Written by R.C. Sproul |
Thursday, August 25, 2022
Prayer is one of the means God uses to bring about the ends He ordains. That is, God not only ordains ends, He ordains the means He uses to bring about those ends. God doesn’t need our preaching to save His people. Yet He has chosen to work through our preaching. He empowers our human preaching with His own power. In like manner, He has chosen to work through our prayers. He empowers our prayers so that after we pray we can step back and watch Him unleash His power in and through our prayers.
My first class at the Free University of Amsterdam shattered my academic complacency. It was cultural shock, an exercise in contrasts. It started the moment the professor, Dr. G.C. Berkouwer, entered the room. At his appearance, every student stood at attention until he mounted the podium steps, opened his notebook, and silently nodded for the students to be seated. He then began his lecture, and the students, in a holy hush, dutifully listened and wrote notes for the hour. No one ever dared to interrupt or distract the master by presuming to raise his hand. The session was dominated by a single voice—the voice we were all paying to hear.
When the lecture ended, the professor closed his notebook, stepped down from the podium, and hastily left the room, but not before the students once more rose in his honor. There was no dialogue, no student appointments, no gabfest. No student ever spoke to the professor—except during privately scheduled oral exams.
My first such exam was an exercise in terror. I went to the professor’s house expecting an ordeal. But as rigorous as the exam was, it was not an ordeal. Dr. Berkouwer was warm and kind. In avuncular fashion, he asked about my family. He showed great concern for my well-being and invited me to ask him questions.
In a sense, this experience was a taste of heaven. Professor Berkouwer was, of course, mortal. But he was a man of titanic intellect and encyclopedic knowledge. I was not in his home to instruct him or to debate him—I was the student and he was the master. There was hardly anything in the realm of theology he could learn from me. And yet, he listened to me as if he really thought he could learn something from me. He took my answers to his probing questions seriously. It was as if I were a son being questioned by a caring father.
This event is the best human analogy I can come up with to answer the age-old query, “If God is sovereign, why pray?” However, I must confess that this analogy is frail. Though Berkouwer towered above me in knowledge, his knowledge was finite and limited. He was by no means omniscient.
By contrast, when I converse with God, I am not merely talking to a Great Professor in the Sky. I’m talking to one who has all knowledge, one who cannot possibly learn anything from me that He doesn’t already know. He knows everything there is to know, including what’s on my mind.
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Biblical Passages for Tough TimesBy Bill Muehlenberg — 1 year ago
The more our world seems to be crumbling all around us, the more we need an unchanging and eternal God that we can run to, take shelter in, and depend upon. And sometimes it is best to say as little as possible, and just let God speak through his Word. There would be hundreds of great passages that we can cling to during such times as this. Here I want to just offer some key biblical passages that have come to mind of late.
During these deeply troubling times that we are living through, with not just Covid and all that has gone with it, but now Ukraine today, and possibly Taiwan in the near future, Christians can be quite anxious and worried. It is not just non-Christians whose hearts can be troubled and disturbed by these events.
The more our world seems to be crumbling all around us, the more we need an unchanging and eternal God that we can run to, take shelter in, and depend upon. And sometimes it is best to say as little as possible, and just let God speak through his Word.
There would be hundreds of great passages that we can cling to during such times as this. Here I want to just offer some key biblical passages that have come to mind of late:
Psalm 2:1-4Why do the nations rage,And the people plot a vain thing?The kings of the earth set themselves,And the rulers take counsel together,Against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, “Let us break Their bonds in piecesAnd cast away Their cords from us.”He who sits in the heavens shall laugh;The Lord shall hold them in derision.
Psalm 34:17When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.
Psalm 37:1-2Do not fret because of evildoers,Nor be envious of the workers of iniquity.For they shall soon be cut down like the grass,And wither as the green herb.
Psalm 55:22Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.
Psalm 72:26My flesh and my heart fail;But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Rejecting Syncretism: Paul and the PythonBy Scott D. MacDonald — 10 months ago
Written by Scott D. MacDonald |
Friday, August 19, 2022
People in the church who dabble with witchdoctors and occultism are ultimately deceived; they find no true, lasting solution. “To believe ‘Ukwimba kati kusansha na Lesa’ is to believe a lie. We must choose to trust and wait on God in every circumstance, and His Word must be our final authority as we encounter conflict with our African traditional proverbs and beliefs.”40 Jesus alone is our savior, and as Paul demonstrates in Philippi, the Christ did not come to work with the ng’anga. He came to set us free.
