Friday, November 30, 2007

The Invisible Hand, the Invisible Foot

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber drew a line connecting Calvinism and Capitalism, arguing that free-market ideology was much more likely to thrive in Protestant countries than in Roman Catholic ones.

I find it interesting that according to what has been called "The Protestant Work Ethic," the more financially successful a person is, the more we are supposed to believe that God has blessed him. "Look at how well-off Bill is! God must be blessing his business, for he sure seems to be doing something right."

Is it a mere coincidence that the two phenomena that share the metaphor of "The Invisible Hand" are Divine Providence and the Free Market?

Most Christians will acknowledge that God's Providence is outside the bounds of human control. Just as "the Spirit blows where he wishes," so "the Lord will have his way among the inhabitants of earth, and none can stay his hand or ask, 'What doest thou?'"

But is the Market equally "free"? Does it mysteriously bless whom it will, while passing by others with a sovereign aloofness and nonchalance?

I would question my Reformed Libertarian readers whether the giving of massive campaign contributions on the part of huge corporations in return for the ability to influence labor laws, thereby enabling companies to exploit workers, is an example of "free market principles," or whether it is the abuse of power for profit.

Further, I would question why a society that provides aid for the poor is labeled "a nanny state" while a culture that, through tax breaks and economic subsidies, allows its CEOs to make 400 times what their average workers earn is called a "democracy."

Could it be that the real question is not whether there should be welfare, but rather, who should get it?

Could it be that while the wealthy enjoy the invisible hand of the market, the poor feel nothing but its invisible foot?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Strict Subscription to the Constitution?

I argued in my last post that the Reformed penchant for limited government, particularly when appeal is made to Romans 13, seems to undermine the two-kingdoms position. For some, of course, this presents no problem whatsoever. But for many two-kingdoms proponents, libertarianism seems to follow as a matter of course. To these, I would ask why the civil and spiritual kingdoms aren't left distinct, but culture is forced to play its game within the confines of a cultic rulebook.

Some two-kingdoms libertarians, however, may respond that Romans 13 has nothing to do with their political persuasion that the government should be limited to a small handful of tasks such as punishing bad guys.

To these I would respond that the claim that Reformed Christians' desire for limited government is a-biblical certainly seems suspicious, given that the Good Book has a chapter in a pretty well-known epistle containing a limited list of functions for the "powers that be" to perform.

Moreover, If I had a nickel for every time Romans 13 was invoked in political discussion with fellow Reformed believers, I'd have a dollar, maybe even more.

Still, the appeal could be made not to the Bible but to the Constitution to substantiate a more limited government. "The Constitution," the argument goes, "only allows the government to do certain things. Going beyond these, therefore, is wrong."

Just as the limited government argument seems to apply the regulative principle of worship to the culture (thus disolving the distinction between the civil and spiritual kingdoms), so the argument from the limited warrant of the Constitution seems to apply the rules of strict confessional subscription to the documents that govern the State as well as the Church.

If we two-kingdoms folks are going to continue to boast in letting the Church be the Church, and the State the State, then whatever our political persuasions, let us justify them by an appeal to their own rules, and not to the rules of another kingdom altogether.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Regulative Principle of Culture?

The churches of the Reformation differ from their Lutheran, Anglican, and evangelical brethren in that they reject the claim that whatever the Bible does not prohibit in public worship is therefore permitted, but insist that whatever the Bible does not prescribe is therefore prohibited. In a word, God is not interested in our "strange fire" (just ask Nadab and Abihu).

The fact that there are two kingdoms, however, has led us to affirm the opposite with respect to the culture, namely, that what is not forbidden is (all things being equal) allowed.

Enter Ron Paul....

Presidential candidate Ron Paul, who is really a Libertarian in Republican dress, has become quite popular among many Reformed believers, particularly those with a strong two-kingdoms paradigm. The role of government, according to Christians sympathetic to libertarianism, is to be limited to those functions outlined in Romans 13:1-7 (to approve the good, to punish the evil, to bear the sword, and to collect taxes). Other functions such as public education, the postal service, and Social Security are to be turned over to the private sector since the federal government has no business meddling with these services.

Although two-kingdoms proponents rightly insist that the civil and spiritual powers remain in their respective God-ordained corners, it seems to me that limiting government the way Reformed libertarians do actually undermines the two-kingdoms position by forcing culture to play by a cultic rulebook.

If the sacred and secular realms are in fact distinct, and if the Reformed churches are correct in erecting a higher hurdle for what is permissible in the former sphere, then why must we limit the role of government exclusively to those few functions listed in Romans 13?

