June, 2018

Report on the 46th General Assembly

Last week Dr. David Talcott, Rev. Chris Diebold, and I traveled to Atlanta for the 46th General Assembly of the PCA. This is our denomination’s annual gathering. Our Presbyterian structure calls for us to delegate much of the business of the church to committees. These committees then report back to the General Assembly, and the Assembly votes on their recommendations. Often, important decisions that will shape the trajectory of the church are finally decided on the floor of Assembly. I was thrilled that Covenant Presbyterian had three commissioners. This is incredibly important work for the greater church, and I am grateful that you would send us.

I arrived early to serve on the Overtures Committees (OC). Dr. Talcott served on it last year. The OC takes most of the Overtures submitted by presbyteries and debates them, perfects them, and then votes on how to advise the whole assembly to vote. It is understood that each commissioner should be aware of the issues, but those on the OC take extra time to research and study the pending Overtures, wrestle with relevant biblical texts, think through unintended consequences, and then advise the whole body. For most of the Overtures, this was very simple and straightforward. I had actually submitted an Overture to amend our Book of Church Order (BCO) chapter 35-11. It relates to how an elder is disqualified from sitting in judgment during a church trial. It was answered in the affirmative by the OC and sent to the Assembly.

There were two vigorously debated Overtures. Overture 24 sought to give full constitutional authority to the BCO’s chapter on marriage (BCO 59). This chapter falls in our Directory of Worship and is received as “pious advice” but not as binding on what a minister may or may not do. With the current cultural issues regarding same-sex marriage and the court cases regarding refusal of services to them, many in the denomination were worried about who’s next. Making the chapter constitutional would afford greater legal protection to our ministers. And it makes a clear stand in a world that has repeatedly been bullied into support of sexual anarchy. But not all of the language in BCO 59 was agreeable to everyone. And initially, the OC voted to answer in the negative, meaning the majority voted to not give the chapter full constitutional authority. But a Minority Report, of which I was a member, was filed. The Minority Report sought to find a resolution that would be simple, clear, and unifying. Once we presented our work, many who had voted against the Overture thought they could get behind this. There seemed to be a groundswell of support, so much so that the Assembly, instead of voting on the OC’s original recommendation, sent the OC back to work with this new framework. After another hour of debate, we emerged with a final Overture that was approved by the OC by a vote of 104-1. We concluded by singing the Doxology. There are real divisions in the PCA, and it was sweet to participate in a moment on genuine brotherhood and unity. The Minority Report’s goal of simple, clear, and unifying was met. The Assembly voted to approve this Overture by 764-12-7.

The other vigorously debated Overture in the OC was Overture 13 (Overture 26 was similar but only related to Covenant College). This was to revise the BCO and the Corporate Bylaws of the PCA to allow women to serve on the permanent committees of the denominations. There were a number of issues to deal with here, but the most significant to me was that it would allow unordained women and men the opportunity to sit on permanent committees. There is a considerable amount of authority wielded in these committees. Unordained men and women would only have to be members of a PCA church, while elders must be subscribed to our confessional standards and be examined in the knowledge of them and the Bible. It would open the door for men and women who don’t necessarily agree with Westminster to begin making important decisions for things like Covenant Seminary, RUF, and the like. It would also put women in positions of authority over men in the church, violating 1 Tim 2:12. The OC narrowing recommended that this be answered in the negative, and the Assembly followed by a vote of 727-449-18.

Overall, these were, in my opinion, great outcomes. We also saw the unanimous election of our first African-American Moderator, Dr. Irwyn Ince. Dr. Ince was one of the most capable Moderators we’ve had in the last few years. With a new shortened schedule, he deftly kept debate on topic and moving forward. We actually ended business early.

There was one other important item that was approved by the Assembly that will have a significant effect on our church. The Committee of Mission to North America and the Assembly approved an Overture to divide the Metropolitan New York Presbytery into two presbyteries. The new dividing line will be the Hudson River. North Jersey and two counties of New York will now be known as the West Hudson presbytery. We will convene in January 2019. This is a good move for our church, as it should make for a much more connectional and aligned presbytery.

