Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Calvin on baptism and Supper

In the light of some internet chatter, I thought this from Calvin (Institutes, 4.18.19) was interesting:
My readers now possess, collected into summary form, almost everything that I thought should be known concerning these two sacraments, whose use has been handed down to the Christian church from the beginning of the New Testament even to the end of the world; that is, that baptism should be, as it were, an entry into the church, and an initation into faith; but the Supper should be a sort of continual food on which Christ spiritually feeds the household of his believers. Therefore, as there is but one God, one faith, one Christ, and one church, his body; so baptism is but one, and is not a thing oft-repeated. But the Supper is repeatedly distributed, that those who have once been drawn into the church may realize that they continually feed upon Christ.

Phil Ryken on the ESV

Here is an excellent narrative of how Phil Ryken and Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, came to switch to the English Standard Version of the Bible.

HT: Justin Taylor

Religious Conservatism

From David Steinmetz, Reformers in the Wings, p. 70:

The role of a religious conservative is rarely a popular one, especially when this conservatism is combined with an intolerance of all theological innovation. There is something pinched and one-sided about the mentality that holds that a decisive theological breakthrough has taken place in the past but denies (or is at least distrustful of) the possibility of new and original insights in the present. That the church has been led into truth in the past does not exclude the possibility of the discovery of new truth in the present, even if the new insight is only a deepened participation in the meaning of the old.

The conservative, however, while often unpopular, is nevertheless a necessary fellow. The natural tendency of any parish is toward heresy. Unless the church is willing to lose its treasure without a struggle, there is a need for watchmen to sound the alarm and remind the church that the gospel it is preaching is not the gospel it has preached. It may well be that the church may decide that its new understanding represents a growth in insight rather than a relapse. But it needs to be reminded in any case that it has changed its course, so that it may consult its charts and compass and come to a conscious decision concerning the advisability of its new direction.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Theology and the inner life

From Rose Marie Miller, From Fear to Freedom: “Why are some many Christians still mastered emotionally by hesitancies about God, and why do they so often question his willingness and power to save hard cases? And why do so many Christians doubt that he loves them with all the deep caring described in Scripture? The answer is that good theology only helps when it controls the inner life.”

Institutional Assessment

As a seminary administrator with an institutional self-study on the horizon, this perspective from an institution in a different tradition made me chuckle.

Preaching Grace

There is a very interesting discussion going on here at the Reformation 21 blog on why it is so much easier for preachers to motivate people to holiness by railing at their sin than by pointing to the beauties of God's grace. I have a different take on this, I think, although Carl Trueman's observations come close to the mark.

Like Carl, I do think it has to do with ministers and maturity--but it is not chronological maturity nor general life experience. I think the real issue is personal spiritual maturity, or to change it, emotional and spiritual health. [Here, in particular, I am channeling the first principle from Peter Scazerro's The Emotionally Healthy Church.] If ministers are unable to look deeply below the surface of their own lives and deal with themselves graciously, it is going to be difficult for them to point others to God's grace.

What is more common, in my experience and in the lives of those I know well, is this: typically, those who become senior pastors are fairly responsible and driven people--in order to go through the Presbyterian educational and ordination process, one needs to be! The way they are able to function in ministry effectively (and deal with the stresses and challenges of ministry) is to become very disciplined and responsible people. The way this happens, in turn, is to hold oneself to a standard, whether a checklist or some other device.

Now, what ends up happening is when that checklist is not met, or when the minister leaves the office, if he felt like "I didn't get anything accomplished," guilt creeps in. And most of us deal with that guilt and/or shame by saying, "I'll do better tomorrow: I'll run faster, work harder, do better." We hold ourselves to an extremely high standard (perfection?) and feel badly when we are unable to accomplish that standard. In other words, we deal with ourselves by means of the law.

This pattern of law--standard, failure, guilt, personal recrimination, and repurposing--becomes the pattern for our spiritual lives as well. We struggle with some personal sin--perhaps losing our temper at home--and we set some standard (e.g. in this argument, I'm going to lower my voice and not yell). However, the wife knows how to push all our buttons and we fail. Guilt and shame arise as well as personal recrimination; we rail at ourselves for our failures and we purpose to "do better next time" (i.e. a new standard).

It is no surprise, then, when we take this pattern into the pulpit and preach law (standard, perfection) to our people. I've seen long-time ministers do this and as well as newbie ministers (hence, disagreeing with Carl's basic premise). The "solution" to this is to turn from the law to Gospel: to learn new, gracious patterns of dealing with ourselves spiritually, which will in turn lead to new patterns of dealing with our people ministerially. To put it differently, the solution is to root ourselves, our own spiritual lives, in the Gospel of God's passionate love and abudant grace.

For me, one of the breakthrough, aha moments was reading Bryan Chapell's Holiness by Grace a couple of years ago. Learning to rethink my own patterns in the light of what is true about me (I am united to Christ, right with God, holy in his Son, a beloved child, and glorified already) has given me courage to deal with the remaining corruption in my heart as well as produced a spiritual compassion for the weakness and sins of others that I hope comes out in my preaching and pastoral care. Still, learning new patterns is difficult--I take heart from the fact that Rose Marie Miller's journey in learning to deal graciously with herself took ten years.

In the end, I continue to remember that it is by God's grace that I stand (not by my continuing commitment to the law); this alone can give me confidence and assurance for life and ministry and, ultimately, death (cf. Romans 5:1-5).

