Archive for June, 2008

Whatever happened to the Sabbath?

June 28, 2008

It has been a bit of a momentous week – Jonathan George Nathanael MacLean was born on Wednesday!  So, as you might guess I’m a bit tired at the moment so any sloppy reasoning below should be attributed to that 🙂  If my post isn’t of sufficient quality you might wish to check out this good post on James Durham and the free offer:

The Sabbath concept has all but disappeared from “evangelical” piety.  The situation we are now in can be summarised by a well known rhyme (adapted slightly!):

“There were ten great words written on a stone
and if one great word should accidentally fall
There would be nine great words written on a stone”

James Durham could write that “in it [the fourth commandment] is contained a main foundation of godliness” (The Ten Commandments, rept. Naphtali Press: 2002, 206) and yet today mention of Sabbath observance is often regarded as destructive to piety – it is legalistic and opposed to the “freedom” we now have in Christ.  In responding to this criticism it is good to bear in mind that “there is nothing new under the sun” and that many of these criticism’s have been heard before.  Indeed in Durham’s excellent discussion of the Sabbath in The Ten Commandments he responds to three common objections to the abiding validity of the fourth commandment which are heard today.  But before I discuss these some groundwork.

To state that the duties of the fourth commandment are “moral and perpetual” is not to deny that “the fourth commandment might … possibly have had something ceremonial in that seventh day, or in the manner used of sanctifying the seventh day.”  So it is not “everything hinging on this command” in the Old Testament that Durham pleads for “but … that the command is moral-positive as to its main scope, matter, and substance, and that it is still binding…” (207).  Durham adduces some arguments to demonstrate the fourth commandment’s morality:

  • The frequency of mentioning of the Sabbath – e.g. Gen2, Ex 16 “before the law was given”, Ex 20, 31, Lev 23:3, Deut 5, Neh 9:13, Ps 92, Is 56:58, Jer 17, Exek 20:22, Matt 24:20, Luke 23:56, Acts 13:14,15,21, 1 Cor 16, Rev 1:10. (208-9).
  • “How weightily, seriously and pressingly, the Scripture speaks of it”  E.g. It is “backed with a reason” Gen 2; It is “spoken of as a mercy” Ex 16:29, Ezek 20:12; it has promises associated with it (Is 56:58 ) etc. (209).
  • It is in the Decalogue!  Because this is written by God himself directly the ten words are special and are known as the moral law.  Christ himself affirms his commitment to the ten words in Matt 5:17 “where by law must be necessarily be understood the moral law” (212).

But Durham is aware that not all have accepted the perpetual and binding nature of the fourth commandment and so he considers three objections (common today).  They are:

  1. “This law (Sabbath) is not mentioned as being renewed or confirmed in the New Testament” (219).  For Durham this is simply a faulty hermeneutic as “Its authority depends not on the mentioning of it so in the New Testament.  The law is God’s Word and has its authority as well as the Net Testament”  Indeed we all admit some laws not mentioned in the New Testament are still binding e.g. for a man not to marry his sister
  2. “The apostle seems to cast away differences of times, especially of Sabbath days (Rom 14:5-6; Gal 4:10; Col 2:16); which could not be if this command were moral” (219).  For Durham this is a failure to read these verses in context.  Having done this it will appear that “We must understand these places not as simply casting [away] all days and times, but ceremonial and Jewish days, or days invented by men, because the scope of the places runs that way, viz. against the bringing in of ceremonial worship as necessary…” (220).
  3. “The fourth command precisely commands the seventh day from the creation to be kept; but that is not moral.  Therefore, neither is the command so.” (220).  For Durham this is to miss the point of the commandment which is “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.  It says remember the Sabbath, or the Holy rest ,what ever day it shall be on” and indeed “why may not the seventh day in order … be changed to the first day of the week, which is a seventh day in number still, without abolishing the morality of the fourth commandment” (220-1).

