Posts Tagged With: Church History

What is Reformed Theology?

66719If, as William Ames put it, theology is the “science of living blessedly forever”, Reformed Theology is its most self-consistent and biblical expression. Forged in the ancient struggles of the church fathers against pernicious heresies, formed in the 16th century struggle to rescue the true Church from her Babylonian captivity, and bathed in the blood of the martyrs, it consists of a series of doctrinal loci (derived entirely from the sixty-six books of Scripture,) and their logical interrelation. It fits together as a seamless system, but no one particular doctrine overshadows the rest; the whole counsel of God in Scripture is summarized and systematized without any artificial construct or over-emphasis of one over the other. The starting point for theology is God Himself, and His self-revelation both general and special. From there His decrees are understood, and His means of carrying them out (in Creation and Providence.) From there we understand Man, the Covenants, the Fall, and Christ the Mediator. These loci are more or less expressed commonly by all the major Reformed theologians who wrote systematic theologies from Calvin to Turretin, Dabney and Hodge. They are furthermore clearly expressed in the Reformed confessions, as sources of instruction but also protection for the Church, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordt, the French Confession of Faith, the Scots’ Confession, the Heidelberg catechism, etc. Reformed theology has been tested and tried, and has corrected much false teaching in Church history. It must continue to be refined, but must never alter or remove those landmarks that have been established based upon careful reflection on the Holy Scriptures. Reformed theology is Christianity come to its own, its fullest and most consistent expression. It magnifies the grace of God over the pride of man, humbles the sinner, and comforts the penitent. It is powerful medicine to cure the spiritual condition of everyday people that we meet. It is motivation and an effective tool for evangelism. It is a powerful method of discipleship. It is what every true Christian would like to know and believe, even if they do not know it yet.

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How the West Was Lost, by the Presbyterians

320px-george_caleb_bingham_-_daniel_boone_escorting_settlers_through_the_cumberland_gap

The smallness of the Reformed/Presbyterian community of churches in comparison to the larger evangelical American context is largely a consequence of a failure to plant and maintain churches among those Scot-Irish Presbyterians who settled in the Appalachian mountain chain and kept heading west from there.  It’s no secret that the Presbyterians lagged far behind the Baptists and Methodists, not to mention new groups like the Cambellites, in planting churches where people had settled in the west. They saw the problem, and tried to remedy it by forming a Plan of Union with their Congregationalist cousins to the north for planting churches in the West.  It didn’t work.  Perhaps nothing more could be done.

It’s just that the Presbyterian/Congregationalist emphasis on an educated ministry slowed the rate of growth on the frontier based on the number of licentiates that were available.  Meanwhile the Baptists and Methodists would find a young man with gifts, give him a Bible, two or three more books, and send him on a horse off to preach wherever he found people who would listen.  Who could compete with that speed and agility and maintain doctrinal integrity?

If you trace the areas where the Scot-Irish and their descendants (who were almost all Presbyterian in the beginning) settled first in America, and shaped the culture that newcomers would find and assimilate into, it extends from western Pennsylvania down to the western Carolinas, and west from there through southern Ohio, south Indiana, sKentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, South Kansas, and the North Texas Hill Country. Not to mention that these people were dominant in the initial settlements all over the far west extending to eastern Oregon. Now imagine if the dominant Christian churches over this vast region were Presbyterian.

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“Francis Turretin” By Luke

turretin_Luke

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Independent Ministers In the Welsh Methodist Connexion

[Mr. Thomas Gray] lived among the Methodists and with them only he mixed.  Many ministers came over from the Independents in this way, the Rev. Benjamin Thomas being another example.  It was hardly considered that a formal reception was necessary for them.  Almost imperceptibly to themselves and to others, they slipped into their places within the Connexion.

Jones and Morgan, The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales, The Banner of Truth Trust, vol II, 198.

