A Plea To Read

 

…OR, THE STORY OF A BOY, A REPAIRMAN, AND THE TRUTH

In the title I promised you a story. Actually that was mainly to draw you in. I figured stories sell more magazines. But it’s not entirely untrue. I want to start with a couple of stories. They happen to be autobiographical.

The first story starts at about grade 3, around the age of 8. You may think that my qualification for making a “plea to read” is my current calling as pastor, or my (excessive) years of education before this. But that’s not really it. That’s not really why I agreed to share this article about reading. Instead, the story begins, once upon a time, when I was 8. That was the year I discovered reading, or at least my passion for reading. In the years that followed it became my number one activity. I was almost always reading, probably at an unhealthy level.

You want to know why I say that? Well, my parents would often ignore my lengthy birthday or Sinter Klaas lists and buy me things I didn’t ask for and, truth be told, I didn’t necessarily want. I asked for the next book in a series; they bought me a hockey stick. I asked for the first book in a new series; they bought me a Lego set.

Actually, we used to have a cartoon on our fridge. I think it was from Punch Comics. One of my siblings stumbled across it, cut it out, and posted it there. It’s a sketch of a family gathered around a television set in the living room. Two ladies on the couch are talking to each other and looking rather concerned about the boy in the foreground who’s curled up in a chair reading a book, oblivious to the rest of the family. The caption at the bottom reads, “We’re rather worried about William.” I kid you not. That was the name. Google it if you don’t believe me. It doesn’t quite work because we never had a TV in the house, but you get the picture, I think.

So that’s where this story begins. My plea to read is in part a plea for you to join me in the best hobby there is.

A dog-eared copy of Reformed Dogmatics

But that’s not a terribly convincing appeal. That comes in the next story (I hope). We have to jump forward about twenty years to what was one of my more embarrassing moments in recent years, which for some reason I’m sharing publicly with you all.

You have to try to imagine the scene with me. I was in first year at the seminary at the time. And you have to know that first year seminary is that stage where you feel like you know everything. You have an opinion on everything. And you want to fight about everything. Things change after four years. Thankfully… and by the grace of God.

Well, we were back home in Richmond Hill for the weekend. We got invited to my wife Diane’s Opa and Oma Kampen’s for dinner (don’t tell them I told you this story) and we were sitting around waiting for dinner to be ready and chatting and what not.

Now, before I continue, I have to give a quick character sketch. Opa Kampen is retired now, but he was an appliance repairman all of his years in Canada. I’m not sure when his education stopped, but he definitely didn’t have anything like the years of education that I had at that point.

So, anyway, we’re talking together about one thing or another, and suddenly the conversation shifts. I don’t remember why anymore, but rather unexpectedly Opa asked me whether I favoured Infralapsarianism or Supralapsarianism. Remember, I was the first year seminary student and he was the appliance repairman.

I don’t remember why it came up, but I definitely remember my reaction. Vividly. I started sweating. I had heard those words before, but I had almost no idea at that point what they meant, let alone which one I leaned towards. I thought, here we go, Opa’s about to expose me as a complete fraud. My education has meant nothing! I was tempted to slip out quickly to the bathroom so that I could Google it, but there was no time. I actually don’t even know what happened in the end, but that moment of panic has stuck with me.

So why am I sharing this story? Well, to me it illustrates a change over the years in terms of our investment into reading and educating ourselves in Reformed doctrine. Gone are the days when your appliance repairman read through Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, in Dutch or in English. Gone are the days when you can expect men nominated as elders or deacons to have invested significant time into studying Reformed doctrine over and above their catechism instruction as young people.

Now, before you get up in arms, I’m not saying there are none of these. I’m just saying that with the younger generations this breed is not as common. And I’m indicting myself with this too. I was a deacon before coming to seminary. Well, if that’s the case with those being put up for church leadership, then how about the other people in the pew?

Before I continue, I should add a disclaimer. My comments here are completely unscientific. My doctoral supervisor would never forgive me for my poor research. I haven’t crunched any numbers or done any surveys. I’m basing this on my experiences as an office-bearer, both before and after I went through seminary. If you have a more positive outlook, I’d love for you to convince me. But right now, this is my article, so you’ll have to bear with me.

