” and as a satire of our faith. Its chorus is “don’t expect me to cry/don’t expect me to lie/don’t expect me to die for thee.” “I’ll Be a Sunbeam” doesn’t mention any of those things – it speaks of being “loving,/and kind to all I see” and being “pleasant and happy” – and a satire, to be effective, needs to savage a target with the target’s own terms.
But musical theory aside, it fails at its irreverence and mainly shows the ignorance of its performers. Jesus doesn’t expect one to lie for him, but forbids it utterly (Lev. 19:11). The fullness of his kingdom will banish weeping forever, and he pronounces blessing to those that weep now (Lk. 6:21). Only the third line has any bearing to anything Jesus actually taught, and to it we might rejoin that while Jesus expects a willingness to die in all his disciples (Lk. 14:26), he actually permits martyrdom to befall only a small minority of them.
In any event, Jesus’ burden is far lighter and better (Matt. 11:28) than that of the drugs which ruled the lives of many in the rock scene of which Nirvana was a part. The performance was dedicated to Joaquin Phoenix’s brother River, who had sadly died of an overdose shortly before at the grand age of 23. (Tragically, Nirvana leadman Kurt Cobain was himself struggling with addiction at the time of the performance, and would flee a recovery program and commit suicide less than five months later.)
Such blasphemy is, again, pathetic, and well might we scoff at it.

The Comity of Nations: Brief Thoughts on a Useful but Neglected Concept

Those that disregard comity make themselves judges over strangers in foreign places—in many cases ones they have never been, nor ever will be. The revolutionary desire for utopia leads people to work themselves into perpetual anxious fits over things well outside their power or responsibility.

Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.Proverbs 26:17
The comity of nations is seldom known or respected at present. It holds that nations and their citizens ought to respect the customs, laws, and actions of other nations insofar as they do not affect their own interests. Americans have no business telling the British to abolish their monarchy, but neither do Britons have any right to criticize our liberties (as bearing arms); for such things are no impediment to trade, military alliance, or other relations.
This notion of minding one’s own country’s business is not the principle which governs contemporary politics. Intervention is the order of the day. Public discourse is dominated by that spirit of social revolution that aspires for all the earth to be made into an all-just paradise. ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ is the watchword of this movement, and by extension of much contemporary discourse. That notion is false: and if anyone doubts it, he is seriously requested to show how the laws of Djibouti directly affect the justice of those of Tyrrell County, North Carolina.
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Further Remarks Concerning the Fitness for Office Controversy in the Presbyterian Church in America

Christ is one, and he alone is righteousness for all who believe in him, irrespective of anything in themselves and irrespective of their place in the church. But office has higher standards than membership, is available only to a select few (Jas. 3:1), and is not meant to glorify the ones who hold it but so that they may serve everyone else in humility and without partiality. (Mk. 10:42-45; 1 Tim. 5:21). 

Last year I asserted that we should reconsider what terms we employ in discussing the question of fitness for office in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Subsequent correspondence suggests that such an assertion merits further consideration. Of particular interest is the concept of the unthinkable in moral questions.
In such matters conscious obedience to what has been explicitly stated is, it needs but little comment, of great importance. God has revealed his moral law in the Old Testament, clearly transcribing by the hand of his prophet Moses those things that he wishes men to do or refrain from doing. But alongside of the question of intentionally obeying such explicit commands is the related matter of the unthinkable.
Consider an example. Some time ago I was working in a clinic where a boy was getting a shot. He resisted by making a scene, to which what appeared to be his grandmother responded by chiding him for his incivility. The boy responded by loudly cursing this poor woman.
When I mentioned this incident to a coworker from Michigan, he, while not approving the behavior, nonetheless asserted there were occasions in which he could conceivably curse while addressing his mother, albeit not with a disrespectful tone. That notion, like the boy’s behavior, is utterly foreign to my Southern upbringing, so much so that I am not sure what would have happened to me if I had ever done either. It was simply inconceivable that I would ever curse in the presence of a parent or grandparent, much less toward one.
Nor was this because I had the advantage of a rigorous Presbyterian upbringing (I didn’t). I knew that one does not disrespect familial authority like that even when I was, at most, vaguely familiar that Ex. 21:17 exists. This was because I was the beneficiary of a common moral sense that had been developed and propagated by my culture in the form of sundry taboos.
And central to the effectiveness of such taboos is the concept of the unthinkable: for what cannot be thought in one’s own mind cannot be discussed with others, and what cannot be discussed openly cannot be done with impunity. The creation of the taboo is a strong impediment to the commission of the behavior it ultimately seeks to defend against.
Now such taboos are not merely a result of God’s common grace (where they are beneficial), nor a result of sin (where they depart from his will, Mk. 7:1-5, 9-20; 1 Tim. 4:3-5); they are to have their place also in the church, provided of course that they are fully in accord with scripture and do not go beyond it by forbidding what God allows (Col. 2:18, 20-23; 1 Tim. 4:3) or requires (Matt. 15:3-6). See, for example, 1 Corinthians 5. A man in Corinth had married his step mother (a violation of Lev. 18:8), and Paul in his letter is aghast that such a thing had not only occurred but also been boasted over (vv. 2, 6).
It is not clear why the church was boastful about such a thing, but some think that it involved a misunderstanding of liberty in Christ.1 Whatever its precise cause, the church had stumbled by permitting what even pagans recognized as intolerably evil  (v. 1).
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Further Thoughts on Wheaton College’s Institutional Fidelity