Syncretism—the blending of two or more religious paradigms—threatens Christian witness around the world. And the church in Africa continues to struggle with the popularity of local religious practices. In many locales, the ng’anga (an African religious diviner) prominently features in the lives of many church-going people. In response, Paul’s mission to Philippi, recounted in Acts 16:16–18, provides needed clarity concerning Christianity’s relationship to other religious powers and to syncretism. This article outlines the religious backdrop of Philippi, Paul’s missionary method in the Greek religious context, and the consequences that arise from Paul’s exorcism of the πύθων. In sum, Paul’s reaction to the divining spirit of Philippi leaves no room for syncretistic behavior among Christians today. Accommodation and any reliance upon other religious powers compromises the quality of the gospel and the reputation of the savior.
As servants of Christ deliver the good news of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection both near and far, ancient spiritual actors and religious competitors abound. In sub-Saharan Africa, every other urban street corner bears a sign promoting the abilities of some traditional power man from a rural or distant location, a place with charms difficult to undo by an average local witchdoctor.1 Even in supposedly secular cities in other parts of the world, vestiges of ancient paganism remain as astrologers and diviners offer their services in the public sphere without shame. Spiritual power is seemingly never beyond a human’s reach.
Depending on our cultural upbringing, such spiritual resources are our first or last resource in a time of need—an accepted and trusted form of support or a desperation-induced “last ditch” option. Occult practitioners claim to provide the knowledge we need, repair the relationships we crave, hinder the people we hate, and empower the economic endeavors on which we rely. They are the so-called “way-makers” and “problem-solvers” of the spiritually attuned.
How should the Christian relate to the ng’anga (i.e., the sangoma, the witchdoctor)?2 Sadly, the testimony from too many Christians in many places is mixed. In a moment of need, one might recite the Bemba proverb “Ukwimba kati kusansha na Lesa,” meaning “Charms are mixed with God for them to work.”3 Believers may easily justify a quick visit to the witchdoctor or use charms if they believe that God works in and through them!
Martin Mwamba, a pastor and talk show host with Faith Radio in Kitwe, Zambia, recounts an experience:
One day a woman texted me during the program. She said she had been working, and after retiring she had gotten her pension money, and now when going back home she was robbed. She continued, “I will take off my church uniform as a Christian and go kuli shi in’anga (‘to the witchdoctor’) and bewitch them.” Then her question was, “Is it right for a Christian to visit the witchdoctor?” The phone response from other listeners was interesting and shocking. Some suggested that she should go because God takes too much time to respond, and others said it was fine because witchdoctors give fast solutions, adding that they (witchdoctors) are also used by the same God.4
Hearing this kind of urgency-based decision making, Mwamba’s assertion is reasonable: “Even people in churches today in Africa would prefer to consult diviners and witchdoctors … to receive a quick solution to their daily problems.”5 After all, no one wants to wait for God!6
Occultists easily capture Christian customers. Surprisingly enough, many “witchdoctor shrines” are veritable havens of Christian objects like Bibles and practices like singing praise songs.7 And witchdoctors readily play along with the cultural idea that God empowers their work, offering to pray to God for effectiveness with charms and reciting a Scripture verse or two.8 Confusion abounds, and Christians readily step into the confusion by seeking their desired results despite the syncretism.
Syncretism is the “blending of one idea, practice, or attitude with another. Traditionally among Christians it has been used of the replacement or dilution of the essential truths of the gospel through the incorporation of non-Christian elements.”9 The ng’anga has played a central role in the African’s religious life throughout Africans’ collective memories. Despite Christianity’s inroads throughout Africa over the past century, the role and importance of the ng’anga has not evaporated. Many Christians sadly still find a need for them, and witchdoctors adjust and modify their practices to suit the Christian environment. Syncretism, the blending of African and Christian religious concepts, persists.
The irony is that many pulpits resound with sermons against syncretism. Preachers unflinchingly expound Jesus’s statement from John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” “Jesus alone” is declared, yet the cultural norm remains firm: witchdoctors have a place in the life of Christians.
Many an African Christian still feels the draw of the ng’anga. The appeal of animism is not unique to Africa. While the African Christian visits the ng’anga, a European Christian convert dabbles in astrology, and an American teenager consults a Ouija board. The pull of spiritual knowledge and power is strong in Africa, but do not think that the rest of the world is immune! Thus, syncretism arises in every culture where Christianity enters, and “church history is filled with the struggle against syncretism from political, social, religious, and economic sources.”10 And the best response to our syncretistic attachments is a fidelity to Scripture, which both rebukes and affirms aspects of our church traditions and cultural norms.
