Wednesday, May 31, 2006
In that book, Noll’s telling felt partial and unfulfilling. I, for one, questioned whether the Civil War was in fact a significant catalyst for theological crisis: “To be sure, the Civil War was consequential as a social and cultural transformative catalyst. Still, there were other intellectual trends that led to the break-up of the American theology in postbellum America, ones that Noll would have done well to incorporate into this synthetic study” (in Fides et Historia : 141-3).
That being said, in his new book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (2006), Noll provided the goods that sustained his claim that the American Civil War proved to be a theological crisis of the first-order. Originally presented as the Steven and Janice Brose Lectures at Penn State University in 2003, Noll gave the first sustained examination of biblical and theological scholarship in the period leading up to and including the Civil War since Eugene Genovese’s 1985 lectures at Gettysburg College (“Slavery Ordained of God”: The Southern Slaveholders’ View of Biblical History and Modern Politics ). In so doing, he offered an important corrective to Genovese as well as needed nuance to his own understanding of the flaws of the proslavery argument.
Indeed, it is just here where Noll succeeded brilliantly. Paying close attention to alternative voices—African American theologians as well as American and international Protestant and Catholic intellectuals—Noll distinguished between "slavery in the abstract" and American slavery, which was always race-based slavery. Because American slavery was always race-based and always for life, it could never fully satisfy biblical mandates. He also masterfully described the problems of providence, its relation to the American experiment, and how that experiment was tied to and compromised by slavery: did God providentially allow and so sanctify slavery? Was the movement of history to eliminate slavery and establish liberal democracy?
At the crux of this theological crisis was the matter of authority—what do Christians do when interpretations of the Bible and providence conflict? With the problem of slavery, American Christians allowed the great theologians Grant, Sherman, and Lee decided these biblical and moral issues on the battlefield. And this highlighted the crisis—because American Christians were compromised by social and economic location in such a way that they could not think clearly and biblically on matters related to race and slavery, it suggested that liberal democracy and Christian republicanism was not sufficient for biblical interpretation. Some outside authority was needed to resolve the conflict without recourse to arms.
One cannot help but wonder if Noll meant for the Roman Catholics to be the “heroes” of this story, the ones who were able to see more clearly than Protestants on either side of the Atlantic. That was the effect of his story; as a Protestant, it made me want to point out that Catholic conservatism could also be culturally captive, as evidenced by the fact that 20th century Italian Catholics were quite friendly to fascism in its German and Italian forms. Still, by demonstrating that the crisis which the Civil War provoked was one of authority, Noll could rightly tie this intellectual crisis to other contemporary movements that were also challenging biblical authority (see, for example, James Turner’s Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America ).
As a result, this book was deeply satisfying and profoundly disturbing all at the same time. It is to his credit that Noll’s evangelical scholarship can so well investigate such intellectual complexities and question such moral scandals.
Let me say first of all that I agree essentially with the complementarian position. Having wrestled at length with the egalitarian exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15, I find a great deal of it unconvincing. I believe that Paul argues there that when it comes to the authorative transmission of God's Word in the public worship of God's people, God affirms male leadership. This has nothing to do with the respective value of men and women and everything to do with order, both creational and contemporary order. Further, while I affirm that only men should exercise ordained leadership, Paul (and for that matter, God) places a high value on women's ministry gifts and envisions a large role for them in the church's life together (as in 1 Timothy 5:1-16). So, I affirm the basic complementarian position.
That being said, I disagree with Mark's observation. I think in Southern Baptist circles, where professors, church leaders, and others have made this a huge issue for the church, younger men see this as a dividing line for the gospel (when you have someone as godly and smart as Tom Schriener observing in one book that this is the crucial Gospel issue for this generation, it is hard for younger men to differ). However, as one who is a few years younger than Mark and who serves in different circles, the younger men with whom I serve do not see this as the dividing line issue. And frankly, neither do I.
In fact, I think we make a big mistake when we lead with this issue--unconverted, secular people won't understand issues related to creational, family, and church order until they first understand their own great need for Jesus. Once they have been transformed by the Gospel of Jesus, then as they are instructed in God's Word, we can teach them about how God desires his household to be ordered. But to make a matter of family and church order central strikes me as creating unnecessary walls for secular people to leap in order to come to faith in Jesus.
In this regard, J. Gresham Machen is instructive. In his Christianity and Liberalism, he readily admits that inerrancy is not a doctrine required for salvation. That doesn't make it unnecessary; it simply puts it in its proper place. In the same way, complementarianism should not be the issue with which evangelical Protestants lead; rather, the central message of the Gospel of Jesus should be our bond of unity for which we should be zealous. As a 30-something, that doesn't mean that I believe gender issues are unimportant; they are simply not central and essential for being Christian in this world today.
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
For example, the major Lilly project right now is Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE); in 2004, Covenant Seminary received a $2 million grant from SPE to fund the Center for Ministry Leadership, under the leadership of Bob Burns. Our efforts are directed toward discovering how to help more ministerial candidates sustain their ministries through their first five years. Already we have learned a great deal; Bob has written about this in an essay for the Seminary's 50th anniversary book, All for Jesus, which releases next month at General Assembly.
Another major Lilly funded project is the Pulpit and Pew Program at Duke University. Headed by Jackson Carroll, this program has funded intensive research into what makes "excellent" ministry, how churches select ministry leaders, how African American and Asian American churches develop ministry leaders, and so forth. They have also produced a number of significant books, published by Eerdmans.