So why should we care? Why should I make this plea for us to read more widely and more deeply today, in the 21st century? Let me devote the next half of this article to exploring an answer to that question.

Theologians should read (and we’re all theologians)

Well, first of all, everyone is a theologian. (If you’re on Twitter, you might want to tweet that, although I certainly can’t take credit for coining the phrase, so don’t quote me). Everyone is a theologian. Even the atheist is a theologian. That’s because theology is, essentially, thoughts or words about God. And the atheist has thoughts about God. Now, his thought happens to be that God doesn’t exist – and he happens to be wrong – but that still makes him a theologian.

So, if we’re all theologians then the important question is what kind of theologians are we going to be? You see, the problem with the atheist isn’t that he’s a theologian, it’s that his theology is coming from the wrong source. If we don’t study theology from the right sources – if we don’t allow our thoughts and words about God to be shaped by the right sources – then our theology is going to be shaped by the wrongsources. If we don’t consciously do theology – that is, if we don’t consciously train our minds in the knowledge of God – we’re going to end up basing our theology either on our own experiences and our own feelings or on whatever else we happen to be taking in.

Because we are reading. Maybe some of us – and I’m talking especially about my generation and younger – are reading more than ever. I’m thinking of social media. Don’t tell me you’re not a reader if you’re on Facebook or Twitter. Maybe those who only use Instagram, which focuses on pictures, can have a legitimate claim not to be readers, but the other social media users can’t. [1]

But the problem with only reading online, and not engaging in books, is that by its very nature the online world tends towards the superficial. Let’s think specifically of theology – of the study of God. If your thoughts are shaped by your reading of little quotes that someone decided to share, taken out of context, written by who knows who, or if all you read are the musings of someone who is just “feeling philosophical” (as the Facebook status often says) then you can’t expect anything but superficial knowledge.

That, I think, is the biggest danger with losing our interest in reading deeply and studying deeply the doctrines of God found in his Word. We end up with an overall superficiality in terms of our theology, what we know about God. Worse, we can rely more on our subjective experiences than the objective truth we find in God’s Word.

Feelings aren’t reliable…but there is a book that can be trusted

Let me explain that. What is subjective is based on our own experiences, our feelings, our emotions. We can’t really call it truth – although as postmoderns we might want to – because we aren’t reliable sources of truth. Our sinful, fallen nature means that we can’t be trusted to process things correctly, understand things properly. We can’t be trusted to theologize helpfully on our own. General revelation can only go so far (Rom. 1:19-23). We need objective truth. We need something to build our lives on that is absolutely rock solid, unshakeable. We find that foundation in the Word of God alone. Because it’s a revelation from outside of us, from outside of this fallen world. It’s special revelation from the unshakeable source of truth, God himself.

That’s why we’re called to pore over Scripture, to internalize it, to let it light our path, to let it shape our thoughts, to let it cut deeply into our hearts. And we have to trust that the Spirit works transformation through the Word. We have to believe that. And then live like we believe it.

But we also don’t read Scriptures alone. We read them with the church of all times and places. That’s why we guide and inform our reading with creeds and confessions. That’s also why we supplement our reading of Scripture with studying good theology, with reading solid literature. Because it all helps ground us further in the objectivetruth of God’s Word.

When we’re deeply grounded in the truth of God’s Word, then we are better able to process our subjective feelings and emotions. The psalms in Scripture provide us with great examples of what that looks like. But let me explain what I mean by what I think is the most powerful and poignant illustration of this, where the believer directs his experience of reality by the truth that he knows from God’s revelation.

It lies at the very center of the most tragic book in the Bible, Lamentations, traditionally understood to be written by Jeremiah. The prophet is lamenting over the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. His world, the world of God’s own people, has completely fallen apart. He finds himself sitting in the ashes and ruins of the holy city. Many of the people of God have died in the Babylonian invasion. Many others have been deported to far away Babylon.

The whole poem is centred around the question: how could God allow this to happen to his chosen people? The prophet’s present experience is of pain, disillusionment, disappointment. Almost the entire book is a long cry of deepest despair. But then, at the very heart of the poem, in the middle of “the wormwood and the gall” (3:19), we get this incredible confession of faith,

“The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness” (3:22-23).

