November 22, 2013
Union Presbyterian Seminary has recently published several audio lectures and sermons from John Leith, professor of theology at Richmond for three decades and a fine interpreter of the Reformed tradition. He loved the Reformed tradition in all of its breadth, whether Calvin or the Westminster Assembly or Karl Barth. The lectures can be found at the Foundation for Reformed Theology.
A good place to begin is his lecture at Columbia Theological Seminary’s Alumni Forum: “The Reformed Perspective,” from 1978. You can stream or download (right click).
As for books, his Introduction to the Reformed Tradition is still the best all-around introduction, serviceable to a broad audience. Your next stop should be his Assembly at Westminster: Reformed Theology in the Making.
November 20, 2013
I cannot adequately express how much I loved Mark Noll’s response to John Piper in the following video (HT: Justin Taylor). Piper is challenging Noll’s claim that Young Earth Creationism is “suicidal.” Piper affirms that the “two books” — Bible and nature — are in perfect harmony when interpreted in ways that are proper to their own respective spheres (“coming and seeing” in each case). Yet, he is not sure how that principle excludes Young Earth Creationism today! Umm, yeah. I have transcribed Noll’s response (beginning at the 47-minute mark):
I think that Young Earth is suicidal because the “coming and seeing” that has led the scientific establishment — to believe in an old universe for example — has not been quick, has not been for many people aimed in any way at taking away from the goodness and glory of God, has been reaffirmed by people in many cultures, through many experiments, through many different varieties of coming and seeing.
Now, there is a factor of reliance upon testimony, which has actually been written of quite well in the history of science. If you ask me to explain why looking at what physicists do or what molecular biologists do can justify talking about a long earth, I can’t do it. But I’ve talked to people who have trained, disciplined their seeing, checked their seeing by many other people, believers and nonbelievers, and shown why following what they have seen need not be destructive to Christian faith. They are persuasive to me.
On the opposite side, I have read, and have been reading since I was 9 years old, Creation Science literature which does almost none of those things. It’s very few people seeing. It’s not disciplined seeing. It’s not well-trained seeing. It’s not careful construction of what has been seen.
He then notes the difficulty of the question of human origins, exhorting theologians and pastors to take the matter seriously. Here is the video:
This is the Q&A that followed a lecture presentation by Noll. I commend Piper for recognizing, earlier in the Q&A, that his ministry has neglected the wider world of knowledge, failing to encourage students to pursue these fields of scientific research. He recognizes his culpability in this respect. Yet, he fails to recognize that it is precisely his highly restrictive view of biblical inerrancy — cloaked in pious expressions about “magnifying” God with a “high view” of the Bible — which is the problem. As such, it is not at all surprising that Piper and his followers are myopically focused on biblical exposition, with little care or interest in other intellectual pursuits. Piper’s view of nature study is dreamy and romantic.
November 17, 2013
Glad to know that I am not the only one to notice the strange, trendy phenomenon of using “love on” instead of, simply, “love.” Here is Addie Zierman in the Post:
Love on (e.g. “As youth group leaders, we’re just here to love on those kids.”)
In addition to sounding just plain creepy, this phrase also has troubling implications. We may understand that we need help, but we certainly don’t want to be anyone’s project or ministry.
It may just be semantics, but being loved on feels very different than being simply loved. The former connotes a sudden flash of contrived kindness; the latter is simpler…but deeper. It suggests that the relationship is the point, not the act of love itself.
Amen. As for the rest of Addie’s musings, I am more than a little sympathetic to Lydia McGrew’s take: “Ho hum, another day, another preachy, arrogant, self-important op-ed, from a millennial telling churches how to avoid scaring off the sensitive snowflakes born around the turn of the century.” Okay, I wouldn’t put it quite that way, but it takes a great deal of fortitude some days!
A preacher who follows Addie’s advice and routinely says, “This is where study and prayer have led me, but I could be wrong,” will make a horrible, horrible preacher. It is no better than its opposite caricature, the raging fundamentalist — both are rooted in insecurities and subjective preoccupations. By the way, when will these “post-evangelicals” read a little history and realize that they are just mainline Protestants, channeling Harry Fosdick?
