Thursday, July 31, 2008

Continue Commenting Here....

It looks like Haloscan is a bit sluggish in processing all the comments on the last thread, so let's move the party here.


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Protestant Unity: Oxymoronic, or Just Plain Moronic?

All this talk about inter- and intra-denominational unity can be viewed by some as utterly disingenuous. To Roman Catholics, for example, the very notion of "Protestant unity" is moronic at worst, and oxymoronic at best.

I've been thinking lately about the arguments of Covenant Seminary graduate (!) Bryan Cross, whose spiritual pilgrimage has taken him from Presbyterianism to Anglicanism, and then finally to Roman Catholicism. His recent posts argue that all Protestant versions of Sola Scriptura are necessarily individualistic. Even the so-called Reformed position of "Tradition 1," which (contra evangelicalism's view of Solo Scriptura) insists that the Bible is the church's book and therefore must be interpreted collectively rather than individually, is, according to Cross, individualistic.

Here's how Cross's argument works: Even the confessional Reformed believer who submits his personal beliefs to the authority of the Westminster Standards is ultimately guilty of individualism, albeit of a masked variety. The reason for this is that before he bowed in submission to the Confession and Catechisms he determined within himself, as a result of his personal Bible study, that those documents best comported with his own individual understanding of Scripture.

In other words, one's "submission" to the church is somewhat suspect when he first spends a year searching for the church that already agrees with him. Such submission, Cross argues, is tantamount to shooting an arrow at the wall and then drawing the target around the point where the arrow happened to land. Simply put, it's kind of hard to miss the mark that way. To interpret the simile, the Protestant understanding of Sola Scriptura makes it virtually impossible for the individual believer's theological views to actually be challenged by the church and found wanting.

There are only two real options, Cross argues: individualism or apostolic succession. All claims of Sola Scriptura necessary devolve into the former, and all true respect for ecclesiastical authority necessary demands the latter.

How would you answer this charge?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

What Would You Trade for Unity?

Our discussions concerning liturgical similarity (or the lack of it) among and within Reformed denominations must necessarily give way to the discussion of unity in general. When Jesus spoke of unity in his high-priestly prayer, was it institutional and visible unity that he had in mind, or was it unity of a more spiritual, mystical kind? And what is it that grounds our unity with other believers?

The other day I found my half-finished copy of D.G. Hart's history of American Presbyterianism (Seeking a Better Country) under the passenger seat of my car. As I continued reading where I left off ten months ago -- with the pan-Presbyterian and pan-Protestant "unity" of the post-civil war churches -- I couldn't help but notice an interesting contrast between ecclesiastical and political unity (hey, two-kingdoms observations are my bread and butter, remember?).

As Darryl points out in his book, the unity that arose among post-war Protestants was one that circumvented theology and replaced it with ethics. If two doctrinally-diverse churches shared some common position with respect to the culture war (like, say, "Drinking is wrong" or "Catholics are evil"), then their respective theological differences were happily trumped by a common social vision.

By contrast, a couple books I've recently read that explore the supposed distinction between the Republican and Democratic parties (The Uprising by David Sirota and The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi) highlight the very opposite phenomenon in the kingdom of culture. Since the Clinton-era '90s at least there has been a lessening of the gap between the left and the right when it comes to economic- and foreign policy (both parties are pro-NAFTA, pro-globalization, and pro-war). The only thing that really distinguishes the right-leaners from the left-leaners is the culture war: Interventionist foreign policy? Check. Free markets? Check. But what about gay marriage?

To summarize, then, right-wing culture warriors will set aside their economic security and beat their plowshares into swords in order to clean up the neighborhoods and fix the gays. But if that sounds like acting against one's own interests, what do we say about those who, under the guise of "kingdom work," set aside not Mammon but heaven for those same goals?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Memento Mori

Memento Mori. “Remember Death.” That’s the title of the sermon I am supposed to preach this Sunday. Only I don’t feel like preaching it, nor do I feel like remembering death.
An old friend of mine died earlier today in a car accident in CA (if you were driving on the 91 Freeway between Riverside and the 55 at midday you know what I’m talking about). His name was Chris Laurie; I knew his parents, they lived down the road from us. I used to drive him to school. We’d go surfing afterwards at 54th Street in Newport. In fact, the last thing he did with his Facebook page was add me as a friend.

Last I checked, his father Greg’s blog had around 3,000 comments offering comfort, so I’ll just add mine here in the off-chance he and Cathe and Jonathan will actually see it. I grieve for your loss, and I am angry and confused and am taking this harder than I would have expected given the fact that I haven’t seen Chris in years.