One underutilized text in countering syncretism is Acts 16:16–18. Luke records the following account from the second missionary journey:
As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.11
While we could look to other missional encounters with spiritual power persons throughout Acts (e.g., Simon the Sorcerer, Elymus, the Sons of Sceva), the Philippian confrontation serves as an example to Christians throughout the world today. We must reject all forms of syncretism. Our missional testimony to non-Christians only heightens this necessity.
1. The Background of Acts 16:16–18
As we consider Acts 16:16–18, let us first locate where this episode occurs in Paul’s missional endeavors. Between leaving Antioch in Acts 15:36 and returning in 18:22, Paul’s work broke considerable new ground as the Lord turned the missionary team toward Greece.12 “Following his vision at Troas (Acts 16:8–10), the apostle Paul started the first church in ancient Greece at Philippi (c. AD 49–50, Acts 16:11–40).”13 Like Paul’s earlier ministry, which led to a confrontation with the sorcerer Elymus on the island of Cyprus (Acts 13:6–12), this journey involves another spiritual challenge in the city of Philippi.
Lest we mistakenly brand Paul as a troublemaker, Paul’s missionary method does not call for the immediate confrontation of any religious figures in a particular region. On Cyprus, Barnabas and Paul are not looking for Elymus. Instead, they proclaim the word of God to those who wish to hear it, such as Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:7). In Philippi, again, Paul’s priority is preaching, even after his initial meeting with the slave girl (Acts 16:16–18)! Creating religious conflict (which would ultimately result in his imprisonment) and exorcising a πύθων are not Paul’s primary objectives. Only when the situation proves intolerable, hindering his proclamation ministry in a new mission field, does Paul confront the slave girl and the spirit within her.
The Greek religious context is evident upon Paul and Silas’s entry into Philippi. As the slave girl attaches herself to their ministry, it is as if the current religious powers greet Paul at the gate and refuse to let go. While a casual reader of an English translation (e.g., “a spirit of divination” in the ESV, “a spirit by which she predicted the future” in the CSB) might mentally divorce this spirit-inhabited girl from the broader religious climate, the Greek text πνεῦμα πύθωνα at least indirectly ties the girl and her owners to the Greek oracular system.14 Keener explains that this spirit is “the same sort of spirit that stood behind the most famous of all Greek oracles, the Delphic oracle of Apollo whose priestess was called a pythoness.”15 And Herodotus confirms that oracles, inspired by a πύθων, were not limited to Delphi.16
Charles Hodge And Pictures Of JesusBy Grover E. Gunn — 1 year ago
Written by Grover E. Gunn |
Thursday, February 10, 2022
My main point in quoting this journal entry is to provide evidence that Charles Hodge did not regard every possible effort to represent Jesus in His humanity as necessarily and inherently immoral. At the same time, as evidenced by the statement in his systematic theology, Hodge recognized the temptation to abuse such representations as objects or channels of worship. I regard this as a proper balance that avoids both swallowing camels and gagging on gnats.
Charles Hodge published his greatest work, his three-volume systematic theology, in the years 1871 to 1873. He died not that long afterward in 1878. In his systematic theology, Hodge had a long section on the second commandment. He ended it with this word of caution:
No one who has ever seen any of the masterpieces of Christian art, whether of the pencil or of the chisel, and felt how hard it is to resist the impulse to “bow down to them and serve them,” can doubt the wisdom of their exclusion from places of public worship. (ST, 3:304-305)
Hodge’s statement here about the power of “the masterpieces of Christian art” may have been rooted in a personal experience that he had about forty-five years before publishing his three-volume systematic theology. During his two years of study in Europe from 1826 to 1828, he visited the gallery of paintings in the German town of Dresden. His son, A.A. Hodge, quoted from his father’s journal in the biography that he published in 1880. According to the journal, Charles Hodge first visited the Dresden gallery on Wednesday morning, August 28, 1827. He expressed disappointment with the paintings that he saw there with one exception:
The Madonna of Raphael is an exception. This was as much above, as the others were below my expectations. The infant here is wonderful; the expression of the eye belongs to no human infant, but we may well imagine such an expression in the case of our Saviour. The Virgin is the ideal of human purity and beauty; what the human frame may be when this corruption has put on incorruption, and this mortal is clothed with immortality. … on every visit I was attracted and held bound by Raphael’s Madonna. (The Life of Charles Hodge by A.A. Hodge, pp. 138-139)
The painting was probably Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, a painting commissioned by a pope for a church in Italy in 1512 and moved to Dresden in 1754.
