A Satirical Response to Mark Jones’s Post on the Reformation 21 Website Entitled:
“Singing God’s Words or Man’s Words?”
by Pastor Dave Reese (Springs Reformed Church, RPCNA)
Years ago I was asked the following question by someone who holds to exclusively using the Bible alone for public readings in worship: “Do you think it is better to read God’s words or man’s words?” My answer: we should never read man’s words. But I say this as someone who would read sections of great Christian literature as public readings in worship (i.e. Calvin’s Institutes).
As much as I love Douglas Bond novels or Eugene Peterson devotionals many Christian novels and inspirational books simply cannot be compared to God-breathed Scriptures! When I am depressed or miserable, I turn to the Bible. It is the marrow of my never-dying soul.
Nonetheless, with some trepidation, I believe that exclusively using the Bible for the public readings in worship has certain limitations. Believe me, you do not want to walk down a dark alley with a book by Francis Chan or the PCA’s BCO in your hand and bump into a couple of guys who hold that you should only be reading from the Bible in public worship! They are as zealous for the Bible in worship as the TRs in the PCA are for blue blazers and Banner of Truth conferences.
So are the inspired words of God in the books of the Bible to be preferred over man-made texts in corporate worship? Should we give up reading Into the Word in worship and replace it by just limiting ourselves to the Word?
Quite apart from the fact that many Christians in the past and present do not hold that you should use only the Bible for public readings in worship, I believe John Owen allows us to answer the first question I raised above in a manner that might enable those opposed to reading just the Bible in worship to understand why we have readings from other sources outside of the Bible.
We do not only believe that the Word of God is binding on us, but the inferences and meaning are also binding. Not only what the Scripture says, but also what it means is infallible.
Here is Owen’s argument:
“For if it is unlawful for me to speak or write what I conceive to be sense of the words of the Scripture, and the nature of the thing signified and expressed by them, it is unlawful for me, also, to think or conceive in my mind what is the sense of the words or nature of the things; which to say, is to make brutes of ourselves, and to frustrate the whole design of God in giving unto us the great privilege of his word.”
Thus, for Owen, as we declare the truth of the Trinity, “we may lawfully, nay, we must necessarily, make use of other words, phrases and expressions, than what are literally and syllabically contained in the Scripture, but teach no other things.”
Words such as “substance”, “essence”, “person”, and “trinity” are all words that are lawful to use. But Owen goes further. If these words convey the sense or meaning of the Scriptures, including the nature of God, may we express the truth of God in the following words, “God is one essence in three persons”? If so, then this sentence is God’s truth.
This is where Owen’s argument becomes hugely important:
“For howsoever the lines be drawn and extended, from truth nothing can follow and ensue but what is true also; and that in the same kind of truth with that which it is derived and deduced from. For if the principal assertion be a truth of divine revelation, so is also whatever is included therein, and which may be rightly from thence collected. Hence it follows, that when the Scripture reveals the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to be one God, seeing it necessarily and unavoidably follows thereon that they are one in essence (wherein alone it is possible they can be one), and three in their distinct substances (wherein alone it is possible they can be three), this is no less a divine revelation than the first principle from whence these things follow.”
Those words, “this is no less a divine revelation than the first principle from whence these things follow,” are hugely significant for me in my own thinking about the way one does theology. Perhaps “divine truth” would be more appropriate than “divine revelation,” but I agree with his general point.
Are there readings that are divinely true because they convey the accurate meaning of God’s word? If they accurately capture the sense of Scripture then we are dealing with God’s truth, and not merely “man’s words.” The truth of God’s word gives rise to truth:
“I think God is really way bigger than all other powers in the whole wide world. I think He could snuff every bad guy on the planet if He wanted to right now. And Jesus is God also so He could too.”
“God is the holy Creator. He created donkeys and every rock that is in existence. He picked the color of the sky and therefore it is blue because He wanted it to be blue. Jesus and the Holy Spirit also participated in creation and they wanted to the sky to be blue also.”
What shall we say about these readings?
- Saying things like those that are said in the paragraphs above, which contain God’s truth (not merely man’s words) enables me to distance myself from a Jew or a Mormon who would likely read the Bible with me. But, they cannot affirm the last line of those two paragraphs above, which is why the Mormons have their own readings.
- Publicly reading things like Calvin’s Institutes provides the church with an excellent tool to convey, state, defend, and enjoy the truth of God’s word in a manner that even preaching and praying cannot. There is far less chance for error in selecting a biblically true section of Knowing God than a sermon and prayer. After all, how many “pastoral prayers” ask God to “just” do this or “just” do that, and then go on to ask a whole bunch of other things he can “just” do. And how many sermons are riddled with some interpretative error?
- I think we can refer to public readings of Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcomed Guest? during the worship service as reading the “words of God” on the same grounds that Paul referred to his own preaching as the word of God (1 Thess. 2:13).
Of course, there are words in many Christian books that are untrue. “Justified on the basis of the whole life lived” from the book, What Saint Paul Really Said is not read in our church. There are many imperfect older theological works and in modern Christian literature. Quite what “That isn’t to say my wife writes the pastoral prayers, by the way, since I allow myself to be ‘blown by the Spirit’” means, I have no idea. Good Morning, Holy Spirit by Benny Hinn has words that make me want to vomit. And John Owen’s point about the truths of Scripture being able to be stated in words other than biblical words: What does “this is no less a divine revelation than the first principle from whence these things follow,” mean? Theological statements are to give the true meaning of Scripture, not leave us needing another statement to interpret the statement.
Fortunately, I can deal with these errors by not allowing them in the order of worship. (That isn’t to say my wife writes the pastoral prayers, by the way, since I allow myself to be “blown by the Spirit”).
In summary, the first question raised above puts us on the horns of a false dilemma. The real question should be:
Must we confine ourselves to only God’s words in the public readings during worship or can we also read uninspired men’s writings, which articulate the true meaning of God’s words?
I’m off now to a worship service with my congregation in which I will read Morning and Evening, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology as the “infallible”, “words of God” for the public readings (1 Tim. 4:13).