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Protected: Vasari’s Mural Commemorating the Massacre of Protestant Christians on St. Bartholomew’s Day

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Remembering Archbishop James Ussher

Arcbishop James Ussher (1581-1656)  is one of the most eminent, learned, and holy saints of church history.  Although he is often remembered for his dating of creation at 4004 B. C., he was much more than a historian.  It has been said that in his day, if all the Presbyterians had been like Samuel Rutherford, all the Congregationalists like John Owen, and all the Anglicans like James Ussher, they would have been able to find a way to be united in one fellowship.  All three were great friends and closer doctrinally than they were divided by the political matters that buffeted their day.  He’s a review I wrote of one of his most important doctrinal works a few years back:

Review of A Body of Divinity by Archbishop James Ussher

by

Riley Fraas

March 20, 2010 Archbishop James Ussher, A Body of Divinity: Being the Sum and Substance of the Christian Religion, Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007. This short, 450 something page systematic theology book comes with impressive accolades.  A. A. Hodge regarded it as the most important book for understanding the theology of the Westminster Assembly, noting that it was available to all of the Westminster divines.  I can easily see why one would say this.  Ussher’s doctrine as expressed throughout the book reminds me greatly of the Westminster standards, including its main points of emphasis, its ordering, its language and terminology, and its style.  This is an invaluable resource for understanding the theology of the Westminster Assembly for all of us who look back to the Westminster Assembly as a formative event in the doctrine of the church (especially we [who are among the] Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists.)  Although Ussher did not attend the Westminster Assembly due to his political loyalty to the King as primate of the Church of Ireland, he was invited more than once. The book is a question and answer format which enthralls the mind and begs not to be put down.  This format reminds me of the Larger Catechism.  It is very readable.  At the same time, it is absolutely packed with sound doctrinal truth in such a way that instead of making for hard reading (like some other theologians who are too concise and do not explain their points thoroughly,) Ussher makes theological points easy.  Yet he says much in a few words.  His phrases strike to the root of matters which he addresses and make deep truths appear self-explanatory.  I find Ussher’s quality of making hard doctrines simple for the reader similar to the effect I felt when I first read Calvin’s Institutes. Ussher’s theology is warm and overflowing with praise to God.  It has a devotional quality to it which elicits true piety rather than simply engaging the mind in a scientific fashion.  One of his strengths is that he expertly provides the biblical basis for nearly all of the doctrines he asserts, going to great lengths not only to assert points of doctrine but to show that they are based on God’s revelation in the Bible.  Therefore this book is very useful to explain the biblical basis for the doctrines expressed in the Westminster Standards, which echo Ussher’s theology but only provide a few proof texts as references without illustrating how those Bible texts prove the doctrine which they express.  A high point in Ussher is his discussion of the external and internal evidences that the Holy Scriptures are God’s inspired word.  This section has the effect of fleshing out and proving the truth of the Westminster Confession of Faith’s most magisterial summary of the evidences of God’s inspiration of the Bible. Ussher has an experiential emphasis which applies the system of doctrine taught in Scripture to the main duties of the Christian life.  He answers not only what a Christian is to believe, but what he should do in light of these beliefs.  He therefore gives a lot of coverage to practical matters of the church and the Christian life, explaining in greater detail those Christian duties which are set forth in the Larger Catechism. This book deserves to be considered a must-read by all Reformed Christians who have attained a little more than the most basic understanding of the truths God’s word, along with Calvin’s Institutes and the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Larger and Shorter Catechisms.  I am almost inclined to think that this book would be even better than A. A. Hodge’s commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith as a text for elder training in churches.  It is not strictly speaking a commentary on the Westminster Confession, since it predates the Westminster Assembly by a few decades.  However by reading this book one would get an excellent grasp of the theology in the background of the Westminster Assembly which became framed in the great confessional documents which that body produced. One assertion which has been made about Ussher is that he was a “hypothetical universalist” in the vein of Moise Amyraut or Richard Baxter.  However, Ussher’s Body of Divinity proves that this assertion is false.  For example, in speaking of Christ’s office of priest, p. 150 reads, “What is his Priesthood?  It is the first part of his Mediation, whereby he worketh the means of Salvation in the behalf of Mankind; and so appeaseth and reconcileth God to his Elect”, and on p. 153 we find, “What profit cometh by his Sacrifice?  By his most painful Sufferings he hath satisfied for the Sins of the whole World of his Elect, and appeased the Wrath of his Father.”  Without a doubt Ussher places the decree of Christ’s Mediatorship logically after God’s decree of election, so that God’s intention in Christ was to save his elect and no one else.  That Ussher asserts on the other hand that Christ suffered “the whole Wrath of God due to the Sin of Man[1]” is a common understanding in Reformed orthodoxy.  Expressed in other words it is to say that Christ’s death was sufficient to expiate the sins of all of humanity, but effective only for the elect, as Heppe notes, “That the satisfaction of Christ would be sufficient to atone for sin-guilt in all men, if the Father would let it benefit them all, is generally recognized.  Cf. e. g., Riisen (XXII, 11): ‘…the satisfaction of Christ might be said to be sufficient for the redemption of one and all, if it had seemed good to God to extend it to the world[2].’”  Ussher is manifestly in line with Reformed orthodoxy both before and after his time on this point, and so the assertions that he was a hypothetical universalist are unfounded. Ussher’s Body of Divinity is recommended with heartfelt thanks to Solid Ground Christian Books for making it yet again available to the general public (notwithstanding one or two disagreeably baptistic footnotes by the editor who takes issue with Ussher on the usual predictable subjects.)  Please do pick up a copy and read it for yourself. Buy Ussher’s Body of Divinity here.  [Currently 5$ in hardback!]