One Bible teacher suggests that we imagine ourselves sitting in the ashes of the World Trade Center in New York City after 9/11 and speaking these words to ourselves.

That’s what I mean by looking at our experiences and filtering our emotions through our objective knowledge of God… our theology. The prophet, sitting among the ashes, knows this truth because God has spoken it, and so he applies this truth to his troubled soul and to his experiences, which appear to contradict it.

Like the prophet, it’s our knowledge of the objective truths of God’s Word that gives us the wherewithal to process our experiences and feelings. Not vice versa. Then our theology lets us speak truth to our souls when our experience doesn’t seem to line up with our knowledge.

That’s part of why we read. That’s part of why we pursue a deeper and deeper knowledge of God, above all through his Word, but also through reading deeply and widely with the church.

How can we encourage reading?

I want to explore the answer to one last question before I let you go: what should we do? I don’t have space to pay much attention to this, but let me make a start by saying what we shouldn’t do: we shouldn’t do nothing. We shouldn’t finish reading this article, muse about it for a few moments, and then just move on, mildly annoyed at the fact that this wasn’t a story like it was advertised to be, but otherwise untouched. We shouldn’t do nothing.

So what should we do? Well, let me issue a plea to all of you reading this to do something. What that something is will depend on who you are and what you do.

  • Are you a parent or grandparent? Stimulate the love for reading good books in your kids and grandkids. Do that by modeling it for them and by giving them the right resources for it. And if you can’t stimulate a lovefor it, then at least impress on them their responsibility to keep educating themselves in the doctrines of the Word of God.
  • Are you an elder or deacon or pastor? First of all, create a culture of “professional development” within your church council and consistory. Secondly, stimulate that same love and that same sense of responsibility for reading in the sheep under your care.
  • Are you a member of the body of Christ? Develop your own desire to grow in the doctrines of the Word of God, in sinking the objective truths of Scripture into your hearts and minds. And then make it your mission to share that love with your fellow members.
  • Start with the people closest to you, your friends within the church. Buy them books – good books, mind you – and then talk about them. Start with easier (but not easy) reads and then make your way into heavier ones. Stretch yourself and stretch them too.
  • Plan book review nights where you get together with your friends and you all share thoughts and insights from the books you happen to be reading at present. It doesn’t have to be formal or complicated. Just talk. And when you’re done your book (and it’s a good one), pass it along to someone else. Don’t let it collect dust on your shelf.

In all this, though, never forget that studying theology ought to be an act of worship. We can’t let our reading become an end in itself. We can’t become obsessed with theology for the sake of theology. We do theology because we exist to glorify God and because we were created to know Him. So as you read and discuss, do it with a conscious posture of worship. Let your increase of knowledge lead to an increase of worship. Soli Deo Gloria!

Endnotes

[1] For this point, see Aimee Byrd’s No Little Women: Equipping All Women in the Household of God, page 202.

Rev. den Hollander is the pastor of Langley Canadian Reformed Church. This article was originally delivered as a speech at the December 8, 2017 Reformed Perspective fundraising dinner at the Aldergrove Canadian Reformed Church.

By William den Hollander

Charles Bridges on Psalm 119

“I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me.”   Verse. 75, Psalm 119

Thus is the Christian’s acknowledgement – fully satisfied with the dispensation of God. This is his confidence-so invigorating to his own soul-so cheering to the church. The Lord’s dealing are called his judgments-not a having judicial curses, but as the acts of his justice in the chastening of sin. (1 Pet. iv. 17.) Perhaps also-as the administration of his wise judgments in their measure and application. (Jer. x. 24. Comp. Isa. xxvvii.8.) But here is not only the confession of the Lord’s general judgment, but of his special faithfulness to himself. And this he knew-not from the dictates of the flesh 9which would have given a contrary verdict), but from the testimony of the word (Deut. xxxii. 4), and the witness of his own experience. (Verse 137; cxlv. 17.) It could not be doubted-much less denied-‘I know, O Lord, that thy rules of proceeding are agreeable to thy perfect justice and wisdom; and I am equally satisfied, that the afflictions that thou has laid upon me from time to time, are only to fulfil thy gracious and faithful promise of making me eternally happy in thyself.’ Blessed fruit of affliction! When we can thus “see the end of the Lord, that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy”-that his “thoughts towards us are thoughts of peace, and not of evil!”(Jam. v. 11. Jer. xxix. 11.) “The patience and faith of the saints” teach this difficult but most consoling lesson, in deciphering the mysterious lines in God’s providence.