If culture must play by the church's rules as Christian libertarians insist, then why do you call yourself a two-kingdoms proponent? Or if the church may adopt the playbook of the culture as John Frame argues, then why do you call yourself Reformed?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Assurance Through Action

Because the soul is not only affected by the consideration of religious things, it must be remembered that the mere presence of affections does not prove the presence of true religion. Edwards listed various examples of affections which are neither proof of the presence of true religion nor proof of its absence.

Edwards argued that true religious affections arise only from those influences of the Spirit of God that are saving and not common. In other words, the Holy Spirit’s saving influences are not saving merely because they are to a high degree, but because they are of another kind. Therefore to have true assurance of salvation we must see to it that our affections arise from these influences of the Spirit that only true Christians can experience (for example, love for divine things for their inherent excellency, delight in the loveliness of the moral excellency of divine things, &c.).

The supreme sign, according to Edwards, is seen when gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice:
"Assurance is not to be obtained so much by self-examination as by action.... Holy practice is as much the end of all that God does about his saints, as fruit is the end of all the hubandman does about the growth of his field or vineyard."
My main critique of Edwards is that his entire schema gives rise to questions that simply did not seem to occur to Calvin, or more importantly, to Paul (questions like, "How do I know I believe?"). In fact, in my days as an Edwardsian I even began to wonder how Paul could make everything seem so simple.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Edwardsian Anthropology

"The affections," writes Jonathan Edwards, "are no other than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.”

Edwards taught that God has endued the soul with two faculties; the first is that by which the soul perceives, discerns, and views things (the understanding), and the second is that by which the soul does not merely perceive things, but is in some way inclined with respect to the things it perceives, either to them, or disinclined from them (the will / heart).

This second exercise of the soul happens in varying degrees:
"It is to be noted that they are these more vigorous and sensible exercises of this faculty that are called affections."
Furthermore, these affections, though they take place in the soul, inevitably effect the body:
"Such seems to be our nature, and such are the laws of the union of soul and body, that there never is in any case whatsoever, any lively and vigorous exercise of the will or inclination of the soul without some effect on the body."
What is interesting to me about Edwards's formulations is that they arose in the context of a two-fold battle that he was fighting against the Awakening's enemies on the one hand, and against its friends on the other (and the case could be made that he was harder on the latter).

To those "enthusiasts" who understood any vigorous display of emotion as evidence of the Spirit's work, Edwards countered that while most emotion is merely common and not spiritual, true and genuine emotion must be the result of some fact, outside of us, that is grasped by the mind. In other words, gaining a fresh understanding of the sufferings of Christ or the eternal hope of the saint not only must precede genuine affection, but must produce it as a matter of course.

It sounds similar to the argument I was making some weeks back that the eschatological always precedes the existential, the historia salutis grounds the ordo salutis, and that "psalms of rememberance" lead to "psalms of trust."

Sure, Edwards gets kooky later in the book, but you have to admit that he does seem to be on to something here....

Monday, November 19, 2007

Jonathan Edwards and the Religious Affections

I entered Westminster Seminary California a pretty devout Edwardsian, and yet as I spent most of the summer of 2002 doing preparatory research for a directed study project with Dr. D.G. Hart on Edwards's versus Calvin's view of assurance (the paper was titled What Hath Geneva to do with Northampton?), my sympathies shifted from the eighteenth- to the sixteenth century, and from Massachusetts to Switzerland.

At present, the main thing I have in common with Jonathan Edwards is that I hate wasting paper....

Still, I have always appreciated his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. Well, let me clarify that. That last part, you know, the part about how we can only know that we're true believers because we love God for his inherent excellencies, and not because of the benefits we derive from him? Not a huge fan of that part.

But his thesis at the beginning of the book is that true religion largely consists in the realm of the affections, which he defines as "the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul." In other words, an "affection" for Edwards is not saying "OK" when you are asked, "Would you like fries with that?" Rather, an affection occurs when the soul responds vigorously to information received (Think fainting upon learning you've won the lottery).

According to Edwards, things like love for God, hatred of sin, and hope in the fulfillment of divine promises are all affections, and he therefore argues that "as there is no true religion where there is nothing else but affection, so there is no true religion where there is no religious affection."

I plan to interact with Edwards's treatise over the next few posts, but if you have some preliminary thoughts (and I know you do), let's hear 'em....

Thursday, November 15, 2007

On Whipping-Boys and Collective Growth

"Revivals," insists John Williamson Nevin,
"... are as old as the gospel itself. Special effusions of the Spirit the Church has a right to expect in every age, in proportion as she is found faithful to God's covenant; and where such effusions take place, an extraordinary use of the ordinary means of grace will appear, as a matter of course" (The Anxious Bench, 15-16).
I have observed on several occasions the propensity of Reformed believers to define ourselves negatively, over against what we reject rather than according to what we actually affirm. The subtle perception is that we need a foil or whipping boy in order to figure out who we are.