One research report that was published in 2003 was on what lay people want in their pastors. Based on an intensive study of lay search committee chairs and regional judicatory leaders, the report concluded that the composite senior or solo pastor for which search committees look is a married man, with children, under age 40, in good health, with more than a decade of experience in ministry. Other characteristics include:
- Demonstrated competence and religious authenticity
- Good preacher and leader of worship
- Strong spiritual leader
- Commitment to parish ministry and ability to maintain boundaries
- Available, approachable, and warm pastor with good "people skills"
- Consensus builder, lay ministry coach, and responsive leader
- Entrepreneurial evangelists, innovators, and transformational reflexive leaders.
- While lay people want their pastors to be thoroughly engaged in their lives, which could lead to emotional burnout, denominational leaders stress the importance of relational boundaries for sustaining ministry for the long haul.
- While lay leaders say they want entrepreneurial leaders, they often don't want to undertake or think about the changes required for the future, changes pushed by denominational leaders.
- While lay leaders want sermons that are personal and applicatory, denominational and seminary leaders tended to push sermons that reflected careful scholarship and organization.
Monday, May 29, 2006
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Page France's Come, I'm a Lion!
Mary J. Blige w/U2, "One"
Paul Simon's Surprise
Caedmon's Call, In the Company of Angels II
Bruce Springsteen's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
What are the most recent additions (since April 25) to Sean's new, black 30GB iPod?
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Once again, Bernie Miklasz, the sports radio guy at ESPN1380 in St. Louis, raised an interesting question during my drive time. He and his colleagues were talking about those who were praying for Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby champion race horse who shattered his right hind leg during the Preakness. The two basic positions that they discussed were: 1) God (however defined) cares about all our prayers; hence, praying for a horse is acceptable; 2) God (however defined) only needs to be bothered about the "big stuff"; hence, praying for a horse with whom has no personal relationship is silly.
The conversation then devolved into a conversation about what to pray about and the purposes of prayer (remember this is a sports radio show! I think it is the best in the city). One comment tried to distinguish between prayer for a horse with whom one has no personal relationship and prayer for a family pet, with whom one has a relationship. Another suggested that praying for financial benefits (such as winning your bet on Barbaro at the Preakness) would be acceptable, but praying for the horses' general health is not. Still another claimed that prayer was the expression of our wishes and emotions that impacted us more than anyone or anything else. It was really a fascinating conversation, particularly because the radio guys appeared to be nominally religious at best.
But, as you'd expect for a pastor and seminary professor, it raised all sorts of intriguing questions and possibile responses about why and for whom prayer happens. Above all, the radio talking heads failure to think about God, rather than themselves or the one for whom they prayed, reveals a striking misunderstanding of what prayer is about. And yet, there was enough truth (a remnant of the image of God?) to serve as a connecting point in a conversation.
So why pray? One handy understanding of what prayer is puts it this way: “prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God.” And so, the sprots radio guys were not that far off. To be sure, there are qualifications to this—our prayers are offered in the name of Christ and with the help of the Spirit, confession of sin, and thankful acknowledgement of God’s mercy (LC 178). Likewise, we are not to pray for the dead, for those “of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death,” or for “anything unlawful” (WCF 21:4, LC 184). Still, these are qualifications to the main point, which is decidedly straightforward and non-mystical—prayer is offering up our desires to God.
The upshot to this would be that it would be entirely appropriate to prayer for any suffering creature whom God has made. After all, he knows about every single sparrow and every flower in the field and provides for them. And if our hearts go out to a suffering creature, we can be assured that God's heart goes out to them as well--he doesn't view the suffering of anything he has made dispassionately.
That being said, our hearts should go out more often than they do toward God's human creation--to single mothers contemplated abortions, to families wrecked by the abuse of meth, to children who struggle to read because of dyslexsia, to those who are forced to rebuild their lives after a tornado. Our desires for them should direct our hearts to God, begging God to intervene in their situations and show himself powerfully redemptive on behalf of his creation.
I suspect, though, that the real issue for most of us is not the content of our prayers, but the way in which we pray. And it is how we pray that provides the means of our transformation through the work of God’s grace. We are called upon to pray with a full apprehension that God is our King and with an intense realization that we are sinners who would be totally and completely lost without the initiative of God’s grace. Further, as we pray recognizing whom we are addressing and who we are as we address, our prayers are filled with gratitude to God our King who saved us, with understanding, with whole-hearted belief in and fervent sincerity to him, with love and determined perseverance. Finally, we offer our desires up to God with a humble submission to his will, recognizing that he is the King who governs all his creatures and all their actions in accordance with his perfect will. So, in offering up our weighty desires to God, we offer up ourselves to him as well so that we might know what is good, acceptable and perfect in God’s sight (LC 185; Romans 12:1-2).
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
For those who might be interested, my copies of On Being Presbyterian arrived today from P&R.
I meant this book to be a lay-oriented introduction to Presbyterianism. As I wrote, I imagined that I was sitting across the table from someone at a Starbucks, trying to explain Presbyterian beliefs, practices, and stories to them. My hope was that the book would represent "vanilla Presbyterianism" in a winsome and warm way.
I am very thankful to my friends and colleauges who wrote gracious endorsements of the book. My real hope is that this book will be useful to churches in their new members and officers training classes and to prospective Presbyterians, who simply wish that someone would sit down with them and explain all this to them.
Saturday, May 20, 2006
Presbyterians, unlike Roman Catholics and other Christians, believe that there are only two sacraments of the New Testament: baptism and the Lord’s Supper (WCF 27:4). Having looked at baptism, let’s think about the Lord’s Supper. Most people who go to church know what this sacrament is, even when they call it something different like “the breaking of the bread,” “communion,” or “the Eucharist.” The name “Lord’s Supper” to name this sacrament comes from 1 Corinthians 11:20 and the heart of the ritual is common among all Christians: “the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth” (SC 96).