[1] Ussher, p. 153.
[2] Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, London: Wakeman Great Reprints, 477.
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Review of “John McMillan” by Dwight Raymond Guthrie

Guthrie, Dwight Raymond, John McMillan: Apostle of Presbyterianism to the West 1752-1833, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1952.

I have to admit that I love to read about the history of Christianity on the American frontier.  This book has added interest for me because it is all about the events that established and founded the region where I grew up.  The names of persons, places, towns, hills, rivers, creeks, schools, and churches described in this book bring back childhood memories for me.  It is written from a Christian perspective of admiration for the life and ministry of John McMillan.

McMillan was a man for his time.  He was an able preacher and theologian, yet Guthrie chiefly notes him for his indomitable strength of character.  McMillan was plainspoken, and could be bluntly direct in the way that he interacted with people.  It took a hardy soul to live, minister, and plant churches on what was then the western frontier.  Having studied at the legendary “Log College”, McMillan was pious, a preacher of the gospel, a maintainer of theological orthodoxy, a revivalist, and a concerned pastor.  Through McMillan’s ministry, several churches, two colleges and a seminary were founded.

This book contains fascinating descriptions of the lives, character, and culture of the people who first settled this part of the country, as well as colorful anecdotes.  The people of western Pennsylvania were under threat of Indian attack at any time, and they went to the meetinghouse to worship armed with their longrifles.  Guthrie notes that one particular minister was known for always checking his rifle prior to reading out his sermon text.  Often the ministers were not paid their promised salaries.  While there were some churches where the trustees willfully reneged on their obligation, at other times the people were under extreme financial hardship themselves and barely able to survive.  Guthrie relates a tale about one church unable to pay its minister’s salary.  It commissioned a couple of its members to take a barge full of newly-ground flour on a dangerous and risky voyage down the Ohio river to the Mississippi to the favorable market in New Orleans in order to procure the cash to pay their minister what they owed him.  Now that’s being resourceful!  Guthrie relates McMillan’s response to political situations, like that of the Whiskey Rebellion.  He was adamantly against the rebellion and refused to administer the Lord’s Supper until they submitted to the civil government.

All in all this book is an enjoyable read.  It will be of interest to those who would like to know more about the history of western Pennsylvania.

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6 Reasons to Read Pierre Viret: The Angel of the Reformation by R. A. Sheats

I’ve just had the pleasure of completing Pierre Viret: The Angel of the Reformation by R. A. Sheats.  This is the finest specimen of a spiritual biography that I can recall reading in recent memory.  Here are 6 reasons why I recommend that you read it.

1. It is an action-packed, page-turning thriller.  From conflicts with Romanists, Protestant magistrates trying to control the church, & ignorant parishioners, to empoisonment, to illness, to blessed fruit, to a surprisingly gentle character in the face of opposition, capture, and imprisonment, I just couldn’t put this book down.  The action is non-stop.

2. It is well-written.  Sheats writes with an effusiveness and expressiveness of style that can only come from being immersed in 16th century French literature for months without end.  Her English prose ebbs, flows, and punches.

3. It is doxological.  As a spiritual biography should be, it glorifies God in all things.  This book will drive you to your knees in thanks to God for His mighty acts in history.

4. It fills in important historical gaps.  Pierre Viret (1511-1571) is a name that is largely forgotten, but it clearly should not be.  Viret, along with the more famous Calvin and Farel together formed the triumvirate.  These three pastors worked closely together, were dear friends, and were used mightily in French-speaking Switzerland.

