Friday, December 29, 2006
I'm not speaking literally, of course, since God is incorporeal and therefore has no need of clothing to cover a body he doesn't even have. But figuratively speaking, the desire to trespass the boundaries of our creaturely jurisdiction and sneak a peek behind the curtain is as old as Eve and the apple. "Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil" is every bit as tempting today as it was then, especially when the knowledge sought for concerns the contents of the Book of Life.
Yet as Luther has reminded us, the Deus nudus is not for us to gaze at, but our understanding of the divine is limited to the Deus revelatus: God as he has revealed himself in Scripture.
While our confessionalism requires that we repudiate the low regard for the visible church that characterizes pietism (whether liberal or evangelical), it is also the case that we take issue with Rome and her elevation of the institutional church at the expense of the invisible one.
This means that the confessionalist most certainly recognizes the existence of a smaller circle of elect saints within the larger circle of the covenant community. But precisely who the subjects of election and regneration are—well, that's not ours to determine.
We're perfectly content to leave those questions to the Deus nudus and the voyeuristic peeping Thomases whose enquiring minds want to know....
Sunday, December 24, 2006
If permitted, a simple inference from this would be that if expulsion from the means of grace is so precarious, then participation in the means of grace should be considered equally beneficial. Or to put the matter differently, belonging to the church ought to be thought of as being every bit a blessing as being thrown out of it is a curse.
Significant by its absence from Paul's strongly-worded pronouncement is the idea that, if the man in error is a member of the invisible church, then that somehow mitigates the ill-effects of his dismissal from the visible one. Moreover, the idea that a truly elect child of God can never be handed over to Satan in the first place did not seem to bother the apostle either. In fact, Paul does not appear particularly concerned with God's eternal decree or the Book of Life's Table of Contents at all. Instead, he seemed to operate under the assumption that those questions fall under the jurisdiction of Another.
While evangeliberal pietism may balk at the simplicity of this type of assurance and the ease with which such churchly forms of devotion can be faked, the confessionalist can simply point out that it is no easier to recite the catechism by rote than it is to go through the motions of closing one's eyes and swaying romantically to "Lord I Wanna Love You" (and in fact, it's way harder).
So if being expelled from the visible church is to fall prey to the wiles of the devil, what is membership in it but the enjoyment of the protection and love of God? But if the alternative to being handed over to Satan is merely to remain in neutral territory where one must torturously prove his sincerity before being given the right hand of fellowship, then the Cyprianic formula of extra ecclesiam nulla salus est becomes meaningless. Once assurance of salvation becomes so rare a jewel that it can scarcely be found within the church's walls let alone without them, then what is the benefit of attending?
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
As I read though the comments on the last post, I was struck by an interesting exchange between a couple readers that I'd like to highlight. It went something like this:
Reader #1: "Church membership and participation in worship provide the saint with assurance of her right standing with God."In his Corinthian correspondence Paul describes the barring of a sinning brother from fellowship in the church as "handing him over to Satan." Apparently for the apostle, the church and its ordained ministry of Word and sacrament are more important—and their absence more tragic—than is usually admitted in contemporary evangeliberal pietism.
Reader #2: "Is that true? Is there no assurance beyond that?"
Reader #1: "Not really; if the church does not provide assurance, then what's the point of church discipline and excommunication?"
And if you think about it, the insistence that God's "speech" through his ordained servant in corporate worship (particularly the gracious summons into his presence, assurance of forgiveness, and benediction) can somehow be replaced by one's personal relationship with Jesus is quite presumptuous, and even dangerous. If the churches Paul labored to plant and the "gift" of ordained ministers that Jesus rose from the dead to provide for them can be so easily circumvented, then creaturely wisdom is not only being exalted above divine foolishness, but "deliverance over to Satan" is made to look like a pretty attractive alternative to waking up early every Sunday.
In fact, when a professing Christian opts for the clutches of the devil over the communion of saints, one may sincerely wonder with whom, exactly, this "personal relationship" is being cultivated....
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
As I argued in my last post, the divorce of "true Christianity" from its corporate practice is dangerous and unwarranted, particularly when the so-called "essence" of the faith is so mystical, personal, and romantic that it defies definition. To be sure, "I Wanna Know What Love Is" may still be the heart's cry of many Jr. High kids today, but the love that Jesus demonstrated toward his people, and the love they return to him, is more concrete than what is evoked by much of the "Jesus is my Boyfriend" Christianity that is advocated these days.
My point, then, is that the faith-once-delivered is also the faith-corporately-practiced. To identify the locus of "real Christianity" in some internal experience or "religious affection," or in the practice of an extra-canonical sacrament such as quiet times or afterglows, is to remove the faith from its objective, historical context and place it in a realm that we can only hope to understand by playing God (and he hates it when his creatures do that...).
Does the old Jesus of History/Christ of Faith dichotomy ring a bell for anyone?
Confessionalism, no less than evangeliberal pietism, desires to see faith demonstrated in its professors. But rather than the litmus test being one's devotional life, voting record, or collection of Left Behind novels, it should be sought in the fact that those who profess Christ gather together each Lord's Day around Word and Sacrament, confessing their sins, singing his praises, and hearing, eating, and drinking the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In a word: Until we learn otherwise, a "real Christian" is an observant one.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Confessionalism, rather than focusing narrowly on the use of confessions per se, is actually just code for "churchly Protestantism." A confessionalist, then, is a Protestant whose faith is not divorced from its corporate, liturgical practice (be it in an Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Reformed church).
This gives rise to an interesting linguistic phenomenon which Hart alludes to elsewhere: Why is it that Jews and Roman Catholics are usually described as observant or non-observant while Protestants are classified either as true, genuine Christians or formal, dead ones?
This type of nomenclature betrays the latent pietism of much of evangelical Protestantism, for rites and practices like baptism, church membership, corporate worship, and communion are all dismissed as incidental, if not inimical, to "true Christianity."
"The fact that American Protestants do not use the nomenclature of observance," writes Hart, "demonstrates just how complete the triumph of evangelicalism has been" (Recovering Mother Kirk, 247).
But if being Reformed is more than just a state of mind but actually involves participating in certain corporate, religious ceremonies, then perhaps formal, observant, churchly Christianity isn't the bane of Protestantism after all.
And if you think about it, confessionalism's insistence that the Christian faith not be divorced from its ritualistic practice means that the pietist's distinction between creed and deed is not only not a temptation for us, it's not even an option.
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
What are we to make of well-known Calvinistic pastors like John Piper or Mark Driscoll?
These men’s ministries aren’t as easily categorized as those of Chuck Smith or Rick Warren, particularly since they exhibit some strongly predestinarian teaching (Piper especially).
Or are they?
There are a couple ways we can approach this question. We could begin with the view that the soteriological issue is the defining one, which would place these men and their churches more in line with those of R.C. Sproul or Tim Keller. Or, we could insist that the ecclesiastical question is even more fundamental, resulting in the conclusion that Bethlehem Baptist and Mars Hill are indeed different species of the same genus (one that includes Calvary Chapel and Saddleback).
For my own part, the "least common denominator" approach to Reformed theology is not only reductionistic, but it ignores the fact that ministers in Reformed denominations have taken vows to uphold much more than just predestination or the Geneva reformer’s well-known acrostic.
In fact, if American Protestantism is better understood in terms of pietism vs. confessionalism rather than evangelicalism vs. liberalism, then perhaps the tulip isn't the flower according to which a garden stands or falls after all.
