If Believers Are Playing Instruments In Heaven, Why May We Not?

Whenever a defense is advanced for something like the historic Reformed understanding of the rule of worship one of the objections that regularly arises is this: if musical instruments are being used in Scripture, we may we not use them now in our worship? This question is a species of the broader question, “if x is done in Scripture (e.g., holy war, dancing in worship, or use of musical instruments), why may we not do x?” Let us consider the broader question first and then this particular question.

The (usually) unstated assumption behind the broader question is this: we are in the same place in redemptive history as the canonical actors. This is an unsustainable assumption. To put it directly: we are not Noah, Moses, David, or Elijah. Yes, Yahweh spoke quietly to Elijah (1 Kings 19:12) but you and I are not Elijah. You and I are not the typological Old Covenant mediator (Moses) with whom Yahweh met face to face. In some ways you and I, as New Covenant Christians, have a more glorious position, since we have that for which they longed: the clear revelation of God the Son incarnate. You and I, however, are not actors in the canonical drama. We are recipients of the story and we participate in it, in Christ, by identity but God is not giving new revelation nor is he accomplishing new acts of redemption. There is only one outstanding act of redemption to come that is the glorious, visible, bodily return of Christ.

Yes, David danced before the ark but as Calvin reminded us centuries ago (CO, 7.609) but he did not do so as an example for us to imitate any more than the Israelite holy wars are to be imitated today. The Lord clearly commanded the Israelites in Deuteronomy 20. The Lord commanded “when Yahweh your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword” (v. 13). If we are to be consistent in the way we are reading Scripture, any argument to take the Old Testament musical instruments must also take up the Old Testament command to conduct holy war. Yet, one does not see such an argument. Why not? We know that the Old Testament holy wars were typological (illustrative of heavenly and future realities) and completed with the death of Christ but we are reluctant to apply that logic to the use of musical instruments. Why not? The answer is fairly straightforward, if difficult to read: musical instruments are familiar and pleasant but holy war is unfamiliar and unpleasant.

2 Chronicles 29:25–28 connects inextricably the religious use of musical instruments to the Old Covenant ceremonies that we know to have been fulfilled by the life and death of Jesus:

And he stationed the Levites in the house of Yahweh with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from Yahweh through his prophets. The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded that the burnt offering be offered on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song to Yahweh began also, and the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David king of Israel. The whole assembly worshiped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded. All this continued until the burnt offering was finished (ESV).

Yahweh commanded the very priests who were shedding the blood of animals also to play musical instruments in religious worship. Those instruments were splattered figuratively (and perhaps literally) with the blood of bulls and goats.  Christians regularly appeal to the use of musical instruments under the Old Covenant as grounds for using them today but they recoil when it suggested that we follow the pattern to its logical end.

The book of Hebrews is clear that the Old Covenant worship (cultus) was typological, that it has been fulfilled by Christ and that any return to it is an insult to the finished work of Christ. This argument was at the heart of the Protestant response to the thirteenth-century doctrine of the memorial, propitiatory (satisfying and wrath-turning), memorial, figurative re-sacrificing of Christ in the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper). Trent’s ratification of the 4th Lateran Council was in direct contradiction to the virtually the entire book of Hebrews.

Yet, when it began to suit us in the 17th century (in the Netherlands) and later in the 18th and 19th centuries in the British Isles and in USA, we began to do the very thing for which we had criticized the Romanists in the 16th century. We had begun to clean off the blood, as it were, from the types and shadows and to restore them to Christian worship. To be sure, it had been done in the 16th century by the Lutherans but even Thomas Aquinas ridiculed the use of musical instruments by Christians as “judaizing.” Everyone knew that the early church had unequivocally and strongly rejected the use of musical instruments on the same grounds and that, though the organ had been introduced into Christian worship in the 7th century in Spain (in one place), they were hardly used even in the middle ages. They were forbidden from Papal masses as inappropriate for such a solemn occasion.

These examples illustrate the grave biblical, theological, logical, and historical problems with the broader argument: if believers did x in Scripture we may we not do it now? We may not do it now because those actions were peculiar to that period of redemptive history. This is why the apostles did not take the sword against pagans. This is why they preached Christ and called pagans to repentance and faith. This is why they sang God’s Word in worship without the ceremonies of the typological period of redemptive history. They knew where they were in redemptive history.

So too, we need to realize where we are. We are not in the canon. We are recipients of the canon. We are not actors in the story except by identification. We are recipients of the story. This basic principles will help us understand how to approach the Revelation.

The question before concerns what the church ought to do in public worship. Christians often ask, “If they did x in Scripture, why may we not do them now?” In part 1 we considered the problems associated with this approach to Scripture, which blurs the line between the canonical history of redemption and us, who are recipients of the benefits of those acts of redemption. We also noted that this approach is almost always employed selectively, even arbitrarily. We are tempted to cherry pick those things that we might like to do, e.g., dance before the ark like David or play the harp in worship like the Levitical priests. Few Christians, however, want to identify the Canaanites in their region, let alone go to war against them nor do they wish to carry a lamb to the front of church and slit its throat. So, in this approach, we may have liturgical dancing and literal harps (or their equivalent) but we may not literally go to war with pagans. This, however is to re-institute, in the New Covenant, Old Covenant types and shadows (Heb 8:5; 10:1; Col 2:17).

