Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Response to Hoffer's Inquiries on Christian Liberty

PH wrote:
I would like to get your thoughts on the role of the Church in deciding whether to [celebrate] certain holidays or not.

PH went on to provide the following:

Chapter 21 of The Westminster Confession titled "Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day," states in part:

"The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching, and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God with understanding, faith, and reverence; singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as, also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ; are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: besides religious oaths, and vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasion; which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner."

The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) Chapter 24 captioned, "The Festivals of Christ and the Saints." states:

"Moreover, if in Christian Liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly."

Article 67 of Church Order of the Synod of Dordt (I hope that I got that right) states:

"The congregations shall observe, in addition to Sunday, also Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, with the following day; and since in most cities and provinces of the Netherlands, besides these there are also observed the day of Circumcision and Ascension of Christ, the ministers everywhere, where this is still not the custom, shall put forth effort with the authorities that they may conform with the others."

Turretin seemed to approve of the celebration of Christmas in his commentary on the Fourth Commandment set forth in his Institutes:

"The question is not whether anniversary days may be selected on which either the nativity, or circumcision, or passion, or ascension of Christ, and similar mysteries of redemption, may be commemorated, or even on which the memory of some remarkable blessing may be celebrated. For this the orthodox think should be left to the liberty of the church. Hence some devote certain days to such festivity, not from necessity of faith, but from the counsel of prudence to excite more to piety and devotion."

Then, Mr. Hoffer asked:
You talked of Christian liberty, yet all the authorities above provide (at least in these texts)that such liberty resides in the churches, not in the individual.
I answer:
These documents speak of the liberty of churches. They do not deny the liberty of Christians. For example, in the Westminster Confession, the section on liberty of conscience is found in Chapter XX. Likewise, the Second Helvetic Confession addresses "things indifferent" in Chapter XXVII. Similar the Belgic Confession (which is one of the "three forms of unity" in churches that use Dordt as a Normed Norm) contains Article 32, which identifies limits on the authority of the church. I'll leave Turretin out of it, for now.

PH continued:
If your particular faith community had decided to exercise its Christian liberty and decide to celebrate Christmas would you be obligated to adhere to such a decision?
Faith community? What sort of talk is that? Reformed Christians have churches. If my church decided to celebrate Christmas, there are various ways it could do so. One way would be through holding a Christmas-day service, and exhorting (or encouraging) the faithful to attend. That's the usual way I've seen it done.

What if they tried to require everyone to come? It's an interesting dilemma. In general, the commands of the church should be obeyed if they do not cause one to sin. On the other hand, the churches ought not to insist on unnecessary things. Unless (as in Romanism) the command were phrased as a condition for salvation, it would be obligatory for Christians who could conscientiously comply.

PH wrote:
And if you are free to disregard the decision of your church on something like celebrating Christmas, does your liberty as a Christian extend to other doctrines as well?
Christian liberty extends to indifferent things.

PH wrote:
For example, purely as a hypothetical, what if you became convinced through your studies of Scripture that 2nd Maccabees should be included in the canon because Jesus celebrated Hanukkah (Jn 10:22), a holiday that is found only in that deuterocanonical/apocryphal text and nowhere else in the OT, would you be allowed to disregard the authority of your church that says that such book does not belong in the canon and hold to the contrary?
There are a number of issues tangled together in that question:

1) John 10:22 doesn't say that Jesus celebrated the feast identified, but rather that it was that time of year, and that Jesus was walking in the temple in Solomon's porch.

2) The feast identified is the feast of the dedication (today, in Judaism, Hanukkah corresponds).

3) The feast identified was appointed during the inter-testamental time, as recorded in the apocryphal works of 1st and 2nd Maccabees (1 Mac 4:52-59, 2 Mac 10:5-8).

4) The Reformed churches do not accept 1st and 2nd Maccabees as canonical.

5) The proper identification of the canon, however, is not a thing necessary to salvation - and one is not required to deny that the books of the Maccabees are canonical in order to receive the sacraments. Accordingly, the Reformed churches would not ordinarily excommunicate someone for mistakenly thinking that 1&2 Mac were canonical. Nevertheless, in an ideal world, the elders would make time to counsel them and show them that those books are not canonical.

PH continued:
To posit a different hypothetical, let's say that your particular Church now authorizes homosexual unions and permits the ordination of homosexual men to become ministers and you disagree with that decision, are you allowed according to the traditions or rules of your Church to dissent?
It depends what you mean by "dissent." The issue of who can marry and who can be ordained to the ministry is not a matter necessary to salvation. So, if the church taught those things, it would normally be permitted in the church for members to disagree.
However, in these particular examples, the teachings of the church are so clearly contrary to Scripture, that it might be the duty of Christians not simply to disagree, but after attempted reformation (if unsuccessful) to leave.

PH concluded:
I am asking these questions so I can get a handle on your understanding of the limits of Church authority. I thank you in advance for your reply to this query.
I nearly didn't respond, but at least now I can have the pleasure of saying "you're welcome." I hope it is helpful.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, again, another fine example of the thoughts of men and the Mind of Christ.

You can clearly hear both in here!

One of the senses that came clear is the WC. When you read it, you realize these words are inspired by The "Word" Whose Spirit is clearly heard. I think that is why they are lasting the test of time and so valued as important Truths and Documents in our quest for Christian Liberty.

And, isn't it odd that this is the subject and PH's quieres center on human bondage to their will or someone else's?

I have read the Belgic Confession but can't say I knew that about it. Learn something new every day in here!

Thanks TF