Sunday, December 03, 2006
In the thinking of most of our evangelical brothers and sisters, the passing on of religion is almost invariably supernatural and miraculous rather than natural and ordinary. Now, I'm not suggesting that the miraculous element is absent from or de-emphasized in Reformed circles, but what I am saying is that, in the evangelical mindset, the threshhold through which a sinner-turned-saint passes is conversion, and this conversion is usually a cataclysmic and powerful experience.
To believers coming from the Reformation tradition, on the other hand, this is not necessarily the case. While adults coming out of pagan backgrounds may indeed experience such a seismic shift in loyalties, this ought to be the exception rather than the rule. The Christian faith, normally speaking, is passed on from parent(s) to child by means of the baptism of infants. When the child is thus initiated into the covenant community, she is then nurtured in the faith by parents and pastors who treat the child as a believer unless given a reason to do otherwise.
Is it unfair to say that the evangelical insistence upon miraculous conversion experiences demonstrates a latent suspicion of the natural and ordinary means through which God often works? And turning the tables, can Reformed believers legitimately be accused of minimizing the supernatural work of the Spirit?
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Again, not surprisingly, the answers differ. While the evangelical may dismiss "sacramental faith" (whether in its Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, or Roman Catholic versions) as too institutional, "churchy," or sacerdotal, the fact is that his faith relies on sacraments a-plenty, just not necessarily the ones Jesus came up with.
For example, practices such as daily quiet times, altar calls, listening to Contemporary Christian Music, and attending "afterglows" are all considered important - yea vital - to growing in the Lord. In fact, even pastors themselves have become sacraments in some megachurch contexts. After all, the authority of the pastor's message often rests upon his witty personality, godly life, and dynamic speaking style (you know, the things that Paul deliberately did not employ, much to the disappointment of his Corinthian audience).
In stark contrast to this stands the faith as understood by confessional Reformed theology. To those of this persuasion, the Christian life follows a regular, Sabbatical pattern that centers upon the corporate worship of God by his gathered people on the first day of the week. Like their evangelical brothers and sisters they too place great emphasis upon sacraments, but only upon those instituted by the Lord himself. Baptism, then, initiates us into the household of faith, and that faith is nurtured and strengthened by means of the bread and cup of Communion.
I would even venture to suggest that the nature of confessional Reformed Christian living, particularly its dependance upon the ordinary ministry of the local church, when contrasted with the high-octane, subjective quest for spiritual experience so characteristic of evangelical pietism, is such that the former respresents what Luther called a "theology of the cross," while the latter betrays a "theology of glory."
Are dangers reserved solely for one or the other? Are these systems necessarily opposed? If so, does this mean that Reformed believers have no place for subjective piety?
Monday, November 27, 2006
When we consider the relationship between these two branches of Protestantism by posing such questions as: 1). How do we "get religion"? 2). What does it look like once it is acquired? 3). How is religion cultivated? 4). How is it passed on?, the two systems appear quite distinct and even antithetical to one another.
In answering the first question, for example, the evangelical response to how religion is acquired (if such terminology would even be granted in the first place) would center around the extra-curricular evangelistic activities of Christians, while the Reformed believer would focus more upon the local church's official mandate to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments.
Do both sides have a valid point? Does Christ's Great Commission have a broad application to all believers, or is it intended solely for the church's ordained officers?
Thursday, November 23, 2006
"Why do Presbtyerians have to make everything so confusing?"Are we, as we claim, seeking to offer God "acceptable worship, with reverence and awe," or is it in fact true that we are so painstaking in our attention to detail that we "strain at a gnat while swallowing a camel"?
"I just don't see how we make such a distinction between our individual and corporate Christianity.... Worship is not about this hill or that hill... it's about the spirit and truth...."
The second comment from our evangelical brother is interesting, particularly because of the many things that are simply assumed without being proven (it can be read in its entirety toward the end of the A Call for Categories thread).
The first thing presupposed is an interpretation of "worship" in John 4 that is individual rather than corporate (which makes the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman nonsensical). Furthermore, our brother assumes that Jesus' point about worship no longer being offered "on this or that hill" means that institutional religion's days are over (as if Reformed believers focus solely on "candles, instruments, songs, robes, dancing clowns, [and] waving flags," while evangelicals "try to stay so close to a rabbi named Jesus that [they're] coughing on the dust he kicks up with his feet").
It seems that our good ol' American, post-Enlightenment sensibilities have so eclipsed the world of Jesus and Paul that the individual has swallowed the Body, the the heart has prevailed over the head, and "Thus saith the Lord" has morphed into "Cogito, ergo sum."
Sunday, November 19, 2006
First, it is not permissible to boast in the fact that we have done what we were told. Paul says in I Corinthians 9:16 that he cannot boast in preaching the gospel since he has been commanded by Jesus to do so.
Secondly, though, it appears that boasting is an option if we are going above and beyond the call of duty. Now don't misunderstand me, I'm not advocating the Pharisaical practice of inventing laws, fulfilling them, and then bragging about it ("I fast twice a week"). By going "above and beyond the call of duty" I'm referring to what Paul did, namely, denying ourselves the enjoyment of things that are perfectly permissible and voluntarily limiting our rights to benefits to which we are actually entitled (specifically for Paul these benefits included meat, marriage, and money, I Cor. 9:4-6).
This notion could have drastic consequences for American Christians, not the least of which is the distinct possibility that all those passages about suffering may actually apply to us (who says we Reformed ministers never give application?).
In the minds of many believers today, until the antichrist implants microchips into our foreheads and forces us to worship a statue or have our heads chopped off, "suffering" is nothing more than a noble theory that people in heathen lands have to deal with (plus, we'll all be raptured before any of that bad stuff happens anyway).
But could it be that carrying our crosses in more civilized lands like ours may mean that we cease to think in terms of our "rights" and what we're entitled to? It seems to me that the One who told us to carry our crosses had an inalienable right not to be nailed to one.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
For example, he writes:
"There are, of course, human activities for which there are no explicit biblical prescriptions. Scripture doesn’t tell us how to change a tire, for instance. But there are biblical commands that are relevant to tire changing, as to everything else.... When I change a tire, I should do it to the glory of God. The details I need to work out myself, but always in the framework of God’s broad commands concerning my motives and goals. Here too, worship is parallel with the rest of life."The alert reader will surely have noticed that, for Frame, the RPW's regulating aspect (which used to say that all worship not expressly warranted by Scripture is prohibited) now functions more like a suggestion. Worship, according to Frame, is any activity that "glorifies God," and further, the church is free to do so according to some broad "biblical commands that are relevant" while "working out the details ourselves."
Frame then leaps categories from worship's elements to its circumstances and forms:
"In worship... there are some activities for which there are no explicit biblical prescriptions. Scripture does not tell us specifically when or where to meet for worship, or how many hymns to sing, or precisely what words to use in offering prayer. These decisions require the use of godly reasoning, guided by the general teachings of the Word (WCF 1.6). The parallel between worship and other areas of human life should not surprise us, because, in one sense, worship is all of life."By blending the elements of worship which Scripture alone may regulate (prayer and singing), its circumstantial details (the number of hymns sung), and the forms the elements take (the particular words used during prayer), Frame has walked into a discussion that has been going on for hundreds of years, redefined its terms without bothering to tell anyone first, and then broadened its jurisdiction to the point of meaninglessness.
And we think the Mormons confuse categories when they insist that, since Jesus is the Father, he was a schizophrenic who talked to himself all the time....
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
"But when you think about it, the regulative principle is not limited to worship services. It is God’s regulative principle for all areas of human life.... How do we find out how to glorify God in all of life? The same way we find out how to glorify God in worship: we consult His Word. So the sufficiency of Scripture is for all of life, not merely for one segment of it" (A Fresh Look at the Regulative Principle, 1).So according to Frame, the RPW's jurisdiction should be expanded to cover "all of life" (from which "worship" shouldn’t be separated in the first place).