A species of the general argument addressed in part 1 is the argument from the Revelation. The question is this: since, in the Revelation, we see instruments being used in heaven, why may we not use them now? There might be a certain prima facie attraction to this argument if we think of the history of redemption. After all, the Revelation was given in the New Covenant, after the fulfillment of types and shadows. Further, we do legitimately appeal to the Revelation 1:10 as evidence for the existence and practice of the Christian’s Lord’s Day.

Despite its attraction of there are insurmountable problems to this approach to the Revelation.  First, we must recognize that most of the first three chapters of the Revelation are rather different from the succeeding chapters. We know a fair bit about the actual (not symbolic) churches in Asia Minor to which the Revelation was sent and when (c. 93 AD). On this see e.g., Colin Hemer, Letters to the Seven Churches (1986). So, it is one thing to appeal to Rev 1:10 and another to appeal to chapter 5 as grounds for our practice.

Second, as a general rule, we ought to be careful about how we appeal to the Revelation as a justification for our practice. The Revelation was given by the Spirit, through the Apostle John, to the churches of Asia Minor (and to us) in order to help us get a broad overview of the movement of history between the ascension of our Lord and his return. Its purpose is not to provide detailed practical guidance in worship or in public works (e.g., Rev. 21:21). The Revelation was not given to guide Christians in the details of their practice. As a general rule, when we appeal to a text to answer a question which it does not intend to answer we must be sure that our inferences are legitimate. There are good reasons to doubt the legitimacy of the argument, “we see instruments used in heavenly worship, therefore we are justified in using them in Christian worship.”

Third, those places in which we see references to musical instruments being used are set solidly in the most symbolic literature in all of Holy Scripture. Just for that fact we should be very cautious. E.g., early in chapter 4 as the book shifts to the vision of heaven (this is the Ἀποκάλυψις) heaven is presented to us in symbolic terms:

Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal (Rev 4:4–6; ESV).

Are we to think that there are 24 thrones, elders, literal lightening, literal torches? Probably not. Why not? Because there are not literally “seven spirits of God.” Seven is a perfect number. To say “seven spirits” is to communicate the perfection of God the Spirit. The Apostle John is not teaching us a that God is really one God in eight persons. There is not a literal sea of glass before Christ’s throne. In Revelation 5:13 our Lord is said to be sitting but in v. 6 not only is our Lord said to be standing but he is said to be “a Lamb…”. Our Lord is “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29) but he not literally a lamb. There is no literal scroll (βιβλίον). Again, this is not liberalism. This is recognizing the highly symbolic nature of the Revelation. The Belgic Confession (1561; art. 37) recognizes this when it says that the books that are to be opened is a symbolic way of talking about our consciences.

Recognizing the intent and genre of the Revelation, we are prepared to consider the specific question of the function of the instruments. Revelation 5:8 says, “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp (κιθάραν), and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (ESV). Please notice that the Revelation itself tells us that these are symbols. There is not literal incense in heaven. Scripture says, “which are the prayers of the saints.” If there is not literal incense then to say or assume that we are to imagine literal instruments is not only implausible but a failure to pay attention to the clear hermeneutical (interpretative) instructions in the text itself. The argument that the heavenly instruments are grounds for our practice now rests on the assumption that the instruments are literal but to claim that they are literal though the incense (and all of the other features of this aspect of the vision) are figurative is nothing but special pleading (cherry picking). If, however, we are concede that the instruments are figurative but they may remain a basis for our use of instruments on earth, then how can we possibly deny those who would demand that we use incense in our worship services? We cannot. On that reading and logic to refuse to use incense would be purely arbitrary.

This entire argument, of course, misses the point of the Revelation. We are arguing about something that never entered the mind of the Apostle John and that is entirely outside the purpose of the Revelation. What we have in chapter 5 is a vision of heaven. To help us think about heaven, to give us a way to understand something that quite transcends our ability to understand fully, John uses images of OT temple worship. John sees a stringed instrument (κιθάραν). In 1 Corinthians 14:7 it is usually translated as “harp.” We see this instrument frequently in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures) as in e.g., Psalm 32:2: “Give thanks to Yahweh with the lyre (ἐν κιθάρᾳ); make melody to him with the harp of ten strings (ψαλτηρίῳ δεκαχόρδῳ)! See also Psalm 42:4; 56:9; 72:22; 80:3; 91:4 etc. This is the imagery and language from 2 Chronicles 29:25: “And he stationed the Levites in the house of Yahweh with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from Yahweh through his prophets.” The terms used in the LXX vary from the terms John uses but the imagery is identical. The point of John’s vision in Revelation 5 is for beleaguered believers to lift their eyes to heaven to see something of eternity, to see something of the glory of the ascended Lord Jesus, that he lives, that he has indeed conquered, that he is sovereign, and that he is returning.

