Christianity: Doctrine and Ethics

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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Lessons from a Man Who Has Been There and Done That (IV)

A Sense of Loss
The late John Leith has performed a most necessary service in his book Crisis in the Church.[1] Not merely does he chronicle his pilgrimage from the Left-wing to the Right-wing in the Presbyterian Church USA, but he simultaneously issues a warning both to seminary faculties as well as congregations to insure that they remain biblically sound and theologically astute. By way of association, this is also a warning for the modern Christian as well.
In our last installment we touched briefly on his lament over the loss of tradition as a sign of the beginning of the end in both seminary and local congregation. I find this more than relevant because there is simply so much nonsense in the modern Church today, both in its mega-church as well as in its Emergent Church varieties. It is becoming next to impossible to go to any reputable Christian web or blog site and not find yet another incident of the ridiculous, obscene, or absurd concerning what is called “modern evangelicalism.”
Even though the mega-church proponents are still culpable, it seems more and more that the contemporary culprits are the leaders and congregations that comprise the Emergent Church Movement. Brian “The Birkenstock” McLaren has what seems to be a terminal case of “Foot-in-Mouth” disease. Hardly a day goes by that he doesn’t take a shot at traditional Christianity. His “lieutenants,” who march in lock step, quickly follow suit. With each passing day certitude about anything, especially Christian truth, is leaving the building and doctrines that form the heart/core of biblical truth are called into question.
Of course, this really is nothing new. Anyone vaguely acquainted with the history of the Christian Church knows that controversy and contention have been the hallmarks of the Church throughout the centuries. Satan and his minions are always stirring up trouble and dissent. Both the mega-church and EC movement are more than sufficient cause for us to pay close attention to Leith’s warnings.
He observes a connection between the loss of tradition and the loss of gratitude. He writes, “Loss of tradition leads to loss of gratitude. Those who do not remember cannot be thankful for all that is bequeathed to them.”[2] Remembering is key, essential. For those who have not re-read Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind recently might have forgotten his sagacious words that it is quite difficult to convince modern students of the importance of anything that happened prior to 1970.[3] In modern Church circles, Bloom’s observation is true in spades, especially when it comes to classical Christian writers. And, of course, one of the reasons errors and heresies rear their ugly heads periodically is precisely because many modern Christians have not taken the time to find out what those errors and heresies were. So there is some justification in the dictum that those who do not know them might be destined to repeat them.
The largesse that was bequeathed to us by the Church Fathers is rich and glorious. Yet, those professors and pastors who do not lead their students and congregations into this rich heritage are, according to Leith, guilty of cannibalism. When we lived in Holland—or maybe it was The Netherlands. I’m not certain anymore—I was amazed at the “gap” that existed between the mindset of the older generation that had experienced the ravages of World War II and the younger generation that had not. What is more, the younger generation was not being taught the truth of WW II. The politically correct movement was already making its inroads. (By the way, just as an aside, few seem to have picked up on what Dinesh D’Souza wrote in his work Illiberal Education about the words “politically correct” being a relatively obscure term from Marxist theory.)
Analogous to the Middle Ages, ignorance allows church leadership to eat the “lambs” alive. You can tell them almost anything and they’ll believe you. Truly, all that is needed is ignorance of the fundamental truths of Scripture combined with personal peace and affluence and you have a recipe for spiritual disaster—which is what modern evangelicalism is. Leith contends that “The cannibalization of congregations by people, including ministers who did not build them, is a serious problem in contemporary church life.”[4] In a slightly different context, David Wells aptly calls such ministers “modern disablers.”
As the modern Church has turned away from classical Christian literature and sound biblical preaching, their respective congregations have developed what the Authorized Version of 1901 calls “leanness of soul” (cf. Ps. 106:15). Many modern believers are, at best, one-dimensional Christians (God is love) and possess precious little biblical truth. The mega-church movement is partly to blame, the Emergent Church Movement is certainly playing its role, and the general malaise and disinterest in Scripture by the generation known as “whatever-zippy-title-we’ll-given-them-this-time” is appalling. If you think I’m kidding, walk into almost any Christian bookstore (a misnomer) and try to find a substantial Christian book. Even if you succeed in finding one, the ratio of trinkets, mugs, “precious moments” figurines, CDs, and “relevant” material is overwhelmingly in favor of Christian "junk" instead of substance.
A case in point: I recently (out of laziness. It was the closest one) went to a local Christian bookstore and bought two marriage Bibles for ceremonies I was going to perform. As I was checking out, the trainee asked me where I went to church. I told her Grace Presbyterian Church and that we had a dynamic, good looking, relevant, and humorous pastor, who at one point in his life had lived in either Holland or The Netherlands. I wasn’t sure anymore. She didn’t get it. She went on to explain that her pastor, Sylvia, was also relevant. Changing the subject quickly I pointed out to her that as I was choosing the Bibles that I could not help but notice that on the Samsung 61-inch TV Rob Bell was playing. I asked her and the manager, who was standing close by if they had any idea what Bell thought about Scripture or homosexuality. The manager replied No, but assured me that all the young people and their parents thought he was really good. I also pointed out that in their “Relevancy” section—that’s funny. No, I mean really funny!—they had all of Brian “The Birkenstock” McLaren’s books. I asked if either of them had any idea what McLaren taught about penal substitutionary atonement. Blank stares. One of the customers hit me with her Ryrie Study Bible because—as she said—I should not swear or mention body parts in a Christian bookstore. That’s not true. I made that part up, but the blank stares were real.
When I explained what penal substitutionary atonement was, both of them droned, “Oh, my. That’s not good.” My reply was that it wasn’t only not good, but that McLaren’s view actually struck at the very heart of the gospel. More blank stares. McLaren’s books and Bell’s DVDs are still there. That is not atypical.
All of this comes, of course, with a very expensive spiritual price tag. The absence of memory on seminary faculties, on the part of pastors, and on the part of modern Christians is not merely a question of “doing church” or being entertained but also of morality. There is an ethical component that cannot, must not be neglected or denied. A very large part of the problem is secularization and a feeble, nebulous attempt to “engage the culture.” As often as not in modern Christianity “engaging the culture” means little more that showing film clips from R-rated movies, blaring raucous music during the “service,” manifest your “transparency” by using foul language or telling your deepest, darkest sin, playing pool at an upscale, trendy Southern California gourmet, designer pool hall, or knowing the names of a couple of classical composers or contemporary artists.
When I was in Holland, I was privileged to learn from those who had not only done it, but done it well, when to engage the culture and when to butt heads with it (called antithesis). We must engage the culture, but we must be biblically circumspect in how we go about it. Rick Lints rightly observes, “Evangelical theology must not only engage a culture that is largely resistant to its claims of absolute truth but must also recognize the influence which that culture has exercised upon it.”[5] That is to say, there is a certain “reciprocity” when we go out to engage the culture and if we are not aware of the talons that the culture bears every time we “engage” it we’re going to get clawed. In fact, the modern Church arguably has claw marks all over it and it’s not getting any smarter, but rather continues to rush headlong back into those bared claws.Once you have tossed the classical Christian tradition for modern, “faddish” writing, your gratitude-factor will diminish accordingly and then you are “fair game,” prey for the contextualization that culture demands. And those who do not know how to engage it not only endanger themselves, but dupe and endanger their congregations in the process. In our next issue we’ll see how all of this affects the loss of a sense of direction in the Church.

