Saturday, October 20, 2018

Source Review: A History of the Presbytery of Winchester

Iggy (short for Ignatius) is photobombing this
This is the third in a short series reviewing some of the books I have been using as sources for my upcoming study of the History of Presbyterianism in West Virginia.
Woodworth, Robert Bell. A History of the Presbytery of Winchester (Synod of Virginia). Staunton, VA: McClure Printing Co. 1947. 521 pp.

It’s a bold and presumptuous history book whose first sentence contains the word “autochthonous,” as in “American Presbyterianism is autochthonous.” I had to look it up. It means that that American Presbyterianism was not a seed transplanted from some other part of the world. It grew, all on its own, out of American soil as a uniquely American institution. That is not to say that the idea itself originated in America, but that its organizational fibers were from the start disconnected from any other organizational fibers. The thesis is that, although some European presbyterians may have helped build the foundations, no European Presbyterian organizations started American Presbyterianism.

The rest of the book continues in the spirit of Woodworth’s bold and presumptuous word choice. If you really want to follow along you have to look stuff up, not in dictionaries but on maps of counties, cities, towns, and properties. And you may want to have a notepad to write down names and dates so that you can check timelines to keep your place. Woodsworth doesn’t really tell the big picture story and then situate people, places, and events in the big picture. He jumps in with a list of the first pre-existing twenty-seven churches in the Northern Neck of Virginia and details the origins of each, obviously reflecting tons of research: names, places, dates, roads, rivers. The detail is both mind blowing and numbing. He has done primary source research in such minute detail that he is able to correct other historians of Presbyterianism in the Northern Neck (eg. Foote and Graham) who were confused about churches and locations and people in the 1700s: For instance, the other two assumed that the Potomoke congregation of 1719 was at Shepherdstown, while Woodworth believes they confused two congregations of the same name that were related by division, but were located many miles apart. The problem is that my eyeballs glazed trying to keep track of it all. I seldom knew whether I was in West Virginia or Virginia.  Without constant reference to a map, maybe even an old map, I seriously doubt I could follow along even if I had read every word. Eventually I found myself skimming just to collate the big picture.

Now that sounds very critical, but honestly, I am glad someone has done the work. I could not do what he has done. I lack the patience, time, and skill, but somebody had to do it. Now it is on the record for when that level of detail is needed. My purposes really needed a bigger story with more selective details in support of that story. If nothing makes sense without a map of (e.g.) the Northern Neck and Shenandoah Valley, then I am not going to get much out of it. But my respect for Woodworth’s research skills is immense. I know I could never do what he has done.

So I appreciate that he did the work for posterity’s sake, but I also appreciate something else. He frequently interrupts his microscopic details to provide insight into the church culture of the preachers, churches, and presbyteries of the 18th and 19th centuries--how they went about organizing churches, how they maintained churches when ministers were in short supply, how they expanded churches once they were started and divided out more churches, and how and why Presbyterianism started declining. Really valuable stuff. Ruminating on this stuff for a couple months has helped me organize a whole chapter in my own history. Fills in some important blanks for me.

I am thrilled that I added this book to my collection. Someday, when I know a lot more, I would like to read it with a map.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Spotlight on Eric Dugan and ERG Ministry Resources

In 2017, Teays Valley pastor Eric Dugan founded ERG Ministry Resources, which provides group Bible study materials that are Evangelical (E), in the Reformed tradition (R), and Grace-Based (G). ERG Bible study materials are unlike most resources out there for teenagers and youth groups. In fact, he started ERG Ministries to fill a gap: “Most study materials for teenagers are so topical, or broad or generic that it’s hard to distinguish between good and bad study materials. They are all kind of the same,” Eric says. “I saw a need for a curriculum that sets itself apart by being biblical, evangelical, reformed, and grace-based.”

To fill that gap, Eric began converting decades of lesson plans into study guides on books of Bible for use in youth groups and teen Bible studies. He says they are especially designed as a teacher’s guide, but they can be used by anyone as a Bible study tool. Dugan's entire catalog is available in digital or print forms through Amazon. 