I would urge a careful reading of all Durham has to say on the fourth commandment.  As John MacLeod (of Scottish Theology fame) notes Durham’s discussion of the fourth commandment shows “how the various questions that have in recent times been raised in regard to it [the Sabbath] were discussed in the seventeenth century, and that our historical Scottish teaching as to the observance of the Lord’s Day did not take root in the faith of our fathers in any ignorance of what can be said against it.” (John MacLean, Some Favourite Books, BoT, 1988, 29).

If you dont have it in print version Durham on the fourth commandment is availabe here:

Wodrow’s Analecta Again

June 21, 2008

Robert Wodrow’s work Analecta: Or, Materials for a History of Remarkable Providences; Mostly Relating to Scottish Ministers and Christians (4 vols. Edinburgh: Maitland Club, 1842-1843) is an absolutely fascinating work for students of 17th C Scottish theology.  Whilst not always entirely accurate it is generally reliable and  is really crying out for reprinting in a critical edition as it is very hard to obtain now – maybe I’m old fashioned but being on google books doesn’t count for me!  Anyway I posted some material from this a few months ago.  Here are some sections from my notes I didn’t include then.

David Dickson in Durham

He [Dickson] had a wonderful opinion of great and worthy Mr Durham … He said somewhat to this purpose of Mr Durham, that ‘He was like a great bottle full of excellent good wine that when it did go to come out it could not well come out… ‘ so Mr Durham had little expression [in preaching or writing] but much good and great matter.
Analecta, 3:10

This ties with my own reading of Durham’s sermons.  Absolutely fantastic material but lacking the accessibility of the works of say George Swinnock or Thomas Watson.  Woodrow notes the same point himself:

Mr Durham was full of great substantial matter, but had not a popular or plausible way of speaking given him, as Mr Carstairs had. Every man has his proper gift of God, one after this manner and another after that. Every man must have some thing to humble him; as Moses, though a great instrument, and man of God, yet was of slow speech, and yet none like him in Israel, in his day; yet of himself a poor foundling cast out in the open field.
Analecta, 3:108

On Gloves

MR FRANCIS AIRD … Mr Durham did name Mr Aird to succeed him in the ministry at Glasgow. I heard that Mr Aird was once preaching before the Synod of Glasgow and he was speaking much about the faults of Ministers, and he was weeping much.  He began to speak of their apparel, and of their very gloves! He said weeping, ‘And we Ministers, must have our mounted gloves!’ – and Mr Durham was just sitting before him with a pair of good new gloves, and he presently took them off his hand, (it’s said,) and put them up in his pouch!
Analecta, 3:56

Nothing particularly theological here – just an interesting anecdote!

 Three Great Qualities of James Durham

There was a learned man, Sir James Turner, said this of Mr Durham: ‘He had these three in a considerable manner in him, which are to be found but rarely in one man, viz., great piety, which was evident by his exposition of the Song of Solomon; great prudence, whereof he gave a clear specimen in his book on Scandal; and great learning, and reading, and knowledge in History, whereof he gives a clear specimen in his book on the Revelation.
Analecta 3:107-8

This is a fine analysis of some of Durham’s qualities.  The argument that Durham’s exposition of the Song of Solomon reveals his piety rests on the (correct!) assumption that the Song is a description of the relationship between Christ and believers.  Given this, in order to understand this relationship described in the Song, one needs to, first and foremost, have experienced this relationship.  The argument goes that the closer a believer is to Christ, the more a soul will experience and understand Christ’s dealing with it, the esasier it will be to expound the Song.  So, a when preacher can handle the Song experimentally it was traditionally taken as an indication of the piety of the preacher.