[1] John H. Leith, Crisis in the Church. The Plight of Theological Education, (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).
[2] Ibid., 15. Italics mine.
[3] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: Education and the Crisis of Reason, (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1987).
[4] Leith, CiC, 15.
[5] Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 26.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Lessons from a Man Who Has Been There and Done That (III)

The Consequences of the Crisis
In Thomas Oden’s book After Modernity…What? he tells a fascinating story that set me to thinking. It seems that he had a research year, but was going to be limited in the actual number of books he would be able to take with them. Thus, he found himself in the highly untenable situation of having to choose only a rather small selection. I pray that I’ll never have to do that, but Oden did.
As he went through his second and third round “cuts” what he describes as “an astonishing pattern” became apparent to him.[1] When he had finally pared the books down to the actual number he would take with him he writes, “…the shock hit me: there were no books among my final selections from the twentieth century!”[2] I don’t believe I’d go quite that far as I believe some very good books have appeared in the 20th and 21st centuries, but his point is well taken.
Rick Lints explains, “It might be argued that evangelical theology has not attained prominence because the evangelical community has not produced a theologian with the abilities of an Augustine, Calvin, or Edwards.”[3] In a footnote to this statement Lints states, “But it is worth noting in this regard that the evangelical community has managed to produce scholars gifted enough to make their mark on the disciplines of philosophy, history, and the social sciences. These scholars may not rank with Augustine, Calvin, or Edwards in the history of Christendom, but their profound influence in the academy is unmistakable.”[4] He’s right. However, for me, the number of modern books I’d take would be quite limited. I would include Lints’ book as well as David Well’s books.
I use this provocative example precisely because John Leith has a heading in the first chapter of his book Crisis in the Church, that deals with modern man’s love affair with “the new” and his almost utter disdain for what is “old.” Why bother reading a bunch of dead guys anyway? It’s under the section entitled “Consequences of the Crisis” that Leith lists nine key, essential consequences that occurred in the Presbyterian Church USA that serve as excellent warnings for us today.
Hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear something about the Emergent Church gurus, their denial of penal substitutionary atonement, the sin of homosexuality, or some new discovery by N.T. Wright, the folks who embrace the Federal Vision, or the advocates of the anonymous document: Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together.[5] We’ve had Black Theology, Feminist Theology, Liberation Theology, the Death of God Theology, and a host of others. We still don’t get it and tend to be very “issues” oriented both in the seminaries as well as in the Church.
So in the next installments we shall listen to the nine areas of loss that Leith points out: Loss of tradition, gratitude, church orientation (secularization), sense of mission and direction, curriculum focus, ecclesiastical commitment, accountability, academic freedom, and the ability of seminaries to educate graduates who are effective pastors.[6]

Loss of Tradition
In the case of the Presbyterian Church USA, Leith tells us that “The seminaries understood they belonged to a clearly defined tradition beginning with Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin and developing through the scholastic theologians, the Puritan revolution and the Westminster Assembly, Heinrich Heppe and Charles Hodge, and more recently Emil Brunner and Karl Barth.”[7] Apart from the disagreement about how helpful either Brunner or Barth were, Leith draws our attention to part of the reason the “wheels came off” in the PCUSA.
It’s more than a touch ironic that conservatives today who want to hold on to tradition in a good sense of the word are vilified as those who “bicker” and “nit-pick.” Some cannot fathom why people want to hold on to something or someone who, to their mind, is passé. It is precisely this mindset that causes Oden to inquire whether newer truly means better.[8] He suggests a game to us where we can (unscientifically) measure how words such as “new” or “change” can function like “potent magic words.”[9] Oden asks us to “count the number of times new and good are used as synonyms” in modern parlance.[10] The insidious nature of language can very well be that it is “silently assumed that new = good, change = improvement.”[11]
He adds that “Some conversants will use the magic words incessantly, sprinkling them generously into nearly every reference. Others use the magic words somewhat as a kid uses body torque while playing pinball, as if to persuade the ball to go a certain way without lighting up the ‘tilt’ sign.”[12] Egregious offenders are, according to Oden, academics who “prefer more sophisticated synonyms, such as emergent, innovative, revolutionary, or metamorphosis. Here’s his point: “Anything that looks ‘old hat’ or ‘antiquated’ or ‘rigid’ or ‘traditional’ will be subtly linked implicitly with evils to be avoided, vicious repressions that hold us down, powers of darkness. The adjective abound—all with a stale smell: paleo-anything, medieval, obsolete, senile, elderly, bygone, extinct.”[13]
This is what Leith is describing that took place in the PCUSA and it continues today. There is tremendous pressure to be “hip,” “out there,” and “cutting edge,” all the while forgetting what value tradition has both in society as well as in individual lives; in the academy, the Church, and the pew. In the past, Leith explains, the PCUSA used textbooks written by Turretin, Charles Hodge, and others, but all with the approbation of the Presbyterian Church.[14] That is no longer the case, not only in the rapidly sinking PCUSA, but you’d be very hard pressed to find any seminary that takes this approach anymore. In the case of tradition, Leith is adamant that “Tradition is more than theology. It is also ethos, practice, and life.”[15] Very interesting point. Certainly one worth pondering.
He also raises another valid consideration regarding books and modern books. I’ll begin with the latter. When I sit down and read a book, for example, coming from the Emergent tribe—McLaren, Miller, Lamott, Chalke, Bell, and others—they are easy reads; simplistic to the point of being simpleminded. Lamott is a joke and Miller isn’t far behind. When I read Blue Like Jazz I felt like I was reading the mind-numbed meanderings of a teenie-bopper with zits. Bell and Zondervan should both be taken to task for wasting our trees in printing such a vapid book. If Zondervan had reduced the triple spacing and all the blank colorful pages the book could have been reduced to two to three pages and then you still wouldn’t have anything of substance to read. In short, these are contemporary works that will best be used again if you have a short leg on one of your tables.
The classics, however, are—well, classics. These are the books that contain so much rich spiritual value and the books to which you return often and joyfully. Bullinger, Calvin, and Bavinck are pulled from my shelves frequently, consulted, marveled at for their scriptural content, and put back until the next time. Leith’s words about this matter are these: “It is significant that the writings of nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologians are continually being reprinted, though they are seldom to be found on mainline seminary bibliographies or in Presbyterian seminary bookstores.”[16] Fortunately, he’s not referring to conservative seminary bookstores, but we can ask the question: Just how much are conservative theological students reading these classics as opposed to say N.T. Wright? (Since I did my New Testament minor with Dr. Herman Ridderbos, I keep asking myself why someone does not compare Ridderbos and Wright on Paul.)
It might come as a surprise to many, but Leith chronicles for us that nine Charles Hodge’s ten books are still in print—at times from several different publishers, more than 120 years after his death. And this does not even touch on the works of A.A. Hodge, B.B. Warfield, Robert Dabney, James Thornwell, John Girardeau, and my beloved Herman Bavinck.The bottom line for us all is this: “The loss of tradition in the seminaries contributes to the loss of tradition in local congregations.”[17] This is clearly manifest in our modern services that are supposed to be—in some sense—worship services. If you want a reflection of what books your pastor is reading, has read, and have had a profound impact on his life, observe what he calls worship in his congregation.

[1] Thomas Oden, After Modernity…What? Agenda for Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), p. 24.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 54.
[4] Ibid., note 54.
[5] I have learned that the actual author is Anonymous V. His parents must be very proud of him—whoever they are.
[6] John H. Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), pp. 13-21.
[7] Ibid., 13.
[8] Oden, AMW, 41ff.
[9] Ibid., 41.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., 42.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Leith, CiC, 13.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid., 14.
[17] Ibid., 15.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Lessons from a Man Who Has Been There and Done That (II)

Change in Seminary and Church Life
In our last installment we began listening to the late Dr. John Leith, who made a rather remarkable transition from being a liberal to being a kind of conservative in the Presbyterian Church USA. His book, Crisis in the Church, is, without a doubt, one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a while.
Last time we listened as Leith spoke about the need to revamp our seminaries to bring them into line with denominational churches. He was also a strong proponent of the principle that, with notable exception, seminary professors should have spent some requisite time in the pastoral ministry. This allows one’s theology to be formed in the crucible of life in the covenant community; congregation.
Succinctly, Leith believed that “…seminaries ought to be communities, not of people struggling to find faith, or in therapy, but communities in which faculty have committed themselves in faith in Jesus Christ as God Incarnate, the Word made flesh (John 1:14).”[1] Novel idea, but not one that you will find in vogue at a number of our “prestigious” seminaries in the United States and Canada today.

