infinite wisdom and power

Psalm 147 says, ‘Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite.’

Plumer says, ‘There must be something exceedingly drivelling in the tendency of the human mind respecting divine things to have made it necessary for inspired writers so often to teach us that God is great, supreme, infinite.’ (p1200)

‘There is none above him, none with him, none like him, in power, or in any of his perfections. To the mind of God no subject is knotty, no truth mysterious. His mind embraces with infinite ease all the propositions which constitute universal truth.’ (p1198)

WS Plumer, Psalms: A Critical and Expository Commentary with Doctrinal and Practical Remarks. First published 1867. Reprinted Banner of Truth 2016.

in season, out of season

Protestants who reject the authority of the church are denying their own principles.

Two places where people are especially vulnerable to doing this is 1) in their attitude to church attendance and 2) their attitude towards ordained officebearers.

Church is the boring place where dramatic things happen. You can’t expect to hear anything new there, because the truths proclaimed are ancient. But the truths proclaimed are the environment where souls are born again by the Holy Spirit, which is miraculous, and where born again souls are sanctified, which is quite radical. Outside the church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. Inside the church there might be quirks and foibles and flaws and sins, but things don’t get any better if you step outside.

Church attendance is a fruit of salvation. People are saved individually, but they’re not saved into isolation. Each believer is a living stone built into a structure with other living stones. Each believer is transformed from a goat into a sheep and now belongs to the flock of the Lord. Each believer is called from a life of uselessness and unprofitability and installed as a useful member the body of Christ, like a hand or an eye.

It is part of the instinct of the new creation to congregate and communicate with the likeminded, and there’s nowhere more natural for the sheep to gather than the place where the shepherd feeds them. Do sheep drink milk? anyway, they go together to drink the sincere milk of the word, the word which by the gospel is preached unto them. Attending the corporate means of grace is not optional but necessary for their wellbeing.

The church which Christ instituted in this world is organised in terms of structure, regulations, and officebearers.

To focus on officebearers: these are either elders or deacons, and elders either rule or teach. Although there are no qualifications needed in order for a sinner to be saved, some daunting qualifications are specified which must be met in order for someone to be suitable for officebearing. Some of these are listed in 1 Timothy 3, which states quite straightforwardly that an elder must be:

  • blameless
  • the husband of one wife
  • vigilant
  • sober
  • of good behaviour
  • given to hospitality
  • apt to teach
  • not given to wine
  • no striker
  • not greedy of filthy lucre
  • patient
  • not a brawler
  • not covetous
  • one that rules his own house well, having his children in subjection with all gravity (for if a man knows not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the house of God?)
  • not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil
  • having a good reputation of those who are outsiders.

Most of these are character traits, and discernible by anyone who looks. They’re not really a list of pass/fail targets to meet; compare, putting in so many solo flying hours, or producing so many educational qualifications to a particular level.

Nevertheless it is beneficial that teaching elders in particular should come up to certain pragmatically established standards before taking office in the church. If they are ‘sober,’ for example, and know the dangers of ‘being lifted up with pride,’ they will likely see the sense of that anyway. But in particular the qualification ‘they need to be able to teach’ by itself raises the possibility that a good candidate for the teaching-eldership can be made a better one through being trained for their work.

In a word, an educated ministry is both desirable and proper:

  • because the main job of the teaching elder is to teach, but people need to learn before they can teach
  • because the main means of convincing and converting sinners and building up the saints is by preaching the Word, but the Word needs to be studied and understood before it can be preached
  • because the main danger to the church is false doctrine, but it takes discernment to identify error and heresy and skill to tackle them appropriately
  • because, even though preachers don’t have to know Hebrew or Greek in order to know the revealed will of God, still it helps when they do, and it shows when they don’t
  • because ignorance and wilful anti-intellectualism hinder the effects of the truth and do not promote godliness.