But as T. David Gordon has pointed out in response to Frame, the reason why the RPW was initially formulated was to answer the question about the limits of ecceliastical power (a question Frame fails to address):
"The issue was not... 'worship' versus 'the rest of life,' but those aspects of life governed by the church officers versus those aspects of life not governed by the church officers.... Frame's attempt to put 'all of life' under one umbrella... is doomed to futility, because it does not address the very issue the regulative principle was designed to address, the limits of church power and the liberty of conscience."So here's my question: Ought we to distinguish between the sacred and the secular so as to limit the church's jurisdiction to what we may and may not do in worship? And if not, should we either A). Give the church's officers power to dictate all of life as strictly as they do worship, or B). Allow them to govern worship as loosely as they do all of life?
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Historically, the Calvinistic wing of the Reformation has argued for the latter position (whatever is not commanded is prohibited), while both the Lutheran and Anglican branches have taught the former view (whatever is not prohibited is allowed).
In the next day or so I hope to begin an extended interaction with John Frame's views on the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). Frame repudiates the distinction between "worship" and "all of life," arguing that it is inconsistent for believers to posit one rule governing one and a different standard regulating the other.
While I suspect that most of our readers will embrace the Reformed position, I know that there are some Episcopalian lurkers out there whom I'd be interested to hear from. And what about you evangelicals? What say you?
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
But is it necessarily the case that the label "Reformed" inherently contains the concept of "traditional"? When I think of traditional Presbyterian worship, what comes immediately to mind are things like dark suits, pipe organs, schmaltzy hymns like "In the Garden," and hard pews with Ward, June, Wally, and the Beave sitting in them (Eddie and Lumpy are outside smoking cigarettes in the church parking lot).
Alas! The 1950s' may not have been the high water mark of American religion after all....
The worship at Exile Presbyterian Church is certainly liturgical and Reformed, but I don’t know if I’d call it traditional. I don’t wear a suit but a black Geneva gown, we celebrate Communion every week, and we sing both biblical psalms and hymns, some of whose tunes are from the third century with others having been written last year. Moreover, our liturgy is a bit more rich and robust than what one would usually associate with traditional Presbyterianism (we kneel for confession of sin, raise our hands during the Doxology, and have been known to sing some of our prayers).
So are we a traditional Presbyterian church after all, or just a Reformed one? Is this a distinction without a difference?
Sunday, November 05, 2006
How can cross-focused, Christ-centered preaching be inconsistent with itself?
According to I Corinthians 1:17, when the gospel, which is a foolish message characterized by weakness, is presented in the garb of earthly power and worldly wisdom, "the cross is emptied of its power." In other words, when either the wrong message is preached, or the right one is preached in the wrong manner, the cross is eclipsed by whatever signs or wisdom the Jews and Greeks respectively desire.
Don't misunderstand me -- wisdom and power are good things that Scripture tells us to seek, but when we refuse to allow the cross to define those things for us (which it does in a way that is antithetical to the world's notion of them), then whatever you call it, it's not Christanity.
Moreover, when our definition of power or wisdom is borrowed directly from the dictionary of this age, then we subtly undermine with our methods what we proclaim in our message.
Yes, unbelievers enjoy plenty of what Van Til called "borrowed capital" from the Christian faith. But it's the borrowed liability that we saints receive on loan from the world that concerned Paul.
Friday, November 03, 2006
The problem today, however, is that in the subtle estimation of many, the cross was fine for Jesus to die on, but not us. How else can we interpret the fact that the primary goal of many churches these days is to not appear weak, irrelevant, and foolish in the eyes of the world (you know, the way Jesus looked)?
Word and sacrament (the means that God has ordained for the growth of his people), are ordinary means "that from the world's perspective aren't very noble or glamorous... but the great and mighty redemptive power of God is packaged or conveyed in a flimsy and unconvincing form" (D.G. Hart, Mother Kirk, 121).
John Lennon was right, "The Beatles are more popular than Jesus." His words were eerily prophetic, though, since both he and Christ were murdered. But the earthly vindication of Lennon's boast was demonstrated by the fact that, just after his shooting, his vigil gathered a lot more mourners than a measly 120 (Acts 1:15).
Will we, as the church, ever collectively figure out that earthly power and influence is directly antithetical to the power of the gospel? And if we insist on continuing to proclaim a message of foolishness using the means of worldly wisdom, is that not a denial of the cross more dangerous than stem cell research and gay marriage?
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
"... does not hold authority because of special gifts... nor does the minister speak with power because he is telegenic and winsome. Rather, authority resides in the ministry because of the office of the pastor itself. The office, no matter who holds it, is authoratative." (Recovering Mother Kirk: The Case for Liturgy in the Reformed Tradition, 113.)Crucial to a confessionalist view of the Christian faith (over against a pietist one) is the importance of the ordained ministry of Word and sacrament. The blatantly anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic nature of the confessionalist position makes it seem utterly foreign and even backward when compared to all the stuff that makes America tick (a dissimilarity that, when coupled with a healthy sense of the separation between church and state, shouldn't be a problem).
In our day, however, the idea that anyone's opinions about what God thinks about a particular issue are more trustworthy than another's is ludicrous, especially "when every Tom, Dick, and Sadie with a strong D average in high school has the right to express an opinion" (Ibid., quoting John M. Timmerman). But when we're grappling with something that's really important like, say, cancer, then all of a sudden the expert's opinion actually matters.
Is the fact that the instruction of M.D.s in white coats carries more weight than that of M.Div.s in black gowns a possible indication of where our priorities lie?
Or to put in more simply: Are our souls so much less important than our bodies that the spiritual health of the former can be diagnosed by anybody with a Bible, while the physical health of the latter requires some actual expertise?
And just what does "Master of Divinity" mean anyway?
Sunday, October 29, 2006
One of the most immediately obvious differences centers around the question of authority. Now I know what you’re thinking: "Don’t all Protestants hold to the Bible as their sole authority in all matters related to faith and practice?"
That’s a good question, but I’m not sure it’s the right one. In other words, framing the issue of authority in terms of Bible versus Tradition commits the same error as does dividing Protestants into either evangelical or liberal camps. It captures a lot, but misses a lot more.
The question has never been over whether the Bible or tradition holds ultimate sway for Protestants, for we have always given the final word to the former. The real question, then, is the follow-up: "This Bible that is our ultimate authority, are we to read it in conjunction with, or in isolation from, the rest of the believing community down through he ages?"
Well, which is it? Are we to open the Good Book with a blank slate and receive its truths fresh from the Author’s lips, or are these truths in some way mediated through confessional documents and/or the lips of the ministers of the Word?
Thursday, October 26, 2006
“God’s people can, as agents of his redemptive plan, transform business, stripping it of selfish ambition and pursuing instead what’s best for their neighbors. Through business, God’s people can harness mankind’s creative activity, and with it nurture his creation, developing products that make life better.”I’ll list the unspoken and unproven assumptions for you, just in case you missed them all: 1. Business is supposed to be “transformed”; 2. The transformation of business is something Christians are responsible to do “as agents of God’s redemptive plan”; 3. Business and “selfish ambition” are things that the corporate executive can and should separate; 4. What is “best” for our neighbors is business (and everything that goes with it); 5. The products that business creates “make life better.”