To be consistent with the logic that would have us using instruments because they are used in heaven, we should have not only to add incense to our worship services and unplug the guitars (the κιθάρα was acoustic, not electric) but a throne, and “living creatures”  to name but a few things. It does not seem too much to say that such an approach to the Revelation verges on absurdity.

We may confirm this approach to the cultic-musical imagery in the Revelation by looking at Revelation 15:2, which says “And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands” (ESV).

The beast is a figure. The sea of glass is a figure. The image and the number are figures. The harps are figures. These are not patterns for Christian worship. At the very same time this revelation was originally given to the churches in Asia Minor those congregations were singing God’s Word (in response to his Word read and preached) a cappella. We know from early second-century testimony that the early Fathers were opposed to musical instruments. Polycarp at least knew the Apostle John. There is no of any transition from instruments to a cappella singing in the early church. They early Fathers believed that they were following the Apostolic pattern. That fact is not itself definitive but lends credence to the proposed and historic interpretation of the Revelation and to the traditional understanding of the apostolic practice. It would be incongruous to say that the Revelation us instructing us to use instruments when the earliest Christians in the late 1st century and the early 2nd century knew nothing of the sort.

The temptation to find what we want in Scripture can be almost overwhelming at time. The deep emotional attachment that many of us have to musical instruments creates severe problems for the project of recovering early Reformed and early patristic worship patterns. Since, however, we confess that Scripture is the unique and final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life we must be willing to criticize even our most dearly held practices, things that we have come to love, that have deep personal significance, by Scripture read in the light of history. More fundamentally, we must adopt a more tenable and sustainable way of reading Scripture generally and the Revelation in particular.

This essay first appeared serially on the Heidelblog in June, 2017.

S-T-O-P Means Stop

In 25 years of ministry one of the most profound changes I’ve seen is the growing inability and/or unwillingness of Americans to read texts according to the intent of the author. One of the major reasons for this change was the mutation of the Modernism in North America from rationalism and empiricism to subjectivism. Mind you both forms of Modernism have much in common. In both cases the subject of the verb is always the autonomous “I.” For the rationalist “I get to decide what is reasonable and true on the basis of what I can know comprehensively.’ For the empiricist, “I decide what is true on the basis of sense experience.” The subjectivist says, “Truth is what is true for me.” In that sense, the starting point hasn’t changed but in other respects things have changed.

The argument with rationalists and empiricists was not whether there is such a thing as objective reality (that which is true regardless of my experience of it) but whether it is “reasonable” to believe a truth claim on the basis of an authority or source that transcended my intellect or sense experience. Now the discussion has devolved into the question whether there is anything that isn’t me or my imagination or my experience. Do “you” really exist?

The Late Modern Sea Change
All that to say subjectivism was washing over the American university just as I graduated. I heard rumblings but I didn’t pay attention. At seminary we were still largely fighting with the higher critics and old modernists (mostly rationalists) so I didn’t really see it there even though we had some brief discussions about the subjective turn in hermeneutics to “reader reception” and the like. It seemed like a fad. When I got to the UK in 1993, however, I discovered that it was not a fad and I had to catch up. The language of the university had changed while I wasn’t looking.

In the years since the consequences of this turn have become clearer. It is increasingly difficult to get readers to move beyond their subjective experience of the text to the text itself in its original context, to ask when did the author write it? To whom? Why and what did he intend to communicate? These questions, which my 9th-grade Journalism teacher, Mrs Chafee taught us were basic, are now regarded as quaint and outmoded. Are they really?

Consider this example: when a subjectivist author writes a document attempting to persuade us that the reader’s experience/reception of a text is as important or more important than the author’s intention, that subjectivist author necessarily expects us to read his document according to his intention. If we refuse and receive his words as communicating something about cosmic grasshoppers the entire communication process is frustrated. For the purposes of telling us to do to other authors what he does not want us to do to his words, our subjectivist author must rely on the old-fashioned idea of authorial intent. He must rely on the notion that the author had an intent, that words are signals of that intent, and that the intent can be inferred by understanding the words—that there is perspicuity in language, that it is a vehicle for meaning. Only after reading the subjectivist author are we to begin reading other texts as if the reader’s experience trumps all.

In that case then we’re just playing a game that defies the nature of creation, the nature of the created order and pattern. God gave us language not, first of all, to facilitate my subjective experience, to do with whatever I autonomously will, but in order to facilitate communication between the Creator and his image bearer and secondarily to facilitate communication between image bearers. Of course, the fall corrupted the process. Signs are not as easy to read because our perception is corrupted and because our wills, our affections, and our intellects are corrupted. Nevertheless, God has pledged to restrain the effects of the fall (Gen 9) so that life can continue, albeit brokenly, and communication can continue, albeit haltingly, until the end.

