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.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The “Boundaries” of the Christian Faith (III)

Defining the Christian Faith
The late John Leith reminds us that “Within the Presbyterian tradition the question has been debated from the time John Calvin forced Sebastianus Castellio to give up teaching in Geneva because of the views on the canon of scripture.”[1] He continues his line of thinking with these words: “For Calvin there were boundaries and the canon of scripture set one of them.”[2]
Neither Calvin’s nor our time is unique in terms of having clearly to define what it is to be a Christian, or in Leith’s tradition, what is meant and means to be a Presbyterian. In terms of the history of Christianity, John Piper reminds us that contention has been one of the hallmarks of the Christian faith since day one.[3] The Church has had to contend for the truth in order to differentiate God’s truth from error and heresy.
Placing the controversy once again within the realm of what it means to be Presbyterian, Leith asks, “What does it mean to accept the substance of doctrine taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith?”[4] This is a highly pertinent question in light of the various controversies swirling about today. Not too terribly long along there was an attempt on the Internet to get Presbyterians to be a kinder and gentler type of denomination. A document appeared entitled “Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together.” The document kept using the word “we,” but the problem was that we never got to find out who the “we” were/are, except that a number of people became signatories. No author(s) placed his or her name on the original document, however. As I read it, I could not help but be reminded of that great one-liner in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “Who are those guys?”
In the course of the document, no less that thirteen areas of disagreement were noted where tolerance and mutual respect were hoped for. This is a similar approach taken by those who hold to what has come to be called the Federal Vision. It’s a kind of Rodney King theology: Why can’t we just all get along? Between people saying, “You just don’t understand me” and “We need to be more tolerant,” you get the impression that someone has an agenda but that they are playing their cards close to the chest.
So what was Leith’s solution to the dilemma in which the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) found itself regarding the “boundaries” of the faith? After pointing out that within the Presbyterian tradition the controversy concerning subscription was most intense in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, he proceeds to give what he considers to have been the best answer given to the question of “boundaries” in the Presbyterian Church. The author of that answer was the old-Princeton professor A.A. Hodge who said that the acceptance of the Westminster Standards meant that “one is in theology, (1) a Catholic, (2) a Protestant, (3) a Reformed theologian.”[5] Of course, this answer has to be fleshed out and there are a couple of ways to do that.
First, the Presbyterian professor/pastor can make a simple, good-faith statement that he believes all that is contained within the Standards to be an accurate summary of what Scripture teaches. In my denomination, certain “exceptions” are allowable as long as they do not strike at the heart of the gospel or the Reformed tradition.
Second, there is the way in which a person claims to hold to the Standards, but in the course of the conversation it becomes apparent that he truly doesn’t. For example, if a member of a conservative Presbyterian church does not believe that there was such a thing as the Covenant of Works, he should simply look for another denomination where refusing to accept that doctrine would not be a problem.
Or, if the person believes the several doctrines taught by Norman Shepherd, the (so-called) New Perspective on Paul, or the Federal Vision, he is going to have difficulty agreeing with the doctrine of justification by faith espoused by the Westminster Standards. It would seem that rather than trying to stay and quibble about perceived nuances, he might consider leaving and going to a denomination that would be more open to that kind of thing. If I became convinced that infant baptism, for example, was incorrect I have the duty—I gave my word to do so—to inform my fellow-Elders of my change. Moreover, I should leave the Presbyterian and Reformed churches since their positions on the doctrine are quite clear.

Foundational Doctrines
Leith includes an interesting sub-section in his chapter on the boundaries of the Christian faith entitled “Foundational Doctrines.” His words written in 1997 are still pertinent almost a decade later: “The doctrines that are at issue today and that are at great risk in our secular society are quite clearly not peripheral doctrines, but those that are essential for Christian faith.”[6] That is precisely the case. Christian doctrine is under attack today, which, in and of itself, is nothing new. It is pertinent, however, that we continue to heed Leith’s words because the modern Church is embroiled in a number of doctrinal controversies that involve the issues of the ordination of women to the office of Elder/Pastor, baptismal regeneration, the efficacy of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith both for now and for the future final judgment, the inerrancy of Scripture, and precisely how the Church should “engage” the culture without losing her principles.
Leith continues and states, “No Christian community has ever thrived for long without a clear affirmation of the doctrines that are precisely at risk in our society, in universities, and even in seminaries.”[7] And yet, amidst the cacophony in the world, there is a rising cacophony in the Church. Some pastors opening ridicule, malign, and scoff at doctrine, giving their congregations the impression that doctrine doesn’t matter at all. At the same time, there are others who define doctrine sloppily and loosely so that, in the final analysis, doctrine mattes little. As often as not, pastors, church leaders, and church members take a more or less secular view of doctrine, relativizing it, watering it down, or dumbing it down to the point that it means nothing.
Leith proceeds to mention six “essential” doctrines of the Christian faith, which, disappointingly, are far too general. They resemble the historical Five Fundamentals of the Faith, which were fine as far as they went, they simply did not go far enough. For example, the FF said nothing about justification by faith—a central biblical doctrine—and merely outlined biblical eschatology in very broad strokes. It was this imprecision that led to the aberration of the type of Dispensationalism taught at the front end of the 20th century.
He does, however, make the valid point that “No Christian church in history has endured for long without the clear affirmation of these particular doctrines.”[8] I would broaden Leith’s list substantially and use the Three Forms of Unity (Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort) and/or the Westminster Standards. This is not to say that I cannot converse with those who differ in the Church. There is, however, a great deal to be said about identifying myself as a Presbyterian Christian. By the use of that adjective I am telling you where I am coming from theologically. We don’t have to agree, but you have a good idea of what I’m about. From that statement, I can follow Leith’s advice and give you a clear affirmation of what I believe.
Surprisingly, Leith makes a very similar point from his PCUSA position. Concerning their doctrinal standards he writes, “In the doctrinal standards of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) no pluralism or diversity exists as to the faith by which the church lives and that distinguishes it from the secular culture.”[9] Really? That’s an interesting point and I’m certain that the leaders of the PCUSA would be enthralled to know this! That’s a pretty strong statement coming from a man in the PCUSA! But Leith is not finished! He continues, ‘There is a considerable amount of evidence that the decline in mainline churches is related to the silence of mainline churches, their seminaries, and their preachers precisely on these doctrines that are at risk.”[10]
Ironically, in our day and age a disproportionately high number of evangelical and Reformed/Presbyterian churches are attempting to get us to believe that doctrine doesn’t matter. Leith is convinced that it is precisely the silence of the Church on doctrine that has contributed to the problem and not the solution. It is crucial and necessary that God’s truth be proclaimed and taught in such a manner that it not merely touches the heads of God’s people, but that it must also be directed to their hearts and conduct as well. In 1 Timothy 3:14-16, Paul gives a proper biblical balance between Christian conduct and Christian confession.
It really isn’t difficult to ignore Leith’s warnings; in fact I’m convinced that many have and will continue to do so. For the longest time doctrine has fallen into disrepute with too many pastors and church leaders who have rather been enamored of the culture of self(-absorption). Or, the leaders have been so “numbers driven” that they feared giving the attendees anything remotely doctrinal for fear of losing them, when in point of fact fearing to tell them what Scripture says means that you have, de facto, already lost them.