Doster then ends his article with the incredible statement that many regretful Christians, on their deathbeds, may (rightly) gasp: “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”
I will exercise Herculean self-restraint here and merely point out that such confusion of kingdoms is alarming to say the least. When God’s redemptive plan is equated with what The Gap does, or conversely, when the latter’s vision statement begins to resemble the church’s Great Commission, then what we are left with is a Social Gospel that may be relevant, but only at the expense of its holiness.
In short, when Christ's kingdom is trivialized and the culture sacralized, what we are left with is earth instead of heaven....
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
NEW YORK—A new U.S. Department Of Labor study revealed that Martha Stewart Living housewares, Tommy Hilfiger clothing, iPod music players, forks, diapers, telephones, and every other conceivable consumer good in existence is manufactured by people laboring in sweatshop conditions. "Long hours, low wages, and unsafe work areas are involved in producing everything our civilization uses," Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said at a press conference Tuesday. "It is now literally impossible for anyone anywhere in this country to purchase any single thing that doesn't infringe on someone's human rights." Chao added that even the few items still made in the U.S., such as designer T-shirts and certain Toyota sedans, are also produced in deadly squalor, mostly by illegal immigrants. The Department of Labor recommended no immediate course of action in response to the report, which was compiled by 135 government employees in an 20-by-80-foot Quonset hut without air-conditioning working six 18-hour shifts a week for $1.15 an hour.
From The Onion
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Business is, “in an ultimate sense, the only solution to poverty,” Doster writes, since “for-profit work in the secular world is how we care for those in need.” As Christians go into business, the theory goes, new wealth will be created which will create new jobs, thereby fulfilling the cultural mandate and loving our neighbors.
But as I pointed out in my last post, a corporation has only one mandate, and that is to make money for its shareholders. If people are benefited in the process, that is merely a by-product that will exist only as long as the company’s bottom line increases. So if your favorite clothing company can have its products manufactured in a Chinese sweatshop by eight-year-olds making 12 cents a day, that is good news for investors. Or if American businessmen can privatize Bolivia’s rainwater and prohibit the indigenous population from collecting it in buckets to wash themselves for free, a victory is claimed for the free market.
My point is simple: To insist that the second Table of the law can only be fulfilled in a free-market, capitalist society, and that the wealthier a CEO becomes the better off the rest of us will be, is about the most white, privileged, American interpretation of “kingdom work” that I have ever heard.
Or are we only to “contextualize” the kingdom message to those who think that "Rush is Right"?
Monday, October 23, 2006
“God has placed most of his people in business because it is there, working with others in a common purpose, that we [‘Love God and neighbor’].”But as Joel Bakan has powerfully highlighted in his book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, Big Business is anything but a Samaritan, let alone a “good” one.
Legally speaking, the corporation is a person entitled to all the rights that other individuals share. As a legal entity, a corporation has as its edict one, and only one, goal: To create profits for its shareholders, without legal or moral obligation to the welfare of workers, the environment, or the well-being of society as a whole. Competition and self-interest dominate, and other aspects of human nature, such as creativity, empathy, and the ability to live in harmony with the earth, are suppressed and even ridiculed (taken from the editorial review on amazon.com).
To put the matter bluntly, if the corporation’s identity were not just legally that of a person, but if it were an actual flesh-and-blood human being, we would lock him up and throw away the key. After all, we have a word for people who relentlessly pursue their own interests with contempt for the suffering or harm it inevitably causes others – they’re called “sociopaths.”
My point is not to demonize those who work in the business world, but simply that the desire to Christianize every aspect of society requires a pretty large list of assumptions about what a Christian society would look like.
And (lo and behold!) it usually looks a lot like a free market democracy with an eagle as its mascot.
In the latest issue of the PCA’s byFaith magazine there is an article by Dick Doster called “The Kingdom Work of the Corporate World” (!) that illustrates the danger I have been attempting to highlight, i.e., that “bringing Christ’s kingdom to bear” upon various cultural spheres often involves the baptizing of the transformer’s favorite political or socio-economic theories.
The article begins by arguing that God calls his people into the corporate world in order for them to fulfill their mandate to subdue the earth by means of their ingenuity in business:
“Consider the things that make your life richer, more comfortable, more convenient, and more productive. Think about all the things that make you safer, healthier, and wiser. They are all products of business innovation.”
Note the unspoken (and unproven) assumption here: God desires our lives to be rich, comfortable, convenient, productive, safe, healthy, and wise. Really? With the exception of the fourth and seventh, none of those qualities characterized Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or John. Without skipping a beat the author continues:
“There is no more creative force in the world today than business, and God has placed most of his people there, not to pursue money or power, nor to satisfy their selfish ambition—but to create, rule, fill, and subdue the Earth.”
As is often the case with transformationists, and with post-millennialists more broadly, the author has failed to read the cultural mandate of Genesis in the light of the suffering motif that the cross provides for us. Yes, it was Adam’s duty to subdue the earth, and that command was repeated in the common grace Noahic covenant of Genesis 9. But as Hebrews 2 points out (building upon both Gen. 1 and Psa. 8), it is through the “suffering and death” of the second Adam that he, and mankind in him, will eventually be “crowned with [the] glory and honor” that would have been ours in the first Adam had he fulfilled his covenant obligations. For now, though, “we do not see all things in subjection to man, but we see Jesus...” (which really ought to be enough).
So whatever visions of conquest that we may entertain in this age must be understood in the light of the cross. It is in the age to come, and not now, that the dominion mandate will be realized.
And even if it were fulfilled in this age, it most certainly wouldn’t be through Big Business....
Saturday, October 21, 2006
Questions immediately arise, however, regarding the source of this thing we're all supposed to share. "World" and "life" are about the two broadest categories one can think of, so where does one's "view" of these things come from?
It seems that if the answer is, "From the Bible," then a certain view of the Bible is presupposed which is hard to sustain, namely, that it is meant to furnish the believer with enough information about politics, economics, art, and culture to provide us with the correct world-and-life view and thereby secure "the coherence and integrity that is the basis for a meaningful life."
But is the Bible's view of economics Libertarian or Green? Is the Bible's view of politics Red or Blue? Is art supposed to be descriptive or prescriptive, according to Jesus?
And further, if we maintain that the Bible speaks to every area of life, then in the end mustn't we conclude that it really speaks about nothing at all?
Neither the Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt) nor the Westminster Confession and Catechisms mention anything about a "world-and-life view," but they do speak of a "Faith, once and for all delivered to the saints." Shouldn't we allow the Bible to speak authoritatively to those things that it is actually intended to address, rather than baptizing our favorite political and economic theories with Scriptural significance?
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
But one area that needs to be clarified, I think, is the nature of counterculturalism.
When a ministry such as Redeemer in New York makes a claim to both counterculturalism and contextualization, I must admit that, initially, I have trouble wrapping my mind around such strange bedfellows (kind of like the first time I saw a photo of Kevin Federline). How can a church both contextualize the gospel to the tastes of its surroundings and claim to subvert them at the same time? And what was Britney thinking when she hooked up with K-Fed anyway?
But I think I'm beginning to understand the Redeemer Model: Christians are to be markedly different when they interact with unbelievers at work, for instance, but then in public worship they are to make every effort not to stumble those same visiting unbelievers unnecessarily. So to use Keller's example from the comments below, a Christian CEO won't seek to maximize profits if workers' rights are violated (counterculturalism), and his church won't use the Trinity Hymnal if the unbelievers' tastes are violated (contextualization).
But this seems to be doing things in precisely the opposite way than the Scriptures tell us to.
It is not in the cultural kingdom that Christians are to be countercultural, but in the cultic kingdom. When we are engaged in common grace, kingdom-of-man activity we are to go about our business quietly, honestly, and with all diligence. We pay our taxes, we respect our fellow man, and we obey the powers that be (I Pet. 2:12-17; Rom. 13:1-7; I Tim. 2:1-2).
