Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Revival and the System of the Catechism

An interesting passage from high-church Calvinist John Williamson Nevin:

"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).

Monday, December 29, 2008

Talk Amongst Yourselves, I'll Give You a Topic: The "Great Awakening" - It Was Neither Great, Nor an Awakening. Discuss....

In his book Revival and Revivalism, Iain Murray contends that due to the Calvinistic flavor of the First Great Awakening and the Pelagian flavor of the Second Great Awakening, the former is to be considered a legitimate work of the Spirit while the latter was largely spurious and manmade. Scott Clark, on the other hand, argues in Recovering the Reformed Confession that “both awakenings were species of the same genus, the QIRE [or, the quest for illegitimate religious experience].” He continues:

… it is sometimes said and even more frequently assumed that confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice need to be augmented with the piety and evangelical fervor of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revivals. In such a marriage, however, classical Reformed theology and piety are unequally yoked.
In fact, Clark’s contention is that it was not soteriological issues at all that caused Murray to bind together the good revivalist to the exclusion of the bad ones, but “a common heightened personal experience of the divine presence.”

Judged, however, by confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice, it is more difficult to see [revivals] as models for our theology, piety, and practice. Rather, taken individually or as a whole, the revivals represent a subjectivism that is alien to the Reformed confession.
Let me be clear about the fact that I agree with Clark wholeheartedly (due in no small part to all the yelling at me he did while I was his student). Still, I can remember back to the days when I was an ardent Banner of Truth guy, and the objection I would have raised would go something like this: According to whose standard of “legitimacy” should one’s quest for religious experience be judged? In other words, Clark’s QIRE label can easily sound as if any quest for a level of religious experience that exceeds Clark’s is excessive and illegitimate.

Of course, Clark’s response will be that it is not his standard that he is commending, but that of our Reformed confessions and catechisms. But pro-revival Reformed theologians like Murray or the Old Princetonians subscribed to the same standards that we do, and their definition of revival as an extraordinary degree of blessing upon the ordinary means of grace would seem to comport just fine with the experimental language of the Westminster Standards (not to mention that of Paul).

So the question is, how do we avoid combating the subjectivity of revivalism with an equally subjective standard of our own?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Preaching to the QIRE

I have been away from home of late and don't have my copy of Clark's Recovering the Reformed Confession handy to cite directly, but there is a topic he addresses that I'd like to put forth for discussion. In one of his chapters he addresses the issue he calls the QIRE, or, the quest for illegitimate religious experience. One of this problem's main culprits, Clark argues, is the phenomenon of revival.

While an in-depth post on revival will probably have to wait until Monday, I am curious to hear your thoughts on the matter. Are revivals legitimate? If so, which ones, and by what criteria should we determine a revival's legitimacy? How much tension, if any, is there between confessional Reformed piety and practice on the one hand, and what many Banner of Truth authors call "experimental Calvinism" on the other?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cultural Catholicity Versus Divine Demographics

Concerning the various rival catholicities that jostle for recognition in the world of Protestant missionalism, Michael Horton argues that what we really need is to jettison our incarnational attempts to force God to fit into the soap operas of our own lives and instead see ourselves as characters in his drama of redemption: "It is the church's responsibility to stage local performances of God's 'community theater' through concrete practices."

The biggest impediment to this, Horton points out, is the fact that so many ministers are better social critics than they are pastoral theologians and exegetes.

It is remarkable how confidently pastors and theologians address the social, moral, economic, and political issues of the day in comparison with the false humility often displayed in proclaiming the doctrines of Christianity.... However, catholicity is an essential element of the community that any genuinely Christian mission serves. When the gospel unites us, there are no Republicans or Democrats, youth or elderly, rich or poor, healthy or sick, devotees of hip-hop or classical music, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, or other, but fellow sinners absolved by the one who has all authority in heaven and earth to create his own demographic.
I think Horton is spot-on here. After all, the passage so often cited for cultural sensitivity (the one about Paul "being all things to all men") goes on to demonstrate how culturally insensitive the apostle actually was. Unless, of course, categorizing the entire world as either "Jew" or "Greek" counts as having one's ear to the ground and finger on the pulse.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

And on the Eighth Day the Market Said, "Let There Be Youth," and There Was Youth. And the Market Saw That It Was Good.

Continuing his diatribe against what he calls “ecclesial apartheid,” Michael Horton sets his sights on the holy grail of evangelical ecclesiology: youth ministry. In the same way that Madison Avenue created the youth demographic in order to sell stuff to them while they’re still naïve enough to believe the things Madison Avenue tell them, so the “catholicity of the market” pursued by many churches seeks to pander to this demographic in order to lure parents to the churches their kids like the best (advertisers refer to this as the “nag factor”).

The same market forces that drive us to disposable identities and perpetual novelty (planned adolescence) are tearing apart the fabric of genuine covenant community.... Generational narcissism has become a publicly accepted form of self-preoccupation since the 1970s, and each generation is profiled in such literature in the most hyperbolic terms. When marketing and sociology developed the demographic known as “youth,” the church created the “youth group.”
Horton then draws attention to the statistic that half of erstwhile churchgoing college freshmen are unchurched by their sophomore year. He argues that, given the perpetuation of “children’s church” and youth services, “instead of regarding them as having abandoned church, we might perhaps wonder if they were ever fully a part of one.”

We have learned to think as never before in terms of the uniqueness of over-stereotyped generations. Where church divisions used to be lamented as differences over doctrine, they are now celebrated as “megachurch” and “emergent,” as if each generation were an ex nihilo creation.
This gives rise to a couple interesting points. First, what is celebrated as “incarnational ministry” seems to be a prime suspect in perpetuating such market-driven catholicity, and second, this type of approach tends to de-emphasize doctrinal differences (cult) and over-emphasize demographic ones (culture). Hence Christian unity focused on a common confession of the gospel is marginalized in favor of a hegemonic uniformity driven by market forces.

We must reject the divide-and-conquer approach of rival catholicities, taking Paul’s question to the Corinthians—“Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in?”—and apply it to the churches of our own day: “Don’t you have your own social networking contexts like work, school, or Facebook to pursue your unique tastes in music, sports, or hobbies?” After all, the in-breaking of the age to come that happens in worship every Lord’s Day relativizes all times and places and jeopardizes our own cherished uniqueness in this passing age.

In a word, the phrase “the church in Corinth” should be read with the accent on the first two words, not just the last two.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Oh, One More Thing, Hollywood...

Has any one of the countless people who work in movies and television ever taken even a moment to consider the logistics and near-impossibility of pulling off that maneuver where the person you're trying to attack goes into their bathroom, looks in the medicine cabinet mirror and sees only their own reflection, opens the medicine cabinet, and then closes it and suddenly sees your reflection behind them just before they're killed?

Let's walk our way through this one, mmkay? Say I want to kill you for some reason (perhaps you irritated me, to give one example). I follow you home and, instead of clipping you as soon as you get out of your car, I instead wait until you're safely inside. I then break into your house without being detected (and chances are slim that I luck out and happen to get in through the bathroom window, but more likely I end up breaking into a bedroom and then have to sneak to the bathroom, assuming I even know where it is since I've never been to your house before). I then hide somewhere, presumably the shower, praying to God (or Satan) that you have a shower curtain and not a semi-transparent sliding door. I sit there for hours waiting for you to need to use the bathroom, hoping like crazy that you choose to use the one I'm hiding in so I don't have to wait two or three days. Then, when you finally do enter, I suddenly consider the horrifying possibility that you may need to, err, "drop the kids off at the pool" if you know what I mean. Either way, I'm banking my whole plan on your deciding to actually open the medicine cabinet for some reason, because if you don't I've just wasted hours for nothing. But now comes the tricky part: I have to somehow silently open the shower curtain and, within seconds, position myself behind you so that you'll see my reflection once the medicine cabinet is closed. And let's not forget that if your entire wall behind the sink is a mirror (like in every house I've ever been in), or if the medicine cabinet has no mirror on the door, or if it's on the wall to the left of the sink, the whole plan is jeopardized. But assuming all those factors miraculously converge, I still have to kill you (which I could have done much more easily if I just ran you over with my car five hours earlier when I had the chance).

Stop having people try to kill other people like this is what I'm saying.