Fear of the “H” Word
Once you start down the path of accepting everything and everyone—or virtually everything and everyone—you are bound by the going definitions of toleration. This concept tends to a laissez-faire, live-and-let-live mentality that is more typical of Rodney King than it is true, biblical thinking. A number of complex reasons come into play with the current slothfulness and sloppiness vis-à-vis evangelical doctrine. If some within the evangelical camp are moving away from the traditional doctrine of inerrancy, what’s the big deal? Why does it matter that I confess that God is sovereign and in control. Why can’t Pinnock, Olson, Grenz, and others be right about Open Theism? Does it matter whether or not grace is infused at baptism? Who really cares about the relationship between justification and sanctification? Does it matter what the Bible says about homosexuality? Why should I be concerned about what actually took place on the cross?
These are all questions that are being bandied about today. Clearly, they have been discussed before, which means that they have a history and a particularly Christian history for those interested and concerned enough to find out why those battles regarding orthodoxy were even fought. John Macquarrie wrote the following in 1966: “[T]he identification and rejection of heresies were necessary and useful during the first five centuries in the church’s experience…. There was always the danger of distortion or the merging of Christianity into the welter of pagan cults.”[11]
Okay, so the Church had those fights and determined what was orthodox and clearly distinguished it from what was heterodox. So what? Well, the “big deal” is described by Leith this way: “but the issues that justified the use of the term ‘heresy’ were settled in the first five centuries. It is significant that at the very moment Macquarrie was making these statements, the doctrines that were beginning to be questioned in the life of the church were precisely those that the Christian community had to deal with in the first five centuries. Heresies that the church emphatically rejected in the first five centuries now began to reappear in the writings of theologians.”[12]
Thomas Oden puts his finger on the pulse of our modern dilemma when he says, “After centuries of struggle against recurrent heresies, Christians have found a quick way of overcoming heresy: they have banished the concept altogether. With absolute relativism holding sway, there is not only no concept of heresy, but no way even to raise the question of where the boundaries of legitimate Christian belief lie. This is like trying to have a baseball game with no rules, no umpire, and no connection with historic baseball…”[13]
The modern Church could not have it more incorrect with their desire to level the playing field so that irrespective of what doctrines you espouse you are a Christian in good standing. There is still right and wrong in Scripture—thankfully—and we must not shy away from controversy about biblical truth. John Piper puts it this way: “There is a mistaken notion about the relationship between the health of the church and the presence of controversy. For example, some say that spiritual awakening and power and growth will not come to the church of Christ until church leaders lay aside doctrinal differences and come together in prayer…. But there is a historical and biblical error in the assumption that the church will not grow and prosper in times of controversy.”[14] In fact, Piper argues that the New Testament itself issues a “summons” to controversy (cf. Jude 3; Phil. 1:7; 2 Tim. 4:2-4; Acts 20:30; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 Cor. 11:19).[15]
Leith’s contention—no pun intended—is that even though we may be witnessing a large number of people attending churches that cater to their needs—real and perceived—the real growth is occurring in another sector of the Church. I’ll close this installment with these words from Leith: “It is significant today that so many of the churches in American Christianity that are growing and showing signs of vitality are those that proclaim, clearly and without equivocation, the traditional Christian convictions about God and about God’s work in the world.”[16]

[1] John Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 26.
[2] Ibid.
[3] John Piper, Contending for Our All, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006).
[4] Leith, CC, 26.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 29.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 30.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid. Italics mine.
[11] John Macquarrie, “Some Thoughts on Heresy,” Christianity and Crisis 26:22 (December 26, 1966): 291-294.
[12] Leith, CC, 32-33. Italics mine.
[13] Thomas Oden, “Can We Talk about Heresy?” Christian Century (April 12, 1995): 390. Emphasis mine.
[14] Piper, Contending, 22.
[15] Ibid., 34ff.
[16] Leith, CC, 37.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The “Boundaries” of the Christian Faith (II)

Where Do You Draw the Line Between Christianity and non-Christian Faith?
In our last issue we examined a provocative article by Holly Pivac in Biola Connections. Holly’s article asked the question whether doctrine—“the D word”—was rapidly becoming a dirty word in evangelical circles. I concluded that it has been a dirty word in evangelical circles for a while now. I also mentioned that as we delved into this very important subject that we had two more areas to look at before we move on: what does the Bible say about doctrine and knowledge and then to listen to the late John Leith’s voice as he describes what happened in his denomination (UPUSA) as it went liberal.
First, the Emergent Church Movement has done the modern Church a huge disservice by downplaying the need for doctrine—Brian McLaren leading the pack in A Generous Orthodoxy. One new follower of McLaren—who claims to have read his book—said that McLaren is a truly humble and gracious man. He also went on to say the following: “He is also a penetrating writer who sees things that most of us do not see. He is, in a few words, a strongly prophetic voice.” I would expect the ECM tribe to fall for such nonsensical claptrap, but not someone who thinks.
The ECM tribe will go for it because they are the kids of the parents who attended a mega-church and got nothing but fluff and entertainment. Those parents had nothing to pass along to their kids as a spiritual legacy because they themselves were clueless and rudderless—but they did feel good about themselves. Their kids got steady diets of youth pastors who did not know their backsides from page four, but who were convinced that they were cutting edge. The net result was and is spiritual bankruptcy. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that ignorance abounds among modern Christians. If you don’t think it does, get a CD of the questions that The White Horse Inn asked of Christian book publishers about simple, rudimentary aspects of the Christian faith. You’ll be shocked—I hope!
Anyway, McLaren is what I’d call “an iron fist in a velvet glove.” Unfortunately, the person who made the statements that I quoted above doesn’t have enough theological discernment to see through McLaren’s thinly veiled veneer of being humble. Allow me a couple of examples.
First, McLaren repeatedly refuses to answer simple questions about what Scripture says concerning homosexuality, hell, and Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement on the cross, although he did write the preface to Chalke’s latest book about the cross being “cosmic child abuse.” Apparently, McLaren thinks the Trinity is dysfunctional. That’s very humble. People have repeatedly called McLaren on this, but he refuses—humbly of course—to give answers to legitimate questions. For the life of me, I do not see what is either gracious or humble about categorically refusing to answer questions that people raise about your theology—unless you have something to hide.
Second, the other comment that McLaren is a penetrating writer who sees things that most of us do not see and that he is a strongly prophetic voice has to qualify as one of the dumbest things I’ve read in a while. I didn’t know whether to laugh or weep when I read that. I’ve read a great deal of McLaren’s material. He revels in the fact that he is an English major and did not attend seminary. He clearly embraces a theology that promotes the kind of thinking that comes out of postmodernism. The solid, i.e., biblical critiques of postmodern thinking are legion. Apparently the man who made these comments hasn’t either read or digested them. But it’s a free country and the author is free to be foolish and theologically inept. I’m willing to wager that within five to ten years no one will remember who Brian McLaren is, except the folks at the Birkenstock shoe store where he gets his designer shoes and the cashier at the Tofu shop who sells him his Tofu smoothies. McLaren a strong prophetic voice? You really have to be kidding. That’s funny; really funny. Sadly, the author of the laudatory comments was serious.
Last week I mentioned the following: “As I began working the summer sermon series I’m preaching on the theme of ‘Equipping the Saints,’ I was exegeting Ephesians 4:15 that contains a word that contains the double meaning of both speaking and doing the truth (álētheúontes) and it became clear to me that Paul was referring to a specific, knowable standard of truth and not some vague, general, feel-good notion of truth.” Well, this is precisely the thing that irritates even the gracious and humble Brian McLaren. He, the author of the quotes above, and the ECM tribe want us to believe that we simply cannot be certain about what Scripture teaches about keys issues. McLaren believes that the best we can do is to return to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, thereby dismissing, without a shred of research or evidence, the history of Christianity.
In reality, and you should know this, the burr that really gets under McLaren’s saddle is biblical precision. He avoids it at all costs and those who inherited the legacy of spiritual illiteracy don’t know the difference. Isn’t that handy? It does rather sound like what happened in the Reformation, but I don’t want to answer that question because it might be some form of child abuse—cosmic or otherwise.
Doesn’t Jesus have some things to say about his people knowing the truth (cf. John 8:32; 17:8) and about actually being the truth personified (cf. John 14:6)? The emphasis is clear: God’s people are to know the truth and to know the truth. These are inseparable—unless you’re Brian McLaren or one of the ECM devotees who has imbibed of the Kool-Aid. Isn’t it the case that the apostle Paul makes an impassioned plea for the Church to be thoroughly conversant with scriptural doctrine (1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1)? Even a strong prophetic voice should know that!

Leith’s Lament
All of the above and more caused the late John Leith to ask this question at the end of the 1990s: “Are there any boundaries to the Christian faith? This question is now critical for the church if it is to maintain its identity and integrity.”[1] As Leith looked around him in the UPUSA, he saw that the biblical boundaries were becoming more elastic and vague. It was rapidly becoming an “anything goes” mentality. If Leith’s question was pertinent in 1997, it is substantially more pertinent and urgent almost a decade later. The modern Church has virtually lost her identity and where, by and large, she is seeking to find it, she is looking in all the wrong places. Moreover, her integrity flew out of the window when she decided that Scripture was no longer sufficient. This decision might have been distinctly deliberate or merely the result of getting caught up in the ways of the world.
There is a lot of talk today about “spirituality.” You hear people say, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual,” which tends to mean that I still do whatever I want all the while maintaining some semblance of the sensus divinitatis. Did you ever dissect what that statement about being spiritual actually means? The bottom line is that it really doesn’t mean a thing. It doesn’t in any way change the way a person lives, thinks, acts, or speaks. They are the new “metro-spirituals.” This type of approach led Leith to write, “Persons who are moved by the Spirit can claim they are Christian even if they have no connection with the historic faith of the church.”[2] Remember: Leith at one time was critical of the historic faith of the church but came to see its indispensable nature. He went on to write, “If I feel it, experience it, it is true. This is the impact of our secular culture.”[3] That’s right and those very warnings are rampant in the modern evangelical church today.Leith takes his inquiry to another level and asks about the types of theological boundaries seminaries have that prepare men to be ministers in Christian churches. In terms of his own denomination he wants to know, “Are there boundaries for those who seek to educate ministers for Presbyterian churches?”[4] Or, “Is there really such a thing as ‘the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 3)?”[5] This is a crucial question since so much hangs in the balance. I want you to hold on to this because in our next installment Leith’s question will guide us as we move on to examine the matter of the boundaries of the Christian faith.

