Monthly Archives: October 2016

A Worship Catechism (1)

1. What is the great priority and purpose of man?

Man’s great priority and purpose is to love God with his entire being: heart, soul, mind and strength (Mk 12:29-30).

2. Why is this man’s great priority and purpose?

Loving with the entire being is worship: expressing the worth and value due to God (Ps 29:1-2). Man was created to express this glory (Is 43:3), as image-bearers (Gen 1:26-27), just as the entire created order is to reflect and magnify the worth of God (Psa 150, Rev 4:11).

3. Why should all creatures magnify God’s worth?

God is Beauty (Job 40:9-10). The Triune God is the perfection of all excellence in Being, the most delightful conjunction of all attributes of Deity, the quintessence of truth and goodness, and the most admirable and sweetest expression of this loveliness. This glory calls for the appropriate response of highest enjoyment and admiration (Psa 113:3).

4. Why should God delight in this worship?

God delights in His own glory above all things, knowing that the magnification of His glory is the greater good of all (Joh 17:24-26)

5. Why should man delight in this worship?

Nothing is more reasonable, and nothing is more profitable than for man to love what is most beautiful (Psa 16:11, Joh 17:13)

6. What is meant by loving God with man’s entire being?

To love God with the entire being is to love Him for Himself, not as a means to a higher love, but to delight and depend on Him ultimately (Ps 73:25).

7. Why should God not be loved as a means to another end?

God is the only God (Deut 6:4), the only One worthy of ultimate love (Ps 115:1) and not an instrument to some other love, for all things are from Him, and through Him, and to Him (Rom 11:36).


Gimme That Ol’ Time Religion

Religious music has long ago fallen victim to this weak and twisted philosophy of godliness. Good hymnody has been betrayed and subverted by noisy, uncouth persons who have too long operated under the immunity afforded them by the timidity of the saints. The tragic result is that for one entire generation we have been rearing Christians who are in complete ignorance of the golden treasury of songs and hymns left us by the ages. The tin horn has been substituted for the silver trumpet, and our religious leaders have been afraid to protest. It is ironic that the modernistic churches which deny the theology of the great hymns nevertheless sing them, and regenerated Christians who believe them are yet not singing them; in their stead are songs without theological content set to music without beauty. – A.W. Tozer, The Size of the Soul

Tozer wrote those words sometime in the 1950s. Sixty years later, things are not better. The trend has continued, carving a deeper groove into the valley of Tradition, till the ugly, atheological songs he spoke of now flow down into our liturgies unquestioned, as if from the mountains of the apostles themselves. Such shallow songs are now part of the approved canon of “good ol’ fashioned hymns” in evangelical and fundamentalist circles, while the truly great hymns are becoming relics, known by only a few.

How shocked some would be if they realised Tozer was condemning the hymns they cherish.
What are the “great hymns”, “the treasure of songs left us by the ages” Tozer speaks of? Judging by Tozer’s own anthology, The Christian Book of Mystical Verse, they are hymns such as “Ride on! Ride On In Majesty”; “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts”; “Jesus, I Am Resting”; “Not All the Blood of Beasts”; “O Love Divine”; “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”; “Sweet The Moments, Rich in Blessing”; “I Sing the Mighty Power of God”, to mention a few. As he states elsewhere, the qualities of a good hymn are “sound theology, smooth structure, lyric beauty, high compression of profound ideas and a full charge of lofty religious feeling.”

In contrast, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Gospel-song era produced songs of shallow theology, unimaginative structure, limerick-style rhythms, clichéd lyrics and sentimentalised emotion. These are what Tozer calls “songs without theological content set to music without beauty”. While not all Gospel songs are useless to devout Christians, probably a large portion of them are. Where did these imposter hymns come from?

After Charles Finney, revivalistic Protestantism increasingly attached itself to the pop culture of the time, so as to draw in the crowds. Popular culture grew out of Enlightenment secularisation, riding on the wings of technology. To embrace popular culture, the church was embracing secularism.  As it happened, the popular culture during Finney’s era was a particular brand of Victorian romanticism and this influenced the ‘contemporary Christian music’ of the 19th century. The hymns of Watts, Wesley, Montgomery and Tersteegen faded from prominence, the songs by people like William Doane, Philip P. Bliss, Ira Sankey, Fanny Crosby, and Charles Gabriel were brought in.

The Gospel song is easy to recognise: 1) a proliferation of religious clichés – “echoes of mercy, whispers of love”, “heavenly sunlight”, “footprints of Jesus”, “gather at the river” ; 2) hackneyed rhymes – love/above, story/glory, face/grace etc. ; 3) merry-go-round, fun-fair, nursery-rhyme melodies (think of the popular tunes to “Jesus is Coming Again”, “Praise Him! Praise Him!” and ; and 4) sentimentalised affections -“I Come to the Garden Alone”, “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart”, “Haven of Rest”, “Isn’t the Love of Jesus Something Wonderful?”. The popular hymnody reflected what Victorian sentimentalism stood for: the dreamy, clichéd, syrupy emotions and passions it lusted after were made to sound like Christian experience. The self-centredness of romanticism was made to pass for Christian devotion. It was really no different to what modern Christian rockers and rappers are doing today.