This world is fallen and cruel, and death is a relentless enemy who stakes his earthly claim on us all, often sooner than expected. But the resurrection gets the last word, and this allows us to grieve and lament not as those who have no hope beyond the cursed confines of this present age.
Grace and comfort to the Lauries.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Of Style and Dogma, Carts and Horses

In Mark 7:1-23 we gain some subtle insight into the relationship between outward religious rituals (lex orandi) and the beliefs of those who practice them (lex credendi). After highlighting the extrabiblical nature of the Pharisees' demand that people scupulously wash themselves before eating bread (vv. 6-13), Jesus then gets to the heart of the matter:

And he called the people to him again and said to them, "Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him" (vv. 14-16).
Why the abstract lesson on sin? Wasn't the issue supposed to be the amount of hygiene necessary to eat a sandwich?

Well if, as I have been arguing, a church's worship shapes its member's beliefs every bit as profoundly as its beliefs shape its worship, then Jesus' excursus on indwelling sin may not be as random as it initially appears.

You see, what certainly seems like a harmless religious ritual (ceremonially washing one's hands before eating) had clearly led to a deficient view of sin. In other words, the Pharisees' lex orandi (law of worship) had adversely affected their lex credendi (law of belief). Because they had for so many years been seeking to lessen their defilement by scrubbing their hands every few minutes, they had begun to think of defilement as primarily outward and circumstantial rather than inward and substantial.

Here's how this works in the church today: A church's leaders begin with the question, "What style of music should we have?" They decide that in order to reach the youth, they had better scrap the piano in favor of an acoustic guitar. They quickly realize that certain songs aren't easy to play on a guitar ("A Mighty Fortress"), while others are ("As the Deer"). Before long, the church's worship style (mellow acoustic music) defines its content (songs with a mellow acoustic feel). And then lo! and behold!, a movement is spawned that sees Jesus as that friendly guy at Woodstock with some real groovy spiritual insight.

But then, the Emergent Church has rescued us from the Jesus Movement, and I, for one, am thankful that none of these concerns can be applied to them....

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

Liturgical scholars often insist that a church's worship is a direct by-product of what they believe about God. If a particular congregation's leadership considers God to be a kind of magic genie whose job is to do our bidding, then their worship will most likely be narcissistic and consumer-driven. And conversely, if a church understands God to be the sovereign King of the universe, then an atmosphere of reverence and awe will prevail.

At least, so the theory goes.

Unfortunately, this is only half the story. As indicated by the historic slogan lex orandi, lex credendi (literally, "The rule of prayer influences the rule of belief"), the relationship between confession and worship, dogma and liturgy, cuts both ways. In other words, it's not simply the case that a church's worship is the result of her beliefs about God, but it is equally true that her beliefs about God are largely shaped by the way she worships.

History bears this out. Well before the church's Christology assumed its mature, Chalcedonian definition believers were already worshiping a God who subsisted in three divine Persons. Both Augustine and Prosper of Auquitatine appealed to the church's practice of infant baptism in order to refute the Pelagian heresy that children are born without original sin. They were saying, in effect, "If infants are innocent, then why have we been baptizing them all this time?" In Prosper's own words: "Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi" ("Let the law of prayer establish the law of belief").

If it is true that worship shapes belief as significantly as belief shapes worship, then the ramifications are pretty serious for those churches—whether evangelical or Reformed—that insist on making style a leading factor in how they conduct divine worship. Whether their aim is to woo the unchurched or demonstrate their "relevance" to those coveted artsy-fartsy soul-patched bohemians, the ever-present danger is that Jesus will be transformed from Deus homo into some guyliner-wearing dude in an indy band hoping to land a record deal.

Luther was right, the church will sing its way into idolatry long before its dogmaticians join the party.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Ties That Bind, Ties That Divide

One of my mates in the OPC recently accused us in the PCA of being "functional congregation-alists." He was responding to something I said about the diversity of our presbytery in areas like worship, theology, and overall philosophy of ministry. As it is elsewhere, it's pretty much live-and-let-live here in the Pacific Northwest.

He certainly has a point.

A denomination as broad as the PCA is bound to get messy and confusing, especially with respect to where we draw our various lines in the sand. On issues of worship, for example, one may identify himself with one set of allies, while he may disagree with those men over issues concerning biblical theology and Pauline eschatology. Conversely, those who share a similar view of the importance of eschatology may differ over whether justification or union with Christ is more central to Christian doctrine and life. And don't get me started on the bedfellows of a confessionalist who believes in women deacons.

I suppose what I'm wondering is whether the diversity and broadness of a denomination like the PCA is an asset or a liability. And if the latter, which issues represent ties that bind, and which are ties that divide?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

A Little Help?

OK, so I'm feeling a tad under-inspired. If anyone has some ideas for topics to discuss, let's hear 'em, because the well's a bit dry at the moment.