"You instruct the members of your congregation to kneel during the confession of sin and raise their hands while singing the Gloria Patri? But Catholics and charismatics do those things!"

I can't help but wonder whether we do the same thing with revival.

Yeah, I get it: Finney was a bad guy and contemporary evangelicalism is obsessed with the Gnostic and novel over the tried and true. But if the highest of high churchmen, a man who lived to see the effects of revivalism first hand, was still willing to boldly lay claim to the phenomenon of revival despite its being highjacked by fanatics, then maybe we don't need to be so afraid of it.

Think about it this way: What is growth in the Christian life but increasing in faith, love, and various other graces through the proper use of the means Jesus has appointed for these ends? Well, is it not possible for growth to happen in a church in the same way it does for an individual believer?

And what do you call that?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Antirevivalist Revival?

High churchman and general enemy of all things revivalistic John Williamson Nevin writes:
"It is a most unfair view of the system of the Catechism to think of it or speak of it as unfriendly to all special and extraordinary forms of action in the work of the gospel. The system, it is true, makes more account of the regular, the ordinary, and the general than it does of the occasional and the special....

"The extraordinary in this case, however, is found to stand in the ordinary, and grows forth from it without violence, so as to bear the same character of natural and free power. It is not the water-spout, but the fruitful, plentiful shower, causing the fields to sing, and the trees of the wood to clap their hands for joy. Such is the concept of a Revival.

"For such special showers of grace, it is the privilege of the Church to hope, and her duty to pray, at all times. To call into question the reality or the desirableness of them, is a monstrous skepticism, that may be said to border on the sin of infidelity itself.

"[Revivals] are the natural product of the proper life of the Church. Wherever the system of the Catechism is rightly understood, and faithfully applied, it may be expected to generate revivals in this form" (The Anxious Bench, 72-73, emphasis original).
I agree with the comments under the previous post to the effect that the term "revival" conjures up all sort of nasty images from unfettered emotionalism in general to barking in the Spirit in particular.

But such images would have been suggested even more strongly to people's minds in Nevin's day, and yet he refused to surrender the term, or to allow the phenomenon to be highjacked by well-meaning but fanatical revivalists.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Revive Us Again, O Lord

Iain Murray has described the phenomenon of revial as
"... an outpouring of the Holy Spirit... resulting in a new degree of life in the churches and a widespread movement of grace among the unconverted. It is an extraordinary communication of the Spirit of God, a superabundance of the Spirit’s operations, an enlargement of his manifest power."
A simpler way of puting it would be that a revival is an extraordinary degree of blessing upon the ordinary means of grace.

In his book Revival and Revivalism, Murray argues that a categorical distinction must be made between the revivals of the Great Awakening (c. 1735-1742) and the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening (c. 1820-1830s). The leaders of the former - men like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield - were staunch Calvinists, while the latter was led by none other than the outspoken Pelagian Charles Grandison Finney.

Critics of Murray argue that, while the theology of the first Great Awakening was undoubtedly preferable to that of the second, the seeds of excess and anti-ecclesiastical fanaticism were sown long before Finney rode into town.

So what do you think? Is Murray's thesis legitimate? Does revival, despite its abuses, have a genuine place in Reformed ecclesiology?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Doctor is In

Appeal has been made to Calvin's "four-office view" to legitimize theological innovation in our churches. "Is there not a place for 'doctors of the church,'" we are asked, "whose job is to labor in the Word, but from the study and not from the pulpit?" Furthermore, it has been urged in this connection that to the trailblazer should go the benefit of the doubt. In other words, if a man is sincerely seeking to further the theological or exegetical conversation, then back off and give him some space.

Some thoughts, if I may....

First, Paul does list "pastors" and "teachers" as abiding New Testament officers given to the church by the ascended Christ. Though many attempt to combine these two into one office using Granville Sharp's canon, the fact is that this Greek rule only applies to singular nouns joined by kai, and poimenas and didaskalous are both plural. It is possible, therefore, that Paul is arguing that there is a teaching office in the church distinct from that of pastor (and to those holding the traditional three-office view, this would not apply to those whom we call "ruling elders").

Secondly, the case could be made that seminary professors fill just such an office. They are ordained ministers of the Word, and yet they do not shepherd a particular flock, but are called by their respective presbyteries or classes to minister in the context of the academy.

Thirdly (building on my second point), these "doctors of the church" are called by their ecclesiastical communions to do what they do, they do not appoint themselves for the task.

Fourthly, "doctors of the church" who are called by their governing bodies to do theology must actually be trained in theology. If you are scratching your head wondering why I feel the need to mention something so obvious, just forget I brought it up and move on....

Given these qualifications, I think that a church's calling gifted and trained men to further our various biblical/theological discussions could be a healthy way to maintain our confessional identity without sticking our collective heads in the sand.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Semper Deformanda?