Typically, the mechanics of the Supper involves ordained ministers who “set apart the bread and win from common use, by the word of institution, thanksgiving and prayer; to take and break the bread, and to give both the bread and the wine to the communications; who are, by the same appointment, to take and eat the bread, and to drink the wine, in thankful remembrance that the body of Christ was broken and given, and his blood shed, for them” (LC 169).
While the validity of the sacrament is fairly easy to establish from Scripture, the sacrament’s efficacy is much more difficult to understand. In fact, at one point the Westminster Confession describes this Supper as a holy mystery (WCF 29:8). And because how the Supper “works” is a mystery, it has led to a number of disagreements about what happens in the Supper. Presbyterian confessional documents attempts to deal with a number of these “mistaken” views while setting forth our understanding of what happens in this meal. Sometimes the qualifications and caveats in the Standards are so confusing that it is hard to understand what is at stake or even what Presbyterians are trying to say. But if we are patient, I think we can get at a basic understanding of what happens in this holy mystery called the Lord’s Supper. What is important to understand is that Reformation debates over the Supper had everything to do with where Christ’s ascended body is and how believers feed upon that ascended body. We’ll see this as we go along.
Notice first that the confessional documents are very careful to tell us what does not happen in the Supper. One thing that doesn’t happen is that the bread and the wine do not actually, really, truly become Christ’s body and blood. This doctrine, called transubstantiation, is held by Roman Catholics. They believe that in the act of consecration by the priest (when he says in Latin, “this is my body”) that the bread, which is lifted up in the sight of the congregation for their adoration, actually and really becomes the substance of Christ’s body. The Westminster Confession spares no language in rejecting this position: this doctrine “is repugnant, not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense, and reason; [and it] overthrowth the nature of the sacrament, and hath been and is the cause of manifold superstitions; yea, of gross idolatries” (WCF 29:6). Presbyterians believe that when the bread and wine are consecrated by God through a minister’s prayer, “they till remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before” (WCF 29:5). We also don’t believe that the Lord’s Supper provides an opportunity for Christ to be offered up to his Father once again in a real propitiation for sins. This “popish sacrifice of the mass (as they call it) is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of His elect” (WCF 29:2).
Presbyterians also don’t believe that Christ’s body is somehow “in, with, or under the bread and wine” (WCF 29:7). This describes the Lutheran view, which is based on a belief that Christ’s resurrected and ascended body is “ubiquitous” (that is, everywhere at the same time). The result of the Lutheran view is that when an individual partakes of the bread in the Supper, the bread itself is not Christ’s body, but is accompanied by Christ’s body which surrounds it. Presbyterians don’t believe that Christ’s ascended body works like that. We believe that Christ’s resurrected body has ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father. As a result, his body is not everywhere present at the same time to surround the bread and wine at the Supper.
So, what do Presbyterians believe happens in the Supper? How do we feed upon the body and blood of Christ? The Confession takes great pains to stress that we do not feed on Christ “corporally or carnally,” but “spiritually” and yet “really and indeed” (WCF 29:7). Perhaps you’ve read the somewhat tortured section of the Confession in 29:7:
Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.Did you catch what the Confession is trying to say here? It says two important things: first, worthy receivers of the Supper receive and feed upon Christ crucified and all benefits of his death; and second, the body and blood of Christ are as surely present to the faith of believers in the Supper as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.
How do these two things happen? Not corporally or carnally, but spiritually. In way perhaps we don’t always grasp intellectually, when we outwardly eat and drink the visible elements, we are inwardly feeding on Christ’s body and blood by faith. There is no change, no transformation, no surrounding of the bread and wine with Christ’s body. And yet, really and indeed, we feed on Christ’s body and blood spiritually.
John Calvin, the great sixteenth century Reformed pastor and theologian, believed that in the Supper the Holy Spirit worked to lift our hearts and minds to heaven, where Christ is seated at God the Father’s right hand, so that we might feed spiritually on his presence (Inst., 4.17.18). Yet Calvin was also careful to point out that our feeding upon Christ was a mystery that was felt, more than explained, because words themselves were inadequate to describe what is transacted in the Lord’s Supper (Inst., 4.17.7).
The upshot of all this is that in the Supper, we “receive and apply unto ourselves Christ crucified and all the benefits of his death” by faith (LC 170). The benefits that we receive are consequential to our living the Christian life well. We believe that in this meal we gain what is vital for “our spiritual nourishment and growth in grace,” including having our union and communion with Christ confirmed, our thankfulness to God and engagement to belong to him renewed, and our mutual love and fellowship with one another engaged (LC 168).
In order to receive these spiritual benefits, however, we must prepare ourselves before we come to the Lord’s Supper in at least two ways. First, we must examine ourselves. Drawing upon Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians 11:28, Presbyterians have long urged one another to examine themselves before they came to the Lord’s Table, seeking to ascertain “their being in Christ; their sins and wants; the truth and measure of their knowledge, faith, repentance, love to God and the brethren, charity to all men, forgiving those that have done them wrong; their desires after Christ; and their new obedience” (LC 171).
Second, we must seek to renew the exercise of all of our spiritual graces. As we consider and examine ourselves, we should meditate on the truths of God’s Word and on his great grace and forgiveness for those who fail in their spiritual duties. We also need to pray fervently, seeking God’s mercy and grace for our sins and failures and asking that he meet us in the Lord’s Supper to grant us his strengthening and nourishing grace in the meal.