[1] John Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 25. Emphases mine.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., 26.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Book Review: Does Christianity Squash Women?

Rebecca Jones, Does Christianity Squash Women? A Christian Looks at Womanhood, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005). 224 pp. $12.99 (U.S.).

It is reasonable to ask why we need yet another book on women in the Church. There are numerous valid answers to such a question.
First, each generation needs to look at issues that played a key role in the Church of Jesus Christ prior to their generation. Many of the younger people were not even born when some of the debates were occurring regarding important doctrines or positions on women’s ordination and their proper roles. Therefore, there is a need to keep the older issues in front of the younger people.
Second, in the course of time new information may have come to the forefront to shed new light on an issue dealt with previously. This new information needs to be incorporated into the discussion.
Third, it just might be that a new book is written on an old subject and it takes a slightly different approach from previous books on the topic thereby shedding no new light, but certainly shedding different light on the matter.
It is particularly the first and third reasons that I believe make Rebecca Jones’ book a very worthwhile read for women in the 21st century Christian Church. That is not to say that Rebecca completely ignores the second reason, but, like the discussions on infant baptism, it is really not a question of finding new texts. In the history of the Church, the pertinent, relevant texts have been discussed—repeatedly. There have not been any new arguments for or against infant baptism for quite a while. The texts are there. We simply need to look at them and connect the dots. Something very similar is at play in the discussions surrounding the roles of women in the Church.
As I read Mrs. Jones’ book there were three particular facets that drew and held my attention:
First, her style is a very readable, fluid one. Her command and use of the English language makes this book a joy to read. Not only does she possess an excellent vocabulary, but her twists and turns of phrases are delightful. One example must suffice. She comments that Christian women need to understand that it’s godly to be sexy and men, conversely, need to understand that it’s sexy to be godly. Point made.
Second, she employs earthy, mundane examples to make her points. For example, she opens the first chapter with these words, “One day my fourteen-year-old daughter brought home a lesbian friend.” She had my attention. As a pithy summary of the conversation that took place in her home she concludes, “This confusion is no longer unique to teens of California. It’s exotic to be a lesbian, or at least a ‘bi.’” Mrs. Jones also uses everyday examples taken from her hairdresser and conversations with children about homework while she’s cooking dinner. To use a modern phrase, at the end of the book you know that Rebecca Jones is an “authentic woman.”
But what drew me to appreciate this book so much that I wanted to write a review of it was what I consider to be the rather unique approach that she uses to make her points. What is that approach? She comes at her topic from a solidly covenantal, redemptive-historical point of view.
As she weaves her way through Scripture, the reader is aware that they are being taken on a redemptive-historical journey that clearly explains the place, plight, and privilege that women have in the Bible. Chapter 5 (The Baby) walks us through discussions about Eve, Sarah, Deborah, and Abigail. In the case of Deborah—a much disputed figure in the debates about the role of women in the Church—we are told, “Deborah’s story is placed in the downward spiral of Israel’s disobedience” and “Rather than encouraging women leaders, Deborah’s story underlines the fact that women were not meant to be the leaders in Israel” (pp. 76-77). Particular attention is also paid to the content in which many of the Old Testament narratives are found. For instance, “The story of Abigail is intentionally placed in between two stunning accounts of David’s grace and restraint in sparing Saul’s life. He refuses to lay a hand on God’s anointed king” (78). With Nabal, however, it’s a different story. He’s a petty tyrant in league with Saul against David. In his anger, David is willing to “take the gloves off,” but Abigail intervenes for her foolish husband
Jones also tackles the narrative of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (Bath-shua), the bride of the Hittite soldier in David’s army and how God used these women in particular situations to bring about the inclusion of the Gentiles as well as how he continued to be faithful to his covenant promises in spite of the sinfulness of his people.
The treatment that Mrs. Jones gives of Jesus is also quite enlightening. She points out that our Lord respected women and honored them although he never suggested that they should attempt to usurp the role that God has assigned to them in the covenant of grace. There are God-ordained roles both for men and women, which must be obeyed in all places and at all times.
Moreover, Jones does not shy away from an open and frank discussion about biblical submission. She cites certain women who “rebel against their husband’s authority, refusing to accept what God has placed in their lives for protection and for holiness…” These women are obviously not in submission (p. 165). This type of action on the wife’s part makes the man “useless as a husband and father. She takes everything into her own hands and makes him look like a fool in the process” (Ibid.).
What is the proper approach? “Radical positive obedience is just the opposite of this stubborn autonomy. It is not merely a grudging passivity. A wife doesn’t just become silent and go into neutral. To obey Christ’s command to submit, a wife must work actively to know and honor the heart desires of her husband. She conforms herself to its joys, its instincts, and its passions, and she encourages the children to do the same. Submitting to her husband is far more than avoiding the temptation to belittle him. It involves lifting him up, honoring him actively in her heart and before others, and verbally encouraging him” (pp. 165-166).Some, no doubt, will take issue with Jones’ book that it does not answer all the questions concerning the role of women. In reality, it isn’t meant to. It does, however, answer many, most of them. The secret to unlocking the practical application of this book lies in Jones’ redemptive-historical reading of Scripture. For those who have never heard of covenant theology or God’s covenant of grace, this book will be a challenge. You will be required first to become grounded in how God deals with his people from Genesis to Revelation. Once you get a handle on that aspect of the “warp-and-woof” of the Bible, then Jones’ book will be one that you will return to time and time again.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Book Review: On Being Presbyterian

Sean Michael Lucas, On Being Presbyterian, Our Beliefs, Practices, and Stories, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2006). 271 pp.

