By Any Other Name?

single roseIn a previous post, I mentioned that I would be open to receiving and answering questions from the web ‘community’. The following is a query from my physical and spiritual father:

Is the word ” Reverend”…irreverent? Where did the word come from and why do some use it in churches and some do not…some ministers like it and some don’t? a Pastor recently told me NOT to call him ‘Dominee’ [dutch for Reverend?] because of its implications meaning ‘domineering’ he says.

First, the origin of Reverend is derived from the word Latin reverendus meaning ‘one who is to be respected.’ (source) This meaning certainly accords with the scripture’s command to “obey those who rule over you, and be submissive” (Hebrews 13:17) and “to recognize those who labor among you… and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (1 Thessalonians 5:13).

However, all words change over time and certainly the term ‘Reverend’ does not mean exactly the same thing today as it did back in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries from where it originated. In my understanding, today it simply indicates one who holds an official, pastoral position and so it functions more as a indicator of the office and calling in the church than it does of the character of the man. So, for example, I often sign my name to church correspondence as “Rev. Daniel Kok” to communicate the fact that I am writing something or ‘approving’ of something in an official capacity. It is, then, simply a useful designation without being a scripturally sanctioned title.

I rarely if ever use this title, though, to introduce or speak of myself because of the connotations it might carry, such as worthy of being revered (see Acts 10:26 & Revelation 22:9), or possibly, as per the Dutch example you gave, a misunderstanding of how much I like to rule the church with an iron fist!

But, as you noted, many ministers and churches do not use this ‘address.’ Some will cite Matthew 23:8-10 to forbid the use of any and all titles in the church. However, Rabbi, Teacher and Father are, clearly, titles given in place of our one Rabbi & Teacher (Christ) and Father who is God, as opposed to simply designating someone with a particular responsibility. For the context that our Lord is speaking of is that of pride (vs. 5,6&11,12) not nomenclature.

In addition, some Christians eschew formal titles because  they think their use exalts the clergy over the laity and thus undermines the “priesthood of all believers” (see 1 Peter 2:9). Wishing to avoid all divisions amongst believers they will call themselves “brother so and so” or simply have others call them by their first name. Personally I don’t have a problem with this as long as it does not descend into false humility (Colossians 2:18).

Yet scripture does show us positive examples where titles or designations may be used. Peter, for example, calls those appointed to oversee the church “elders” (1 Peter 5:1ff.) and Paul tells Timothy to appoint “elders” in every city. (Titus 1:5). Paul signs his letters as an apostle (2 Corinthians 1:1) and calls for the elders and overseers of the church to hear him (Acts 20:17). When Paul was taken captive said “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people” (Acts 23:5). All of these titles are used to identify those whom, as we noted above, are worthy of honor for their work’s or calling’s sake.

Furthermore the titles of  ‘Pastor’ ‘Elder’ ‘Deacon’ etc. are not made/created by man but given to us by God in His Word. Yes, these words indicate the servant ‘posture’ of these offices, yet at the same time identify those who have been chosen to serve in an official capacity and who, by the Spirit, possess real authority as representatives of Christ (Acts 20:28).


Singing Our Sadness

A wise elder in a congregation I once served told me that I should select the first song in worship to be a joyful song of praise. His concern was that I, having chosen a sadder song to begin our Sunday worship, would bring to mind and heart the feeling of a funeral service rather than the glad celebration it was meant to be. Thus the tone of the entire service would be ‘off’ from the very beginning. I appreciated his point and, to this day, have striven to follow this ‘rule’ for the order of worship. And clearly there are many  appropriate songs to choose that have aided me in doing so.

Since that time I have grown in my appreciation and reverence specifically for the biblical Psalms. One of the reasons for my attraction to them is their capacity to express a wide range of emotions that God has given us.(1) I was struck by the importance of this as I read a blog post entitled “Not Learning to Lament: Comparing the Psalms to Songbooks.” This entry highlights one of the chapters in a book entitled “Hurting With God: Learning to Lament With The Psalms” by Glenn Pemberton. In chapter 2, the author compares the content of the biblical Psalms with three modern hymnals. As as you can see in the graph below (taken from the blog post), the Psalms far outweigh the hymnals in terms of expressing lament:

Psalm compared to Songbooks

The author of the post states: “Note that 40% of the Psalms can be classified as lament. The three songbooks don’t even crack 20%. And two of them don’t crack 15%.”

Now, why should we care about this? Why should this be of interest to congregations who regularly sing from hymnals? One way to answer these questions is to reflect on life itself: are we always happy? Are we always cheerful? Is there a biblical command that we always have a smile on our face and possess “joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart”?