The contemporary obsession with identity is really a religious impulse, the idolatrous worship of self. It is so whether it appears with reference to sexual desires or identity, or in other matters (e.g., matters of ethnicity). Refuge goes along with that false religion and seeks to import it into the Christian faith. If this be doubted, consider this statement from Refuge’s FAQs: “The Chaplain’s Office continues as a key resource for students seeking to individually or corporately develop their faith in light of their sexual attractions and gender identity.” So it is one’s faith that is to be developed in light of one’s attractions and identity, not one’s attractions and identity that are to be developed in light of one’s faith: sexual identity is really the central element, to which faith is therefore subordinate.

In a previous article I criticized Wheaton College for asserting it remains committed to historic Christian faith and practice while also doing things that bring such claims into question (e.g., employing women who are ordained as ministers as professors of theology). There is more to be said upon the matter. Wheaton’s great fault is that it attempts to meet the world on its own terms, as shown in at least two other points.
Refuge is a group for “undergraduate students personally navigating same-sex sexuality and/or gender identity.” There is also a Refuge small group through Wheaton’s chaplain’s office. It is not clear what they purport to be a refuge from, but both groups are exclusive and secretive, limiting membership to people who identify as experiencing aberrant sexual identity or desires, requiring approval for participation from leadership, and meeting largely in secret. It is rather strange that people who profess to want to be able to live openly with full social acceptance then keep so much to themselves.
However that may be, Refuge’s mission statement is essentially that of the Revoice conference that roiled the Presbyterian Church in America: one has but to substitute ‘college’ for ‘church,’ and ‘students’ for ‘Christians’ for them to be functionally interchangeable. (Revoice also has some exclusive tendencies, restricting ‘allies’ from one of this year’s pre-conferences.) And like that conference, its participants prefer worldly terminology to describe themselves. The college’s approval of Refuge’s current iteration was contingent upon not using such terms at one point (per the Wheaton Record), but that has apparently changed, since they openly use them now.
Whatever the reasons for that, there is danger in such an approach. Christian institutions are to call people to repentance from their sin, not encourage them to faith while remaining in it; and insofar as such things have a cause in mental illness, our effort should be to encourage people to sanity. Wheaton would say that the point of Refuge is to teach such people to embrace the faith in truth, and highlights – even on Refuge’s home page – that it remains committed to scriptural notions of sexual morality. That largely misses the point. The current obsession with self-identity increasingly has little relation to behavior: I’m not sure that actual sex is more than about two percent of it even for many of the people caught up in it who do not share our faith. The key thing is that one’s self-conception or membership in a category is recognized by other people.
The Problem With This
That assertion of the preeminence of one’s self-conceived identity is where the fault lies. Granting that the people associated with Refuge and Revoice are sincere when they say they obey God’s commands against various forms of sexual immorality and respect marriage as between a man and a woman, they are still wrong. They rebel against God by openly controverting his established order by asserting a departure from it as an essential, immutable part of their persons, and encouraging others to do likewise by organizing on this account. And in some cases this means more explicit rebellion against God’s commands, as when people mutilate themselves to attempt to make themselves into a different sex than they truly are, or by acting as though they are that sex without undergoing such procedures.
If it be doubted this behavior is wrong, consider that God forbids crossdressing (Deut. 22:5). If it is an evil for a man to take upon himself a woman’s clothes, dare we think it any less egregious if he permanently alters his body by donning a woman’s physique? Is this not the ultimate rebellion, the refusal to be what one actually is in favor of what one prefers to be? God says “each one should remain in the condition in which he was called” (1 Cor. 7:20), referring primarily to socio-economic station and cultural identity as Jew or Gentile (vv. 17-24): should people not much more retain their nature as men or women?
And not only that, but God forbids lying. If a person has a Y chromosome and a man’s physique and goes about calling himself a woman, he is lying—and liars have no place in the Kingdom of God (Rev. 21:8). When he then demands others join him in his pretense, he is enticing them to sin, and Christ has strong words for those that do so (Lk. 17:1-2), especially where they do so to the vulnerable (young, mentally afflicted, etc.), as is common in these matters.
And granting that people are sometimes afflicted with a mental confusion that causes them to imagine their sex is opposite to what it actually is, we should not encourage them to embrace that fantasy when it entangles them in such sin and woe. To do so is unloving, and not at all in accord with the desire for them to abide in the truth about themselves, in which lies their only hope of health and a right relation to Christ.
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Controversy in the Church and the Evangelical Public Square

In a recent article Jake Meador wrings his hands anxiously because he believes that ‘evangelicalism’ is a “controversy generator machine,” and he believes that this is the source of needless strife that admits of no clear resolution. By contrast, he sees in the institutional church a suitable alternative that has prescribed processes for resolving controversy. I confess, such an opinion makes me want to lay my head in my hands and weep. Meador and I are both members and frequent observers of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)’s internal controversies, and for him to make such claims is extraordinary indeed.

