O Come, O Come Emmanuel

John Fesko explains a little about the historical and biblical background to this popular Christmas hymn (which, I might add, one might sing at home but not during a stated service but it’s an edifying study so…)

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  1. Is Fesko talking about at home in his last paragraph (below), or do you two have differing opinions on the use of this hymn (or hymns in general)?

    “It is certainly a hymn that the church should use to celebrate the birth of Christ. It is also one that should be upon the mouths of God’s people throughout the year on each and every Lord’s Day as Christ continues to lead us on the eschatological exodus with the new Jerusalem as our destination, the new heavens and earth. Let us therefore celebrate the birth of our Lord on God’s appointed day by moving from the shadow lands of the Old Testament, the land of promises and types, into the fullness of the light of the revelation of Christ.”

  2. As someone who agrees with your understanding of the application of the RPW Dr. Clark why is that when confronted with the history of Reformed practice the vast majority of Confessional Protestants scoff and mock quite heartily the current minority (once majority) position that you yourself defend?

    • I am not scoffing or mocking him (Dr. R. Scott Clark). I greatly respect him. But I’m confused when he says “repeat after me, we are all Lutherans” and then totally and completely denies the Lutheran interpretation of RPW.

          • I do not see your writings on this post. How is Dr. Clark speaking on Lutherans in this post?

            • In the past, he’s spoken a lot on Luther. I’ve listend to him speak on Luther in sermon or lecture. I don’t think he’s retracted it.

          • Oh, I see what you mean I think. My post looks like I’m defending an earlier position. Sorry, I wasn’t being defensive. My comments were just supposed to be forthright.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    How does the doctrine of animus imponentis relate to the issue of non-inspired hymnody or, maybe I should ask, do you agree with animus imponentis and then how does that relate to this question concerning uninspired hymnody?

    Do we believe that original/authorial intent is binding or do we believe that the adopting and confessing communities interpretation is binding?



    • Hi Jesse,

      Fair question. Here I agree with Mr Murray’s minority report — which I discuss in RRC. I do believe in animus imponentis but I don’t believe that we can appeal to AP to justify willy nilly anything we want. The teaching of the Reformed confessions is clear and we simply disobey it regularly because that teaching no longer suits us. Few Reformed folk can articulate the RPW any more or have any idea of the principle upon which we organize our services. Few Reformed people today are aware that it is the Covenanters (RPCNA) who are among the few who actually practice the original understanding of the PRW. Going back to Murray’s minority report. It seems to me that the committee majority simply ignored him. His report was quite good and reasonable but look at the product of the committee’s work! Clearly it was not a work that reflects well the confessional understanding of the RPW. See RRC on this.

      If we no longer believe what we confess then we ought to revise the confession. We cannot simply contradict the confession by appealing to AI.

      Let me anticipate and reply to an objection: One could reply and say, “But you’re happy with the AI on creation. The original understanding was 6-24 creation.” That’s partly right and partly wrong. First, there’s no evidence that the divines intended to bind the churches to 6-24 creation. See RRC on this. Yes, most believed in 6-24 creation but the intent of the assembly seems to have been to reject what they perceived to be Augustine’s view. They were concerned that he made the creation narrative a mere artifice — in other words, they were concerned to resist what they saw as a form of nominalism.

      Second, there’s a difference of status between the RPW, which is the law of God, and a particular understanding of the nature of the creation days. The latter is largely an exegetical discussion (e.g. what does “Yom” mean? etc) does not affect the system of doctrine. Warfield and Calvin held two different views of the nature of the creation days but they both held to the Reformed faith.

      To turn the RPW on its head, as most Reformed folk have done by saying “we may do whatever is not forbidden,” (or by saying that the RPW applies to everything so that it ends up applying to and regulating nothing) does materially damage the Reformed faith. Nothing is more essential to Reformed Christianity than how believers approach their Lord in public worship. Calvin said that there were two hills, as it were, upon which he was prepared to die. The first is the gospel of justification sola fide and the second was what we today call the RPW. I have a chapter coming out on this topic this Spring via P&R.

