John C. Calhoun, Prophet

Yesterday I had the pleasure to read for the first time the American statesman John C. Calhoun’s little magnum opus A Disquisition on Government. Calhoun’s reputation has fallen on hard times of late as part of the general backlash against any leader or thinker associated with the antebellum, slave-owning American South. As is usual in such cases, some of the blame is deserved, some not; but the beautiful thing about ideas is that they maintain their intrinsic value and potential relevance regardless of the prejudices or motives of their propounder. So it is in Calhoun’s extraordinary Disquisition. There is nothing in its arguments that depends on the context and agendas of the antebellum South; just extraordinary insight into the innate tendencies of government, society, and constitutional structures.

This is particularly the case with Calhoun’s insightful and prescient diagnosis of the diseases of partisan politics that will afflict a democracy that seeks to run itself more or less on the principle of decision-making by numerical majorities—as the US has increasingly tilted toward over the past century. His remarks on this score are nothing short of astonishing in light of the sharp polarization of American politics in the last generation and the increasing paralysis of the party system. Read More


The Reformed Doctrine of the Eucharist in Nine Theses

A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of being invited to speak at a “Faith Discussion Dinner” in northern Virginia, debating eucharistic theology with a Roman Catholic speaker and fielding questions from a mixed Protestant-Catholic audience. The entire conversation was fruitful, challenging, and edifying. My opening statement consisted of a positive exposition of the Reformed doctrine of the Eucharist, as well as several points in critique of the doctrine of transubstantiation and in defense of the catholicity and biblical simplicity of the Reformed doctrine. For the latter, I’d encourage you to read my essay “The Real Presence and the Presence of Reality“; for the former, here it is in nine theses:

  1. In the Eucharist, it is Christ himself that we receive, not merely his benefits. Moreover, it is the whole Christ that we receive, that is, Christ in both his divinity and humanity.
  2. The purpose of the Eucharist is not physical nourishment, but psychical and spiritual; it is our cleansing from the power of sin and death and our sharing in the power of Christ’s indestructible life. It is also, to be sure, the guarantee of resurrection life for our physical bodies, but this is received not as a biological gift in the present, but a promise for the future anchored in our union with the risen Christ.
  3. This being the case, the mode in which Christ offers himself in the sacrament is suited to the end of this self-offering. Since Christ is not meant to be chewed with the mouth but received in the soul, he offers himself in a non-carnal and spiritual, yet objective, manner.
  4. Therefore, there is no need for Christ’s flesh, which is that of a human being who remains spatially finite and localized, even as resurrected and ascended, to present itself carnally and locally in the sacrament. Rather, by the agency of the Spirit, the whole person of Christ, including the life-giving power of his flesh, is presented non-physically along with the physical bread and wine.
  5. As the mouth is the proper organ for receiving the physical elements, by means of chewing, so the soul is the proper organ for receiving the spiritual presence, by means of faith. However, whereas the bread and wine become part of us by the physical eating, Christ makes us part of him by the spiritual eating.
  6. Since faith is the means of receiving Christ, those who lack faith cannot, in the nature of the case, truly receive Christ as he is offered in the sacrament. Rather, the offered gift, having been spurned, becomes to them a curse.
  7. The physical elements of bread and wine are first of all “visible words,” by which the body and blood of Christ are proclaimed and represented to us. Their particular physical properties are not arbitrary, but signify the nourishing (bread) and invigorating (wine) qualities of Christ’s body and blood. Moreover, they have the promise of Christ’s presence attached to them by a sacramental union, so that we know that Christ’s body and blood are exhibited in them and presented with or through [no unanimity in the tradition on the most appropriate wording here] them.
  8. The consecrated elements are the effectual means whereby Christ presents himself to the faithful, but should not be thought of as themselves the site of his presence—at least not the elements outwardly considered apart from the acts of distribution and reception. Accordingly, there is no room for veneration of the elements beyond any respect that might appropriately be shown to other vessels used in sacred actions.
  9. Moreover, the ordination of the Eucharist as a communal meal is by no means irrelevant. The ecclesial body is the body of Christ, and its unity is manifested in the eucharistic body, and in the communal reception thereof. Therefore no one can celebrate the eucharist individually.

(Note: Based on feedback, theses 7 and 8 have been restructured and reworded. They previously read:

7. Since Christ offers himself to the faithful as they receive the elements, he should not be thought of as properly present in the elements outwardly considered apart from the acts of distribution and reception. Accordingly, there is no room for veneration of the elements beyond any respect that might appropriately be shown to other vessels used in sacred actions.

8. However, the elements are not irrelevant. They are first of all “visible words,” by which the body and blood of Christ are proclaimed and represented to us. Their particular physical properties are relevant, in signifying the nourishing (bread) and invigorating (wine) qualities of Christ’s body and blood. Moreover, they have the promise of Christ’s presence attached to them by a sacramental union, so that we know that Christ’s body and blood are exhibited in and with them.) 