Friday, December 19, 2008

An Open Letter to Hollywood

Dear Hollywood,

I’ve been watching movies and television for most of my life and, well, let’s just say I’ve been growing increasingly unhappy about a few things, and I think it’s high time we clear the air about the disturbing trends I have been noticing.

Let me say by way of preamble that I understand that programs and films are not meant to be completely realistic. I get that—if we wanted complete realism we wouldn’t go to the movies at all, we’d just live our boring lives. But that being said, some serious changes need to be made.

First, I think we, the American public, have had quite enough of the whole guy-falls-off-a-cliff-or-a-building-and-yet-somehow-manages-to-grab-hold-of-a-branch-or-tiny-cleft-in-the-rock-and-dangle-there-for-twenty-minutes thing. Have any of you Hollywood elites ever tried doing this? Even if you hang by one hand from a pull-up bar—and actually plan on doing it—you can’t last for more than a few seconds. So are we really to believe that someone can just happen to latch onto something as they’re free-falling? Yes, Peter Jackson, I’m talking to you.

And while we’re on the topic of free-falling please, please, please stop having people do stuff while they’re plunging toward the earth. There would be way too much wind to grab something, operate something, or fight someone.

And come on, enough with the whole talking to people who really aren’t there thing. I understand that The Sixth Sense couldn’t have been made without this technique, so maybe M. Night gets a pass since he hasn’t been able to do anything decent since. But it’s everywhere now. Tommy Gavin gets into arguments and fistfights with his dead illusory cousin on Rescue Me, supposed genius Gaius Baltar somehow forgets that he’s in a room full of people every time Caprica Six wants to pop into his subconscious for a chat, and the entire cast of Lost is having long, drawn-out conversations with some dead person or another. Listen up, Hollywood: No one does this. It’s one of those overdone movie tricks that no one can relate to. So cut it out.

Hey, I know: How about someone actually says “Goodbye” to someone else when they end a phone call? Please, just once?

And when it comes to taking pills, trust me, you don’t need to actually open the bottle and look inside to figure out that it’s empty (same goes for clear alcohol bottles). You see, the little pills are hard and they make this rattling sound when they come into contact with the inside of the plastic bottle. So when you pull the pill bottle out of your coat and don’t hear that rattling sound, that means it’s empty. I honestly can’t believe I have to explain the process of pill-taking to Hollywood, but there you go. And one more thing: No one takes pills without water, so quit having people do it all the time.

Last thing, the process of pointing a gun at someone actually makes no sound, so enough with that whole “click” thing you always put in there. Half the guns these actors use have no hammer anyway, so all the clicking noise does is reinforce to us imbeciles that yes, that’s a gun that guy’s holding. Yeah, we see that.

And it’s been a while since I’ve punched anyone, but I sure don’t remember it making that noise it always makes on TV.

So anyway, Hollywood, if you would please rectify these problems I, as well as the rest of America, would really appreciate it.


Jason J. Stellman

PS – Oh, and also do something about all the immorality you guys show.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

When Pinkos and Rainbows Collide

From Democracy Now:

Meanwhile, Obama is drawing criticism from gay and lesbian activists for his choice to deliver the invocation at next month’s inauguration. Obama has selected the Reverend Rick Warren, a leading evangelical opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage. Warren supported California’s recent gay marriage ban and has compared abortion to the Nazi Holocaust. He’s also backed the idea of assassinating US foes, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In a letter to Obama, Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign said, “Your invitation to Reverend Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at your inauguration is a genuine blow to LGBT Americans.”

Wow, it sure is scary having such a pinko-progressive president, innit? With "liberals" like this, who needs conservatives?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Visibility of Vinyl (Or, Put the Needle on the Record)

As many of you know I’m a bit of a music junkie, and I have been noticing a rather interesting trend as I read interviews with various artists about the state of music today. As unpredictable as it would have been a few years ago, there is a growing dissatisfaction among musicians toward digital music in general, and MP3s in particular. White Stripes frontman Jack White, when asked about the biggest challenges facing contemporary artists, said in a recent interview, “[The biggest challenge] is the fight against intangible music, the fight against invisible music.” He continues:

I hope that [in the next several years] there will be some balance between intangible music, invisible music and something that you can hold in your hand. A positive thing right now is that vinyl is staying alive, and record players are starting to be sold at stores again…. We can’t afford to lose the feeling of cracking open a new record and looking at large artwork and having something you can hold in your hands.
So many dots just begging to be connected….

Despite our Gnostic objections to the contrary, Adam Sandler’s character in The Wedding Singer was absolutely correct when he said, “We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl. Or boy.” Madonna was right and Sting was wrong, we’re not “ghosts in the machine” or “spirits in a material world,” but we are embodied, situated, corporeal humans who sometimes feel the need to “hold something in our hands,” whether it’s a new LP or a piece of bread and a cup of wine.

I cannot help but wonder if the sacramental instinct on the part of the confessional Protestant is not somewhat frustrated by our unfortunate inability to trace our visible churches back to the time of the apostles by means of an historical succession of bishops whose authority was conferred through something physical like the laying on of hands. I know, I know: neither Rome nor Constantinople—the two churches that do make this kind of claim—can match Geneva’s systematic and exegetical brilliance. But in the same way that we cannot but lament the near-disappearance of the 12" record due to the invisible MP3, so we must fight to protect the visible church from being eclipsed by the invisible one.

Vinyl skips, gets scratched, and cannot be downloaded, and likewise, the visible church is at times rather cumbersome and inconvenient. But so was that body that the second Person of the Godhead assumed, right? But we gotta believe it was worth the hassle.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What Hath Washington To Do With Northhampton (Or Bush With Westminster)?

In a back issue of Modern Reformation magazine, D.G. Hart reviewed two recent biographies of George Washington (George Washington’s Sacred Fire by Peter A. Lillback and Washington's God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country by Michael Novak and Jana Novak). Hart pointed out a bit of irony that a cynical Gen-Xer like me can really appreciate. After remarking that “Washington's conventional Anglicanism is the main reason for Lillback and the Novaks' joint conclusion that our first president was not a deist,” Hart says:

The effort to recover the orthodox Christian Washington has a remarkable unintended consequence…. In building a case for his exceptional character and integrity, [both authors] mention that “it would be a happy event if all presidents conducted themselves, to at least the extent that Washington did, as good Christians ... in private and in public.”
The argument of Lillback and Novak, then, is that Washington’s devout Anglicanism demonstrates the important and beneficial role his Christianity played in shaping his presidency. Yet there’s a problem.
But in recovering a place for orthodox Anglicanism in the formation of the United States, these authors have also unwittingly undermined the heart religion promoted during the revivals of the eighteenth century that continue to set the pace for American Protestantism. For if Washington's faith was sufficient to pass the litmus tests of orthodoxy and sincerity, then the extra credit demanded by revivalists that believers not simply believe but demonstrate faith visibly in their daily lives was unnecessary. In other words, if Founding Father’s faith was truly Christian, then revivalism’s criteria for true holiness was excessive. Proponents of the Religious Right have rarely seen that to have a Christian George Washington is to ignore an enthusiastic Jonathan Edwards, or that to retain born-again Christianity is to abandon the religion of the founding generation of American statesmen. This is the unintended benefit of these books, an outcome that shows again the curiosities that result from mixing politics and religion.
Darryl is absolutely spot-on here. The Religious Right can’t have its cake and eat it too, for if George Washington exhibited true Christianity then Jonathan Edwards was a fanatic, but on the other hand, if Jonathan Edwards described true Christianity then George Washington was merely one of those cold, dead, unconverted pretenders that Whitefield and Tennant made careers out of denouncing.
We see a similar trend in our own day, albeit in the opposite direction. Confessional Reformed types will argue until they’re blue in the face (or red, to be more precise) about the benefits of having a Christian president like George W. Bush, while at the same time their own confessions describe a Christianity that is churchly and covenantal, and that is characterized by such doctrines as infant baptism, Sabbath keeping, and a high view of the work of Christ (things which President Bush shows little sign of esteeming).

And to add to the irony, the same people who will go to the mat to prove the sanctified status of Washington’s soul stood vehemently against Barack Obama and overwhelmingly favored John McCain, though the latter clearly disliked the Christian Right and the former is a devout church-goer.

Maybe the fact of the matter is that we just like who we like, but we are too incapable of arguing for good earthly policies on their own terms that we need to find biblical justification for every extra-biblical preference we have. If we would only recognize two distinct but legitimate kingdoms, we could save ourselves the hassle of joining together what God hath put asunder.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Hide It Under a Bushel? Yes!