Few books, written in a popular style, communicate substantive content. Those kinds of books do exist, but in the world of the modern Church they are on the endangered species list. On a recent trip back to Southern California from Atlanta one of my seat mates was reading J.I. Packer’s classic work Knowing God. That is the kind of book I’m talking about. R.C. Sproul, John Piper, and others also write substantive popular books.
Christian bookstores in the United States are becoming notoriously shortsighted when it comes to stocking books with true biblical content and substance. Many popular books today deal with pop-psychology, consumer driven congregations and ministries, and “junk Bible”—like “junk science.” For example, on a recent foray to a Christian bookstore in my neighborhood to purchase a couple of wedding Bibles, I pointed out to the manager that she was selling some books by authors who referred to the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross as “cosmic child abuse.” Her reply to me was a deadpanned, “They sell well.” I’ll bet they do. That particular store, not atypically, was filled with coffee mugs, CDs, trinkets, and other “Christian” paraphernalia, but the book section (it is called a bookstore!) left a great deal to be desired both in terms of selection as well as actual biblical content. The Left Behind series really doesn’t qualify as serious Christian reading.
Sean Lucas’ book On Being Presbyterian offers a delightful and refreshing change. This work, written in a popular style, will serve many varying functions well. Allow me to innumerate just a few.
First, Lucas’ book is an excellent tool to place in the hands of someone who has come from a broadly evangelical background to a Presbyterian congregation. The work is conveniently divided into three parts (Presbyterian Beliefs; Presbyterian Practices; and Presbyterian Stories), thirteen chapters, and an Epilogue. This three-part arrangement gives the book a high degree of flexibility regarding its use. For example, someone desiring to inquire into precisely what doctrines Presbyterians believe might want only to read the first part—initially. I’m convinced that both the style and content will create a desire to read the book from cover to cover.
Second, this book can be fruitfully placed into the hands of either high school or college-aged students. The popular style and easy readability makes this a very worthwhile read for those looking to establish or solidify a Reformed life and worldview. In fact, my home church is distributing the book to our graduates this year.
Third, Part 2 is an especially helpful section for those who have heard that Presbyterianism is bereft of true, biblical piety. Lucas both chronicles how true Presbyterianism can and should be described as “A Heart Aflame” as well as exposes the myth that Presbyterian worship services are dry, dour, and void of true, biblical spirituality.
At the very outset of Part 2 Lucas cites Hughes Oliphant Old who makes an indispensable and essential distinction: “Calvinists have usually preferred the term piety to the term spirituality” (99). The reason for this distinctive choice is not because Presbyterians are apt to split hairs four ways, but rather to draw out clearly the true meaning of the Latin word pietas (literally meaning “dutifulness” or “fidelity). According to Calvin, this word often communicates “reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces (cf. Inst.1.2.1). This, of course, is a far cry from a worship service that is consumer-driven and merely aims at making the consumer feeling good about him- or herself. Lucas points believers in the right direction both for the recovery of the Word of God as well as a fresh and much-needed vision of God as holy in the modern Church. The piety/spirituality is a necessary correction. In addition, Lucas does an admirable job of explaining why orthodoxy (healthy doctrine) and orthopraxy (healthy practice) must be taken together. Put succinctly, “The rule of doctrine can and should be the rule of faith, practice, and prayer” (101).
Lucas rightly concludes that the root of Reformed piety is situated in the union of the believer with Christ. To say that the doctrine of that union is widely neglected and/or much misunderstood is, itself, an understatement. While a representively large number of Emergent Church gurus are rushing headlong into Mysticism and theosis (a doctrine in Eastern Orthodoxy that teaches that by participating in the Trinitarian communion by union with Christ, believers are “divinized.”) Mysticism is a far cry from the biblical doctrine of the mystical union (unio mystica) of the believer with Christ, the two are, at time and mistakenly, deemed to be interchangeable, synonymous.
Within Holy Spirit description of true piety, Lucas draws the reader’s attention to the “means of grace” that God has provided for his people. What are they? The means of grace are Scripture, prayer, and sacraments. Interestingly, under “prayer” Lucas understands the singing of hymns and psalms. He reminds us that “singing psalms and hymns has typically been seen as a way of praying…” (128). It would seem, therefore, if Lucas is correct that we need to be singing the “Amen” at the end of each psalm or hymn.
In terms of worship, Lucas directs our attention to the fact Presbyterians have held to “the regulative principle of worship” which is rooted in the second commandment and described in the Westminster Confession of Faith (21) (118). Explicit in “gospel-driven Presbyterian worship” is the understanding of the second commandment that requires worship to be both regulated and limited by God and his Word (119). Seen in this light, Presbyterian worship would, indeed, be quite different from what passes today for worship.
The goal of Presbyterian and Reformed piety is grateful growth in grace. Lucas reminds us that the goal of true piety is not moment-by-moment sinlessness, “but rather long-term growth in grace” (110).
His section in Part 2 on church government presented the material in a very practical format, explaining that our God expects his Church to run and be run decently and in good order. Many today view the subject of church government as dry as dusk and would rather spend their time more productively watching paint dry. That is, in the final analysis, too bad because it is essential that Presbyterians follow a Presbyterian form of church government. There is a “connectional” nature to Presbyterianism that needs to be accepted if one is truly a Presbyterian. He spends adequate amounts of time explaining the highly practical aspects of a congregation, Presbytery, and General Assembly operating decently and in good order.
Fourth, Lucas does a masterful job of walking the reader through the sometimes complex labyrinth of the history of Presbyterianism in the United States in general as well as the history of the PCA in particular. Many are often baffled by the intricacies of split-upon-split in the Presbyterian churches and how the various Presbyterian denominations came into existence. Patiently and carefully Lucas walks the reader through the intricate history of Presbyterianism in our land. As I have studied the matter in the past I found many accounts to be tedious, laborious, and not easy to follow. In this regard, Lucas’ book is a welcome improvement, especially to someone who is not thoroughly acquainted with the history. His rendition is both readable and highlights all the most important aspects.
The overall set up of the book is helpful in that each chapter fits and dovetails into the respective section as well as into the entire fabric of the work. For the reader’s convenience, Lucas includes “Questions for Thought and Review” and “For Further Reading” at the conclusion of each chapter.
Dr. Ligon Duncan summarized the book aptly with this comment on the dust cover: “At last a brief, popular introduction to Presbyterianism that I can put in the hands of Bible-believing, gospel-loving Presbyterians and other evangelicals interested in this part of the Christian family. Readable, sympathetic, and circumspect.”

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Book Review: Singing and Making Music

Paul S. Jones, Singing and Making Music. Issues in Church Music Today, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2006). 315 pp.

Paul Jones has performed an indispensable service for the church in the writing of his book Singing and Making Music. The chapters range from the highly practical to the more technical, but without losing the reader in the process.
Dr. Jones’ musical credentials eminently qualify him to speak and write on the topic of his book. He is the organist and music director at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, where he has served since 1997. He holds an undergraduate degree in performance, composition, and Bible from Philadelphia Biblical University, a master’s degree in piano performance, and a Doctor of Music degree in choral conducting from Indiana University.
The book is divided into four Parts (“Corporate Worship,” “Hymnody and Psalmody,” “Issues,” and “Composers and Composition”) containing thirty-one thought-provoking essays, a conclusion, and two appendices. The most striking aspect of the book as I read it was the irenic manner in which Jones conveyed truth to the reader. In a day and age when conflicts surrounding worship style abound, Jones presents us with a calm, steady voice that puts matters in clear perspective.
He also expresses a truly refreshing vision for home, church, and seminary with regard to music. Much of what passes for worship music today is little more than what I call Dr. Pepper music: 10-2-4. Two chords with four “bridges” sung ten times. In a very balanced manner Jones lays out the evidence and reason for the modern Church to return to biblical truth found in the traditional hymns and Psalms. This does not mean, however, that he is opposed to all contemporary music. Quite the opposite is the case, but he does call upon us to be more circumspect in judging the suitability of contemporary hymnody.
As one who would have been excluded by Martin Luther from the pastoral ministry (“Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther wrote, ‘We shouldn’t ordain young men to the ministry unless they are well schooled in music’” (p. xii).) I was eager to learn from Dr. Jones’ book and learn I did! Practical matters such as why it is both necessary and helpful for Christian families to have hymnbooks in their homes are discussed in a manner that makes you want to go out and purchase hymnbooks for your family if you don’t already have them. He stresses the importance of singing in Christian schools at all levels as preparation for the next generation to lead in the church.
Jones sets forth his thesis in these words: “Worship is more than an act in which we participate on Sundays; it is our very purpose for being…. Intentional worship should be a daily activity for the Christian, and a spirit of worship should encompass all we do.” This leads into his first chapter entitled, “Sermon in Song: Sacred Music as Proclamation.” Of particular note is Jones’ section entitled “Proclamatory Hymns.” Borrowing from Luther, he reminds us that much of the Christian life involves “saying” and “singing.” As Luther wrote in his commentary on Psalm 118, “They [the righteous] praise only God’s grace, works, words, and power as they are revealed to them in Christ. This is their sermon and song, their hymn of praise.” (Emphasis mine.) Jones has captured an essential part of congregational life in this quotation that has been smoldered under weight of lousy contemporary music. Therefore, he makes a solid case for the incorporation of substantial music in our worship services as we strive to glorify God and not please men or be man-centered in our worship music.
There is also an impassioned plea for Trinitarian hymnody that enhances all of worship. Jones writes, “Since we can rightly consider the hymnal to be a collection of prayers and praise, it would be fitting for every Christian to own and utilize one or several…. Consider including the hymnal as an aid in your devotional life.” In terms of corporate worship, “The texts should be biblically sound and meaningful. The music that accompanies a text should be excellent and should facilitate its comprehension.” It is precisely this type of non-argumentative, clear writing that makes this book so helpful. Jones sets forth his case in an understandable manner. At the end of the day, however, you know exactly where he stands on matters concerning music. In addition, I found myself as a non-technical musician being able to follow his lines of thought easily.
One of the lost aspects of congregational teaching is with the young children. There is a variety of music that is suitable for children and both the church leadership as well as the parents should be concerned to teach the youth not only catechism but also music that is biblically correct. Here Jones touches on a much-neglected aspect of church life with the covenant children that the Lord has entrusted into our care.
The book is, simultaneously, a delightful combination of serious exposition and lighthearted humor. Chapter 5, for example, is entitled, “King David’s Praise Team.” What Jones accomplishes in this chapter, however, is a thoughtful explanation of the important place of music in the life of the Old Testament Church.
The dual issues of Calvin’s view of instrumentation in the worship service as well as exclusive psalmody are also discussed. Clearly, Jones rejects Calvin’s notion of no instrumentation in worship. He has a grasp of Calvin’s reasons and is aware that for some, hymnody has no place in worship. Nevertheless, Jones contends that “Calvin’s strictures were established for his own assembly, not for all churches.” He also points out that one of Calvin’s chief models for worship was Martin Bucer in Strasbourg. That being the case, it is noteworthy that “Bucer was a champion of hymnody who even prepared a hymnal himself (the Gesangbuch of 1541).
At the same time, Jones does not discount the invaluable, rightful place of the singing of the Psalms in the worship service. Even though current patterns of worship in modern evangelicalism point in a different direction, Jones believes that the singing of the Psalms is still an integral part of the Christian faith. Moreover, he adds that the singing of the Psalms really is not an optional part of worship, but rather central to it. This is a much-needed correction for the modern Church. It cuts against the grain of a great deal of what modern Christians think, being addicted to poor contemporary tunes, but evangelicals need to hear this and to wrestle with what Jones is saying.
Jones does not hesitate to tackle controversial, “holy house” issues such as, applause in the worship service (he’s opposed), why every Christian should sing, should church musicians be paid, music in the small church, misconceptions about church music, what happened to hymns, and the criteria for good church music, just to mention a few. There is also, understandably, a chapter devoted to the hymnody of Jones’ pastor and friend, Dr. James Montgomery Boice.
His chapter, “Luther and Bar Song: The Truth, Please!” exposed many misconceptions that are repeated in the modern Church regarding the etiology of Luther’s hymnody. I’ll elaborate for a moment. Apocryphal stories abound that somehow get impressed into service as truth. The various accounts of how Luther wrote his tunes for the German populace is one such account. Jones writes, “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.” From that thesis, Jones proceeds not only to debunk the myths surrounding, but also to make a contemporary application of how that myth has affected contemporary music. As far as debunking the myth is concerned, we are informed that in point of fact “Luther composed both the text for A Might Fortress based on Psalm 46 and the original tune for this chorale in 1529. Granted that some of his pieces were derived from Gregorian chant or other preexisting compositions, only one was even based on a secular tune: an extant folk song for his Christmas hymn Vom Himmel Hoch. This leads Jones to direct our attention to the fact that “Many ‘folk’ melodies of Luther’s time originated in music in the Church, not the other way around.”
He also criticizes much of the thinking surrounding modern Church music that goes something 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.
One weakness—if it could be called that—that I encountered in the book was Jones’ dependence on the research of Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura’s The Music of the Bible Revealed. While Jones admits on more than one occasion that her work is subject to being somewhat speculative in nature, he draws on it to make some essential points, especially about the controversial “ascriptions” and to the diacritical marks above the Hebrew text itself. Haïk-Vantoura has suggested that the Tiberian Masoretic Accents (the te’amim) “are an intricate system of notation indicating how the entire Old Testament was to be chanted.” Jones believes that “The Bible itself may allude to chironomy when it refers to the antiphonal Levitical choirs’ having been directed by a practice called ‘of David’ or what is translated in the English Standard Version as ‘according to the order of David’ (2 Chronicles 23:18) or ‘according to the directions of David’ (Ezra 3:10). In Hebrew the biblical text reads ‘al yede David,’ which also might be rendered ‘according to the chironomy of David.’” The jury is still out on this, but his articles are certainly provocative in this regard.
On balance this was one of the most informative and helpful books on church music that I have ever read. From page to page I found myself wishing that such a book had been available to me when I attended seminary. Thankfully, it is now available for seminary students and the major seminaries in the United States and abroad would do very well to incorporate many of Jones’ recommendations. As a pastor/teacher I will be going back to this book repeatedly for a number of congregational related matters. My Elders on our Worship/Music, Children’s and Adult Education committees and I will implement a large number of the outstanding suggestions in this book in our local covenant community.My recommendation is that you get a copy of this book as quickly as you can, read it, devour it, and observe the tremendous benefit this book can be for your local congregation. To those who have bought into the contemporary church music scene I would invite you to take the time to read this book and listen to the arguments in favor of a return to hymnody and psalmody before you dismiss them out of hand. To my mind, the books offers a realistic remedy to the so-called “worship wars” if a person is willing to listen. This is a book that has one clear goal throughout: the glory of God. It is definitely worth your while to make this book a part of your library.