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Thoughts on Reading

This was a thought-provoking post on how to order one's reading life. Having seen Dr. Mohler's personal library, I can attest that he is a preacher who loves his books. While I don't have quite the library he does, I too can't remember a time when I wasn't buried in a book. Here are some of thoughts I had about reading:

1. Read deeply. I have a couple of interest areas in which I read everything I can: Jonathan Edwards, American Presbyterianism, American Civil War, and Wendell Berry. Then there are a couple of other areas in which I read fairly widely: John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Stanley Hauerwas. By reading deeply in selected areas, it enables me to reflect and think within a particular tradition.

2. Read widely. At the same time, it is important to sample widely--for me that means reading outside my discipline (and so reading biblical scholars like N. T. Wright or Pete Enns) as well as reading fiction or other historical time periods.

3. Read joyfully. I always read for enjoyment--if I don't like a book, I won't read very far into it. I don't feel obligated, because I spend money on a book, to finish it. I believe that it is the author's responsibility to help me enjoy what I am reading, but if he doesn't, I will move on to something else that I might take joy in. That doesn't mean I agree with what I read; but it does mean that I enjoy engaging an author's thoughts.

4. Read critically. It is important to think while you read. I feel like I am having a conversation with the author as I read, which is why I write in the margins, highlight, and mutter to myself and the author while I read books.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Spiritual Dangers of Blogging

This is an insightful comment from a leading administrator at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It would have been even more useful, though, to think about the larger cultural-spiritual ramifications of the "blogosphere" and what this new medium does to spiritual leadership and authority.

What appears to be happening is similar to the sea-change that happened in the mid-eighteenth century. Before the appearance of George Whitefield and his use of print media and itinerant ministry, spiritual leadership was tied to the cultural patterns of place, kinship, education, and wealth. With Whitefield (and other itinerants), cultural authority shifted to those who could maximize the new media; the result was the overturning of authority. [There are a number of books that talk about this: among the best are Harry Stout's The Divine Dramatist and Timothy Hall's Contested Boundaries]

A similar thing is happening now. The internet and blogosphere are reshaping cultural authority in ways that are discomfiting to those in traditional places of leadership (especially, religious leadership--hence, pastors, seminary and denominational administrators, etc.). While this medium has tremendous possibilities for interaction with others on a global scale, it also can be used to promote prejudice, gossip, salaciousness, slander and other spiritual maladies.

The answer, it seems to me, is not only to name the potential vices, as Dr. Moore has done well, but to model the possibilities that these new viritual communities can bring about. In addition, if theological reflectiton is going to be done in this fashion in the future, then religious and denominational leaders also need to think through the ramifications of doing viritual theology. After all, the internet can be a powerful tool for "real-time" interaction and reflection; but it can also bring out the remaining sinfulness or foolness in all of us.

I think it is also necessary to reconsider what "spiritual authority" looks like in this brave new world. Traditional ways of exercising influence--seminary leadership, books and radio, denominational involvement, church leadership through Word and Sacrament--all will continue to be important. But there needs to be a recognition that, in the future, influence will be exercised for good and for ill in other ways. Thinking through what that means and looks like will be a major issue for 30-somthing leaders in traditional institutions for the future.

Answer, No. 1

Luther, Bondage of the Will, LW 33:43.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Question, No. 1: Luther or Calvin?

In preparing lectures for my Reformation and Modern Church History class, I came across this quote:

Therefore, Christian faith is entirely extinguished, the promises of God and the whole gospel are completely destroyed, if we teach and believe that it is not for us to know the necessary foreknowledge of God and the necessity of the things that are to come to pass. For this is the one supreme consolation of Christians in all adversities, to know that God does not lie, but does all things immutably, and that his will can neither be resisted nor changed nor hindered.

Is this Calvin or Luther? (Answer tomorrow)

The Curse of Lucas

As I am still recovering from the Indianapolis Colts' demise and putting up with my Steeler friends, it struck me this morning a fresh that I really am to blame for the Colts loss. It wasn't Peyton Manning, Tony Dungy, or Mike Vanderjagt--it was me. Whenever I follow a team closely as my own, it brings a curse that is hard to shake.

These are the last times that teams I've followed won championships:
  • Baseball: Atlanta Braves, 1995 (I've subsequently switched to the St. Louis Cardinals, which explains that last two years)
  • Pro Football: Washington Redskins, 1991 (I switched to the Colts in 1999)
  • College Basketball: Indiana Hoosiers, 1987 (my heart was broken in 1983 when Pi Slamma Jamma lost to NC State, and switched the following year when IU beat UNC in the Sweet Sixteen)
  • College Football: Penn St. Nittany Lions, 1985 (although we got jobbed by Nebraska in 1995)
  • Pro Basketball: never (my teams have only made the finals three times my entire life--Houston in 1981 and 1986; Indiana in 2000. I stopped following the Rockets in time for them to win two championships in the early 1990s)
So, if you follow one of these teams, I deeply apologize--it is my fault. It is the "Curse of Lucas."