The ease with which we often throw around the supposed trademark slogan of the Reformation, "Semper Reformanda" ("Always Reforming") invites a couple questions:

What is the origin of this phrase? Who uttered it first, and where?

I don't know the answer, so I'm honestly asking. What I do know, however, is that those who quote the mantra thus are quoting it wrongly. The full phrase is "Reformata, Semper Reformanda," which means "Reformed, Always Reforming." So whether or not this slogan deserves its near-canonical status, it at least deserves to be quoted in full to say that before a church can be always reforming, it needs to first be Reformed.

There are a couple different reasons, it seems, why people quote this slogan. Some are carefully and skillfully advancing the Reformed discussion with fresh exegetical and systematic insight (Michael Horton's four-volume project comes to mind, as does the work of men like Vos, Ridderbos, Kline, and Moo).

Others, however, conveniently omit the first part of the slogan in what appears to be an effort to undermine whatever confessional content and theological identity the Reformed churches once enjoyed.

So if you think you might be a theological trailblazer, but aren't sure which of these two categories you fall into, a good way to gauge your situation is to ask yourself if your views have gained a hearing among the godly and wise men of the church. If the brethren to whom you've vowed to submit recognize in your work the advancement of the biblical and confessional conversation, then, as the Kiwis in my family would say, good on ya.

If, on the other hand, you've failed to gain even a marginal following among the various luminaries of the Reformed world, then it may be time to go back to the drawing board.

I think it was Samuel Miller who remarked that those who decry creeds and confessions are usually those whose views are condemned by them. The question of the hour, therefore, is which will it be, Semper Reformanda or Semper Deformanda?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

On Narrow Confessions and Broad Catholicity

It has been suggested in the comments under the previous post that our Federal Visionist brethren, since they borrow from a host of different traditions, are the least individualist and schmismatic people in the entire Reformed world.

But if early twentieth-century liberalism and late twentieth-century evangelicalism (or "evangeliberalism" for those of you who like combining stuff) have taught us anything, it is that having a "least-common denominator" approach to church is a bad idea, for if the prize goes to the folks with the most catholicity and fewest distinctives, then we can always find more fat to trim off to win it.

I'll see your total depravity and raise you the deity of Christ....

For my own part, I'd rather enjoy a spiritual, grassroots unity with all believers, while maintaining institutional and churchly unity with those who hold to the confessions of my church. And as for those who deny the gospel, well, I don't feel the need to have any unity with them at all (at least not in the kingdom of Christ, but if they want to sit down and talk about the Kobe/Shaq Lakers or when U2's last great album was released, I'll buy the ale).

But if we exalt the intangible and noncorporeal kind of unity to the exclusion of the unity that is embodied in actual traditions (you know, the kind with borders that define who they are), then whatever else we may call ourselves, we will have to add "Gnostic" to the top of the list.

So yes, like our "postmodern" emergent friends, the fellas in the Federal Vision camp love to pick and choose from various Christian traditions and weave it all into an interesting cloth. But like all those throughout modernity, the filter through which these various elements must pass is still the autonomous individual.

Maybe the biblicist apple doesn't fall far from the Kartesian tree after all....

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Watch Your Language!

The first time I ever spoke to a Jehovah's Witness I came away thinking, "OK, I know we're supposed to think they're a cult and all, but what's wrong with them, exactly?" I mean, they used all the right words, like "grace" and "Jesus" and "salvation," but they meant something completely different by them than I did.

One of the most challenging aspects of dialoguing with our friends in the Federal Vision camp is evident at this very point. So much preliminary work has to be done defining terms like "faith," "imputation," and "justification" that often the dialogue never really gets off the ground, and when it does, there's lots of talking past one another.

And calm down, I'm not comparing Federal Visionists to Jehovah's Witnesses (are Jay-Dubs even allowed to have beards?)

It is at this very point that the crucial and rarely appreciated distinction between "Tradition 1" and "Tradition 0" comes into play. If I have vowed allegiance to a particular confessional tradition, then I am bound, in some sense, to play that tradition's language game. So this may mean that I agree to emply confessional terminology, even if that terminology does not arise directly from the Bible, in order to avoid causing confusion and disruption in Christ's church.

So if the Bible teaches that the elect are savingly and inseparably united with Jesus, but that reprobates may also experience something similar for a time, I'll use one term for one and another term for the other. Or, if Scripture teaches that I am justified solely on the basis of Christ's work which is imputed to me by faith alone, but that I will also stand before God on the last day to receive according to what I have done in the body, then I am not going to use the term "justification" to speak of the latter.

If there's a better example of "American individualistic Bible only-ism" than gleefully throwing off the shackles of the church for the sake of trying out the nomenclature I learned during my own private devotions, I've yet to hear it.