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?