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Bro. Bailey

Since he gave me such kind words here, it is a great joy to return the favor. Richard Bailey is a good friend of mine, finishing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Kentucky. He co-edited a wonderful collection of sermons by Jonathan Edwards, The Salvation of Souls (Crossway, 2003), and contributed an essay to The Leagcy of Jonathan Edwards. And I look forward to reading his dissertation on race and religion in colonial New England in its full and published form soon. But above all, Richard is unfailingly thoughtful and kind; and he blesses me both as his friend and as a colleague.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Paul and Timothy's Opponents at Ephesus, No. 2

I mentioned previously that I am preaching through 1 Timothy at Covenant Presbyterian Church here in St. Louis. My main commentary is William Mounce's wonderful commentary on the Pastoral Epistles for the Word Biblical Commentary series. In his explanation section on 1 Timothy 1:3-7, he writes:

Certain people were teaching a gospel that was essentially different from Paul's. Leaders in the church were teaching myths they had created based on OT genealogies. Not only were they in error theologically, but their lifestyle was also wrong. Rather than exercising their responsibilities in the church as good stewards of God through faith, they were producing nothing except mere speculation. The goal of Timothy's command--that the false teachers stop teaching--was love. Not only was love absent in the opponent's lives, but Timothy needed to maintain love as the goal of his teaching and behavior as well. Paul's opponents had made a moral choice to set aside cleansed hearts, clear consciences, and a sincere faith. Their problem was not intellectual, but moral, and their behavior was a direct result and a clear indicator of their immorality. But Paul's emphasis on their behavior did not mean that their theology was acceptable. Along with being immoral, they were charged with being ignorant of what they were dogmatically teaching (Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, p.
This is so striking in so many ways. It reminds me of a number of genuine believers whom I have known who get off track by searching for some "new" approach to the Bible, especially the OT. They latch on to a way of interpreting Scripture (usually emphasizing allegory) and they elevate certain portions (especially the moral and civil portions of OT law) out of portion.

But at the same time these brothers and sisters are elevating the law, they demonstrate an amazing loss of moral centeredness--they cheat and connive, they lie and dissemble, they refuse to deal with sins in their own families, they slander, they are angry and use angry, sarcastic, biting words. In short, as Mounce notes, these Christians failed to realize that the center of Christianity is not law, but love--for God who has come to us by Christ through the Spirit and has redeemed us so that we might love one another (cf. Gal. 5:13-15).

I've always wondered how this was possible--that those who claim to love God's law can fail so utterly to love God's people. But Mounce, I think, gets it right--these people that I had known "had made a moral choice to set aside cleansed hearts, clear consciences, and a sincere faith." It was far easier to elevate the OT law and to speculate about biblical texts in an abstract fashion than to love brothers and sisters who are so different, who fail so often, and who must be viewed through God's grace.

And yet, by making this choice, either their own faith ends up shipwrecked or the faith of others is. And this can only do incredible harm to the Gospel and its cause in the world (1 Tim. 3:15).

What if the Reformation never happened? part three

Note: This is the final section of the essay. For the occasions where it was delivered, please see the note at part one.

3. Above all, the Gospel of free grace would have continued to be shadowed behind the unreformed ritual and malformed theology of the Roman Catholic church.

Due to the decision of the Council of Orange in 529, the church had committed itself to a moderate Augustinian perspective on salvation. That is, while affirming Augustine’s emphasis upon the sovereignty of God’s grace and the utter depravity of humankind, the council hedged on the doctrine of predestination. After that, theologians in the history of the church sought to give more and more freedom and responsibility to human beings. By the time the fifteenth century came to an end, there was a form of covenant theology as articulated by theologians of the via moderna, summarized in the phrase, “God will not deny his grace to anyone who does what lies within them.” Ultimately, that meant doing good, especially, being baptized and participating in the sacrament of penance, and shunning evil. Penance became a key part of the Catholic means of gaining assurance of forgiveness and pardon. This penitential system was typically quite rigorous, provided only temporary relief with conditions attached. At least part of the reason for this was that the “effective removal of religious guilt and anxiety this side of eternity would have meant the end of medieval religious institutions.”

Of course, Luther’s Reformational discovery, that God’s righteousness shall come to those who live by faith, fundamentally threatened the basis of medieval religion and piety. If salvation came by faith alone in Christ alone, and if this provided an effective removal of religious guilt and anxiety, then the forms of penance that had proved so financially profitable for the church (particularly, indulgences) were not only unnecessary, but blasphemous. And yet, Luther’s discovery was actually a recovery of Augustinianism, articulated for the church at the Council of Orange—for this justification, this righteousness, could only come by faith which was granted by God through his sovereign grace.

But if this recovery of the Gospel had not occurred at that point, if the Reformation had not happened, then we would not be here in this church. If we went to church at all, we would still be observing the Mass, perhaps slightly revised by Vatican II (perhaps not, since there probably would not have been a Vatican II). We would still be observing an intense penitential system, seeking forgiveness and yet resigned to the fact that we would never fully know forgiveness in this life. The church as a whole would still carry the same fuzziness on how someone was right with God that characterized it before the sixteenth century Council of Trent, for without the Reformation there would have not been a Counter or Catholic Reformation or a Jesuit movement. Not only would the church have become irrelevant due to its corruption, but it would have been irrelevant pre-eminently due to its doctrine. In answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” the church still would answer, “Have you ever thought about lighting a votive, sponsoring a mass, or making a pilgrimage?”

The sheer fact that there are millions of Protestant Christians throughout the past five hundred years that have known peace with God having been justified by faith alone demonstrates that the Reformation was a vitally important reality, which transformed individuals, households, cities, and nation-states. While, perhaps, it may not have had the importance to modernity that some historians have claimed, it is undeniable that the Reformation was a genuinely significant event. In a recent brilliant social history of Calvinism by historian Philip Benedict, he observed that “the story of the establishment and defense of Europe’s various Reformed churches is fundamental to the history of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” The reason for this was that for that time, “it made a difference in people’s life experience whether they were raised as Lutherans, Reformed, or Catholics.” The Reformation made a difference in piety and worship, culture and politics. It continues to make a difference in our lives today, as evident in the worship of this Reformation church and in the profoundly good news that we are right with God by faith in Jesus. To tell the story as though the Reformation never happened or was insignificant to the story of early modern Europe and all that came after is to fail to tell the story at all.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Harry Stout's Upon the Altar of the Nation

I was the first person to buy this book today at the Creve Couer, Mo., Borders; they had to go into the backroom to get it. I can't wait to read it and review it. Checking the Dabney references, I found a couple of footnoting and other mistakes, which is a little worrisome for the rest of the book. Still, this will be a major and important work by one of the most prominent evangelical historians.