Please do not misunderstand. I understand that readers necessarily receive texts and that, in some way, their experience of the text is distinct from that of the author, that the reader may justifiably perceive messages in the text of which the author was not conscious. This is true in the case of the NT reception of the authors of the typological revelation (the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament in the broad sense of that term). John understood aspects of Isaiah that Isaiah himself probably did not understand. The NT interprets Psalms 110 repeatedly in ways that David probably did not understand fully.

This process occurs even with uninspired texts. Readers do decode messages of which the author was perhaps not aware but recognizing the power of creative reading is not quite the same thing as ignoring the author’s intent or denying that the author had an intent. Again, you might take this post to be a secret message from a cosmic grasshopper but I’m telling you that it is no such thing. In the nature of the created order, words bear a relation to the things they intend to signify. For the purposes of this discussion it doesn’t matter whether that relation is fixed by nature (realism) or fixed by convention (nominalism) so long as the intent of the sign is understood in a substantially similar way by author and reader.

Consider The Stop Sign
Consider the lowly stop sign. S-T-O-P. In English we add those letters to make a word. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it’s an Old English word derived from Saxon and West Germanic words. It may be used as a noun to refer to a bucket or to something that plugs up something. In the case of a stop sign, however, it would not seem to be a noun. That would make the sign an announcement: “Here is something that plugs up something else.” That’s true in a way. A stop sign does momentarily impede cars but is that the intent of the author (in this case the city council) of the sign? Probably not. So, we move on to the the next possibility: a verb. Again, it’s an Old English word with relatives all across Europe. As a verb it may mean “To fill up, plug, close up.” If it’s a verb, what sort of verb it is? In what voice? If we take it as an indicative (what is) does that work? “Things stop.” Well, they do, yes but why would the city council post signs across town announcing that? It seems unlikely. If, however, we take it as an imperative (“do this!”) then it begins to make sense in context.

After all, these signs tend to occur at intersections where autos must negotiate a limited space at the same time but what sort of imperative? If the noun means “a plug” does that mean that the city council wants us all to congest intersections and impede traffic? Probably not. Why would the council want that? To what end? Why would we allow them to tax us in order to post signs to slow our way home from work? Thus, if it is an imperative it must mean something else. In context, it seems most likely that the intent is to require us to cease moving forward long enough to allow others to move or to make sure the way is clear before we continue. Imagine if we chose to ignore the intent of the city council in posting the signs? Chaos!

Most likely someone told us what STOP on a red sign means but this exercise shows that even if no one told us what the signs meant it is possible to decode messages according to original intent by considering the signal in its immediate and broader context. We are able to infer a likely meaning and confirm that inference by experience. In fact, we would probably make all of those decisions very quickly.

Consider The Constitution
In what follows we will consider a more complicated text because it is longer and its original context is farther away from us but I am confident that we can apply the same principles and arrive at a reasonable understanding of its original intent and sense. I understand that what we are about to discuss is a controversial topic but that is why it needs to be discussed because we have before us a living example of the necessity of reading texts in their original context, according to original intent. To be sure: The point I am making here is first of all about hermeneutics (the interpretation of texts). Whether we should decide to agree with the text in question is another matter.

A prime example is the second amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution was ratified in 1788 and amended with the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791. The second amendment says:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

This amendment is usually analyzed to include two parts: a preface, “A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state” and an operative clause, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

There was debate among the framers as to whether a Bill of Rights was needed. The Federalists opposed the Bill of Rights on the grounds that it was superfluous. The Anti-Federalist argument, however, that a statement of specific rights was necessary to keep the government at bay and to protect individual liberties won the day. The original intention of the framers was that ordinary civilians, who composed the state militias (something like the modern state National Guard units), had to be armed in order to form a regulated militia. For some time the preface more or less dominated the operative clause (“shall not be infringed”)  in the interpretation of the amendment.

Interestingly, this leveraging of the operative clause by means of the preface has the appearance of reading the amendment in context while denying the substance of the operative clause. The reasoning has been to the effect that: “We’re not in the 18th century any longer and we don’t have the same sort of state militias any longer and therefore the second amendment can be re-contextualized and re-interpreted to allow civil governments to ban the ownership of weapons.”

Such a reading, however, ignores the intent of the preface and the operative clause. The intent was that the people should be able to defend themselves. If weapons are banned they are no longer able to defend themselves.

In recent case law, however, the situation has changed. There is a helpful, brief summary of the state of the law at FindLaw. Here are two salient paragraphs:

In Heller, the Court held that (1) the District of Columbia’s total ban on handgun possession in the home amounted to a prohibition on an entire class of “arms” that Americans overwhelmingly chose for the lawful purpose of self-defense, and thus violated the Second Amendment; and (2) the District’s requirement that any lawful firearm in the home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock also violated the Second Amendment, because the law made it impossible for citizens to use arms for the core lawful purpose of self-defense.