Where there is the church there will be controversy. The people of Israel were divided over Christ (Jn. 7:43; 9:16; 10:19). After his resurrection the first sermon bearing witness to him arose because many of the Jews mocked the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:13), and soon thereafter the apostles so irritated the authorities that they were threatened and commanded to no more preach Christ’s gospel (4:1-21). When Paul and Barnabas visited Thessalonica, the Jews and pagans drew some believers before the magistrates with the bitter accusation that “these men who have turned the world upside down” were “acting against the decrees of Caesar” (17:5-9).
And as Christ and his people caused controversy in Israel and the Roman Empire, so also was there much internal controversy from an early date. From the first extension of the gospel to the gentiles there was controversy over their inclusion (11:2-3; 15:1-21), and there were subsequent internal conflicts which gave occasion for writing much of the New Testament. False teaching of various stripes (1 Cor. 15:12; Col. 2:8, 16-23; 2 Tim. 2:16-19; 1 Jn. 2:13-14, 18-26) and other internal disagreements appeared (2 Cor. 11:4-5, 13-15; Phil. 4:2; 3 Jn. 9), and Christ himself controverted the practices of some churches (Rev. 2:4-6, 14-16, 20-23; 3:2-4; 15-16). Shifting one’s survey to later church history shows that controversy was a recurrent theme. Heresy after heresy arose, and there were major schisms even where heresy does not seem to have prevailed (e.g. the Donatist split).
None of this should be surprising. Christ said:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matt. 10:34).
And Paul said “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Cor. 11:19). Indeed, so common was controversy that he regarded it as an essential trait of elders that they know how to avoid it where it was unprofitable (1 Tim. 3:3; 2 Tim. 2:16; Tit. 3:9), and how to handle it where it was appropriate (2 Tim. 2:25; Tit. 1:9).
In this we touch a matter of the utmost importance. Granting that controversy is inevitable, God has given us instructions on how to handle it. If someone controverts sound doctrine or stirs up division and will not repent when rebuked, he is to be avoided:
“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.” (Rom. 16:27)
“As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Tit. 3:9)
“Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” (2 Thess. 3:6)
“If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” (2 Thess. 3:14)
Indeed, scripture provides for much stricter discipline than we are inclined to imagine. 2 John 10 says that we are not even to greet false teachers. 1 Cor. 5:11 says to not even eat with anyone who professes faith and is guilty of certain severe moral faults. And Christ says that those who refuse to repent private offenses are to be regarded as outside the church (Matt. 18:15-17). These things being so, how much more worthy of avoidance are those that stubbornly promote false doctrine or commit scandal before the whole world!
And yet there are some in our day who seem to be discontent with such straightforward instructions, or who are perplexed that controversy is so common in our midst and receives the response mentioned above. In a recent article Jake Meador wrings his hands anxiously because he believes that ‘evangelicalism’ is a “controversy generator machine,” and he believes that this is the source of needless strife that admits of no clear resolution. By contrast, he sees in the institutional church a suitable alternative that has prescribed processes for resolving controversy. I confess, such an opinion makes me want to lay my head in my hands and weep. Meador and I are both members and frequent observers of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)’s internal controversies, and for him to make such claims is extraordinary indeed.
One, the church is not merely an institution represented in those formal ecclesiastical bodies that Meador vaunts, but is also the communion of saints, comprising “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion,” as the PCA’s official confession of faith puts it (Westminster Confession 25.2).
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Thoughts on a Recent Accusation of Institutional Failure against Wheaton College

There are few better ways to empty the pews than by going along with the spirit of the age in its professed desire for equality, and yet Wheaton stiffens its neck and blinds its eyes and marches on gladly, proclaiming its fidelity to Christ while at the same time disobeying the actual teachings of his scriptures, and setting itself up as a teacher of those who are to rule Christ’s church. 

