Category Archives: doctrine

Raising my Ebenezer and changing hymn lyrics

Waiting for Indiana Jones by Pandiyan V

Anyone sung the following hymn line from “Come Thou Fount” recently?

Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

The word Ebenezer there is a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12, where the prophet Samuel takes a stone and names it “the stone of help”, for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.” When understood, it’s a great reminder that God’s faithful to his people throughout biblical history.

Russell Moore recently tweeted the following about it:

Which sparked a conversation about whether song leaders should change obscure words in hymns, or teach them what they mean each time:


 

Following this exchange, Stephen Altrogge fleshed out in a blog post why he errs on the side of Biblical illiteracy, and makes his case for dropping words like Ebenezer. He shares:

…the reality is, our culture is becoming more and more Bible illiterate. Words that once were commonly understood are no longer used. We can’t assume that our friends, coworkers, and fellow students understand what we mean by traditional Bible words, such as “repent”, “sin”, and “forgiveness”. We can’t assume people understand what we’re talking about when we use Bible-rich words like “propitiation” and “justification”. These aren’t commonly used words in our culture anymore. There is no moral majority. We are living in a post-modern, post-Bible culture that doesn’t have a shared repository of religious words.

… Plus, certain words are more important than others. I would prefer that people understand “repent”, “believe”, “grace” and, “forgiveness” before they understand “Ebenezer”. I would prefer that people be firm on “justification” and “sanctification” before they be firm on the word “fount”.

The more biblically literate might argue that it’s a false choice to say people can’t learn about justification, sanctification and Ebenezer. I agree we shouldn’t underestimate the ability to understand Biblical allusions, but we don’t want to presume on people understanding them either.

So some Sundays I’ve taken the time to explain words and phrases that are unclear (it’s even better when our pastors would do this). It usually only needs to take half a minute and can be immensely beneficial.

Here’s two points I think was missing from the conversation.

1. Come Thou Fount has always had more variations than we realise.

From Hymnary.org:

The original hymn includes five verses, but most modern versions use only the first three. There are a few common word changes in different versions. In some texts, instead of “Here I find my greatest treasure,” (Psalter Hymnal) the first line of verse two reads “Here I raise mine Ebenezer,” a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12, in which Samuel sets up a stone and names it Ebenezer meaning “The Lord has helped us” (Episcopal Hymnal, Presbyterian Hymnal, Baptist Hymnal, Methodist Hymnal). As well, the last line of the second stanza can be read “Interposed his precious blood” or “bought me with his precious blood.” The two verbs signify different metaphors of the atonement of Christ.

So most of our hymnals and arrangements don’t even use Robert Robinson’s original 5-verse text anyways. Hymnal collections adapted the words for the audiences in their time (e.g. “Here by Thy great help I’ve come” to “Hither by Thy help I’m come”), and others have done the same in recent years to make the words more understandable.

2. Songs teach Scripture, they’re not Scripture.

Unless you’re singing word-for-word from the Bible, the words in our hymn books and song sheets weren’t breathed out by God. So let’s not treat them that way.

Granted, I think it’s important to sing lyrics consistently to help the words dwell in us easily (when our eyesight fails and our bones grow weary, having songs memorised can be a real encouragement). I probably won’t help my church family if  I’m flipping the words to our hymns every other week.

But if some hymn lyrics we’re asking our brothers and sisters to memorise are too archaic or too obscure, I think we have an opportunity to change them so that they better communicate the Scriptures. That’s what drove hymn writers like Isaac Watts went against the grain in his time, and rewrote metrical psalms to help people understand and connect emotionally to what they sang.

So I think it’s in the same spirit that we adapt the language of hymns for the sake of modern congregations.

Of course, we should change words to hymns with care and sensitivity: care for an accurate meaning, and sensitivity to the needs of your particular church family. Children, visitors, new Christians, old Christians, English-as-second-language Christians will all benefit from better understanding what we sing.

So in conclusion, I think I’m in agreement with Stephen on this question (thanks for raising the topic!), and see no problem with changing hymn lyrics with care and sensitivity. How about you?

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Further reading: 

Raising Ebenezer – Gary A Parrett argues against modernising hymn texts.

How to revise hymns without destroying them – Bobby Gilles talks about the balance between when to revise and when not to revise lyrics.

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1000 km of cycling later…

image

 

It was after a “setting smart goals” session at work and realising I hadn’t been exercising since Eden’s arrival, that I resolved to start cycling.

At the time it was a pretty daunting prospect since the only time I had cycled in the past 18 months was to move my bike (which I got as a present when I turned 12) from one house to another (it was not far, and I remember it was extremely tiring).