Book Review: Above All Earthly Pow'rs

David F. Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs. Christ in a Postmodern World, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005). 339 pp.

David Wells’ latest book, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, is one that I found next to impossible to put down once I started reading it. This work truly is the culmination of his theological thought. Wells has published a book that describes the essence of postmodern thought as well as a remedy that enables the Church to return to her historical underpinnings. While I found all three of those works filled with helpful insights and profound analyses, his latest work stands head and shoulders above the others, although it evidently builds on them.
In eight chapters Wells covers a wide range of components and philosophies of modern and postmodern societies. He introduces chapter 1 (Miracles of Modern Splendor) with a captivating line: “We think little about the world. We think about the things that it imposes upon us. We must think about the workplace, about appointments we have made, people we will meet, and jobs that must get done” (p. 13). His opening sentence typifies modern man as well as the 21st century church. For far too many, life is lived almost totally unreflectively. The cheap, tawdry, and superficial gets our attention, but that which requires effort and reflection is easily jettisoned.
Wells tackles the nature of culture and demands that we reflect with him on what it entails and how it affects our lives. As his approach unfolds he leads us into one of the “watershed” times in the history of the world: the Enlightenment. He juxtaposes Enlightenment thought with the “premodern” era as well as what is called Modernism, while at the same time, clearly demonstrating the links between the two eras.
One of the key tenets of Enlightenment thinking has to do with discarding the “God hypothesis.” Man, using his enlightened reason, will bring about a bright future. Wells points out that “The experience of our modernized world leads us to think of it not only as the absence of God, but as it turns out, the absence of human nature. This is no coincidence. The death of God is always followed by the death of the human being” (p. 48).
Citing C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, Wells demonstrates how the evisceration of human nature resulted in the world being “emptied of the possibility of real, objective goodness and real, objective evil” (Ibid.).
It was precisely in the “modern period” that three major paradigm shifts occurred. First, there was “the replacement of Virtue by values” (p. 49). Second, there was a shift from “a focus on character to one on personality” (p. 50). In general, this shift was a movement away from the older moral concern with personal restraint and sacrifice and towards self-absorption in the forms of self-realization and self-expression. Finally, these two shifts paved the way for the third major change: “that of speaking of the self in place of human nature” (Ibid.). All of this was merely the culmination of Enlightenment thought. Previously, what people believed only God could do, “the Enlightenment now placed within human reach” (p. 53)—at least theoretically. Man’s “belief in human omnicompetence” was supplanted by Postmodernism
I have read quite extensively on Postmodernism, but have found Wells’ analysis to be the most helpful by far. He entitles the second chapter “Postmodern Rebellion,” which is apt in a number of ways. Pointing to the secular roots of postmodernism, Wells delineates several cultural contributors including pragmatism, existentialism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, language theory, and theories about science (p. 61).
Yet even though postmodernists desire to sever the ties with the modern past, Wells questions whether they actually accomplish their desires. In fact, he argues that “modernity and postmodernity are actually reflecting different aspects of our modernized culture. They are more siblings in the same family than rival gangs in the same neighborhood” (p. 62). He also makes the valid observation that for the longest time Christianity and Christian scholars were critical of the tenets championed by the Enlightenment. It is not as if there is an equivalent correspondence between Christian living after the Enlightenment and the Enlightenment itself.
What intrigues Wells is how the influence of postmodern intellectuals like Foucault and Derrida filters down to MTV or how the pragmatism of American philosopher Richard Rorty surfaces in our movies. This is what Wells sets out to explain in his cultural analysis.
One of the foundational pillars of postmodern thought is the notion that there are no longer any “meta-narratives.” What is that? A meta-narrative is what gives meaning to life and makes life cohere rather than be fragmented and disjunctive. It is similar to an overarching “presupposition.” Postmodernism rejects any and all meta-narratives (except the meta-narrative that there are no meta-narratives—RG), which lands them directly in nihilism, autonomy, and pragmatism/existentialism.
This, in turn, wreaks havoc on one’s worldview, since postmodernism rejects absolute truth and purpose. Postmodernism is the death knell to all worldviews, except that postmoderns realize that no one can live consistently within such a framework, so their “surrogate” for the modern life and worldview is a privatized version where they “set themselves up autonomously as the acknowledged legislators of the world” so that they can conceptualize reality and shape the nature of life as they please (p. 74).
It is instructive to note that the language and principles of the postmodern philosophers are, more and more, evident in mega-church leaders and their congregations as well as in what is known as the Emergent Church Movement. This consists, among other things, of attempting to join what is really not “join-able.” For example, many Emergent leaders wish either to deny, discount, or downplay the history of the Church. Wells devotes an informative section in chapter 4 (Christ in a Spiritual World) on the spirituality of Postmodernity (The Empty Landscape, My Own Little Voice, and It’s About Me).
He proceeds to discuss Christ in a meaningless world (chapter 5) as well as Christ in a decentered world (chapter 6). In the latter chapter Wells supplies a trenchant analysis of Open Theology. In the seventh chapter (Megachurches, Paradigm Shifts, and the New Spiritual Quest), Wells examines the “new way of doing church” in postmodernism and offers an excellent critique of serious misgivings and shortfalls of modern evangelicalism as it has been influence by postmodernism. As a historian, Wells calls us to reflect upon the demise of the churches in Europe and to ask ourselves if modern evangelicalism might not be heading down the same path as its European counterparts.
Wells is convinced that our almost-obsession with reinventing and reengineering the Church (often called “doing church”) in order to reach the postmodern is clearly not the way to go (p. 265). Why? To his mind, the common element in modern evangelical “seeker-sensitive, user-friendly” churches is that “success requires little or no theology” (Ibid.). This approach is tantamount to marketing the Christian faith and turning the local congregation into a business more than a church. Of note is that “Seeker methodology rests upon the Pelagian view that human beings are not inherently sinful, despite credal affirmations to the contrary…” (p. 299).
What is the remedy? What are churches existing in the 21st century to do? Wells concludes this about the place of God’s truth in our modern society, “The fact is that as dazzling as the modern world has become, it has never outgrown its need for this kind of truth, never invalidates it, and therefore the liberal (and now seeker-sensitive) fear of becoming outdated is as groundless as the small child’s nervousness about a monster in the closet” (pp. 300-301).It is time for the various churches of Jesus Christ to engage in some serious “values clarification.” “If they cannot clarify for themselves who is sovereign—God or the religious consumer?—what is authoritative in practice—Scripture or culture?—and what is important—faithfulness or success?—they will find themselves walking the same road and facing the same fate as the churches that failed before because whatever seriousness now remains will dissolve into triviality” (p. 301). We’ve been warned and warned well.

