Archives For Definitions

How do we understand God’s presence with suffering and pain? As pastors, how do we trust in and rest upon the Lord while giving pastoral care to those who are in the midst of deep suffering and pain? Often during these moments it feels like a Job-like experience, we believe and we trust, but it does not seem to make sense. And in the midst of it all, it feels like God has become silent.

This refers to the Deus absconditus, the hiddenness of God. This is when it is critical to remind those who are feeling God’s hiddenness of the truth of God’s presence, even if it is not felt. It is the heart of Jesus’ human experience on the cross. It is also the heart of a pastoral presence.

Colin B. Johnstone writes about God’s presence and human suffering in “Theophany & Theodicy: When the Inevitable Questions of Suffering Confront the Living God,” Touchstone (July/August 2017), 36-39. This was an unpublished paper written by his father, prior to his succumbing to Alzheimer’s.

For some context, Colin’s father “studied the Western classics, and became a theologian and then a applied theologian, spending 25 years in a cancer research hospital as a chaplain. He provided care for terminal patients, taught aspiring chaplains, and counseled scientists and medical doctors in the ethics of care and research.”

Since it is not available on-line, I include lengthy quotes from the article, so even though you will not get the full gist of the essay, I will attempt to give some context so you get the most out of the quotes I have included.

This article grounds theology in God, in his presence (theophany) in the midst of suffering and pain (theodicy), and it provides an excellent example of combining pastoral theology with pastoral practice.

In the introduction, he sets the context of the attempt to reconcile “belief in God’s goodness with the existence of evil and suffering,” and in particular with the existential, personal angst of “why me?” For the caregiver, the question is heard as coming from the head. For the sufferer, he utters the plea from the heart.

Questions of theodicy, questions concerning the reconciliation of belief in God’s goodness with the existence of evil and suffering, are among the passionate existential questions. They come out of my own story. “Why me?” is not a textbook question but rather a question that comes out of my life and stirs my passions every time it returns. I believe that the important existential questions do return repeatedly, for they are questions of the heart, not of the head. We may have excellent answers for the questions, but they do not quiet the heart’s ache. The heart cries, laments, and complains, and although it expresses itself in the language of a question, an answer will not satisfy the lament of the heart.

The biblical context he focuses on is Job, the man from Uz. Job is considered an “innocent sufferer,” who experiences a “cosmic ‘wager’ between the Lord and Satan,” and who was given inadequate answers by his “comforters.”

Johnstone concludes it is important to discern who is asking the question. Often the one giving counsel to the sufferer wants to respond to the intellectual question. Furthermore, it is done “by someone deeply disturbed by the suffering of someone else. It is usually offered in an attempt to change the person’s mind about his or her suffering, and it assumes that suffering is a human problem.” For the sufferer, it is more of an existential question than it is an intellectual objection.

However, the question changes considerably when it is actually the suffering asking the question. He writes that when the sufferer asks the question of “why me?, “it is often a private conversation between God and the sufferer.”  He continues,

I would not wish this reflection to be construed as an attempt to deny the value of struggling with the theodicy question. Caregivers, especially pastoral caregivers, need to “justify” the behavior of the One in whose name they come, but they should not confuse an adequate working theology of suffering with a pastoral methodology for easing suffering. Their care should not be used to stop the questioning; it should be used to help people who have stopped questioning to restate questions that remain unresolved. Several years ago, I suggested that the question “Why me?” asked by a sufferer ought to be listened to and the emotions responded to, but the question itself not answered. I argued that until the emotions were heard, the question couldn’t be dealt with. I wrote of venting emotions, differentiating the question and integrating it into a search for meaning. I stated that, very often, when the emotions are listened to, the question seems to lose its power and to no longer need an answer.

He speaks wise words for caregivers. We often are afraid of questions, and we do not like to leave questions unanswered. And when there are no questions, we conclude all is well. However, he communicates an important and helpful reminder writing, “they should not confuse an adequate working theology of suffering with a pastoral methodology for easing suffering. Their care should not be used to stop the questioning; it should be used to help people who have stopped questioning to restate questions that remain unsolved. . . . very often, when the emotions are listened to, the question seems to lose its power and to no longer need an answer.”

At the end of the day, Job did not get all of his questions answered. In fact, God responded to Job’s questions with questions of his own. Although Job did not receive answers, he encountered God’s presence through his word. Prior to this, his claim was God was silent. Now he spoke, not answering his questions, but with his presence.