The recent controversy over Wheaton College’s character is a disappointing one. For in the first case, Tim Scheiderer erred in his article accusing the college of wokeness. His article was not, alas, well written or well attested. It had no citations, and such hyperlinks as were included were only to other Fox News articles, most of which had no relevance to his claims. For example, his claim that Wheaton has substituted the term ‘sacrificial co-laboring’ for ‘service’ was buttressed by an article about Grand Canyon University being fined by the federal government. If one is going to accuse an entire institution of such a “blatant offense against Christianity,” he ought to at least give some actual evidence. To fail to do so invites an accusation of mere personal animosity and slander, which is a grievous thing indeed.
Then too, his article ought not to have been published at Fox News. Granting that any published statement might fall into the view of anyone, it matters where such things are published. Fox News may pay some lip service to our faith for its own business interests, but it is certainly not a Christian outlet, and that means it is not the proper place for an article such as Scheiderer’s (1 Cor. 6:4). To publish there meant exposing professing believers to the criticism of unbelievers (no doubt a large portion of Fox’s readership), as well as aiding an outlet that has probably done more harm to our faith than many of our avowed enemies: for Fox has conditioned people to be weighed down with the things of this life (Mk. 4:19), and in this many believers have been ensnared and made bitter and fruitless. In addition, it may be asked whether it is advisable to discuss such matters with contemporary, colloquial political terms like woke rather than in the language of scripture and of specifically Christian ethics.
But just because Scheiderer’s article went forth in an undesirable form and at an undesirable site does not mean that Wheaton is guiltless. It takes but little observation to see that it has a real problem with worldliness. One need look no further than President Ryken’s official response to the article to see that. For he speaks of the college’s “spokesperson.” If this person is a woman, why not refer to her as a spokeswoman? Why the squeamishness about sex-specific language where it is appropriate? Unless, that is, one is going along with the contemporary trend that imagines humans can be anything other than male or female, and that opts for sex-neutral language in an effort to avoid assuming anyone’s sex and thereby giving potential offense. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34), and by his use of “spokesperson” President Ryken betrays an infection by worldly thought patterns.
The faults do not end there. President Ryken teaches in Wheaton’s School of Biblical and Theological Studies, which aims to “promote the development of academic skills necessary for advanced study and service in the church and society worldwide,” and employs four women as professors. If God forbids women to teach or rule in the church (1 Cor. 14:34; Tim. 2:12), how can they be employed in providing advanced training to those that will do so, or who will go on to teach in other institutions that train men for church leadership? Of the four, at least one (Prof. Aubrey Buster) appears to have preached in Wheaton’s chapel, hardly the only woman to do so. The other three are ordained, two as Anglicans (Prof. Amy Peeler and Prof. Emily McGowin), and one, Prof. Jennifer McNutt, as a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, whose apostasy has long since become something of a byword.
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Faith and the Present Economy

Our whole government, spurred on by many private actors, gives its efforts to material prosperity, and by this concern with prosperity above all else has conditioned the citizenry to have similar priorities. And that concern makes remorseless war upon the life of the Spirit.

“You cannot serve both God and money.”Luke 16:13
When our nation is called to give an account at the Last Judgment, surely this statement will be among those that stands against us. For ours is preeminently a commercial and financial society, one whose course is taken up with the making and spending of money, and the material comforts it affords. A citizen’s chief activities are production (if part of the workforce) and consumption, and government policy at all levels aims to provide for a citizen’s ability to do these two things. This shows in a thousand ways, from subsidizing vocational training to unemployment assistance to myriad welfare programs.
Whether these things are economically sensible is not our concern here. Our point is that this preoccupation with money tends to predominate all other things. Preoccupation with material concerns suffocates concern for things of the Spirit (Matt. 13:22). Preoccupation with the things of this life drives out thought of eternity (Lk. 12:16-21). And preoccupation with the kingdom of Mammon deprives one of allegiance to the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:24).
It is on this point that we stumble terribly at present. We panicked and did considerable harm to our economy by our initial response to the Chinese sickness outbreak, and we then panicked yet further and pursued a broad array of measures to ‘build back better’ and mitigate all the harm of our initial response. All of this has been immensely detrimental to the spiritual well-being of both the church and the nation.
For whatever their intention, all our economic measures have conditioned people to think in terms of finances. The nation is awash – not merely in the pronouncements of politicians or the reporting of the press, but in the everyday speech of the common people – with incessant and anxious talk of inflation, interest rates, housing costs, wages, the unemployment rate, and so forth. All this is connected with material prosperity; and while all of it has long featured in American life, the economic crisis occasioned by our initial panic seems to have raised its pitch and made it even more all-encompassing than previously. Now one can scarcely have a conversation without it devolving into a discussion of such things.
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No, Evangelicals Are Not Selling Their Souls for Israel

We do not say that Israel is wholly right in its tactics or generally, nor that [Fitzgerald] is obligated to support her, only that his opposition to her ought to be more honest and careful in its sources, and that he not be so quick to suggest those who might support her are derelict in their faith on that account.