The “Boundaries” of the Christian Faith (I)

What is the Christian Faith?
I love being a pastor because there is never a dull moment. There are also times when it seems that a number of seemingly unrelated events come together and provide you with a lot of “food for thought.” This week was one of those weeks. Last night (7.9) Sally and I were attending our small group facilitated by one of my fellow-Elders, Rob Olson, and he handed me a copy of the Biola Connection (Summer 2006) containing an article by Holly Pivec entitled, “The ‘D’ Word. Has doctrine become the new dirty word?”
As I began working the summer sermon series I’m preaching on the theme of “Equipping the Saints,” I was exegeting Ephesians 4:15 that contains a word that contains the double meaning of both speaking and doing the truth (álētheúontes) and it became clear to me that Paul was referring to a specific, knowable standard of truth and not some vague, general, feel-good notion of truth. (I’ll have to come back to this point in a subsequent issue.)
Finally, we’ve been discussing John Leith’s book Crisis in the Church in previous installments and his second chapter deals with the notion of “boundaries” in the Christian faith, which nicely fits into our topic. All of this is highly pertinent because so many in the mega-church and Emergent Church models are questioning some of the core doctrines of the Christian faith. For example, some in the ECM are calling our Lord’s penal substitutionary atonement on the cross “cosmic child abuse.” Other key doctrines of the faith are also under attack, leaving us to ponder what exactly are the “boundaries” of the Christian faith?
That is to say, without trying to be minimalists in terms of our biblical doctrine, where is it that do you cross the line out of Christianity and into heterodoxy when you espouse or openly teach certain doctrines? Some today are loathe to even ask such a question. The term “evangelical” or “evangelicalism” has become so elastic that it can mean almost anything, which really means that it means almost nothing. Are those, for example, who hold to Open Theism still evangelicals or have they crossed the line? Which views of the atonement should be considered aberrant, heretical? Are there statements regarding the Trinity that would place you outside the pale of Christianity? Moreover, as I’ve discussed before, some “cutting edge” evangelicals enjoy “cussing” pastors and even consider the possibility of “Christian porn.”
All of this, plus much, much more is why I no longer want to be called an evangelical. If the writings included in Christianity Today are in any way indicative of where evangelicalism is heading, I want to get off the train right now. I will settle for being called a Christian, a Presbyterian Christian, or a Reformed Christian, but not an evangelical. At any rate, I intend to divide this issue into a few parts, dealing with the three areas mentioned above. We’ll begin by asking if, in our modern Christian circles, doctrine has become a dirty word.