The Court reasoned that the Amendment’s prefatory clause, i.e., “[a] well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” announced the Amendment’s purpose, but did not limit or expand the scope of the operative clause, i.e., “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Moreover, the prefatory clause’s history comported with the Court’s interpretation, because the prefatory clause stemmed from the Anti-Federalists’ concern that the federal government would disarm the people in order to disable the citizens’ militia, enabling a politicized standing army or a select militia to rule.

Private Individuals have a constitutional right to keep and carry firearms in order to prevent tyranny. As the founders looked at the world, according to their intention in framing the second amendment, to infringe upon that right is an act of tyranny. The constitution did not specify which weapons lawful citizens could keep and carry. It did not envision that law-abiding citizens should even have to apply for a permit to own or carry a firearm. The historical fact is that people kept and carried military-style weapons in the 18th century, when this amendment was adopted. Therefore, it cannot be unconstitutional to keep and carry military-style weapons. We know they did so because that’s what it takes to form a well-regulated militia.

One of the challenges we face in interpreting texts is that of de-contexualization. This is the removal of the text in question and setting it down in another context altogether. In university we did this by only discussing the second amendment in terms of whether people should be allowed to own firearms for the purposes of hunting. We never discussed the second amendment in its original context, according to its original intent. The great difficulty with such a procedure is that hunting has nothing to do with the language or original intent or original context of the second amendment. The only purpose stated in the amendment is the purpose of self-defense.

Reading the amendment against the backdrop of the original setting we can understand why this would be. The United States of America was formed out of a rebellion against a colonial power that was believed by the rebels to by tyrannical and contradictory to the nature of civil government. Were the colonialists unarmed there could have been no rebellion.

The other flaw in de-contextualizing the second amendment and re-contextualizing it in terms of hunting is that it creates a misleading picture of the nature of the weapons that were possessed by the colonists. They owned and carried military grade weapons. Their ownership of military grade weapons was essential to their liberation from British tyranny.

If “tyranny” seems like a strong word, consider just some of the complaints we Americans lodged against the British crown in the Declaration of Independence (1776):

  • He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
  • He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
  • He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
  • He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
  • He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
  • He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
  • He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
  • He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
  • He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
  • For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
  • For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
  • For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
  • For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
  • For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
  • For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
  • For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
  • He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
  • He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
  • He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

“Tyranny” was the word used by the founders in the Declaration:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

It is against these complaints that we must understand the phrase, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They were thinking of the instances in which British crown had denied the same to the colonists.

The third argument I used to hear in university was, “Society has changed. We’re a densely populated urban society and the constitution was adopted by an agrarian society.” One is  hard pressed to see how the urbanization of the USA changes the intent or force of the constitution. Could not such an argument be used to obliterate more than just the second amendment? If so, how is this a valid argument? “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is not contingent upon whether we live in urban, suburban, or rural settings. Either we are free or we are not.

The fourth argument: “the founders never envisioned x type of weapon.” Let’s test the validity of this sort of argument by applying it to the first Amendment. When the Bill of Rights was ratified the main forms of mass media were newspapers and pamphlets. We’re now witnessing the extinction of print newspapers and pamphlets. On this argument should we suppose that the first amendment guarantee of the freedom of the press only applies to print newspapers?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

My grandparents couldn’t have envisioned the internet and they were alive for the invention of the airplane and the moon landing. We can be sure that the founders, who rebelled more than 130 years before my grandparents were born never envisioned the internet but they did understand the propensity of government to encroach on the natural liberties granted by God to citizens.

This is why the founders wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Is there any reasonable doubt that the rebels who wrote these words thought that the people, in whom they believed to reside original authority to form a government and even to rebel against the existing government, should not be allowed to arm themselves in order to preserve the liberty for which they were about to die?

The point is this: if we read the Bill of Rights in its original context, according to its original intent, neither the creation of the internet nor the development of firearms from muskets to semi-automatic firearms makes any difference. Their intent was that Americans would be free to publish dissent from the government and that they would be sufficiently well-armed to keep the government in check.

The second amendment, read in context, according to original intent, has nothing to do with sport or hunting. The founders never envisioned that the government would restrict hunting since, in the 18th century, that would have meant starvation. Sport shooting was simply a correlate to hunting. They didn’t have to stipulate these things. They were essential to existence and that had been established, for the purposes of the formation of the Republic, in the Declaration.

As a well-known pundit has been known to say, “words mean things.” Indeed they do. They are signals of intent. Readers of words may disagree with the intent and they may want to change the words or persuade others to use different words with different intent but before any of that can happen we must first recognize the intended sense of the words before us.

The Cruelty Of Nominalism

Are Symbols Arbitrary?
Recently there has been considerable controversy generated in a university classroom where the prof required students to create a sign with the word “Jesus” on it and then to step on the same. One student, a Mormon, refused and was disciplined for his refusal. The governor of Florida became involved but apparently the teacher has not been sanctioned in any way.

Now it emerges that, in the instructor’s guide apparently used by college professors (really? When did university professors and graduate students begin using instructor’s guides? But I digress), the author asserts

This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings.