During the Supper, we are called to wait upon God in the sacrament, observing diligently what is going on: the minister’s explanation of the sacrament, the words of institution, the invitation to the Supper, the prayer of consecration for the Supper, the breaking of bread and pouring out of wine, and the distribution of the elements. In the midst of these actions, we should seek to discern Christ’s body, believing that, in the bread and in the wine, Christ’s crucified body and blood are spiritually present to their faith and in these elements Christ and all his benefits are given to their faith. In thus discerning Christ’s body, we are stirred up to judge ourselves and sorrow for sin, to hunger and thirst after Christ, to feed upon him and receive of his fullness, trusting in his merits, rejoicing in his love, giving thanks for his grace, and to renew their covenant with God and with the other church members (LC 174). In many ways, the Lord’s Supper is the renewal of a solemn covenant between God and ourselves—we are forsaking our sin, resting on Christ and his merits for acceptance with God, and renewing new obedience to God and his Word in gratitude for his mercy. In response, God grants us all of Christ’s benefits, but more importantly he grants us Christ himself.
After the Supper, we should use some time to consider how we participated in the Supper. If we found spiritual comfort and renewal, then we should bless God for his mercy in the Supper, beg God for the continuance of this gracious renewal, watch against relapses into sin, and fulfill our spiritual duties. If we didn’t find that comfort and renewal, then we should think back to how we prepared ourselves beforehand for the Supper and how we carried ourselves during the Supper. If we were prepared for the Supper and sought God’s presence in the meal, then we wait for the spiritual benefit in God’s good time. But if we didn’t prepare well or if we didn’t carry ourselves well, then we should be humbled and seek God’s presence more fervently and diligently next time we have the opportunity to participate in the Lord’s Supper (LC 175).
Obviously, Presbyterians historically have taken the Lord’s Supper very seriously, perhaps more seriously than other evangelicals. That seriousness is reflected in the Presbyterian practice of “fencing the table.” In the eighteenth century, Scots and American Presbyterians were examineed by their ruling elders for their faith in Jesus Christ and current spiritual condition; if they were deemed to be “worthy professors,” these hardy souls were given “communion tokens” that would admit them to a place at the Lord’s table. In contemporary practice, Presbyterian ministers invite to come to the Supper those have made a profession of faith in a particular congregation and have been admitted to the table by either the local church session or some other authorized church leadership. We also warn those who have not made a profession of faith or who are living in unrepentant sin not to come to the table, so that they will not “eat and drink judgment to themselves” (SC 97; 1 Corinthians 11:27-32). In this way, Presbyterians have tried to preserve the purity of the Lord ’s Table.
Another way this seriousness is demonstrated is in the way in which we deal with our children in approaching the table. Perhaps the best way of getting at this point is to think through the similarities and differences between baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The similarities between the two are somewhat obvious (LC 176). We believe that God is the author of both baptism and the Lord’s Supper; they are both God’s idea and have his warrant. 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. Some of the differences between the two are obvious as well, or at least, should be (LC 177). Baptism happens, or should happen, only once in a person’s life; the Lord’s Supper is to be administered often. 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 it could put it like this: 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. Yet the Lord’s Supper has a different focus; it serves to confirm our faith and assure our hearts that as surely as we partake of bread and wine, so surely did Christ die for our sins.
As a result, Presbyterians believe that baptism is rightly administered “even to infants,” as we have just seen. Because our children 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. However, we believe 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 to Jesus Christ. When they come “of years and ability to examine themselves,” if they make a credible profession of faith in Jesus, then the local church’s session has the opportunity to admit them to the Lord’s table. As a result, the Presbyterians typically do not admit to the table children who have not made a profession of faith; not because they are children, but because faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for a worthy reception of the Supper.
Friday, May 19, 2006
In the midst of the conversation, one of the talking heads observed that this is always what the media does--seize on a single individual and hype them to gigantic proportions. The local media did that with Mark McGwire in the late 1990s and they are doing it again with Pujols. And the reason they are doing it is that this sort of thing sells papers.
But why does it sell papers? Or for that matter, why do legions of Cardinals fans show up to the ballgames with Pujols jerseys (or Rolen, Edmonds, and Carpenter jerseys--I have a Rolen one myself)? No one asked or answered the question, but I think it gets down to the most basic matter of the heart. Human beings are wired to look for heroes.
And yet, all our heroes disappoint in the end. One clear example of that was McGwire himself, who has a section of local highway named after him because he broke Roger Maris' home run record. When he sat at the congressional hearing on steriods in March 2005 and let down his fans and supports with a lawyer-fed answer to the questions posted him, many people turned on him with a viciousness that speaks to broken hearts and shattered hopes. Even Miklasz, this morning, declared his vow passionately never to be taken in by an athlete in the same way as McGwire. It was less the objective voice of a journalist and more the bruised and violated voice of a erstwhile believer.
It all made me think of my favorite Steve Taylor song, "Hero":
When the house fell asleep
there was always a light
and it fell from the page to
the eyes of an American boy.
In a storybook land
I could dream what I read when
it went to my head I'd see
I wanna be a hero
Hero it's a nice-boy notion
that the real world's gonna destroy
you know it's a Marvel comicbook Saturday matinee fairytale, boy
Growing older you'll find
that illusions are brought
and the idol you thought you'd be
was just another zero
I wanna be a hero
Heroes died when the squealers bought 'em off
died when the dealers got 'em off
welcome to the "in it for the money as an idol" show
when they ain't as big as life
when they ditch their second wife
where's the boy to go? gotta be a hero
When our heroes break our hearts, our response should not merely be the anger of betrayal. Nor is the answer to swear off looking for heroes; that is an impossibility, because we are wired to "look up" to others, to search for models and patterns, to cherish dreams and aspirations inculcated by others. Rather, we must come to the realization that all our human heroes, as flawed as they are, even biblical heroes or historical heroes, are meant to point us to the only one who is truly heroic, the only one who does not, cannot disappoint us, the only one who has truly done things that have never been seen before, Jesus himself.