      The two commonly accepted revisions of the RPW are also inconsistent with sola Scriptura, which is a material doctrine. Every time elders require Christians to sing/pray to God in a way he has not commanded, they are binding the consciences of God’s people in a way that is contrary to our confession.

      The revisions are also inconsistent with the doctrine of Christian liberty (more sola Scriptura). It never ceases to amaze me that the same people (not you) who profess the sufficiency of Scripture for everything (e.g. physics) turn around and deny its sufficiency for the one thing about which it was intentionally sufficient: the theory and practice of public worship! Given that there was no sun until the 4th day we cannot know with certainty how long those days were. Even E J Young, in his reaction to MGK, conceded this. Thus, it is evident that, at least with the first three days, scripture doesn’t mean to teach us the length of the creation days there can be little question but that it does mean to teach us the 2nd commandment. An exegetical difference is not the same thing as two fundamentally different principles of worship.

      When the Reformed churches in Europe, the UK, and the new world, received the Reformed confessions, they received them to teach that we may worship God only in the way he has commanded. They applied that principle by singing (for the most part) only God’s Word. Certainly the divines were unequivocal about that. Had they been more explicit about creation, we would know their intent more fully there. We can have no doubt about their intent on worship. We still receive them to teach the same thing.

      The solution to this of course, is twofold. One: repent of our disobedience to the 2nd commandment and 2) we need a new confession. We need to confess what is essential in the doctrine of creation. We need to confess that God spoke creation into existence, that matter is not eternal, that there are created boundaries, that we are finite, created in the divine image etc. The length of the creation days is not material to the faith — at least no one has succeeded in showing that or how it is.

      There’s a much more complete discussion of all this in RRC.

      • we need a new confession.

        Claiming to follow the RPW while at best disregarding it, and usually while openly flaunting it in ways that would seriously grieve the original authors of the Reformed Confessions, is a violation of the 9th commandment, in addition to the 2nd.

        In addition to repenting of our disobedience to the 2nd commandment, before we write a new confession, we need to repent of our disobedience to the 9th commandment in nearly universally using equivocating language when dealing the with confessions we currently confess. — Until that repentance, the ministers of the reformed churches (even those in the side line churches) are simply not qualified to write a new confession. With all due respect, I found your argument to the contrary in RRC completely unconvincing.

        With respect to the length of the days of creation, I agree those are not directly material to the faith, I do, however, find the list you supplied for what needs to be confessed WRT creation rather lacking. In RRC you spent nearly twice the page space (~13 pgs) on 6/24 Creation than you did on your other two identified QIRC topics (Theonomy ~and Covenant Moralism) combined (~7 pgs). Even while devoting that amount of space to the subject, you didn’t deal at all with what is the real issue, i.e., the Framework. The question WRT Creation doctrine as boundary marker is whether or not the Framework is within the pale or not. [I’ll grant that the Framework is not QIRC, since it is not about Certainty, but it does fall in to a theme I think you should have dealt with the Quest for Illegitimate Religious License, QIRL] It would have been far more helpful if you had at least tried to deal with E.J. Young’s excellent treatment of the subject from WTJ 25 (1962-3) in which he states as part of his conclusion:

        11. Genesis one is not poetry or saga or myth, but straight-forward, trustworthy history, and, inasmuch as it is a divine revelation, accurately records those matters of which it speaks.


        Young supplies plenty of room for honest men to arrive at different conclusions WRT to the length of the days of Creation by exegesis, while at the same time excluding those who would hold to the Framework.

        Also, considering the amount of space you devote to 6/24 Creation as a boundary marker in relation to your other two QIRC topics, one is left with the distinct impression that you think the 6/24 Creation remnant is far more dangerous to the Reformed faith as expressed in the Reformed Confessions than Theonomists and FV and NPP advocates combined.

