Christianity: Doctrine and Ethics

My Photo
Location: United States

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, March 12, 2009

Engaging the What? (VIII)

What the Church Needs Now Is…?

The modern Church is floundering around badly and seems willing to accept any new trend or fad as long as it has nothing to do with historic Christianity, doctrine, or expository preaching. Thankfully, there are notable exceptions to the spiritual malaise that a number of churches are involved in, but their intractability to return to what has served the Church well for centuries defies comprehension. It is almost as if they have wandered so far from the traditional path that they cannot or will not find their way back. Mike Horton’s new book, Christless Christianity, provides an excellent outline for just how bad it is in “our time.”[1] This is not to say that the Church has not experienced tough times in the past, where spirituality was at low ebb, but you really do have to wonder how low the Church can sink.

There does come a time when you have to at least consider how many who call themselves Christians, but are not in possession of even the most rudimentary understanding of the Christian faith, who live like pagans, and generally manifest a pagan ethic are truly saved. But it’s precisely into this environment that many encourage their congregations to get out there and engage (the) culture. As I have mentioned a couple of times, far too few who recommend engaging culture provide the congregant with a reliable roadmap or blueprint of how cultural engagement should take place or what it should look like. Is cultural engagement really just a matter of what feels good or right or are there prerequisites before venturing out into the abyss?

In the last two installments, we took a look peek at what Herman Bavinck called the “circles of culture”[2] and noted that much too little attention is devoted to the more mundane aspects of culture. We tend to concentrate more on the arts, which is a fun thing to do, but surely culture is more than the arts. Man’s production and distribution of material goods has not been addressed by many telling their folks to engage culture; neither has agriculture, industry, nor trade—not to mention economics. It’s more appealing and less tedious to apply ourselves to aesthetics while chatting gaily and sipping on our Chardonnay.

When I was younger—much younger—Dionne Warwick sang, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” Okay, we know what the world needs, but what is it that the modern Church needs now more than anything else? From the days of the advent of the mega-church, leading into the current Emergent church movement debacle a plethora of gimmicks and fads have been tried. They all remind us of bottle rockets: They take off with panache and a great deal of fanfare, rocketing quickly into the air, promising to deliver whatever you’ve been missing in your life. As quickly as they launch almost, they fizzle or give off a “pop!” They all purport to know how to “do church” or how to bring the lost into the fold. There are projects, programs, purpose-driven lives, or bricks with your name on them that will line some ridiculous pathway. Remember the prayer of Jabez? What function did that fad accomplish except to make Bruce Wilkerson laugh all the way to the bank as “the faithful” purchased his book, coffee mugs, trinkets, and other worthless commodities? We tried the prayer of Jabez and nothing changed for us spiritually. (Most were probably just hoping for the material gain that Bruce Wilkerson promised if you recited Jabez’s prayer (Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep from harm so that it might not bring me pain!)

Mr. Wilkerson never took the time to explain how Jabez fit into redemptive history or if there were anything messianic about his words. But, you see, this is precisely what the modern Church doesn’t want to hear. A quick prayer that will—more or less, guarantee “expanded boundaries” (with a little help from Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae) and a better stock portfolio—cause us to prosper without putting forth too much effort is what modern Christianity thrives on. Joel Osteen promises a kinder, gentler sort of legalism and the Emergent church movement encourages us in burying our guilt in solving climate change (it’s your fault that your carbon footprint is so big! Has anyone actually seen a carbon footprint? Does it look like Big Foot’s?), global poverty, or, in Michael Moore’s case, global obesity. When Bill Hybels—similar to Dr. Spock of child rearing fame—announced that the Willow Creek experiment had bombed, what did he do? Any reasonable person would have turned to Scripture and charted a new, better, divine path for his congregants, but Mr. Hybels is far too slick and packaged for such a tawdry approach. He invited the Emergent church movement non-leader leaders in to do his spring youth conference. As the cartoon figures in the Guinness beer commercial put it: Brilliant! Simply brilliant!”

Bavinck contends that there was a struggle waged against Christianity in his day by culture.[3] Rather than wanting to hear the voice of the Christian faith in a pluralistic society, culture aimed at “a theoretically proclaimed and practically applied autonomy and anarchy…”[4] This striving of culture places it on a collision course with Christianity. Why is that? Bavinck explains, “For Christianity comes into collision with such an autonomy, as does every religion. It asserts all possible freedom and independence for man, for it teaches his creation after the image and likeness of God; but it maintains at the same time that man is a creature, and thus can never become or be absolutely independent; it joins him to God, and binds him to his word and will.”[5]