What if the Reformation never happened? part two

2. Left unchecked by the church, the rising capitalists of Europe would have led the secularization process with disastrous effects for the political and moral situation of the continent.

Most of you have undoubtedly heard or even used the phrase, “the Protestant (or puritan) work ethic.” That phrase is generally associated with the work of sociologist Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930). Weber argued that the modern period, which he dated back to the Reformation, represented the coalescence of two powerful forces to create an ethic and ethos; those two forces were Calvinism and capitalism. And for Weber, “capitalism was the social counterpart of Calvinist theology.” Appealing to the idea of vocation, Weber argued that Calvinist theology held a calling not to be “a condition in which the individual is born, but a strenuous and exacting enterprise to be chosen by himself and to be pursued with a sense of religious responsibility.” As a result, mercantile business, “once regarded as perilous to the soul,” now had a spiritual purpose, and the pursuit of riches, once feared as an enemy to religion, now was an ally to spiritual growth.

While Weber’s thesis has been subjected to withering critiques and spirited rejoinders, one historical fact from the period is the rising European middle class, connected to the rise of capitalism, who united with the Reformers to topple oppressive popes and priests, and eventually in the seventeenth century monarchs. The sixteenth century itself was a period of incredible population growth, increasing overall from 60 to 85 million people. This population moved to the cities throughout the century: in 1500, only five cities could claim 100,000 people, but by the end of the century at least a dozen could do so. These cities became centers for change, the place where bankers, skilled artisans, and scholars partnered with merchants in order to challenge the prevailing elite.

This was particularly the case in Calvin’s Geneva. As Alister McGrath noted in his wonderful biography of John Calvin, Geneva transitioned from older style capitalism to a more modern form of capitalism at precisely the time that the city achieved independence and Calvin’s reforms were taking shape. After a period of economic recession in 1535 to 1540, the city-state experienced a twenty year period of growth that coincided with the decision to invite Calvin to return to the city in order to reinaugurate and further the Reformation there. To be sure, McGrath is careful to stress that the association of capitalism and Calvinism in Geneva was “largely accidental; there is no necessary historical or ideological connection between them,” in terms of causation. Yet one could make the argument that while Calvinism may not have caused capitalism, it certainly did much to restrain it and to make it more compassionate.

The chief example of this compassionate capitalism, if one could speak of such a thing, was the social welfare movement that Calvin promoted in Geneva. The outpouring of benevolence, directed through the churches, into a central “general hospital” for the care of the poor and sick, helped to soften the increasing displacement caused by population growth, war, plague, and famine. This hospital employed deacons directly in the disbursement of funds and in caring for the poor and sick, creating a “hospital” movement throughout Reformed countries. Eventually, these hospitals devoted themselves to caring for the sick alone, but they were part of Calvin’s vision of a word and deed ministry in Geneva. This care for the suffering was also part of Calvin’s rationale for encouraging the development of wealth. Riches were not to be spent on oneself in luxurious wastefulness, but distributed for the furtherance of God’s kingdom. In order to encourage this, the city-state of Geneva organized general collections, either to meet some especial crisis or to aid refugees within its borders. By caring for the poor compassionately, Calvin’s Geneva restrained some of the selfishness inherent in the capitalist economic system.

But imagine if there were no Reformation Geneva, or indeed any relevant church to check, channel, and challenge capitalist aspirations. The scenes of eighteenth century France or nineteenth century England, with the marked division between elites and the poor; the boiling ferment on the streets ready to explode at any moment in revolution; and the ever-ready possibility of a Napoleon or Bismarck to unite the nations under his nationalistic banner—all of these would have been present much earlier, without the charitable and compassionate works that Protestantism offered in Germany or England.

Indeed, it would not be too much to claim that the political structures of Europe, which emphasized the divine rights of kings and continuity of royal families, would crumble against the rising popular tide—as they actually did in seventeenth century England and more generally in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—only to be replaced with figures much worse than a Cromwell or Napoleon. At least, with Cromwell, he attempted to be regulated by Scripture and divine providence, though it sometimes led him in strange directions. No, the figures that would have emerged in a world without Protestantism would have looked much more like Mussolini, Stalin, or Kim Jong-Il—amoral dictators seeking to unite the populace in a pagan devotion to the state, financed by a rising upper class that received special favors.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Dabney Review: New Horizons

This generous review appeared in the December 2005 New Horizons, the magazine of the OPC. I am gratified that it has made it on the web.

Post on Writers Read

For those who are interested, I just posted a review of Phillip Gura's Jonathan Edwards: America's Evangelical (2005) at Writers Read.

What if the Reformation never happened? part 1

Note: This was a Reformation Day address that I gave twice: once at a 2003 Reformation Day conference hosted by Community Presbyterian Church (PCA), Louisville, Ky., and again at a 2004 Reformation Day service hosted by Illiana Presbytery in Waterloo, Ill. A shortened version of it will appear in chap. 9 of On Being Presbyterian.