In a recent interview, President Bush tipped his hand a bit with respect to his own faith in God and understanding of the Bible. When asked whether he believed that the Bible is literally true, he replied, “You know. Probably not.... No, I'm not a literalist, but I think you can learn a lot from it, but I do think that the New Testament for example is ... has got ... You know, the important lesson is ‘God sent a son.’”

Umm, why do American evangelicals insist on demanding that our president be Christian again? No, seriously: why? For eight years we heard how devout our leader was, how he was convinced that God had chosen him to lead the people into blessing, how God told him to invade Iraq, et cetera. But from the portions of the interview that I have read it does not appear that President Bush has a clear grasp of what the gospel even is. “The important lesson of the New Testament is that God sent a son”? How is that a lesson in the first place? What moral truism is our president’s “favorite philosopher” trying to teach us here? That we, too, should “send our sons”? Maybe to Baghdad?

And the reality is that John McCain was about forty rungs below Bush on the whole Christianity ladder (I don’t recall him mentioning his faith once during his campaign). And for my own part I don’t fault him for this at all, but would prefer our elected officials tout their experience, their grasp of the issues, and their actual policies instead of their faith.

Especially when their faith is in a God who sent his Son to teach us a lesson (one that we probably could have learned from William Bennett’s Book of Virtues).

Friday, December 12, 2008

Sun City, Saddleback, and Ecclesial Apartheid

I am preaching through Genesis on Sunday evenings (and having a good time doing it I might add), and we just looked at the Tower of Babel episode the other night. As many commentators point out, the confusion of languages visited upon the Babelites in Genesis 11 is reversed in Acts 2 as “devout men from every nation under heaven” are given to hear the mighty works of God supernaturally proclaimed in their own tongues.

In People and Place, Michael Horton highlights the fact that the now-united multitude still retained their distinctive tongues, the significance being that those who believed in Christ that day “were more perfectly one than any society, yet in a harmony of difference.... They were one because they shared the same things, not because they became fused into the same thing.” He continues:

As we survey the contemporary ecclesial landscape, however, this account of catholicity seems to be reversed. Whereas an almost infinite diversity of doctrine and practice is tolerated, even celebrated, churches are becoming more hegemonic than ever with respect to politics, socioeconomic position, age, gender, and cultural tastes. [He then makes a veiled reference to Rick Warren's Saddleback Church to illustrate his point.]
Horton’s term for the so-called “missional” obsession with target demographics is ecclesial apartheid, which is the very antithesis of the catholicity that was inaugurated at Pentecost and will become fully visible at the end-time harvest of sinners from all nations, tongues, tribes, and peoples. But “wherever Christ is the focus of catholicity and Word-and-sacrament ministry is the means, a genuinely multicultural and multigenerational community is generated.”

In the place of a “catholicity of the market”—which seeks to reverse cultural divisions with cultural commonalities—the church needs the kind of catholicity that arises not from the culture but from the cultus. This alone can prevent the church from becoming “a collection of consumers or tourists rather than a communion of saints and pilgrims.”

Contrary to the ecclesial apartheid of the missional movement, therefore, genuine catholicity is a necessarily churchly and supernatural phenomenon which secures for God’s people the ability to be one, but not the same.

(Am I bugging you? Don't mean to bug ya....)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

You Want Bread and Wine With That Eschatology?

In chapter 2 of his Recovering the Reformed Confession, R. Scott Clark sets his sights on what he call the “Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty” (hereafter QIRC). Clark writes:

QIRC is the pursuit to know God in ways he has not revealed himself and to achieve epistemic and moral certainty on questions where such certainty is neither possible nor desirable.
Clark lists three examples of the QIRC that rear their heads in Reformed churches today: six-day, 24-hour creationism, theonomy, and covenant moralism as exemplified in movements such as the Federal Vision. In each of these cases there is an epistemological tension—whether between Scripture and science, the civil and the spiritual, or justification and sanctification—that the Reformed believer simply cannot endure. Hence his quest.

Instead of turning to the Reformed confession, however, many Reformed folk have turned to a kind of rationalism in an attempt to find certainty by elevating a particular interpretation, application, or use of Scripture above the Reformed faith itself. These folk then use their interpretation of Scripture as a mark of orthodoxy and/or sort of prophylaxis against enemies foreign and domestic, real and perceived.
For my own part, I can’t help but wonder why anyone who can’t abide a little tension now and then would ever bother to become Reformed. It is rather ironic that we are often chided by our evangelical friends for wanting our theology airtight and pristine, only to be yelled at ten minutes later for our unwillingness to open the Bible and declare with certainty how long it took God to make the earth or whether Jesus hates Barack Obama as much as James Dobson does.

The Reformed often receive the same tsk tsk-ing from our Catholic friends. Our ecclesiology is anything but tidy (heck, half the time we wouldn’t even have one if there weren’t an evil and corrupt Roman edifice to throw eggs at). But notwithstanding the Reformed refusal to make epistemological certitude the summum bonum of our existence, let it never be said that we walk by sight or lose too much sleep over not knowing everything.

All that thinking gives us a headache anyway, so just let us enjoy our eschatology semi-realized with an appetizer of bread and wine to tide us over until the real meal arrives.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Celebrating the Ecclesiastical Pigpen

Reformed Christians tend to be very skeptical when it comes to putting too much stock in human faithfulness (that pesky Total Depravity thing inevitably rains on our parade). In a word, we like it when God does stuff for us. Appropriately, then, Michael Horton writes:

Taking the catholicity of the church entirely out of our hands, election proscribes all overrealized eschat-ologies, whether they identify the pure church with a universal institution [read Rome] or with the sum total of the regenerate [read Münster]. Only in the eschaton will the visible church be identical with the catholic church. The union of Christ and his body—the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church—is the eschatological communion of the elect, chosen “in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph. 1:4).
Horton argues that Calvin, following the Augustinian heritage generally, seen the Father’s election as the locus of the church’s catholicity.

It is this church that is indefectible. It must always have its visible expression in every era, but this visibility is always ambiguous because the church is a mixed assembly and even the elect are simultaneously justified and sinful.... The covenant of grace is the visible, already/not yet, semirealized form of the glorified communion of the elect in the eschaton.
A properly-realized eschatology necessarily leads to a willingness to settle for faith over sight (a principle betrayed by the Radicals and by Rome, for the former choose sight over faith by their emphasis on the visible piety of church members, while the latter replaces faith with sight by its insistence upon an historical continuity of succession in order to lay claim to ecclesial legitimacy).

The objection on the part of the Catholic or Orthodox believer will undoubtedly be that a so-called mark of the church such as catholicity that is invisible to the human eye is no real mark at all, for “invisible marks” are not only oxymoronic but are also useless for actually helping anyone locate the real church amid a myriad of pretenders. The real question for all of us, then, is how pristine an ecclesiology we have the right to demand, or, how messy an ecclesiology we are willing to tolerate.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

All We Need is Just a Little Patience

As the previous thread of comments aptly demonstrates, Reformed theology is all about faith now and sight later (or to employ Luther’s famous distinction, our present theology is one “of the cross,” while a “theology of glory” is relegated to the future).

Michael Horton applies this eschatological tension between the already and the not yet to ecclesiology, and to the church’s unity and catholicity in particular. “No ecclesiology is adequate,” he writes in People and Place, “that fails to acknowledge the mystery and reality of ongoing sin in the believer and also in the church.”

… our confession of “one holy catholic and apostolic church” remains significantly an article of faith that, like our justification, is not always experienced. [Quoting Oswald Bayer]: “Our age is not short on experiences, but on faith. But only faith creates a genuine experience of the church.”
The church, like the individual, is simultaneously justified and sinful and constantly stands in need of being constituted the people of God by means of covenant renewal. Thus “the visible church is always put in the position of having to receive its identity from outside of itself.”

… the church as it is in this age already participates in the eschatological kingdom. Despite the church’s compromised, ambiguous, schismatic, and sinful character, the covenant of redemption ensures that our unfaithfulness will not have the last word…. In the resurrection of the dead, the so-called invisible church—the communion known only to God—will become fully visible. The totus Christus is affirmed, therefore, but in covenantal rather than Platonic terms. Its frame of reference is treaties of peace rather than ladders of being.
The real question for the Reformed believer (and the amillennialist in particular) is how much we are willing to presently forego. Can we patiently endure the seemingly inglorious and ignoble failure of the church to look to our eyes the way Jesus says she looks to his? Can we walk by faith instead of by sight?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What Happens When We Read the Scriptures as Scripture?