5. Pierre Viret is an inspirational figure.  Dauntless, courageous, always loving, gentle, and pastoral.  Here are some notable quotes from the author:  “If Farel was the Peter of the French Reformation, and Calvin was the Paul, without a doubt Viret was the John.”  “The only thing that holds me to my post is Him. –Pierre Viret”

6. The beautiful glossy color photographs on location in Switzerland and France.  They made me want to go visit all those places.  Now, I have to someday.  Honestly.

I won’t say that you must read it.  I will only say that if you don’t, you’re really missing out.

Order here.

Read my expanded book review on the Ordained Servant Online.

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Pastoral Letter 12/1/13

Greetings in the name of Him who came to save His people from their sins!

This is Pastor Riley Fraas.  As I type I can feel the leftover turkey and yams churning in my stomach.  We have much to be thankful for, and the upcoming Advent season gives us even more reason to be thankful, for it is this time of year that we pause to remember God’s gift of His Son Jesus Christ, God from all eternity, conceived and born in due time, predestined before the foundation of the world to come as the Savior of Sinners.

Although the Bible does not fix for us the date of the birth of Christ, Christmas is an ancient tradition in the Christian Church.  The date of December 25th began to be observed in Rome in the 4th century.  (The 4th century church father John Chrysostom notes that there was a longstanding tradition already in the Church that Jesus was born during the winter time dating back long before this time.)  Around the same period, in the Eastern churches of Greece and Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), Epiphany was starting to become a popular festival on January 6th celebrating Jesus’ birth, the visit of the wise men, and baptism by John in the Jordan River.  While the celebration of Epiphany spread westward, the celebration of Christmas spread eastward and southward to the churches.

nicholas   strikes arius detail

Nicholas of Myra strikes Arius at the Council of Nicaea; Fresco in the Soumela monastery, Turkey

In this period of time there was a great controversy in the Christian church due to a teaching of a preacher in Alexandria, Egypt named Arius that from all eternity “the Son was not.”  He taught that only the Father was the eternal God and that Jesus the son was a lesser god who had been created by the Father at a point in time prior to creation.  (This doctrine is similar to the teaching of some modern groups, for example the “Jehovah’s Witnesses.”)  Arius’ teaching caught on like wildfire because many people found it easier to understand and accept than the biblical teaching on the Trinity: One God in Three Persons (cf. Matthew 28:19.)  But God in His providence raised up great preachers to oppose this teaching, men like the Greek fathers Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and John “golden mouth” Chrysostom.  They knew that without a Savior who is both fully God and fully man, with two distinct natures in one person, there could be no reconciliation of a holy God with sinful man, and there would be no salvation.  These church fathers thought that a new festival on December 25th would provide a valuable opportunity to proclaim the truth about the person of Christ, that God the Son, being fully God from all eternity with the Father and the Spirit, took to Himself a full yet previously un-impersonated human nature, and became man, in the womb of the virgin Mary.  They used Christmas as a defense against Arius and his false teaching about Christ.  It was Gregory Nazianzus who said in reference to John 1:1, “What better way to celebrate Him who is the Word, than by preaching the word?”  Christmas caught on in churches all over the world as a time to hear sermons on the incarnation of Christ, and in the end, it was probably one of the great influences which wound up leading to the decision of the Council of Nicaea in favor of the biblical teaching on who Christ is.  (At the council, according to tradition, there was one minister from the city of Myra in Asia Minor named Nicholas, who is said to have struck Arius in the face during a council session when he said, “The Son was not” in an attempt to knock some sense into him.  Nicholas was defending the biblical doctrine of Christ being fully God, and was also known for being generous to the poor.  He is the origin of the “Santa Claus” stories.)  The results of this council were encodified in the Nicene Creed, an important and historical statement of the doctrine of Christ and the Trinity.

As we reflect on Christ during this season, let us be thankful to God for leading His Church to the truth about who He is, guiding her through history, and remember that salvation is only in Him who being God from all eternity, became man in the womb of the virgin Mary, was born in a stable, and continues to be God and man, in one person, with two distinct natures forever, the Mediator between God and sinful man.

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Calvin on the Ancient Church as a Model of Biblical Church Polity

ImageUntil now we have spoken of the order of governing the Church, according as it was left to us by the word of God alone.  We have also treated of the ministers as Jesus Christ instituted them.  Now in order that all of this be familiarly declared to us and imprinted in our memory, it will be beneficial for us to recognize what the form of the ancient Church was in all these things, considering that she is able to represent to us as in a mirror this instruction from God that we have set forth.

Jean Calvin, L’Institution Chrétienne, IV.IV.I.1

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