My question this evening that I would like to explore with you is, “What if the Reformation never happened?” To understand why this question is attractive, you have to understand historians. We are not like engineers, who would say, “Well, this is a silly question. Of course, the Reformation happened; not much point in thinking about it not happening since it did. Let’s get on with something truly productive!” Historians, or those with a natural bent toward thinking about history, love what are called “counterfactuals.” A counterfactual is literally something that is contrary to fact; but for a historian, it is the opportunity to wonder, speculate, and dream. We get to play Monday Morning Quarterback on the span and sweep of history, by asking, “What if?” Indeed, an book published in 2000 was devoted to the topic, entitled Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. What if Constantine does not have his famous “In this sign, conquer” dream? What if Jonathan Edwards had survived his small pox inoculation? What if Great Britain changed their mind on the whole problem of representation and admitted colonial members of parliament in the 1760s? What if Stonewall Jackson had let someone else reconnoiter the lines at Chancellorsville? What if Germany had invaded Great Britain in 1940? What if the Reformation had never happened?

Asking the question is not as far fetched as it may seem for many of you. In a 2003 essay in the journal Church History, Duke University professor Hans Hillerbrand took up the question, “Was there a Reformation in the sixteenth century?” Recent scholarship has argued that the periods directly preceding and succeeding the Reformation period of 1500 to 1550 were “more powerful, effecting more lasting change, and entailing more profound social significance.” The result has been that “the Reformation as an event of exciting discontinuity and innovation lost its credibility.” Instead, contemporary scholars have proposed a model that suggests viewing the Reformation as “part of a broader societal development that, beginning with the fourteenth century, modified and changed the medieval synthesis.”

While there is something undoubtedly true about this thesis—for all would admit that Reformation theologians and leaders did operate within the sphere of medieval intellectual thought forms and political arrangements—this thesis ultimately minimizes the basic understanding that Protestants have cherished about the Reformation for almost five hundred years, namely, that during the period we call the Reformation, a significant group of men and women came to the discovery, or perhaps better recovery, of the Gospel of free justification, which had been generally lost in the medieval church and culture. This group protested (hence, became Protestants) the movement of the Catholic church away from the Gospel as contained in Scripture, eventually breaking away from that church to form new church connections that sought to honor the principle of Scripture alone in the development of church polity, worship, doctrine, and ethics. And these Protestants were able to claim the allegiance of a significant number of cities, towns, and eventually states and countries, which joined in the process of reforming church and state in differing degrees in line with sola Scriptura.

Perhaps, then, one way of demonstrating the genuine significance of the Reformation event is to pose the question we have already suggested: what if the Reformation never happened? What would the church and the people’s religious practices have looked like? What would have characterized society and its culture? What would the future have held for those countries that did embrace the Reformation and those countries not yet born? I would suggest several things.

1. The Roman Catholic Church would have secularized completely and become largely irrelevant to European politics and culture by the seventeenth century.

Many folks “know” that the Roman Catholic Church was corrupt when Martin Luther nailed his famous theses to the Wittenburg Church door. But many are probably unaware how pervasive the corruption was and how unstable the church had become. After the papacy of Innocent III (1198-1216), the rule of Rome suffered serious setbacks. Eventually, in 1378, rival popes were set up, one in Rome (Urban VI) and the other in Avignon, France (Clement VII); these rival popes divided the Catholic nations, with England and its allies supporting Urban and France and its supporters following Clement. The divided papacy was the result of political pressures and patronage from the French king and Italian lords; money and power were at the base. Attempts at resolving the division through the conciliar movement only created more confusion. The Council of Pisa, in 1409, declared both Urban and Clement to be heretical, deposed them, and elected a third pope, Alexander V. Thus, approximately one hundred years before Martin Luther, the Corpus Christendom was a divided body, a three-headed monster, which demanded address.

Eventually, the church did rectify the political problem that it had created. Ironically, it was able to do so by virtue of some “forerunners of the Reformation” alerting them of the danger these divisions were causing among the populous. John Huss of Bohemia (what is now the Czech republic) and John Wyclif of England were both agitating for wide-ranging reforms in the church, including translating Scripture into the vernacular languages and returning communion in both kinds to the laity. In 1414, the Council of Constance was called to deal firmly with these rebel movements. Along the way, they also dealt with the rebel popes, reuniting the church under Martin V in 1417. But the discontent signaled by Huss and Wycliff continued to bubble under the surface of the church’s renewed calm exterior.

What made this so problematic for lay people was the rising level of spiritual anxiety that characterized the fifteenth century. Evidenced not only by the Hussite and Wycliff rebellions but also by the pervasive attachment to magic and primal religious forces, devout church people longed to believe. This spiritual anxiety was typified in the baptismal ritual of the fifteenth century, which were dominated by exorcisms of various types. As liturgical scholar Hughes Oliphant Old noted, “The whole [baptismal] service gave the impression of being a long series of exorcisms concluded by a baptism.” With this pervasive belief in devils, witches, and other oppositional forces, coupled together with the transforming political and economic culture at the beginning of the sixteenth century, lay people were looking to the church for answers. Yet due to its moral and political corruption, the church was unable to respond effectively to the challenge. To be sure, many laypeople continued on in their devotion to the rituals of the church, without worrying about the developing crisis in that body. Yet there was a growing anticlericalism and a developing sense among some about the church’s irrelevance.