As for other types of exercise: I used to run a fair bit bit but since getting married I’ve not developed a consistent habit to run, nor get involved in other sports out there (watching the All Blacks on the couch, sadly does not count).

 

Yet today I’m reflecting on the fact that since November, God’s graciously kept me safe on my bike for over 1000 km.

And I’m still enjoying it!

http://runkeeper.com/user/wchong/fitnessReports/cycling/view

 

Some fun personal stats:

  • Over 150 times on my bike since November
  • Over 1000 km pedalled since November
  • elevation climb of over 9000 m (equivalent of Mt Everest) since November
  • top speed I’ve reached is 50 km/h (zipping down Botany Rd)
  • longest bike ride was for an hour on New Year’s Day, cycling 18.4 km to the Panmure basin, the Rotary track and back
  • Petrol spend down from $94 to $72 a month since getting on my bike (now that the car’s mostly for weekends and specific trips)

 

Cycling 1000km

 

As a Christian I can expect God to teach me things about living in His world under His rule, using a variety of experiences. Here are two things God’s been showing me through my attempts to make cycling a habit:

1. Habit-forming is a daily commitment, not a one-time decision.

My success or failure in maintaining a habit isn’t the result of one big decision (I’m going to start cycling), but making small daily decisions (I’m going to cycle today). Each time I’m presented with the choice of slothfulness or faithfulness (though the temptation to be slothful grows with cold, rainy weather!)

This truth is surprisingly transferable.

In the same way, faithfulness as a husband doesn’t happen because of the one decision to get married, but comes about as I daily commit to the woman I made the promise to.

Consistency as a father doesn’t happen just from a big decision to care for your child, but to daily say no to hundreds of me-first activities and to say yes to feeding, clothing, showering, rocking, nappy-changing her.

And being a faithful servant of Jesus Christ isn’t the result of one decision to “ask Jesus into my heart”, but a daily, moment-by-moment call to deny myself, take up my cross and follow Him.

I need this reminder because when I’m discouraged from reading my bible after missing a few days, or frustrated about a sin I’ve lapsed into again, rather than “let go and let God”, or just giving up, or blaming others, it’s more helpful to put my head down and strive to do it right the next time. And the time after that. And so on.

 

(Explored) by Wen-Cheng Liu

2. Yet habit-forming does not equate to legalism.

I think it’s actually commendable to form habits. The error of legalism is to claim that because of these habits, God is satisfied with me (when he’s already satisfied with me through His perfect Son).

Yet sometimes in an overreaction to legalism, we can almost swing away from seeing diligence at anything as a virtuous thing.

It’s probably too big to explore in one sitting, but at the very least, I think I often forget that working at a craft or habit is a normal means that God uses to grow in holiness, or to improve our skill. The oft-quoted statistic is that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something.

In an interview, worldview theologian James KA Smith points out that

“most contemporary evangelical understandings of discipleship have no place to appreciate the power of habit (except perhaps negatively). But that is a very odd scenario since Christians across the ages have long understood habit formation to be at the center of spiritual formation and discipleship.

 

The balance between God’s enabling and our efforts I think can be seen in Philippians 2:12-13, where the Apostle Paul exhorts his readers to

“continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”

 

 

I haven’t read Kevin DeYoung’s “Hole in our Holiness” book but I’m sure there would be helpful points in there too about this balance between what God enables us to do and actually doing it.

So I can reasonably say that God grants me the grace to ride my bike, read my bible, love my wife and daughter consistently, yet he achieves this through me making daily decisions to do what’s right.

I’m given both the power do something, and the responsibility to do it.

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A word about laminins (repost)

(On Sunday we watched the video “How Great is Our God” at church; I was unexpectedly given the opportunity to share some some previous thoughts on why we should be more discerning about the claims made in that video concerning laminin, a particular molecule. I wrote it 2 years ago on another blog – so here it is again, condensed into one article.)

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Laminin, a quiet and generally unreported molecule, is astonishingly popular in evangelical Christian circles. A casual search on google carries a plethora of links relating to laminin. In America you can buy shirts boldly proclaiming laminin. It’s the topic of numerous chain emails and social media spreads. Even in Auckland, New Zealand, I have once heard this humble glycoprotein being proudly expounded from the pulpit.

The renown of this particular molecule has partly been fueled by this particular presentation by evangelist Louie Giglio (watch the presentation below):

Many Christians have since then leapt onto this observation as the fulfilment of Colossians 1:17. Some go so far as to proclaim this cell-adhesion molecule as an ad hoc gospel. However, I have some genuine concerns for the way this particular section of Colossians has become exegeted in the majority of the laminin-loving blogosphere, and the ramifications of this for thinking, believing Christians.