The Aquila Report has released its most read articles of 2023. Number 19 on the list is “Are Evangelicals Selling Their Souls for Israel?” by Jim Fitzgerald, a missionary and Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) minister who believes that evangelical support for Israel is mistaken. Fitzgerald is rightly aghast at the killing of civilians that has attended the war, and denounces the October 7th massacres. But these virtues are outweighed by some glaring faults in his article.
He uncritically accepts Hamas’ figures about the number of civilian deaths. Scripture is clear that murder and lying often accompany each other (Ps. 52:2; Prov. 6:16-19; Matt. 26:59; Jn. 8:44), so that people who do the former are suspectable of the latter. It is easy to lie and hard to kill, and if someone has a sufficiently seared conscience to do the latter, he is apt to have no qualms about the former. Scripture is clear as well that we are to have nothing to do with the wicked—and Hamas is in the foremost ranks of that category—and that listening to or associating with them has a corrosive effect and leads to righteousness and truth being overthrown (Prov. 1:10-16; 4:14-17; Prov. 29:12; 1 Cor. 15:33; comp. Ps. 1:1; Prov. 25:5). We should close our ears to all Hamas’ claims, therefore, for their wickedness has forfeited their right to be heard.
But Fitzgerald thinks Hamas’ claims verified by the statements of a single named person, a cardiologist named Dr. Sabra:
How can anyone be so heartless as to say the number dead is not accurate? I think the number is understated.
The attentive reader will note that is opinion, not testimony, and consists only of emotional rhetoric without any evidence in support; further, that it involves an ad hominem attack against anyone who dares think that murderous terrorists might exaggerate civilian casualties for propaganda purposes. Fitzgerald believes the point is buttressed by a nameless “many humanitarian workers” “making the same claim,” and by Israel’s own testimony of the amount of ordinance it has dropped on Gaza, some 30,000 tons as of his article in late November.
That last argument from sheer volume is weak: no amount of ordinance will kill anyone if they leave the target area. Israel issued a blanket warning to evacuate North Gaza before opening its main campaign, and it warns civilians near targets to evacuate before a strike by call, text message, or “roof knocking.” Actually, on technical grounds this arguably proves the opposite of what Fitzgerald thinks. Rather than demonstrating Israel’s “wholesale slaughter of civilians,” as he asserts, it demonstrates its firepower is being used in a way that has resulted in vastly fewer casualties than would be expected given the amount of ordinance dropped.
Without getting too much into the minutiae of what munitions Israel has used or the finer points of the many factors that affect the extent of damage done by explosive blasts and fragmentation, we can nonetheless get a rough idea of how much devastation can be wrought by that amount of bombing. To use the example of a single common munition, the pressures from a Mk. 82 500 pound bomb are enough to collapse reinforced concrete structures about 52 feet from the point of impact, and to collapse other buildings at twice that distance.[1] Those represent blast areas of about a fifth of an acre and three fourths of an acre, respectively, and the area within which fragments may kill or wound is far larger: there is an estimated 10% risk of incapacitating wounding as far as 820 feet from the point of impact, an area of some 48.5 acres.[2] Israel had dropped the equivalent of 120,000 such bombs as of Fitzgerald’s writing, enough to ravage pretty much the entirety of Gaza’s approximately 90,240 acres of territory, which has a density of about 25 people per acre.
When Fitzgerald then says that “a genocide is taking place right before our evangelical eyes,” we might reply that the claim is incredible. If that is what they are attempting, the Israelis are the most inept murderers in the history of the world. Israel has the most advanced weapons, planes, targeting and surveillance systems, munitions, etc., and has dropped about enough ordinance to flatten Gaza and kill its entire populace—and yet she has not done that. There is no way of knowing how many people Israel has killed, exactly, since nigh well everyone insists on taking Hamas’ figures at face value, and since most reporting makes no effort to distinguish civilians and Hamas fighters. But the large point remains that Israel has used enough firepower to actually kill much of the entire Gazan populace, had she desired to do so in a fit of genocidal rage. Instead she has focused those efforts on Hamas positions and accompanied them with repeated efforts to warn noncombatants to avoid being caught in them.
The point is not to argue that this Israeli effort is the best approach to fighting Hamas or responding to the larger political situation. The point is that it is false to say that Israel is engaged in genocide when it is deliberately acting to not kill civilians by general and particular warnings, and when it is trying to limit its attacks to its armed opponents. There is a moral difference between intentionally murdering civilians and accidentally killing civilians while fighting an honorless enemy that does not wear uniforms and readily hides among them. And that difference is the difference between a crime and a tragedy, between an inexcusable and intentional act on the one hand and an unintended consequence of a morally-permissible action on the other.
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A Confused Colloquy in the Land of the Mystics

In his article, Greg Peters says that “historically lectio divina was just the way to read the biblical text” (emphasis original), and that it was “not a unique way of reading but the common way of reading the Word of God.” In Credo’s book awards they went so far as to say that it is “what spiritually serious Christians have always done.” But in an article by Seth Brill we find contradictory dates for its origin: “Eugene Peterson cites that the practice of Lectio Divina originates in the twelfth century with Guigo the Second . . . Evan Howard finds reference to the art of spiritual reading as far back as St. Benedict of the sixth century.” And in an interview with Hans Boersma, whose work is the inspiration for this issue (he is mentioned in half the main articles), we read that “the twelfth century was a period in which lectio divina flourished perhaps like never before.” The best answer to these contradictions is that somebody is simply wrong, whether by historical inaccuracy or irresponsible hyperbole. 