All of these factors—ecclesiastical, political, and psychological--contributed to the rise of the Reformation as a powerful religious, political, and cultural movement. But if the Reformation never happened, it would be conceivable that this state of affairs would have continued. Of course, there would be continued attempts within the church to reform. However, as historian Euan Cameron has suggested, most of the avenues for reform had been attempted by 1500. Internal reform was limited by the sheer size and complexity of the church’s bureaucracy. As a result, it is entirely conceivable that without the Reformation, the church would have caved in on itself and rendered itself irrelevant.

Though it may have become irrelevant before the seventeenth century, certainly by that time, a corrupted church, unwilling to bear reform and unable to be reformed, would no longer have commanded the respect and attention of European society. The Enlightenment age, with its exaltation of reason over revelation and the “superstitions” of the age, would have ignored the church and its claims. In particular, the challenge of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and his Levithan, which argued for a thoroughgoing materialism and utilitarian political rule based on that reality with total allegiance given to the state, would have been unanswerable—for centuries, the church had pursued that same strategy as popes maximized their profits and pleasures under the banner of “might makes right.” Any protest lodged by the church against Enlightenment thought would have been met with a scoff and shrug. Without the Reformation, there would have been a thoroughly secular Europe by the end of the seventeenth century.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Most "Influential" Christians

This list of the "top 50 most influential Christians" is interesting, less as a genuine guide for influence (many of these people are TV media types, hence explaining their influence) and more as a reflection of who is "Christian." For example, I didn't realize that some of these people would self-identify as "Christians"--especially, Dr. Phil and Sean Hannity.

Still, in terms of a simple ranking, how in the world is John Piper (#24) and Rob Bell (pastor, Mars Hill Church, outside of Grand Rapids, MI; #25) ranked ahead of Pope Benedict XVI (#44)? I would think that the 1 billion Roman Catholics worldwide would disagree! And even before he became pope, Ratzinger was hugely influential in the life of the Roman Catholic Church.

HT: Mark Horne

Monday, January 16, 2006

Preachers and Preaching

This is a wonderfully insightful brief interview with Bryan Chapell on preaching. It is a nice single-place to find a number of Bryan's insights and concerns.

Pain, suffering, gnashing teeth...

...caused by this. Peyton Manning is the Dan Marino of our generation, the league's most talented QB who fails to win the big one. And Ben Roethlisberger is this generation's Terry Bradshaw, a limited QB who will have mutliple opportunities to win.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Meditation on Communion

Note: This is the rest of what was said nearly two years ago. In it, I tried to explain what Larger Catechism, Qs 176-7, mean and especially how to distinguish between the participants in baptism and Supper. I still believe this provides a good explaination of what the catechism and our Book of Church Order teaches.

Lord's Supper
Since we have these two sacraments together, indeed side-by-side, it is a good time to ask the questions: how are baptism and the Lord's Supper similar? And how are they different?

Our Larger Catechism (Q. 176) teaches us that baptism and the Supper are similar in several ways. First, God is the author of both. The focus of both is Christ and his benefits. Both are seals of the same covenant, the same promises. Each is to be done by ordained ministers of the gospel and by none other. And each is to be continued in the church until the end of the age.

But the next question (Q. 177) spells out how these two are different. Some of the differences are obvious, or at least, should be. Baptism happens, or should happen, only once in a person's life; the Lord's Supper is to be administered often, in our church on the second and last Sundays of the month. Baptism uses water; the Supper uses bread and wine.

But other differences are more important. The Catechism says that baptism is a "sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ," a grace that is conferred in God's appointed time and that evidences itself in a full-hearted turn to Christ as Savior and Lord. The Lord's Supper, on the other hand, is received those who have already begun the journey of faith, "to confirm our continuance and growth" in Jesus Christ.

Or I could put it like this. Remember I said that baptism is like a road sign, a royal seal, and a jersey that marks the baptized on a different team. That last descriptor is important here. Baptism initiates our children into the visible people of God, into the church people, and into the care of the church and all the benefits that brings. But the Lord's Supper has a different focus; it serves to assure our hearts that as surely as we partake of bread and wine, so surely did Christ die for our sins.

As a result, our Larger Catechism teaches us that baptism is rightly administered "even to infants," as we have just done. Because they belong to our households of faith, they should belong in a visible way to THE household of faith; and baptism initiates them into God's visible people. But the Catechism also teaches us that the Supper is to be administered "only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves." The emphasis here is not upon adult-only communion but on professing believers-only communion. Our catechism "presumes" that infants or toddlers cannot examine themselves of "their being in Christ" (LC 172), that is, to recognize their sinfulness and turn to faith in Jesus Christ. As a result, our church does not admit children to the table that have not made a profession of faith; not because they are children, but because faith in Jesus Christ is required for a worthy reception of the Supper.

Does this mean that our children are somehow second-class citizens in the church because they don't receive the Supper? That somehow they are "excommunicated" because they "barred from the table"? By no means. First of all, our children receive wonderful privileges as members of God's visible people, being identified with the baptized team: the weekly preaching of God's Word; the oversight of the elders and the nurture of God's people; and the safety of being in the place where God's promises are regularly fulfilled.

But also, we must recognize that our PCA Book of Church Order instructs us to invite all who are not participating in the Supper to remain. We don't typically do so, simply because we "presume" that no one will leave before the service is over. But the instruction is still important: there is great value in this meal for those who do not partake: the Word, indeed the Gospel of Jesus' body and blood shed for sinners, is proclaimed, both verbally by the minister and in the sign itself, Isn't that what Paul tells us, that in this meal "you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes"?