Ephesians is one of Eric's best sellers.
As of now, Pastor Eric has published study guides on Judges, Esther, Nehemiah, and Ezra, and Isaiah in the Old Testament; and in the New Testament: Acts, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, as well as Colossians and Philemon. Each book contains anywhere from twelve to thirty-six lessons that explain the text and help teachers make application to young lives. More books are in the pipeline--he’s got five more planned for this year.

But Bible study guides are not all Pastor Eric has published. Notable on his list of publications is his book of Dad Jokes and Fractured Fables, which was recently spotlighted in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch. He has also published The Game Guide, which sounds like something every youth pastor needs. Its “hundreds of easy-to-run activities for all ages” are compiled from over three decades of youth ministry experience.

Eric Dugan has been an assistant pastor at
Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Teays Valley WV since 2012, where his pastoral focus has been Student Ministries. He is also very active in the New River Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America, in which he is an ordained minister and head of the Credentialing Committee. Eric grew up in Youngstown OH, but he has worked as youth pastor, camp director, teacher, special education teacher and counselor in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Mississippi, and West Virginia, among other places. He says he is really comfortable here in West Virginia, because he has spent so much of his life in various parts of Appalachia. “There are a lot similarities between the Youngstown and Charleston areas,” he says.

Some other interesting deets about Eric, besides the fact that he is an author: He has been a foster parent for several years. He got his bachelor’s degree from Geneva College and his seminary degree from Reformed Theological Seminary. His Amazon Author webpage says that “he can't dance, but he can sing. There is video to prove it. Sad, embarrassing video.” His church's website says that he likes movies and the Walking Dead, which must be important information to know about your youth pastor. 

While this writer cannot testify to Eric’s singing ability, he can say that Eric can write solid Bible study materials and somewhat less-solid jokes, which is what qualifies them to be Dad Jokes in the first place. And speaking of Dads: this writer is pleased to offer Brother Eric his congratulations, both to him and to his new son, whom Eric has been fostering for the last few months and whom he is on track to adopt sometime really soon, by God’s grace and for his glory.

You can connect with Eric @ERGMinistryResources on Facebook or by email at

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Source Review: The Story of Presbyterianism in West Virginia

This is the second in a short series reviewing some of the books I have been using as sources for my upcoming study of the History of Presbyterianism in West Virginia.

Wilson, Gill I. The Story of Presbyterianism in West Virginia. n.p., 1958.  172 pp. 

Bless its heart--this poor little book was very helpful in spite of itself. The Rev. Dr. Gill Wilson (1868-1962) published this book in 1958. The only way I know that is because the first few pages of the text refer to the "present year" as 1858. There is no copyright page and no listed publisher, which makes me think that it was probably self-published or otherwise independently published, maybe by the church or presbytery. And given the state of the manuscript, I would surmise that it did not have an editor.

Gill Wilson was the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Parkersburg, perhaps from 1919 to 1949, if miscellaneous notes in the internet are to be trusted. Wilson, by the way, was the father of the Rev. Gill Robb Wilson, who followed in his ministerial footsteps and also founded the Civil Air Patrol, and it looks like he might have lost another son in France in the Great War who was also studying for the ministry.

As I said, the book is poorly published. There are not any real chapters, only sections, and these are not set up according to any consistent outline or organizational pattern. The author states that he will organize the book one way on one page (15), and then another way on another page (25), and then he does neither. The table of contents lists sections that often do not match any headings on the designated pages, although the referenced subject matter might show up in the text on or about the those pages. The text contains dozens of incomplete sentences that amount to nonsense, and sometimes it contradicts itself. The book is full of facts, but nothing is ever really sourced. Apparently John McCue was sent to Lewisburg "in the early years of 1789" (17); and something is missing in the sentence, "In the Presbytery of Parkersburg the two streams, one from the Greenbrier, Kanawha Valley and the other originating in the Redstone Presbytery, and following the Monongahela River to its source, and the other moving west to the Ohio River, and moving down that river" (25). It seems likely that the text of the book was roughly put together and then published by someone without any real editing. Since it was published during Dr. Gill's ninetieth year, four years before his death, perhaps it was an unfinished work that someone else compiled from notes he had made and then published in his name. I have contacted the church for more information, but have not heard back.