In short:

What teaching elders teach from the pulpit is meant to feed the flock, cement the bricks, and nourish the body. So whereas the unconverted sit under the preached word in the way that rebel fighters hear ambassadors broadcasting proposals of peace and reconciliation, the converted sit under the preached word in order to grow in grace and in the knowledge of their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

They do this, not as a disparate collection of individual souls, but as a corporate entity. They rejoice together to go up to God’s house together. They listen together to the preaching of a sermon designed to benefit them together. As they love one another, they worship with one another. The fellowship they have with the saints takes place and is expressed most visibly and straightforwardly when they assemble together for worship. What, after all, unifies their diverse personal experiences but the fact that they all have the same Saviour, the one revealed in the Word which they read together and hear expounded together in God’s house week after week. The responsibility of a teaching elder in all of this is immense.

In one way, salvation is an intensely personal thing, a transaction between the soul alone and God himself. But salvation is more than that – it has a background and a community – the doctrines of the Word and the church shaped by the Word. Disinclination to associate corporately with the people who God has called into the visible church isn’t an option, and certainly disrespect towards the people God has called into office in his church is completely ruled out.

to sola scriptura ii

Aelianus’s fuller exposition of his views on sola scriptura is here, and I’m going to follow his good example of putting a post-sized response in a post (since my reaction outgrew the Laodicean comment boxes almost as soon as it got started).

There seem to be two basic misconceptions about what’s even under discussion.

1) Sola scriptura is not a claim that everything which the apostles taught by word of mouth was written down. Rather it is a claim that all things necessary for faith and practice are provided by Scripture. So the fact of, eg, John saying the world couldn’t contain the books that would be needed to record what the Lord did, is no objection to sola scriptura: the claim has never been that the Bible contains all truth or everything that God has ever revealed.

2) Sola scriptura is not a claim that the Church has no authority. So prooftexts to demonstrate that the apostles had unique authority in the church, and that their successors (albeit our understanding of succession is not shared) have power to bind and loose, etc, are beside the point. The point is the nature of the Church’s authority and how it relates to the authority of Scripture: while we confess that the Church has authority to declare what Scripture teaches on doctrine and practice, the Church has no authority to go beyond Scripture in what she teaches. The Church is not meant to rely on herself to declare authoritatively on questions of doctrine or duty, but rather on Scripture.

Let me deal with one other point here before getting back to the question of sola scriptura itself: canonicity – related, but not the question itself. Questions about sola scriptura take to do with the nature of the scripture [coming back to this in the next para]; questions about canoncity take to do with what gets recognised as scripture. On the OT canon, the claim that ‘the Protestant canon of the OT did not exist in Our Lord’s time’ has no New Testament support. The Gospels record Jesus appealing constantly to a known, fixed body of writings in his disputations with the Pharisees and Sadducees, and these were the writings which the Apostles used to demonstrate the truth of their claim that the Messiah had indeed come, eg. So the strategy of discrediting the Jewish Scriptures is not only a mischaracterisation of the situation that obtained at the time of Christ but is also really fatal to the gospel of the New Testament (which relies on the revelation in the Old Testament). As for the ‘Protestant canon of the NT’ – whatever Luther’s “rejection” of any NT books looked like in practice, his views were never ‘the Protestant’ view. You don’t need to project your imagination of how a Protestant should according to your analysis view the pronouncements of a Protestant figurehead, as if Protestants just can’t help supplying themselves with inadequate Pope-substitutes who only embarrass them by saying awkward things. The Protestant canon is identified in the Protestant creeds/confessions, not the overinterpreted speculations of one Protestant theologian, and the Reformation confessions are unanimous on the extent of the canon.

Returning to: the nature of Scripture itself. Aelianus thinks I should think that most of Scripture is superfluous because I’ve said that John wrote enough to convince anyone that Jesus is the Christ. But that’s not exactly where I was going with that. The position is rather that all the Scriptures are a revelation that has been given by God himself, and as such it has certain characteristics. That means that the Gospel of John has the same qualities as any other part of God’s revelation, and vice versa. It’s not as if the Bible is a random assortment of isolated texts with no cohesion, whose message has to be treated as tentative until it gets external approbation. Rather, this is the revelation that unfolded as God gave it, and each piece that he gave both connects organically with the other pieces he gave, and has intrinsically and in its own right the properties of a divine revelation. Such as, divine truthfulness, divine authority, and divine fitness-for-purpose. The argument from John is not just that the segment in the Bible called John’s Gospel contains enough for someone to believe that Jesus is the Christ, but that John’s Gospel being a part of God’s revelation has the property of providing the basis for anyone to believe that Jesus is the Christ and have life through his name. It’s due to being what God has spoken. Not just John’s gospel but the holy scriptures in general are able to make someone wise unto salvation.

