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Archive for June, 2012

I recently read a very troubling, yet extremely revealing quote in John Macleod’s Scottish Theology.  In the context, Macleod is  speaking of  the theological decline of the 19th century Free Church of Scotland and the erosion of confessional subscription in her ranks.  To illustrate the Zeitgeist of the time, he quotes a famous anti-confessionalist by the name of James Martineau, who apparently was an influential Unitarian.  It shows the essential grudge he and others had about the time-honored practice of ecclesiastical subscription to subordinate standards:

My protest is against a Church fixing its creed, i.e., against a prior generation of life tenants prejudging the convictions of a posterior and using their own rights to the restriction of their posterity’s.  I know well that to believe a thing true is to believe it immutable; that earnest conviction naturally excludes all suspicion of possible change and carries in it a confidence of spreading to other minds and attaining to universal recognition.  Within the limits of his proper rights I would have every man surrender himself freely to these impressions, utter them and act upon them.  But limits there certainly are to his proper rights in this respect; arising partly from the presence around him of his fellows within precisely similar feeling attached to different beliefs; partly from the certainty of successors whose faculties and opportunities are not his to mortgage.

Macleod then judiciously observes, “That is to say, men may think  for themselves that they have found the truth, but the Church must be ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of it” (Scottish Theology, pp. 316-17).

As if the quote were not damning enough, it bears a disturbing resemblance to the words of a famous Deist, Thomas Jefferson.  Writing to James Madison in 1789, Jefferson wrote:

I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’: that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by an individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society. . . . [thus] it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please.

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by B. B. Warfield

The Shorter Catechism is, perhaps, not very easy to learn. And very certainly it will not teach itself. Its framers were less careful to make it easy than to make it good.  As one of them, Lazarus Seaman, explained, they sought to set down in it not the knowledge the child has, but the knowledge the child ought to have.  And they did not dream that anyone could expect it to teach itself.  They committed it rather to faithful men who were zealous teachers of the truth, “to be,” as the Scottish General Assembly puts it in the Act approving it, “a Directory for catechizing such as are of a weaker capacity,” as they sent out the Larger Catechism “to be a Directory for catechizing such as have made some proficiency in the knowledge of the grounds of religion.”

No doubt it requires some effort whether to teach or to learn the Shorter Catechism. It requires some effort whether to teach or to learn the grounds of any department of knowledge.  Our children – some of them at least – groan over even the primary arithmetic and find sentence-analysis a burden.  Even the conquest of the art of reading has proved such a task that “reading without tears” is deemed an achievement. We think, nevertheless, that the acquisition of arithmetic, grammar and reading is worth the pains it costs the teacher to teach, and the pain it costs the learner to learn them.  Do we not think the acquisition of the grounds of religion worth some effort, and even, if need be, some tears?

For, the grounds of religion must be taught and learned as truly as the grounds of anything else.  Let us make no mistake here.  Religion does not come of itself: it is always a matter of instruction.  The emotions of the heart, in which many seem to think religion too exclusively to consist, ever follow the movements of the thought. Passion for service cannot take the place of passion for truth, or safely outrun the acquisition of truth; for it is dreadfully possible to compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, to find we have made him only a “son of hell.”  This is why God establishes and extends his Church by the ordinance of preaching; it is why we have Sunday schools and Bible classes.  Nay, this is why God has grounded his Church in revelation. He does not content himself with sending his Spirit into the world to turn men to him.  He sends his Word into the world as well.  Because, it is from knowledge of the truth, and only from the knowledge of the truth, that under the quickening influence of the Spirit true religion can be born.  Is it not worth the pains of the teacher to communicate, the pain of the scholar to acquire this knowledge of the truth?  How unhappy the expedient to withhold the truth – that truth under the guidance of which the religious nature must function if it is to function aright – that we may save ourselves these pains, our pupils this pain!

An anecdote told of Dwight L. Moody will illustrate the value to the religious life of having been taught these forms of truth.  He was staying with a Scottish friend in London, but suppose we let the narrator tell the story.  “A young man had come to speak to Mr. Moody about religious things.  He was in difficulty about a number of points, among the rest about prayer and natural laws. ‘What is prayer?,’  he said, ‘I can’t tell what you mean by it!’   They were in the hall of a large London house.  Before Moody could answer, a child’s voice was heard singing on the stairs.  It was that of a little girl of nine or ten, the daughter of their host.  She came running down the stairs and paused as she saw strangers sitting in the hall.  ‘Come here, Jenny,’ her father said, ‘and tell this gentleman “What is prayer.”‘  Jenny did not know what had been going on, but she quite understood that she was now called upon to say her Catechism.  So she drew herself up, and folded her hands in front of her, like a good little girl who was going to ‘say her questions,’ and she said in her clear childish voice: “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.”  ‘Ah! That’s the Catechism!’ Moody said, ‘thank God for that Catechism.'”