If you have questions or want more details, Pastor Chris, Elder Talcott, or I would be happy to share more.

The Bible – Book by Book – John

Why are there four Gospels? There was a tradition in the early church of taking the four living creatures of Ezekiel 1:10 and Rev. 4:7 as symbols of the four Gospels. The “tetramorph” (lit. four forms) likely originated with Irenaeus in the 2nd century. Most commonly (though not uniformly), Matthew is connected with the man, Mark is the lion, Luke is the ox, and John is the eagle. Matthew is the man because he begins with the genealogy of Jesus. Mark is the lion, roaring in the desert with prophetic power, Luke is ox, because he shows Jesus as the temple sacrifice, and John is the eagle, soaring in the heavens as the divine Word. Ezekiel paints the picture of these four distinct creatures, and yet they were in many ways one creature. There was a diversity and unity in the four as they presented the glory of the one God. The diversity and unity of the Gospels is similar.

To understand why there are four, we need to understand something about the writing of Holy Scripture and the purpose of the Gospels. The Holy Spirit’s work of inspiration in the life of the individual authors of the Gospels is crucial to understanding why we have four accounts. And nature of gospels, as literature, help us understand the Gospels, as four authoritative accounts.

There is not a “zero-sum game” in the inspiration of Scripture. As the Holy Spirit inspires the human authors of the Gospels, their human-ness is not eradicated so that only the Holy Spirit comes through their pen. Instead, there is a sanctifying effect on the human-ness of the author, such that they are truly free and liberated from sin. They experience and express the realities of true fellowship with God, such that it is not an either/or (these are either the author’s or God’s words) but rather a both/and (these are both the author’s and God’s words) situation.[1] This is why the personality and the style of each author is not flattened into one homogenous account of the account of life and death of Jesus. Instead there are four accounts. Each one expressing what the Holy Spirit desires to express through the personality and style of the particular author, and each one expressing it in an equally true but differently nuanced way. The complete picture is no less truthful, right, pure, or inspired, even though each account provides a different facet of the story.

These four documents all detail something of the earthly life of Jesus Christ. Neither individually nor corporately do they constitute what would properly be called a biography. They make no attempt to be thorough or complete in their telling of the life of Jesus. They each spend much more time detailing the circumstances of his death than that of his life. And each of them tends to focus on a slightly different aspect of that life and death. This is done to address different audiences and different contexts. The Gospel of Matthew was written to a primarily Jewish audience. Mark was written to a mixed Jewish and Gentile audience in Rome. Luke was written to primarily Gentiles. And John was written a few decades later to supplement those accounts with a more theological picture of Jesus as the Son of God.

The Gospel of John was written decades after Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The apostle John put this Gospel to paper sometime between 80-90AD while he was residing in Ephesus. After a lifetime of reflection on the person and work of Jesus, John wrote, “so that you may believe the Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). He does not open with a birth narrative or nativity. Instead it opens at the dawn of time. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). This prologue to John presents Jesus as the eternal Logos, or Word, who presents to us the Father. By the Holy Spirit, Christ reveals the Father because he shares in the Father’s deity. He was present at creation. He fed Israel in the desert. He is the Great “I AM.” John is laying out the deep and timeless theological reality of Jesus, that we might believe.

If we understand the Gospel of John as being written later than the other three, then we’ll see the supplementary nature of the Gospel. This is why the nativity, the baptism, and the institution of the Lord’s Supper are not in it. Almost all of Jesus’ Galilean ministry is omitted. Instead of parables, John presents long dialogues between Jesus and others. John emphasizes the signs and wonders of Jesus. It is because John is assuming the reader is already familiar with these aspects of Jesus’ life because of the other Gospels. But it is clear that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are all writing about the same Jesus. They are four accounts that represent four different situations and contexts. They are four different authors. They are four different perspectives. But there is one subject to their gospel. There is one inspiring author in the Holy Spirit. And there is one goal for all four Gospels. They all agree that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God who came in the flesh for the salvation of the world.[2]

 

[1] Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading, 66–69.