But on the contrary, when we are summoned into the heavenly Jerusalem each Lord's Day we give expression to the subversive, otherworldly, and countercultural characteristics that define us as a community (and if you ask me, eating the flesh and drinking the blood of our murdered Leader is a tad more revolutionary than caring about workers' rights... just ask any member of the Green Party).
So contextualization and counterculturalism can coexist. But believers should practice the former in the secular realm and the latter in the sacred....
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
"Whoever knows how to distinguish between... this present fleeting life and that future eternal life will, without difficulty, know that Christ's spiritual Kingdom and the civil jurisdiction are things completely distinct.... It is a Jewish folly [both] to seek and to enclose Christ's Kingdom within the elements of this world...."
But the charge that confessionalism (the antidote to this-worldly pietism and the liberalism and evangelicalism it spawns) is "Gnostic" is an example of guilt by association, since holding to a dualistic position does not a Gnostic make. Gnosticism, properly understood, refers to a dualism between matter and spirit, the material and the immaterial. So all one must affirm to avoid the charge is that the new heavens and new earth will not be immaterial but physical. (Confessing belief in the bodily resurrection also does the trick.)
So ontological dualism (matter vs. spirit) is not the same as eschatological dualism (this present age vs. the age to come). The former is indeed Gnostic, while the latter is patently Pauline.
And as the "Gnostic" I quoted above correctly observed, the attempt to subsume "every square inch" of life under the umbrella of Christ's spiritual kingdom smacks more of the Old Testament Jewish theocracy than of the pilgrim ethic that characterizes the patriarchs, the Babylonian exiles, and us today.
(But what would he know? He was too busy reforming the worship of Geneva to grasp the subtle difference between postmilennialism and amilennialism.)
Sunday, October 15, 2006
"The redemptive urbanism of the Puritan founders and their American Protestant descendants... repeated the errors of Christendom... [for] the American invocation of the city-on-a-hill metaphor has been at considerable odds with the old urbanism of the Bishop of Hippo [as defended in Augustine's City of God]...." (p. 38, emphasis added).I couldn't help but wondering if Hart was consciously drawing a connection between the "redemptive urbanism" of John Winthrop, minister and first governor of the Massachussetts Bay Colony and Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. After all, both men share a similar interpretation of the importance of "the City," one which invests a greater redemptive significance in this institution than Hart is comfortable with.
I'll ask the forgiveness in advance of those who cry "foul!" whenever I label transformationists as postmillennial, but I just can't help myself: When both the Puritan founders like Winthrop and advocates of the redemption of culture like Keller were/are equally committed to the transformation of the kingdom of this age into the spiritual kingdom of Christ, how is the former postmillennial and latter optimistically amillennial?
(And Dr. Hart, please feel welcome to flesh out this connection if you choose.)
Friday, October 13, 2006
All the language concerning the "transformation of culture" that we hear in ecclesiastical circles today gives rise to the question, "Just where did this idea come from?" According to Hart, it is part and parcel of pietist Christianity. He writes:
"Throughout the twentieth century, evangelical and mainline Protestants have assumed, thanks to their pietist heritage, that religion has immediate relevance to all walks of life.... [T]he legacy of pietism is a this-wordly form of devotion that... manifests 'the passion to hammer down history, to touch the transcendental, to earth the supernatural in the mundane.'" (Hart, Lost Soul, xxx).The intended result of pietism, whether liberal or evangelical, is results. When the poor are fed, abortion is criminalized, and X amount of souls are converted, then the gospel has done its (tangible and utilitarian) work.
Biblially speaking, where does this idea that the ministry of the gospel must produce a visibly better society come from? And if this is not the point, then what is?
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
"The institutional church set confessional piety apart from revivalism's rugged spiritual individualism and low regard for clergy, liturgical rites, and creeds.... In fact, on a spectrum of Christianity that placed creeds, clergy, and rites at one end, and religious experience and personal morality at the opposite end, Protestant confessionalists would be located closer to Roman Catholics than to revivalist Protestantism." (D.G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, 50, emphasis added).At issue here is the nature of the tie that binds (or divides, as the case may be). Is ecclesiastical similarity more important than doctrinal difference? Or does doctrinal agreement transcend ecclesiastical distinctiveness? And if we affirm the latter, we must then answer the question: How much agreement do Reformed believers have with evangelicals, really? Sure, we affirm some basic essentials, but are there not striking differences with respect to soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, and various other loci?
Moreover, Calvin's own defense of the Reformation listed worship above justification as the primary example of the need to reform the Church, thereby seemingly giving ecclesiology the upper hand over soteriology (the latter being an outgrowth of the former).
So what say you? Is any paradigm that places Grand Rapids closer to Rome than to Wheaton de facto illegitimate? And if solidarity over "the essentials" trumps churchly concerns, does that not assume that doctrine is formulated in an ecclesiastical vacuum rather than in the context of the community of believers?
Sunday, October 08, 2006
"The old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God's holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord's table. In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion." (Nevin, The Anxious Bench, quoted in D.G. Hart, John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist.)According to Nevin, there are two systems of religion at work in Protestantism: the "system of the bench," and "the system of the catechism." These two systems "involve at the bottom two different theories of religion. The spirit of the Anxious Bench is at war with the spirit of the Catechism.... They cannot flourish and be in vigorous force together." And in case his readers misunderstood his message, Nevin then added, "The Bench is against the Catechism, and the Catechism is against the Bench."
It is hard to believe that there was a time when religion in this country was characterized by the ordinary ministry of the local church, with her worship, liturgy, preaching, and sacraments (and admittedly, this period didn't last long).
What we need to recover today is just such a view of the local church's role in the life of the believing family. Rather than the slick program-driven and desperate attempts at "relevance" (which the world gets to define, by the way), we need a ministry that will simply open the Scriptures and preach Christ crucified from them, and then give the bread and the cup to hungry and thirsty pilgrims.
Anything less than a bold refusal to pander to the whims of the worldly is to sell our birthright, like "that profane man Esau," for a bowl of beans.
But will it work?
Thursday, October 05, 2006
The "pietist" and "confessionalist" paradigms for growth in the Christian faith are made into bedfellows, however, by the insistence that whatever is not evangelical is liberal, and whatever is not liberal is evangelical.
Beside the obvious inconsistency behind labeling the religion produced by iconoclastic trailblazers as "conservative" stands the equally obvious question, "If evangelical spirituality consists largely of quiet times and Vineyard-style praise and worship, what does Reformed spirituality look like? And why the insistence that these two brands of piety must be distinct rather than blended?"
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
What is "pietism"? Hart traces its origin in this country to the revivals of the Great Awakening (1735-1742), and writes:
"The sort of religion heralded by the revivals of the First Great Awakening is chiefly responsible for the triumph of a utilitar-ian view of faith. The itinerant evangelists of these revivals, as well as their successors, transformed Christianity from a churchly and routine affair into one that was intense and personal.... American pietism dismissed church creeds, structures, and ceremonies as merely formal or external manifestations of religion that went only skin deep. In contrast, pietists have insisted that genuine faith was one that transformed individuals, starting with their heart and seeping into all walks of life." (D.G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, xxiii).What makes Hart's argument especially striking is the fact that he places both liberals and evangelicals in the pietist camp. As he and others have pointed out, both parties tend to pit doctrine against practice (hence Rick Warren's call for a "reformation of deeds not creeds"), head against heart, institutional against primitive Christianity, and Paul against Jesus.