How many have had occasion to “thank God for that Catechism!”  Did anyone ever know a really devout man who regretted having been taught the Shorter Catechism – even with tears – in his youth?  How its forms of sound words come reverberating back into the memory, in moments of trial and suffering, of doubt and temptation, giving direction to religious aspirations, firmness to hesitating thought, guidance to stumbling feet: and adding to our religious meditations an ever-increasing richness and depth. “The older I grow,” said Thomas Carlyle in his old age, “and now I stand on the brink of eternity, the more comes back to me the first sentence in the Catechism, which I learned when a child, and the fuller and deeper its meaning becomes: “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”  Robert Louis Stevenson, too, had learned this Catechism when a child; and though he wandered far from the faith in which it would guide his feet, he could never escape from its influence, and he never lost his admiration (may we not even say, his reverence) for it. Mrs. Sellars, a shrewd, if kindly, observer, tells us in her delightful “Recollections” that Stevenson bore with him to his dying day what she calls “the indelible mark of the Shorter Catechism”; and he himself shows how he esteemed it when he set over against one another what he calls the “English” and the “Scottish” Catechisms – the former, as he says, beginning by “tritely inquiring ‘What is your name?,’ ” the latter by “striking at the very roots of life with ‘What is the chief end of man?’ and answering nobly, if obscurely, ‘To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.’ ”

What is “the indelible mark of the Shorter Catechism”?  We have the following bit of personal experience from a general officer of the United States army.  He was in a great western city at a time of intense excitement and violent rioting.  The streets were over-run daily by a dangerous crowd.  One day he observed approaching him a man of singularly combined calmness and firmness of mien, whose very demeanor inspired confidence.  So impressed was he with his bearing amid the surrounding uproar that when he had passed he turned to look back at him, only to find that the stranger had done the same. On observing his turning the stranger at once came back to him, and touching his chest with his forefinger, demanded without preface: “What is the chief end of man?” On receiving the countersign, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever” – “Ah!” said he, “I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks!”  “Why, that was just what I was thinking of you,” was the rejoinder.

It is worth while to be a Shorter Catechism boy.  They grow to be men.  And better than that, they are exceedingly apt to grow to be men of God.  So apt, that we cannot afford to have them miss the chance of it.  “Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

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In the previous post on building multi-generational churches, I focused mainly on the duties of parents and especially fathers.  On their shoulders, in large part, rests the future of the Church.  But of course, as we observed, the church ‘fathers’ must cultivate them, and so really it does come back to the teaching and ruling ministry of the Church at the end of the day.

The following extract from Samuel Miller (1769-1850) comes from his masterly work, The Christian Education of Children and Youth. In this passage, he urges one particular duty of church officers in raising up and retaining a godly seed for the Church.  It is the time-honored Reformed practice of pastoral catechizing of the youth:

It follows, of course, that the pastor who does not diligently attend to the religious instruction of the young people of his charge, is blind to the comfort, the acceptance, and the popularity of his own ministry. Why is it that so many ministers, before reaching an infirm old age, grow out of date with their people, and lose their influence with them? Especially, why is it that the younger part of their flocks feel so little attraction to them, dislike their preaching, and sigh for a change of pastors? There is reason to believe that this has seldom occurred, except in cases in which pastors have been eminently negligent of the religious training of their young people; in which, however respectable they may have been for their talents, their learning, and their worth, in other respects, they have utterly failed to bind the affections of the children to their persons; to make every one of them revere and love them as affectionate fathers; and, by faithful attentions, to inspire them with the strongest sentiments of veneration and filial attachment. Those whose range of observation has been considerable, have, no doubt, seen examples of ministers, whose preaching was by no means very striking or attractive, yet retaining to the latest period of their lives, the affections of all committed to their care, and especially being the favourites of the young people, who have rallied round them in their old age, and contributed not a little to render their last days both useful and happy. It may be doubted whether such a case ever occurred excepting where the pastor had bestowed much attention on the young people of his charge.

Such are some of the evils which flow from neglect on the part of the Church to train up her children in the knowledge of her doctrines and order. She may expect to see a majority of those children—even children of professors of religion—growing up in ignorance and profligacy; of course forsaking the church of their fathers; leaving her either to sink, or to be filled up by converts from without; turning away from those pastors who neglected them; and causing such pastors to experience in their old age, the merited reward of unfaithful servants (22-23).

Here is one big reason why churches, even Reformed ones, lose their youth.  The ministry has neglected catechizing.  Church catechizing, that is.  Much of the evangelical ministry today, sadly, has farmed out its duty here to ‘youth pastors’ – most of whom are often little better than glorified baby-sitters.  At best, it has delegated church education to pious, but unordained lay people.  But as Miller shrewdly observes, this passing on duty is also passing on a major opportunity.  An opportunity for the ministry to win young people’s minds to the principles of the church of their baptism, as well as an opportunity to win their hearts by sustained care and attention.  A profound insight indeed.

My mind here is taken to a beautiful mental image I have of the good Dr. Luther.   I can’t recall if it was a painting or something I read at some point – but forever irretrievable, I fear.  The master has gathered his pupils around him, and he is imparting a sacred lesson.  The little peasant catechumens are listening with rapt attention, and on occasion one is put on the spot to give an answer.   Here we see the embodiment of duty, of love, and of shrewd church policy, aimed at winning and at retaining the young.

We in the Reformed ministry must imitate our Saviour.  “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the Kingdom of heaven.”  And when we are done baptizing them, let us yet hold on to them.  Let us retain them in our hearts, in our prayers, in our attentions – and in our devoted, focused instruction of them.  And combining this discipline with godly parenting in the home, by the blessing of the Spirit, shouldn’t we hope to mend the breaches in Zion’s walls?

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