The value of the book is in its efforts to record the history of the Northern Church after the split during the Civil War. It presents itself as a history of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. As far as I know, no other source tries to give the history of the Presbyterian church in West Virginia from an exclusively Northern perspective. This is consistent with the greater presence that the Southern church always maintained in West Virginia. While it does make rare references, perhaps out of a sense of shared history, to the Southern denomination and some of its churches, it focuses mainly on the Northern church almost as if it were the true and only Presbyterian church in the State. In the common presbytery-history-style, it gives a larger historical context and then focuses in on the micro-histories of individual churches grouped by contemporaneous presbytery boundaries. 

It is to be commended that this source alone dedicates a section to "The colored churches," even though it is not thorough or complete. It also includes some interesting information, somewhat randomly, on various church associated ministries--like Davis and Elkins College, which began with joint PCUSA, PCUS support; and mountain missions or social outreach programs.

The micro-stories of individual churches vary in quality from church to church, depending upon the quality of what the churches submitted. Some of them are nothing more than lists of names and minutes; some of them go into greater narrative detail, as if someone had tried to put a story together before submitting it. Whatever narrative editing ties all the micro-stories together does little to make them seem like they belong in the same book.  Other more loosely-related stories are occasionlly intermixed into the stories of the churches, almost like they were taken from the church newsletters, where "Sally So-and-So did such and such last week and reports back that she had a great time." 

Monday, October 1, 2018

Source Review: The Lexington Presbytery Heritage

This is the first in a short series reviewing some of the books I have been using as sources for my upcoming study of the History of Presbyterianism in West Virginia.
Wilson, Howard McKnight. The Lexington Presbytery Heritage. Verona VA: McClure Printing Company, 1971.

This book was gifted to me some ten years ago, before my interest in presbyterian history blossomed, by someone in the presbytery whom I cannot remember. At the time I was exploring the development of West Virginia culture, and he must have thought it would be of interest. It was a smiling providence, because this book became the starting place for my readings in West Virginia Presbyterian History.

Lexington Presbytery divided out of Hanover in 1786 with twelve ordained ministers who were responsible for the vast Virginia territory between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Ohio River. The presbytery was significant for West Virginia history because it mothered all missions west of the Alleghenies (in VA) prior to the establishment of West Virginia’s own Greenbrier Presbytery in 1838. After Greenbrier, the presbytery limits were mostly in and around the beautiful Shenandoah Valley.

The author, Dr. Howard McKnight Wilson (1900-1988) was a minister in Lexington Presbytery from 1926 until 1964, and served as moderator of both the presbytery and the synod of Virginia in 1961. He was educated at Union Seminary in Richmond and wrote several other historical works about the Shenandoah Valley. He served for a time as the pastor (and historian) of the historic Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church, whose most famous reverend was Robert Lewis Dabney. His writing appears authoritative, balanced in detail and flow, easy to read, and well-researched.

This book has three parts. In 72 pages, part one describes colonial, pioneer, revolutionary, and ecclesiastical contexts prior to and during the founding of the presbytery in 1786. The Presbytery itself does not enter the story until page 66. Part two (104 pages) covers the development of the presbytery up through 1970, with greatest focus on expansion during the Awakening, the divisions of the Schism and the War, and the reconstruction period. The final and largest portion (as I have discovered is customary with presbytery histories) gives micro-stories of dozens of individual churches by county, most of which were organized after my period of interest (i.e., the Premodernist theological era).

Even though the larger portion of Lexington Presbytery was originally in West Virginia, that was never really the book’s focus. Wilson spends most of the reader’s time on developments in the Shenandoah Valley and church relations east and north. By the time the book gets around to individual churches in the third part, the presbytery boundaries have been redrawn multiple times and the territory west of the Alleghenies is no longer under consideration. The flyleaves contain maps that show eight different fluctuating iterations of the how the presbytery borders have been redrawn at various times over nearly 200 years.