What are we to make of all this? Is pietism inconsistent with confessional Christianity? Is there as great a similarity between liberals and evangelicals as Hart argues for? And how ought Reformed believers to conduct themselves toward our evangelical friends across the aisle?
A better way to divide American Protestants, Hart argues, is between "pietists" and "confessionalists" (with both liberals and evangelicals falling into the former category). Hart writes:
"The two-party [liberal/evangelical] interpretation lacks nuance and so lumps together disparate Protestant communions on the basis of a slim set of criteria, such as conversion and social activism. Such a minimalist approach to the various denominations of Protestantism, in turn, ignores such historically important aspects of Christianity as liturgy, creeds, catechesis, preaching, sacraments, ordination, and church government. Ironically, by overlooking these churchly dimensions, the standard approaches to American Protestantism miss what may in fact be a more significant division in Unites States religion -- namely, between believers who distinguish the essence of Christianity from the external practices and observances of it (i.e., pietists) and those who refuse to make such a distinction (i.e., confession-alists)." (D.G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, xxvii, emphasis added).
So according to Hart's schema, the agreement that confessional churches have with evangelicals on issues such as the inspiration of Scripture and the diety of Christ is less significant than the disagreement they have over just about everything else.
How does this paradigm play into our discussion concerning the attitude of Refomed believers toward evangelicals? Toward Lutherans? Toward proponents of the New Perspective on Paul?
Sunday, October 01, 2006
To partially answer my own question, I would prefer we not always present ourselves, our theology, and our worship to others as anti-seeker, anti-Catholic, anti-New Perspective, et cetera, et cetera. Surely there is something deep, rich, and beautiful about Reformed theology and practice that should make it compelling to believers and nonbelievers alike, shouldn't there?
And if there is a battle waging and lines being drawn, it is not the same lines that were drawn in the sixteenth-century. Rome is not the enemy anymore, and in fact, I wonder whether we ought to define ourselves against any church or denomination that has a covenantal and confessional identity.
So now what? Are we doomed to weep because we, like Alexander, have no worlds left to conquer? Unfortunately we are still the church militant, and our theologia viatorum (pilgrim theology) precludes our laying down our weapons just yet.
But if we must "contend earnestly for the faith," it seems wise to expend our energy and efforts in the right direction (and a twelve-part sermon series on how Lutherans are closet-Eutycheans because of their doctrine of ubiquity seems somewhat wide of the mark).
I would argue that if we stop to consider where the loudest voice and greatest influence effecting how God is marketed to the world today is found, it would have to be broad evangelicalism. In fact, the more I interact with folks of this persuasion, the more I wonder to myself whether we even have a common religion anymore.
So here's my question(s): Am I reading the writing on the wall correctly? Ought we to define ourselves negatively as "not your neighbor's evangelical church"? Why or why not? How and how not?
Friday, September 29, 2006
Please don't miss the irony (we Gen-Xers love this kind of thing):
Critics of the Federal Vision constantly claim that the so-called Auburn Avenue theologians are "on the road to Rome." But both contemporary Jewish and Roman Catholic theology, together with ancient Near Eastern archaeological studies, are all coming to the same conclusion, i.e., that there were two types of covenants operating throughout Old Testament times (suzerainty/vassal treaties and covenants of grant). Couple this together with the fact that FV and NPP proponents are arguing for the very opposite conclusion (that "covenant" is a kind of monolithic amalgam of grace plus obedience) and it suddenly appears that the charge of insipid Roman Catholicism against our FV brethren may be unfounded after all.
Since confessional Reformed theology has been arguing all along (echoing Paul) that law and gospel must never be mixed or conflated, it appears that both Jerusalem and Rome may be "on the road to Geneva."
"[Paul] sees the covenant made with Abraham as the real, fundamental, and abiding covenant; according to Paul, the covenant made with Moses was interposed (Rom 5:20) 430 years after the Abrahamic covenant (Gal 3:17); it could not abrogate the covenant with Abraham but constituted only an intermediary stage in God’s providential plan....*****
"Thus Paul distinguishes very sharply between two kinds of covenants that we find in the Old Testament itself: the covenant that consists of legal prescriptions and the covenant that is essentially a promise, the gift of friendship, bestowed without conditions.... [T]he Sinai covenant in Exodus 24 appears essentially as ‘the imposition of laws and obligations on the people.’ ... By contrast, the covenant with the Patriarchs is regarded as eternally in force. Whereas the covenant imposing obligations is patterned on the vassal contract, the covenant of promise has the royal grant as its model. To that extent Paul, with his contrast between the covenant with Abraham and the covenant with Moses, has rightly interpreted the biblical text (emphasis added)."
I'll post the answer later this evening. And yes, there's irony involved....
Thursday, September 28, 2006
It reminds me of President Reagan's "trickle-down economics," according to which the opulence of the wealthy will eventually benefit everyone else.
What should we make of this? Is our goal to transform society, and if so, is the city integral to reaching that goal? Why does the Bible use so much agrarian imagery if it's the city that is central to God's redemptive plan?
Sunday, September 24, 2006
One obvious way of tackling this passage involves biting the bullet and admitting that the people in question were once Christians, but that they lost their salvation (a view once associated almost solely with Arminianism, but which has been adopted, in a qualified form, by proponents of the Federal Vision).
The view that most Calvinists espouse is that the blessings mentioned (enlightenment, having tasted of the heavenly gift, having shared in the Holy Spirit, and having tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come) are common, rather than saving, blessings. In other words, all these things can be said about the hypocrite who, like Judas, progressed quite far in the Christian life but who never truly exercised saving faith.
But a slightly different interpretation has been suggested by R. Fowler White. His position is as follows:
The writer to the Hebrews is attributing actual saving blessings to actual apostates (which is the most natural reading of the passage), blessings that were legitimately ascribed when the apostate initially believed. Although at the end of the day, if the apostate remains in his condition, these blessings would never have been his true possession, we're not at "the end of the day" but in the middle of it. The writer, therefore, was not in a position to know the apostate's heart, only his original profession and his current state. He then takes these into account and employs "reproachful irony" in order to bring out the danger being flirted with (Mark 2:17; Matt. 8:12).
"On the premise that the faith of their audiences was covenantally credible, the [New Testament] writers ascribed to them all sorts of blessedness.... On the premise that the faith of their audiences was undifferentiated, the writers exhorted their audiences to perseverance (and were covenantally bound to do so), with promise of everlasting blessedness for perseverance, and warning of everlasting curse for apostasy" (The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons, 213, emphasis added).
Thursday, September 21, 2006
"Paul is not stating promises [of divine foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification] that are true only for some unknown group called the 'elect.' ... Rather, he is applying these promises to all members of the Church who have been baptized and united to Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6). Yet, in spite of these clear affirmations of their elect status, Paul does not hesitate to warn them against the possibility of apostasy."Later in the same essay, Wilkins unpacks the last stament in this way:
"The elect are those who are faithful in Christ Jesus. If they later reject the Savior, they are no longer elect -- they are cut off from the Elect One and thus, lose their elect standing. But their falling away doesn't negate the reality of their standing prior to their apostasy. They were really and truly the elect of God because of their relationship with Christ" (emphasis mine).My reason for highlighting these passages is to demonstrate what happens when we simply see the Mosaic Covenant as "the gospel before Christ." The precarious status of national Israel as God's elect people, which was contingent upon their keeping of the law, is made to be the normative paradigm for the New Covenant people of God (complete with the threat of disinheritance and forfetiture of adoption).