Is Doctrine a Dirty Word?
The short answer to the question posed in this heading is: in some, an alarming high percentage of evangelical circles, yes it is a dirty word. In this section I want to focus on the contents of Holly Pivec’s article in Biola Connections.[1] She begins by pointing out that Brian McLaren (A Generous Orthodoxy) has made a piercing assessment of evangelicals. He believes that “they have focused on having all the right doctrinal beliefs, but they lead lives that, often don’t match those beliefs” (p. 12).[2]
We have all heard stories or know people who have the essentials of the Christian faith stuffed into their heads, but show no practical fruit of their faith from their hearts. By the same token, there are some who profess to be Christians, attend a local church regularly, but who are not actually Christians. These people skew the statistics horribly because if they are polled, they claim to be Christians, but the fearful prospect exists that they are not truly God’s children.
I say this because Pivec cites George Barna’s book Think Like Jesus where the author says “that many people who claim to be Christians lead lives that are indistinguishable from non-Christians (Ibid. Italics mine.). Simply claiming to be a Christian does not make a person a true believer, however. There is to be a Christian lifestyle, a Christian worldview, and a Christian walk that is commensurate with the outward profession.
McLaren’s criticisms of Christians run deeper, however, than a mere disconnect between doctrine and life. He contends that doctrinally sound Christians tend to be arrogant, judgmental, and unloving toward non-Christians and even other Christians who have differing doctrinal views (Ibid.). I thought McLaren’s choice of words to describe these people odd because arrogant, judgmental, and unloving would be the precise words that I would choose to describe McLaren and his books.
Is it not somewhat arrogant that Mr. McLaren would contend that Christendom had missed the essence of the gospel after Nicea to the present, but that he had burst onto the scene to correct us all? Is it not somewhat judgmental of God’s revelation in Scripture that along with other Emergent Church leaders McLaren would call the substitutionary death of our Lord on the cross “cosmic child abuse”? How unloving can it be to refuse to answer questions about the homosexual lifestyle and the reality of hell because you ostensibly do not want to hurt their feelings—the scriptures being clear about both—and leave people to believe that they are just fine and that God loves them anyway?
Now here comes a kicker: McLaren is convinced that rather than focusing on abstract doctrinal knowledge—notice the tendentious word “abstract”—Christians should lead more authentic, Christlike lives that are characterized by humility and genuine concern for people (p. 13). This sounds fine, nice, gentle, and kind, but there’s a problem: By what standard do we define words like “authentic,” “Christlike,” “humility” and “genuine concern?” If McLaren is so uncertain about abstract biblical truth about hell, how can he instruct us about these words that he’s thrown into the mix?
But McLaren is not the only voice being raised against doctrine. It’s a well known fact that a number of pastors rather continually ridicule doctrine from the pulpit. A couple of the most popular modern mantras are: “Christianity isn’t about head knowledge but heart knowledge” and Christianity is “not a religion but a relationship” (Ibid.) Major Christian thinkers/theologians disagree with those mantras. People of the caliber of Heinrich Bullinger, John Calvin, the Reformers generally, Jonathan Edwards, the Puritans generally, Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, A.A. Hoekema, John Murray, G.C. Berkouwer and a host of others clearly taught that Christianity is about both the head and the heart. Two examples will suffice here.
In the Heidelberg Catechism, (Lord’s Day 7, Q/A 21) we read: Q. What is true faith? A. True faith is a sure knowledge (gewisse erkandtnuß) whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed in his Word. At the same time, it is a firm confidence (hertzliches vertrauen) that not only to others, but also to me, God has granted forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation, out of mere grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.”[3] The Reformer, John Calvin, gives us the following definition of true faith in his Institutes (3.2.7): “Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and seal upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Italics mine).
To assert that Christianity is not a religion but a relationship is simply sloppy language and even sloppier theology. Does the Christian faith involve a relationship between the Creator and his creatures? Yes, of course. Does it involve a deep, personal relationship and union between the Redeemer and his people? Yes it does. But to say that Christianity is merely a relationship misses the essential of true faith by quite a wide margin.
Pivec cites Barna again who believes that so many believers don’t live like Christians should “because they don’t think like Jesus—they don’t have a biblical worldview. Still, many Christians don’t see the connection between doctrine and life, so important doctrines are being discarded” (p. 13). Let’s dissect that for a moment.
First, Christians should think God’s thoughts after him, which is another way of saying “think like Jesus.” A large part of our problem in the modern Church is that some much time and energy has been spent on entertainment that precious little time has been left over for solid, expository preaching. The net result is a bevy of spiritual malnutrients returning week after week for spiritual cotton candy and calling it “worship.” For someone, anyone to make such an unguarded statement is rather typical of modern evangelicalism. Thinking God’s/Jesus’ thoughts after him is not rocket science, but it is more important than rocket science. How do I think God’s thoughts after him? By going to Scripture and reading, studying, meditating upon, and praying over God’s revealed will.
Second, a biblical worldview flows forth out of thinking God’s thoughts after him. Barna is correct that far too many Christians do not have a biblical worldview because far too many Christians don’t know the most elemental things about the Bible. A biblical worldview does not simply fall from the sky into our laps nor is it the result of singing one-hundred-and-twenty verses of “Our God is an Awesome God” or “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” A biblical worldview is the result of what the psalmist writes about in the 119th psalm.
A large number of TV and radio evangelists also contribute to the problem ranging from Harold Kamping’s nonsense about Christians leaving the Church to T.D. Jakes’ aberrant theology of the Trinity. When asked to explain his position, Jakes replied in a 2000 interview in Religion Today, “I am too busy trying to preach the Gospel to split hairs. People in my generation are lost, hungry, in prison, wounded, and alone… Many of our generation are dying without knowing God—not dying for the lack of theology, but for lack of love.” Wow! It’s comforting to know that until the front end of the 21st century there were no lost, hungry, imprisoned, wounded, and alone people in the world. Jakes, who is an awful theologian, acts as if the gospel has no specific content and/or that pastor/teachers do not need to be careful about their doctrine. Even a cursory reading of the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy; Titus) will revealed that the scriptures have quite a bit to say about preaching sound doctrine (cf. 1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1-2).
I don’t know about you, but I’m really getting sick and tired of two things: First, of people telling me that I just don’t understand them and second, of people claiming that the “gospel” is more important than right doctrine. The gospel is right doctrine, but Jakes is not atypical in modern evangelical circles. Pivec also cites Peter Wagner (former evangelical seminary professor and author of Changing Church) as arguing that “the wording of the doctrine of the Trinity—which states that the Godhead is made up of three Persons—needlessly excludes Oneness Pentecostals (who deny the Trinity) and prevents many Muslims and Jews from converting to Christianity (p. 14). Don’t you just wish that you or your son had studied theology with him?
How did we get to the point where churches will dismiss early so that the attendees can catch the Super Bowl or cancel the service on Sunday altogether because Christmas Day falls on a Sunday? There are many theological culprits but few as prominent as Frederick Schleiermacher (1768-1834). In an attempt to make Christianity palatable to its “cultured despisers” Schleiermacher described the essence of religion as a feeling of absolute dependence upon God. That is to say, with the rise of Romanticism, Schleiermacher did not take his starting point from Scripture or the confessions of the Church, but rather from the Christian consciousness. That being the case—which it is—there was no reliable way to verify what the feeling of absolute dependence might be or who the God was upon whom the person felt this absolute dependence.[4]
What the modern Church has taken from Schleiermacher is a clear priority of feeling over doctrine. One of the many reasons why doctrine is being disparaged is because church leaders are elevating our emotional experiences over the truth of sound doctrine. This shift can also be evidenced in much of modern contemporary Christian music. By neglecting traditional hymns modern music has robbed itself of substantiation content—with notable exception. The article quotes Professor Ben Shin who says, “Rather that giving us an idea of who Christ is or what He’s done for us, like the hymns of old, many contemporary songs repeat lines that are just silly. You wonder, ‘What is the purpose of this?’” (p. 16). You certainly do.
The net result of the decline of doctrine—and make no mistake both professors and pastors carry the lion’s share of the blame for this—almost 40% of conservative Protestant youth believe that it’s perfectly legitimate to pick and choose what you like and don’t like in Scripture; what you’ll do and what you won’t do.
The article states that “Part of the problem people have with doctrine is they think it’s dull and boring” (Ibid.). So what is the remedy according to both the mega-church and Emergent Church movements? Keep them entertained. The mega-church movement still has not learned that the church leaders will answer to God for how they equipped God’s people for service in the Kingdom of Christ. Instead, the entertainment factor continues to increase exponentially. The ECM crowd has merely substituted one form of entertainment for another. The new thing is prayer labyrinths, contemplative prayer, and centering prayer, along with a host of other medieval exercises as well as Mysticism.
I’ll close with a comment, observation by Dr. Alan Gomes of Biola: “Some people will say, ‘I don’t want a church that has all this doctrine; I just want a church that’s alive.’ Well, that makes no sense at all. The life you have should flow from what you believe” (p. 17).
In our next issue, we’ll take a look at what Ephesians 4:15-16 has to say about God’s truth and begin listening to John Leith’s account of what happened in his denomination when doctrine was divorced from the Christian faith.

[1] Thanks to Rob Olson for putting this article in my hands.
[2] A number of my writings deal with A Generous Orthodoxy can be located on my blog site:
[3] E.F.K. Müller, Die Bekenntnisschriften der reformierten Kirche, (Leipzig: Georg Böhme, 1903), p. 687. Italics mine—RG.
[4] For an excellent discussion of Schleiermacher’s theology, see Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), pp. 66ff.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

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

A Sense of Loss (III)
The late John Leith has written a book that should be placed in the hands of every seminary president, professor; every pastor; and every man and women in the proverbial pew. We’ve been discussing his work Crisis in the Church in five of our previous installments.[1] In this one we want to go a step farther and listen to Leith as he directs our attention to what he calls the “Loss of the Ability of Seminaries to Educate Graduates Who are Effective Pastors.”[2] To some, this might not appear to be a crisis at all since we have become quite accustomed to a sharp division between what takes place in academia and in the pulpit.
Carl Trueman provides an interesting and revealing scenario in his article, “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” (As usual, it sounds like Trueman is writing another edifying article! Actually, despite the reality that Trueman should probably be in psychotherapy, he does make some excellent points.) He asks us to take a close look at our own aspirations and then comments that in many chats with theological students (and Trueman teaches at a conservative seminary) where he asks them what they intend to do once they complete their seminary degree, he writes this: “Many say they think they will enjoy teaching RE (Religious Education—RG), some say that they are looking forward to doing research. Very few say, in the first instance, they want to serve the church.”[3]
That last sentence is worthy of a lot of reflection. Isn’t it more than just a little ironic that modern seminary students have such an attitude? What has occurred at both the seminary and congregational levels that has created such an attitude among some young men? I suppose that in one sense the culture could be blamed for this type of attitude, but are our seminaries and local churches so ineffective that they cannot combat such an unbiblical, pernicious attitude among its ministerial candidates? If service to the church is not a top priority what is?
Trueman muses: “…is it not significant that their first reaction is not to express themselves in terms of service but in terms of personal satisfaction?”[4] Yes it is. Where does this begin? In the home? Probably. Where is this attitude perpetuated? In the local church? In many cases, yes. Do a large number of seminaries or church planting organizations aid or correct this attitude? Arguably, they aid it. Trueman is convinced that “It is faithfulness, not happiness or worldly reputation, which is the criterion of Christian success.”[5] For a man who needs therapy he is right on the money. And yet that is precisely what seems to be lacking—severely—in the prevalent attitudes at some of our prestigious seminaries and churches.
What is needed, in my estimation, are successful pastors, but then I define “successful” as those who week-in and week-out faithfully exposit Scripture, teach classes and feed their flocks by building them up in the true faith, visit the “chronics” and the “acutes” in the hospital, visit the elderly and shut-ins, and administer the meetings in their local congregation. Doesn’t that sound exciting and appealing? Actually, it does to someone who actually is convinced that God has called him into the pastoral ministry. The Greek word that we translate “pastor” (poiménas) refers to a shepherd.
The shepherd shepherds his flock, keeps the sheep in order, directs them where to go and where to feed, brings them back to the fold, looks after their safety and guards them against enemies that want to attack them. In short, a pastor has little to do with being a professional, a CEO, a charismatic speaker or personality. A pastor is a man who is given charge of souls (Heb. 13:17). He is the God-ordained guardian, custodian, protector, organizers, director, and ruler of the flock of God along with his fellow-Elders.
This could very well mean that the Lord God Almighty will place such a shepherd in a remote area of the country to pastor the body of Christ there. And it might furthermore mean that God will leave that pastor there for “the duration.” That’s right. The pastor may think of the call as a “temporary” thing or a “springboard” to a lucrative salary at a church where his gifts and talents will lend themselves to a meteoric rise to being a “Christian celebrity,” but God might have some very different plans and some very different spiritual lessons for that pastor to learn.
Allow me a couple of examples that I believe the “near-psychopath” Trueman is talking about. A couple of vivid examples stand out in my mind. About eight years ago a man and his wife approached my congregation asking if they could come, teach a Sunday School class, and discuss with our Session the possibility of financial support for mission work. We said yes. They came and in the course of the Sunday School class the man kept reiterating that what their “mission work” would consist of—primarily—was “ministering” to the affluent in Acapulco. To that end, they had both been taking serious tennis lessons in order to witness on the courts and in the villas. Before they could embark on this self-sacrificing work they needed to raise somewhere in the neighborhood of $350,000 (which is more than I make a month!) to carry them through three years of ministry. (For those who have attended public schools, that is more than $100K per year.)
My own denomination sponsors “select” church planters who pass our “assessment center” and the scenario is much like the one above in terms of dollar amounts. The situation is further negatively complicated by the fact that these young pastors have no Elder to help them make the wide variety of decisions that church planting and church leadership demand. They are “the show.” Don’t get me wrong: I am not opposed to church planting (my home church is helping plant three churches currently) nor am I opposed to planting churches in large, metropolitan cities like Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, San Fran, LA, Hollywood, or New York. There is a need to witness in those cities too, but not at the expense of rural out-of-the-way settings. The point here is that before our candidates for the pastoral ministry arrive at seminary they must be fully catechized, thoroughly familiar with English Bible content, and committed to serve Christ’s Church whether he calls them to some trendy, opulent area in Southern California or some “vanilla” place in Southern Iowa.