November 7, 2013
In a previous post, I looked at how the inerrancy debate within evangelicalism has resulted in a number of options for positioning oneself vis–à–vis the historicity of the biblical texts (total inerrancy, limited inerrancy, total falliblity). None of these options are satisfactory, not for the dogmatic theologian at least, and surely not for anyone who has serious misgivings with the apologetic and rationalist orientation of post-fundamentalist evangelicalism that emerged after WW2. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, in particular, has held some significant influence within the movement, even referenced by ETS for prospective members.
The Chicago Statement has a number of praiseworthy qualifications, related to genre analysis for example, but it is hopelessly inadequate as a guide for theological engagement with Scripture. As should be obvious, the apostolic use of the Old Testament would fail miserably if tested by the Chicago strictures. Moreover, the patristic reading of Scripture, from Irenaeus to Origen to Augustine and adopted throughout the Middles Ages, is not exactly compliant with the historical-grammatical hermeneutic of contemporary evangelicalism. Yet, this dogmatic, typological, and often allegorical hermeneutic among the early fathers is what underwrote the development of trinitarian and christological orthodoxy. (If this were not a blog and if I had more time on my hands, I might try to demonstrate this, but I’m running with it for now!)
The ressourcement movement in Roman Catholic scholarship of the 20th century is one place where evangelical Protestants might take some cues, without buying the “sacramental tapestry” wholesale. Henri de Lubac’s multi-volume study of medieval exegesis, for example, is a rigorous and thorough apologetic for the patristic-medieval hermeneutic. Kyle Anderson, in his review on Amazon, says it well:
Lubac’s work is satisfying on three fronts: 1) for those convinced of the benefits of allegory–it provides a historical basis for such practice, 2) for those opposed–it provides a background for understanding your perceived opponent. And “perceived” is significant. Nowhere does Lubac discount the historical. In fact, he argues that the historical provides the foundation for the allegorical. This emerges directly out of Lubac’s sacramental ontology of the materialist world, and 3) for those seeking an intellectually honest alternative to the historical-critical methodology of the 20th century. Lubac offers a possible reading of Scripture that is historically honest and grounded but seeks to read Scripture in a broader context that is made alive through the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.
So, yes, historicity is vital, and Chicago/ETS is rightly concerned about reducing canonical authority to the subjective criteria that dominated liberal Protestantism (and a fair amount of neo-orthodoxy as well). Yet, historicity is made impossible when founded upon the “authorial intention” of the human author, not the least because such intentions are frequently elusive and imprecise. In a dogmatic framing for exegesis, by contrast, the “authorial intent” is primarily that of the divine author — the God who superintended over the entire canonical process. As such, historicity should be articulated as a dogmatic determinant, with theological ratiocination — an internal “theo-logic” if you will, which guides us in discerning the parameters of Eden’s historicity.
There is my positive statement, which I will surely work and re-work over the years to come. As I look on the evangelical horizon, there are some signs of hope among those wanting to push the boundaries of “inerrancy” — Kevin Vanhoozer most notably, for which he has been criticized by guardians of Chicago (Norman Geisler, for example, in his most recent book, Defending Inerrancy). One of Vanhoozer’s doctoral students, Timothy Ward, has written an excellent and very accessible defense of a more theological approach to biblical inspiration: Words of Life. Also, John Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch is a refreshing and heartening introduction to the dogmatic framework in which the Bible exists for the church.
Image: “Saint Augustine” by Antonio Rodríguez (1636 – 1691) [wikipedia commons]
August 9, 2013
One of the criticisms of the PCUSA, by those of us departing for ECO, is the fairly pervasive religious pluralism or, at the least, sloppy inclusivism in the denomination. A fine illustration of this is in the Daily Prayer published by the PCUSA. On the title page, we are assured that it was “commended by the 205th General Assembly (1993) for use in worship.”
Even if you could argue for an orthodox spin to these prayers — quite a theological feat — the average person in the pew will come away with a straightforward message of religious pluralism:
For World Religions
We thank you, God of the universe,
that you call all people to worship you
and to serve your purpose in this world.
We praise you for the gift of faith
we have received in Jesus Christ.
We praise you also for diverse faith
among the people of the earth.
For you have bestowed your grace
that Christians, Jews, Muslims,
Buddhists, and others
may celebrate your goodness,
act upon your truth,
and demonstrate your righteousness.
In wonder and awe
we praise you great God. Amen.
(Book of Common Worship: Daily Prayer, Louisville: WJK Press, 1993, pp. 409-410)
Hmm, I get a different vibe from Romans 1-3. Anyway, we are then not surprised to find this prayer:
you are the one God to be worshiped by all,
the one called Allah by your Muslim children,
descendants of Abraham as we are.