When the house fell asleep
from a book I was led
to a light that I never knew
I wanna be your hero
and he spoke to my heart
from the moment I prayed
here's a pattern I made for you
I wanna be your hero
Though some may believe that Presbyterians’ understanding of baptism is somewhat complex, it actually is rooted in the larger story of what God is doing in this world through his people. The sign of baptism is rooted in God’s larger unchanging purpose in human history. From the very beginning, God has been redeeming a people for his own possession for his own glory. While God certainly calls individuals, from the very beginning, he has especially emphasized the relationship of federal heads and their households and their place within his larger and unchanging purpose of redemption. Thus, human history began with Adam and his household; with Abel and Cain and their households; and particularly, with Abraham and his household.
God made a covenant with Abraham, promising “to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7). And in order to seal that promise, God gave Abraham a sign—circumcision, which was to be administered to Abraham and to all the males in his household. This sign was a promise, a reminder, and a community marker that always went with Jewish males that God had promised to be God to them. Circumcision also served as the initiatory rite into the body of those who profess to be God’s people. The content of the promise that God made to Abraham—"to be God to you and your offspring after you"—remained the same throughout the Old Testament. Each father was charged with instructing his household in the meaning of circumcision—the need to have one’s heart circumcised by God, the need to claim the covenant promises by faith in the coming Redeemer of God’s elect and to repent of sins.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Peter makes plain that the content of God’s promise has not changed—God promises to be a God to us and our households (Acts 2:38-39). What changed was the form and subjects: whereas in the Old Testament, circumcision was applied to males in the household, in the New Testament baptism was applied to all who profess faith in the Redeemer of God’s people as well as their households. For example, in Acts 16, household heads Lydia and the Philippian jailer believe and their entire households are baptized. The reason such household baptisms were appropriate was this household logic that was operative in the Old Testament is still in operation in the New. Our children are set apart (“holy”) in God’s sight because we as household heads profess faith in God (1 Corinthians 7:14); as a result, it is right to extend to them the sign that they belong to God’s visible people. This sign seals God’s promise to our children, reminds our children of God’s promise, and marks them off from the world as belonging to God.
In this New Testament era, as household heads, we are called to instruct our children in the meaning of their baptism, to urge them to embrace God’s promise in Jesus Christ by repenting of their sins and professing faith in him, and to improve their baptism at every opportunity. And God’s work of redemption is extended when God’s purpose in our households is fulfilled—when the children of the household leave their father’s house and establish their own households, professing repentance and faith, embracing Jesus Christ to whom the signs pointed, dedicated to raising godly offspring for God’s glory.
This understanding of baptism is rooted in a particular understanding of the church as a visible people. Presbyterians believe that the visible church is made up of professing believers and their children. In other words, the ideal of a “regenerate church membership” is an unbiblical ideal because it makes too direct a connection between the visible people of God and the body of those God has chosen from the beginning to the end of time. Those who are in charge of admitting people to the Lord’s Supper have no way of ascertaining who is regenerate and who is not. All we have are individuals’ professions of faith. Now, elders do their best to investigate those professions of faith, to insure that they are credible and sincere. And we do believe, in a judgment of charity, that these professions of faith are genuine and represent a true spirituality reality. Still, that is a long way from saying that the visible church’s membership is to be restricted to those only whom we deem to be truly elect and genuinely regenerate.
Once our view of who makes up the visible church shifts, our understanding of baptism as a sign of initiation into the visible church shifts as well. Suddenly, baptism moves from being our act of testifying that we are following Jesus in obedience to God’s act of initiating us into the visible people of God. As a result, it is properly administered to those who are making professions of faith as well as their children, because God’s promise is offered to both us and our children (Acts 2:39).
Thursday, May 18, 2006
Perhaps the greatest intellectual hurdle for many people who have backgrounds in broader evangelicalism to overcome are Presbyterian beliefs about the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. For these sisters and brothers, when you say the word “sacrament,” their minds immediately think about the Roman Catholic Church, which builds its entire religious life structure around seven sacraments, providing “grace” for individuals from birth to death.
Or perhaps these friends have come to Christ from more formal church backgrounds, joined evangelical churches, and have been convinced that they needed to be “re-baptized” because they were told that their infant baptisms weren’t legitimate since they weren’t preceded by a profession of faith. Due to the influence of common sense readings of Scripture and a general reticence against believing that sacraments can serve as means of grace in any sense, many struggle with the Presbyterian understanding of how baptism and the Lord’s Supper operate as means of grace in the Christian life.
What is a Sacrament?
Presbyterians, along with many other believers who think sacramentally, would say that a sacrament is a “holy sign and seal of the covenant of grace” (WCF 27:1). In other words, a sacrament pictures or signs God’s promises. In biblical usage a “sign” is like a big road sign with an arrow pointing you to Jesus Christ. This is how, for example, the word is used in John’s Gospel: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory” (John 2:11). The sign was meant to point the disciples (and John’s readers) to Jesus as God’s promised Messiah. It is the same way with a sacrament—baptism and the Lord’s Supper are like big road signs that point you to Jesus.