It is the encounter with the living God that heals and transforms. When we explore the dynamics of Job’s healing, we see clearly that the very presence of God is sufficient. In this encounter, however, we must not ignore the content of the discourses, for that is also important. The Lord not only spoke out of the whirlwind, but also directed Job’s attention to the whole of creation. A sufferer is like an astronomical black hole that draws everything into itself. The Lord directs Job to look beyond himself to the total perspective of creation. It is as if he is saying, “Look around you, Job, and ponder the mysteries of creation. There are many things out there that you don’t understand but can still appreciate.” This calling out was a call to an encounter with the living God. Thus, theophany is experienced with fear and trembling, but there is also healing and resolution in the encounter. Job doesn’t have anything more to say, because God has come.

In essence, “Job doesn’t have anything more to say, because God has come.” In the words of Job, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2-6).

Here is his conclusion:

It has been my experience that my personal pain and suffering has been resolved by the caring presence of another person or the caring presence of God. It has also been my professional experience that suffering is eased and resolved by a Healing Presence and not by a brilliant answer to the theodicy question. One who has explored theodicy and has come to an acceptable answer will probably be more able to minister to the suffering, but he will also find that it is not the answer itself that helps but the calm, trusting presence of the caregiver.

Remember these two keys: (1) “It is the encounter with the living God that heals and transforms.” (2) “One who has explored theodicy and has come to an acceptable answer will probably be more able to minister to the suffering, but he will also find that it is not the answer itself that helps but the calm, trusting presence of the caregiver.”

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Cor. 1:2-5).

What thoughts do you have? How do you approach those who are suffering, those sufferers who are asking questions, those sufferers who have stopped asking questions, those who suffer with or because a loved one is suffering?

Patrick and St. Patrick’s Day

Greg Strand – March 17, 2017 6 Comments

Chicago celebrates St. Patrick’s Day by making the Chicago River green for the day. This annual tradition goes back to 1961.

When I served as a youth pastor, one St. Patrick’s Day celebration, I thought it would be fun to provide a breakfast for the youth and add green food coloring to everything. So, we had green orange juice, green milk, green butter, green eggs, green everything. Although food coloring does not change the taste, for some reason drinking green orange juice and green milk somehow just tasted different!

Like many of these celebrations, myth often overshadows the true and real story. Regarding Patrick (385-461) and his ministry in Ireland, there is a lot of myth, legend and embellishment. But once you sift that out, there is also truth, which far surpasses the myths. Although he was never recognized or acknowledged as a saint in the traditional Roman Catholic sense, he was considered the Apostle of Ireland.

One of the things I encourage you to do is to during these annual remembrances, rather than just let the day pass, is that you use it as an opportunity to study, to learn more about the person, in this case Patrick and his call to God and his call to Ireland, first as a slave and second as a missionary, so that you know the difference between what is truth and what is fiction.

Here are a couple of brief historical overviews of the history of Patrick. In this first one, Michael A. G. Haykin, professor of church history and biblical spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, writes about 10 Things You Should Know about St. Patrick

  1. Patrick was not Irish.
  2. Patrick left two genuine writings: his Confessionand his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus.
  3. Patrick’s conversion came as a result of his being taken as a slave to Ireland by Irish raiders.
  4. Patrick’s mission to Ireland from around AD 430 to 460 was virtually the only evangelistic mission in fifth-century Western Europe.
  5. Dreams play a prominent role at key turning-points in Patrick’s life, but Scripture was the central factor in the major decisions of his life.
  6. We have no idea if Patrick read any other books than the Bible, for that is the only book he ever quotes.
  7. Patrick’s love for the written words of the Bible was passed onto the Celtic church, which became the most learned body of churches in
  8. At the heart of Patrick’s faith was his love for the doctrine of the Trinity.
  9. Legends about Patrick are legion.
  10. Patrick’s mission to Ireland has been an inspiration to a number down through the years.

In this second historical recounting, Stephen Nichols, president of Reformation Bible College, chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and the host of the podcast 5 Minutes in Church History, asks and answers the question, Who Was Saint Patrick and Should Christians Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?

After a brief historical review of Patrick’s life and ministry, Nichols concludes with a prayer traditionally attributed to Patrick, one for which he is known. It is referred to as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.”

Christ with me,

Christ before me,

Christ behind me,

Christ in me,

Christ beneath me,

Christ above me,

Christ on my right,

Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down,

Christ when I sit down,

Christ when I arise,

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in every eye that sees me,

Christ in every ear that hears me.

A couple of years ago, David Dockery, president of TIU, established the Founders’ Day lecture series. He did so for the reason of learning our history for the first time, or for others to be reminded of our history.

