Friday, December 29, 2006

Peeping Thomases

Come on, admit it: We've all desired, at one point or another, to steal a glimpse of God naked.

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

The Curse of Expulsion vs. the Blessing of Belonging

In our last post we saw that, in Paul's estimation, barring a sinning church member from the privileges of the local assembly of saints is tantamount to "handing him over to Satan" (I Cor. 5:5).

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

Your Own. Personal. Satan.

(You know, I could deal with the fact that a quarter of a million people in the Seattle area are still without power with a lot more patience if one of them weren't me. Still, I am happy to report that my in-laws, with whom I am staying, had their power restored this afternoon, so you can all stop whining about being bored with the same old thread [don't you people have jobs?]....)

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."
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?"
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.

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

Creed, Deed, and "True Christianity"

Rick Warren's call for "a reformation of deeds and not creeds" notwithstanding, neither the Bible nor the reformers seem to recognize many of the distinctions upon which the edifice of "evangeliberal" pietism is built (head vs. heart, Paul vs. Jesus, physical vs. spiritual, and doctrine vs. practice).

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

Observant Protestantism

The pietist/confessionalist taxonomy has been the occasion of considerable debate and disagreement here (for a concise explanation and defense of this paradigm for classifying American Protestants, see D.G. Hart's comments after the thread below [his is #52 in case you're counting]).

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

Tulips on Mars, Predestination in Bethlehem

Having argued, first of all, that there is a wide chasm between evangelicalism and Reformed theology with respect to how the faith is attained, cultivated, and passed on, and secondly, that "Reformed" is more than just a state of mind (i.e., it has historical, theological, and confessional content beyond TULIP), another pesky question remains to be considered.

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

Conversion, Covenant, and the Communication of the Faith

The next question in our ongoing comparison of evangelicalism to Reformed theology addresses the issue of the faith's communication from one generation, or one person, to another.

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?