In his exposition and explanation of the relationship of God’s revelation and culture, Bavinck warns of an antagonism and prejudice against Christianity by cultured (or uncultured) despisers. While not wanting to place a stumbling block before the unchurched, the modern Church has abandoned the gospel, all the while wanting so desperately to be “missional.” What does it mean to be “missional” if we never present the stumbling block of the cross? Or, what does it mean to be “missional” if we are constantly compromising the central focus of the gospel message? For, as Bavinck says, “It is supernaturalism, which in point of fact forms the point of controversy between Christianity and…modern culture.”[6]

But, asks the 21st century Christian, isn’t it possible to “soft peddle” these aspects of the Christian faith? After all, we don’t want to offend our secular counterparts. Bavinck believes that there must be a presuppositional confrontation between the secularists and Christians because “The Christian religion cannot abandon this supernaturalism without annihilating itself.”[7] To the modern Christian’s mind, accommodation is not the same as self-inflicted annihilation. But it is precisely the accommodation that ends up being the problem. How does one decide what we’re prepared to jettison for the sake of accommodation and what is non-negotiable? This is an especially trenchant question in light of the horrible lack of knowledge about the faith among a lion’s share of Christianity that sees little, if anything, wrong with Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Bill Hybels, or Robert Schuller’s theology, just to mention a few. In fact, TBN airs so many goofy shows, it’s little wonder that the secularists think Christians are nuts, charlatans, and hucksters.

We are still trying to learn from our 21st century advocates of engaging culture precisely what it means, specifically and concretely, to engage it. How do we or can we know if we have (effectively) engaged culture? What types of things ought to be done and said? Is engaging culture the same as evangelism? More? Less? What? In order to be an effective youth leader, do I need to have listened to all the CDs of the Red Hot Chili Peppers? (One form of good torture at Gitmo would be to require the detainees [read: terrorists who want to kill us and rip our spinal cords out] to listen to loud music featuring the Red Hot Chili Peppers 24/7.) Or, to be an effective youth leader do I need to be conversant with the confessions and catechisms of my church (if your church doesn’t have one, go out and get one ASAP. I suggest the Westminster Shorter Catechism or the Heidelberg Catechism) and desire to aid the parents in producing godly offspring (Mal. 2:15)?

When the Reformed churches were looking for direction, purpose, and true spirituality, they turned to the creeds of Christendom as well as to a “combined effort” in structuring the Heidelberg Catechism. Today, many scoff at the creeds and the catechisms. (Their motto is: Deeds, not creeds.) And I’m not only talking about liberal theologians and pastors here. The PCA has its share of pastors who question the validity of this kind of teaching. They prefer to entertain and make it more “fun.” Their gimmicks are designed to put the “fun” back in “fundamentalism.” As we noted last time, church historian, Willem van ‘t Spijker believes that catechisms in general and the Heidelberg Catechism in particular (used by his church) play “an important role in educating the church.”[8] Precisely. This is an excellent place to start, especially in our time. The modern Church is in dire need of being educated about real Christianity. This might cause a type of “Scottish Revival” where many hangers-on beat feet out of the Exits, but that could be a good thing as well, separating Ersatz Christians from the real deal.

Simultaneously, the modern Church does not need to become navel gazers either and van ‘t Spijker is convinced that that will not be the case. In grounding Christians in the truth of biblical confessions, “The primary objective was to prevent the collapse of church and society as a consequence of people’s sinful nature.”[9] Bingo. This is almost as paradoxical as supply-side economics. Unfortunately, most modern Christians are theological Keynesians: they want to try all the wrong things when the right thing to do is staring them right in the face every time they open Scripture. What modern Christians no longer realize is that the “eternal youth” of, say, the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism is precisely what Christians need today.

For anyone who is not embarrassed by either the Bible or our confessional and catechetical standards, they understand that they owe their “vitality and lasting relevance not least to the plan and method of its treatment of the catechetical material.”[10] In both the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism, convinced and committed preachers joined hands with Christian academia to govern doctrine and preaching. Preaching! Not story telling or cutesy anecdotes, but God-fearing, Christ-centered, and Spirit-filled and –anointed expository preaching of the whole counsel of God.

There is no comfort from philosophy or postmodernism; there is no comfort from culture. Only Christ’s Church possesses, by grace, true comfort in the face of radical corruption, total depravity and, as someone once called death, “that immutable law.” What the world needs today is not more brie, but divine truth in the face of sin and death, in the forgiveness of real sins and eternal life. As Willem van ‘t Spijker puts it, “Our heart demands something that does not vanish with death. Only the church offers us something that never perishes.”[11] You can go anywhere in society any time and find a way to be entertained. God has placed eternity in man’s heart (Eccl. 3:11) and all the art exhibits in the world will not satisfy him. It’s the Church’s place to present man with what God has placed in man’s heart.