Durham’s learning is highlighted here – and correctly so for it is truly monumental.  Church history, general history, patristics, Medieval developments in theology, contemporary Reformed and Catholic theology were all within his grasp.  His colleague in the ministry John Castairs describes this well:

It [Treatise on Scandal] discovers withal so very great insight in church history and writings of the ancient Fathers, wherewith it is everywhere most beautifully illuminated, that it may well be said of him … that one would have thought universam antiquitatem in ejus pectusculo latuisse reconditam, that all antiquity lay in his breast … he was so familiarly acquainted with the Fathers as if he himself had been one of them.
John Carstairs, Introduction  to James Durham, The Dying Man’s Testament to the Church of Scotland or, A treatise Concerning Scandal(Reprint. Dallas: Naphtali Press, 1990, pxxii)

Durham’s Humility

But such gifts did not puff Durham up, he esteemed his brethren as better than himself as may be seen in this anecdote:

Mr Durham not having a popular way of speaking to the common people, he, with some of his Elders, would have seen the people running away from him to hear Mr Gray in the Outter High Church. The Elders seemed to be very displeased, but Mr Durham said, ‘Let them alone, let them go where they think they profit most; for it is probable, if I were in their case, I would do the same thing .’
Analecta, 3:109

These are some insights to the more human side of Durham.  I hope to pick up on some of his thelolgical insights soon with substantial posts on: “Preaching and the Doctrine of Election,” “On Covenants: Works, Grace and Redemption” & “The Sabbath: Ten Words Have not become Nine”.  I have the material ready – I just need the time to arrange it properly.

Some James Durham

June 14, 2008

I have been away fishing in the Highlands this past week so studies have taken a back seat and hence the blog is a fairly random selection quotes from Durham’s work Heaven Upon Earth (Edinburgh: Andrew Anderson, 1685) – some might argue this is business as usual!

On the balance between heart and mind

True religion and godliness consists not only in the illumination of the mind, and in the conception and contemplation of the Truths concerning God and the Gospel; but also and mainly in the practice of the known Duties thereof … we would … by all means take heed that we separate and divide not the power and practice of Religion from the Theory thereof; and that we prefer not the search after some more cryptic and dark things in Religion, to the serious practice of the more plain and obvious Truths thereof…

On the ordinary way of Conversion

I speak not now of what gracious change may be wrought in some persons more early, and in their younger years, nor how secretly and little discernibly the work of Conversion may be wrought in some that are come to age; But I speak of God’s more ordinary way of dealing, and reclaiming and converting of sinners; When Paul speaks of himself, Rom 7. He tells us that … he was a clean man as he thought, and in his own eyes; before the Lord discovered Sin, and wakened a Challenge for it in his Conscience…

So, for Durham, conversion in infancy and or an indiscernible quiet work of conversion is not the normative pattern, but the more sudden, distinct crisis experience of Paul.

On Preaching

And since I am preaching (or exhorting) tomorrow:

Preaching is a good work, yet there are many Preachers that has not a good Testimony from their Conscience, In that good work; but Paul had it; and that which made him have it, was his sincerity and singleness, that he spoke as before God, without a bias, or any allowed carnalness in his end: if we could preach and pray, and live and walk thus in all our Actions, O! What sweet peace should we have…

…the right preaching of the Gospel (if we could win at it) will neither loose reigns to lawless and sinful liberty to carnal persons; nor make sad the hearts of those that are gracious and tender, nor put them on the rack, nor involve them in a labyrinth of inextricable intricacies, and perplexities.

Bavinck on Law & Gospel

June 6, 2008

My previous post on the Marrowmen on law and gospel received, it is fair to say, a mixed reaction.  Perhaps Herman Bavinck can clarify some of this for us as his recently translated Reformed Dogmatics (Vol 4): Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008 ) contains a helpful discussion of “Maintaining the Unity of the Covenant of Grace” (p448-51). 

Bavinck notes there are two extremes to be avoided in the discussion of the law/gospel distinction, “on the one hand … antinomianism” and “nomism … Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, Romanism, Socinianism…” (p451).  He states that law and gospel were not viewed as antithetical by “Scholastic and Roman Catholic theologians, [as] law and gospel were equated with the Old and New Testaments” (p451).  Rome therefore held that “Law and gospel do not differ in the sense that the former only demands and the latter only promises, for both contain commandments … and promises …” (p451-2).  For Rome the New Testament (gospel/new law) surpassed the Old Testament (old law) in its clarity of revelation and permanence.  Bavinck sees much to agree with here but he does not see the Old/New Testament distinction as the Scriptural law/gospel antithesis.  The true antithesis is only perceived when we consider “the law as law, apart from the promises, to which in the Old Testament the law was made subservient” (p452).  It is speaking of the law in this way that “Paul asserts that it cannot justify, that it increases sin, that it is a ministry of condemnation … and precisely in that way prepares the fulfillment of the promise…” (p453).  It is “this antithesis between law and gospel [that] was again understood at the Reformation” (p453).