Still, the book gave helpful historical and cultural context and insight into details of particular interest to me, like early colonial and pioneer education, licensure, and ordination. And since no work (yet) exists that pulls together the whole presbyterial and denominational picture of West Virginia, this book lays out a necessary piece.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

A Unified Theory of Politics: Lord Government Almighty

The following is a repost from my old blog back in March of 2010. Reading this over eight years later, I think it holds up, except for maybe some ideas in the final two paragraphs where I think I was too generous to conservative politics.   
Quantum physics has led scientists to search for a unified theory of everything, i.e. a scientific theory that adequately explains all the properties of physical phenomena and predicts their experimental interactions. To date, they have been unsuccessful in spite of scientific advancements.

For nearly two decades I have wondered whether there might also be a unified theory that explains the apparent predictability of politics. For example, if someone is known to be a liberal regarding one social issue (e.g. abortion), there is a high likelihood he or she will also be liberal on many others (e.g. homosexual rights or environmentalism). Conservatives can be just as monolithic on the other end of the spectrum. Of course exceptions exist, but they do not entirely mitigate the predictable tendencies within political allegiances. To explain the predictability of politics, particularly of the liberal persuasion, I would like to posit that a Unified Theory includes a Unifying Moral Principle, a Unifying Worldview, and a Unifying Messianic Entity.

A Unifying Moral Principle: The Fairness Doctrine

Within the heart of every human being is an impulse that directs the moral values of the human race. The touchstone of this moral impulse is the Imago Dei. Having been created in God’s image, we have an inherent sense of right and wrong that more or less resembles the dictates of the Law of God (Romans 2:14-15). At the Fall of Adam, this reflection of God’s image was shattered and distorted. Though broken and imperfect, the image nonetheless remains and still reflects a vague impression of the heart of its Maker.

This broken moral impulse most frequently manifests itself in human societies through the concept of justice or fairness. Justice or fairness is the remaining radical moral impulse of fallen humanity. Justice requires a standard of some sort. The standard for fallen humanity is every person’s sense of self, or ego. By means of this standard, we determine what is fair or just, because we have a powerful notion of what we want for ourselves. We assume that if we would want it for ourselves, we should want it for others just as well. For instance, we do not want our lives or property taken from us, so we do not want lives or property taken from others. By this standard, we determine that things like murder and thievery are wrong.

We can assume that this ego-instrument was in some way an aspect of the Imago Dei, built into us by God’s perfect design. In a perfect, unfallen world, this sense of self would have served unerringly to direct people to do what was right. Knowing how real our own needs were, we would have lived with a constant awareness of others’ needs and, loving them perfectly, would have possessed an unerring standard by which to serve others.

We know that this is the case because when Christ redeemed those who believe in him, he brought them back to this radical moral principle. He clearly stated, “Love your neighbor like you love yourself.” Instead of encouraging selfishness, a redeemed self-awareness should keenly alert us to the reality of the countless egos surrounding us. Christ viewed this redeemed self-awareness as so reliable that he even restated the timeless Law of Love for practical application—“Do to others what you would have them to do to you.”

So the idea of justice and fairness is simply humanity’s way of applying the fallen ego-instrument. To those of us who understand the biblical concept of depravity, the ego-instrument almost seems counterintuitive. We know ourselves too well and have observed countless times our own selfishness running roughshod over everyone else on the way to assuaging our own desires. However, there is a sense in which the ego-instrument still works and should be celebrated, distorted though it may be, as a manifestation of God’s image in the entire human race. When we see people fighting from the depths of their hearts for justice and fairness, we can acknowledge that they would not fight so hard or at all were it not for the simple fact that they are God’s creation.

Humanity is fallen and depraved, however. So we can expect that its applications of justice and fairness would be skewed away from God. Humanity takes what was initially implanted by God, and because it was distorted by the Fall, misdirects it away from the perfect guidelines provided in the Law of God and implanted within humanity’s conscience. We should expect the result to be a severely warped notion of justice. Lacking the redemption provided through the Son of God, efforts to apply the ego-instrument would frequently result in misdirection, imperfection, injustice, imbalance, and evil.