Over at the blog Pontifications, the author (Alvin Kimel) makes some interesting observations with respect to biblical hermeneutics. Kimel begins by stating that any biblical passage must be interpreted within its larger context in order to ascertain its literal meaning and authorial intent. Little shock there. But what happens when a six-chapter book like Galatians, a few hundred years after it is written, now finds itself to be but a small part in a sixty six-chapter book like the Bible? All of a sudden, the context of Galatians is much larger than it is when consid-ered in isolation.

Why is this significant? Well, if Galatians is not a book but a chapter in a Book, and if that Book of which Galatians is a chapter is authored ultimately by God, then in the same way that Galatians 4 must be read in the light of the epistle’s other five chapters, so Galatians as a whole must be read in the light of the rest of Scripture in its entirety. And if context determines and expands a text’s meaning, then the epistle’s human authorial intent may not be the same as its divine authorial intent. In a word, when we read Galatians as Scripture, its literal meaning may or may not be identical to its canonical meaning.

This, Kimel argues, is why the grammatical-historical method of interpretation alone is insufficient for determining a biblical text’s true significance. According to this approach, anyone can interpret the Bible provided they have the requisite tools and employ the proper methodology. “Poppycock!” Kimel says (or at least he would have if he appreciated how awesome that word is). The Bible is not like any other book, nor is it merely a species of a broader genus known as “Holy Writings.” Scripture is sui generis, unique, one-of-a-kind, meaning that even if a passage’s literal meaning can be deduced, its sensus plenior—or fuller sense—is beyond the grasp of the mere earthling.

The point, as the Reformers insisted, is that the Bible is the church’s book and must be interpreted in conjunction with, and never in isolation from, those who have gone before us. Moreover, Kimel (citing Swinburne approvingly) draws the conclusion that if Paul himself taught a seminary class on his own writings, his voice would be but one of many seeking to determine the true meaning of the epistles he penned. And further still, since the Bible is unique and one-of-a-kind, the rules for interpreting it cannot arise from Scripture itself (any more than I could invent a new language and then write a book attempting to teach you, in my new language, how to speak it). No, Kimel says, hermeneutical principles must arise from within the community to which Scripture has been given, and from which it has emerged. And more specifically, the task of interpreting Holy Writ is given to those who have been set aside and ordained for the task, i.e., ministers of the Word lawfully called.

So much for American, egalitarian, Bible only-ism….

Monday, December 01, 2008

Leggo My Bible!

After interacting with Calvin’s view of holy orders in which the Geneva reformer admits the sacramental nature of “true and lawful ordinations,” the President of the Upper Crust Theological Society writes:

I wonder what implications might follow for the Protestant (Reformed) Church today if it recovered this sentiment of Calvin.... How might the Protestant (Reformed) Church view differently its ministers if it understood Ordination to constitute a sacrament in some “true and lawful” sense? The egalitarianism which plagues the Protestant Church today is unlikely to accommodate itself to such an obvious distinction among the members of the Church (the distinction, that is, between those who have and those who have not received this “spiritual grace”).... But taking the time to do exactly that might foster a bit of appreciation for what ministers do, and what we (as lay members of the Church) can get from them—something which we can’t get from, say, our personal devotions, or any other number of the various sacraments we create for ourselves (in our dogged determination to be sanctified by sight rather than faith).
This sentiment is expressed more strongly by Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas who suggests that “No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America.”

As confessional and Reformed Protestants our position has always been that the Bible is the church’s book and must be read and interpreted within the community of God’s people. The Westminster Confession states: “Unto this catholic and visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God...” (XXV.3).

While the Reformed Protestant would surely agree that “all sorts of people are bound to read the Word of God apart by themselves,” it is also true that “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word” an effectual means of salvation (Westminster Larger Catechism 155-56). As I hope to bring up in subsequent posts, properly interpreting Holy Scripture is anything but child’s play.

Some questions for further discussion, then, include: (1) Is Hauerwas overstating the remedy for the individualism and egalitarianism of the American church? (2) How can Protestant churches instill in believers a due appreciation for the unique gifts and calling of their ministers? (3) If true and lawful ordination is a sacrament as Calvin seems to admit, how can this be put into practice given the unfortunate fact that very few of Protestantism’s denominations actually recognize one another in an official capacity? And lastly, (4) Do Reformed churches need some Protestant version of Rome’s Magisterium in order to avoid functioning individualistically? And if so, on what basis may we demand to be heard by Christians outside the jurisdiction of our churches?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Happy Buy Nothing Day!

***From the '06 archives, seemed appropriate***

In order to thoroughly depress myself, I've been reading a lot of social critics lately (everything from the more humorous stuff by David Brooks to the more serious Juliet Schor and Paul Stiles).In one such book I ran across the movement started by the good people over at Ad Busters called Buy Nothing Day. The goal is to convince people to set aside their materialism for one full day (the most popular shopping day of the year, incidently: the day after Thanksgiving). An intriguing proposition indeed....

But then it dawned on me that, as a Presbyterian, I don't just have one day a year to make such a statement to this consumer-driven culture, but I can do it every week.

The Lord's Day has been described as a chance for believers -- who are unashamed citizens of the kingdom of culture six days a week -- to plant a flag in Times Square each Sunday in order to protest the rank consumerism of this age by simply saying "No! Not today...."

After all, it's hard enough as it is for Christians to stand out and be different from the culture around them. But once we surrender the Lord's Day to "the tyranny of the clock and the gods who amuse us," it's almost impossible.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Semi-Eschatological Porter

In his chapter on apostolicity in People and Place, Michael S. Horton argues that the church's mission is defined by its marks. Concerning the former, Horton echoes the Reformed confessions in stating that the mission of the church can be essentially likened to a porter's opening and shutting doors. The doors in question are those of God's kingdom, and the means of their opening and shutting are the preaching of the Word of God, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline.

"The triumphant indicative ('all authority in heaven and earth is given to me') is the basis for the imperative ('go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing... and teaching,' Matt. 28:18-20)."
The way church discipline is exercised is by means of the keys of the kingdom being entrusted to its ordained officers. By commissioning his disciples with this authority, Horton argues, Jesus "explicitly announced a union of the sign (ministerial binding and loosing 'on earth') and the thing signified (magisterial binding and loosing 'in heaven')." This means that though churchly authority is ministerial and not magisterial, it is more than mere witness.

Now the question could arise about how, given the fractured nature of Protestantism, a particular church's binding and loosing can be taken seriously. I mean, with no visible church but only visible churches, who's to say whose earthly binding and loosing is in fact reflective of the heavenly reality?

Horton answers this question with an appeal to eschatology, one which I find quite interesting. After speaking of the "binding and loosing" nature of all preaching, absolution, baptism, and Communion, he writes:
"On all of these occasions, the age to come is breaking into this present age: both the last judgment and the final vindication of God's elect occur in a semirealized manner, ministerially rather than magisterially. The church's acts are not final--they do not coincide univocally with the eschatological realities, but they are signs and seals. Christ's performative speech is mediated through appointed officers."
Some questions to further discussion: (1) Does Rome's magisterial view of ecclesiastical authority betray an overrealized and romanticized eschatology? (2) Can Protestantism's insistence that there is no necessary coincidence between earthly and heavenly binding and loosing bear the weight of the Scriptural evidence, e.g. Matt. 16:19? and (3) By their respective self-authenticating definitions of the church as either the assembly that gathers around the bishop (Catholicism) or the assembly that gathers around the Word and sacraments (Protestantism), has either side effectively rigged the game?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

On False Gods, False Devils, and the Fear of Two-Timing Jesus

No one appreciates a two-timer, least of all God. I mean, if all those passages about idolatry and spiritual harlotry are any indication, Yahweh does not appreciate being cheated on.

Now when it comes to the Christian’s relationship to culture, it would seem that many feel the typical guilt occasioned by a love triangle of sorts in which God is sometimes snubbed so we can read War and Peace, see a rock show, or engage in political debate. In a word, cultural material is often looked upon by the believer as the kind of stuff you hide under your mattress and pray no one finds.