It consists of a “two-day long event where students, faculty and staff of Trinity come together to celebrate the founding of the university and reexamine its history.” Foundational to our history, is a keen sense and awareness of the goodness and grace of God in sustaining his good work through the TIU, our EFCA school.

In this year’s third annual lecture, Doug Sweeney, Professor of Church History, chair of the Church History department, and director of the Jonathan Edwards Center, addressed the theme, “Immeasurably More Than We Asked or Imagined: The Trinity Story.” Sweeney “traced the institution’s history from its roots within the Scandinavian immigrant community to its present focus as a global institution.” (You can read a summary of Sweeney’s lecture here: Sweeney traces ‘The Trinity Story’ in Founders’ Day presentation.)

From its humble beginnings, God has used TIU to train and equip and compel into ministry for the Lord Jesus Christ 23,000 alumni living in 89 countries around the world.

In summary, Sweeney concludes,

Who could possibly have guessed that a school with such a pedigree—founded in a slum, transplanted several times, often tested by expansion and economic strain—would be used by the Lord in such a global way today? God has forged our identity through trial, to be sure. But He has done so in order to bless the church and the world, engineering a way of life and a culture here at Trinity that edifies us all.

It is great to hear once again our history, and to be reminded of God’s good providential plan, his “amazing grace,” that he has done a work that is “immeasurably more than we asked or imagined!”

“What is Catechism?”

Greg Strand – January 20, 2017 3 Comments

Catechisms have been used as a means/method of imparting truth and passing on the faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3). One of the early ones written in the wake of the Reformation was The Heidelberg Catechism

One of the main authors of this catechism was Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583). At the beginning of his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus included a section, “Special prolegomena with reference to the catechism.”

Ursinus’ prolegomena addresses five key issues:

  1. What is catechizing, or the system of catechization?
  2. Has it always been practiced in the church, or what is its origin?
  3. What are the principal parts thereof?
  4. Why is it necessary?
  5. What is its design?

Ursinus lists nine reasons for the necessity of teaching the catechism in the church, with a summarizing warning.

  1. Because it is the command of God . . .
  2. Because of the divine glory which demands that God be not only rightly known and worshipped by those of adult age, but also by children . . .
  3. On account of our comfort and salvation; for without a true knowledge of God and his Son Jesus Christ, no one that has attained to years of discretion and understanding can be saved, or have any sure comfort that he is accepted in the sight of God.
  4. For the preservation of society and the church.
  5. There is a necessity that all persons should be made acquainted with the rule and standard according to which we are to judge and decide, in relation to the various opinions and dogmas of men, that we may not be led into error, and be seduced thereby, according to the commandment which is given in relation to this subject . . .
  6. Those who have properly studied and learned the Catechism, are generally better prepared to understand and appreciate the sermons which they hear from time to time, inasmuch as they can easily refer and reduce those things which they hear out of the word of God, to the different heads of the catechism to which they appropriately belong, whilst, on the other hand, those who have not enjoyed this preparatory training, hear sermons for the most part, with but little profit to themselves.
  7. The importance of catechisation may be urged in view of its peculiar adaptedness to those learners who are of weak and uncultivated minds, who require instruction in a short, plain, and perspicuous manner, as we have it in the catechism, and would not, on account of their youth and weakness of capacity, be able to understand it, if presented in a lengthy and more difficult form.
  8. It is also necessary, for the purpose of distinguishing and separating the youths, and such as are unlearned, from schismatics and profane heathen, which can most effectually be done by a judicious course of catechetical instruction.
  9. A knowledge of the catechism is especially important for those who are to act as teachers, because they ought to have a more intimate acquaintance with the doctrine of the church than others, as well on account of their calling, that they may one day be able to instruct others, as on account of the many facilities which they have for obtaining a knowledge of this doctrine, which it becomes them diligently to improve, that they may, like Timothy, become well acquainted with the Holy Scriptures . . .

The summary: “A neglect of the catechism is, therefore, one of the chief causes why there are so many at the present day tossed about by every wind of doctrine, and why so many fall from Christ to Anti-Christ.”

A few questions of application:

  • What would you identify as weaknesses in the church today?
  • How do you address this personally in your own life and in the life of your family?
  • What content, plans and structure are in place to address it in the church?

On January 19, 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism was first published by Reformed scholars in Germany. This Catechism was written by Peter Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus, and espouses a Reformed view of theology. Shortly after its publication, it was accepted by most of the Reformed churches in Europe. It was originally written “to prepare a catechism for instructing the youth and for guiding pastors and teachers.”

