ECO theology

April 29, 2013

ECO

As I previously announced, our church is in the process of gracious dismissal into ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. One of the more impressive aspects of ECO is their commitment to theological revitalization, including this year’s push to have every member church do a study of the French Confession of 1559. More significantly, ECO requires the officers of every church to affirm the Essential Tenets of the Reformed confessions. I highly encourage everyone to read the document (the tenets begin on page 5). It is an excellent expression of our faith — clear, warm, irenic. It also exhibits a precise grasp of the Reformed faith in each of the loci.

The section on election is notably Reformed, even more than I expected. It is very well-written, with due attention to the Incarnation and election’s purpose of witness to those outside the covenant (“We are not elect for our own benefit alone”). This is not to say that a pure Barthian (if such a thing exists) would be entirely satisfied. The ordo salutis for election follows the classic Reformed paradigm, yet there is no reciprocal statement on reprobation — for which I am grateful, since such statements tend to imply a symmetry between election and reprobation.

There is also an extensive study guide for the Essential Tenets, developed for a classroom setting. They have created both a Leader’s Guide and a Participant’s Guide.

The country music legend, George Jones, has died today at age 81. He toured all the way to the end of his life. He came through North Carolina last year, and now I regret missing the tour (I did see Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson’s phenomenal joint tour). Among the remembrances, NBC News has an article calling him the greatest American pop (=popular) singer of all time.

In memory, here is a fine performance:

And, for an uptempo number, here he is with his one-time wife, Tammy Wynette, producing perhaps the greatest country duo of all time. This is a lesser known track, “Milwaukee, Here I Come”:

Enjoy! This would be a good time to open a bottle of whiskey to accompany your listening experience.

Vikings

I have been watching and enjoying the television drama, Vikings. I’ve been especially interested in the treatment of religion, both the native Norse religion of the Vikings and their encounter with the Christians. This has been drawn-out primarily through the capture and enslavement of a monk during one of the raids, but the most recent episode (#8) was entirely devoted to the Vikings’ pilgrimage to the temple at Uppsala in order to make a sacrificial offering to the Norse gods, for the purpose of continued protection and future prosperity. It is a powerful episode, including the struggles of faith by the monk, but especially in the depiction of human sacrifice by the Vikings.

There have been some historical inaccuracies in the series noted by historians, such as the form of politics among the tribes (portrayed as autocratic instead of more democratic), but the sacrifice of humans is attested in the manuscripts. Most of these manuscripts are, naturally, from Christian sources — but not all. In fact, earlier in the series, we saw human ritual sacrifice during the ship burial (episode #6), which was attested by an Arab source in the 10th century (Ahmad ibn Fadlan).

During my undergraduate days, as a Religious Studies major, we studied neopaganism through anthropological studies of their nature festivals. The overwhelming feature of this movement is their desire to connect with nature in protest to a mundane and technocratic society, as well as in protest to Christianity’s perceived rejection of nature (understood in terms of eros). The more ardent advocates of neopagan religion actually advocate the recovery of the various mythological gods (although there is debate over the realist or symbolic nature of their existence). Anyway, I have yet to hear any advocates for the reintroduction of human sacrifice. That seems to be a feature of their innocent nature religion that is left out.

ECO-Presbyterian

As many of you know, I belong to a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation. Moreover, I am in the ordination track for the Presbytery of Charlotte. And if that were not enough, I attend a PCUSA seminary, and I work at the seminary. Needless to say, I have an invested interest in the controversies plaguing the Presbyterian Church (USA). It pains me beyond words to see our denomination complete its long trajectory of cultural pandering and shameless accommodation.

A few weeks ago, the session (elders) of our church voted unanimously to be dismissed from the PCUSA. The Sunday after the vote, each elder gave his or her perspective on the decision, resulting in a remarkably diverse enumeration of grievances. I know from talking with the pastoral staff and some of the elders that this was not an easy decision. It was soaked in prayer, especially in the immediate weeks prior to the vote. There was no triumphalism in their statements, yet a confidence that God will continue to be faithful in the journey ahead. The elders were especially intent on making it clear that we are not morally superior to the PCUSA, for we are all equally dependent upon God’s grace. The congregation still needs to vote, but I expect wide support for the elders’ decision. Like most of the recent dismissals, we are planning to enter ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

Naturally, I am in the middle of all this as a seminarian. I have told the session that where the church goes, I will go. Thus, I will likely transfer into the ordination process of ECO.