Enter two-kingdoms theology. One of the greatest strengths of this model is that it protects earth from being either demonized by the fundamentalist or divinized by the liberal. The civil kingdom can be seen by two-kingdoms proponents as a perfectly legitimate occasion for rejoicing, frustration, prayer, marching, or protest, all the while refusing to force earth to bear the burden of becoming anything other than it is.

If man’s fall taught us anything, it is that the cultural work of the sons of Adam, while still worthwhile, can never issue forth in eternal, heavenly blessing. That gig is up, and we lost. Now, the best we can expect of our carnal weaponry such as wrenches, violins, and tennis rackets is that they help build a more just and pleasurable society for us to enjoy.

But at the end of the earthly day will come the great and terrible Day of the Lord, on which “the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” When “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen,” there will be no rebuke for the church over the fact that Babylon is still there and hasn’t been transformed into Jerusalem. Rather, the civil kingdom will simply have served its purpose and will be destroyed as God’s people “come out from among her,” rejoicing over her destruction while the earthlings throw dust in the air and lament Babylon's fall.

So by all means, enjoy earth, lament earth, love earth, and hate it. But what we must not do is turn the civil kingdom into a false god on the one hand, or into a false devil on the other.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Of Bully Pupits, Churchly Tyranny, and Prophets in Priest's Clothing

As most who know me are (perhaps painfully) aware, I believe that the next big conversation that the church needs to have is the one about the two kingdoms. Though I have made a lot of exegetical and theological arguments for why this doctrine is so crucial, I’d like to make another, but this time a pastoral one.

The thing about the Protestant and Reformed view of ecclesiastical authority is that it, unlike that of Rome, is not magisterial but ministerial, not legislative but only declarative. In other words, I as a Presbyterian minister don’t get to make up a bunch of stuff that I then place as a burden upon the shoulders of the people in my church. The nature of the office of minister is such that I am ordained to bind the consciences of my people, but with a catch: I can only bind their consciences concerning those things that God specifically addresses in his Word.

This means that I may not use the pulpit as a bully pulpit in order to opine about my favorite theory of economics, or diet, or politics, or any other earthly, temporal matter. To do so would be to abuse my authority, as well as the sacredness of my office, effectively sacralizing what is secular and, by default, trivializing what is sacred.

So just as with other little-understood Reformed doctrines such as the regulative principle of worship, the two-kingdoms paradigm is designed pastorally to safeguard the sheep against my tyrannizing them by stepping into the pulpit and issuing jeremiads against the evils of NAFTA and Nike. After all, we all know that that’s not the kind of thing most believers mean when they demand that their pastors “speak prophetically to the culture.”

Though I have lots of pastoral deficiencies, my people should at least thank me profusely for keeping earth out of heaven. I mean, it’s all fun and games until your culturally prophetic minister starts prophesying falsely, crying, “Universal Healthcare! Universal Healthcare!” when there is no universal healthcare.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Determining the Degree of our Debt to the Dead

"Confessional Reformed folk have always had a deep appreciation for the fathers and the medieval theologians," writes R. Scott Clark in his Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice. "It was the Anabaptists, not the Reformed, who sought to do theology without reference to the past." Clark writes:

The Reformed orthodox demonstrated a remarkable catholicity of spirit and knowledge and drew upon the entire Christian tradition to formulate their theology. If we are to follow the classic Reformed pattern, we too must become scholars of the fathers and even of the medieval theologians, who established much of the Christian theological vocabulary and the intellectual categories in which both the Reformers and the post-Refomation theologians did their work.

Indeed, argues Clark, it is indicative of a "Reformed Narcissism" to ignore or dismiss our debt to the past. Yet this debt to the dead notwithstanding, there is a "gulf fixed" between us and such luminaries as Anselm, Aquinas, Lombard, Bradwardine, Gregory of Rimini, Staupitz, and Wycliffe: The Protestant Reformation.

Though we embrace many of the same doctrines as our medieval forebears, we also embrace the conviction that sinners are justified only on the ground of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received through faith alone, a theological insight learned from Luther, Calvin, and Reformed orthodoxy, not from the fathers or the medieval theologians (emphasis added).
I can hear a couple objections echoing from the Papist Peanut Gallery that I would like to raise and discuss. First, is Protestant soteriology really a "genuine theological novum" as McGrath is often quoted as saying and as Clark seems to concede? Secondly (and more profoundly), is the Protestant penchant for picking and choosing which bits of the fathers' teachings we embrace (accepting the Trinity but denying historical apostolicity, for example) not an example of the very Naricissim that we decry in evangelicalism?

In short, how ought we confessional Protestants to determine the degree of our debt to the dead?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pilgrim Theology's Table of Contents

Pilgrim Theology: Worship and Life Between the Already and the Not Yet

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Tale of Two Kingdoms

1. Worship and Life: Tearing Asunder What God Hath Joined Together?

Part One: Pilgrim Theology and Christian Worship

2. Corporate Worship: The Covenantal Assembly of a Peculiar People

3. Irrelevance of Relevance: Grits, Salt, and the Assembling of the Saints

4. Resident Aliens: The Church as a Counterculture

5. The Power of Weakness: Why Christianity Works Best as an Underdog

6. Sabbath For Sale: Working for the Weekend, Redeeming the Nation, or None of the Above?

7. “Suburbylon”: Why Not Even White Picket Fences Can Keep the World Out

8. Reformed Piety: Closet Quiet Time or a Table in the Wilderness?

Part Two: Pilgrim Theology and Christian Life

9. The Big Picture: War Is Over! (Whether You Want It Or Not)

10. Egypt’s Unworthiness: Joseph, Moses, and the Vanity of Time

11. The Destiny of the Species: Which Came Last: The Chicken or the Egg?

12. Worldliness: Puritans, Pagans, and the Proper Place for Pleasure

13. New Covenant Sanctification: The Cross, the Spirit, and the Glory to Come

14. The Bragging Calvinist: Why the New Covenant Allows Boasting

15. Blessed Assurance: The Witness and the Whisper, the Earnest and the Ache

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Pioneer Children of the Corn

**Disclaimer** In this post I am poking some fun at the Vision Forum, but I want to make clear that I in no way begrudge them their right to seek to restore what they consider to be a proper understanding of boyhood and girlhood. What I am questioning is their romanticizing of various periods of American history that were characterized by racism and xenophobia. Also, I am troubled by their linking of their stated principles with the Protestant Reformation. So if you like the Vision Forum and will be offended by its being challenged in a semi-jocular manner, then you may want to stop reading at this point....

I don't how how it started, but I occasionally get these catalogues in the mail from the Vision Forum which, as far as I can tell, is an organization whose aim is to harken the Christian family back to the good ol' days when Ma would milk Betsy so's we chillins could churn us up some fresh butter. Or better yet, we could just have our slave do it while we white folk can go down to the courthouse and carve the Ten Commandments into its hallowed walls.

I realize I'm being a tad melodram-atic, but only a tad. Some of the items for sale in the latest Vision Forum catalogue include civil war uniforms, Crusades-era knight costumes with swords and shields to "defend our sisters as protectors of womankind," and for the more contemporary warrior, various modern soldiery parephernalia that looks like the stuff issued to the new recruits at Blackwater U.S.A. right before they're shipped off to Baghdad to protect the interests of Halliburton. Did I say that out loud? I meant "America."

Is it me, or is this stuff seriously spooky?

Don't get me wrong, I love to rock a coonskin cap and hunt Injuns as much as the next red-blooded American boy, but equating the carefree and fun-loving days when we (white, male, land-owning) Americans were realizing our manifest destiny with the Protestant Reformation, well, that's a bit much.

Friday, November 14, 2008

What Do Papal Bulls and Draft Cards Have In Common?

In the Fall 2008 issue of Westminster Seminary California's magazine Evangelium, W. Robert Godfrey opens his article “Calvin and the Bible” by referring to a recent interview of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia by the late Tim Russert. When asked about the role his faith has on the performance of his duties, Scalia, a Catholic and a conservative, replied that his faith had little effect since his role is to interpret the original intention of the Constitution. After all, it’s not like it’s an “evolving document” or anything.

Godfrey then highlights the irony that he sees in a Catholic Justice insisting that the Constitution must be literally interpreted according to the intent of its original framers, while at the same time his faith demands that the Bible be “treated in the very way that his politically liberal counterparts treat the Constitution.” “The Reformation,” writes Godfrey, “can be seen as a conservative return to the original meaning of the Bible as the only revelation of true religion.”