My main point in quoting this journal entry is to provide evidence that Charles Hodge did not regard every possible effort to represent Jesus in His humanity as necessarily and inherently immoral. At the same time, as evidenced by the statement in his systematic theology, Hodge recognized the temptation to abuse such representations as objects or channels of worship. I regard this as a proper balance that avoids both swallowing camels and gagging on gnats. I do, however, have some difficulties with the journal entry that I will discuss below. I want to allow some latitude because it is a statement jotted in a journal as opposed to a carefully worded statement intended for a systematic theology.
We have good reason to believe that Charles Hodge understood the doctrines of the Westminster Standards and accepted them as true. In his youth, his mother drilled him in the Westminster Catechism, and then his family’s pastor, the Old Side Presbyterian stalwart Ashbel Green, catechized him. As a young man, Hodge graduated from Princeton College and Princeton Seminary. Then he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. He then replied positively to the question, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith of this church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?” Concerning this vow, he later stated,
It is something more than ordinary falsehood, if our inward convictions do not correspond with a profession made in presence of the church, and as the condition of our receiving authority to preach the gospel. In such a case we lie not only unto man, but unto God; because such professions are of the nature of a vow, that is, a promise or profession made to God. (The Princeton Review, October, 1858, page 670)
Hodge also later stated that this vow meant that a man received every doctrine taught in the church’s doctrinal standards but not necessarily every proposition about those doctrines in the standards. Yet Hodge seemed to imply that he was one of the few who did accept every such proposition:
If the rule that no man should be allowed to exercise the ministry in our church, who did not adopt every proposition contained in the Confession of Faith, should be carried out, we verily believe we should be left almost alone. We are not sure that we personally know a dozen ministers besides ourselves, who could stand the test. (The Princeton Review, October, 1858, page 686)
Back then, there was also an additional vow for those being ordained as a professor. Hodge vowed at his ordination “not to teach anything which directly or indirectly contradicts anything taught in the Confession of Faith, Catechisms, or Form of Government in this church.” (The Princeton Review, October, 1858, pages 681)
On top of that, Princeton Seminary had its own requirements. When Hodge became a professor at Princeton Seminary, he had to affirm that he would not “inculcate, teach or insinuate any thing which shall appear … to contradict or contravene, either directly or impliedly, any thing taught” in the Westminster Standards. [Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton, by Andrew Hoffecker, loc 877]
We also have reason to believe that Charles Hodge accepted statements about the second commandment found in Reformed standards in addition to the Westminster Standards. When Hodge wrote about the second commandment in his systematic theology, he quoted from the Second Helvetic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. He quoted Bullinger’s Second Helvetic Confession in Latin (ST, 3:304); here is that quotation in English as translated in Schaff’s The Creeds of Chistendom:
We do therefore reject not only the idols of the Gentiles, but also the images of Christians. For although Christ took upon him man’s nature, yet he did not therefore take it that he might set forth pattern for carvers and painters. (3:836) …
And seeing that the blessed spirits and saints in heaven, while they lived here, abhorred all worship done unto themselves, and spake against images, who can think it likely that the saints in heaven, and the angels, are delighted with their own images, whereunto men do bow their knees, uncover their heads, and give such other like honor? (3:837) …
Therefore we approve the judgment of Lactantius, an ancient writer, who says, “Undoubtedly there is no religion where there is picture.” (3:837)
And here is Hodge’s quotation from the Heidelberg Catechism:
Is it forbidden to make any images or statues? God cannot and ought not in any way to be depicted, and although it is lawful to make representations of creatures, yet God forbids that they should be worshipped, or He through them. But may not images be tolerated in the churches for the instruction of the uneducated? By no means; for it does not become us to be wiser than God, who has willed that his Church be instructed, not by dumb images, but by the preaching of his word. (ST, 3:304)
Here is Hodge’s basic teaching on images in his systematic theology:
That the second commandment does not forbid pictorial or sculptured representations of ideal or visible objects, is plain because the whole command has reference to religious worship, and because Moses, at the command of God himself, made many such images and representations. … There can therefore be no doubt that the second commandment was intended only to forbid the making or using the likeness of anything in heaven or earth as objects of worship.…
It is equally clear that the second commandment does forbid the use of images in divine worship. In other words, idolatry consists not only in the worship of false gods, but also in the worship of the true God by images. (ST, 3:290-291)
The thing thus repeatedly and solemnly forbidden as a violation of the covenant between God and the people, was the bowing down to, or using anything visible, whether a natural object as the sun or moon, or a work of art and man’s device, as an object or mode of divine worship. And in this sense the command has been understood by the people to whom it was given, from the time of Moses until now. The worship of the true God by images, in the eyes of the Hebrews, has ever been considered as much an act of idolatry as the worship of false gods. (ST, 3:292)
Hodge further clarified his understanding by contrasting his Reformed understanding with Luther’s understanding.