Numbers

In our area, the most significant dismissal to ECO has been First Presbyterian Church, Greenville (SC), which is about 3,100 members. I know that we are supposed to be pious and not focus on numbers, but it is a significant fact that the average ECO congregation is over 500 members, with FPC-Greenville and FPC-Colorado Springs as the largest. As well, there have been significant departures to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), notably First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, which is nearly 4,000 members. By contrast, the average PCUSA congregation is just shy of 100 members. I know, numbers aren’t everything, we shouldn’t focus on numbers, and so on. I understand the sentiment, but when you are looking at a demographic catastrophe in membership loss, numbers are actually pretty damn important. So, what are some of the denominational numbers?

We all know that the heyday of the mainline was the early 1960’s, when the Presbyterian Church (USA) was over four million members. By 1990, we were at three million. By 2000, we had 2,525,330 members. By 2011, we had 1,952,287 members. That is a 22.69 percent decrease in membership in a little over a decade! They have not released the 2012 numbers (which will include the loss of some significant churches), and they will prove to be horrendous I am sure. The PCUSA lost 53 percent of its membership between 1960 and 2011. Meanwhile, the U.S. population increased 72 percent between 1960 and 2010.

But, that is not quite the worst of it. The median age of a PCUSA member is over 60. This is the baby boomer generation, which is not exactly my favorite generation (but they gave us some good music). To put it bluntly, they will be dying in the next twenty years or so. There is scarcely anyone to replace them (except for over-educated, affluent young seminary grads who can’t find a job…but I digress). So, the projected statistics for the PCUSA is not merely a continuing decline but a demographic free-fall. So, yeah, numbers matter at this point. One sorta benefit, however, is that the bloated bureaucracy of the PCUSA has been forced to shrink…presbyteries are firing nearly all full-time employees and Louisville (headquarters) is likely to be further gutted. Of course, I am sure they’ll keep their political lobby groups going (Israel-Palestine Mission Network and support for the National Council of Churches, which has been reduced to a pathetic lobby group in Washington).

Now, in terms of numbers, there will be tough times ahead for all denominations, evangelicals included. For the time being, both the EPC and ECO are beneficiaries of PCUSA silliness. But once the evangelical wing of the PCUSA is depleted, they will have to grow and maintain on their own, in prayer and fidelity to Holy Writ.

light_blue

Just to be clear, this is a personal blog, and my views are my own, not on behalf of my church or seminary.

J. S. Bach

This is from Albert Schweitzer’s famous two-volume study of J. S. Bach, which lead the Bach renaissance of the early 20th century:

Some artists are subjective, some objective. The art of the former has its source in their personality; their work is almost independent of the epoch in which they live. A law unto themselves, they place themselves in opposition to their epoch and originate new forms for the expression of their ideas. Of this type was Richard Wagner.

Bach belongs to the order of objective artists. These are wholly of their own time, and work only with the forms and the ideas that their time proffers them. They exercise no criticism upon the media of artistic expression that they find lying ready to their hand, and feel no inner compulsion to open out new paths. Their art not coming solely from the stimulus of their outer experience, we need not seek the roots of their work in the fortunes of its creator. In them the artistic personality exists independently of the human, the latter remaining in the background as if it were something almost accidental. ….

The art of the objective artist is not impersonal, but superpersonal. It is as if he felt only one impulse, — to express again what he already finds in existence, but to express it definitively, in unique perfection. It is not he who lives, — it is the spirit of the time that lives in him. All the artistic endeavours, desires, creations, aspirations and errors of his own and of previous generations are concentrated and worked out to their conclusion in him. …

Whatever path we may traverse through the poetry and the music of the Middle Ages, we are always led to him.

The grandest creations of the chorale from the twelfth to the eighteenth century adorn his cantatas and Passions. Handel and the others make no use of the superb treasures of chorale-melody. They want to be free of the past. Bach feels otherwise; he makes the chorale the foundation of his work. …

This genius was not an individual, but a collective soul. Centuries and generations have laboured at this work, before the grandeur of which we halt in veneration.

Albert Schweitzer, J. S. Bach, vol. 1, trans. Ernest Newman (London: Breitkopf and Hartel, 1911), 1-4.

How Great Thou Art

April 6, 2013

I heard this song a thousand times or more in our Baptist church growing-up, but none of our church ladies could do this! It’s really fantastic, with simple and delicate country instrumentation: piano, steel guitar, and Vince Gill’s soft touch on the Fender.

To increase video quality, click the “sprocket” logo in the bottom right corner.

I normally do not care for Miss Underwood’s powerful vocals — too powerful, not enough variation, and certainly not country (not if we use Kitty Wells or Tammy Wynette as are standards), but her style works great for this hymn.