Among the extra-biblical traditions imposed upon the Church by its Catholic Magisterium, argues Godfrey, are the teachings “that the Mass is a propitiatory sacrifice, that the elements of the Lord’s Supper should be worshiped, and that Mary is a mediator between God and men.” In opposition to this, the 1536 Confession of Faith of the Church of Geneva states in Article One: “We affirm that we desire to follow Scripture alone as our rule of faith and religion… without addition or diminution.”

For my own part, I am not convinced that it’s a good move for us Protestants to charge Catholics with a veiled liberalism when it comes to their treatment of Scripture. After all, with nary a non-liberal denomination older than three-quarters of a century, Protestantism doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record when it comes to guarding the deposit. Furthermore, for this two-kingdoms crusader it does not seem irksome whatsoever for a Supreme Court Justice to have one set of rules governing his civil responsibilities, and another his ecclesiastical ones. And lastly, it is not obvious to me that even a necessary movement like the Protestant Reformation can be dubbed “conser-vative,” what with our burning of papal bulls and whatnot (at least, no more conservative than it was for people in the 1960’s to burn their bras and draft cards).

My advice? If Protestants want to go after the Catholics over their handling of Holy Writ, we need to do it not by assuming Sola Scriptura and then tsk tsk-ing Rome for failing to adopt our standard, but by calling into question both the need for a Magisterium and the faithfulness of that body to perform the duties it claims to be ordained to do.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Unity of the Oh-Pavic: Fantasy or Farce?

In the comments under the previous thread it occurred to me that the unity of the Catholic Church is, in some respects, somewhat analogous to evangelical unity.

“Evangelical unity?” you ask, “Isn’t that an oxymoron like ‘a deafening silence’ or ‘an unbiased opinion’?” Well, it kind of depends. To be sure, “evangelicalism” is not a church, it is a movement consisting of various believers and churches who hold certain beliefs in common, most notably the inspiration of Scripture and the need for personal conversion. When defined in this way, the umbrella of evangelicalism is large enough to provide shelter for millions and millions of Americans.

But of course, the whole thing’s a sham.

In his Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham, D.G. Hart ably demonstrates that “evangelicalism” is a mirage, a façade with little of substance behind it. When you gather together a bunch of widely disparate communions under the very slimmest of criteria, voila! you’ve got a voting bloc. But beyond the flexing of its muscles for the purpose of cultural warfare, there is little significance to any movement that boasts as among its leaders both Joel Osteen and R.C. Sproul.

But imagine, if you will, that the evangelical movement decided to become a church. It then adopts a leader (we’ll go with Hart since the very idea would make him throw up a little in his mouth), subscribes a confession (say, the Westminster), applies for a P.O Box and 501-C3 status, and even comes up with a catchy name like “The Oh-Pavic” (which is obviously short for “The One Holy Protestant and Visible Church”). Can you see it? “Hey, so where do you go to church?” “Ummm… the Oh-Pavic? Where else? (Rolls eyes.)”

Suppose further, if you will, that although the pastors of the Oh-Pavic agree to stick to the Westminster Confession, none of her members are required to actually change their views. So you’ve got a bunch of Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, United Methodists, and Presbyterians all engaged in a group hug while singing “It’s a Small World After All,” despite the fact that the members of the Oh-Pavic have little in common with one another, and even less with their leaders.

My point? The Catholic Church’s institutional unity—which I admit is a better witness than what we Protestants display—still stops short of the ideal doctrinal, spiritual, and moral unity that I can’t help but believe Jesus had in mind in his high-priestly prayer in John 17. And further, the Catholic Church’s unity is little more than what could be achieved by Protestantism with the mere drive to the post office and the filling out of a few forms.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Reformers, Romans, and Radicals

In his chapter on apostolicity in People and Place, Michael Horton seeks to demonstrate that the locus of ecclesiastical authority is not centered in one person or office, but that "both [Peter and Paul] subjected themselves jointly to the broader assembly [in Acts 15]," and that "if the apostles themselves were corrected by the Word, through mutual admonition, then surely the ordinary ministry can assume no greater authority." Horton then cites Calvin as pointing out that Paul, in his list of officer-gifts given to the church by the risen Christ, mysteriously leaves out the (supposedly) most important one of all:

If he knew a primacy which had a fixed residence, was it not his duty, for the benefit of the whole church, to exhibit one ministerial head placed over all the members, under whose goverment we are collected into one body?
Horton's larger aim to to demonstrate that a covenantal ecclesiology is a via media between a hierarchical model of apostolicity rooted in historical succession on the one hand, and a democratic model based on private revelations or inner experiences on the other.

In fact, argues Horton, the Reformers' argument in the sixteenth century was that both Rome and the Radical Anabaptists appealed to the ongoing revelatory ministry of the Spirit, they just diffeed in whether his voice was to be sought in the Magisterium or in the heart of every sincere believer.
The church is not, properly speaking, the magisterium or the ministerium, but the whole body. Yet as the Pastoral Epistles elaborate, the transferable aspects of the extraordinary apostolic vocation have been entrusted to the ordinary offices of pastors and elders. So we must avoid a legalism that subverts the unique authority of Christ and his Word by addition as well as an antinomian spirit of subtraction.
My question for my Catholic friends, then, is: If you can argue that there is no difference in principle between the Reformers and the Radicals since both reject the magisterium, can we not argue the opposite, namely, that due to their rejection of the sufficiency of Scripture, there is little difference in principle between the Radicals and Rome?

Friday, November 07, 2008

Pilgrim Theology: Worship and Life Between the Already and the Not Yet

Here is the first draft of the dust jacket of my book, which is due to be published in June by Reformation Trust (the publishing house of Ligonier Ministries).

Yes, you're expected to buy it, and no, you may not have a free copy....

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Lo Ammi: Not My [Apostolic] People

In Michael Horton’s chapter on apostolicity in People and Place, the author begins by rooting a church’s true apostolicity in its faithfulness to Scripture.

Ecclesia simper reformanda… means the church is always being reformed, not reforming itself, submitting itself to the judgment of God’s Word and asking anew whether its confession and practice are in accord with Scripture. Only in this way is any church truly apostolic.
Arguing with Lesslie Newbigin that Reformed theology “affirms just as strongly as Rome that the church is visibly incorporated into Christ,” it “resists the tendency to collapse the visible into the invisible church or to regard the visible church simply as an event.” Horton then cites Newbigin:

When, on the other hand, the Church is identified simply with whatever society has continued in unbroken succession from the time of the apostles, then the flesh, not the Spirit, has been made determinative. There is in truth no “extension of the Incarnation,” for His incarnation was in order to make an offering of Himself in the flesh “once for all.” The fruit of that offering, of that casting of a corn of wheat into the earth, is the extension of His risen life to all who are made members of His body in the one Spirit—until He comes again…. The fundamental error into which Catholic doctrines of the Church are prone to fall is… the error of subordinating the eschatological to the historical.
“This,” Horton says, “is precisely what is at stake in recognizing that the church is the creation of the word.”

Rather than the church being wherever the bishop is (per Ignatius), the church is wherever the gospel is:

The gospel is the crietion for apostolicity…. Because there is one faith… there is historical continuity with the apostles…. “The faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3) is the unbroken thread running from the prophets and apostles to us today.
Again citing Newbigin, Horton argues that

The “fundamental flaw” in making a valid episcopate essential to apostolicity “is that it forgets that the substance of the covenant is pure mercy, and that God retains His sovereign freedom to have mercy upon who He will, and to call ‘No People’ His people when they that are called His people deny their calling by unbelief and sin.”
I find this to be a very interesting argument. Reformed ecclesiology is understood to be a kind of post hoc arrangement rooted in God’s sovereign prerogative to call a “new people” from the ruins of the old, not unlike his grafting into the one vine the wild olive branches who replaced the natural ones.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Northwest Presbytery and Peter Leithart: A Podcast Interview

For those of you who have been following the ongoing issue between Federal Visionist Peter Leithart and the Pacific Northwest Presbytery, you may be interested in this edition of the monthly podcast Ordinary Means. In it, yours truly is interviewed by hosts Shaun Nolan and Matt Bohling concerning the events of last month’s presbytery meeting at which, after much debate, Pastor Leithart’s views were determined by the presbytery to be in accord with the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards.