So “although in a broad sense ‘law’ and ‘gospel’ can indeed be used to denote the old and new dispensation of the covenant of grace, in their actual significance they definitely describe two essentially different revelations of divine will” (p453).  Thus in Scripture “law and gospel are contrasted as demand and gift, as command and promise, as sin and grace, as sickness and healing, as death and life … the law proceeds from God’s holiness, the gospel from God’s grace” (p453, emphasis added).  Now Bavinck sounds suspiciously like a Marrowman at this point – the law gospel antithesis can be expressed as the difference between a command and a promise.

So given we can speak of law as command and gospel as promise the question arises “whether the preaching of faith and repentance, which seemed after all to be a condition and a demand, really belonged to the gospel, and should not rather (with Flacius, Gerhard, Quenstedt, Voetius, Witsius, Cocceius, de Moor, and others) be counted as law” (p454).  Before we go on to see his answer, it is interesting to note that Bavinck’s list of theologians who held this position that faith and repentance are demands of law rather than gospel includes some of the same theologians as the Marrowmen’s (e.g. Witsius) – it would be hard to imagine theologians of the calibre of the Marrowmen and Bavinck independently misreading their sources.  [Are a couple of the theologians Bavinck lists Lutheran?]

How then does Bavinck answer – “And indeed, strictly speaking, there are no demands and conditions in the gospel but only promises and gifts.  Faith and repentance are as much benefits of the covenant of grace as justification (and so forth)” (p454).  This is exactly what the Marrowmen were trying to say.  There is a “strict” sense in which we can speak of the gospel as promise and not command.  So, in the proclamation of the gospel “it is always united with law and is therefore always interwoven with the law throughout Scripture.  The gospel always presupposes law  and also needs it in its administration …  The demanding and summoning form in which the gospel is cast is derived from the law” (p454).  So “Faith and repentance are … demanded of people in the name of God’s law… (p454).

So far, so Marrow.  But Bavinck adds some caveats to what he has said, “But faith and repentance themselves, nevertheless, are components of the gospel, not the workings or fruits of the law” (p454).  By this Bavinck seems to mean that the law demands faith in general but “it does not demand the special faith that directs itself towards Christ” (p454).  [As an aside, once the gospel reveals Christ I think the law does demand special faith in Christ.]   Thus “faith and repentance are components of the gospel … Law and gospel, viewed concretely, do not so much differ in that the law always speaks with a commanding voice and the gospel with a promising voice, for also the law makes promises and the gospel utters admonitions and imposes obligations.  But they differ especially in content: the law demands that humans work out their own righteousness, and the gospel invites them to renounce all self-righteousness and to accept the righteousness of Christ…” (p454).

If I have understood him correctly I am happy with what Bavinck proposes (although I would probably replace ‘viewed concretely’ with ‘viewed largely’).  He recognises the “strict” sense that the Marrowmen spoke of and also another broader sense in which we can speak of gospel as containing commands.

Some Marrow to accompany your Law and Gospel, Sir?

June 2, 2008

One of the most important distinctions in theology is between law and gospel.  Getting our understanding of law and gospel right is fundamental to avoiding the two perilous extremes of neonomianism and antinomianism.  One group of theologians who achieved this were the Marrowmen (Thomas Boston, Ralph Erskine, Ebenezer Erskine, etc).  Their discriminating understanding of the difference between “law” and “gospel” was not appreciated by the neonomian leaning Church of Scotland of their day who set the Marrowmen the following question, “Whether are there any precepts in the gospel that were not actually given before the gospel was revealed?”  At first sight this might appear a strange question but the Marrowmen used it as a springboard to define the gospel.