Give us grace to hear your truth
in the teachings of Mohammed, the prophet,
and to show your love as disciples of Jesus Christ,
that Christians and Muslims together
may serve you in faith and friendship. Amen. (p. 430)
Among other problems with this prayer, Mohammed is a “prophet” now for Christians. Once upon a time, the mainline actually prayed for the repentance and conversion of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus…anywhere “diverse faith” was found.
However, I do not exclude the possibility of salvation outside the church. Suffice it to say, there are more responsible models of inclusivism — here and here for example, or Alister McGrath’s agnosticism here.
August 6, 2013
We should put a moratorium on anymore “post” fill-in-the-blank terms, but I have more substantive reasons to find “post-Protestant” objectionable.
Robin Parry likes it because:
I am not protesting Catholicism. Not at all. There are things within the Catholic tradition that I do not agree with but I don’t see them as a major issue and have no particular interest in protesting against them.
Like Parry, there is much that I admire in Catholic theology and practice. I routinely recommend Balthasar, de Lubac, and Gilson, as the archives of this blog will give some indication. And I did my master’s thesis on John Henry Newman’s epistemology.
But, I am protesting Catholicism. If there is no “major issue” that needs protesting, then I would be Catholic. It would be irresponsible to remain separate. Yet, Parry assures us that he is “not at all” protesting Catholicism.
Putting aside justification for a minute, how about the “bodily assumption” of Mary? This is not an “opinion” of Rome. This was defined as de fide, that is, binding on the faithful. That was 1950. How about the “immaculate conception” of Mary? That was defined in 1854. The pope’s authority to define such matters was itself defined at the First Vatican Council in 1870:
We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.
So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.
[Pastor Aeternus, Dogmatic Constitution issued on July 18, 1870]
You can also check the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church commissioned by John Paul II: paragraphs 890-892 on papal infallibility and episcopal authority, 490-494 on Mary’s immaculate conception, 499-500 on Mary’s ever-virginity (and virginitas in partu, that is, in the act of giving birth!), and 966 on the bodily assumption of Mary. These are all, in Rome’s understanding, part of the “deposit of faith” divinely revealed to the apostles, thereby de fide and binding on all of the Catholic faithful.
So, Parry has no protests? “Not at all”? We haven’t even looked at justification. But, since Parry has no protests, I guess he thinks the Catholic position (both at Trent and reaffirmed in the recent Catechism) is not a “major issue.” So, works are required to retain our justified standing before God? Yeah, not a big deal. Mortal sin, confession, penance, works of satisfaction…not a big deal?
I am continually amused by the apparent romanticism of Rome by Protestants, like Parry, who should know better. Part of the problem is that his vision of Protestantism is of a highly individualistic, non-sacramental, Bible-thumping affair. But, that was not the Reformation, and it is not Protestantism, properly understood — as I have recently discussed here and here. Otherwise, Anglicanism indeed appears to be a via media between Catholics and Protestants. The problem is that Anglicanism — certainly prior to the Oxford Movement of the 19th century — was a thoroughly Protestant church of the magisterial Reformation. The 39 Articles are Reformed. If anything, the Lutherans have a better claim for retaining catholicity and the patristic witness. Parry doesn’t need to be “post-Protestant” — he needs actual Protestantism.
Image: St. Peter’s Basilica. Photograph is mine.
August 5, 2013
Given our look at Finney and Nevin, I have been inspired to write this post on pietism, considering its validity in part but defective on the whole. I will try to keep this as condensed as possible. I will conclude with some observations on the obvious strengths of pietism.
First, we should define pietism for those who may be new to its usage in theological discourse. “Pietism” originally derives from Lutheran soil, associated with the work of Philipp Spener and others who were dissatisfied with the comfort and complacency of Lutheran ministers and their congregants. Spener charged the establishment with “dead orthodoxy,” where confessional integrity is upheld but genuine conversion is neglected — or so it was perceived by the pietists. Spener and his associates pursued holiness and organized small groups for Bible study, prayer, and mutual accountability. They did not reject the Lutheran confessions, seeking rather to bring life to the form. Moral reform and “authenticity” were their aims, not doctrinal revision. (Of course, their opponents questioned the compatibility of their theology with the confessions.) When we look at John Wesley and his focus on holiness (organizing the “Holy Club” at Oxford for Bible study, prayer, and mutual accountability), his criticism of the comfort and complacency in C of E ministers, and so forth — you see quite clear parallels. And Wesley, like Spener, did not reject the confessions of the established church nor did he seek to disaffiliate. Other pietist movements, however, would separate — including Wesley’s own Methodists soon after his death — and the pietist emphases can be found most clearly in the various “free church” traditions (such as the Baptists, Pentecostals, Nazarene, and the many nondenominational churches of today) that have emerged after the Reformation, as well as among the free churches during the Reformation (Anabaptists/Mennonites).
