Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Good news...

...appears on my alma mater's (Westminster Seminary; not the other one) website. My friend, Carl Trueman, has been confirmed (canonized? condemned? We report; you decide) as Vice President for Academic Affairs. As you can tell from his summary statement, we expect his future memoirs will be titled, "Carl Trueman: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Pride and Prejudice

They say confession is good for the soul. Okay, here it goes--this weekend, feeling exhausted by the end of the semester and somewhat blue because of the nasty gray whether, I spent most of Saturday reading (and finishing at 2:30 in the morning) Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I had an excellent annontated version that really helped to explain what was going on (and spoil most of the ending before I got there, so that I didn't feel much agnst--which, as my wife, would say is a good thing). I must say, though, that I was just about ready to strangle Mrs. Bennett (Elizabeth's mother), who had to be the most annoying character on the face of the planet.

Jeffersonians All

As always, Darryl Hart gives a provocative take on Romney's speech--and what it says about religion in a (secular) democracy.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Even with all the freezing rain... is still a good day. Yesterday, for only the fourth time in the last thirteen tries, the Cream and Crimson defeated the Blue forces of darkness and evil.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Dashboard confessional

For those who care to read this interview that I did with Martin Downes on "the Fight of Faith," you can read part one and part two. There should be a couple of more parts coming.

A final justification by works?

From John Owen, Communion with the Triune God, ed. Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor (Crossway, 2007), 263:

"But the works we do after we received Christ are of another consideration. Indeed, they are acceptable to God; it pleases him that we should walk in them. But as to that end for which we receive Christ, they are of no other account than the former. Even the works we do after believing--those which we are created unto in Christ Jesus, those that God has ordained that believers 'should walk in them'--as to justification and acceptance with God (here called salvation) are excluded. It will one day appear that Christ abhors the janglings of men about the place of their own works and obedience, in the business of their acceptation with God; nor will the saints find any peace in adulterous thoughts of that kind."

The Primary Emphasis of Scripture

One claim being made today is that the primary emphasis in Scripture is not on the individual, but on the corporate nature of the people of God. In that regard, it is interesting to hear James Bannerman, the 19th century professor of divinity at New College, Edinburgh:

"In its primary and most important aspect, indeed, the revelation of God contained in the Bible is a revelation to me individually. its discoveries of sin and announcements of judgment, its intimations of grace and its proclamations of a Savior, its offer of an atoning blood to expiate, and a regenerating Spirit to purge, transgression,--these are addressed to me individually; and if I deal with them at all, I must deal with them as if there was no other in the world except myself and God. Alone with God, I must realize the Bible as if it were a message from Him to my solitary self, singled out and separated from other men, and feeling my own individual responsibility in receiving or rejecting it.

"But the Bible does not stop there: it deals with man, not only as a solitary unit in his relation to God, but also as a member of a spiritual society, gathered together in the name of Jesus. It is not a mere system of doctrines to be believed and precepts to be observed by each individual Christian independently of others and apart from others: it is a system of doctrines and precepts, designed and adapted for a society of Christians...

"There are precepts in the Bible addressed, not to believers separately, but to believers associated together into a corporate society; there are duties that are enjoined upon the body, and not upon the members of which it is composed; there are powers assigned to the community, to which the individuals of the community are strangers; there is a government, an order, a code of laws, a system of ordinances and officers described in Scripture, which can apply to none other than a collective association of Christians. Without the existence of a Church, or of a body of believers, as contradistinguished from believers individually, very much of what is contained in the Bible would be unintelligible, and without practical application" (James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, vol. 1, p. 2).

Biblical Presbyterianism--biblical Christianity generically for that matter--recognizes and holds together the great need for individuals to "close with Christ" and to enjoy "communion with him" while also affirming that the religion of the Bible puts us together with other believers who are united to Jesus in a common body called Church. And yet, the priority, the emphasis, is on individuals' response of faith to the glorious God who has shone in their hearts with the knowledge of his glory in the face of Jesus.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Poor man's James Bond

I don't know. He should have gone to Glamour Shots...

Monday, November 26, 2007

Indelible Grace V

I was completely jazzed to get the new Indelible Grace V: Wake Thy Slumbering Children in the mail today. I think I've gotten the last several albums (as well as the Matthew Smith and Sandra McCracken albums) as soon as they've been released. What I've always appreciated about my friend Kevin Twit and his co-laborers is their on-going endeavor to make the theology and piety of hymnody accessible to this generation.