Leith’s Analysis of Why the Crisis Occurred
Chapter 1 of Leith’s provocative work is called “The Crisis.” It consists of sections dealing with analysis of the crisis itself, the rise and collapse of evangelical liberalism, while the remainder of the chapter consists of a description of the consequences of the crisis.
His analysis delineates three areas of deep concern for how things “went south” in the Presbyterian Church USA. They were: “(1) a crisis of belief, (2) confusion as to the mission of the church, (3) a new professional class of church bureaucrats who where not closely related to the church on the congregational level.”[2]
The first aspect has clearly to do with the reality that the Presbyterian Church USA lost its doctrinal compass—and, I might add, never has recovered from that loss. In fact, their abysmal confusion yet today is clear evidence of this fact. Peter Berger is correct when he warns, “When churches abandon or de-emphasize theology, they give up the intellectual tools by which the Christian message can be articulated and defended. In the resulting chaos of religious ideas, the principal criterion left to the community as it seeks to find its way is quite naturally, that of expediency.”[3]
The second point is simply a logical result of the first. Once the first crisis point has taken root a kind of “domino effect” is discernible even amidst the cries that all is well. With little or nothing left that is verifiable, the modus operandi is expediency or its step-child: preference. Confusion with a view to doctrine has a profound impact on every other facet of church life.
The third item points us to the indispensable necessity of a close spiritual relationship between the denomination and the local churches. Whenever and wherever you find church bureaucrats operating in a (quasi-) autonomous fashion, that denomination is in jeopardy.
Again, Leith cites seminaries as both culprits and catalysts in the crisis. Correctly he states, “Many basic Christian doctrines are at risk on seminary campuses today.”[4] As odd as that sounds, it’s true. Thankfully, there are a number of stalwarts and bastions of biblical truth, but they are getting fewer and farther between. Simultaneously, part of the dilemma is due to the fact that “There is little evidence that seminary faculties have a similar passion for proclaiming the foundational doctrines of Christian faith in a secular age.”[5] Some, such as Rick Lints, have seen this trend as destructive for evangelicalism generally.[6] Ironically, the call “to engage the (secular) culture” is not the clarion calls it must be if the 21st century Church is to be biblically effective. Few even point to the reality that “engaging the culture” entails some degree of reciprocity; that is, some degree that the secular culture will engage the Church as well. For those who have eyes to see, the secular impact on the modern Church is clearly discernible. The unspoken, undeclared, and unvarnished truth is that, as often as not, the culture carries the day. Lints is right when he observes “Evangelical theology must not only engage a culture that is largely resistant to its claims of absolute truth but must also recognize the influence which that culture has exercised upon it.”[7]
One example will suffice here, but it applies across the board both to the mega-church as well as the Emergent Church movements. Both have their CEO-types and “Christian celebs.” Therefore what Martin Marty wrote rings true where he stated the following:

Where local congregations are hugely successful, they are so as clienteles or constituencies, not as confessional expressions…. It is hard to picture a member of the Crystal Cathedral having chosen membership because its pastor and its official status are part of the Reformed Church in America. If a member leaves in disaffection, it will not be because of that reformed tie but because some other minister or some other channel appeals more.[8]

The upshot of all this is “that theological seminaries are no longer seen as primarily institutions for the training of pastors, but as institutes for the discussion and study of religion.”[9] And therein lies one of the focal points of the crisis. The problem is actually twofold: whenever seminaries become more involved with training “professional” than they do “pastors,” then a crisis looms large on the horizon. Allow me to qualify and explain what I mean. I heartily endorse seminarians getting solid educations. They should be well equipped to minister in congregations when they graduate.
Their core subjects should have included Hebrew, Greek, Church History, Systematic Theology, extensive Pastoral Theology classes that included large expanses of time spent dealing with the preparation and delivery of sermons, leading meetings, and general administrative work, as well as a host of other subjects that would categorize the graduates as “professionals.” In reality, Christian scholarship’s best place is in the pulpit. Seminaries ought, in my estimation, to be focused on producing men of God who long to proclaim—with clarity and passion—the glories of God’s grace is redeeming sinners.
The second problem has to do with the difference between theology and religion. Religion is primarily a man-centered, from below approach that is, as often as not, closely associated with anthropology and sociology. Theology is God-centered and comes from above by means of God’s revelation to man. When the Theology Department morphs over into the Religion Department you’re headed for a crisis—eventually.

The Rise and Collapse of Evangelical Liberalism
Some would argue today that evangelicalism is on the rise. That is, in some sense perhaps, true. At the same time, there is ample reason for deep concern about what passes today as evangelicalism. In fact, it is arguably true that the word evangelicalism itself has become so elastic that it can include almost every movement that has come down the pike lately, which means concretely and ultimately that is means nothing. We can still hear the vestiges of adherence to the infallibility of Scripture, the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and Jesus’ Second Coming, but a number of the “core” doctrines (e.g., justification by faith and a wide variety of ethical issues) are up for grabs.
Once scriptural doctrine is jettisoned the camel no longer has his nose under the tent, he is in the tent. Professors and pastors who are either hesitant or who categorically refuse to mention sin and its reality are reminiscent of what the neo-orthodox theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, said: sin for a liberal was to be outflanked on the left. In our modern church milieu we can encounter a kind of doublespeak where orthodoxy is affirmed formally, but denied practically. For example, a number of mega-church and Emergent Church leaders have ascribed to formal categories of inerrancy and adherence to the Christian tradition, but have de facto denied what Scripture teaches in their preaching and teaching. Some of the most egregious examples of what I mean are Robert Schuller, Joel Osteen, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell.
In the course of time, this phenomenon eviscerates the capacity of any seminary or pastor to evaluate the current theologies and ethical issues, not to mention cultural trends. Programs are accepted uncritically since the primary critical-thinking tool has been effectively removed when biblical doctrine was abandoned. For Leith a classic case in point occurred in 1993, four years before he published his book. His denomination had traveled a road that left it in no state “to bring any critical judgment out of the classical Christian tradition to bear on the most extreme denials of classical Christian faith as, for example, at the Minneapolis Re-imagining Conference (1993).”[10]
While the journey from classical Christian tradition to the left-of-center had been relatively painless, indeed, barely perceptible, it left the seminaries, pastors, and men and women in the pew with the inability to respond critically to the demands of the fads prevalent in society and in theology. We’ll take up Leith’s assessment of the consequences of the crisis in our next installment. In total, he mentions nine and it will behoove us to listen carefully to what the man has to say, because he has been there and seen the destruction.

[1] John H. Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 8.
[2] Ibid., 9. Italics mine.
[3] Peter Berger, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961), p. 124.
[4] Leith, CiC, 10.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 22-31.
[7] Ibid., 26.
[8] Martin Marty, “The Clergy,” in The Professions in American History, (Nathan Hatch [ed.]), (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), p. 85. Italics mine.
[9] Leith, CiC, 10.
[10] Ibid., 12.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Lessons from a Man Who Has Been There and Done That