This claim begins to explain, ahem, what is afoot. Why on earth would a university professor ask his class to do something so provocative and moreover why is it that, apparently, only one person objected to the exercise? The prof was catechising his pupils in the dominant religion of our late modern age and most of the students were either afraid of the academic consequences of disobedience or already agreed with the premise: nominalism, i.e., the relation between a sign (signum) and the thing signified (res signata) is actually arbitrary. The corollary to this now widely accepted premise says that anyone who asserts a stable relation between sign and thing signified is only covering up a will to power.

You know about this debate and you’ll recognize it when we consider it in more familiar terms. First the secular then, in the next post, the sacred. When you hand a dollar bill (if anyone still does that any more) to a clerk, she accepts that bill as a symbol of 100 pennies. Considered on its own, not as a symbol, the materials that make the dollar are not worth 100 pennies, especially if those are older pennies with copper (they are now made of zinc). Why, then, does the clerk accept the dollar as if it were worth 100 pennies? Because the government says it is worth 100 pennies. From the 1930s through the early 1970s there was some relation between the dollar and an actual valuable commodity, gold but that relationship ended and now the dollar is backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States.” What that is worth is the subject of another post and perhaps another blog altogether.

Thus, in our current economy, when we hand a dollar bill to a clerk and he accepts it, we are practical nominalists. In that instance both clerk and customer assume the relation between the sign (the dollar bill) and the thing signified (100 pennies) is the result of a convention or agreement. We agree that the dollar is worth 100 pennies even though the dollar bill, considered as a commodity, is not actually worth 100 pennies.  Theoretically, the dollar bill could be worth 50 pennies or 1000 pennies. The relation between them is arbitrary.

In the pre-modern era, we exchanged commodities. If one wanted something of value, one had to exchange something of equal or greater value but trading chickens across a counter became burdensome. Thus, we “rationalized” the economy, we substituted signs for the thing signified. Typically, however, we understood that there was a stable relation between the sign (a coin) and the thing signified or the coin might actually be made of valuable commodities (e.g., gold or silver). Put in medieval theological and philosophical terms, prior to the 1930s we tended to be realists when it came to money. We understood a close relation between the coin and what the coin represents. Since the early 1970s, however, we have become nominalists. We have agreed to a more fluid or even arbitrary relation between coin and commodity.

I’m not an economist nor do I play on television nor am I a “gold bug” exactly. I understand that there were certain deficiencies with the gold standard but there were also certain advantages. The main point here is to come to a clearer understanding of what nominalism and what its consequences are. My thesis is that many of us living in the late modern world, particularly those who are 30 and under, are nominalists and we do not realize it. Those who are over thirty are more likely to assume a more stable relation between signs and things signified, i.e., they tend to more realist in the the way they relate signs and thing signified. They tend to be less suspicious of assertions that “this is true.” To those 30 and under, the assertion that one proposition is true and the other false is more likely to ring hollow and raise suspicion that the person making the claim is really hiding an ulterior agenda. They are suspicious about truth claims because they already assume that the relation between signs (e.g., words) and things signified (e.g., truth) is fluid or non-existent.

Consider how the argument is being mediated to you: a computer. What is a computer? It is a glorified adding machine fiddling with zeroes and ones. Why zeroes and ones? Some decided to do it that way. It’s arbitrary. It could be ones and twos. Why is the keyboard the way it is? It’s arbitrary. There were other keyboards. Why are stop lights red, yellow, and green? It’s arbitrary. Things could be other than they are. Growing up in a fluid world, which Zygmunt Baumann has described as “liquid modernity” has created a generation of skeptics and doubters.

Scott Jaschik, who wrote on this controversy today, points out that the instructor’s guide does not say to “stomp on Jesus” but misses the point. He begs the question (assumes what has to be proved) and accepts the reigning nominalism, that there is no relation between the sign and the thing signified or that the relation is purely arbitrary. Juan Williams at Fox News does the same from an even more emotive, subjectivist perspective. The objection, that students were required to step on a sign and not on the thing signified, misunderstands the outcry (which is probably coming mostly from those over 30 and probably mostly over 40). Everyone can see that a sign is not the thing signified but we cannot simply assume, as Jaschik does (and as Jim Neuliep, the author of the instructor’s guide does), that the relation is purely arbitrary or that there is no relation at all. Note that Juliep has been leading this exercise for 30 years. That is significant because it is in that same time span that the radical decoupling of signs from the things signified has penetrated the broader, popular culture, including evangelical and Reformed communions.

An Example From the Sacred
It is widely held in our time that the relation between signs and the things signified is arbitrary. Traditionally, such a view has been known as nominalism. In the first installment we considered a secular example (money) to illustrate the problem of the decoupling of signs and things signified.