Credo magazine has released its latest number on the topic of lectio divina, an approach to reading scripture that emphasizes accompanying reading with prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Rightly defined, all of those things are commendable and necessary to a true, healthy walk of faith. But there is reason to think that lectio divina does not always involve a right definition or practice of such things, and that it proceeds upon notions that are grievously mistaken. The following are several areas of concern in this latest edition.
Divergent Definitions
In the first case, there is no agreed definition of lectio divina, either as a whole or as regards some of its elements. Most contributors regard it as having four elements – lectio, oratio, meditatio, contemplatio (reading, prayer, meditation, and contemplation, respectively) – but contributor Greg Peters regards only the first three as certain, saying the fourth “is never promised nor should it necessarily be expected,” because “contemplation only comes about by the grace of God for it cannot be earned.” Southern Baptist spirituality professor Donald Whitney regards contemplation with suspicion, saying “if some of the forms of contemplation suggested by proponents of LD become necessary to experience the highest forms of communion with God, then we have gone beyond that which is specifically mentioned or clearly implied in Scripture,” and he settles instead for a three-part lectio. Thus lectio is either a three-part or four-part approach we take, or a three-part one which is sometimes abetted by a fourth element given by God.
In this matter of contemplation the lack of agreement becomes especially plain. For where Peters considers it an uncertain divine response to our reading, prayer, and meditation,  and Whitney passes it over entirely, contributor Jason Alligood’s entire article purports to defend contemplation as a viable practice for Protestants, and in so doing conceives it as an intentional practice on our part (e.g., “Only after we have read, meditated, and prayed should we then contemplate”).  His article proceeds largely on the thought of a book, Embracing Contemplation, which commends the practice, but which does not have an agreed definition itself, as Alligood admits:
The book’s editors admit that articles found within do not present a “unified view on the topic,” which leads to a question we must consider for the current article, which is: what are the definitive bounds of contemplation?
He admits this two other times (“the definition of contemplation is not entirely agreed upon amongst those who seek to describe it,” “the definition of contemplation can vary”), and in a footnote says “the article will not seek to defend a particular definition of contemplation, but rather explicate the biblical, historical and theological data as such.” Notwithstanding this, he speaks as though his analysis has arrived at a definition, beginning his conclusion with “given the definition and examples we outline above,” after two sections on biblical and historical analysis.
The divergent conceptions are acknowledged elsewhere, Whitney saying “Lectio Divina [LD] turns on the definition of the term and the description of its four elements,” and that “controversy almost inevitably arises over what is meant by the fourth step in LD, ‘contemplation.’” Speaking of the differences between evangelical exercises in piety and the mystical flavor of many notions of lectio he says:
Some advocates describe LD in a way that places very little emphasis on the Bible. Others do so in a way that sounds almost identical to what I have published in Praying the Bible.
Such wide and admitted differences suggest there is an ecumenical aim here: Credo is commending lectio in general but leaving it to readers to determine which conception to follow according to their own consciences or the teachings of their respective communions. But far from being helpful, this leads us to regard the whole edition as being of doubtful usefulness. For there is a great difference between an evangelical conception of lectio’s elements and a quietist/mystical one, as will be seen below; and where the same term is used for contradictory practices, the result is just as likely to be confusion as mutual aid.
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This Is Not What the Sheep Need: Reflections on Credo Magazine’s Book Awards

Our scholars should not, as such, be commending Roman academics with awards. They should be calling them to repent of their communion’s notions which twist and deny Scripture, and to use their talents and devotion to promote sound doctrine. For Christ said “if you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” (Jn. 8:31), and Rome still does not abide in his word as it ought. And well might we fear that, ignoring Ps. 1:1 and 1 Cor. 15:33, our own theologians are at risk of being ensnared by that communion’s sins (Gal. 6:1b).