Which brings me finally round to 2 Timothy, and to say that what Aelianus gives with one hand by way of affirmation of the authority of Scripture, he takes with the other when he continues to say ‘it does not contain all that is morally necessary to persevere in God’s grace…’ Referring to 2 Timothy, Aelianus says, “That the scriptures render one complete would only constitute a claim to their sufficiency if it were the scriptures with which one began.” But there doesn’t need to be any doubt about this: as it happens, Timothy did begin with the Scriptures, as Paul’s direction makes clear: “Continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation.” The scriptures which Timothy had known from childhood were able – had an innate ability to accomplish their stated purpose – to make him wise for salvation. Calling Scripture ‘profitable’ doesn’t here mean that Scripture supplements something else – Paul says Scripture is profitable (for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness) to make the man of God complete, and fully equipped for every good work. There’s really no wiggle room here. If the man of God wants to be perfect, or equipped for any good work, the resource he is meant to turn to is the scripture which God breathed out. Scripture claims that Scripture provides all the doctrine and instruction to make a man perfect.

The alternative is for the man to think himself wiser than Timothy, wiser than Paul who advised Timothy, and wiser than God who inspired Paul. That’s why it just isn’t good enough to affirm that Scripture is authoritative, inspired, inerrant, … and then stop short of confessing that it’s sufficient for doctrine and practice. To the extent that someone thinks that Scripture needs to be supplemented by some top-up revelation, or some parallel transmission of revelation, to that extent they are effectively rejecting the authority which Scripture itself claims for itself as the complete encapsulation of everything necessary for doctrine and practice (and then exacerbating it in proportion to the unscripturalness of the doctrines or practices which they think is included in the content of that extra revelation).


sola scriptura in the scriptures

So the redoutable Aelianus of England is on the warpath again, as I discovered last week but was too busy dealing with Deadline Issues to do much about.

Sola scriptura, he says, is self-evidently silly, yet he explains how, with a bit of mental gymnastics, the thinking Catholic can eventually come to see that those who hold to it need not in fact be either stupid or malicious.

Orfly kind of him, say we, but don’t waste your pity just yet. Sola scriptura is nowhere near as absurd as he makes out.

For one thing, the first claim, ‘scripture never says it is the all-sufficient norm of doctrine, in fact it denies it,’ is simply wrong. Scripture does claim to be the all-sufficient norm of doctrine, in various places and ways, some more explicit than others.

  • That part of Scripture called 2 Timothy states both that the holy scriptures are able to make a person wise to salvation, and that scripture is sufficient to make the man of God perfect and (not partially, but) thoroughly equipped for every good work.
  • The Gospel according to John specifically states that while it does not provide an exhaustive record of the works of Jesus, still, what it does contain is enough to warrant anyone to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, so that by believing they would have life through his name.
  • The 2nd Epistle of Peter states that scripture is a more sure word of prophecy (than audible voices from heaven), and correspondingly more able to safeguard us from following cunningly devised fables.
  • The scriptures of the Old Testament in general are replete with authoritative claims, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ and were in themselves sufficient to reveal Christ savingly to their readers (according to Christ in John 5) and to save them from soul-destroying errors of doctrine (according to Christ in Matthew 22); and when the apostles claimed to be writing scripture on a par with the Old Testament (as Peter did for Paul, 2 Pet 3v16; as Paul did for Luke, 1 Tim 5v18; etc), they were laying claim to their writings having the same characteristics – divine authority, revelation of saving truth, and repository of true doctrine.
  • Finally, to make this anywhere near manageably brief, whenever the apostles warned people against false doctrine, they never directed them anywhere other than their own teachings to find the truth. The only place where apostolic teaching is known to exist subsequent to the apostles themselves is in the inspired Scriptures. These are where the apostles declare things for us to know the certainty of the things in which we have been instructed, Luke 1. These are where we find the gospel they preached infallibly preserved, so that we can know to reject any alternative gospel, whether preached by man or angel, Galatians 1. These, jointly with the writings of the prophets, are the foundation on which the church is built, both for faith and morals. There is never the least hint that believers should turn to any resource outside the Scriptures in order to determine questions of doctrine or duty: the Scriptures themselves are, and claim to be, that very resource.

