Paul Helm on Owen Contra Biblicism

Good stuff here—as expected.

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  1. Scott,

    Something that Paul Helm wrote caught my attention. Here is the quote (and then I have a question for you):

    “I suspect that we do not usually think like this. We do not think that if an expression captures the sense of a revelation then it itself is revelation. But remember what John Owen is saying here, and what not. He is not saying that if we utter a sentence that captures the sense of the revelation we are ourselves inspired as the original writers were, but that the content of what we say, its meaning, is as infallibly true as is the original. For (as he rightly says) truth may beget truth and in certain circumstances, when one truth follows necessarily from another, one truth must beget another truth.”

    Do think that this kind of reasoning could be used to justify singing theologically sound hymns (and not just Psalm singing… and not just songs that quote Scripture directly) in a way that doesn’t violate the RPW?

    I am sincerely asking and do not mean the question as any kind of challenge to you. Thanks!

    • Hi Brad,

      Funny you should ask. We were discussing this yesterday in class. We were trying to understand Calvin’s logic in singing only Scripture (not just psalms) and yet also singing the creed. I argued that (implicitly) Calvin treated the creed as an ecclesiastically sanctioned summary of God’s Word so, if there are two essential elements of worship, Word (preached, read, made visible in the sacraments and confessed) and prayer (response to God’s Word) then it belongs under “Word.” The Word comes to us. We respond to God with his own Word in sung prayers (from the psalms and other parts of God’s Word). That’s Reformed worship. There is another distinction here, between private theology, which is what Owen’s work is, and publicly, ecclesiastically sanctioned confession, which is what the creed is.

      As far as I know, Owen didn’t think that this notion of true theology as a summary/explanation of God’s Word (and thus God’s truth) was grounds for introducing uninspired hymnody into worship and neither did any of the others in the 16th and 17th century for whom and with whom he was speaking. The distinction would be between confession and prayer. The Word may be confessed by God’s people but in that instance the congregation is performing a ministerial function, it is doing corporately what the minister does individually, ministry of the Word. As we’ve become more radically democratic as a culture congregations have taken on a larger role in congregational worship. We’re not content merely to respond to God’s Word with his own, authorized Word. Thus, congregations are now responding to God’s Word with a large variety of texts, if the call and response pattern is even still observed.

      The confession of the Word in the Creed does present ambiguities. This is why, I suspect, that many of the English and Scottish Reformed Christians abandoned it as part of the service, because it can be used to pry open the door for hymnody and the vitiation of the RPW (= 2nd commandment + sola Scriptura). You’ll notice that there’s nothing about the creed in the Directory for Publick Worship.

      As I said to a student yesterday, if I have to give up saying/singing the creed in order to preserve the RPW (and recover the exclusive use of canonical texts in worship) I’ll take that trade in a NY second.

      What Owen intended was to help us understand what the nature of theology is.

      One might accuse me a biblicism in worship. I don’t think it’s true. The sermon is the divinely authorized exposition and proclamation of God’s Word by an authorized minister. He cannot merely repeat Scripture. Thus, the creed, in that respect, is like a sermon but I don’t see where God’s people (unless we accept the radical democratic principle) are all authorized ministers of the Word and called to expound and exposit the same. Our vocation as a congregation is to respond appropriately to God’s Word with his own Word and without Mosaic-typological sacrifices or instruments—but that’s another post.

      • Dr. Clark,

        I think Brad’s questions capture well some of mine after reading RRC, as a follow up to his, one that surfaced is how do we account for the sense that the Psalms aren’t just God’s words, but human words (with the unique privilege of being inspired) that reflected realities and concerns that are very much indicative of the ancient Israelite culture? How do we worship God rightly as culturally bound people, who do not readily apprehend the forms given to us in the Psalms?

        Take a solid modern hymn like “In Christ Alone”, it seems that many would more readily resonate with the truth we sing “Jesus commands my destiny”, than say some of the deeply Christological temple themes in the Psalms. Believers may be singing Psalm 11 and have no sense of what “if the foundations are destroyed what can the righteous do? The LORD is in his holy temple…” actually means. It might take a sermon on the Psalm to unpack its meaning before the worshiper can engage the psalm sung in a way that they understand the content and context of their worship. How much psalmsinging simply gets lost in translation because we are in a culture far removed from the one in which the Psalms were originally written and sung?