A sacrament also seals God’s promise. In older times, documents would bear a mark from the author of the letter or treaty that sealed the material contained in it. In our day, we talk about the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval”; when you see that seal, you know that Good Housekeeping has tested the product and approved it. A seal gives you confidence that the product or the letter is what it purports to be. In the same way, a sacrament seals God’s promises and gives you confidence that God’s promises can be trusted. It is a type of guarantee—if you trust God and claim his promises signed for you in the sacraments, you can be assured that God will keep his sealed promise to you. As the Westminster Confession puts it, sacraments “confirm our interest in him” (WCF 27:1). They give us assurance or confidence as they confirm our interest in God and his promises.
Sacraments also do something else. They “put a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church and the rest of the world” (WCF 27:1). They mark us as different from the world, as being on a different team, if you will. That’s why I like to say that baptism is like a jersey that marks us as part of the baptized team. It identifies us and our children as members of the visible church, those who have been baptized and who profess faith in the triune God. In a similar fashion, the Lord’s Supper marks off those who have made a good profession in Jesus Christ from the rest of the world that has not. It serves as a picture of those who will participate in the final “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:6-11), those who will be part of the new heavens and new earth.
How do sacraments do these things? Well, there is no power in the sacrament itself that causes God’s grace to come to an individual in order to confirm our interest in him or “to engage him to the service of God in Christ” (WCF 27:1, 3). Instead, the sacraments serve as signs for a spiritual reality, namely Christ and his benefits. And there is a “sacramental union,” or a “spiritual relation” between the sign and the spiritual reality. That’s why when we distribute the Lord’s Supper, the minister will often say, “This is the body of Christ. Take and eat.” Presbyterians don’t believe that the bread in the Lord’s Supper is actually transformed into Christ’s body, nor that the bread has Christ’s body “in, with, or under” the bread. Rather, we believe that there is a spiritual relationship between Christ’s ascended and glorified body and the bread by which we are enabled by God’s grace and his Spirit to feed upon Christ’s presence and receive his benefits. It is because of this sacramental union between the sign and the thing signified that “the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other” (WCF 27:2).
In thinking about how sacraments “work,” I think it is very important to distinguish the validity of a sacrament from its efficacy. A sacrament is valid, that is we have warrant for these sacraments, because it is based on God’s command and promise, contained in the word of institution. But a sacrament is efficacious, it “works” if you will, because the Spirit applies Christ and his benefits to the individual who responses in faith to the promise.
And so with baptism, we could say that the validity of the sacrament of baptism—for professing adults as well as their children—is rooted in God’s promise. In baptism, God promises certain benefits—“his ingrafting into Christ, of his regeneration, of remission of sins”—that obligates the individual “to walk in newness of life” (WCF 28:1). The promise is valid because God promises it, not because the individual testifies to some new spiritual reality in themselves. However, the efficacy of baptism is tied to the choosing purposes of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the response of faith by the individual. The grace that baptism signs and seals—that baptism exhibits and confers (WCF 28:6)—is not tied to the moment of administration nor is it given to everyone to whom baptism is administered (WCF 28:5). Instead, grace is given by the Holy Spirit to those whom God the King has chosen in his appointed time (WCF 28:6).
This distinction between the validity and efficacy of a sacrament is important because other evangelicals fail to recognize this distinction and so misunderstand what happens in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. For example, those who reject infant baptism do so because they presume that baptism is only valid when it is efficacious. That is, they believe that the only “biblical” baptism is one in which the individual by her own profession of faith at the moment of administration receives the grace offered in baptism. Others who have a very high view of infant baptism ironically make the same mistake—they believe that something must “happen” at the moment of baptism and so they argue that a child’s faith is awakened at baptism so that they grasp the promise of God’s Word and so receive grace. Or they presume that the child is regenerate and so baptize based on the presumption that God’s grace has already been at work.
But both of these approaches confuse the sacrament’s validity with its efficacy. A baptism is valid when it proclaims the promise of God by an ordained minister using the Trinitarian and biblical formula. It is efficacious, it confers grace, when God’s Spirit creates faith in the individual so that they grasp God’s promise by faith and so fill full the meaning of the sign whenever that may be.
One other thing to consider when we think about sacraments is that there was Old Testament as well as New Testament sacraments. The Old Testament sacraments were circumcision and Passover while the New Testament sacraments are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Presbyterians believe that “in regard of the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited” the Old and New Testament sacraments signified for substance the same things (WCF 27:5). That is, circumcision and the Passover both pointed to God’s promise of Christ and his benefits; baptism and the Supper do as well.
This continuity in terms of the substance of the things signified is very important—it means that there are not two stories, two religions, in the Bible, but one story and one “religion” in which God demands the worship of his people and they respond to him in faith. But the discontinuity is important as well—the forms were changed, the terms of admittance were changed, the rules and regulations were changed. That means we can’t simply draw a straight line between circumcision and baptism or Passover and Supper; rather, we must be sensitive to the way the risen Christ transforms these signs and seals. There are connections between the Old and New Testament sacraments (Colossians 2:11-12; 1 Corinthians 5:7, 10:1-4, 11:23-28), but there are differences as well. It is important to bear these similarities and differences in mind.
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Which is all too say, I'll probably miss out on "The Da Vinci Code" movie, although I am tempted to read the novel. It appears that the entire evangelical world is trying to captilize on the movie, either for evangelism or apologetics. I won't miss not reading those books.
But one of the simplest and free explanations, as well as one of the best, about the errors of Dan Brown's novel is Phil Ryken's. I recommend it very highly as a thoughtful, Christian response.
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
But this claim betrays a lack of understanding of the basic principles of Presbyterian polity. One of the key principles of that polity is this: I, as an individual minister, have no authority to declare doctrine on my own. Rather, it is only as the church is gathered in its "courts" is there any authority to exercise "judgment," which includes not only discipline, but also the duty of declaring doctrine.