        1 – http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/Ted_Hildebrandt/OTeSources/01-Genesis/Text/Articles-Books/Young_Days1a-WTJ.htm

        • Andrew,

          I had just published a large volume titled, Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry which I footnoted in RRC. The FV etc are very serious problems but they are symptomatic of rationalism and that’s what I wanted to get at. I spent more time on the creation problem partly because of my background in the RCUS, where it was a huge issue which took a great deal of time, but also because I’ve seen the damage done in presbyteries where outstanding candidates have been forced to leave one presbytery and go to another to be ordained because they didn’t hold the “right” view of creation. That’s QIRC-y.

          EJY, with all reverence, never showed that the FI affects the system of doctrine. Indeed, he himself, in the 40s, taught the very thing or something like it.

          I tried not to get into the details of the creation/theonomy arguments but I wanted rather to try to help people think through the function of those views as boundary markers. There are plenty of books dealing with them but few dealing with their unofficial status in some presbyteries as a sort of extra-confessional de facto orthodoxy. My argument is that they are bad tests.

          • Scott,

            EJY, with all reverence, never showed that the FI affects the system of doctrine.

            Perhaps not, directly or immediately, but the Framework I think it does affect the doctrine of Scripture, and the nexus of equivocating language with respect to the doctrine of Scripture as expressed in the WCF, hence one of the reasons why I think most contemporary Reformed ministers are unqualified to write a new confession.

            A note on your use of “system of doctrine” and the Framework. If you really advocate the idea of subscribing to the confessions because they are biblical rather than insofar as they are biblical, as you seem to in RRC, and considering you place “system of doctrine” subscription in the “insofar as” category, it seems to me that you are trying eat your cake and have it too. On one hand in RRC you say we should subscribe to the Reformed Confessions because they are biblical, and not insofar as they are biblical, but then you want room for the Framework because it fits within the “system of doctrine” subcategory of the insofar type of confessional subscription. Which is it?

            Indeed, he himself, in the 40s, taught the very thing or something like it.

            So, based on the publication date of the WTJ material, I guess EJY had a pretty thorough-going change of mind wouldn’t you say?

            I tried not to get into the details of the creation/theonomy arguments but I wanted rather to try to help people think through the function of those views as boundary markers.

            But that doesn’t really explain the extreme disparity in the amount of page-space devoted between the subjects, your footnote to CJPM notwithstanding. Your reply leads me even further to believe that you think that 6/24 creationists are more dangerous to the churches than Theonomists and/or FV advocates.

            Then we have the issue with respect to the heterodoxical index of your three QIRC items. Do think that Covenant Moralism is heterodox? How about Theonomy? 6/24 Creationism? To be useful as a group of QIRC items, they really should all at least be in the same ball park when it comes to whether or not they are heterodox. You claim damage done by presbyteries requiring candidates to hold to a particular doctrine of creation, and so that is bad, but wouldn’t and don’t you fault presbyteries if they don’t require candidates to hold to a particular doctrine of justification? Really shouldn’t justification be a boundary marker? It seems you want a big tent on creation and the straight and narrow on others.

            I think including 6/24 creation in that list of QIRC was a bad choice, because the other too are mostly regarded by the orthodox as being heterodox, especially with respect to Covenant Moralism. — Or did I completely misunderstand you, and you are arguing that all three are perfectly orthodox choices of views to hold within their sub-topic of theology, it is rather the requiring any specific view on Creation, the use of the Civil Law of the OT nation of Israel, or Covenant that is QIRC-y?

            6/24 has been a permitted view on creation for a long time. Theonomy is at best problematic, because the WCF says the civil laws are expired, and the only binding part would be the general equity of those laws. I think we both agree that Theonomy argues for more than just what the WCF means by “general equity”, don’t we? It also seems to me that Covenant Moralism deals with the very touchstone of the Reformation, and so to get that wrong is well, nigh unto undoing the reformation itself — granted that’s simplistic, but it is late.