Here’s a number of reasons (both scientific and spiritual) why more discernment would be helpful regarding laminin.

1. A molecule’s illustrated shape varies from its real-life shape.

I’m a medical writer by trade, so when Louie Giglio flashed the cross-shaped diagram of laminin on-screen I recognised it as a scientific illustration. Those who study chemistry and molecular biology will understand that diagrams like this don’t actually represent accurate protein shapes, but are drawn out to help the scientist or student see the main components of a biological structure.

You then also have to take into account that proteins move and change their conformation frequently. Giglio’s electron microscope photograph of the laminin in real life is at best, a chance capture of laminin’s genuine shape at and worst, a misrepresentation of the truth – consider the following thoughts by author of the “Exploring Creation…” textbooks, Dr Jay E. Wile:

Indeed, the electron microscope picture that Louie Giglio gives in his sermon represents just one possible shape for laminin. Consider this image, which contains two different electron microscope images of laminin:

Two TEMS of laminin

It looks to me like the bottom one is the one that Louie Giglio used, rotated 90 degrees. This makes me wonder if he intentionally edited out the other image. In any event, the top one shows what any molecular biology graduate student would know: proteins change conformation in order to do their job. The shape at any given time is most likely transitory.

The impression that Giglio gives that all these molecules in our body just sit around being cross-shaped is actually far from reality. In fact, I’m more encouraged that God created laminins to be far more complex than a stylised diagram: to me, it serves to magnify his greatness. Why would I worship a God that would design cell-adhesion molecules to be so inflexible as to hold a singular shape? Is it not more amazing that laminin molecules were designed with the ability to change their shape to do their job?

2. We don’t need laminins to be cross-shaped to affirm the truth of Colossians 1.

The biggest concern for me is when Christian T-shirts, blogs and facebook threads conclude that Colossians 1:17 directly refers to the laminin molecule. This divorces the verse from the rest of the section’s context (Col. 1:15-20), where one can read a moving description by the Apostle Paul of the lordship of Christ in relation to both creation and redemption. What we can draw from verse 17 is that Christ does continually sustain his creation, preventing it from falling into chaos and disintegration (Heb. 1:3). What we can’t conclude from this verse is that Christ is primarily using vaguely-cross-shaped molecules to hold all things together. Indeed in Hebrews 1:3, we see that Christ does this instead by “the word of his power” – not just Giglio’s stylised version of laminin molecules.

If God really wanted us to affirm the truth in Colossians 1 by stating that laminins were his signature, He would have made this clear in scripture. In the meantime, Colossians 1:17 is not just about laminins. I’d encourage everyone to read the passage in its entirety, particularly through to verses 21-23 which ties up the passage beautifully with the offer of Christ’s reconciliation through “the hope of the gospel”.

3. There are better examples of observable molecules that point to our Creator.

If Christian evangelists like Giglio really wanted more substantial candidates for purposeful design and creation, the laminin molecule is a poor choice. While the bulk of Wikipedia editors and neo-Darwinists will beg to differ, some better examples of observable molecules in the body that have been mooted to show evidence of design include:

  • the blood clotting cascade – Dr Michael Behe coined the term “irreducible complexity” to describe biochemical systems that comprise of many interactive and well-matched parts that are unlikely to have evolved naturally, as “the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning”.
  • DNA – the linked article gives an informed overview of the intricate nature of DNA. Even since my undergraduate studies there have already been new things discovered about DNA that show that it is far more complex and purposeful than just “a genetic zipper”. The ENCODE project published its findings in Nature, basically stating that DNA is immensely more complex than previously thought (you can read the abstract here: it’s quite technical)
  • the white blood cell – check out this video by Harvard University’s Bio Visions team. It illustrates complex cellular functions such as kinesins motoring along microtubules, mitochondria doing its work as the cell’s “energy pack”, and so on – much like a finely-tuned automobile.

The problem is that it takes a lot of work to try and help someone understand the intricacies of something like DNA, which even today scientists do not fully grasp. On the other hand, any layperson can easily be told that an object is a particular shape. Perhaps the reason why laminin is so popular is not because it inherently shows more evidence of purposeful design, but because Giglio has told everyone it is cross-shaped. In this case it has become less about science and more about subjectivity.

4. A preoccupation with laminins overshadows the Bible and the Gospel.

Some people who discover this message will literally say that they have fallen in love with laminin. When this is at the expense of loving Jesus I have to say I become less enthused by the ramifications of Giglio’s message. In fact, when you think about it carefully, Giglio’s self-described “left hook” actually didn’t lead to us learning anything new about God. Sure, it made us feel that God is a big and vast creator of everything (particularly earlier in the show when he makes the comparison between the sizes of planets). But you don’t need a cross-shaped laminin to tell you that: you could have just read the Bible and got it straight from the Creator’s mouth (2 Chronicles 2:5-6, Isaiah 44:24, Revelation 4:11).