Carl Trueman caused consternation recently when, fresh from delivering the inaugural lecture of the Center for Classical Theology (CCT), he suggested Protestants need to “go back to basics.” It was not entirely clear what all this entailed, and as if to oblige an answer, Credo Magazine, CCT’s popular outlet, has revealed in what direction it imagines we should turn with its 2023 book awards.
There is a category called “Thomas Aquinas,” whose winner is a book by a Romanist professor who “invites all traditions – including the Reformed tradition – to retrieve Thomism so that together we can answer the modern challenges that have crippled biblical scholarship,” as Credo puts it. The question of Thomism’s usefulness aside – and with it, the cumbersome question of whether “expanding on Thomas’s Christological typologies today will equip biblical theologians with the ontology they need to defend typology in the first place” – it must never be forgotten that Aquinas was an idolater (see here), who sometimes butchered scriptural exegesis because of philosophy and tradition (see here), and who has been a stumbling block to many by means of his elevation to the center of a cult of personality (see here).  Scripture commands us to avoid idolatry (1 Cor. 10:14: “my beloved, flee from idolatry”) and idolaters (5:11: “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is . . . an idolater”), not to take them as our teachers (comp. also Deut. 13), and it says that idolatry is a “work of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19-20) whose offenders “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 21), but “whose portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8). Having an award for studies in such a person’s thought (thus encouraging more such studies) is about as far from obeying God’s command “not to associate” with such people as one can get.
The winner of the “Translated Work of Theology—Patristic and Medieval” award is a recent edition of John of Damascus (or Damascene)’s On the Orthodox Faith (De Fide Orthodoxa). This is the same work from which Aquinas derived the notions by which he promoted idolatry, saying “Damascene (De Fide Orth. iv, 16) quotes Basil as saying: ‘The honor given to an image reaches to the prototype,’ i.e. the exemplar” and concluding that “the exemplar itself – namely, Christ – is to be adored with the adoration of ‘latria’; therefore also His image.”[1] In other words, the worship given to an image passes through it to the person whom it purports to represent, so it is therefore appropriate to worship images of Christ since the worship passes through them to him. (This absurd notion makes idolatry impossible, provided one’s intentions are good, and openly contradicts Scripture’s representation of the evil and folly of idolatry consisting in worshiping objects in passages such as Psalm 135:15-18, Isaiah 44, and Jeremiah 10.)
Elsewhere Aquinas quotes Damascene saying “the precious wood, as having been sanctified by the contact of His holy body and blood, should be meetly worshiped; as also His nails, His lance, and His sacred dwelling-places, such as the manger, the cave and so forth.”[2] Yet Credo commends Damascene’s work, saying “readers would do well to receive this gift from Christianity’s Great Tradition with gratitude.” There is something awry when Protestants such as the contest judges commend Tradition (which they regularly capitalize), rather than defending Scripture against tradition’s tendency to undermine it (Matt. 15:1-9).
Winning the award for “Natural Theology” is Plato’s Moral Realism, published by a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto. The book description begins:
Plato’s moral realism rests on the Idea of the Good, the unhypothetical first principle of all. It is this, as Plato says, that makes just things useful and beneficial.
And continues:
This fact has been occluded by later Christian Platonists who tried to identify the Good with the God of scripture. But for Plato, theology, though important, is subordinate to metaphysics. For this reason, ethics is independent of theology and attached to metaphysics.
The actual text says, “I am content to classify Plato’s theory as robust realism with the proviso that his realism be distinguished from moral theology” (pp. 10-11) and “in the matter of ethics, Plato draws his principles from metaphysics, not from theology” (p. 54). It is strange to give a theology book award to a philosophy book which explicitly denies a theological character to the moral conceptions of the philosopher whose thought it relates. One might as soon give an award for best electronic dance music to a string band or a classical orchestra.
The award for “Theological Retrieval” went to Hans Boersma’s Pierced by Love: Divine Reading with the Christian Tradition, which is the inspiration for Credo’s latest edition on lectio divina (literally, divine reading), being mentioned nine times in that issue about this approach to reading scripture. Credo commends it here because it is “what spiritually serious Christians have always done” (emphasis mine), which claim is curious, since its own edition on lectio says “Lectio Divina originates in the twelfth century with Guigo the Second, an Italian monk,” or, maybe, “as far back as St. Benedict of the sixth century” (all emphases mine). Also, there is arguably an implicit insult that believers who do not use lectio are therefore not “spiritually serious.”
Winning the award for “Systematic Theology and Dogmatics” is Christ the Logos of Creation: An Essay in Analogical Metaphysics by Notre Dame professor John R. Betz. It features what appears to be an image of Christ on the cover, in which offense against the Second Commandment (Ex. 20:4) it is joined by two other awarded books. Alongside the edge of the front cover is a series title that reads “Renewal within Tradition.” This series is produced by a Romanist press and edited by the same professor, Matthew Levering, who won the “Thomas Aquinas” category. The series summary, available here, states that “Catholic theology reflects upon the content of divine revelation as interpreted and handed down in the Church” and that the series “undertakes to reform and reinvigorate contemporary theology from within the tradition, with St. Thomas Aquinas as a central exemplar.” It continues, “the Series [sic] reunites the streams of Catholic theology that, prior to the [Second Vatican] Council, separated into neo-scholastic and nouvelle théologie modes” and that “the biblical, historical-critical, patristic, liturgical, and ecumenical emphases of the Ressourcement movement need the dogmatic, philosophical, scientific, and traditioned enquiries of Thomism, and vice versa.”
That is thoroughly and unabashedly Roman, and yet it did not prevent Credo’s Protestants from commending Betz’s book. When they then weakly complain the author “would benefit from a wider engagement with the Protestant tradition,” one feels compelled to cry aloud in mixed pathos and exasperation: ‘Just what did you think you were going to find in a Romanist work of renewal and ressourcement, if not Roman tradition, ideas, and thinkers?’ One does not go to Bob Jones University to find the arts of winemaking and dancing; and one does not go to Rome to find the Reformation and its protest against those things which make Rome distinctively Roman.
There is an irony here as well, for in Trueman’s post-CCT lecture appeal to ‘go back to basics’ he bewailed evangelicals who assert divine suffering by denying impassibility, and praised some Romans (the Dominicans) by contrast for their theology proper. And now the CCT has just recognized this book, which also commends Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Roman theologian who . . . . . . asserted divine suffering.[3] Granting Trueman’s appeal was at First Things, not Credo, this inconsistency suggests that the larger classical crowd is apparently not as discomfited by people who seem to deny impassibility as Prof. Trueman (albeit still regarding it as mistaken). And the approval of Balthasar by Romanists committed to Thomism-inspired renewal suggests that, Trueman’s wistful gazes upon members of that communion notwithstanding, the grass is not greener on the other side of the Tiber. (Or, keeping with the context of his original statement, that it is not so on the other side of the accreditation agency conference room.)
Of the nine awards given, only three were given to Protestants (Petrus van Mastricht, Phillip Cary, and Karen Swallow Prior). There are concerns about the last, who endorsed Revoice and published a book with contributions from a normalizer of immorality (see here), and the second, author of the “Book of the Year,” teaches at a university that has normalized that same strand of immorality, and makes some curious claims.[4] One award was given to an author of unknown affiliation, while three were given to Romans, and another to a member of an Eastern communion (Damascene, whose translator is also an Easterner). Boersma is officially an Anglican, but his views are so thoroughly Romanist as to be accounted with the members of that communion (see here or footnote).[5]
All this matters because Rome still retains most of those things against which we have been protesting for 500 years. It still has purgatory, pilgrimages, penance, and indulgences – the Pope has even offered them via Twitter – as well as intercession of the saints and prayer to angels. It has a full-orbed system of false ideas about Mary: perpetual virginity, immaculate conception, bodily assumption into heaven, and regarding her as “exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things” (Roman Catechism, 966), to whom prayers and devotion ought to be given, and who is “invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix” (969). In Scripture our Helper is the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7), and our Advocate is Christ himself (1 Jn. 2:1), the relevant Greek term (paraklétos) only being used of them, never of any other person. And Scripture plainly says that “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5); Mary is nowhere referred to as a mediator.
Rome also maintains the same mistaken notions of justification[6], and of scriptural interpretation[7] and authority[8] as in the past. It forbids its clergy to marry, which 1 Tim. 4:1-5 says is a teaching of demons and a mark of people who have “seared consciences” and “depart from the faith.” Scripture also says that marriage is God’s ordained means for preventing immorality (1 Cor. 7:2: “because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife”). Having rejected this, Rome has become the scene of gross, widespread corruption, 33 of its 194 American dioceses being involved in or having completed bankruptcy proceedings, many because of payments to sexual abuse victims. It openly rebels against Christ’s command to “call no man your father on earth” (Matt. 23:9) by using this as the official title of all its clergy, but especially of the Pope, who is styled “Holy Father,” pope itself coming through Latin from the Greek for ‘papa, father.’
Now God says to “beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15), that “Satan comes disguised as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14), and that his “servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (v. 15). He says of such people that we will “recognize them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16). Who can deny that the widespread sexual abuse and errant doctrine of the current Roman communion are rotten fruits?
Our scholars should not, as such, be commending Roman academics with awards. They should be calling them to repent of their communion’s notions which twist and deny Scripture, and to use their talents and devotion to promote sound doctrine. For Christ said “if you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” (Jn. 8:31), and Rome still does not abide in his word as it ought. And well might we fear that, ignoring Ps. 1:1 and 1 Cor. 15:33, our own theologians are at risk of being ensnared by that communion’s sins (Gal. 6:1b).
Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church, Five Forks (Simpsonville), SC. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not of necessity reflect those of his church or its leadership or other members. He welcomes comments at the email address provided with his name. He is also author of Reflections on the Word: Essays in Protestant Scriptural Contemplation. 