The status of the issue at present is that a complaint has been filed against the presbytery and submitted to the presbytery’s Standing Judicial Commission (of which I am a member, though I have recused myself for obvious reasons). Whether other actions will be taken I have not heard anything specific.

Enjoy the show....

Monday, November 03, 2008

Navigating the Complexities of Civil Terrain

As we head to the polls on Tuesday, I’d like to draw our attention to some points brought forth by author Jim Wallis. Before I do, though, I need to make the disclaimer that I personally am uncomfortable with his “God’s Politics” language, and I also think it can be anachronistic to seek answers to specific contemporary political issues in the pages of Holy Writ. Still, I think he offers some valid challenges for those who think (somewhat simplistically) that certain hot-button issues make our choice one between good and evil, with one guy wearing the white hat and the other wearing the black one.

First, with all that the Bible says about poverty, it is fitting to “examine the record, plans, policies, and promises made by the candidates on what they will do to overcome the scandal of extreme global poverty and the shame of such unnecessary domestic poverty in the richest nation in the world.”

Second, given the eschatological hope that we will one day beat our swords into plowshares, it is prudent to “choose the candidates who will be least likely to lead us into more disastrous wars and find better ways to resolve the inevitable conflicts in the world and make us all safer.”

Third, a consistent ethic of life is crucial, which includes “addressing all the threats to human life and dignity that we face — not just one. 30,000 children dying globally each day of preventable hunger and disease is a life issue. The genocide in Darfur is a life issue. Health care is a life issue. War is a life issue. The death penalty is a life issue.” Concerning abortion, Wallis adds: “I will choose candidates who have the best chance to pursue the practical and proven policies which could dramatically reduce the number of abortions in America and therefore save precious unborn lives, rather than those who simply repeat the polarized legal debates and ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ mantras from either side.”

Fourth, given the issues of pollution and climate change, it is prudent to choose candidates who will “likely be most faithful in our care of the environment… And that choice could accomplish other key moral priorities like the redemption of a dangerous foreign policy built on Middle East oil dependence….”

Fifth, given the fact that all people are made in God’s image and retain human dignity, Wallis says that “torture is completely morally unacceptable, under any circumstances, and I will choose the candidates who are most committed to reversing American policy on the treatment of prisoners.”

Lastly, we ought to affirm family values and choose candidates who will “promise to really deal with the enormous economic and cultural pressures that have made parenting such a ‘countercultural activity’ in America today, rather than those who merely scapegoat gay people for the serious problems of heterosexual family breakdown.”

As we consider these issues, however we end up voting, may we seriously reckon with the difficulties involved in navigating the terrain of the kingdom of man, living as we do in this present age, albeit with one foot in the future.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Bruce Springsteen Concert Totally Changes Area Man's Mind About Voting

PHILADELPHIA—A recent Bruce Springsteen free acoustic set on Philadelphia's Ben Franklin Parkway completely changed the mind of sales associate Grant Garlock regarding the basic democratic process of voting, sources reported Monday. "It hadn't really occurred to me until Bruce said it, but when you think about it, voting really is the most important right we have as Americans," said Garlock, 38, who for various reasons ranging from scheduling mishaps to pure apathy has not voted in a local, state, or national election since 1988. "I used to think that my vote didn't count, but now I realize the Boss was right when he said, 'Every vote counts.'" On Nov. 4, Garlock plans to vote for John McCain because he thinks Sarah Palin is hot.

(From The Onion)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Developments, Novelties, or Good and Necessary Consequences?

A couple Sunday evenings ago a church member asked a question about covenant theology: “How long has this stuff been around, anyway?” This got me thinking about the issue of the development of doctrine (you know, that topic that comes up approximately 14 seconds into any dialogue with a Catholic brother or sister).

In a nutshell, doctrinal development refers to the phenomenon of some teaching—such as the Immaculate Conception or the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in the one Person of Christ—that is affirmed by the church but doesn’t exactly jump off the pages of Scripture and smack you in the face.

Back in August, William G. Witt posted on his blog some thoughts concerning the development of doctrine, arguing for what he calls “Development 1” and “Development 2”:

Development 1 adds nothing to the original content of faith, but rather brings out its necessary implications…. There is another kind of development, however, which I will call “Development 2.” Development 2 is genuinely new development that is not simply the necessary articulation of what is said explicitly in the Scriptures.
Examples of Development 1 include the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity or, to return to my church member above, Reformed covenant theology. All the evidence to put these doctrines together can be found either explicitly or implicitly in the Bible. Doctrines that would fall into the category of Development 2, according to Witt, would be something like the Immaculate Conception (the teaching that Mary was born without original sin). It is a genuine novelty, Witt says, an “entirely new development.”

Now it certainly appears (to this Protestant at least) that there is a real and perhaps categorical difference between a doctrine like the deity of Christ and something like the dogma of papal infallibility. Once formulated, loads of evidence can be adduced for the former, while the evidence for the latter is rather slim (though not altogether non-existent). Some questions that are worth pondering, then, are (1) How would this model account for the church’s decision in Acts 15 to not insist on Gentile circumcision? (2) Whose job is it to determine whether the evidence for a doctrine is explicit, implicit, or non-existent? (3) What should the Protestant do when a Mormon sees less evidence for the Trinity than the rest of us do? Or if a Catholic sees more evidence than we do for the assumption of Mary?

(And I can’t believe I even have to say this, but No, I’m not asking these questions because, gee whiz, I’ve just never thought about these issues before. Just facilitating a little dialogue, people, that’s what blogs are for.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Politics of Fear

Ever since issuing its "88 Reasons For '88" enumerating all the reasons why Jesus would return 20 years ago, I, along with all thinking Americans, have let out a loud "Ssshhh!!!" whenever evangelicalism has its collective ear to the ground. Like with E.F. Hutton, when the evangelical movement talks, people should listen.

To hear the latest prognostications, we need look no further than Focus on the Family's "Letter From 2012 in Obama's America." If the Illinois senator is elected, we are told, we have the following events to look forward to: (1) The Boy Scouts will disband rather than being forced to let gay scout masters sleep in the same tents with young boys; (2) Not only "government schools" but private Christian schools will be forced to teach homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle; (3) In 2011 there will cease to be any Protestant or Catholic adoption agencies in the U.S. because they will refuse to place children in homosexual homes; (4) In 2009 Obama will force the military to recruit gays; (5) Public schools will be forced to disallow praying during, before, or after school; (6) Schools will be forced to stop allowing churches to use their facilities; (7) In 2011 all FCC restrictions will be lifted allowing pornography to be shown on all TV channels at every hour of the day; (8) In May of 2010 Al-Qaeda will recapture Iraq because of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country; (9) Beginning in 2009 terrorists will detonate bombs in two small and two large U.S. cities, due in part to President Obama stopping the wiretapping of our phone lines; and (10) Nationalized health care will result in long lines for surgery and no access to hospitals for people over 80.
So there you have it, America: Vote Obama and, to tweak Pedro Sanchez's campaign slogan, "all your wildest nightmares will come true."

My point is not to contest the likelihood, the goodness, or the badness of any of these predictions. My only observation concerns just how frantic and nervous American evangelicals become when threatened with a diminishment of their power.

Employing such scare tactics may indeed rally the troops, we'll have to wait and see. But more serious than what these tactics communicate to the faithful is the message they send to the world, namely, that Christians are so in love with and invested in earth that we will not sit passively by and accept such a demonic agenda as one that offers free health care for everyone and tarnishes the nobility of all of our wars by letting openly gay soldiers fight in them.

But ask our faithful culture warriors what "justification" means, and prepare for glossed-over eyes and a blank stare....

Saturday, October 25, 2008

All the Evangelist's Men

Much has been said in the previous couple threads about the benefits of having a Christian president. Are there benefits to being represented by a believer, and if so, what are they?

On one level the question is irrelevant and impossible to answer. The reason for this is that America has never had an unbelieving president, so given the historical non-existence of the alternative, we just can't know how good we've had it all these years. I mean, if the only version of The Office you've seen in the American one, then you're in no position to judge whether it is better than the original British version (it's not).