As parents, we should be telling, we should be catechizing, our children in a whisper as the elements pass, "Little one, what does the broken bread teach us?" "That Jesus in his life in the body gained a perfect righteousness for his people. That Jesus' bodily life was pointed to the cross where he died for sinners like me, Daddy."

"Sweetheart, what does the poured out wine teach us?""That Jesus shed his blood on the cross for sinners like me, and without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins, Daddy."

"My child, what is necessary to gain right standing with God and to have your sins forgiven?""Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved, Daddy."

That, my friends, is the proper grounds for your participation in this meal this morning. If you have confessed your faith in Jesus Christ and are a member either of this particular church or another evangelical church, we invite you to come to this meal. This meal is for professing believers who recognize that together we proclaim Christ's death until he comes.

Writer's Read

I've joined this new blog written by writers who read (hence, the clever title). Most of the folks are related to Covenant Seminary, in one way or another. It should be fun. You can see my first entry here.

If you don't like the weather...

...in St. Louis, then wait a day. Yesterday, high was 63, beautiful sunshine. Today, high is 37, with blowing snow and biting wind. Monday, they are calling for a high of 57 with sunshine again. Yikes! Is it any wonder that tons of people in my church and seminary are sick right now?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Hopeful Sign

As someone who graduated from a fundamentalist university and who studies the history of American religion in the 19th and 20th centuries, this is a hopeful sign.

A Nation Under God?

This is a strange article (John Sugg, "A Nation Under God," Mother Jones, Dec/Jan 2006). It was strange because the writer defined "Christian Reconstructionism" as "an obscure but increasingly potent theology was top exponents hold that Christian crusaders must conquer and convert the world, by the sword if necessary, before Jesus will return" and then attributed this belief to "the conservative Presbyterian Church in America."

But the article took Gary DeMar's (and Gary North and Rousas Rushdoony's) views and imputed them to an entire denomination. That would be the same as saying that Al Sharpton represents all African-American Christians--it would be taking someone who is largely discredited and marginalized by the group's mainstream in order to characterize an entire religious organization. I frankly find it irresponsible.

Another thing about the article that was very strange was the amount of breathless hand-wringing and outlandish finger-pointing--"in this world view, the mandate for Christians is not just to live right or to help their neighbors: they are called upon to take over or eliminate the institutions of secular government." What? Even the theonomists that I know wouldn't claim that--they recognize that government is necessary. What they want is "Christian" government that obeys God's law. And as wrong-headed as I think their position is, it is a long way off from what this article presents.

There are a number of conservative Presbyterians who desire to live their lives in accordance with 1 Thessalonians 4:10b-12: "But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one." It is sad that this article wrongly identified my denomination with a fringe group and failed to recognize the vast number of us who seek to live in the light of this peaceful and peace-filled way.

HT: Dominic Aquila's By Faith e-letter

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Meditation on Baptism

Note: I gave this meditation about two years ago when my youngest son was baptized. I still like what I said then and still think it is a helpful way of thinking and talking about the issues around children, baptism, and the Lord's Supper. This is the first part; perhaps I'll post the second part, on the Supper, later. Both parts of the meditation were eventually published on the PCANews website.

We have a great joy today, to have both sacraments in our worship. And I have great joy today, to participate in both, as my son is baptized and as we as God's people come to the table. It is in my role, though, as an officer of the church that I want us to think through what we are doing here this morning. Why are we going to baptize? And what are we doing when we baptize?

Well, we baptize because we believe God in Christ has commanded us to do so. "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations," Christ said, "baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).

All Christians agree on this; all Christians agree that God has commanded us to baptize with "one baptism" (Ephesians 4:5). But we would go further and say that we are baptizing a child because God in Christ has commanded us to do so, starting in Genesis in Abraham's household circumcision and continuing on in Acts in Lydia and the Philippian jailer's household baptism.

In addition, we baptize our children because God has made promises to us to be a God to our children and us and to set apart our children for his holy purposes. Baptism is a sign and seal of these promises. Baptism is like a big road sign that points our children onto the proper path of faith in Jesus Christ. It is like a royal seal on a royal proclamation promising salvific benefit to those who believe in Jesus. It is like a jersey that identifies, that marks, the baptized on a different team from the world.

Now, there are those who say that we baptize because we presume that our children are regenerate, born again. If we don't presume regeneration, we are told, then, we are presuming that our children are pagan. Is this true? Do we, do I, in fact, presume that Benjamin is born again and thus should receive baptism? No, I don't. Does this mean that I presume he is pagan? No, I don't go that way either. I don't presume anything. Rather, we trust in God's promise to be a God to our children and to us; we train our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, catechizing them in our most holy faith; and we leave the question of his current spiritual estate open, safely in the Lord's hands for "the Lord knows those who are his" (2 Timothy 2:19; cf. Numbers 16:5).

Someday, hopefully sooner rather than later, Benjamin, along with our other children, will make a profession of faith. Lord willing, he will confess that he is a sinner, deserving God's wrath. He will confess that he has no resources in himself to stand in the day of God's judgment; all his works are filthy rags before a holy God. He will repent of his sins and his innate rebellion against God and he will turn in faith to Jesus Christ, trusting in his blood and righteousness alone for salvation. Then, he will come before the session, and he will have his faith examined, and he will be admitted as a communicant member of this church.