Constructive feedback and questions are welcome. I’ll try to actually stay on top of the comment moderation for once. 🙂


Richard Hooker Responds to Jay Adams

While reading through the works of Richard Hooker today, I had the good fortune to come across an obscure and forgotten treatise where he attacks the form of “biblical” approach to psychology and counseling that has in our own era been advocated by Jay Adams and the “nouthetic counseling” movement. He also defends other Christian approaches to psychology and counseling against the false charge of being unbiblical or disdainful of Scripture.

Whether it is necessary that some particular form of Christian counseling be set down in Scripture, since the things belonging to such a form are not necessary for salvation

wenceslaus-hollar-richard-hookerTherefore, since our opponents say that no form of Christian counseling is lawful, or of God, unless God has set it down in Scripture, I cannot help but ask whether they mean set down in Scripture in whole or in part. If they say in whole, I challenge them to show any form of counseling that ever was so set down. They will not dare to claim that their own is indeed comprehensively laid out in Scripture, nor will they deny that even ours, which they so detest, is at least in part taken from Scripture. I must also ask whether, when they speak of a psychology “taken from Scripture,” do they mean explicitly and specifically set down there, or simply that the general principles and rules can be found in Scripture? They cannot pretend the former, since not every part of their own approach is spelled out in Scripture; and as for the latter, if this is all they mean, they can hardly object against other forms of counseling! After all, such general principles do not prescribe any one particular form of counseling, but allow for many different sorts which may all embody these principles in different ways. Read More


The Perilous Business of Pastoring

I am grateful to Doug Wilson for his thoughtful response to my post yesterday on the matter of binding consciences. It offered a good opportunity, I think, to move the conversation forward in clarifying the central issues at stake, both for the purposes of the present kerfluffle and any others that might arise. I agree with almost everything he has to say at the level of principle, and my only concerns lie with how one might apply these principles to particular issues of controversial preaching and teaching.

But first, let me clear up two possible confusions.

First, let the record show that my essay was not intended primarily as “a contribution to the great pink hair discussion,” so much as an attempt to clarify some principles that underlie both it and a number of other discussions ongoing at Trinity Reformed Church about preaching, good hermeneutics, conscience binding, and Christian liberty. For myself, I must confess, I am probably a 9 out of 10 on the troglodyte scale when it comes to matters such as pink hair, piercings, yoga pants, and the rest, and were I a pastor, I would no doubt have to be restrained often by my dear wife from venting my huffy opinions on such subjects. That she ought to so restrain me, more often than not, I will proceed to fortify with arguments below. Read More


On Binding Consciences: The Word of God and the Words of Man

It’s tough being a pastor. I know because I’ve never dared try, but I’ve watched others try. Sure, you can always avoid preaching on anything so concrete and close to home as to ruffle any feathers, and some ministers have perfected the art of doing so for years on end. But as soon as he takes seriously his task as a shepherd of souls, the minister is likely to hear howls of indignation raised—he is a legalist, a killjoy, binding consciences and trampling on Christian liberty. Or perhaps, depending on his congregation, he may find himself accused of being a softie or an antinomian, refusing to man up and speak uncompromisingly to our culture.

Nor can the pastor take refuge in saying that his task is simply to proclaim the gospel. For the good news is, as Oliver O’Donovan has said, a “demanding comfort,”[1] and the task of pastoring means knowing how to apply both demand and comfort to the concrete lives of his flock, which will necessarily take the pastor beyond Scripture—if not its spirit, certainly its letter. To preach and pastor effectively, the minister must be waist-deep in the stuff of everyday life, the myriad personal, social, political, and cultural challenges that confront his congregation and that at every point draw them closer to or drag them further from the face of God. And Scripture, it must be said, does not address modern challenges like home mortgages or legalized gay marriage as such—obviously, it does address debt and sexuality, but these specific challenges that confront us, in all their concrete particularity and novelty, are not in view in the biblical text.

Or to put it another way: one task of the pastor is to name and confront sin in the lives of his congregants, but while sin resides in the heart, all he has to go on is behavior. In a few rare cases, a behavior is so unavoidably and automatically sinful that he does not have to see the heart to name it as sin; there is no innocent way to murder or commit fornication. But even here, some knowledge of circumstances is necessary—after all, if the man with the gun is an officer pursuing a dangerous criminal, he may not be guilty of murder, and if the man making love with the woman has secretly married her, it is not fornication. As we move beyond such non-negotiable norms as murder and adultery, these qualifications proliferate, so that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends greatly on circumstances, or intentions, or both. To be sure, Jesus says that “You shall know them by their fruit,” and someone’s outward actions may strongly suggest that something is not right within, but even where we feel reasonably confident making this judgment in the case of one individual we know well, it becomes much harder to universalize it. And when a pastor preaches or writes, he must name and rebuke sins in general; he cannot pause mid-sermon and say, “Now, in your case, Jimmy, this means that you are sinning whenever you do this, but given your different circumstances, Tammi, I’m not worried about your conduct here.”

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