But I've also appreciated how they have helped me worship. One of the major turning points of my life was at the 2003 General Assembly. Up to that point, I held a perspective on worship that was, well, fairly rigid and starchy. I came by it honestly--through my time with very Reformed Baptists and then hanging with Old School Presbyterian types. And there was a great deal of truth in what this sojourn taught me. The only problem was that I hadn't actually worshipped, truly worshipped with my heart engaged with God, in a long time.

Until the Thursday service at that General Assembly, when Kevin led a small, acoustic IG ensemble and Tim Keller preached. Singing "Arise, my soul, arise" engaged my heart with God in ways that had been long missed. Here was not mere, superficial contemporary music (which Al Mohler once described as "one word, two notes, three hours") and yet it was not funeral dirge hymnody either--rather, the beauty of hymnody was married to accesible and modern tunes in such a way that my mind and heart engaged with God's Truth and God himself.

And really, I'll never be the same--both my view of worship (and the "worship wars") and my view of God's love and grace were changed that day. That is why I am eager for these modern hymns to continue to pervade our church and others as well--so that Christians will learn the grammar of faith and piety for the good of their souls and the glory of the King.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Divine Light, Holy Heat, no. 3

Part one
Part two

The Minister’s Goal
The reason why the preaching of God’s Word was so vital was that the Spirit used the Word to stir the holy affections of God’s people. Reflecting on Luke 24, Edwards observed that when Christ “opened to them the sacred scriptures, he was insisting on the great things that are found written in the word of God”; it was this “delightful discourse to the disciples” that caused a “burning of their hearts within them” which was “a sensation sweet.” This inward burning represented a “spiritual sense of the truth of divine things,” a “spiritual conviction” of God’s excellency and glory. And while private reading of God’s Word could prove to be “a lively word to the saints [that] has light and heat in it to them,” it is particularly the preaching of God’s Word that produces this effect: “God’s people sometimes set under the preaching of the Word with ardent and enflamed hearts; there is sometimes a sweet inward ardency of mind under the hearing of the Word. The soul seems as it were to drink in the words of the minister as they come from his mouth, one sentence after another touches their hearts and things are alive, the heart is kindled, there is an inward warmth, the heart is fixed and the affections are active.”
This stirring of the affections toward heightened delight in and love for God is the minister’s goal. It was not merely a riling of the emotional state of the hearers. Rather, “all affections are raised either by light in the understanding, or by some error and delusion in the understanding.”

As the light of God’s Word appealed to the believer’s understanding through preaching, God’s Spirit used his Word to raise the affections. Light and heat must go together in the believer’s heart: “our people don’t so much need to have their heads stored, as to have their hearts touched; and they stand in the greatest need of that sort of preaching that has the greatest tendency to do this.” Indeed, “holy affections are not heat without light; but evermore arise from some information, some spiritual instruction the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge.” The ministry of the Word conveys to the mind “the subject matter of this saving instruction,” which was vital for genuine affections.

Yet Edwards well knew that ministers themselves could not produce genuine affections in the hearts of their people; this was solely the work of God’s Spirit: “This inward burning of the heart that we speak of is the exercise of grace in the heart and therefore must be that which is of an holy nature; ’tis the breathing and acting of the Spirit of God in the heart and therefore it must needs be holy and pure.” Such should send both minister and people to prayer, asking the Spirit of God to use his Word to produce spiritual fruit: “a people in such a case cry earnestly to that glorious Sun who is the brightness of God’s glory and the express image of his person, who is full of light and divine heat, in whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily and is more full of spiritual light and of grace than the sun is of light.”

Just as a congregation needed to pray for the Spirit to warm their hearts, the minister did as well. When a minister sought the Spirit’s assistance in preaching, he did not receive “immediate suggesting of words to the apprehension, which may be with a cold dead heart.” Rather, the Spirit’s assistance came “by warming the heart and filling it with a great sense of those things that are to be spoken of, and with holy affections, that that sense and those affections may suggest words.”

For it was the Spirit who used his Word, preached by a minister whose own affections were moved, to grant a “true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the Word of God, and a conviction of the truth and reality of them, thence arising.” This happened, as Edwards would later put it in Religious Affections, when “the Spirit of God in his spiritual influences on the hearts of his saints, operates by infusing or exercising new, divine and supernatural principles; principles which are indeed a new and spiritual nature.”