Now it is true that many professing Christians would have us believe these things. Some have even built their ministry on insisting that every Christian always be happy, healthy and successful. To be anything less, in their mind, is to not be living the blessed life that God wants for us. But this is not the biblical teaching, nor is it the Christian experience. Rather, as we have sadly discovered, much of our lives is an experience of suffering, sadness and sorrow. Sometimes it seems to be nothing but trial and difficulty. And if we are to walk, with these troubles, into the sanctuary and be told in sermon and song that being a Christian means always being happy, well what would or should we do? It seems to me that the only options would be: 1) to leave for one would take from this that they must not be a Christian as their emotions and experience do not match with what they are being told they should feel) 2) to stay and hope against hope that I can get that happiness eventually or 3) to conclude that what I being sold is truly poor comfort in light of my pain and suffering.

And so this leads us back to the biblical Psalms, for as the graph above indicates, God, in His infinite wisdom, has given us a song book that perfectly reflects, in so many ways, the trouble in our hearts and lives. And not only does it reflect our true experience in this sin and death cursed world, it also gives us the appropriate words and feelings in order to express these troubles in a godly fashion. For, after all, it is possible to express our lament in an ungodly fashion. The scriptures warn us, for example, about bitterness, which often comes out of a heart that is suffering some trial or difficulty (consider Naomi in Ruth 1:20). And clearly our sadness or disappointment in God must not to come out in anger and hostility against Him (as was Israel’s complaint in Exodus 16:2-3).

So instead of singing our lament out of unbelief (Hebrews 3:12), we may sing in faith about whatever troubles or trials the Lord, in His wisdom, has sent our way, by singing the divinely approved songs for that purpose. Yes, we may lament and cry out to the Lord knowing that He hears us (Psalm 86:5-7).

And let no one conclude that this is only for Old Testament Christians, as if the New Testament did not reveal that Christians suffer just as the saints of old did (1 Peter 4:12ff.; Hebrews 10:32-35; 12:5-11). For did not our Lord Himself give approval of this ancient practice, when He cried out, in the midst of His intense suffering and pain on the cross, the very words of David from Psalm 22:1? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

1. I cannot improve on John Calvin’s words about this matter so I will simply quote them here (from his preface to his commentary on the Psalms): “I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated” (emphasis mine).

Christ Jesus Came Into the World to Save Sinners (2)

MIS85-2TAs a follow up to this post I wanted to note that Rosaria Butterfield and the pastor who (by God’s providence) led her to Christ have recently been interviewed here. As Mrs. Butterfield states in the interview, the book that resulted from her conversion was written for believers. As I noted, you would do well to purchase it and read it. You may also view more resources at her website:

Despite all this, I would caution us from being too captivated by this story and the ‘media’ that arisen as a result of her conversion. Now don’t misunderstand me: I do not doubt that Mrs. Butterfield’s conversion is of God, nor do I think she has done anything wrong by writing a book and promoting it. In fact I think she is doing a service to and for the Christian community and I applaud her for it. Rather, I caution the reader from being entranced by a conversion account, instead of the God who saves. We are to give glory to God for His Son, whom He has sent into this world to save fallen, wrecked and ruined people (you and I). In light of that, all His conversions are glorious and worthy of praise. Why, don’t the angels praise God every time even
just one sinner is saved? (Luke 15:10) We can and should do no less.

Idolatry and Immediacy

“Idolatry, taken in its broadest sense,
is born of the human need for a God who is near.”
(Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1, page 326

As we saw in our last post, Bavinck distinguishes between general and special revelation: whereas the former refers to God’s self-revelation in creation, the latter refers to God’s self-revelation in a supernatural way (i.e. something not found in the created order).  The Christian faith, he notes, believes that God has revealed something of Himself in creation but has especially made Himself known to fallen man in the special revelation of Holy Scripture.

However, he reminds us that Christianity is not alone in its reliance upon a divine book or claims of heavenly messages that guide the faithful. For “[h]istory teaches us that not a single religion can survive on general revelation alone” (Volume 1, Chapter 11, page 324). This belief in divine revelation manifests itself in historical religions in three ways: 1) the desire for a god who is near and not far away 2) that gods make know their thoughts and will to man & 3) that special intervention and divine assistance from the gods is available to man in times of distress (as summarized from page 326).

What then, according to Bavinck, distinguishes Christianity’s and other religion’s understanding of special revelation? Or what makes the Bible so special?

“In pagan religions it is human beings who seek God (Acts 17:27). In every way they attempt to bring God down to themselves and into the dust (Romans 1:23), and by all kinds of methods they try to achieve power over God. But in scripture it is always God who seeks human beings. He creates them in his image and calls them after the fall. He saves Noah, chooses Abraham, gives his laws to Israel. He calls and equips the prophets. He sends his Son and sets apart the apostles. He will one day judge the living and dead. The religions of the nations, on the other hand, teach us to know human beings in their restlessness, misery, and discontent but also in their but also in their noble aspirations and their everlasting needs – human beings both in their poverty and riches, their weakness and strength. The noblest fruit of these religions produces humanism. But Holy Scripture teaches us to know God in his coming to and search for human beings, in his compassion and grace, in his justice and his love.” (emphasis mine – Volume 1, Chapter 11, page 327)

As Bavinck notes, in the quote at the top of this post, the human need is for the divine to be near to him. But because man is sinful and thus twists God’s general revelation to suit his needs, he makes a god or a faith based on his need: this is what scripture calls idolatry. The only way out of this morass is to believe in God who, as Bavinck notes, came to us and promises to fulfill our greatest needs and desires: not by being whom we want Him to be but by meeting our needs even when we would not have sought Him out on our own (Romans 3:10-11 & 5:8-11). That is, those in the scripture record & church history who have truly found God, discover that it was not they who were seeking Him, but He who sought them. As John says: “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

The special revelation of the scriptures, therefore, it is not merely an outward gift (a book to be read) but also the inward testimony of God’s implanted word that changes and remakes us (1 Peter 1:22-25). May we therefore praise our God, who is always near in that Word: to comfort, to bless and to help us.