[1] Mike Horton, Christless Christianity, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008).

[2] Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, (Henry Dosker; Nicholas Steffens; & Geerhardus Vos [trans.]), (Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Discount Book Service, n.d.), p. 250.

[3] Ibid., 254.

[4] Ibid. Emphasis added.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Willem van ‘t Spijker, (ed.), The Church’s Book of Comfort, (Gerrit Bilkes, [trans.]), (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009), p. 92.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 97.

[11] Ibid., 101.


Thursday, March 05, 2009

Engaging the What? (VI)

Note Well: This Ethos is out of sequence due to the fact that I was away in SC doing a conference. It is meant to precede VII. I hope this adequately explains the numbering. RG.

Culture and Religion

In the last installment, we took a quick peek at what Herman Bavinck called the “circles of culture.”[1] By way of review, he described them in the following manner: To the first circle “belong all those activities of man for the production and distribution of material goods, such as agriculture, cattle-rearing, industry, and trade.”[2] In the current discussions in the PCA and the larger evangelical community, this “circle” gets precious little “face time.” This aspect is the step-child in the sense that it wouldn’t seem very trendy to open a new church plant and instead of the jazz quartet and art exhibit there was an exhibit of a chart showing production and distribution. The cultured despisers would not be attracted.

The second circle “includes all that labor whereby man realizes objectively his ideals of the true, the good, and the beautiful, by means of literature and science, justice and statecraft, works of beauty and art, and at the same time works out his own development and civilization.”[3] Bavinck is convinced that this second circle presents us with nothing new, but rather “has existed at all times, from the moment when man appeared on the earth and sought satisfaction of his manifold needs by labor.”[4] What is noteworthy here is the emphasis on justice and statecraft in addition to literature, science, aesthetics, and art. Getting to know Bavinck somewhat, it should not surprise us that this Renaissance Man wrote a very informative article entitled “Of Beauty and Aesthetics.”[5]

According to Bavinck, it is noteworthy that “from its first origin this culture has been closely connected with religion.”[6] It would be difficult to make a case that this is explicitly the case today, unless we were prepared and willing to engage in a prolonged apologetic about the rampant religiosity in modern man. More often than not you hear something like this these days: “I’m not religious, but I am very spiritual.” Since few want to be known as a bigot or as someone who is not “PC” we keep our mouths closed and allow this ludicrous statement to pass. In other words, we allow ourselves to be bullied by elitist and activist ideologues, who have rammed a “PC” culture down our throats. They don’t want Christianity rammed down their throats, but they don’t mind ramming their culture down our throats. It’s called “toleration” and we are both complicit and culpable in allowing it to happen.

If Bavinck is correct that in the earliest times there was a correlation between culture and religion, when did the change; the paradigm shift occur that has given us the mess we’re in today? He writes, “It was not till the eighteenth century that culture was raised to a power which emancipated itself from the Christian religion and the whole ancient world-view, and sought to become an absolutely new, modern culture.”[7] Such a phenomenon leads Bavinck to conclude that “It can, at the most, be contended that our specifically present-day culture is in conflict with religion and Christianity.”[8] If Bavinck is correct—and I am convinced that he is—, then modern Christians should be quite circumspect when aspiring to “engage the culture” since there is a “conflict” between Christianity and a lion’s share of the culture.

Both Bavinck and Kuyper spoke openly about how the Christian had to approach culture with a biblical notion of the “antithesis.” Unfortunately, few today wish to assert this truth and that much in the Christian faith requires us to be countercultural. In the last installment, I called this the notion of “antithesis.” Surely, there is much in our culture that we may use with thanksgiving. Nevertheless, there is also a place for biblical discernment to kick in and it requires some degree of spiritual maturity to distinguish among the good, the bad, and the ugly. The “discernment factor” has plummeted among modern Christians to the point that David Wells can assert that in “this new way of ‘doing church,’ those who once stood aloof from the older liberalism are now unwittingly producing a close cousin to it.”[9] In terms of modern attempts to “engage culture,” Wells is convinced that the “new way” is clearly not the correct approach.[10] What is the main “fly in the ointment” with the modern approach? According to Wells, many who attempt to “engage the culture” “are all operating off methodologies for succeeding in which that success requires little or no theology.”[11]

By contrast, the Reformation took a totally different tack as the new work edited by Willem van ‘t Spijker clearly demonstrates.[12] How did the Reformers approach those who were virtually devoid of any understanding of the Bible and of biblical principles? First, they gladly reached back into history. Van ‘t Spijker writes, “The Catechism’s influence was particularly great because it fit in a unique way into a centuries-old tradition of catechetical instruction. It continued to pass down the faith, commandments, and prayer by means of the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.”[13]