Unfortunately, the success of revivalists such as D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday, who used and further popularised the Gospel song, made sure that these sadly shallow hymns found a place in evangelical hymnody. Hymnbook editors, under pressure to include the massively popular Gospel songs, produced eclectic collections containing revivalist Gospel-song shanties alongside vastly superior hymns like “Holy, Holy, Holy”, “Come Thou Almighty King”, and “O For a Thousand Tongues To Sing”. The trend continues to this day. The results: the flattening out of quality, the blunting of the Christian public’s musical discernment and the demeaning of a once-lofty view of God.

But a century later, evangelicals and fundamentalists descended from revivalism have a hard time identifying some of their favourite “Great Hymns of the Faith” as being the target of Tozer’s criticism. Such hymns have become part of the movements’ identities. Such is the power of tradition. Fundamentalists criticise the worldliness of evangelicals who chase the latest popular musical styles (and rightly so); however, theirs is simply an older secularisation.

Unless we become reflective over quality and repudiate some of the shallow hymnody in our liturgy today, the inconsistency of our musical critiques will drown out any truth they might have. To denounce secularisation in Christian music today when the smell of the world is still very much lingering in our own liturgies all but robs us of authority to speak. Instead of merely nodding sagely at Tozer’s words, we need to understand they refer to us, and we need to repent.

Tradition in Trinitarianism

All Protestant believers descended from the Reformation recognise the primacy of Scripture to rule on all matters of faith and practice. We reject the Romanist view that Scripture is to be interpreted through the Magisterium, and the Magisterium through tradition.

Unfortunately, believers of our persuasion may mistakenly come to think of our doctrine as ‘tradition-free’. We may imagine that only Catholics use tradition for their doctrine; we biblicists need nothing of the sort.

This would be a profound mistake, and it would exacerbate the chestless Christianity so prevalent around us – churches without judgement. Understanding the crucial role of tradition in our judgement is vital for the health of the same.

Take the doctrine of the Trinity. Orthodox Protestant believers hold the doctrine of the Trinity as one of the fundamentals of the faith, and rightly so. But what does the Bible, by itself, teach on this doctrine?
1. The Bible teaches that the Father is God.
2. The Bible teaches that the Son is God.
3. The Bible teaches that the Spirit is God.
4. The Bible teaches that the Father is not the Son.
5. The Bible teaches that the Son is not the Spirit.
6. The Bible teaches that the Spirit is not the Father.
7. The Bible teaches that there is only one God.

Those seven statements summarise what the Bible explicitly affirms about God. Once we begin speaking of the tri-unity of God, of the three Persons united in one God, we have left pure exegesis and moved into systematic theology. Here the truth of what Scripture affirms and what it negates is harmonised and systematised. Those hyper-biblicists who point out that the word ‘trinity’ is not found in the Bible are correct in what they affirm, but wrong in what they deny. (The word Bible is not found in the Bible either – does that mean the Bible does not contain the Bible?) We always have to move beyond the biblical data and systematise it, arrange it, and explain it in light of other Scripture. And when we do this, we do not start inventing theological words out of thin air. We use words such as trinity, persons, essence, generation, spiration, co-eternal, autotheos, because these are words developed over the centuries to help explain the biblical data. They are part of a theological tradition. Tertullian is the first to begin using the word ‘trinity’. The Nicene Creed in 325, and its revision at Constantinople in 381, gives us a framework to use. The words of the Athanasian Creed summarise biblical data in theological form and tell us, “We can say this of God, but not that, we may say it this way, but not that way…” The post-Reformation confessions had nothing to modify when it came to the received Trinitarian orthodoxy of the Catholic church, and continue to use its categories.  We depend on this theological tradition to make sense of the biblical data.

In fact, the writers of these creeds went beyond systematic theology into the realm of philosophy. Using the categories of ousia (being, essence) and hypostasis (subsistence, instantiation), these thinkers borrowed from Greek philosophy to attempt to relate and explain the biblical data. God was one ousia (Latin = essentia), but three hypostases (Latin = persona). Every time you hear someone say that God is one Being, but three Persons, he or she is really relating an explanation rooted in tradition.

Now it happens to be so good an explanation that I doubt it can or will ever be improved upon. The explanation of the data has come to be known as Nicene orthodoxy, or orthodox Trinitarianism, and a deviation from it is rightly regarded as heresy. But my point here is that this explanation, while the best explanation of the biblical data, is a product of a long tradition of Christian interpretation, theology and philosophy.

Of course, no tradition is infallible. The tradition is always to be tested with Scripture. Where the tradition is clearly shown to be wrong (such as the tradition of baptising infants), it must be dropped. But without any tradition, you do not even have a starting point to begin the critique. You don’t even have a vocabulary to begin understanding concepts in the Bible. You have an avalanche of biblical data. Rather, you receive a tradition, and once in it, you are able to test it, and evaluate if it is faithful to Scripture.

We are deeply indebted to tradition. We rely on it so often it has become invisible to us. For the Christian believer, tradition is not authoritative, but it is indispensable.