The child of God under the severest chastisement must acknowledge justice. Our gracious reward is always more –our “punishment always less, than our iniquities deserve.” (Ezra, ix. 13. Comp. Job xi. 6.) “Wherefore should a living man complain?” (Lam. iii. 39.) In trouble he is indeed-but not in hell. If he complain, let it be of none but himself, and his own wayward choice. I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right-and who can doubt the wisdom? Who could charge the operator with cruelty, in cutting out the proud flesh, that was bringing death upon the man? Who would not acknowledge the right judgment of his piercing work? Thus, when the Lord’s painful work separates us from our sins, weans us from the world, and brings us nearer to himself, what remains for us, but thankfully to acknowledge his righteousness and truth? Unbelief is put to rebuke; and we, if we have indulged suspicion “that God hath forgotten to be gracious,” must confess, “This is our infirmity.” (Ps. lxxvii. 7-10.)

This assurance of the Lord’s perfect justice, wisdom and intimate knowledge of our respective cases, leads us to yield to his appointments in dutiful silence. Thus Aaron, under his most afflictive domestic calamity, “held his peace.” (Lev. x. 1-3.) Job under a similar dispensation was enabled to say-“The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Job, i. 21. Comp. ii. 10.) Eli’s language in the same trial was, “It is the Lord; let him do what seemeth him good.” (1 Sam. iii. 18.) David hushed his impatient spirit-“I was dumb; I opened not my mouth, because thou didst it.” And when Shimei cursed him, he said, “Let him alone; let him curse; for the Lord hath bidden him.” (Ps. xxxix. 9. 2 Sam. xvi. 11, 12.) The Shunamite, in the meek resignation of faith, acknowledged –“It is well.” (2 Kings, iv. 26.) Hezekiah kissed the rod, while it was smiting him to the dust-“Good is the word of the Lord which thou hast spoken.” (Isa. xxxix. 8.) Thus uniform is the language of the Lord’s people under chastisement-I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right.

But the confession of justice may be mere natural conviction. (Exod. ix. 27. Judges, i. 7. 2 Chron. xii. 6.) Faith goes further, and speaks of faithfulness. David not only acknowledges God’s right to deal with him as he saw fit, and even his wisdom in dealing with him as he actually had done, but his faithfulness in afflicting-not his faithfulness though he afflicted­-but in afflicting him; not as if it were consistent with his love, but as the very fruit of his love. It is not enough to justify God. What abundant cause is there to praise him! It is not enough to forbear to murmur. How exciting is the display of his faithfulness and love! Yes-the trials appointed for us are none else than the faithful performance of his everlasting engagements. And this cause we may always trace (and it is our privilege to believe it, where we cannot visibly trace it) the reason of much that is painful to the flesh. (Ps. lxxxix. 30-32. Deut. vii. 16. Comp. Ps. cvii. 43.) Let us only mark its gracious effects in our restoration- instruction (Verse 71, and texts),-healing of our backslidings (Hos. ii. 6, 7, 14), and the continual purging of sins (Isa. xxvii. 9; xlviii. 10. Zech. xii. 9. John xv. 2)-and then say -‘Is not the faithfulness of God gloriously displayed?’ The Philistines could not understand Samson’s riddle-how “Meat could come out of the eater, and sweetness out of the strong.” (Judg. xvi. 14.) As little can the world comprehend the faithfulness of the Christian’s trials; how his gracious Lord sweetness to him the bitter waters of Marah (see Exod. xv. 23-25), and makes the cross not so much the punishments as the remedy of sin. He finds therefore no inclination, and he feels that he has no interest in having any change made in the Lord’s appointments, revolting as they may be to the flesh. He readily acknowledges that his merciful designs could not have been accomplished in any other way; while under trials many sweet tokens of love are vouchsafed, which, under circumstances of outward prosperity, could not have been received with the same gratitude and delight.