Now I know what you're thinking: "Hold on a second! Are you honestly claiming that all of our presidents have been Christians?" Well, not exactly. But I am claiming that they have all made that claim. "But," you say, "don't you think they're just saying that to get elected?" Probably, at least in the case of some. But that's my point: I have no access to the Book of Life, let alone the jurisdiction over the hearts of all people who claim to trust in Jesus, so as far as I am concerned, the question is moot. Now if McCain or Obama wanted to join Exile Presbyterian Church, then I would do some prodding and render a judgment. But even then, it still often boils down to accepting a person's credible profession in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

"Aha!" you exclaim. "So you admit that we can judge the tree by its fruit." Well, yes, but that's not as easy as it sounds, especially for those of us who are not God. The fact of the matter is that both candidates will pursue policies that I, as a Christian, consider wrong. I can conclude from this that neither candidate is a Christian since they pursue what I consider to be non-Christian policies, but then I am elevating my own opinions about very complex matters to the level of "Thus saith the Lord." On the other hand, I can just reduce the whole election to one or two hot-button issues and decide things based on those. I realize that lots of people do this, and I don't want to begrudge anyone their right to be a one-issue voter.

A third option, however, is to admit that there are a host of issues involved in this election, all of which have some moral aspect to them, all of which are filtered through our theological premises, and most of which are not addressed directly in Scripture. Furthermore, the disagreements surrounding the really major issues are often not over morality (on which both sides often agree) but over factual matters. For example, a pro-choicer will rarely murder her two year-old because he costs too much to feed. This is because she thinks it is wrong to kill defenseless human persons. Then why does she think that a mother should have the right to an abortion? Well, for the same reason that you think you should have the right to have your appendix removed. In other words, the disagreement is not between one person who thinks that unjustified homicide is wrong and another who thinks it's right, but between one person who thinks that abortion is unjustified homicide and another who doesn't.

My point is simply that we need to tone down the sanctimony a smidge. This does not mean we should stop fighting against abortion or seeking to persuade others that the fetus is a real human person with a soul. But it does demand that we think more critically than to assume that the will of God will be served by the election of one candidate and thwarted by the election of the other.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Tender Conscience of King Obamalech

Throughout this election season I have followed with interest the various discussions among Christians concerning the importance of electing a president whose morality is shaped by Scripture. If we vote for a non-believer, we are told, we are sacrificing morality on the altar of some idol or another.

I respectfully demur.

The underlying premise of this position is that pagans have no access to the basic ethical tenets that we believers share, and further, that these ethical norms derive solely from the Bible. To examine this position I will build upon David VanDrunen's argument in A Biblical Case for Natural Law (which I will not actually cite since I can't find my copy).

In Genesis 20 we read of Abraham journeying to Gerar. Fearing that his own life will be taken by the people of this pagan land on account of his wife Sarah's beauty, he lies to them and claims that she is his sister. This backfires, however, emboldening King Abimelech to take Sarah as his own wife. God immediately speaks to the king in a dream and informs him that Sarah is in fact Abraham's wife, and not his sister as he had claimed.

This is where the story gets interesting.

The next morning King Abimelech confronts Abraham and demands an explanation as to why he "brought on me and my kingdom a great sin." The patriarch's defense was the following: "I did it because I thought, 'There is no fear of God in this place.'" In other words, Abraham assumed that since he was in a pagan land with no relationship to the God of Israel or access to divine revelation that it must be the case that these people are unfamiliar with the fact that it is wrong to take another man's wife.

Some things to note in this account are: (1) Abraham's assumption was clearly false; (2) The "fear of God" did exist in the land of Gerar; and (3) King Abimelech recognized a "great sin" as some-thing "not to be done" and rebuked Abraham for almost causing him to fall into it.

Returning to the issue of the upcoming election, then, I would submit that the believer need have no fear that electing a non-Christian will immediately result in widespread immorality and rampant perversion. Natural law is a biblical doctrine, and the works of God's law are written on the hearts of all men.

Even (gasp!) Barack Obama.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What Would Mary Magdalene Do?

"Ascension and Pentecost work together," writes Michael Horton, "to keep us attentive both to the differences and similarities between Christ and his church." He continues:

Apart from Pentecost, ecclesial performance of this script could only be on the order of imitatio Christi, a hopeless series of attempts to re-create the original work or translate it into a contemporary idiom. Holding on to a few scraps of "sayings" (always ethical), we might focus all of our energies on answering the question, "What would Jesus do?" but then we would have no connection to what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do for the ungodly.
I would concur with Horton that Pentecost ushered in a truly new era of redemptive history of which the previous generations of saints knew nothing other than by way of yet-unfulfilled promise (this is why Horton remarks that "the 'distance' between Peter-the-Disciple and Peter-the-Apostle is greater than that between Peter and us."). Because of the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost,

... the church's performance here and now is not "based on a true story," but is part of it: a living liturgy of covenantal action and response. It originates in the heart of the Father, unfolds in the life of the Son, and is brought to fruition by the graciously disruptive power of the Spirit.
But none of this would be possible without the "real absence of Christ" occasioned by his bodily Ascension. If it is the immediate presence of Christ in the flesh that we desire, then we must await his bodily return in like manner as he left us. It is precisely because of Jesus' bodily absence that the church militant must be content not to be triumphant just yet. Instead, we know him not after the flesh like the disciples did, but by the Spirit, who makes Christ more present to us than he was even to those whose hands handled him. "It is the Spirit who causes us to recognize the Jesus of history as the Christ of faith (II Cor. 5:16-17)."

This Spirit bridges the eschatological distance between the already-consummated Jesus history (the age to come) and our existence in the last days of this present age. Nevertheless, the church is part of that story always at a different place than its lead character. He is ahead of us, in the last act, yet is keeping our history moving toward him by his intercession and work of his Spirit.
Though Horton does not make this connection, one may legitimately wonder if the evangelical-slash-emergent fixation upon the earthly Jesus, and concomitant discomfort with Christ's real absence, is a subtle form of the Maglanenean grip that hopes to prevent the Ascension altogether?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Coping with the Real Absence of Christ

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the more headway I make into Michael Horton's People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology, the more I hope to blog about it. It's dense and only readable in bite-size chunks, so my posts on it will be somewhat scattered.

Horton's argument in Chapter One ("Real Absence, Real Presence") is that the church's tendency to treat Jesus' bodily ascension merely as an exclamation point tagged on to the resurrection results in a discomfort with what he calls "the real absence of Christ." The way many evangelical churches cope with Jesus' absence is by attempting to be "incarnational" while forgetting, apparently, that the incarnation already happened. Ironically, Horton argues, the Catholic Church fails to reckon with Christ's absence as well with an "incarnationalism" of its own, only not missional but Eucharistic, with a parousia of a sacramental rather than historical variety.

"The space between the ascended Christ and his ecclesial body," Horton says, "was increasingly filled by ecclesiastical accessories." He quotes Farrow's Ascension and Ecclesia: "Indeed, [the miracle of transubstantiation] meant that the church now controlled the parousia. At the ringing of a bell the Christus absens became the Christus praesens." Not only is this "ecclesial substitution" occasioned by the bodily absence of Christ, but, Horton argues quoting Farrow, "Western ecclesiology requires a completely absent Christ if it is to provide instead that miraculous eucharistic one who will underwrite the programme of the church."

It was Calvin, following Irenaeus, who directed our attention to the eschatological and economical, forcing us to deal with the problem of Christ's absence. Rather than moving from Eucharist to ascension, Calvin moved in the opposite direction, seeking a Pneumatological rather than ecclesial solution. Horton writes:

When we refuse to collapse the resurrection, ascension, and Parousia into one event, a pneumatological space appears for the time between the times. The Spirit is the mediator of, not the surrogate for, Christ's person and work.... The Spirit's work both measures and mediates the eschatological difference between the head and his members.
Contrariwise, an "overrealized eschatology of the Eucharist... actually undermines the eschatological tension that this event highlights rather than resolves." He continues:

When the Spirit is appealed to as merely the solution to the problem of Christ's absence, and not also as the one whose very presence constantly provokes our sense of the "more" of the Parousia, we are no longer speaking of the Spirit's mediation so much as the Spirit's replacement of Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit, Horton insists, should not be treated as a substitute for the absent Christ but as the one who negotiates the eschatological tension between this passing age and the one to come. The ironic result, therefore, is that a supposedly anti-Gnostic focus upon the incarnation may in fact be a refusal to deal with Christ's real absence and instead seek for a false presence. Such replacement, Horton insists, is an idolatrous substitution of a golden calf on the part of those who are bored waiting for Moses to come down the mountain and lead them to the promised land.

Oh, and it's also rather Gnostic....