We can see evidence of this radical moral impulse gone awry in human society, providing examples of good things somehow gone bad. It might have some semblance of nobility in its most basic form, but its misdirection by depravity provides for wrong applications and methods. Homosexuals march on Washington for equal rights, believing it unfair that they cannot marry like heterosexuals. Women fight desperately for the right to abort fetuses because it is unjust that someone else should have the power to tell them what they can and cannot do with their own bodies. Politicians redistribute wealth, power, and healthcare because it is unjust for the wealthy to have more money and resources than the poor. Environmentalists and animal rights activists anthropomorphize the created order and claim that animals and mother earth are treated unjustly. Nearly every act of government on behalf of its people, for better or worse, is rooted in this radical moral impulse that is built into the heart of every person. The issues or causes of nearly every charity, political action committee, or community organization have the concept of justice figuratively emblazoned upon a high-flying banner. This impulse for fairness exists even in the hearts of the most godless of people, though detached from its moral foundation.

Although this unifying moral principle beats within the heart of all humanity, it lacks a divine anchor. Nevertheless, it drives people to seek justice with near religious fervor. Somehow, even those whose morality is detached from its foundation realize that morality requires some sort of religious connection. Ecclesiastes teaches that humans were created with an eternal aspect to their being so that they constantly seek for answers to life’s ultimate questions. Some have called this the “God-sized hole” in the heart of every person. Ecclesiastes makes clear that apart from God humankind will not be able to tell the end from the beginning and the search for answers will be futile. Therefore the search continues incessantly, only in all the wrong places. This search provides the unifying moral principle with a frame of reference and a domain of application. I posit that this frame of reference and domain of application flows from a Unifying Worldview.

A Unifying Worldview: The Cult of the Created Thing

A worldview, in simple terms, is a way of viewing reality. For instance, some people view reality as if God did not exist, and this belief influences how they interpret the world and everything in it. On the other hand, Christians are fond of referring to what they call a Biblical worldview—one that presupposes the existence of God and the truth of Scripture. It purports to accept what the Bible says about reality and tries to integrate that into every area of life including work, entertainment, social experiences, family relationships, politics, etc. A worldview provides an ultimate frame of reference or a paradigm that makes sense of the world in which we live. Worldviews can be expressed or unexpressed, formal or informal, known or unknown, Christian or non-Christian. Regardless, commitment to our various worldviews manifests itself predictably in their domains of application. Worldviews are unifying.

According to the Apostle Paul, those who do not look to God for answers to life’s ultimate questions will seek for them within the only other realm they know—the created order. They seek to fill the religious void within them by means of things that have been created. “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). This explains why some cultures have been inexorably driven to worship idols made of wood and stone. Other cultures may not claim a specific deity but are still driven to give their most fanatical affections to elements within the created order. Apart from the true worship of the Creator, all religious commitments will inevitably aim at something less than the One True God. I have called these religious commitments the “Cult of the Created Thing.”

When the unifying moral impulse lacks a divine anchor, and when it combines with a lesser religious anchor such as the Cult of the Created Thing, it finds its realm of application restricted to the created order. Similarly, the means (enforcer) of application for the moral impulse cannot be divine, so it must also be restricted to the created order. This inevitably leads humans to seek for a unifying messianic entity that will enforce the unifying moral impulse within the limited domain of the unifying worldview.

A Unifying Messianic Entity: Lord Government Almighty

Apart from the redeeming power of God, mankind’s only effective means for forcing the unifying moral impulse upon other moral agents is entirely earthbound. Throughout history, the supreme moral enforcer in all cultures has been their collective authority organized as government. Apart from God and the Church, human government of some sort has always been the only available and effective enforcer of the radical moral impulse. In a very real sense, government is the religious deity of the Cult of the Created Thing. It is the messiah, the savior to which all must turn to enforce the fairness doctrine.

Once again, Christians should quickly see a good thing gone bad. Scripture teaches that government was ordained by God to be his servant, ordering society by his principles. Still, to a limited extent, government does indeed serve this purpose, preserved by his sovereign power and influenced by the vestigial shattered image that brokenly reflects God’s character. But a government that fails to anchor itself in the divine and limits itself to a Godless reality will display the effects of depravity at every turn. Its applications of the ego-instrument will swerve bizarrely away from the divine standard of God’s Law. It will view itself as messianic, as the only adequate enforcer of a fairness doctrine that is uninformed by God’s love. It will become, in effect, Lord Government Almighty, the only champion of the people.