This spiritual influence, which was nothing less than a divine communication, produced “a new inward perception or sensation of their minds” that enables women and men to see and savor the divine excellency of Jesus Christ displayed in his Word. This new sense of the heart caused the believer to “see that God is lovely, and that Christ is excellent and glorious”; such a sight captivated his heart and moved him to delight in Christ’s beauty as “chief among ten thousand and altogether lovely.” This delight and joy led in turn to new practices of holiness that fed continued delight in God’s glory and beauty.

Such divine light and holy heat, such delight and love to God in the lives of God’s people, was the ultimate goal of the ministry of the Word, the very reason for which God granted ministers to his church. Ultimately, like Christ, ministers were sent to expend themselves “for the salvation and happiness of the souls of men.” Called as affectionate husbands, burning and shining lights, hard-working servants, those engaged in the ministry of the Word sought to be used by God’s Spirit to preach God’s Word in such a lively and passionate way that their hearers’ minds and hearts would be moved to delight and rejoice in and ardently love Jesus and others. Such was the nature of salvation and happiness—the glorifying and enjoying of God—to which the Triune God called his people for his own glory and infinite happiness.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Divine Light, Holy Heat, no. 2

Part one

The Minister’s Task
As Edwards conceived it, at the heart of the minister’s task was preaching, the ministry of the Word. If the minister was a servant who washed others’ feet, he did so by preaching: “this is done by the preaching of the word, which is their main business.” In the same way that “priests of old were appointed to blow the silver trumpets, so ministers of the gospel are appointed [to preach the word].” God intended for preaching to accomplish a number of ends: whether serving as “the means God has provided for bringing poor sinners to Christ and salvation by him” or offering correction to false notions of Christianity. Whatever the purpose, Edwards held it as axiomatic that “ministers are set on purpose to explain the word of God, and therefore their people ought to hear them when they offer to explain it to them.”

The substance of the minister’s preaching was God’s Word and not the dictates of human reason. As Edwards put it in 1750, ministers “are to make the word of God their only rule: their business as ministers of Christ is to preach the word of God, and to that end to give themselves to reading and studying the scriptures.” Ministers have been sent on a divine errand; “God has not left it to their discretion what their errand shall be. They are to preach the preaching that he bids them. He has put into their hands a Book containing a summary of doctrine and bids them go and preach that Word.” God’s Word was to be interpreted not through the grid of natural reason, but “the revelation is to be the rule of its own interpretation.”

In fact, the Bible contained “a summary of doctrines already discovered and dictated” to ministers; they were bound “to preach the dictates of God’s infinitely superior understanding, humbly submitting your reason as a learner and disciple to that” Word. And yet, the minister must give to each listener the portion or application of God’s Word that met his or her need. Like a conscientious husbandman, “a faithful minister is careful to give every one his portion of meat and to accommodate his instructions and exhortations to all sorts of persons in all circumstances.”

The minister’s manner of preaching was to be fervent. Edwards believed that ministers “should imitate [Christ] in the manner of his preaching; who taught not as the scribes, but with authority, boldly, zealously, fervently; insisting chiefly on the most important things in religion, being much in warning men of the danger of damnation, setting forth the greatness of the future misery of the ungodly; insisting not only on the outward, but also the inward and spiritual duties of religion.”

This fervent approach to preaching was calculated to stir the affections: “I think an exceeding affectionate way of preaching about the great things of religion,” Edwards noted, “has in itself no tendency to beget false apprehensions of them; but on the contrary a much great tendency to beget true apprehensions of them than a moderate, dull, indifferent way of speaking of ’em.” Such a manner of delivery “has so much the greater tendency to beget true ideas or apprehensions in the minds of the hearers, of the subject spoken of, and so to enlighten the understanding: and that for this reason, that such a way or manner of speaking of these things does in fact more truly represent them, than a more cold and indifferent way of speaking of them.” Divine and glorious truths that should move the soul should move the preacher’s manner of presentation.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Divine Light, Holy Heat, no. 1

[Next Friday, I'll be presenting this paper at the Jonathan Edwards study group during the Evangelical Theological Socieety meetings in San Diego. I thought it might be good to share it here first.]