This is what the PCA Book of Church Order covers in chapter 3, "The nature and extent of church power (or authority)." The BCO makes the point that ecclesiastical authority is exercised in two ways: there is the power of order, which is exercised "severally" (or individually) under a grant from presbytery; the power of order covers things such as preaching the Gospel, administering the sacraments, and exercising pastoral care. And there is the power of juridiction, which is only exercised jointly as church courts (BCO 3-2) and covers matters such as doctrine and discipline (BCO 13-9, 14-6). In both instances, I only have authority as a minister as it is granted or exercised with other presbyters who exercise oversight over a larger part of Christ's church.
This is why when candidates for ministry apply for membership in our presbyteries, they appeal to the presbytery allow their scruples of conscience in reference to the Westminster Standards. Presbyteries have the authority to determine whether such scruples conflict with the Standards (BCO 21-4). As a private individual or as a single minister, I have no authority to determine that on my own for my brothers. We must hear the presbytery's voice on the matter as they rule "jointly" as a church court.
And so, far from being a "last resort," the church's courts should be the first place we go when we begin to raise biblical or theological issues that appear to raise questions about a church's consensus on certain doctrinal matters. This is the case for two reasons: we can't trust our own understandings on these matters for we may be self-deceived; and we must hear the voice of the church on matters of doctrine and discipline.
After hearing the church's voice, it may be that our consciences are convinced that the Word of God teaches a contrary position to the declared doctrinal position of the church; and if so, then we have to determine one of three actions: whether we will seek to change the church's consensus by working to see the church amend its doctrinal standard; whether we will submit to the brothers; or whether we will follow our consciences into a different church communion.
Whatever may be the case, we must begin to deal with these issues in a Presbyterian fashion. And that means we must demonstrate our commitment to love for our brothers by bringing these issues to the notice of the larger church in ways appropriate to our polity. And it also means that we need to forsake our understanding of the church's courts that appears to be drawn from American jurisprudence (i.e., as litigious bodies of punishment) and view them instead as the place where God's Spirit dwells to guide the entire church in matters of "judgment," which include the weighty doctrinal matters under discussion today.
[BTW--the best single source for understanding Presbyterian polity remains James Bannerman's The Church of Christ. While you may find the two-volume Banner of Truth version on the used book market, it is currently only available in a paperback version published by Westminster Discount Books and you can buy it at Westminster Seminary Bookstore.]
Monday, May 15, 2006
Even the very first section, "How to Get to Know Your Pastor," was thoughtful: 1) connect with your pastor after worship; 2) pray daily for your pastor; 3) as your pastor while he/she entered ordained ministry; 4) make an appointment to spend time with your pastor. Perhaps some wouldn't like or "get" this, but I thought there was some good wisdom here; for example, if people did those four things, they would certainly have a better understanding of their ministers.
To be sure, this book reflects the theological perspective of the PC(USA). For example, since the PC(USA) opened communion to all baptized individuals, including children, in the early 1970s, the sections on baptism and Lord's Supper reflect their "paedocommunion" position. In a similar fashion, since the church holds a "Book of Confessions," these documents are seen less as "standards" against which beliefs are measured and more as theological wisdom that may (or may not) carry weight today.
Still, I thought this little handbook was a useful and winsome introduction to Presbyterianism. I couldn't help but wish that conservative Presbyterians had similar materials to explain to their members and to non-Presbyterians who they were and what they believed.
Friday, May 12, 2006
While Burroughs' has the Puritan emphasis upon "duty," there are a number of striking passages in the book. One of the best, that gets at the heart of what I'll be saying on Sunday, is this:
"In the house of the righteous is much treasure; his house--what house? It may be a poor cottage, and perhaps he has scarcely a stool to sit on. Perhaps he is forced to sit on a stump of wood or part of a block instead of a stool, or perhaps he has scarcely a bed to lie on, or a dish to eat in. Yet the Holy Ghost says, 'In the house of the righteous is much treasure.' Let the righteous man be the poorest man in the world--it may be that someone has come and taken all the goods from out of his house for debt. Perhaps his house is plundered and all is gone; yet still, 'In the house of the righteous is much treasure.' The righteous man can never be made so poor, to have his house so rifled and spoiled, but there will remain much treasure within. If he has but a dish or a spoon or anything in the world in his house, there will be treasure so long as he is there. There is the presence of God and the blessing of God upon him, and therein is much treasure" (pp. 34-5).
Thursday, May 11, 2006
In the light of interactions that I've had since my earlier post, as well as points made on the Presbyterians Together website, I'm glad to take proponents of this document at face value in their claim that they do not desire to preempt doctrinal discussion in the courts of the church. And so, I'd like to publically affirm this: I, for one, am glad to be charitable and patient in dealing with these matters. Having served on the Missouri Presbytery committee that studied Federal Vision, and having discussed these matters in other venues, I think patience, graciousness, and fair-dealing are important evidences of the reality of God's grace in our lives.
But then again, those were things that I promised in my own ordination vows: "Do you promise subjection to your brethren in the Lord?" and "Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace and unity of the Church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto you on that account?" And so, I do hope that if I will take others at face value and good faith, that others will treat me with the same generous spirit.
Because at the end of the day, like those who signed this document, I simply want Presbyterianism to flourish. Granted that my understanding of Presbyterianism is "vanilla," (as I suggest in my forthcoming book, On Being Presbyterian), my heart is for what I believe to be the most biblical form of beliefs and practices. Now, to be sure, my own desires are for a more "traditional" (or "confessional") version of that identity; still, I also recognize the need for liberty on non-essential issues (such as creation days and eschatology).
