Thursday, November 30, 2006

Here a Sacerdotalist, There a Sacerdotalist... Everywhere a Sacerdotalist

We have seen that evangelical and Reformed believers offer very different answers to the question "How does one 'get religion'?" The next question we will ask to determine the nature of the relationship between these two branches of Protestantism is, "What does the Christian faith look like once it is acquired?"

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

Of Tulips and Altar Calls: How Does One "Get Religion"?

The comments on our last thread have been interesting, particularly those concerning the relationship of Reformed theology to evangelicalism.

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

Straining at a Gnat, Reformation-Style?

Two of our non-Reformed readers (one an Anglican, the other an evangelical) have recently questioned the deliberate and conscientious approach of Calvinists toward worship. They comment:
"Why do Presbtyerians have to make everything so confusing?"

"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...."
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"?

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

New Covenant Boasting

The very idea of "boasting" would appear utterly inconsistent with the Pauline doctrines of grace were it not for the fact that Paul himself did it all the time. But in order for boasting to be legitimate, some qualifications are in order. As Walter Sobchak has reminded us, "This is not 'Nam, there are rules...."

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

A Call For Categories

I've been arguing that John Frame's desire to broaden the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) to apply to "all of life" is only possible by watering down the its strictness in order to expand its jurisdiction (kinda like what evangelicalism does with Scripture in general).

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

Is All of Life Worship?

Although many believers in Methodist, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions might find the Reformed articulation of the Regulative Principle of Worship (whatever elements of public worship that are not biblically mandated are therefore prohibited) rather stifling, Professor John Frame sees the RPW as not being strict enough. He writes:
"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

The Regulative Principle of Worship

Who gets to determine how God is worshiped? Are we free to worship him in whatever manner we choose (provided we are sincere), or does he insist on prescribing the kind of worship he will accept?

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

Traditional and Reformed: A Tautology?

To many, the description of a church’s worship as containing "traditional, Reformed liturgy" is a somewhat tautological and needless repetition of concepts (one which most likely originated in the Department of Redundancy Department).

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

Borrowed Liability

Having just preached on Paul's determination to "know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (I Cor. 2:1-2), I find it striking that not only did Paul insist upon preaching the cross exclusively, he insisted on being consistent when he did so.

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

Jesus: Less Attractive Than Tony Robbins, and Less Popular Than the Beatles

Speaking of Jesus' appearance, Isaiah writes, "He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, no beauty that we should desire him" (53:2). For this reason C.H. Spurgeon remarked that Paul "determined only to know Jesus Christ, and him crucified, and just to set him forth in his own natural beauties unadorned." "Alas for that wisdom," Spurgeon continued, "which conceals the wisdom of God! It is the most guilty form of folly."

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?