“‘Tis the excellency of a minister of the gospel to be both a burning and a shining light” was the doctrinal statement of Jonathan Edwards’ second published ordination sermon. Preached in August 1744 for Robert Abercrombie at his ordination and installation as the minister of the congregational church in Pelham, Massachusetts, this sermon served as a rich and important resource for understanding how Edwards thought about the ministry of the Word and its relationship to spiritual formation. The first clue to the sermon’s importance was the theme of “excellency,” which had such an important place in Edwards’ thought. For Edwards, excellency suggested proportion, harmony, equality, consent of the parts to the whole. As philosopher Wallace Anderson noted, excellency served as both a moral and an aesthetic evaluation; and the great example of excellency, morally and aesthetically speaking, was Jesus Christ himself, who brought together seemingly opposite characteristics in perfect harmony and beauty. And so, for a minister to be both morally and aesthetically excellent, he must exemplify in perfect harmony both characteristics of light, both a burning and a shining light. Or as Edwards himself put it, “When light and heat are thus united in a minister of the gospel, it shows that each is genuine, and of a right kind, and that both are divine. Divine light is attended with heat; and so, on the other hand, a truly divine and holy heat and ardor is ever accompanied with light.” The task of ministry was to be both divine light and holy heat for the benefit of the souls of humankind.

Such reflection on the ministerial task was far from unusual for Edwards. Worked out most frequently in ordination sermons, which served as opportunities for public reflection on the ministerial task, he spent a great deal of time pondering his life’s work and especially how the ministry of the Word served “the precious and immortal souls of men committed to their care and trust by the Lord Jesus Christ.” As a preacher of God’s Word, it was not surprising that Edwards believed that the most important means that God has granted to ministers for caring for these souls was the preaching ministry of God’s Word.

However, Edwards thought deeply and repeatedly about how the preaching of God’s Word served to reflect the light of Christ into the very hearts of their parishioners: “ministers are set to be lights to the souls of men in this respect, as they are to be the means of imparting divine truth to them, and bringing into their view the most glorious and excellent objects, and of leading them to, and assisting them in the contemplation of those things that angels desire to look into.” In this way, God used the ministry of his Word to impart a divine and supernatural light to the human heart, moving their affections, transforming their actions, and shaping them to be more like Jesus. Simply put, spiritual formation—or for Edwards, the development of truly holy affections—could not occur without a theologically thoughtful, genuinely pious, and biblically-oriented ministry of the Word.

The Minister’s Calling
That Edwards had a high view of the minister’s calling and task is not surprising; it was an inheritance of colonial New England’s continued appreciation for pastoral ministry as a divine office and calling and not merely a profession. In addition, both his father and grandfather held extremely high views of ministerial calling and authority, regularly doing battle with their congregations in order to insist on ministerial prerogatives and order the weekly rhythms of community and congregational life. While these sources contributed to his understanding, Edwards’ conception of the ministry was also shaped by his own exploration of biblical-theological metaphors.

One powerful complex of images to describe ministerial calling were marital. In an ordination sermon delivered for Samuel Buell in 1746, Edwards teased out the imagery of Isaiah 62:4-5 to suggest that the relationship between the minister and his congregation was modeled upon the marriage union that Christ had with his church. When one was ordained to ministry, he was “espoused” to the church in general—he bore a concern for the church of Christ in general, its interests and welfare, more than he did as a private person. But the minister was espoused to a particular congregation, which Edwards likened to “a young man’s marrying a virgin.” In this union between minister and congregation, there was to be “mutual regard and affection”; both minister and congregation were to attribute the highest and purest motives to one another. Such a relationship should bring great joy, mutual sympathy and helpfulness to minister and people alike. As a husband cared for his wife, Edwards suggested, so a minister should care for his particular church.

In this marital imagery, ministers serve a second role—that of proxy in the marriage between Christ and his bride, the church. “Ministers espouse the church entirely as Christ’s ambassadors,” Edwards noted, “as representing him and standing in his stead, being sent forth by him to be married to her in his name, that by this means she may be married to him.” The union between minister and people “is but a shadow” pointing toward the union that the Christian individually and corporately had with Jesus Christ. And so, in caring for his people, the minister offered not his own care, but the care of Jesus: “All that tender care which a faithful minister takes of his people as a kind of spiritual husband, to provide for them, to lead and feed them, and comfort them, is not as looking upon them [as] his own bride, but his master’s.” Everything a minister did for his people was on Christ’s behalf, drew from Christ’s own love for his bride, and pointed people to Christ as their true husband and lover.