Second, unlike their Roman Catholic counterparts, who did not catechize, the Reformers gave the Church a “booklet of instruction” that was intended to be both a confession as well as a road map for the implementation of the Reformation.[14] When we pause and recall that one of the guiding principles of the Reformation was sola Scriptura (the Scriptures alone), we understand that the Heidelberg Catechism “presents doctrine based on Scripture in an accessible way…”[15] Its purpose was and is to educate the Church.[16] Ironically, far too many today shy away from the catechism, whether it is the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Standards, and with a view to the latter, I’m talking about far too many in the PCA. Instead of seeing in them a rich tradition to be used to educate the Church, they prefer to take pot shots at how antiquated it is. All who are serious Christians may be thankful that the Heidelberg Catechism took a very different approach.

Third, the Reformers unanimously desired to aid the godly “to teach their children at home, at school, and in the church, the fear of the Lord.”[17] Their aim; their primary objective “was to prevent the collapse of church and society as a consequence of people’s sinful nature.”[18] It doesn’t take much to note that rather than not giving untaught Christians or unbelievers anything doctrinal or “too heavy,” the Reformers believed that doctrine based on Scripture was precisely what the “unchurched” and “untaught” needed. They came to their conclusions from Scripture itself.

Fourth, the Reformers presented a scriptural remedy to culture at large as well as to the Church. Van ‘t Spijker explains, “Under the papacy, people were brought up without a catechism. This shortcoming had to be corrected through instruction in doctrine, and the church order prescribed the way in which this teaching was to be carried out. The Catechism was an instruction book par excellence, and its purpose was to encourage people to participate consciously in the life of the church.”[19] Even if you reject the Reformers’ premises, they are worthy of consideration.

The approach today is quite different. Even though many of the postmoderns and even those Christians who analyze postmodernism (almost to death) would have us believe that we are dealing with a phenomenon that has never been encountered before, this notion runs counter to biblical truth (Eccl. 1:9). Even in Bavinck’s day, there were some who were claiming that their era was “the unique event.” Truly, there were a number of antithetical facets when one compares Bavinck’s time with the centuries preceding the 19th century. Simultaneously, however, Bavinck reminds us that “this antithesis is not absolute.”[20]

There is a slight modification between Bavinck’s time and ours. He writes, “All our society, family, labor, vocation, state-craft[GPC1] , legislation, morals, habits, arts, sciences, are permeated still with the Christian spirit.”[21] While this might have been true of Holland at the front end of the 20th century, it might not be equally true of American culture and Christianity in the first decade of the 21st century. In America, the church has long since abandoned any serious attempt to “leaven everything” and has moved into the arena of entertainment—by and large—rather than into serious confrontation with and contribution to culture. In a very real sense, the modern Christian church is guilty of capitulating to culture and having very little of substance to offer. But not every remnant of Christianity has disappeared, even though there exists a realistic threat of Christianity’s influence in culture disappearing. The opponents of Christianity continue to refuse to acknowledge that the only way they can make sense out of life and culture is to borrow capital from the Christian faith. Only in so doing can the pagan world make sense of anything. Moreover, the influence of Christianity in America continues even though secularists reject the truth of God. This is the historical case as Bavinck well knew. “Thought has often to a great extent emancipated itself from Christianity; but life goes quietly on, and is continually fed from the sources of the past.”[22]

This being so, what are Christians, what is the PCA doing to ensure that there will be a spiritual legacy from the past that will have any influence on future generations? Quite honestly, we waste too much Christian and PCA money on sheer nonsense and call it “outreach.” Do I have to get body piercings and “tats” to reach out to modern men and women? Is asking an atheist how we should “do church” evangelicalism or just being dumb? The answer is simple. When a pastor (PCA in this case) states that he will not talk to anyone who will not drink a beer with him, what spiritual message does that send? Many of us are convinced that there is nothing unbiblical about having an “adult beverage,” but are equally convinced that people are free not to drink. More next time, Lord willing.

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, (Henry Dosker; Nicholas Steffens; & Geerhardus Vos [trans.]), (Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Discount Book Service, n.d.), p. 250.

[2] Ibid.,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Herman Bavinck, Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, (John Bolt [ed.] & Harry Boonstra & Gerrit Sheeres [trans.]), (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), pp. 245-260.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] David Wells, Above All Earthly P’wers, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 265.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Willem van ‘t Spijker, “The Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism,” in Willem van ‘t Spijker (ed.), The Church’s Book of Comfort, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009), pp. 89-128.

[13] Ibid., 90.

[14] Ibid., 89.

[15] Ibid., 92.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 93.

[20] Bavinck, TPR, 250.

[21] Ibid., 251.

[22] Ibid.