To give a sacred example, when a believer comes to the Lord’s Table to receive the bread and the wine, what is he receiving? If your first thought was “the body and blood of Christ” you’re headed in the right direction. On reflection, however, other questions follow? How do believers eat the body and blood of Christ? What is the relation between the sign (signum), bread and wine, and the thing signified (res signata), i.e., Christ’s body? There are four major options:

  • The signs signify (testify to) the body of Christ in which he was conceived, obeyed, died, and was raised but they only signify. Thus the relation is purely intellectual or memorial.
  • The signs signify (as defined) the body of Christ (as defined) and through them the Spirit feeds us on the body of Christ.
  • The signs signify the body of Christ, which is locally present in, with, and under the signs.
  • The signs become the body.

The first was Zwingli’s view. Yes, I’m familiar with W. P. Stephens’ argument but am not persuaded. Even in his most mature writings Zwingli never moved beyond a memorialist view. This is the view held by most post-Second Great Awakening American evangelicals and by many Reformed/Presbyterian laity.

The second was the view articulated by some of the second-century Fathers, Ratramnus and others in the 9th century, by most of the Reformed in the classical period (including Calvin) and is confessed by the Reformed churches.

The third is the confessional Lutheran view.

The fourth is the Romanist view, first articulated by Radbertus (in controversy with Ratramnus) in the 9th century and formally adopted at the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 and ratified at the Council of Trent in 1562. Contra the frequent claims by Romanists it was not taught by Irenaeus in the second century.

These views of the Lord’s Supper (holy communion, the eucharist) illustrate four different relations between signs and things signified. You can see immediately that how one relates signs to things signified has great spiritual, theological, and practical significance. In the life of the church many are unwilling to administer communion frequently because they think of the supper as a memorial or as a funeral. It involves an intense grieving process and the idea of enduring such a wrenching thing every week is too much to bear.

Those who think of the supper principally as a sacramental meal in which we are fed by the body of Christ mysteriously, by work of the Holy Spirit, are more likely to favor more frequent communion. The weight of the sacrament is upon being met and fed by Christ and upon the visible sealing the promises of the gospel. When we consider Christ’s death we must consider our sins, and that is sad, but the gospel is good news and the supper is fundamentally gospel.

The Lutheran view has much in common with the Reformed but by locating the thing signified within the the sign it threatens the very existence of the sign itself. As Ratramnus argued in the 9th century, our faith does not make Christ present but faith is essential to receiving Christ. No one receives Christ without faith. That would be magic. Since faith, trusting Christ’s promises is the sole instrument by which we receive Christ and his benefits (<em>sola fide</em>), those who locate Christ within the elements or who—even worse—claim that the signs become the thing signified destroy faith and thus, in their attempt to ensure Christ’s presence have actually, ironically, as it were chased him away.

Thus, we find ourselves between two poles, that which makes the sign essentially arbitrary and that which conflates the sign with the thing signified. A picture of a horse is not a horse. If one places that picture on the ground and saddle it, one will not go far. One has saddled a picture, not a horse. If, however, the only relation between the picture and the horse is in our intellect or in our memory of the horse, then the relation between the sign and the thing signified is fluid and unstable.

This is last option is the one I want to consider with you for a moment. Now, not everything is a sacrament. There are only two sacraments and a sacramental relation is different than the ordinary relation between signs and things signified. A picture of a horse is a sign but not a sacramental sign. There are no divine promises of salvation attached to the picture of the horse. Nevertheless, the relation between the picture and the horse is important.

The Hermeneutic of Love
One of the great and evil things that has beset the late modern world is the destruction of the hitherto stable relations between the sign (e.g., a word, a picture) and the thing signified. I’m grateful to my old friend Warren Embree for alerting me to this problem in the mid-1980s in discussions and later in Warren C. Embree, “Ethics and Interpretation,” PhD Diss. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1991). Much of that work was a reflection on Augustine’s account of the relation between signs and seals but it was also an argument for what he called a “hermeneutic of love” in contrast to the then wildly popular, late modern, deconstructionist “hermeneutic of suspicion.” In the second half of the 20th century it became quite popular to argue that there are no stable relations between signs and things signified, that the relation is arbitrary. It was suggested that those who argue for a stable relation between signs and things signified were really just asserting power over others, by seeking to control them through controlling the meaning of words. In short, part of the argument was whether the relations between signs and things signified is a matter of truth or a matter of power. Behind that argument lies an even more fundamental argument: whether God is, whether he has created nature and whether as a part of his creation he has willed a stable relation between signs and things signified.

The relation between signs and things signified was a matter of considerable debate through the middle ages. Peter Abelard (1079–1142) , for most of his career, taught a strong form of nominalism. This provoked a reaction from his critics (e.g., Bernard of Clairveaux, 1090–1153) and brought condemnation of his theology (for modalism in the doctrine of the Trinity).

There was another school of thought in the middle ages, realism, that identified the names with things named via their essences. For the realists (via antiqua) the intellect abstracts the universals from particulars (e.g., sense experience) of this thing and that. Those essences were said to belong to the divine being. This down and dirty summary is bound to upset historians of philosophy but the upshot is that the realists managed to put both God and the creation in a box of sorts. They set up a world in which things couldn’t be other than they are and the realist knew how they could be, how they had to be.