Another set of metaphors that Edwards used to unpack the nature of ministerial calling were among his favorite: light. Ministers are granted God’s Spirit in order to communicate “the golden oil or divine grace to God’s people.” This holy grace would enable God’s people to be lights to a generation that desperately needed to know the source of all good. In fact, ministers were both a “shining light” and a “burning light” for God’s people. In helping ministers picture this, Edwards compared them to stars, noting that “the ministers of Christ are as it were the stars that encompass this glorious fountain of light, to receive and reflect his beams, and give light to the souls of men.” He also used optics to picture the way ministers communicated the light of Christ. Ministers “are called burning and shining lights but they have neither light nor heat any further than as they derive it from the sun of righteousness and can communicate no light nor life nor fruitfulness to their hearers any further than they are made use of as glasses to convey and reflect the beams of the light of the world.”

As burning and shining lights, ministers shone in to “clear divine truths and to refute errors, and to reclaim and correct God’s people wherein in any respect they have been mistaken and have been going out of the way of duty.” And yet there was a continuing need to balance the burning and shining aspects of light—a minister that has light but no heat “entertains his auditory with learned discourses, without a savor of the power of godliness or any appearance of fervency of spirit and zeal for God and the good of souls”; as a result, he may “gratify itching ears and fill the heads of people with empty notions; but will not be very likely to reach their hearts, or save their souls.” On the other hand, a minister that has vehement, intemperate, and zealous heat “will be likely to kindle the like unhallowed flame in his people, and to fire their corrupt passions and affections; but will never make them better, nor lead them a step toward heaven.” If ministers would stir up holy affections in the hearts of their people, they must be shining and burning lights.

A third set of images that Edwards used to describe the ministry focused on ministers as “servants.” As Edwards put it in a sermon on John 13:15-16, “The work and business of ministers of the gospel is as it were that of servants, to wash and cleanse the souls of men.” This meant that ministers must be characterized by the “same spirit of humility and lowliness of heart…the same spirit of heavenly-mindedness and contempt of the glory, wealth and pleasures of this world…the same spirit of devotion and fervent love to God” that characterized Jesus himself. Edwards also compared ministers to farmers or “husbandmen,” pointing out that “ministers of the Gospel are the servants of the owner of the field that are sent forth to sow his seed.” To be a servant or a husbandman is strenuous work: “ministers are not called to be idle, but to labor…the business of a faithful minister tis a business of great and continual labor.”

Because the ministry required “hard labor,” “constant care, or continual oversight,” Edwards called for continued personal formation and spiritual discipline. He laid it down as a basic axiom that “the ministers of Christ ought to be eminently gracious and near to Christ.” This meant that ministers “should have their entire and continual dependence on Christ for all fitness for their work and assistance and success in it.” Abiding and resting in Christ by faith, clinging to his promises, studying his word, continuing in “secret converse with him,” depending on him to bear fruit—all were requirements for pastoral leaders because “they have no light of their own but all is derived from Christ, who is the light of the world, and they can be of no use to enlighten the souls of men unless held up by Christ.”

These disciplines were only possible because ministers experienced genuine grace from God in Christ by the Spirit. Faithful ministers had experienced true grace, which had “an exceeding energy in it. And the reason is, that God is in it; it is a divine principle, a participation of the divine nature, and a communication of divine life, of the life of a risen Savior, who exerts himself in the hearts of the saints.” This genuine grace produced genuine piety, which was “nothing remaining only in the head, or consisting in any speculative knowledge or opinions, or outward morality or forms of religion; it reaches the heart, is chiefly seated there, and burns there. There is a holy ardor in everything that belongs to true grace.” Having the Spirit of Christ indwelling, the minister’s heart “burns with love to Christ, and fervent desires of the advancement of his kingdom and glory; and also with ardent love to the souls of men, and desires for their salvation.”

As a faithful minister grasps the basic metaphors of his calling—affectionate husband, shining and burning light, hardworking servant—as well as the need for him to fan the flame of genuine piety through spiritual disciplines, he would understand that his task was to communicate his delight in and love for Christ to others. As Edwards put it, the minister “is a ‘burning light’; which implies that his spiritual heart and holy ardor is not for himself only, but is communicative and for the benefit of others.” As a public person set apart by Christ for a high and holy calling, the pastoral leader engaged in every duty of ministerial function with an eye toward stirring his people’s hearts toward a passionate love for God.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Book review: On Being Presbyterian

Here is a very friendly review of On Being Presbyterian from Brent Ferry in the OPC's magazine, New Horizons.