[2] Machen and Cook, The New Testament, 220–21.

The Bible – Book by Book – Luke

Marcion was son of a bishop, born around 85AD. Through his study of the Hebrew scriptures, Marcion became convinced that the God of the Old Testament was incompatible with the Jesus of the New Testament. Around 144AD, he began to develop a theological system that incorporated two gods. There was a god of the Old Testament, the Demiurge, who created the material universe, but who was a legalistic and wrathful god. Another god, the one professed by Jesus, was altogether different. He was merciful and gracious, full of compassion and love. As a result of this, Marcion developed what could be considered an early canon of Scripture. Essentially, Marcion went to the New Testament with a knife and began removing everything he didn’t like. When he was finished, he was left with the Gospel of Luke (minus parts he didn’t like) and ten of Paul’s letters (also trimmed to fit his views). He had removed anything that favorable referenced the God of the Old Testament.

The Marcionite heresy continues to rear its ugly head. There is nothing new under the sun (Eccl 1:9), and old heresies just get rewarmed in a modern context. The mega-church pastor Andy Stanley recently preached that the Gospel needs to be “unhitched” from the Old Testament. He does this because he sees a fundamental difference between the “worldview and the values system depicted in the story of Ancient Israel” and the one depicted in the New Testament. Stanley is well-intentioned. His fear is that a mean, wrathful, and legalistic god of the Old Testament will scare away people from the merciful, gracious, and compassionate god of the New Testament. But his good intentions are just a re-hashing of Marcion’s errors.

What’s interesting about Marcion is that he has inadvertently been a great gift to the Church. What others intended for evil, God intended for good (Gen 50:20, Rom 8:28). In response to Marcion, the early Church had to clarify those areas where Marcion attempted to attack. The continuity between the Old and New Testaments was affirmed. The incarnation of Jesus Christ was explained. And the canon of the New Testament, which had been universally but unofficially received, was more formally acknowledged in order to refute Marcion’s canon. It is interesting to note that Marcion’s canon was clearly an attempt to cut away the pieces with which he disagreed. But for him to do that, there had to be an understood and received canon from which to cut. Marcion’s canon points to the fact that there already was an established, though somewhat unofficial, canon of the New Testament.

Out of the 2nd century response against Marcion came a prologue to Luke’s Gospel. This so called “Anti-Marcionite Prologue to the Gospel of Luke,” written around 160AD, helped to firmly establish the authorship of the anonymous Gospel. It says the physician Luke was the author of the Gospel and the book of Acts. It also points out that Luke wrote his Gospel to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ to the Gentile world. The reason Marcion liked the Gospel of Luke is that Luke presented Jesus to a non-Jewish audience. Luke was careful to couch the narrative of Jesus in its proper Jewish context, but it was not emphasized like in Matthew or Mark.

Luke tells us in his opening why he wrote his Gospel. “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative…it seemed good to me also…to write an orderly account for you…that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4). Luke was a physician and a historian. He took all the reliable accounts circulating at the time and he compiled them into an accurate and orderly account of Jesus’ life. As the fledgling Christian movement was growing, it was competing with a number of other religious and philosophical systems in the Greco-Roman world. Luke is presenting the best case that Christianity is not just for Jewish people, and why Christians are the true heirs of God’s Old Testament promises. For example, when Luke details the genealogy of Jesus, he traces it all the way back to Adam, whereas Matthew only goes back to Abraham. Luke also points out how Jesus commended Gentiles, like the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian (Luke 4:25-27), and the Roman centurion (Luke 7:1-10).