For them, “In the gospel, taken strictly, and as contradistinct from the law, for a doctrine of grace, or good news from heaven, of help in God through Jesus Christ, to lost, self destroying creatures … or the glad tidings of a Saviour … there are no precepts; all these, the commandment to believe not excepted, belong to and flow from the law, which fastens the … duty on us, the same moment the gospel reveals the … object.” (John Brown, Gospel Accurately Stated Andrew Munro: 2837, 147).  The Marrowmen believed that “in the gospel, taken strictly, there are no precepts, to us seems evident from the holy scriptures” and cited Gen 3:15, Gal 3:8 cf Gen 12:3 & Gen 22:18, Acts 3:25, Luke 2:10-11, Rom 10:5,Acts 15:7, Acts 20:36-43, Luke 4:18 cf Is 61:1-2, Acts 20:24 and 2 Tim 1:10.  The Marrowmen cited, among others, Calvin, Witsius and Mastricht as being part of “the body of reformed divines” who held that the gospel contained no precepts or law (p147).  To summarise their position: the gospel is good news – it contains no commands.

But what then of the commands in the New Testament e.g. to repent and believe the gospel?  These “belong to, and are of the law” (p147).  The Marrowmen explain: “For the law of creation, or the Ten Commandments, which was given to Adam in paradise in the form of a covenant of works, requiring us to believe whatever God should reveal or promise, and to obey whatever he should command…” (p147).  That is, if according to the law we are to “love the Lord our God” then we are bound to believe and trust in his revelation to us.  But God has revealed himself in Christ as the Saviour of sinners, therefore the law demands we trust in Christ as our Saviour.  They further argue, that to deny it is the law which demands we “repent and believe,” is inconsistent “with the perfection of the law; for if the law be a complete rule of all moral, internal, and spiritual, as well as external and ritual obedience, it must require faith and repentance, as well as it does all other good works…” (p148).  Their final argument is from the nature of unbelief as sin.  They argue that Scripture and the Westminster Standards define sin as “any want of conformity to, or transgression of the law of God.”  But we know that unbelief is a sin and a transgression of the law, so therefore, “faith must be required in the … command” (p148).  To augment their argument they note that Christ called faith “one of the weightier matters of the law” (p148).

Why does this distinction matter – that the gospel is simply good news and it is the law which commands belief and faith?  To the Marrowmen, making the gospel into a command or law led to either, or both, of the errors of neonomianism and antinomianism:

  • They believed that “if the law does not bind sinners to believe and repent, then we see not how faith and repentance, considered as works, are excluded from our justification before God; since in that case they are not works of the law, under which character all works are in Scripture excluded from the use of justifying in the sight of God” (p149).  That is, we know that all the “works of the law” are excluded from our justification but if repentance and faith are “works of the gospel” then what Scriptural grounds do we have to exclude them from our justification?  They further note that “Socinians, Arminians, Papists, Baxterians by holding the gospel to be a new, proper, prescriptive law, with sanction, and thereby turning it into a real, though milder covenant of works, have confounded the law and the gospel, and brought works into the matter and cause of a sinner’s justification before God” (p149).
  • But there is also another danger.  If the gospel is a new commandment, i.e. requiring faith and repentance, then is not the old commandment obsolete?  They quote the following, “History tells us, that it [antinomianism?] sprung from such a mistake, that faith and repentance were taught and commanded by the gospel only, and that they contained all necessary to salvation; so the law was needless” (p149).

In defence of their overall position that the gospel contains no command and that the law commands that we repent and believe the gospel the Marrowmen stated they could “adduce a cloud of witnesses beyond exception” including Burgess, Rutherford, Owen, Witsius, Dickson, Ferguson, etc (p149).

So, readers, are you neonomian, antinomian or do you take a large helping of Marrow with your law and gospel?

PS Of course the Marrowmen also recognised that we could use the word gospel in a different sense “taken largely for the whole doctrine of Christ and the apostles, contained in the New Testament” (p150).