The real question is on issues under discussion that appear to me to nearer the core of historic Presbyterian beliefs--covenant, election, justification, union with Christ, sacraments. And while we can esteem others as brothers who may disagree on these issues, the church should raise questions about how much diversity a tradition can tolerate before it becomes a different tradition all together. And in the midst of this, we should raise questions whether we can truly remain united in mission if we experience doctrinal diversity on "essential" doctrines.
And so, as the church struggles to work through these issues, I do hope we proceed with charity, desiring to demonstrate the grace of God at work in our lives and remaining loyal to our ordination vows. But I also hope that we think very carefully about the unity of our church, which can only truly be had as we center our faith on a common understanding and affirmation of biblical and confessional beliefs, all done in good faith before God and others.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Monday, May 08, 2006
There has been a statement circulating for several weeks now entitled, "Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together," which now has several signatures and which you can read here. There has also been at least one fairly frustrated response to this paper on the Ref21 blog, which you can read here.
I must say that I tend to agree with the substance of the response on the Ref21 blog--it does strike me that, for the peace, purity, and unity of the church, these issues should be settled in the courts of the church. After all, the resurrected Christ has granted his church authority to declare its doctrine. In the PCA, we have done that by claiming the Westminster Standards as our confession of faith and then by requiring our ministers and elders to subscribe to those standards in good faith. In addition, we require men to owe up to where they differ from the Standards and presbyteries are required to rule on whether those "scruples" strike at the essentials of the system of doctrine contained in the Standards. And, when we have challenges to our understanding of those Standards, as a church we have shown ourselves willing to examine those issues by way of a study committee and deliver the church's wisdom on those matters.
While this document doesn't appear to conflict with the idea that doctrinal issues should be dealt with in the courts of the church, it does feel as though there is an attempt to influence that future discussion through the invocation of a call to "charity." In times past, such appeals were very influential (note, for example, the 1923-4 Auburn Affirmation in the PCUSA). However, such extra-ecclesiastical appeals aren't the best or "Presbyterian" way of dealing with doctrinal issues--that way is to hear the voice of the whole church, guided by Word and Spirit, speaking to these issues.
At the same time, we must recognize that the issues at stake are important. Some of the issues under discussion concerning the nature of the covenant, election, justification, union with Christ, the nature of the church, and the sacraments. That is a pretty comprehensive list of "essential" doctrines and helps to explain why so many people are so worked up over these matters. There are two different "visions" (at least) at stake in these matters; we shouldn't pretend that the differences, at times, aren't substantial. And while I believe that the Missouri Presbytery committee report did a good job dealing with these matters, and should be received by the General Assembly as a definitive word on these issues, I also believe that it is the privilege of the church in its collective voice at the General Assembly to call for a committee to study these matters.
At the end of the day, what we really need are people who are committed to Presbyterianism--which means working issues through the church courts and its processes and expressing a deep commitment to remaining together in visible unity as we wrestle with difficult theological issues. Too many people these days jump ship to other churches, rather than listening to and heeding the church's voice (which they had promised to do in their ordination or membership vows). Only by honoring our own rhetoric about the centrality of the church in God's purposes will we truly be those who are Presbyterians together.
Saturday, May 06, 2006
"If we are actually so small and frail; if we are so impotent and helpless in the great eternalities, shall we not be humble in heart? Why do we ever strut about and vautn ourselves? Only in God's gentle patience can we ever come into any abiding greatness. All the strength we so painfully lack, he possesses. Yes, all this and infinitely more. And he is our Friend and our Father. He has wrought all the glories that we his children might enjoy them with him. Come up close to the great heart of God and rest on him every care and burden. Share with him every joy and blessing he so freely gives, and you shall walk in the light and not stumble."
Friday, May 05, 2006
What is so helpful here is the reminder that to be "pastoral" means we are related to shepherds, herders, and rural life. The rhythms are slower, the progress is measured differently, the need for long-term investment is greater, the work is physically harder, and the grace is more real because more directly experienced. The miracle of new birth, growth, and fruit is the miracle of God's grace--a miracle we are more prone to see when we think in agrarian, as opposed to mechnical, terms.
I first starting reading Wendell while I was at Westminster Theological Seminary; and I became so convinced of his importance for Christians--both for how he challenges pietistic Christianity and for how theological his vision is--that I wrote an essay on him for Christian Scholars Review. That essay served as an introduction to Wendell and Tanya Berry and it was my great privilege to meet and spend time with them. The Lord even allowed me to preach a couple of times at Port Royal Baptist Church, Port Royal, Kentucky, where they worship.
The other day, I ran across this tremendous collection of links for Berry material on the internet. Sometimes people who are interested in reading Wendell feel intimated by his large and varied corpus of writings. I usually suggest a couple of starting places.
In order to orient to the Port William membership--the central characters in most of Wendell's fiction--I think the best starting point is his novel, Jayber Crow. Jayber is the town barber, and like most barbers, he learns the secrets and heartbreaks of the community as he tells its story from the 1930s to the 1960s. The other good starting point is Wendell's collection of short stories, That Distant Land, which places his short stories in chronological order.
In order to focus on Berry's non-fiction, and explore the key ideas that animate his fictive imagination, I think the best place to begin is Art of the Commonplace, which are a collection of essay by Berry edited by Norman Wrizba, who teaches at Georgetown College. There one would find essays on Wendell's diagnosis of our cultural crisis and how agrarianism can meet many of these issues.
Finally, the classic Berry manifesto is still his The Unsettling of America. Written in 1977, it remains a pentrating critique of America's industrial and post-industrial economic and political culture. He also traces the deep connections between culture and agriculture, suggesting that a society that fails to care for the land is a society that will fail to care for human beings and life itsself.