Crisis in the Church
I suppose that there are fewer things more obnoxious than a reformed smoker. I don’t know because I’ve never smoked, but I hear—from reliable sources, of course—that it’s true. Equally true—probably—is that there are fewer things more obnoxious than someone who was an Arminian and who by luck, fate, predestination, whatever, became Reformed. That I do know by experience because that was my journey and I became thoroughly obnoxious wanting all to come to se the truth of the doctrines of grace. Some might even still find me obnoxious, but that’s really hard to believe.
Anyway, for the next while I want to focus on a man who made quite a remarkable theological pilgrimage: the late Dr. John H. Leith. In 1997, Westminster John Knox Press published his work, Crisis in the Church. Admittedly it’s a relatively small book (125 pp.), but I simply could not put it down and read it in one sitting. Leith made a quantum leap from being on the left in the mainline Presbyterian Church to being truly right of center.[1] I find his book so terribly timely in light of a number of occurrences and movements afoot in what we still call evangelicalism, even though some of the movements have jettisoned anything vaguely reminiscent of what evangelicalism originally stood for.
Primarily, Leith observed the ravaging effects of liberalism, engaging the culture, and “professional” as opposed to “pastoral” seminary education, although the two do not have to be contradictory. As I write this article, Christianity is embroiled in a number of conflicts about its own identity. It is faced with the question: what actually constitutes the true Christian faith? In other words, where are the boundaries so that by embracing certain positions you cross over out of Christianity into a heretical aberration? Few have the stomach to even ask such questions these days. Some have suggested that schism is worse than heresy. Can we see how far down the wrong path an incorrect concept of tolerance has taken us?
The Christian faith was almost completely watered down, dumbed-down by the likes of Robert Schuller and Bill Hybels in the early stages of the church-growth movement and continues to be dumbed-down by Rick Warren and Joel Osteen—not to mention my perennial favorites: Paul and Jan Crouch. But that just part of the story. As the aforementioned people plied their trade, they left a generation of church-goers bereft of any real scriptural knowledge. The net result is that devotees of the Emergent Church Movement seem to be clueless, rudderless in their understanding of the Christian faith and life. For example, a representative number in the ECM leaders don’t seem to know what the Word of God says about homosexuality. Currently a number of them--Chalke and McLaren included--are strongly in opposition to penal substitutionary atonement, which strikes at the heart of the gospel. Still others like Rob Bell are using a form of theological doublespeak to affirm that the Bible is still their center, but just a different kind of center.
But there is still more yet. There is still the urging and insistence that churches “engage the culture,” but few, if any, seminaries offer courses in exactly how to perform that task. Bavinck, Groen van Prinsterer, and Kuyper understood and taught he concept of "antithesis" regarding the Christian and culture, but the modern gurus are not aware of it. Moreover, a movement called the Federal Vision is challenging a number in Presbyterian circles to take another look at justification by faith, the writings of Anglican New Testament scholar N.T. Wright are doing the same thing, and a recent document entitled “Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together” is affirming that while the signatories embrace the Reformed tradition, it is nonetheless crucial to understand that the Reformed tradition itself has evolved (p. 1). While this is certainly true and the tenure of the paper is a kind of Rodney King approach to theology—Why can’t we all just get along?—there are a number of serious issues delineated in this “Call to Charitable Theological Discourse.”
If charitable discourse were all the signatories envisioned, the paper could have been substantially shorter. As it stands, however, there are no fewer than thirteen bullet points cited where charity is needed. The death knell to the entire document is not merely the thirteen points, but the very fact that there was not one signature on the original document. Admittedly, people were urged to add their names to the list of signatories, but originally there were none, which does not bode well. At best, it raises all kinds of questions. At worst, well…
But back to Leith. Given his pilgrimage from liberal to conservative it would behoove us to listen carefully and attentively to what he has taken away from the intramural “culture wars” over theology and “doing church.” In his prefatory remarks he states, “I have…become convinced that the left wing is a greater menace to the health of the Christian community than the right wing was prior to 1960. Certainly the left wing is more, not less, ruthless in imposing its will on the church.”[2] This truth leads Leith to stress the following: “I emphasize in this book the overwhelming priority and significance in the life of the church of what God does and says, not what human beings do and say.”[3]

From 1519 to World War II
Leith believes that “The Presbyterian Church from its earliest theological origins in the Reformation in Zürich in 1519 until World War II lived according to its traditions, but after World War II radical changes began.”[4] As bad as these changes were, Leith is convinced that they “were not nearly as serious as the penetration of the church by the assumptions of a secular society.”[5]
This is a fascinating point because it seems that the modern Church has a love/hate relationship with society. On the one hand, church leaders bemoan the fact that culture is so decadent and immoral. Hardly a day passes when some evangelical doesn’t take a shot at the lyrics of a hip-hop song, the soft porn on MTV, the immorality on our college and university campuses, the filth that passes for literature, the rampant growth of child molesters and predators, and the Hollywood movie industry, just to mention the most obvious. Yet, on the other hand, when it comes to worship, music, and “doing church,” the modern Church is all to willing to take over a number of questionable approaches of secular culture in order to--so the "reasoning" goes--to make church more acceptable to the non-believer.
So the modern Christian is now not only abysmally ignorant about fundamental truths of the Christian faith, they are now also assuming more and more of what the culture passes off in terms of toleration and general lifestyle. George Barna has chronicled the general moral malaise in 21st century Christianity and it’s getting worse.
Leith pleads for all churches to perform a periodical review concerning failed policies, decisions, and programs rather than rushing ahead full speed with the policies that have led to crises and problems.[6] From his Presbyterian Church USA vantage point, he wants to place seminaries under the microscope, for he is convinced that many of the problems actually begin there. He writes, “The seminaries are deeply involved in the crisis of the church. The crisis itself is sufficient indication that the seminaries are not graduating ministers who are effective leaders in the life of the church. Why should it be otherwise, when seminary faculties no longer include persons who have been effective pastors themselves?.... There are virtually no faculty who have given leadership in the building of churches.”[7]
Let’s pause and dissect those words and give them a contemporary application. What should be one of the main tasks of a seminary according to Leith? The short answer is: to graduate preachers. Granted, these preachers should be well-prepared and well-grounded in the biblical languages, church history, exegesis, and a good grasp of the general overview of the Bible. He will offer some very good specific advice later, but for now it’s important to take heed of why the crisis is upon us.
Second, he objects to persons serving on the faculty of a seminary who has not been an “effective” pastor himself—notice I did not say herself. I placed the word effective in quotation marks because that word does not designate someone who has built a large congregation. That can be the case, but more to the point is the pastor who has faithfully preached the Word of God, has taught the requisite classes so that his congregation knows Scripture, has catechized both the youth and adults, and has performed his administration tasks well.
When you stop and reflect on the matter, what normally happens in seminary is that a “bright boy” without pastoral experience starts teaching young seminarians about how to be pastors, when they, themselves, have never been pastors. That is tantamount to hiring me to be a hitting instructor for a Major League Baseball team when I’ve neither played nor hit at that level. I am not convinced, however, that every seminary faculty member must have served in the pastorate. It is desirable, but not necessarily obligatory. Having said that, I do believe that a prudent mix at the seminary level would be 70% with pastoral experience and 30% without it. Let me give another example. When I did my Drs. studies in Holland, I attended liberal schools. I had received a very good and solid conservative, traditional education, but wanted to study the liberals first hand, which I did. My point, however, is this: at those liberal schools it was required that each professor had a minimum of five years of pastoral ministry before he was considered for a teaching position. Liberals being liberals, all kinds of loopholes were found, but at least in a large majority of instances this was the case. Something to think about.
This crisis possesses a “trickle down” effect. Seminary professors don’t know how to be pastors so they are ill-equipped to teach aspiring pastors to be pastors. “The consequence is that too many church leaders and ministers are subject to being blown about by every wind of doctrine and every fad, lacking a clear identity and the power of self-determination.”[8]
In a number of seminaries various “theologies” are offered such as, Theology of the Secular; Feminist Theology, Liberation Theology, Death of God Theology, Process Theology, Gay and Lesbian Theology, and the list goes on. And while no one can doubt the importance of the various “causes” that come our way (peace, justice, dignity of the homeless, “rights” of women, just war, capital punishment, racism, and the environment to mention a few), Richard Niebuhr reminded us that all the “causes” for which we live die.[9] As Leith puts it, “Our only security is in God.” [10]
Ironically, we are a generation in which precious little is known about the nature and character of God. Moreover, it doesn’t seem that all that many in the modern Church are all that concerned about knowing his character. It is almost as if modern Christians are searching for a “minimalist” approach to the Christian faith: what’s the minimum I can know and still get by; still be known as a Christian?As the modern Church confronts and is confronted by a vast array of issues and causes we would do well to remember that “it is always easier to get into a problem that it is to get out.”[11] That being the case, we should be very circumspect before we jump on any theological bandwagon be it women’s ordination, the so-called new perspectives on Paul, which, by the way, they aren’t, the so-called Federal Vision, the forty days of purpose, or the general pop-psychology, feel-good theology. Next issue we shall continue, Lord willing, to allow Leith to describe the crisis he lived.