You that are living at ease in the indulgence of what this poor world can afford, how little does the Christ envy your portion! How surely in some future day will you be taught by experience to envy his! The world’s riches are daily becoming poorer, and its pleasures more tasteless; and what will they be, and how will they appear, when eternity is at hand! Whereas affliction is the special token of our Father’s love (Heb. xii. 6 Rev. iii. 19), conformity to the image of Jesus, and preparation for his service and kingdom. It is the only blessing that the Lord gives, without requiring us to ask for it. We receive it therefore, as promised, not as threatened; and when the “peaceable fruits of righteousness,” which it worketh in God’s time and way, spring up in our hearts, humbly and gratefully will we acknowledge the righteousness of his judgments, and the faithfulness of his corrections.

Press to Contniue

Learning to Love the Psalms

David, the Believer, and Christ in Psalm 22

The psalm begins with a section dominated by the agonized prayer of David (vv.1-21). David is expressing in the first place his own experience of feeling abandoned by God. Here is the most intense suffering God’s servant can know – not just that enemies surround him (vv.7, 12-13) and that his body is in dreadful pain (vv.14-16), but that he feels that God does not hear him and does not care about his suffering. And this is not just the experience of David. It is the experience of all God’s people in the face of terrible trouble. We wonder how our loving Father can stand idly by when we are in such distress.

And then after pointing out the faith and hope of David expressed in that deep cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (v.1), showing that David still held on to the truth that God was his God, Godfrey returns to that idea of God’s apparent abandonment:

John Calvin in his commentary concluded that a sense of being forsaken by God, far from being unique to Christ or rare for the believer, is a regular and frequent struggle for believers. He wrote, ‘There is not one of the godly who does not daily experience in himself the same thing. According to the judgment of the flesh, he thinks he is cast off and forsaken by God, while yet he apprehends by faith the grace of God, which is hidden from the eye of sense and reason.’ We must not think that living the Christian life is easy or that we will not daily have to bear the cross.

But then the author takes us to Christ, in whom these words are fulfilled – for our salvation:

This psalm  is not only the experience of every believer, but it is also a very remarkable and specific prophecy of the sufferings of Jesus. We see the scene of the crucifixion especially clearly in the words, ‘A company of evil doers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet – I can count all my bones – they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots’ (vv.16-18). Here we see that indeed this psalm comes to its fullest realization in Jesus.

Jesus knew this psalm and quoted its first words to identify with us in our suffering since He bore on the cross our agony and suffering. ‘Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death’ (Heb.2:14). Jesus does deliver us by becoming our substitute and the sacrifice for our sins.

Learning-love-psalms-Godfrey-2017Taken from W. Robert Godfrey’s new book Learning to Love the Psalms(Reformation Trust, 2017). I am now reading through the sections that treat various psalms from each of the five books into which the Psalter is divided. This is drawn from the author’s explanation of Psalm 22 (Book 1).

Taken from: The Three R’s Blog

Lament to The Lord

They’ve brought you up to date, Lord down at old St. Machar’s
They’ve pensioned off the organ and they’re praising on guitars!
They’ve done it for the young ones; ‘we want to draw them in’
But I do wish they could worship without making such a din!
I’m growing rather deaf, Lord, and where there’s all that noise
It gets so very hard, Lord, to hear your loving voice.
They’re using S G P, Lord, words and tunes that I don’t know,
So I hardly ever sing now, though I did love singing so.
They’re very go ahead, Lord, They’re using the NIV,
But the words are not so beautiful as the others used to be.

So they’ve modernised the Bible, the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed
When the old ones were so perfect that they filled my every need. 
My mind’s not quite so agile as it was some years ago
And I miss the age old beauty of the words that I still know.
It’s very clear to me, lord, I’ve overstayed my time,
I don’t take to change so kindly as I did in my prime.
But it can’t be very long now before I’m called above.
 And I know I’ll find you there, lord, and glory in your love.
So till then I’ll stick it out, lord, though it is not the same for me,
But while others call you “YOU”, Lord, do you mind if I say “THEE”?     Anon.