As the worship of images is expressly forbidden in the Scriptures, Protestants, as well Lutheran as Reformed, condemned their being made the objects of any religious homage. As, however, their use for the purposes of instruction or ornament is not thus expressly forbidden, Luther contended that such use was allowable and even desirable. He, therefore, favoured their being retained in the Churches. The Reformed, however, on account of the great abuse which had attended their introduction, insisted that they should be excluded from all places of worship.
Luther was tolerant of the use of images in the churches. On this subject he says: “If the worship of images be avoided, we may use them as we do the words of Scripture, which bring things before the mind and cause us to remember them.” … In another place he says that when one reads of the passion of Christ, whether he will or not an image of a man suspended on a cross is formed in his mind just as certainly as his face is reflected when he looks into the water. There is no sin in having such an image in the mind why then should it be sinful to have it before the eyes?
The Reformed went further than this. They condemned not only the worship of images, but also their introduction into places of worship, because they were unnecessary, and because they were so liable to abuse. (ST, 3:303-304)
Hodge is clear that the Reformed, together with the Lutherans, condemn the worship of images, and that the Reformed, contrary to the Lutherans, disagree with the introduction of images into a place of public worship.
Some reading Hodge’s section on the second commandment might assume that Hodge would consider any representation of Jesus in His humanity as inherently idolatrous. I think that would be a hasty generalization. I have not found any statement in this section to justify that conclusion, and his journal note contradicts it. I acknowledge the possibility that my conclusion may also be a hasty generalization. Hodge wrote reams of material, and I have looked at only a small fraction of it.
I have found Raphael’s Sistine Madonna on the Internet, and I agree that this is a beautiful painting as a work of art. I have seen only the digital image, and I would expect the actual painting to be even more impressive. Yet I also have some problems with Hodge’s journal entry.
I find helpful some efforts to give visual expression to scenes and events graphically described in gospel narratives. I don’t have much use for a visual representation of Mary and Jesus not in an event or scene based on a gospel narrative.
Also, Hodge stated that the representation of Mary was so beautiful that he thought it more like what he imagined a glorified body would be like. In addition, Hodge said that the visual representation of the eyes of the young Jesus were too wonderful to be human eyes. This means that these visual representations were not credible representations. When Jesus was a baby, neither He nor His mother had a glorified body. Eastern Orthodox icons portray Jesus with a glorified look based on the description of the transfiguration. Some of the representations of Jesus in western Roman Catholic art give Jesus’ human nature a semi-divine look similar to the ancient Greeks’ depictions of their gods.
The Roman Catholic art of the Counter-Reformation desires to convince us that Christ is truly God’s Son. In this it is right. But it wishes to base this conviction on a representation of Christ in which the resplendence of his divine nature is seen and felt directly. In this it is wrong and misses its goal. The true mystery of the Son of God become man and abased is absent from those representations. The superman or demi-god depicted there has nothing in common with the Christ in the form of a servant. (W.A. Visser ‘T Hooft, Rembrandt and the Gospel, page 31)
I said that I wanted to give Hodge some latitude in my interpretation of his journal entry. His statement about eyes could be interpreted in terms of a monophysite mixing of the divine and human natures in the incarnation. I can’t believe that Hodge could have meant that. I am sure that he was totally committed to the truth that “two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion” (WCF 8.2). Taking into account the statement about glorification and the representation of Mary, I take the reference to the eyes beyond human eyes as a reference to glorified human eyes freed from common infirmities at the time of resurrection (WLC 52). This still is not a credible representation of the Christ Child, but this interpretation does not involve a mixing of the two natures.
In his journal entry, Hodge spoke of multiple visits to this museum during which he was attracted to and held bound by this particular painting. This sounds like he may have been close to entering into temptation. Again, this experience may be the basis for the cautionary note about “masterpieces of Christian art” in his systematic theology. If something even as innocuous as a bridge illustration in a gospel tract begins to tempt us as a visual object of devotion, we need to acknowledge the temptation and avoid it.
Dr. Grover Gunn is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of MacDonald PCA in Collins, MS. This article is used with permission.
Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 109 and Representations of Deity
Peter Martyr and the Second Commandment
Zwingli and Bullinger on Pictures of Jesus
The Geneva Bible and Visual Representations of Deity
Archibald Alexander and Mental Images of Jesus