Also false is the other claim, ‘The scriptures cannot authorise themselves‘ (hence the need for an authority outside the scriptures to establish ‘the material content of revelation’). The truth is that the Scriptures do authorise themselves.

  • This is particularly clear for the Old Testament, which was accepted among God’s people purely on the weight of its own authority. Every time the phrase, “Thus saith the Lord,” occurs in the Old Testament scriptures, it is a straightforward, unarguable, claim to divine authority. At the time of Christ and the apostles, “the scripture saith” was perfectly synonymous with “God says” (as in, eg, Paul in Rom 9v17, Gal 3v2, Acts 28v25).
  • Then, as the Old Testament scriptures were simply received by Israel in Old Testament times, so in New Testament times, the New Testament scriptures were simply received by the church. The scriptures of the New Testament are divinely inspired hence divinely authoritative hence obediently to be received in exactly the same way as were the Scriptures of the Old Testament. The idea that some collection either of Israelites or churchmen first sat down in judgment on whether or not to accept God’s own revelation as authoritative, is completely back to front.
  • There is, in short, a world of difference between receiving something as the word of men and receiving it as the word of God – thankfully, when the gospel came to the Thessalonians, they received it, not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the Word of God. Far from the Scriptures being a product of the Spirit through the Church, as some folk would have us believe, the fact is that the Church is a product of the Spirit through the instrumentality of the Word. The Scriptures no more derive their authority from the Church than gravity derives its force from Sir Isaac Newton.

Two bold claims about Scripture, straightforwardly contradicted by Scripture. But where do claims like these come from? not, surely, from a faith that says, ‘Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth,’ but from an alternative that keeps the scriptures at arm’s length, doesn’t recognise Scripture’s own claims about itself, and neglects to come close enough to God’s own revelation to be instructed by it on its own terms. Attacks on the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word are nothing new, but there is something markedly unattractive about them when they come from within what is meant to be part of the church, the institution set up to be the guardian of the once-for-all deposit of divine truth in the world. Thinking Catholics need to think smarter on this. The kind and degree of respect, attention, and obedience which the scriptures deserve and demand they are content to devote to some other, competitor source of authority which God hasn’t mentioned in the word he has given to us. Instead of making a virtue out of submitting to a spurious authority what they should reserve for divine authority (namely, their conscience on matters of faith and practice), let them be invited to step back into line with the church catholic by recovering the courage and faith to find God’s authoritative revelation of all things necessary for faith and practice in the one place he has contained it, the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.


back to front

Two confusions spotted recurringly recently:

1) the idea that faith leads to regeneration (when in fact it’s regeneration that leads to faith)

2) the idea that believers are sanctified through doing their good works (when in fact good works are the outcome of sanctification).

the whole

People like George Smeaton and Hugh Martin and James Buchanan wrote the learned, technical expositions of the atonement. Charles Spurgeon, on the other hand, never spoke over the head of an ordinary hearer — but if he didn’t specifically read the works of these master theologians, had obviously thoroughly mastered and assimilated their sources, because his doctrine is identical.

From a sermon on the passover, from Exodus 12 –

We are told in the chapter that they were not to eat of the lamb raw. Alas! There are some who try to do this with Christ, for they preach a half-atoning sacrifice. They would make him in his Person and in his character to be meat for their souls, but they have small liking for his Passion, and they cast his Atonement into the background, or represent it as an ineffectual expiation which does not secure any soul from vengeance. What is this but to devour a raw Christ? I will not touch their half-roasted lamb; I will have nothing to do with their half substitution, their half-complete redemption. No, no: give me a Saviour who has borne all my sins in his own body …