            It would have been more helpful for the pedestrian readers (such as myself) if you had selected three topics for QIRC for which there was a wide consensus regarding their heterodoxy. While 6/24 people are viewed as quaintly stupid, Theonomists are regarded as dangerous crazy bullies, and CM types are well often considered really dangerous. Even the Theonomic RPCUS doesn’t like CM. Its funny, though nowadays in the OPC answer the creation question as 6/24 and the response is “how cute, a quaint unsophisticated little man”. Answer the theonomy question wrong and you’re not ordained.

            Lest I find fault without at least suggesting an alternative, I would say selecting “Temperance”, or more correctly, “Abstinence from Alcohol” as your first QIRC subject would have been a better choice. That was a real extra biblical/confessional bit of fundamentalism that really did and continues to have a negative impact on Reformed Churches.

            At the end of the day, the opposite of one man’s QIRC is another man’s QIR-License. You say 6/24 creation is QIRC-y, I say the Framework is QIRL-y, You say subscribe to the confession because it is biblical, but then call for a new confession. Seems like a mixed message to me. I say keep the WCF/WLC/WSC and subscribe to them because they are biblical.

            FWIW has anyone pointed out to you the errata on in the final sentence of the first paragraph on page 60 (continued from page 59) in RRC? The word “universe” should not follow “heliocentric”, but rather “solar-system” should. At the risk of coming off as science snob, at least in the 20th and 21st centuries, the idea of a heliocentric universe is as provincial as a geocentric one. The solar system is heliocentric, the universe is not. FWIW, depending on which school of QM you prefer, you might want to avoid the word universe altogether.

            Finally, let me say I do appreciate the intent of your RRC book. While I think I disagree with you on a majority of specifics (with the notable exception, that I agree that confessional subscription should be quia, not quatenus), I think you should revisit the subject in 20 or so years.

            • @Scott, replying here, since there are no more reply levels.

              If you mean the line of reasoning WRT the writing of new confessions, that works when the new confessions are more specific than the old. While you want to add additional specificity on certain aspects of the doctrine of creation, you also seem to want to remove the specificity of the language about the 6 days of creation, not only in the WCF, but probably more likely in WLC and WSC. So as long as you advocate only adding specificity and not removing it, then I agree there is no conflict in advocating quia subscription, and the calling new confessions.

              For those that already subscribe (quia) to an existing confession, is there any legitimate reason other than said specificity failing to be biblical to remove it in a new confession? Sure synods (even those that write confessions) can and do err, but fixing those errors in new confessions I don’t see as being in conflict with a quia subscription model. However, the consequence is that which is removed/fixed in the new confession is necessarily a repudiation of it. Isn’t the trajectory of Reformed confessions written from 1529 onward along the lines of becoming much more specific on the subjects with which they cover? Writing a new confession and removing 6 day creation language of the Westminster Standards so that Framework guys are not forced into quatenus subscription modes seems to buck the trend of what was going on with the development of the Reformed confessions. This doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense especially in a time of history where the Reformed churches are at a post Reformation nadir, and are generally continuing to look for a new bottom.

              • Andrew,

                Yes and no. In some cases the later confessions are more elaborate and in some cases less. Compare the Belgic on true churches and the nature of Christ’s presence in the Supper to the Westminster Standards or compare the language of CD 1.17 to the Standards or the language of the Belgic on the nature of the church and officers to the Standards. There are four cases off the top of my head where the Standards actually say less (though, I believe agree in substance) than the earlier confessions.

                On creation and theocracy, we don’t live in the same intellectual world as the church did in the 17th century. Most of those fellows were still geocentrists. Today none but lunatics are geocentrists and few ecclesiastical bodies are theocratic. These are two areas where the churches have actually become MORE reformed than they were in the earler period.

                We ought to build on that while, simultaneously, preserving the gains made in the 16th and 17th centuries.