[1] John H. Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. x. Leith writes, “From 1940 until 1959 I was in conflict with the theological right wing of the church…”
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid. Emphasis mine.
[4] Ibid., 1.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 5.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 6.
[9] H. Richard Niebuhr, “Faith in Gods and God,” in Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1960), p. 99.
[10] Leith, CiC, 6. Italics mine.
[11] Ibid., 7.

Calvin’s Doctrine of the Church (IX)

The First Table of the Ten Commandments & Worship
After a slight diversion and a vacation, we’re going to return to the crucial matter of how the Reformer, John Calvin, thought about worship in general and how the first table (commandments 1-4) applied to worship in particular. In order to accomplish my purpose, I’m going to use two primary sources: The Institutes of the Christian Religion and his commentaries on the last four books of the Pentateuch.[1]
Since the Institutes are so foundational, we’ll begin there and then branch out in his Harmony. Calvin wrote a kind of “introduction” to his exposition of the Ten Commandments in the Institutes in 2.8. We shall skate lightly over that introduction to ferret out the most salient points. By way of reminder, he states “that the public worship that God once prescribed is still in force.”[2] This will not be an easy pill for some modern evangelicals to swallow since they believe that the Ten Commandments and Old Testament belong to a bygone era and only apply to the Kingdom of Israel. None of the Reformers embraced that position.

Biblical Worship
Hearkening back to the opening words of the Institutes Calvin points us to two indispensable truths: “First, claiming for himself (the Lord) the lawful power to command, he calls us to reverence his divinity, and specifies wherein such reverence lies and consists. Secondly, having published the rule of his righteousness, he reproves us both for our impotence and four our unrighteousness.”[3] The words I italicized direct us to the specifics of worship. God calls us to worship him according to his command; he specifies what right, true worship looks like; and when we go astray, he reproves us. How does he reprove us? There is no audible word from heaven or a special revelation during “prime time” on TBN. Rather, the Lord calls, specifies, and reproves us by his Word and Spirit.
He reiterates that “we have no right to follow the mind’s caprice wherever it impels us, but, dependent upon his will, ought to stand firm in that alone which is pleasing to him….”[4] With one fell swoop, Calvin has just eviscerated much if not most of so-called evangelical worship today. Precious little time is spent, by comparison, determining from Scripture what pleases the Lord instead of trying to figure out what will please man. He continues in the same vein: “For if only when we prefer his will to our own do we render to him the reverence that is his due, it follows that the only lawful worship of him is the observance of righteousness, holiness, and purity.”[5] There is a great deal more that could be said, but I hasten on to Calvin’s section on the sufficiency of the law.

The Sufficiency of the Law
The opening words of 2.8.5 read: “…the Lord, in giving the rule of perfect righteousness, has referred all its parts to his will, thereby showing that nothing is more acceptable to him than obedience.”[6] In reference to Deuteronomy 4:9 (“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the tings that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life.”) Calvin comments, “Surely God foresaw that the Israelites would not rest, once they had received the law, but would thereafter bring forth new precepts, unless they were severely restrained. Here, he declares, perfection of righteousness is comprehended.”[7]
In terms of the New Testament Church in at the beginning of the 21st century, it seems plausible that they might take a fresh look both at Scripture and Calvin. The modern Church has become a factory that is constantly bringing forth new, man-centered precepts. That is bad enough, but when church leaders pass their notions as worship, that is quite another thing. Of course, in one sense this is understandable. When was the last time you heard a series preached on the Ten Commandments? When was the last time that you read through, say, the Westminster Larger Catechism or Heidelberg Catechism regarding what is taught in those documents about the Ten Commandments? I contend that one of the reasons that modern worship has gotten so far off track is due to a gross neglect of the Ten Commandments in determining what should be included and excluded in worship. Both the mega-church as well as the Emergent Church movement fall under this indictment. For Calvin, however, “There is no doubt that the perfect teaching of righteousness that the Lord claims for the law has a perpetual validity.”[8]

The First Commandment
Calvin opens his exposition of the first commandment by giving us its purpose: “The purpose of this commandment is that the Lord wills alone to be pre-eminent among his people and to exercise complete authority over them.”[9] This is an essential lesson that he modern Church must learn if there can ever be any talk about a “revival” in evangelicalism. In other words, until the leaders and congregants of the modern Church are willing to submit themselves to the authority of God and obey the first commandment all of our attempts at worship will be in vain. God “commands us to worship and adore him with true zealous godliness.”[10]
In other words, Calvin is convinced that the first thing the law teaches us is to worship God and God alone.[11] Hughes Oliphant Old writes that Calvin believed that “worship is the first business of life, the ultimate vocation of the human race. For Calvin, it is in worship that all our other activities find their meaning.”[12] In a day and age when worship is promoted because it makes us feel good, Calvin emphasizes that worship is a sacred duty.[13] Truly, this is one of the lost aspects of worship in the modern Church.
The modern “pastors” have generally speaking been “disablers” in this area, depriving their congregations of biblical truth and substituting “fluff” and “softballs” for true biblical nourishment. Rather than teaching them the clear truth that worship is the first business of life, they have taught their attendees that feeling good about yourself and feeling good when you leave the “worship” is the first business of life.
So which components ought we to consider in worshipping the Lord? Calvin gives us a thumbnail sketch of some of the most important elements worship in Inst.2.8.16 when he describes the four following indispensable aspects: adoration, trust, invocation, and thanksgiving.[14]
First, “‘Adoration’ I call the veneration and worship that each of us, in submitting to his greatness, renders to him. For this reason, I justly consider as a part of adoration the fact that we submit our consciences to his law.”[15]
Second, trust “is the assurance of reposing in him that arises from the recognition of his attributes, when—attributing to him all wisdom, righteousness, might, truth, and goodness—we judge that we are blessed only by communion with him.”[16]
Third, “‘Invocation’ is that habit of our mind, whenever necessity presses us, of resorting to his faithfulness and help as our only support.”[17]
Finally, “‘Thanksgiving’ is that gratitude with which we ascribe praise to him for all good things.”[18] Thanksgiving is, then, the public recognition of having received God’s help in time of need. True thanksgiving accepts the obligation of service to God that having received his benefits entails.
What this means concretely is that true worship is not so much an attempt to achieve communion with God as much as it presupposes communion with God. This is yet another area where the modern Church, by and large, has it all wrong. The attempt is made—futilely—to create an atmosphere—from below—where both churched and unchurched will feel comfortable. Apart from being impossible, it is foolish to even attempt this man-centered worship style. What is desperately needed in the modern Church is more of a God-centered—from above—worship style taken from Scripture.