The Unified Theory of Politics Applied

How then does this paradigm explain the predictability of liberal politics? I will now posit what readers might expect from a conservative Christian—some have progressed farther down a path of depravity than others. Their applications of the fairness doctrine are a grotesque mutation of the Imago Dei. They worship the created thing in forms like unbridled secular humanism and environmentalism. They place their faith and trust in a Godless messiah to enforce justice. With a little thought, it is not difficult to see how each thread of the Unified Theory factors into fanatical obsession with environmentalism, climate change, cap-and-trade, animal rights, homosexual agendas, extreme feminism, abortion rights, welfare, universal health care, government bailouts, and Wall Street salary caps, just to name a few. The notion of degrees of progress down a depraved path might also explain why some lie at each end of the political spectrum and why some fall somewhere in between. Those farther down a path of depravity may have more fully embraced the shattered moral impulse of the ego-instrument, the Godless Cult of the Created Thing, and a messianic view of government.

Are conservatives then unscathed by the depravity’s power? I think not. They may not have traveled the same path of depravity and might have been preserved by God’s common grace to a greater degree, but this a far cry from saying that conservatives represent what is right in the eyes of God. The greed of unrestrained capitalism, the supposed freedom of deregulation, the arrogant and evangelistic rectitude of democracy, the entitlement of inalienable rights, and the legalism of moral legislation are only a few of the conservative ideals that have been polluted by depravity. Conservatives, like liberals, still see government as a sort of champion, particularly with regards to moral issues. We suffer from the delusion that government would be fixed if only we would return to the supposed Christian principles of our Founding Fathers.

Depravity has impacted the entire political spectrum. This means that any government regime, regardless of its political persuasion, cannot be trusted to accurately represent God’s perspectives. At the same time, some people will take the country more quickly into moral decline than others. The solution to all this however, is not a simple democratic victory by the moral majority. They will not be able to legislate God’s Laws in a way that fixes the human condition, and they will not be immune from the deforming effects of depravity upon their own rule. The only power and authority to countermand the effects of depravity rests in the Lord Jesus Christ. There will come a time when government shall be restored to its original created intention. That time will not come until Christ rules within the hearts of all people everywhere.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Messing Up The Wills of God

Theologians (especially in the Reformed tradition) have found it helpful to distinguish between the Decretive Will of God and the Preceptive Will of God.1 The decretive will refers to God’s having decreed, for his own glory by his sovereign power and according to his infinite wisdom, all that comes to pass. The preceptive will refers to God’s revealed commands to his human creation. The first describes what God has done, is doing, and will do; the second, what God wants us to do. The first is generally secret, which is why we also call it his Secret Will. The second is revealed; hence we also call it his Revealed Will. Sometimes we also distinguish between these as the Will of Decree and Will of Command. The first is absolute and inexorable--it cannot not happen. The second is disregarded every time one of his creatures chooses to disobey him.

Although we sometimes say that the decretive will of God is hidden or secret (Isaiah 55:8-9; Deuteronomy 29:29; Romans 11:33-36), this does not mean that God has left us completely blind concerning his eternal purposes. God has not revealed everything, but he has revealed as much as he wants us to know in his Word. We know the big picture and many of the smaller details. Certain mysteries have been made crystal clear by glorious glimpses into his Secret Will through Scripture. For instance, we know the purpose of the incarnation and the crucifixion. We know that God planned all along to bring Gentiles into his chosen family through adoption. These were concepts hidden in the shadows of the Old Testament--they are definitely there, but were not as easy to see without the light of the New Testament. The New Testament has brought those mysteries out of the shadows and made them crystal clear. God has also given us bright glimpses in Scripture of what everything will look like in the end according to his sovereign decree: He will destroy evil, punish sinners, and bring his family into eternal fellowship with him in the new heavens and earth. He has told us about the doctrine of election, even though he has not told us who among all the lost are elect. The Secret Will is more or less revealed as God has seen fit to give us gracious glimpses into his purposes. Regardless, we can know all that he has revealed to the extent he has revealed it.