If, when, that happens, what can we say? We can say that "the grace promised" in his baptism, the grace "really exhibited" in his baptism, that grace was "conferred…in God's appointed time" in the work of God's Word and Spirit. In that day, baptism as a road sign that points Benjamin to Christ was effectual. In that day, baptism as a royal seal of God's gospel promises of Christ and his benefits to Benjamin have come to fruition. In that day, as Benjamin clings to Christ by faith, then all that baptism points to and guarantees—ingrafting into Christ, regeneration, remission of sins, newness of life—it will all be his.

But why? Because somehow this water was magical? Because these words were just right, a hocus pocus that caused grace to happen? Because Sara and I have enough faith or because we did everything right as parents? No—this will happen, Lord willing, as God by his grace keeps his promises for his own glory.

But what if the worst happens? What if, God forbid, Benjamin grows up and goes to college and walks away from the church and does not claim God's promise of salvation in Christ for his own? Is baptism pointless? Has God failed? I would say, no and no. Baptism is not pointless; indeed, "it [is] a great sin to condemn or neglect this ordinance." God tells us to do this; God has his purposes in this sign. In addition, we don't know the end of the story. Hopefully, Benjamin will out live Sara and myself; and as long as he lives, God's promise in the Gospel will be held out to him.

But would God's promise be ineffective if Benjamin does not own Christ someday? Not at all. There are mysteries of God's purposes in play, certainly; after all, both Ishmael and Isaac were circumcised; both Esau and Jacob. Simon the Sorcerer was baptized. Baptism neither ties God down nor are his purposes frustrated; it can be a sign of judgment as well as a sign of grace.

As a church officer and a parent, I pray that Benjamin's baptism today will be a sign of God's grace to him "in God's appointed time." That the Spirit baptism which this water baptism signifies will spiritually wash him and will make him part of God's true people, the true children of Abraham, in that day when he embraces Christ by faith. And I pray that each of our baptisms will be fruitful for us in a similar way as we improve them during this time for God's glory.

Second Sigh

More of a sigh of relief--grades for the fall semester are done and off to the registrar. Now it is on to editing the print out of On Being Presbyterian for P&R. It is due back to the publisher by January 23.


As an Indiana University basketball fan, sighing is the only way to respond to this.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Van Lear Rose

Three words: Loretta Lynn rocks. If you haven't heard Van Lear Rose (2004), then you have missed one of the great albums in recent memory. Lynn pairs with Jack White of The White Stripes to borrow a play from Johnny Cash's playbook--work with a young rock star who understands and appreciates the country tradition. The result is a great, great album.

Great Idea

Here is a great idea! Do what this Free Church of Scotland congregation did: Make my biography of Dabney your next read for a book-of-the-month club!

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Challenge of Christian Community

It is little secret to anyone paying attention to the American religious scene that the new hip theme dominating all our conversations revolves around the word “community.” Whatever that word stands for, we want it.

We want authentic community. We want intergenerational community. We want grace-centered community. We want service-oriented community.

We want these things, we say. We are tired, we say, of the days of Christians living their individual lives, as separated atoms bouncing off one another, creating friction some times, creating fusion at other times.

We want to live our lives together. We say this. We think that we mean this. Or do we?

It strikes me that often we say we want Christian community, but what we really want is an idealized daydream of community. We want people who will look like us, think like us, do as we do. We want others in our community who raise their children the same way, listen to the same music, watch the same movies. Our idealized image includes only those who vote the way we do, are passionate about our passions, and see the world in the same way.

Part of the problem, though, is that we don’t see the world the same way. By the very nature of the case, we are as different as snow flakes—our life stories shape us in vastly different ways.

As a result, when someone else thinks differently or acts differently, we become disillusioned with community and we isolate ourselves from life together.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic little book Life Together, observed that
A community that cannot bear and cannot survive such disillusionment, clinging instead to its idealized image, when that should be done away with, loses at the same time the promise of a durable Christianity community. Sooner or later it is bound to collapse. Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, DBW, 5:35-6).
The answer is not to posit a daydream, idealized community; the answer is to center our community on the basic realities of Christian faith and the basic demands of Christian practice.

Paul and Timothy's Opponents in Ephesus

I am preparing to preach on 1 Timothy this spring at Covenant Presbyterian Church, St. Louis, Mo. Reading William Mounce's excellent commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, he has a thought-provoking paragraph:
Spicq gives an excellent summary of [Paul and Timothy's] opponents. He describes the opponents as dialecticians, Jewish converts who still baseed their teaching on the OT but did so in a way that did not respect the facts or the truth. They played mind games and became lost in endless and inextricable subtleties (1 Tim. 1:4). The same apostle who told the Corinthians "not to go beyond what is written" (1 Cor. 4:6) here blasts the opponents whose argumentation was more important than facts, reality, and good taste. The opponents were more rhetoricians than they were theologians (Mounce, Pastoral Epstiles,WBC, lxxiii).

This is really quite excellent. Any pastor who has dealt with difficult church people--those who moved away from the centrality of the Gospel to "new insights" or "subtle interpretations"--can recognize them in this comment. And yet, it is striking as well that Paul tells Timothy to deal with these wayward souls gently: "And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his oppoents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare fo the devil, after being caputred by him to do his will" (2 Tim. 2:24-26).

In my experience, that is so hard--it is hard to deal gently with those who engage in ridiculous theological arguments and who lead others off on tangents that appear to be sectarian at best and spiritually dangerous at worst. The only way we can deal gently and pastorally with them is to recognize that we are united to Jesus; that the reaction of others cannot define who we are; and that the sole aim of our ministry "is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim. 1:5). In other words, to pastor others in this winsome and loving way can only happen by the grace of God.