Worship & the Character of God
Then Calvin makes this statement that ties his thoughts together regarding the first commandment and worship: “Thus, steeped in the knowledge of him, they (the congregation—RG) may aspire to contemplate, fear, and worship, his majesty; to participate in his blessings; to seek his help at all times; to recognize, and by praises to celebrate, the greatness of his works—as the only goal of all the activities of this life.”[19] Notice how the Reformer couches his reasoning in our knowledge of the character of God. In our one-dimensional world (God is love), we know more about American Idol that we do about the character of the Lord God Almighty. Yet, if we are to worship God truly, we must be biblically conversant with his character—not who or what we want him to be, but how he reveals himself to us in Scripture.
How is the man and woman in the pew to achieve this knowledge of the character of God? The answer is quite simple actually: They will find the answers in a thoroughly acquaintance with the Bible and from hearing solid, biblical, and expositional preaching from Scripture. Calvin believed that when the Word of God is preached and heard in faith, it bears fruit. This means that sound teaching is essential to true worship. Of course, this would require a huge modification of modern preaching for some. A poor or non-existent theological education has left modern pastors without the means to put together a solid biblical sermon that will feed God’s flock. Moreover, a number of modern pastors have spent a rather large expanse of time deriding sound teaching and doctrine even though the Bible explicitly speaks about its spiritual value to the Christian (cf. 1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1). These revealed truths convince Calvin that worship of God that is “from above” consists in true knowledge of his character.In his commentary on Colossians 3:16 Calvin tells us that true worship is not something aside from the singing of hymns, the saying of the creed, and the sharing of communion done in the regular worship of the Church. The outward forms are the exercises of true worship. It is in the exercising of praise, invocation, and thanksgiving that the Church is edified. True worship takes place through and by means of the outward rites and ceremonies of worship. To that end, he reminds us that we are to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with grace, making melody in our hearts as well as with our tongues.

[1] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, (Charles Bingham, [trans.]), Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979).
[2] Inst.2.8.1, p. 367.
[3] Ibid., Emphases mine.
[4] Inst.2.8.2, p. 369.
[5] Ibid. Italics mine.
[6] Inst.2.8.5., p. 371.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Inst.2.8.16, p. 382.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Hughes Oliphant Old, “Calvin’s Theology of Worship,” in J. Ligon Duncan III, Philip G. Ryken, & Derek W.H. Thomas [eds.], Give Praise to God, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2003), p. 418.
[13] Inst.2.8.2, 369.
[14] Inst.2.8.16, 382.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Lie Down with Prayers & You’ll End Up with Pleas

Sectarian Neo-Puritanism
I thought when I wrote my response to John Armstrong about his shot across the bow of the PCA that the matter would be laid to rest or that John would provide concrete examples to offset the vague generalities that plagued his blog. I was wrong on both counts, with the exception that he seems to have moved his sights away from the PCA and on to the Southern Baptist Convention.
His recent blog, “Leaning into Some Questions, Losing Some of My Answers” (May 8, 2006) is a case in point. It seems that Armstrong is bent on regaling us with his theological journey and, at the same time, to set himself up as the arbiter of discussions theological. Certainly all of us in theology have made changes and been through certain transitions, but few believe that the rest of the world would find this, in any sense, very entertaining or enlightening.
Apparently, he has been the recipient of criticism based on what he has said or written. Allow me to back up half a frame and get us all on the same page. In his article, Armstrong chronicles his slow movement away from his “separatist and sectarian neo-Puritanism over the last twenty years.” According to him, not everyone has either welcomed or understood his new image as non-sectarian neo-Puritan and have taken a strip out of John. To his mind, the sad irony is that “99% of the concern expressed about me has come by way of sermons and public statements, not by means of private conversations with me.” (Emphasis his.)
99% is a very high percentage. I do a little blogging and people do not always agree with what I have written, but I understand that going in. In fact, I am not always writing with the intention that people would agree with me. For example, if I write an article, give a talk, or blog on the Emergent Church, I really expect a backlash from a certain quarter. I’ve been called mean-spirited, unloving, a man without a pastor’s heart, and other terms of endearment. To coin the vernacular: It goes with the turf.
This does not seem to be the case with Armstrong, however. As I read the first three paragraphs of the article I found myself scratching my head and wondering what it was that he was trying to get at. It sounded almost like something that better fit on Oprah or Drs. Phil and Laura than on a theological blog. But I digress.

Assuming & Breaking Down Open Doors
Armstrong explains that in his theological pilgrimage he left the neo-Puritan vision of the church but kept his Reformed vision of the world. Are you tracking with me? Can we pause there just for a moment? I mentioned in my first article on Armstrong that his writing suffered—horribly—from gross generalizations and vagaries. It seems that he didn’t take my very helpful advice to heart. In our day and age when modern Christians don’t have a clue what justification by faith is or where to find the Ten Commandments in the Bible that they will know, with any degree of precision, what the Puritan view of the Church was, let alone its neo-Puritan cousin. If Armstrong expects us to take him seriously, he must begin using specific examples of what he means. Quite possibly some will react/respond, but that is the nature of and fun part about discussion. We exchange ideas and seek for precision.
When I say that Armstrong breaks down open doors I mean this: he states that in the course of time he learned from charismatics (my spell check doesn’t like this word and offered charisma tics. My spell check doesn’t speak in tongues either), liberal social activists, who, we are reminded are not always wrong (Really?), Quakers, mystics, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox writers. So what’s new? Even neo-Puritans with some kind of vision of the Church occasionally read other authors. Reading is not equivalent with agreeing, but certainly agreement can be found in, say, reading Roman Catholic Moral Theology on bioethics, abortion, and stem-cell research. Moreover, Armstrong acts as if he’s uncovered some little-known secret when he informs us that Calvin and Luther were dependent on the Fathers of the Christian Church. Yep. We might as well break down that open door as well. Helpful.
So where has Armstrong landed thus far in his journey away from the neo-Puritan vision of the Church? He ensconces himself in the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. My interest was piqued when he wrote that because I taught on both of these documents for fifteen years in the Dutch-speaking and Canadian churches that I served. Armstrong writes that the Belgic Confession arose out of political hostility or persecution, which is one of those half-truths that Armstrong detests so much. The author, Guido de Brès, was a preacher in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, which I still contend is very close to the country of Holland. He died a martyr’s death in 1567. His death was in one sense political, but then political at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. The Belgic was received by the Synod of Emden in 1571 and the authentic French text was revised by the Synod of Dort, with a brief historical and critical introduction. Apart from that I am not certain where Armstrong finds the “preface” he refers to, but I could be wrong. I just have never seen it.
Concerning the contents of the Belgic Confession Armstrong states, “It is solid, sturdy, confessional Reformed Christianity. It is a wonderful human witness to Christ. We need this element of witness in our modern world desperately.” No argument from me on that, but let’s take those statements to a place that I’m certain Armstrong does not want to go. In light of today’s “bickering” de Brès is unbending on the following theological issues: The Authority and Sufficiency of Holy Scripture (Arts. 5 & 7), Divine Election (Art. 16), Justification by Faith (Art. 22 explicitly denies what today is called the Federal Vision), The Place of Works in Salvation (Art. 24), Christ’s Active Obedience (Art. 25), The Doctrine of the (neo-Puritan) Church (Arts. 27-29, which reject the Roman Catholic Church), The Nature of the Sacraments (Art. 33), The Sacrament of Baptism (Art. 34), and The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Art. 35), just to hit the “biggies.”
But what about the Heidelberg Catechism? Armstrong tells us that one Reformed author called it “even devotional.” Yes it is. The first question and answer speaks to us about our only comfort in life and death. The Heidelberg Catechism is definitely a little book of comfort. The Larger Heidelberg Catechism that was written by Ursinus appeared approximately one year before the (Shorter) Heidelberg Catechism saw the light of day contained 323 questions and answers.[1] The first Q/A of the Larger answers in terms of God’s covenant of grace. Therefore, both comfort (devotion) and covenant form the structural poles around which the catechisms were composed.
But we must not come away with the idea that the Heidelberg Catechism leaves a person with the “warm fuzzies.” Surely, it is one of the most comforting catechisms I have ever read or studied. I benefit from it constantly. I say this because I simply do not understand how Armstrong makes the leap from the Heidelberg Catechism to how it allows him to relate with love (and in mystery) to the entire catholic church and the modern world. Allow me to explain. There are three Q/As that deal directly with the notion of the union of the believer with Christ in the Heidelberg Catechism: 20, 64, and 80.
Twenty deals with true, saving faith; sixty-four deals with a very strict notion of justification by faith; and eighty, which was not in the original but added a year later, deals with the Lord’s Supper. Apparently, both Olevianus and Ursinus were so consumed with how to relate, in love and mystery, to the entire catholic church that they decided to remind us that the Roman Catholic Mass is “basically nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry.”
I give you this background because I must admit I am at a loss to explain how Armstrong can make the assertions he does about these two documents and then, in the next breath assert that many conservative Christians “need to control the boundaries of the faith more tightly.” I can think of few documents that set out the boundaries of true, saving faith more carefully and precisely than the two Armstrong cites. Odd.

