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.”