This draws the bigger question: for proponents of the laminin-gospel, is the Bible not enough to convince them of God’s greatness? Dr Georgia Purdom from AnswersinGenesis.org notes the following (emphasis mine):

The main problem with this type of argument is that it appears that something outside of Scripture (in this case, laminin) is vital to know the truthfulness of a biblical truth. Laminin is used to prove a biblical truth. However, we should never use our fallible, finite understanding of the world to judge the infallible Word of God. What we observe in the world can certainly be used to confirm God’s Word (and it does), but our finite observations are not in a position to evaluate the infinite things of God. Only if we start with the Bible as our ultimate standard can we have a worldview that is rational and makes sense of the evidence…

… certainly God can use signs to reveal things, and that is evident from Scripture. In Luke 2:12 an angel tells the shepherds, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” However, Jesus also admonishes those that improperly seek signs (Matthew 16:4). In today’s “fast food” society, many people prefer the “drive-thru” when it comes to knowing God’s truths. A sign is much quicker than studying and reasoning from the Scriptures, taking the time to pray, and discussing God’s Word with other believers.

When folks are resorting to editing the Wikipedia article to defend their laminin-driven pareidolia, then perhaps we as Christians may have an unhealthy fixation on signs and symbols. It’s as much an indictment on our generation’s short attention spans and inability to apply discernment that we baulk at doing solid research into the Scriptures, yet readily put our weight behind spurious images of Jesus “seen” in objects from Marmite to cat’s fur. Unfortunately, there are other Christian speakers out there who will teach in the same way – with an intense focus on obscure conspiracy theories fuelled by questionable Scripture interpretations.

Yet here’s the most important point: all this fixation on laminins is time-consuming and is at the expense of the gospel “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:1-4). I know some will argue that talking about laminin is a good way to then start a conversation about the gospel – but once I’m called out for using a poor and untrue argument, why would they want to listen to anything else I tell them? If I witnessed to a science graduate and tried to pull the laminin wool over their eyes, I would be laughed off and lose the opportunity to present anything further. Therefore our integrity and witness is lost, along with the chance to evangelise to those who need to hear it.

In closing: the way we would want to delve carefully into something like laminin is the same thing we ought to do regarding other topics in future. Without trusting and depending first and foremost on God’s Word to carefully inform our thinking, any one of us can get caught up in any number of “Christian” fads and misinformed truths. The Bereans in Acts got it right when they “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11) My desire is that we would strive to do the same in all areas of our life.

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– William Chong

Why people sing in church

Thought I’d share a quote from a conversation between DA Carson and Tony Payne. Here, Carson suggests what he’d say during a church gathering/service to explain why there’s singing.

“Historically Christians are a singing people because we have so much to sing about. In this church, we sing songs from centuries past, and songs that have been written in the last five years. We’ll sing some of both tonight. And if some of these lyrics seem strange to you, nevertheless listen to the people of God as we delight to sing to the God who made us and has redeemed us.”

I’d say something like that. Then the very joy of corporate singing can have a telling effect on people. When I was here for the Katoomba Men’s Convention, I heard reports of guys who had never been to a Christian meeting of any sort, dialling up their wives on their mobile phones and saying, “Dear, these guys are nuts but just listen to them sing” and holding up their phones.

And of course there’s plenty in the Scriptures to help us understand the value of singing in a gathering of believers (Col 3:16-17, many of the Psalms, 1 Cor 14).

The rest of the discussion is worth a read – it articulates (much better) some of the same thoughts we explored as a music team a couple of weeks back when discussing our definitions of worship.

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– William

Worship: broadening our definitions

Last week I had the privilege of leading a short study with some of the folks that serve in a number of worship ministries at HBC. We spent our time looking at our definitions of the term “worship”. Then we examined the scriptures to see how the Bible discusses worship, and what we can learn from it. The main aim was to get members of our gathered worship ministries (musicians, audiovisual crew, etc.) thinking about their own understanding of worship, and how the Bible would help to inform it.

I have much to learn when leading a study like this. In particular, I need to leave more room for questions and discussions, not rush through content, and speak in a way that in understandable to the audience. But for what it’s worth, here are some of the notes from it. I’m pretty sure I’ve only barely scratched the surface in what could be said about worship. Any comments/suggestions for improvement would be much appreciated!

Handout:

Speaker notes:

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– William