[1] Summa Theologiae III, Q. 25, A.3
[2] Summa Theologiae III, Q. 25, A.4
[3] How Balthasar’s ideas of divine suffering comport with historic notions of God’s immutability and impassibility is disputed within the Roman communion, as evidenced by one of the other books in the “Renewal within Tradition” series being devoted to a consideration of his ideas on this point (One of the Trinity Has Suffered: Balthasar’s Theology of Divine Suffering in Dialogue by Joshua Brotherton), and works such as The Immutability of God in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar by Gerard O’Hanlon.
[4] E.g., he says he “feels quite comfortable in a high-church Anglican congregation,” as well as that it is not “a tragedy when Protestants become Catholic” (here at about 7:55).
[5] He quotes Pope Francis approvingly, regards the Reformation as a lamentable tragedy, and denies sola scriptura as the authority for faith in favor of Rome’s scripture and tradition, doing so, by his own admission at Credo, because of the teaching of important Roman theologians. He also thinks “the Reformation doctrine of justification sola fide needs a significant overhaul in light of [N.T.] Wright’s reading of the New Testament,” and that Wright’s views “are more or less compatible with standard Catholic and Orthodox understandings of justification theology” (Exile, ed. James M. Scott, p. 257).
[6] “Justification includes . . . sanctification, and the renewal of the inner man” and “is granted us through Baptism.” (Roman Catechism 2019-20)
[7] “The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the Bishops in communion with him.” (Roman Catechism 100)
[8] The Church “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.” (Roman Catechism 82)
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