Frightening Conservative Christians
Armstrong seems to think that the direction he has “taken frightens many conservative Christians.” Frightens is a highly inappropriate word and was poorly chosen to describe the situation. “Saddens” might be more to the point. “Confuses” is another word that comes to mind. I must confess that I have not spent a great deal of time tracking the winds of change that have blown in Armstrong’s life for a number of reasons. First, they simply do not interest me all that much. Second, given the vagaries with which he has written recently you quite frankly are at a loss as to where to begin because you don’t really know what he’s getting at. Personally, I would be very loathe to write about my personal health problems on a blog, except for my recent hair restoration surgery, my face lift, and my tummy tuck—oh yes, there was that liposuction as well, but that’s about it.
But all that aside, why would Armstrong think that his direction would affect conservative Christians? His answer is: “They need to control the boundaries of the faith more tightly.” As I pointed out in my previous article, vagaries are not helpful. I cannot help but wonder if Armstrong would level the same criticism at de Brès, Ursinus, and Olevianus. As tightly Reformed as the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism are would these men fall under the criticism of attempting to control the boundaries of the faith? What is interesting is the word choice that Armstrong employs here. These “bad guy” conservative Christians are control freaks. If you change the language slightly and say that these conservative Christians are desirous of fulfilling what is described in Jude 3 you get a very different take: “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” Armstrong seems intent in ascribing motives to these people—whoever they are!—that are less than complimentary. Why didn’t he just say that they’re on a “witch hunt?” This is all the more perplexing as he accuses these conservatives of “hyper-orthodoxy,” eviscerating vital missional (don’t you just love that word?), and backbiting. At the same time, Armstrong contends that he is a very conservative Christian and that he is not comfortable with radically liberal agendas. Go and figure, but the logic is difficult to follow.

All the Truths That Are Worth Conserving
As we meander on in Armstrong’s article he writes, “I believe that we who are orthodox in the theological mainstream have something very important things to conserve in these tumultuous time.” For those of you silly enough to expect Armstrong to tell you what that might be I must disappoint you. Nothing. The inherent weakness of much I have read by Armstrong suffers from this deplorable, inexcusable lack of precision. Even if you don’t want to “control the boundaries” yourself, you can at least give one or two salient examples of what in the world you’re talking about with regard to those you’re accusing!
Rather than that, however, Armstrong suffices with: “What I have come to strongly question is whether or not the present conservative agenda, of popular evangelicalism, will actually accomplish this, either in the church or in the culture.” “This” obviously refers to “something very important” I guess. Again, what might this “present conservative agenda” be? Look like? The closest we get to any coherent explanation of what Armstrong means is this: “For example, I cheered for the conservatives in the Southern Baptist (SBC) battle in the 1970s and 1980s. But I am deeply distressed by how far this movement has gone in trying to correct things. The present results of the SBC conservative resurgence frighten me. In opposing the liberal use of ‘soul liberty’ (often misunderstood and misused by liberals) conservatives have begun to take away the real soul of good orthodox men and women.”
To write that kind of vague accusation is, to my mind, unconscionable and irresponsible. How can anyone seeking theological precision speak in such gross, inexcusable generalities? Things? What things are we talking about? What “present results” are being mentioned regarding the SBC? Whereas Armstrong was concerned that his direction would frighten many conservative Christians, now he’s frightened. This is all getting scary. Moreover, if his concern reaches to taking away the soul of good orthodox men and women, Armstrong should be prepared to name names and give us a litany of things that are robbing orthodox men and women of their soul liberty.
Recently, I read a response to a blog by one Anna Nymous. I’m frightened that that is not his or her real name, but that’s another matter. I tell you this, however, to borrow a phrase that the fetching Ms. Nymous used: sloppy narcissism. At this point in Armstrong’s article, it’s an apt phrase. Armstrong is standing above the fray—just like he did in his shot across the bow of the PCA—as the knight in shining armor who is poised to rescue those in the SBC who are being robbed of their soul liberty. He tells us: “Many express, very privately, their fear for their future and that of their beloved denomination.” Many? You mean like in many are saying things? I’m not sure what very privately means other than it sounds like he has become the Father Confessor to many in the PCA and SBC who, under the cover of darkness (how else can you avoid these neo-Puritan thought police?) pour out their hearts to him about things.
What is needed in the SBC, according to Armstrong, is “milder” and “gentler” leadership. If it is not forthcoming, Armstrong believes that the future of the SBC will not be nearly as bright as he had hoped. He assures us that this is not an attack on a person or institution but merely a plea from a friend. With the PCA it was a prayer; with the SBC it is a plea. Reading the articles regarding the PCA and the SBC the words seem interchangeable. Plea. Prayer. Many. Things.
In his plea there is a prayerful opinion—are you tracking with me on this?—that what the SBC needs is “not more controversy and more gaining and keeping of power in a handful of carefully chosen loyalists, but a renewal of love and a profound tolerance for real brothers and sisters who do not always agree.” Once again, we are confronted by unsubstantiated claims that present certain people and institutions in the SBC in a highly unfavorable and very poor light. If I didn’t know better I’d think that the SBC was run by—since we’re using letters—the KGB. What started out good has turned into a power grab. In fact, Armstrong has his doubts that the renewal of love and profound tolerance so desperately needed in the SBC will occur, “given the history of the Puritan ethos, and the inherent separatism of this resurgence.”
Therein lies the problem. I really feel sorry for the Puritans in their neo- and other forms because they have gotten some very bad PR in Armstrong’s article. If I were an unknowing person who was reading Armstrong for the first time, the last person I would want to be like would be a Puritan—any Puritan. I would have no interest in reading any of them and I would believe that the first American Thanksgiving was merely a cover for the later power grab in the SBC.
Having said all of these things—in love of course—Armstrong believes he will become a target for both conservatives as well as liberals. He writes, “Thus, I expect some conservatives, and a growing number of liberals as I reach into the mainline more and more these days, will find me an attractive target. I hope I respond well.” I certainly hope he responds better—substantially better—than he has in his critiques of the PCA and the SBC. Both responses were abysmal. But what should we expect from a man who has “been forced to move away from a theological stance that was filled with a kind of certitude that leaned more on non-Christian categories than on biblical ones.” (Italics mine.) Forced? Did someone hold a gun to his head?
I submit that his theological pilgrimage—for better or for worse—has occurred by his own volition. Furthermore, it was done consciously. Without a doubt, numerous forces have been brought to bear on his transition, but Armstrong must accept responsibility for his own theological stance. If I were to become a Barthian—which I am not—it would not be the fault of the PCA, the SBC, the KGB, or even that of the fetching Anna Nymous. Armstrong has moved into his present position because he chose to. Period. That much is evident by his bold-type assertion, “Here I stand!” No one forced Luther to move into his theological stance except the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God. If Armstrong is convinced that he is in some sense Luther-like then let him act with the scriptural integrity of Luther and stop all of his vapid sniping at denominations.
For my part, this will be the last response I will write to anything that Armstrong writes or has written. I am weary of the rampant confusion, the unsubstantiated accusations (if this were someone in our congregation we’d call it gossip), and the ascription to himself of Father Confessor to those who do not have the fortitude to stand up for themselves. But this type of blogging definitely needs to cease immediately for Armstrong is doing himself and others absolutely no favors.His so-called prayer and plea have left me cold because they were actually thinly veiled unsubstantiated accusations and he ought to know better. I hope that Armstrong can do better—much better—because if he can’t he should stop altogether because as much as he speaks about unity these types of articles have the exact opposite effect. If he has concerns about the PCA and the SBC he should pray, trust in God’s sovereignty, and believe these two denominations can, by God’s grace, sort out what needs to be sorted out.