Luke makes some important and unique contributions. Luke provides for us a much more sweeping birth narrative of Jesus. Luke begins with the birth of John the Baptist and then moves to the much-loved nativity scene of Jesus. Luke also spends a great deal more time on the journey to Jerusalem than Matthew or Mark. What constitutes a mere chapter in them is extended to ten chapters (chs. 9-19). Included in this are some famous parables like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

Luke was a physician. And he presents Jesus as the compassionate and merciful healer. But he is also a Savior who denounces injustice and hates evil. Jesus is the one who not only heals the sick and ill, but he saves the lost from their sins (Luke 19:10). “The seeking love of God, as it appears [in Luke], is not the good-natured complacence that is being mistaken for it today, but a wonderful, paradoxical, saving will, that led the Son of God finally to the cross.”[1]

[1] Machen and Cook, The New Testament, 208.

The Bible – Book by Book – Mark

“’Who chose which gospels to include?’ Sophie asked. ‘Aha!’ Teabing burst in with enthusiasm. ‘The fundamental irony of Christianity! The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.’” (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code)

Dan Brown’s fiction made even more popular the misconception that the Gospels were chosen by Constantine in early 4th century. This isn’t even remotely true. The common story in the secular academy is that whoever had the largest army picked the Scriptures. But the history just does not support this theory.

There were lists of the received books of the New Testament that began circulating in the church in late 3rd and early 4th centuries. There was a general accepted consensus of what we would understand as a canon by the early 2nd century. The lists don’t always mesh perfected, but it is close. The Muratorian Fragment contains a list that is roughly the same as the Table of Contents in your Bible. Some scholars say it should be dated to the 4th century because this list fits with other 4th century lists. But that is a circular argument. Everything else about the list points to an early 2nd century dating. These lists point to a settled canon that was received by the Church well before Constantine. When asked the question, “Who chose the Gospels?” Dr. Charles Hill summarized, “second-century Christian leaders would have said that neither individuals nor churches had the authority to ‘choose’ which of the many Gospels they liked, but to receive the ones given by God and handed down by Christ through is apostles.”[1] No one ‘chose’ the Gospels, rather these were the books that had always been received as the Word of God for the Church.

As far as the earliest dates for the writing of New Testament books, Mark is among the earliest. Mark was likely written between 55 and 65AD. This would be the earliest of the Gospel accounts. And like the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark is technically anonymous. But very early tradition attributes it to John Mark. Mark wrote as one who was recording the testimony of the apostle Peter.

Mark was a companion of Paul and Barnabas early in their missionary journeys. But there was a falling out between Paul and Mark in Acts 15. Apparently Mark had abandoned Paul at some point. Mark would continue on with Barnabas, while Paul took Silas on as a traveling companion. Later on we learn from 2 Timothy 4 that Paul and Mark are reconciled, and Paul even mentions that Mark is “very valuable to me.” A final reference to Mark appears in 1 Peter 5:13 where we learn that Mark is in Rome with Peter. This is where Mark would have compiled and written his Gospel.

During this period of time in Rome there was a growing Christian Church. It was composed of both Jewish believers and also Gentile converts. During this time there was the rise of Nero as emperor. His reign was marked by an increasingly erratic and despotic style of governance. Christians were largely ignored until Nero needed a new scapegoat. The Gospel of Mark was likely written during these (or similar) hardships. Mark is writing to strengthen and encourage the Church in their suffering and potential martyrdom. Nothing in their experience was foreign to the experience of Jesus. He suffered. He was betrayed. He was crucified. He tasted death. And yet he rose victorious.

Mark’s Gospel does not assume a deep knowledge of Judaism or Hebrew terms. Often these are translated for the reader (this is a difference with Matthew). Mark also begins with John the Baptist and goes straight into Jesus’ ministry. Unlike Luke and Matthew, Mark skips over the Nativity. And from this starting point, Mark outlines the two key points of his Gospel, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The title of Christ is built up to the crescendo of Peter’s response to Jesus’ question, “’But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ’” (Mark 8:29). And then the response of the Centurion witnessing the crucifixion of Jesus, “Truly, this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). The Jewish disciple, Peter, and the Roman Centurion declare the reality of Jesus. He is the Christ, the Son of God.

 

[1] Hill, Who Chose the Gospels?, 246.