As a catechism, its structure is that of a question followed by an answer. It also includes Scripture references supporting the responses. It consists of 129 questions and answers, and soon after it was published, it was structured to be read in a year, and thus divided into 52 sections to reflect the 52 weeks of the year. In the sixteenth century, the National Synods of the Reformed Church adopted the Three Forms of Unity, which consisted of the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and the Canons of Dort (1618-1619).

Here is a brief introduction to the Catechism:

The Heidelberg Catechism was written in Heidelberg at the request of Elector Frederick III, ruler of the most influential German province, the Palatinate, from 1559 to 1576. This pious Christian prince commissioned Zacharius Ursinus, twenty-eight years of age and professor of theology at the Heidelberg University, and Caspar Olevianus, twenty-six years old and Frederick’s court preacher, to prepare a catechism for instructing the youth and for guiding pastors and teachers. Frederick obtained the advice and cooperation of the entire theological faculty in the preparation of the Catechism. The Heidelberg Catechism was adopted by a Synod in Heidelberg and published in German with a preface by Frederick III, dated January 19, 1563. A second and third German edition, each with some small additions, as well as a Latin translation were published in Heidelberg in the same year.

The Catechism was soon divided into fifty-two sections, so that a section of the Catechism could be explained to the churches each Sunday of the year. In The Netherlands this Heidelberg Catechism became generally and favorably known almost as soon as it came from the press, mainly through the efforts of Petrus Dathenus, who translated it into the Dutch language and added this translation to his Dutch rendering of the Genevan Psalter, which was published in 1566. In the same year, Peter Gabriel set the example of explaining this catechism to his congregation at Amsterdam in his Sunday afternoon sermons.

The National Synods of the sixteenth century adopted it as one of the Three Forms of Unity, requiring office-bearers to subscribe to it and ministers to explain it to the churches. These requirements were strongly emphasized by the great Synod of Dort in 1618-19. The Heidelberg Catechism has been translated into many languages and is the most influential and the most generally accepted of the several catechisms of Reformation times.  

The first two questions frame the whole Heidelberg Catechism, and are foundational for the whole of the Christian life. These two questions and answers are worthwhile to memorize.

1.Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I am not my own,[1] but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death,[2] to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.[3] He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil.[5] He also preserves me in such a way[6] that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head;[7] indeed, all things must work together for my salvation.[8] Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life[9] and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.[10]

[1] I Cor. 6:19, 20 [2] Rom. 14:7-9. [3] I Cor. 3:23; Tit. 2:14. [4] I Pet. 1:18, 19; I John 1:7; 2:2. [5] John 8:34-36; Heb. 2:14, 15; I John 3:8. [6] John 6:39, 40; 10:27-30; II Thess. 3:3; I Pet. 1:5. [7] Matt. 10:29-31; Luke 21:16-18. [8] Rom. 8:28. [9] Rom. 8:15, 16; II Cor. 1:21, 22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13, 14. [10] Rom. 8:14. 

2.Q. What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?

A. First, how great my sins and misery are;[1] second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery;[2] third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.[3]

[1] Rom. 3:9, 10; I John 1:10. [2] John 17:3; Acts 4:12; 10:43. [3] Matt. 5:16; Rom. 6:13; Eph. 5:8-10; I Pet. 2:9, 10.

I have used the Heidelberg Catechism as a supplement to my Bible reading. I have also used it with my family as part of our family worship/devotions. I commend it to you as well.

In our Free Church history, creeds have been formative, but also considered a concern. This relationship is summarized by one as follows:

Creeds can become formal, complex, and abstract. They can be almost illimitably expanded. They can be superimposed on Scripture. Properly handled, however, they facilitate public confession, form a succinct basis of teaching, safeguard pure doctrine, and constitute an appropriate focus for the church’s fellowship in faith.

The same could be said for the relationship with the Free Church and confessions. Although they are foundational, the concerns of their abuses have often resulted in their lack of use. At their best, they have been foundational and formative to Christians and the propagation of the Christian faith for centuries. If one does not use a catechism for spiritual formation, what is being used? It is not that young people and adults are not being formed and shaped. The concern is that what they are being formed and shaped by and to is not substantive biblical and theological truth.

At our upcoming Theology Conference, “Reformation, 500: Theology and Legacy,” one of our lectures will address The Reformation, Creeds, Confessions and Catechisms You can read more about the Conference, the speakers and the schedule here, and you can register here.