That Mysterious Third Will

What does not exist in Scripture is a third, unnamed will, which I will call the “Third Will.” The “Third Will” supposedly exists somewhere between the Revealed and Secret, barely perceivable only by those who are spiritually tuned in, like a whispering undertone within the consciousness--a still, small voice. It requires a high degree of mystical harmonization and threatens great penalties upon those who fail to accurately perceive or obey it: Those who do not find God’s will are at risk of missing God’s will for their lives.

This spiritually destructive view of God's will runs rampant due to unchecked Arminian influences upon many evangelical churches. It presupposes some violable plan not otherwise revealed in Scripture that exists as some mix of the Secret and the Revealed. It is often described as “God’s best for you.” The process of learning it is sometimes called “discerning God’s will.” Young people in these traditions are taught from an early age that one of the most important things they can do in life is discern God’s will (as if teenagers don’t have a hard enough time with everything that is clearly revealed).

Belief in this "Third Will" leads many to unbiblical assertions and unnecessary anxieties. We have all seen it in action. You have seen it when someone has said something like, “I just knew God was telling me to do such-and-such” or “God told me everything was going to be alright” or "I have finally found what God wants me to do with my life!" You may even have fallen for it yourself!

In my younger years, my experience with this mystical "Third Will" led me to spend countless hours trying to “read the clouds” for God’s will--listening for that still, small voice and searching my heart for a sense of peace. I even measured my spirituality (and others’) by how attuned I was to God’s “leading” through the Holy Spirit. One of my greatest fears was doing something wrong and shutting off my mystical pipeline, leaving me blind in the dark. I imagined that God had a will about nearly anything and everything (which shirt to wear, road to take, college to attend, job to take, person to marry, etc.). Failure to discern and act upon this will would lead me down the wrong path and mess things up. At one point, my future wife and I even fearfully broke off our engagement because of some nebulous “lack of peace” that I presumed was integral to the process of “discerning God’s will.” Thankfully God rescued me from myself and we eventually got married, Praise be to God!

Scripture simply does not support this idea of a “Third Will” that all Christians must discern and obey. Yes, it records that God directed people through miraculous, extra-biblical means; however it nowhere presents these means as normative. Those who believe that God does have a mystic “Third Will” need to demonstrate 1) that it is clearly taught in Scripture 2) to whom it applies, 3) by what verifiable means it is discerned, and 4) to what decisions it applies and does not apply. That is a tall order which I believe cannot be accomplished through any clear teaching of Scripture.

1 Some have suggested that this distinction under the category of will is not helpful, and that these distinct topics should be treated separately. However, I believe the discussion and distinction is pedagogically necessary because the error is in the end user's equivocation of the abiding English word for will.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

How Love is Superior to the Law

Only grace can transform the righteousness of Law on the outside into the righteousness of Love on the inside. However, both Law and Grace remain perfectly consistent. They will never contradict each other. Law remains holy, righteous, and good and its purposes continue unabated. Therefore, law and grace cannot ultimately be set against one another, in spite of appearances.

However, Love is superior to Law on several counts:

  1. It is God's righteousness within us--God's character becoming our own; transformation from the inside out rather than merely external compliance. 
  2. It is the end of the Law in the sense that Christ's redemptive purpose is to complete our transformation and to move God's righteousness from the outside to the inside of the human being. 
  3. It is both the fullest measure of and the fittest motivation for obedience, altogether in one thing. The Law is subject to other motivations and is an incomplete measure. 
  4. It fills in the gaps in a way no external Law could. No encodification of God's character can be complete. The infinite cannot be completely communicated to the finite in mere words. An external Law can never completely describe the perfection of the divine being in imitable ways. So rather than compliance to incomplete encodifications, God conforms character. By the way, efforts to fill in the gaps and produce compliance through man-made, external expansions of God's law is another kind of legalism. 

Love is what the Law is when it is no longer outside of us. It is the Law boiled down into a thick, delicious syrup, a concentrate of divine transformation. It is that summary of the Law spelled out by Moses and Christ--Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and being, and love your neighbor as yourself.