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 fa├žade 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.