        Maybe as congregations become more biblically fluent inspired singing would be more apprehendable, and I would take that as a good thing. I am still not sure that theologically sound hymnody isn’t anything less than acceptable worship. But maybe that is because a) I am a relative latecomer to the Reformed tradition and b) I must account for my mainstream evangelical heritage, where it seemed to me that I really was worshiping God in spirit and in truth while singing these songs.

        • Hi Jed,

          I’m not advocating exclusive psalmody. God’s people are free to sing all of God’s Word. That said, if we can’t understand the psalms then we are an ignorant sad people. We are surely living in a new dark ages relative to the psalms. We are the most psalmless age of the church, including the so-called dark ages.

          Can we not understand the psalms if we put forth just a little effort? Have we not ministers who can explain the psalms? Are there difficulties? Sure, but they are insurmountable.

          We should sing the psalms because they are so human AND so divine.

          Here are some rough and ready guides:

          “I” in a psalm = Jesus (not always, but often)

          Canaanites and other enemies = sin, the sinful nature, and the devil

          Jerusalem = heaven

          sin = sin

          salvation = salvation

          “the king” = Jesus

          “your Spirit” = Holy Spirit (or possibly consciousness of the Spirit)

          If we treat the psalms the way the NT treats them, we’ll be fine. How does the NT read Ps 110? Start by meditating on Ps 110 and check out how it is quoted or alluded to (22 times) in the NT. Then try reading the rest of the psalms in a similar way.

          As I say, this is a very rough and ready guide.

          • Scott, I think you meant to type “Are there difficulties? Sure, but they are not insurmountable.”

            And here’s my two-cents for Jed:
            Here is a metrical Psalter with notes from John Brown of Haddington that may help you sing with understanding.

            Jed, you ask “How do we worship God rightly as culturally bound people, who do not readily apprehend the forms given to us in the Psalms?”

            I’d say that our being “culturally bound” does not as such interfere with right worship, nor necessitate failure to apprehend form & meaning of the Psalms. So, the question about right worship is not qualified in that way. Whatever ones culture or biblical literacy, the primary question is: what particular worship does God require? Studying a book like With Reverence And Awe may help.

            You say you really were worshiping God “in spirit and in truth” as a mainstream evangelical. It’s not clear what you mean, but it’s worth considering that one may be regenerate, and have an obedient intention, and yet fail to worship God as He requires. If a sine qua non of right worship is “only what God requires,” then nothing else on our part makes up for lack of it.

            • Fair enough Baus, I think I said I thought I was worshiping in spirit and in truth, I would hate to assert certainty here though. Ironically, even as an evangelical, the Lords Table was the part of worship I most appreciated. It’s only since I have made the move to the Reformed church that I am beginning to understand why.

              When I read through RRC, I couldn’t help but appreciate the RPW and it’s insistence on right worship. Maybe the failure of evangelical worship is analogous to the failure of the Israelites to cease worshiping on the high places and adhere to the sanctioned Temple liturgies. If I was guilty of this, even unknowingly, so be it. I am still wrestling through that issue, and I am not so sure that in the case of the Psalms, that these weren’t also appropriate post-Sinai responses of God’s people in particular situations. Unless these psalmists were aware of the inspirational quality of their responses to God, I also see analogues to the best of Christian hymnody (eg. the occasions that gave rise to new songs).

              As I understand, the Psalms also represent the existential response of the people of God in the presence of God. I am inclined to see hymns as an analogous response as the Church travails in the presence of God. RRC definitely introduced categories that I was not familiar with, and I am trying to honestly grapple through them, not quite sure where I land on the issues yet. My main area of familiarity is in Biblical Theology, and I wouldn’t mind seeing Dr. Clark’s analysis in conversation with these, unless such a discussion already exists and I am just unaware of it.

          • Thanks Baus. I am currently working through Lost Soul… and Deconstructing Evangelicalism. It’ll be a month or two before I will be able pick that one up.

  2. Yes, this (Owen’s point) is also part of the reason that the preached Word is to be received “as the Word of God” [WLC 160].

    Excellent stuff.

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