[1] Catechesis, summa theologiae per quaestiones et responsiones exposita: sive, capita religionis christianae continens.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Evangelicalism’s Love Affair with Fads (I)

So What Else is New?
It seems that those in the modern Church—both theologians and the man and woman in the pew—have an ongoing love affair with fads. The last four decades have borne this truth out in the pews, in the pulpits, and in a large number of seminaries. Whatever is the “latest and greatest” attracts the attention of the modern Christian almost immediately. Of course, I’m not talking about every evangelical, but without a doubt, there is a clearly discernible trend that has been around for about four decades, if not longer, and it isn’t improving. In fact, it continues to get more bizarre and left-wing the longer it exists.
In one sense, these “trendy,” creative attempts and approaches to theology have been around since the fall of Adam and Eve into sin. As far as original sin is concerned, distorting God’s truth “goes with the turf.” But rather than starting in Eden or even East of Eden, I want to focus on the more immediate context at the front-end of the 21st century. I could cite a number of different aspects that point to fads in the modern Church, but for the sake of brevity, I will focus only on a few.
Within the time frame of two to four decades, theological trends, fads have come and gone, some at a graciously alarming rate. I say “graciously” alarming rate because the Death of God theology took off like a skyrocket and very quickly crashed and burned—thankfully, graciously. There are a number of other “movements” or types of theology that are taught in seminaries that are not all that helpful. For example, you could—and possibly still can—study The Theology of the Secular, Theology as Literature, Game Theology, The Greening of America and Consciousness III (clearly Consciousness I and II are prerequisites!), The Theology of Hope (or maybe Hype), The Communist-Christian Dialogue, The Theology of Play, Black Theology, Liberation Theology, and Feminist Theology, just to mention the most obvious and most popular.[1]
There are some conclusions to be drawn here that have a direct impact upon our current situation in the modern Church. Since seminaries have dropped many of their core courses and have substituted some or all of the above; have dropped their language requirements and have substituted pop-psychology courses; and have added professors who speak, act, and think more like secular university professors than church theologians, is it any wonder that the 21st century Church is also in a “crisis?”
As often as not, when these types of discussions occur, there is some vague appeal to Calvin’s work on the necessity of reforming the Church. Yes, I understand that John Calvin wrote about the Church always reforming herself. Many today, however, will cite Calvin as if he would approve of the current fads and nonsense under the guise of biblical reform. In point of fact, if you take the time actually to read that treatise, The Necessity of Reforming the Church,—there’s a novel idea—then you’ll discover that he had some very clear, cogent, and specific ideas of precisely how the Church was to be reformed.
As many modern pastors, writers, and theologians describe what they consider to be essential for the modern Church you quickly conclude that they have not actually read Calvin’s treatise, but have only heard of it. What Calvin meant and what many today twist his words to mean are quite different. Calvin’s insistence in his treatise was that the Church must be reforming herself according to the Word of God and not according to the whim or personal history of any man or group of men.
David Wells has, in a masterful manner, exposed the bankruptcy of modern evangelicalism in four provocative books that are well worth the time it takes to read them.[2] Evangelicalism’s adherents, devotees continue, however, to insist on ever-new programs that promise much but deliver precious little in terms of true spiritual content. The net result is a spiritual downward spiral that began at seminary, was continued in the pastorate, and was passed on to the congregation. Modern seminary professors, pastors (if they even bother to attend seminary), and God’s people are “subject to being blown about by every wind of doctrine and every fad, lacking a clear identity…”[3] Of course, at one level it is completely understandable that the modern Church is in rather constant search of the new, the creative, and the innovative. Modern church-goers insist on being entertained, so by pretending to be biblically reformational by a vague appeal to Calvin—I mean, who knows what’s biblical and what isn’t any more?—you can pull some rather expensive, yet creative, wool over the people’s eyes. Sadly, they won’t even know you’ve done it.
Pertinent examples of what I’m talking about are found in both the mega-church and Emergent Church Movement. From the outset, these movements ignored classical Christianity. The outset of the mega-church movement saw anything resembling Christianity removed from the meeting area (crosses, Bibles, etc.) in an attempt to make the “audience” comfortable. Eventually, retractable screens were used so that intractable people could feel good about themselves. Just as Calvin was drawn upon in a vain attempt to keep church from being boring and irrelevant, as often as not, Martin Luther was appealed to regarding music.
This is precisely how pooled ignorance substitutes for careful study. Paul Jones, in his excellent new book, Singing and Making Music. Issues in Church Music Today, devotes an entire chapter to Luther and the modern Church’s appeal to him as the forerunner to the Maranatha Singers. In a chapter entitled, “Luther and Bar Song: The Truth, Please!” Jones states, “If I had a dollar for every time I have heard that Martin Luther used tavern music for his hymns and that ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’ was a drinking song, I would be a wealthy man. Yet such assertions are simply not true.”[4] This myth, this inaccuracy has been perpetrated upon the modern Church until, like the old adage, if you repeat the lie long enough, people will believe it.
So the pragmatic (il)logic goes like this: “as long as the words are Christian words, the music is of little consequence—worse yet, the world’s music is the best way to win worldly people to Christ.”[5] Jones proceeds to say, “The careless acceptance of these errant ideas has done great damage to the integrity of church music and worship in our time.”[6] Want the real scoop? Luther composed both the text of A Mighty Fortress is Our God based on Psalm 46 and the original tune for this chorale in 1529. In point of fact, “None of Luther’s tunes can be traced back to drinking songs.”[7]
Another apocryphal story that adds feet-moving, handclapping fuel to the fire is the hoax that Luther actually asked, “Why should the Devil have all the good music?” With disinformation like this, it’s only a short step to take popular songs and add Christian words—as if that actually constitutes true worship of God then. Those of us who remember the Jesus Movement will recall a song containing that question from Larry Norman. Arguably, Norman built a commercial Christian rock empire from some of this early works. In that sense, then, he was the forerunner of a preponderance of what we find in contemporary Christian music today.
My point here is simply that almost the entire enterprise of using contemporary tunes set with Christian words is supposed to be traceable back to Martin Luther. The (false) premise is, then, “that the simple addition of sacred text or Christian words to a tune makes it worthy of use in worship.”[8] Jones corrects us: “But adding scriptural text to a heavy-metal tune or even to vapid easy-listening rock does not make it appropriate for worship. The ideological conflict of the two forces is irreconcilable. The music’s destructive and purposely anti-God, anti-authoritarian nature remains undiminished even if it is played by well-meaning Christians.”[9]Yet, the modern Church marches onward undeterred by historical fact and God’s truth. Is there any wonder that charlatans such as Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Robert Schuller, Paul and Jan Crouch can continue successfully to ply their trade? In reality, we have not gotten beyond the tip of the iceberg with the mega-church movement and the spiritual destruction and deception they have served up to their audiences. We must, however, move on to take a look at the Emergent Church Movement since it, too, is burdened with a multitude problems stemming from their unbiblical stances on a host of traditional, classical Christian doctrines.

[1] I’m indebted to the late John H. Leith for a number of theses examples. Cf. Crisis in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster Press, 1997), p. 52.
[2] Those books are: No Place for Truth. Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993); God in the Wasteland. The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); Losing Our Virtue. Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); Above All Earthly Pow’rs. Christ in a Postmodern World, (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 2005).
[3] Leith, CC, 6.
[4] Paul S. Jones, Singing and Making Music. Issues in Church Music Today, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2006), p. 171.
[5] Ibid., 171-172.
[6] Ibid. 172.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 175.
[9] Ibid. Italics mine.