Stating the Obvious
It has been a while since a seminary professor—any seminary professor—has penned the words that both Leith and Trueman affirm. Apparently, no one was willing to admit that the emperor was wearing no clothes. In Leith’s denomination—the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.—things had been going south for a long time. He reminds us that church membership was on the decline, leaving the seminaries to face the question of whether or not they were “educating people with the ability to go out and build churches.”[6] The seminaries were not all that anxious to answer that question primarily because of self-serving reasons, but the clear and unavoidable answer was a resounding, deafening No! Many of the Presbyterian seminaries with which Leith was acquainted consisted of “faculties made up almost exclusively of persons who have no distinguished record as pastors.”[7] Do you notice a pattern developing here?
As if that statement, admission were not abrasive enough, Leith proceeds to touch on one of the “sacred cows” of modern evangelicalism: women in ministry. Ironically, some in the Presbyterian Church in America (as far as I can tell this is still a minority), my church affiliation, are also dabbling into the arena of “women’s ministry.” This is a classic case of history teaching us nothing. It is akin to the far Left in this country wanting to foist universal healthcare on us. Sure, it has been a dismal failure in all of the other countries throughout the world where it was implemented, but for us it will be different—at any rate, that is the argument. We’ll somehow do it better. With the necessary changes being made (I think our forebears used the Latin phrase mutatis mutandis. You can bet your modus agenda and modus loquendi on that.), we’re seeing something quite similar in the PCA today. In fact, at our recent General Assembly, one of our churches withdrew over the matter of ordaining women to the office of Elder. One can only wonder when and if others will follow suit.
But back to Leith: he desires to make the following disclosure about what occurred—and is still occurring in his denomination: “The significant increase in the number of women in the ministry is no adequate answer to the decline of men. Gender does affect the work of the minister. No ideological commitments can nullify the significance of gender differences in the work of a pastor of a church…. Unity in Christ does not erase the stubborn facts of class, of culture, of gender, and of age that is embedded in the very physical constitution of human beings.”[8] What Leith clearly observed in the push for women’s ordination in the PCUSA was not scriptural evidence, but the driving force of a particular ideology. In the Preface to his book Leith wrote, “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.”[9] This statement by Leith is simply a variation on “the-iron-fist-in-the-velvet-glove” (or in Rob Bell’s case “in-the-velvet-Elvis) motif.
There are parallel lines that can be drawn from the inclusion of women in positions of ecclesiastical authority and the exodus of men from the Church. He writes, “The decline of men in the ministry parallels the declining numbers of men in church membership and the decline in the number of men on every level of governing bodies and on church boards.”[10] No one wants to admit this, but it is patently true—ideology aside.
Moreover, as Leith describes in his book, there was/is an “agenda” at work in the PCUSA. Really? Do you think so? It is not as if discussions surrounding, say, homosexuality, female ordination, and other questions of morality simply fall from the sky. Dave Shiflett meticulously chronicles the insidious nature of how these various issues infiltrate into the Church. There is a clear, calculated plan that contains a mechanism “by which Scriptural admonitions are neutralized.”[11] Shiflett fleshes out what he means with the following analysis:

The process is quite simple. Step one is to find a passage in the Old Testament that is startling in its brutality—cutting off limbs, executing unruly children, and stoning women are popular choices. Step two is to find the New Testament passage one wants to undermine—in this case, passages critical of homosexuality, and before that admonitions against divorce and remarriage and female ordination. Step three is to insist that if one is indeed taking one’s cues from the bible, then one must take the book all in all. Ergo: opposing homosexuality is no less extreme that stoning annoying children. The Old Testament thus neutralizes the New and leaves wide the way for the substitute virtues, such as tolerance, inclusion, and the insistence that sexual behavior traditionally considered sinful is to be considered morally co-equal with heterosexual monogamy.[12]

One Episcopal genius, The Rev. Robert G. Hertherington delivered a sermon to his congregation where he explained that the problem with Paul and his colleagues was that they didn’t fully understand what it was they were condemning.[13] Even writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul and his colleagues just couldn’t seem to get it right. It takes a Robert G. Hertherington two millennia later to set the record straight. What unmitigated arrogance!
My own denomination—for reasons I cannot even begin to comprehend—still has voices in favor of women in combat. Clearly, this is an ideological agenda since it has no support in Scripture. At our recent General Assembly as a motion was made to accept the position of the NAPARC organization against women in combat I was surprised at the voting cards raised as dissenting votes. I certainly hope that these cards were raised by men who had never served in the military or served in actual combat situations. As a good friend of mine recently told me—he’s a retired COL in the Marine Corps—the most difficult thing he had to teach his platoon in Vietnam was when one of their comrades fell in battle they were not to go back and get him right then. It’s an unnatural thing not to help, but in the heat of combat it can result is substantially more casualties. Now multiply that by a woman falling in combat. Moreover, it’s simply morally complicated in more ways than can be explained now.
The upshot of Leith’s warning is this: modern Christians seem impervious because of ideological reasons to the undermining of Scripture. In their apathy, they have become almost more credulous than their medieval counterparts. Touching on the sad state in modern evangelicalism, Carl Trueman again writes, “Think truncated thoughts about God and you’ll get a truncated God; read an expurgated Bible and you get an expurgated theology; sing mindless, superficial rubbish instead of deep, truly emotional praise and you will eventually become what you sing.”[14] True. It’s happened before and it can still happen today. In fact, a strong case can be made that what Leith warns us about has already entered into Bible-believing churches by the front door.
It would be easy to become jaded in such an environment—very easy. The over-arching caveat is, however, that God is sovereign and that he remains in control. I believe that there is great hope for the Church of Jesus Christ to get back on track. Rather than looking for revival, I’m looking first and foremost for reformation. No real revival can honestly be expected until each local church reforms itself according to the Word of God. What we are facing now has been faced before. There is absolutely no need to be either desperate or despondent. But there is a crying need for reformation at both the seminary and congregational levels.
Seminaries must make an effort to offer courses that will educate graduates to become—humanly speaking—effective pastors, first and foremost. Local congregations must remain in close contact with seminaries and provide them with feedback about how well trained and equipped the seminary graduates are to be effective pastors of God’s flock. Candidates for the pastoral ministry must regain a desire to serve Christ’s Church and not themselves or their advancement. We must learn the lesson over and over again that it is not about us, our little kingdoms, and our empires, but about him. And it is certainly within the purview of local congregations to begin to prepare young men for leadership in the Church, either as Ruling Elders and Deacons or as Teaching Elders (pastors). This must include a thorough knowledge of the catechism (Westminster Shorter Catechism or Heidelberg Catechism), comprehensive English Bible content, and true biblical piety.

[1] John Leith, Crisis in the Church, The Plight of Theological Education, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).
[2] Ibid., 21.
[3] Carl Trueman, The Wages of Spin, Critical Writings on Historic & Contemporary Evangelicalism, (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2004), p. 161. Emphasis mine.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Leith, CC, 22.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid. Emphasis mine.
[9] Ibid., x. Emphasis mine.
[10] Ibid., 23.
[11] Dave Shiflett, Exodus, Why Americans are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity, (NY: Sentinel, 2005), p. 12.
[12] Ibid. Italics mine.
[13] Ibid., 13.
[14] Trueman, TWS, 168.