This realism provoked a reaction from nominalists such as William of Ockham (c. 1280–1350), who taught that the relations between names and things named is a mere convention. Where the realists said universals are real, Ockham and the nominalists (via moderna) argued that it is particulars that real and universals are illusory. This is why Ockham proposed his “razor,” to eliminate what he saw as unnecessary assumptions about the nature of being.

Contrary to the way the story is sometimes told, the Reformation was not product of nominalism. It is true that Ockham and others did make it possible to reconsider some long held assumptions but the Reformation itself was not a species of nominalism but neither was it a species of realism. How then did they relate signs to the things signified? On the basis of the divine nature and will. In Calvin, e.g., God’s Word is reliable because it is true to the divine nature. God wills what he does because he is what he is, i.e., his will is consonant with his nature. Thus, signs are the product of the divine will and the divine will is related to the divine nature. As a consequence, the relations between signs and things signified is stable because the divine will and nature are stable.

In the modern period, i.e., the early stages of neo-paganism, for those who accepted the renewed, Enlightenment assertion of the ancient, pagan maxim that “man is the measure of all things” (Protragoras d. 411 BC) the God of the Christian faith became, at best, a hypothesis, a limiting notion. Really the mysterious, dynamic, powerful God of Scripture and of the historic Christian confession became a remote deity incapable of knowing or being known. Still, the relations between signs and things signified was generally considered stable but now not so much because of what God had ordained or even because of the nature of God but because of the prevailing rationalism of modernity.

The late modern reaction to the rationalism (and empiricism) of the earlier phases of modernity has been a skepticism not only about the relations between signs and seals about even about our ability to perceive reality. As I began to suggest in part 1, the idea that symbols are “arbitrary” and have chiefly emotive value is rooted in such skepticism.

Why is such nominalism cruel? It is because it makes signs essentially meaningless. Without meaningful signs  discourse is reduced to the will to power (rather than a search for truth). It begins with the assumption that truth is lost to us. It’s cynical. It destroys communication and communion between persons.

I was raised in a time that largely assumed a naive sort of realism and, as in the middle ages, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Today’s young people are being indoctrinated in skepticism about truth and signs. The very idea of nature or fixity, an essential assumption to behind a stable relation between signs and things signified, has come to be viewed with suspicion.

It’s easy, however, to see why stable relations between signs and things signified is so important. Here you are reading text about signs. If there’s not at least relative stability, if I, the writer, and you, the reader, cannot count of a relatively stable relation between signs and things signified then who knows what these characters mean and why  you are staring at them?

Ironically, to the degree we accept nominalism we really are at mercy of the reader and the interpreter (“reader response” anyone?). As Stanley Fish said, there is no “text.” Absent the totalitarianism of the reader, what then? We must fly blindly to authority. In our search for liberty from fixity and authority we know find ourselves at the mercy of some superior authority: from libertinism to totalitarianism.

Some Christians are fleeing to Rome to overcome late modern skepticism. Of course, this move only postpones or relocates the problem. Rome claims magisterial authority to say what Scripture teaches but who knows exactly what Rome really says that Scripture teaches? Those documents (papal decrees, conciliar decrees etc) must be interpreted and they are arguably more difficult to interpret since they manifestly contradict each other. Then, of course, there is the gnostic appeal to a secret, unwritten apostolic authority. It’s hard to see how a secret tradition that, for all we know, exists in the imagination of a few cardinals does anything but add to the crisis.

Nominalism destroys perspicuity but that perspicuity (the essential clarity) of the biblical text was basic to the Reformation. For the Reformed confession the text of Scripture is inherently superior to the reader. As we understand it, the text forms us, it interprets us, it norms us. Late modern subjectivists would have us become the text, the norm but we are not “canon” (rule) but the ruled but that only works if the text is essentially, sufficiently clear and we can only talk about clarity (perspicuity) if there are stable relations between signs and things signified, if the world we perceive with our senses is sufficiently, reliably what we perceive it to be.

Of course that’s the way the world is because God, though utterly free, is not arbitrary. He might have willed differently than he did but we can trust what he has said because he reveals himself in ways that are consonant with himself. Nominalism is cruel but God is not cruel, he is love (1 John 4:8). The greatest sign of God’s love is his Son, the Word (John 1:1). About him we can be neither nominalists or skeptics. In him the relation between sign (“Word”) and signified is stable. It must be stable—the eternal Word incarnate, true and eternal God and true man. The Apostle John saw and touched the Word: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands….”


The Quadriga

Virtue Sense Scope
Literal Cognition
Fides Allegoricus Credenda
Spes Anagogicus Speranda
Caritas Tropologicus Agenda

Canticus Exegetae (Song of the Exegete)*

Litera gesta docet, (The letter teaches of deeds)
quid credas allegoria; (allegory of what is believed)
moralis quid agas; (morality of what is done)
quo tenda anagogia. (anagoge of things to come)

*Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), s.v., “Quadriga.”