So, with this historical background, we could define pietism in terms of “experience,” “personal holiness,” “authenticity,” and the like.
The Reformed tradition is not in principle opposed to what pietism originally sought to uphold, nor is it extraneous to Reformed theology. That is, Reformed theology and its piety are not defective. It is not as if “dead orthodoxy” is the default position for Protestant confessional praxis, which then requires a sort of Baptist booster shot. Zwingli, Calvin, and Ursinus — to name three of the most important figures in shaping Reformed confessional identity — certainly had an “experience” of the Risen Lord and a deep, heartfelt piety. Their preaching and writings aimed at conversion and edification, based upon a sound knowledge of the Word of God.
Naturally, the danger of dead orthodoxy is a real danger, often encouraged by material comforts and an institutionalized ministerial process that requires little sacrifice. In such settings, the challenge that arises from a Spener or an Edwards or a Wesley is indeed valid, in part, and rightly analogous to the prophets of Israel. As such, they are recalling the church to the living faith of the Reformation itself. The forms of the Church — liturgical, sacramental, confessional — can become a law without grace and thereby a means for self-righteousness instead of God’s righteousness.
Yet, form is not opposed to content. The form is the conduit, so to speak, ordained by God and therefore has the priority. Once the content — our experience, our “authenticity” — takes priority, then our idolatrous desires will eventually modify the form and substitute the true God for a God of our own making, subject to our own fancies. This, it seems to me, is the greatest danger of pietist movements and especially the revivals associated with them. While the progenitors of these movements and revivals may not have intended this, and indeed may have firmly upheld the Protestant confessions, they have made the decisive switch by elevating anthropology over theology. Finney is a short step away.
Moreover, God has given the church the means of grace, that is, the means by which he converts and sanctifies his people: the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. These are, properly understood, out of our control. As Barth repeatedly emphasizes in II.1 of the Church Dogmatics, our words are incapable of bearing the divine Word, but God through his grace uses them nonetheless, capacitating them and sanctifying them for his own purpose. Preaching, as with prayer, is most faithful when it trusts God to do this work, to fulfill his promises. Likewise with the sacraments, we trust God to communicate his grace to the elect, to establish and edify, to increase in love and purity. This is precisely why we do not like the sacraments — they are out of our control — and why we do not like doctrinal preaching — it is out of our control. We would rather use our own sure means of excitement and enthusiasm, whether it be the ostentatious preacher or the rousing rock-n-roll praise band.
When I look at the evangelical movement of today, pietism is clearly the dominant mood of the day, supplying the basic assumptions of the average Christian in America and in much of the world. While this does indeed make the “antidote” of a Nevin or Schaff or Barth all the more urgent, it would be enormously shortsighted to not take account of the strengths of pietism.
This can be most persuasively illustrated by the overwhelming presence of former Baptists — and other free church evangelicals — within confessional Protestant churches. Evangelical Presbyterians, like myself, are well aware of how many of our elders and membership is supplied by people who grew-up in a pietist environment, full of revivals, youth camps, missions conferences, and the like. This is where they (including myself) first became Christians or where they first took their faith seriously. Even our “cradle Presbyterians” often have stories of Young Life camps or Inter-Varsity meetings which had a decisive influence. Likewise in academic theology programs, seminaries like Princeton or universities like Edinburgh can well testify to the number of evangelicals with pietist backgrounds doing graduate work in theology, often in the process of shedding their pietism for a Christian faith with more historical depth and doctrinal depth. Would they be there if it were not for their pietist evangelical upbringing? Not likely.
Some of the most severe critics of pietism are, of course, former pietists who came to faith in Christ under pietist auspices! This has always baffled me. If pietism is so terrible, then why is pietism doing so much of the initial work among believers who then become confessional Reformed types…or Anglicans or Lutherans (or Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, for that matter)? Surely pietism is doing something right if nearly every self-consciously Calvinist Presbyterian I meet is a former Baptist.