What a multitude of teachers there are who must needs have the lamb sodden with water, though the Scripture saith, ‘Eat not of it raw, nor sodden at all with water.’ … Preachers present the lamb sodden in the water of their own thoughts and speculations and notions. Now, the mischief of this boiling process is that the water takes away a good deal from the meat. Philosophical discoursings upon the Lord Jesus take away much of the essence and virtue of his person, offices, work, and glory. The real juice and vital nutrient of his glorious Word is carried off by interpretations which do not explain, but explain away. … When certain divines preach atonement, it is not substitution pure and simple – one hardly knows what it is. Their atonement is not the vicarious sacrifice, but a process of something they are long in defining. They have a theory which is like the relics of meat after months of boiling, all strings and fibres. All manner of schemes are tried to extract the marrow and fatness from the grand soul-satisfying doctrine of substitution, which to my mind is the choicest truth that can ever be brought forth for the food of souls. I cannot make out why so many divines are afraid of the shedding of blood for the remission of sin, and must needs stew down the most important of all the truths of revelation. No, no: as the type could only be correct when the lamb was roast with fire, so the gospel is not truly set forth unless we describe our Lord Jesus in his sufferings for his people, and those sufferings in the room, place, and stead of sinners, presenting absolutely and literally a substitution for them. I willl have no dilution: it is substitution – ‘He bore our sins.’ ‘He was made sin for us.’ ‘The chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed.’ We must have no mystifying of this plain truth, it must not be sodden at all with water, but we must have Christ in his sufferings fresh from the fire.

Now, this lamb they were to eat, and the whole of it. Not a morsel must be left. Oh that you and I would never cut and divide Christ so as to choose one part of him and leave another. Let not a bone of him be broken, but let us take in a whole Christ up to the full measure of our capacity. Prophet, Priest, and King, Christ divine and Christ human, Christ loving and living, Christ dying, Christ risen, Chrsit ascended, Christ coming again, Christ triumphant over all his foes – the whole Lord Jesus is ours. We must not reject a single particle of what is revealed concerning him, but must feed upon it all as we are able.

That night Israel had to feed upon the lamb there and then. They might not put by a portion for tomorrow: they must consume the whole in some way or other. Oh, my brother, we need a whole Christ at this very moment. Let us receive him in his entirety. Oh for a splendid appetite and fine powers of digestion, so as to receive into my inmost soul the Lord’s Christ just as I find him. May you and I never think lightly of our Lord under any light or in any one of his offices. All that you now know and all that you can find out concerning Christ you should now believe, appreciate, feed upon, and rejoice in. Make the most of all that is in the Word concerning your Lord. (p237-238)

The chief relish about our Lord Jesus to a penitent sinner is his sin-bearing, and his agonies in that capacity. We need the suffering Saviour, the Christ of Gethsemane, the Christ of Golgotha and Calvary, Christ sheddding his blood in the sinner’s stead, and bearing for us the fire of God’s wrath. Nothing short of this will suffice to be meat for a hungry heart. Keep this back and you starve the child of God. (p236-237)

Vaughan’s bridge

That book I was raving about, a couple of posts ago – Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Preach – says plenty of excellent things, especially in the chapter on the content of the message. That includes this piece of correspondence addressed to RL Dabney by his friend CR Vaughan. Apparently Dabney was on his deathbed, and apparently concerned about whether his faith was strong enough to face the end. Vaughan wrote him with this advice. He asked him, What would a traveller do, if he came to a chasm, and wanted to know if the bridge was strong enough to let him cross?

What does he do, to breed confidence in the bridge? He looks at the bridge; he gets down and examines it. He doesn’t stand at the bridge head and turn his thoughts curiously in on his own mind to see if he has confidence in the bridge. If his examination of the bridge gives him a certain amount of confidence, and yet he wants more, how does he make his faith grow? Why, in the same way: he still continues to examine the bridge.

Now, my dear old man, let your faith take care of itself for a while, and you just think of what you are allowed to trust in. Think of the Master’s power, think of his love; think how he is interested in the soul that searches for him, and will not be comforted until he finds him. Think of what he has done, his work. That blood of his is mightier than all the sins of all the sinners that ever lived. Don’t you think it will master yours?

… May God give you grace, not to lay too much stress on your faith, but to grasp the great ground of confidence, Christ, and all his work and all his personal fitness to be a sinner’s refuge. Faith is only an eye to see him. …

Dabney was one of the greatest Reformed theologians America ever had.