  4. It would seem that if this argument is true, namely that it is only proper to respond to God’s word with God’s word and that our singing is a form of prayer, then it must follow that ministers only pray inscripturated prayers on behalf of the congregation during the service. If he does not do this, would this not, according to your argument, bind their consciences in a way contrary to the confession? Is that correct and if not why is there a difference between spoken and sung prayer in this regard?

  5. Jesse,

    I’ve addressed that here before and in RRC. The answer lies in the distinction between special and general office or between officers and laity.

    The old liturgies recognized those offices by calling for the minister to do his job by proclaiming the Word, which is his office. The only thing the congregation is called to do is to reply to the Word (whether administered in the sermon or in the sacraments) with the Word.

    Ministers, as those whose office it is to exposit the Word, is called to pray on behalf of the congregation. On your reasoning, laity would have also have to preach.

    Check out the old liturgies. Take a look at chapter 7 of RRC.

  6. Jesse, Coram,
    Yes, singing is a form of prayer, but it is also the praise of God – to God though; it is not primarily addressed to the congregation or visitors.
    Further, the minister as the Lord’s ambassador reads the Word and expounds it, both actions directed to the congregation. The congregation in reply sings the Word (psalms) to the Lord and the minister as a spokesman for the congregation prays to the Lord.
    And while the reading and singing respectively are restricted to the inspired text; the preaching and praying expound, enlarge and apply the inspired text, inasmuch as the prayers are biblical in substance/based on the Bible though not word for word recitations.
    At least that’s how I’ve come to understand the reformed paradigm on the elements of worship, their relationships and purpose.
    But if you leave out the reading of Scripture, chances are psalmody/song will get classed with preaching and prayer and the corresponding liberty to ad lib also applies. After all prayers and sermons are uninspired. Why not the songs?

  7. Dr. Clark,

    Forgive me for possibly sounding impudent, but does your own church practice exclusive Psalmody a cappella?

    • Hi Bruce,

      This is a fair question. No, neither my federation nor my congregation is obedient to the Reformed confession on this point. Our church order, as I argued in RRC, does not require us to sing uninspired songs, however, so there is hope. We can recover the Reformed confession.

  8. Dr. Clark,
    What do you make of what some view to be the nonbiblical hymns quoted in the New Testament by the biblical authors, such as the one Paul is apparently quoting in Philippians 2:6-11? Granted, by virtue of their being quoted in the New Testament they are now scriptural hymns, but prior to that they obviously weren’t. If the apostles thought highly enough of them to quote them in Scripture, would it not be unsafe to assume that they were being sung in public worship.

    Does the practice of the RPW you advocate make room for the singing of biblical songs that appear outside of the Psalms, such as the Magnificat and sections of the prophets? Thank you.

    • Jamie,

      See RRC on this where I deal with this question at length.

      There is a false premise in your question, that the apostles sang “unbiblical” (by which I take you to mean, “not canonical” as distinct from “contrary to Scripture”!) is not at all evident. I think and others have argued (e.g., John Murray) that the apostles sang songs that were not psalms but it doesn’t follow that they were not inspired. What is canonical is only determined after the fact, that is, there were almost certainly things said and done that were not recorded for us. They were inspired but they were not preserved for us and thus are not canonical. Not everything they did or said was inspired. If we found the Apostle Paul’s laundry list the fact that it was Paul’s wouldn’t make it canonical!

      So, what do we have? We have a record of songs sung or chanted or recited in the apostolic church or by characters in the NT history of redemption. None of these, in the nature of things, is uninspired.

      So, we still don’t have grounds in those songs (or in mention of songs) to assume the right to impose upon God’s people songs (prayers) not inspired by God.

      To answer your second question, yes, I argue in RRC for the inclusion of all the biblical songs and not just the psalter — though, if I had onl to sing the psalter I would personally be quite satisfied. What exactly do we learn from the NT songs that we didn’t already know from the psalms? This isn’t an argument for exclusive psalmody but just a recognition that the assumption many make, that the NT songs contained theology or language not found in the Psalter, isn’t really true.

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