And if one responds by saying that, since all covenants are "gracious," we should see Moses as pre-Christian gospel, I would ask whether what our Federal Vision brothers are offering is really "grace" at all. When, under the guise of trying to alleviate the doubts of God's people, I am told that if I don't display sufficient covenant faithfulness I will lose the blessings of election and union with Christ, well, the "comfort" of the message is lost on me.
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
As an example of warning against apostasy, the epistle to the Hebrews cites the unfaithfulness of Old Testament Israel as a challenge to us today. In 3:12 - 4:11 we are exhorted not to fail to enter God's rest through sinful unbelief like the wilderness wanderers did, for though "the good news came to them, the message they heard did not benefit them" because of their unbelief (4:2).
What is crucial to understand is that the "rest" to which Israel aspired in Old Testament times was a type of the true, heavenly rest that Adam sought. And further, Israel's gaining or losing of that Sabbath rest, like Adam's, was contingent upon their obedience to God's law (Deut. 28:1-6).
Or to make my point more clear: Both the Adamic and Mosaic covenants were administered according to the legal principle, "Do this and live."
The antitype of Adam and Israel, of course, is Jesus Christ, the second Adam and faithful Israelite (Rom. 5:12ff; John 15:1ff). As the fulfillment of all the types and shadows of Old Testament times, he succeeded where his predesessors failed and faithfully earned the right to enter into his Father's Sabbath rest as our Champion and Forerunner.
While the danger of apostasy is still present and very real, the difference between our situation and that of Israel's is seen precisely at this point. Their "covenant faithfulness" was the basis for their enjoyment of Canaan, while our enjoyment of our heavenly homeland is the covenant faithfulness of Christ. Even the saving faith that we must exercise is provided for us as part of the "grace-by-faith" salvation that comes to us by virtue of the Abrahamic promise (Eph. 2:8-9).
The mistake of our Federal Vision brothers, it seems to me, is that they collapse two things that Paul keeps distinct, namely Israel's enjoyment of the earthly blessings of the Mosaic covenant, which was precarious and uncertain, and our enjoyment of the "spiritual blessings in the heavenly places" that Christ procured for us, which couldn't be more secure.
Sunday, September 17, 2006
"... [T]he Mosaic law was simply the gospel in pre-Christian form. Or, to put it another way, the New Covenant is just the Old Covenant in mature, glorified form. The Torah is an earlier chapter in the same glorious Christ-centered story of grace and blessing."And in his essay "The Tenses of Justification" he argues:
If "the Mosaic law is just the gospel in pre-Christian form" as our brother argues, then that would seem to have some pretty important ramifications for New Covenant living, not the least of which is the seemingly unconfessional idea that works play a "causal" role in our final justification.
"... [W]orks do not justify in their own right since they can never withstand the scrutiny of God’s inspection. But we will not be justified without them either. They are not merely evidential (e.g., proof of our faith), but even causal or instrumental ("means") in our final salvation. Faith is the sole instrument of initial justification, but faith comes to be perfected by good works" (emphasis mine).
As we begin to look at the (very real) danger of apostasy, my initial question is:
How may the notion that New Covenant saints are in essentially the same covenantal condition as the saints of Old Covenant times—particularly with respect to our need to keep the law to be justified—affect how we think about the possibility of, and remedy for, apostasy?
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Although many proponents of the Federal Vision see the same dynamic existing across the covenantal spectrum (a strange mixture of grace on the one hand and threat of curse on the other), the truth is that the works principle ("Do this and live") that characterized the Adamic and Mosaic covenants (Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12; cf. Lev. 18:5) is in direct opposition to the grace principle that is found in the Abrahamic covenant. As Paul writes:
"Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.... For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void." Rom. 4:4-5, 13-14Abraham's good works that he clearly displayed by "not staggering at God's promise through unbelief" contributed in no way whatsoever to his securing of the promised blessing, for if they did, "he would have something of which to boast" (vv. 20, 1-2). If Paul is at all coherent here, he is saying that the law, which did promise blessing for obedience, could not have been the means of the promise's fulfillment without completely overthrowing the graciousness of the arrangement (v. 16).
There is no question, of course, that all God's covenantal arrangements include an important place for works. But the specific role that works play in the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants could not be more different. In the latter, they are the means to secure the (typological) blessing. In the former, they are the necessary result of Christ having secured the (eternal) blessing for us.
So here's my question: Which of these two covenantal arrangements most resembles the dynamic of life under the New Covenant?
Sunday, September 10, 2006
You see, if it is wrong to insist that pre-fallen Adam's obedience would have entitled him to eternal life, then the same must be true of the second Adam, Jesus Christ. But if our Lord's obedience to his Father did not earn eternal life for his people, then this means that God's Law has yet to be satisfied, and at the end of the day, It is not "finished" after all.
"The irony of all this is that a position that asserts a continuum of 'grace' everywhere ends up with no genuine gospel grace anywhere. An approach that starts out by claiming that a works principle operates nowhere ends up with a kind of works principle everywhere. What this amounts to is a retreat from the Reformation and a return to Rome."The reason for so adamant a stance is due to the fact that if the works principle ("Do this and live") that summed up both the Edenic and Sinaitic covenants is still hanging over the heads of God's New Covenant people, then the "works" that confessional Reformed theology has insisted were meritoriously accomplished by our Mediator are now our resonsibility to perform.
So Kline is right: We are saved by works after all. But whose?
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
If neither the Adamic nor Mosaic arrangements were legal covenants of works, then to which covenant is the covenant of grace the antithesis?
Our Reformed dogmaticians have been divided about whether the Old (Mosaic) Covenant was essentially gracious or legal, with divines at the Westminster Assembly holding to both positions. But even those who insisted that the Mosaic covenant was simply an administration of the covenant of grace clearly saw the Adamic covenant as being a covenant of works.
Thus, irrespective of whether the Law/Gospel antithesis was couched in Moses/Christ or Adam/Christ language, there was a Law/Gospel antithesis.
But if both the Edenic and Sinaitic dispensations were essentially gracious (because the creatureliness of [fallen and unfallen] man precludes his earning anything from his Maker), then where's the law, where's the bad news, where's the question to which Jesus is the answer, the problem to which he is the solution?
With all our talk of "relevance" in the Church today, one would think that if our cardinal message fails to identify a crisis to solve, then perhaps we're more irrelevant than we ever dared imagine.
Monday, September 04, 2006
There are a few problems with this objection....
First, it posits a standard of "justice" outside of God to which he is held accountable. Think about it: If he promises to bestow x upon man if he does y, who are we to insist that x is a disproportionate reward to the value of y's service? Shouldn't the fact that it is God who came up with the arrangement be sufficient to demonstrate that the ratio of obedience to reward is just right?
Secondly, if the promise of eternal life for conformity to God's commands is too good a blessing for the obedience rendered, then it must follow that the threat eternal death that Adam actually did earn was too harsh a curse for the disobedience rendered. If the prize is too "gracious" then the punishment must be too strict. And either way, God fails to live up to the standard of fairness that we subject him to.
And finally, if the first Adam's reward of eternal life for himself and his seed would have been too glorious a prize for his mere creaturely obedience to gain, then wouldn't it also follow that the second Adam's earning of the same blessing is also too magnanimous a reward for his obedience? Or conversely, if Jesus' obedience to his Father was indeed meritorious, then doesn't it seem like the "reward" he earned was something of a letdown?
In the first instance, the obedience of both Adams is insufficient to earn the heavenly crown. In the second case, the sufficiency of Jesus' work earned him a miserly inheritance that barely seems worth the hassle of being crucified for.