The primary focus of pietism — at its best — is to make Christ alive and present in a believer’s life. We should be grateful wherever this occurs, as it has in so many of our lives. Protestant orthodoxy makes Christ alive and present as well, albeit normally in less “exciting” ways — but in a more enduring way.
July 30, 2013
How about this answer:
Because millennials are self-entitled, self-absorbed, whining, largely pathetic excuses for humans entrusted with the propagation of our species. (I speak as a member toward the beginning of the “millennial” demarcation…early 80′s.)
I might want to nuance that answer a bit, but there’s more truth than hyperbole.
By contrast, you can read Rachel Held Evans’ response. You will never hear me say, “I tend to identify most strongly with the attitudes and the ethos of the millennial generation.” Of course you do — your blog has demonstrated that, time and again.
I was actually more annoyed by her apparent attraction to “high church” forms of the faith (Catholic, Orthodoxy, etc.) — because it appears more “authentic” — which is just another way of expressing the millennial obsession with the self’s “authenticity.” On that point, David Koyzis, at the First Things blog, hits the nail on the head.
July 17, 2013
Our church is fortunate to have attracted a good number of thirty-somethings with little kids. We have a large children’s ministry and a modest youth ministry, which will only expand significantly once all of these kids grow-up. We are a traditional-style Presbyterian church — organ, vaulted ceiling, hymns, written prayers, doctrinal sermons, and a small dose of well-chosen praise songs.
What is missing? The twenty-somethings. This is the demographic from which I departed just last year. We have a handful of guys and gals in their late twenties, and virtually none in their early to mid twenties, except for the occasional college kid visiting family.
So, not surprisingly, we have some members who advocate — or strongly hint in the direction of — changing our worship and adopting various strategies and programs to attract the twenty-somethings (and those who remain in perpetual adolescence well into their thirties and forties). In our city of Charlotte, the big, super-cool church is Elevation. Every city and town has one (or several) — popular names include “Abundant Life Fellowship” or “Freedom House” and so on. Apparently, they really want you to know, in the name of their church, how awesome an experience you will receive upon visiting. (We have, by the way, the super-uncool name of “Westminster Presbyterian Church.”)
I have innumerable problems with adopting an obvious consumer-driven, market-based modus operandi. It is not surprising that these churches do well. I do not discount that the Holy Spirit is present and active. But, you do not need the Holy Spirit to gather young, healthy, attractive folk to a stimulating rock concert / exalted therapy session. Many will indeed discover Christ in these settings, but some will also eventually discover the severe limitations of this “stimulating” worship experience week after week. The very reason that our church has done so well with the thirty-something and forty-something demographic is precisely because we are not Freedom House or Abundant Life or whatever. To put it bluntly, we attract the mature Christian, many of whom have been through their rock-n-roll worship phase and now want something of substance. It is hard to say that without sounding like an asshole. But it’s true.
I was prompted to write this post after reading these reflections from Andrea Dilley at Faith and Leadership (sponsored by Duke Divinity School): “Change Wisely, Dude.” Andrea traces her own path out of the traditional church of her youth, into the hip and modern worship of her twenties, only to find herself longing for the depth and substance of a more traditional liturgy (Anglican in her case). Here is an excerpt:
For some, the instinct [to attract young people] is to radically alter the old model: out with the organ, in with the Fender. But as someone who left the mainstream church and eventually returned, I’d like to offer a word of advice to those who are so inclined: Don’t. Or at least proceed with caution. Change carefully; change wisely, with thoughtfulness and deliberation. What young people say we want in our 20s is not necessarily what we want 10 years later.
Consider the changes that people go through between age 22 and 32. Consider that some of us in time renew our appreciation for the strengths of a traditional church: historically informed hierarchy that claims accountability at multiple levels, historically informed teaching that leans on theological complexity, and liturgically informed worship that takes a high view of the sacraments and draws on hymns from centuries past.
Some of us want to walk into a cathedral space that reminds us of the small place we inhabit in the great arc of salvation history. We want to meet the Unmoved Mover in an unmoved sanctuary.
So as you change — or as change is imposed upon you — keep your historic identity and your ecclesial soul. Fight the urge for perpetual reinvention, and don’t watch the roll book for young adults.
Do read the whole thing.
Image: St. Michael’s Church, an evangelical Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina. Photograph is mine.