Reformation and Revelation

“Ideas have consequences.” When we make that statement we usually are speaking negatively about how our thinking impacts our lives. But  it is also true that ideas, if they are correct, change us for the better: and not merely only our thoughts but our lives as well.

Bavinck spends a lot of time in his Dogmatics contrasting the Reformed view of theology to other views in the Christian tradition. He does so, I believe, not because he thinks that Reformed Christians are better or superior to others (in fact there are many times in the “Reformed Dogmatics” where he freely critiques his own theological tradition). Rather he understands that the Reformation itself was a life changing event for the world in which it took place.  It did make us better Christians.

One of the things that the Reformation changed was, he notes, “the way supernatural revelation was viewed. Supernatural revelation did not, in the first place, mean that it belonged to another order and surpassed even the intellect of sinless human beings and angels. Rather, this revelation was supernatural primarily because it far exceeded the thoughts and wishes of sinful fallen human beings.”(Volume 1, Chapter 10, pages 304-305)

Thus the 16 century Reformation revealed a serious error in the medieval worldview that preceded it. Instead of the problem with creation being creation itself, the Reformation forced us to see that the problem was sin, “which as an alien element has insinuated itself into the world” (Volume 1, page 361). Christ’s coming into the world, as well as the grace that He offered to all men was not an attempt by God to elevate man over nature (of which he was a part) but, by grace, to redeem nature from its corruption.[1] Thus we did not need supernatural revelation because natural revelation was inherently bad but because man is inherently bad and resists God’s truth in creation (see Romans 1:18ff.).

In essence this meant that God’s natural revelation (God speaking to us through creation) was not contrary to or even less important than God’s supernatural revelation (the Holy Scriptures and the Gospel). Though, as Bavinck notes, we rightly distinguish the two, we do not separate them. To separate them, or even to elevate one over the other is to charge God with error or confusion (speaking out of both sides of His mouth). Instead, the Reformation helped us to see how natural and supernatural revelation are compatible and mutually dependent on one another because they come from the same source: God

For example, to speak of God as Creator of all things is not only a natural reality insofar as God’s creation reveals truth about Him and the world He has made (Psalm 19:1ff.) but also a supernatural reality insofar as God’s Word reveals more truths about Him, say for example, the Trinity and the person and work of Jesus Christ). Far from contradicting or undermining what creation teaches us about God, the Trinity and the person and work of Jesus, as revealed in scripture, ‘conform’ to the pattern of creation since God the Father sent His Son into this world to restore it (not to destroy it). He took on our flesh because He wanted to redeem our flesh. Again, sin complicates this revelation, for we understand that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, but this judgment is meant to purify the world of its sinful elements or remnants, but not to overcome something inherently evil or less holy in creation itself.

So Bavinck applies this principle of harmony between God’s natural and supernatural revelation by pointing out that advances in reason, science and the like are not to be rejected by Christians simply because they might come from worldly sources but rather should be encouraged and even welcomed by us. Of course, this does not also mean that we welcome every pursuit of knowledge and thus let our guard down as if the antithesis between darkness (sin) and light (holiness) no longer exists. Sin has corrupted and is still corrupting our fallen minds and hearts. Rather, human pursuit of the truth must be sought in both realms of God’s revelation. Therefore, most errors come about when we look at one source of truth to the exclusion of the other.

But let us also see that the Reformation’s understanding of revelation was not just for the academy or laboratory. As we noted, it has consequences for people’s lives. So, in terms of every day living, the Reformation taught that it was not sinful or wrong, or even less righteous  to be a priest or a servant of the Church when every man, woman and child was appointed to be a priest in their various callings (Exodus 19:6 & 1 Peter 2:5-9). It was not more spiritual or holy to be celibate because marriage is of God before the fall and after the fall (Genesis 2:21-25 & Ephesians 5:22ff.). It was not more spiritual or holy to not have children because having and raising children is designed of God (Genesis 1:26ff.) and can also be a holy calling (Ephesians 6:4 & 1 Timothy 2:15).

See? Ideas have consequences. So let us hold to the best ones and give God the glory. For whether from scripture or creation, they all come from Him.

[1] So much so that Bavinck later states: “Nature precedes grace; grace perfects nature.” (Volume 1, Chapter 10.5, page 322).