Friday, September 01, 2006
While it is true that we can never out-do ourselves or go beyond our covenant obligations (God doesn't need any favors), it does not follow from this that Adam's works could not have been meritorious or praiseworthy. After all, it is precisely by obeying God's commands that he is said to be pleased:
"By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit" (John 15:8).
If "the chief end of man is to glorify God," and if one of the ways we accomplish this is by doing what he says, then it would seem to follow that the objection that Adam could never have added to God's eternal blessedness is beside the point. If God says that our obedience makes him happy, then it would be a prudent course of action to just obey him rather than to ponder how an already-full glass of water can have more added to it.
Kline summarizes this well:
"Just as disobedience earns a display of God's negative justice in the form of his curse, so obedience earns a manifestation of God's positive justice in the form of his blessing. This is simple justice."
As I'll demonstrate in my next post, it's the opponents rather than proponents of traditional covenant theology that are often guilty of a subtle rationalism that gets in the way of the biblical text.
How's that for irony...?
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Here's how the objection to this doctrine goes (which proponents of the Federal Vision never tire of voicing):
To speak of Adam's loving relationship with his Creator, or Jesus' loving relationship with his Father, as a "Pelagian brownie-point system of merit" is to reduce these familial, gracious, dynamic relationships to sterile, clinical, forensic levels. After all, both the first and second Adams were already enjoying God's favor from the very beginning, so to assume that they had to "earn" or "merit" what they were obviously already enjoying is clearly mistaken.
Plus, Adam's creaturehood made "earning" even the smallest blessing from his Creator impossible (even before the fall); since man can never bring the Almighty into his debt, all that we have is necessarily a gift of grace.
And furthermore, there is such a "disproportionality" between the requirement ("If you don't eat an apple...") and the reward ("... you'll earn eternal life!") that to speak of "merit" in this connection is silly. Doesn't Jesus teach us to say, after we've done our duties, that we are still "unprofitable servants" (Luke 17:10)?
Are these arguments strong? Weak? Why?
Sunday, August 27, 2006
But this reckoning of sinners as righteous – which Paul calls "justification" – causes a problem for God. How can he just turn a blind eye to sin and transgression and retain his own righteousness?
To answer such a question requires a theodicy, which is a word that combines the Greek terms for "God" and "to justify." A theodicy, then, is a defense of God's behavior (as ridiculously presumptuous as this is).
Now most theodicies are put forth in order to solve a different problem, namely, how God can allow horrible things to happen to people as wonderful as we (this, however, doesn't appear to weigh too heavily on God's conscience). But the one place in the Bible where God does seem concerned about defending his behavior is in relation to his allowing wonderful things to happen to people as horrible as we.
Enter Romans 3:21-26.
In this passage, God's own "righteousness" is demonstrated by his putting forth his Son as a propitiation to quench his own wrath. Instead of merely overlooking wrongdoing, God postponed his just sentence until it could be directed at the sinless Savior instead of being poured out upon those whom he represents.
As in Romans 1:17, God's "righteousness" here is that salvific activity by which his commitment to uphold the right is vindicated at the same time as sinners who believe the gospel become righteous. Thus in his justification of sinners he himself in justified, and in his vindication of transgressors he himself is vindicated.
And as far as justifying himself for the rest of his behavior, God just doesn't seem interested....
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Because of human sin and the subsequent inability to secure the eternal, heavenly blessings by the ordinary means appointed at creation (obeying God’s commands), righteousness must be attained in an extraordinary way: through faith in Christ.
(And just so we're clear: The phenomenon of justification by faith is the divine response to the crisis brought on by universal sin (Rom. 1:18ff), and not, as the New Perspective claims, simply the solution to the exclusivity of Torah's boundary markers such as circumcision, sabbaths, and dietary laws.)
A comparison of Romans 2:13 and 5:8-9 demonstrates the necessity of another type of righteousness beyond the ordinary. In the former verse, one is justified because he is just—he is a "doer of the law." In the latter, however, the one who is justified is "ungodly" (v. 6) and a "sinner" (v. 8). This is an example of what Westerholm calls "extraordinary righteousness," and what Paul calls a "free gift of righteousness" and "justification by faith" (Rom. 5:17; 3:28).
Please don't miss this point: When it is ungodly sinners who are justified, it cannot be on the basis of their righteous conduct or "doing of the law" that this sentence is passed. Rather, they must be reckoned as righteous, receiving their justification "freely by grace" (Rom. 3:24), "without works" (Rom. 4:2, 5, 6), and as a "gift of righteousness" (Rom. 5:17), none of which can be said of those who are recognized as righteous because they are "doers of the law."
The contrast between ordinary righteousness and extraordinary righteousness, then, amounts to nothing less than the distinction between the law ("Do this and live") and the gospel ("It is finished!").
And this is precisely the distinction that the New Perspective misses.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
I think he meant what he said in both cases. Accordingly, in neither case was he talking about a Pharisaical or legalistic perversion of the law. Let me explain....
In Paul's allegorical interpretation of Abraham's family, he likens the patriarch's handmaid, Hagar, to the covenant made at Mount Sinai, which both produces bondage and points to the present, earthly Jerusalem. Sarah, however, corresponds to "the Jerusalem which is above," and points to the heavenly and eternal realities promised in the Abrahamic Covenant.
This is key to having a properly formed covenant theology. The Abrahamic Covenant promised a heavenly reward that is received simply by faith in the coming Messiah. The Mosaic Covenant, on the other hand, promised earthly, temporal, and typological rewards (long life in the land). And further, to retell the story of Adam's failure and typify the work of true Israelite and second Adam, the earthly blessings promised in the Mosaic Covenant were gained by obedience to the law. The principle that Paul extracts from the Mosaic Covenant is "Do this and live" (Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12; cf. Lev. 18:5).
But think about it: How could God expect Israel to obey his law in that complete, perfect, Romans 2 sense? Weren't they fallen and sinful? On that standard, wouldn't they have gone into exile the moment they crossed the Jordan?
Of course. This is why, in order to maintain the theocracy and tell the Adamic story they were supposed to tell, the "righteousness" God required of Israel consisted of having a relative measure of national fidelity to the law's demands.
The mistake of the Pharisees, then, was not that they thought the law demanded works (which it did) or that they thought they had earned the righteousness that Moses demanded (which they did). But their mistake was that they confused the relative fidelity required by the national covenant to retain the earthly land, with the perfect fidelity required by the creation covenant to secure the heavenly land.
And as I hope to flesh out later, conflating the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants (the way the New Perspective on Paul does) is an easy way to morph law and gospel into golawspel. And that doesn't save anyone....
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Hardly good news....
But there appears to be a discrepancy between his insistence in Romans that "through the law comes the knowledge of sin" (3:20), and his boast in Philippians that "as to the righteousness which is from the law, [I was] blameless" (3:6).
A common approach to this difficulty is to assume that, in one of these two statements, Paul is adopting a misunderstanding about the law that was common in his day. So his negative statements about the law (such as when he calls it a murderous ministry of death in II Cor. 3:6-7 or a source of bondage leading to servile fear in Gal. 3:23 - 4:7, cf. Rom. 8:15) are not really about the law per se, but about the Pharisaical misinterpretation of the law. So in this view, "law" = "legalism" (see Phil. 3:6 in the NIV).
Or if Paul really meant the negative things he said about the law in Romans, then his boast of being blameless according to the law's righteousness in Philippians must be understood to mean that he wasn't claiming to actually have been blameless, but he just thought he was when he was a legalistic Pharisee.
But, we are told, whatever he did mean, he certainly couldn't have meant what he actually said in both statements, could he? How could he say that the law's purpose was to condemn its subjects, while at the same time insisting that he blamelessly escaped such a sentence?