Friday, November 02, 2007

My dream for the PCA, no. 5

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Conclusion: Cruciform friends
I have said already that I’ve learned these things from my friends, many of whom are in this room with us today. And that is where we must return: because at the end of the day, we must develop a sense that life in Christ’s church is life with a community of friends.

I first began thinking about the church as a community of friends through reading Stanley Hauerwas, the Duke theological ethicist. In his essay, “A Testament of Friends,” which was written for a Christian Century series on “how my mind has changed,” Hauerwas observed that the only way he could do his theological task was through the friendship of others who remembered and engaged his work, who demonstrated vital practices of character and community, who lived out of the reality of Christ’s life and resurrection; as he put it, “Friends have taught me how wonderful and frightening it is to be called to serve in God’s kingdom. I began seeking to recover the importance of virtue and the virtues and ended up with the church.” The church as a community of friends is vital for living the Christian life in this world.

Yet friendship is not only vitally important because it sustains us for our life together, but also because it helps us to distinguish our true enemies. The reality is that the world represents a polis, a city, controlled by the true enemy; and without enemies, Hauerwas points out, there is no Christianity. Writing in a festschrift for Jurgen Moltmann, he notes that “God may be using this time to remind the church that Christianity is unintelligible without enemies. Indeed, the whole point of Christianity is to produce the right kind of enemies. We have been beguiled by our established status to forget that to be a Christian is to be made part of an army against armies.” Recognizing once again who are our true enemies is absolutely vital for helping us to see who our true friends are as well.

Now here is the payoff: ultimately, my dream for the PCA is that we learn to live together as friends who are united together against a common enemy, the devil himself who wanders about to harm and destroy (1 Peter 5:8). But if we are going to do this, we must learn to live as cruciform, or cross-formed, friends. Because of all the biblical references to the character of friendship, the most vital is this: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And I believe his point is clear: “Just as I call you friends and love you to the extent that I would lay down my life for you, so you must call each other friends and be shaped by this same cross-oriented, cross-shaped, laying-down-your-life love. And you can only do this because I have loved you first.”

And so, I believe that at this moment in our history God through Christ by his Spirit is calling you and me to be cruciform friends. Now some may object that the imagery of friendship calls to mind the superficial friendship of acquaintances who are barely involved with one another’s lives. Or friendship, for others, may call to mind affinity groups that are self-chosen, which could lead to a church that unwittingly affirms the homogenous unit principle—a “me church” where everyone is just like me. I would suggest that those who think this way about friendship do not really understand friendship from either the biblical, theological, or even classical point of view.

To help these, perhaps my other favorite writer can help us think about our friendship in terms of a membership within a given placed people. In Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, the title character envisions such a community one day after others dropped him off at his barber’s shop that doubled as his home. Jayber relates:

What I saw now was the [Port William] community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else and so on and on…It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was a membership of Port William and of no other place on earth. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.
In some ways, my friends, Jayber Crow describes our church. As a particular, placed people, we are held together by imperfect, frayed, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of affection, struggling with disappointment in itself and each other, and yet a membership of those who have been loved by somebody who had been loved by somebody else. And this membership, this placed people, rooted in a tradition called Presbyterianism, finds that all of its members—those who are angry, disappointed, longing, and hopeful—are necessary and essential to it. More than acquaintances, more than affinity groups, this is a community that is being perfected by its and Jesus’ own self-giving, dying love. Indeed, it is a community of cruciform friends, teaching each other to be faithfully Presbyterian, evangelically catholic, and biblically missional for God’s glory and the world’s good.

My dream for the PCA, no. 4

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

In America (and World): Biblically missional
Having said all this, we could be faithfully Presbyterian and evangelically catholic and still not fulfill what God is calling us to be and to do in our generation. That is why my dream is that as a denomination, we would become biblically missional, joining with God in his mission in America and the world.

Of course, “missional” is one of those du jour words, right up there with “emergent/emerging.” For all the controversy some missional folks have caused, there is something profoundly right and biblical about which our missional/emerging friends are reminding us—namely, that God is on a divine mission to redeem his world for his glory; that God demonstrated in the death of his one and only son the great lengths that he would go in order to do this; and that God has brought us into his kingdom at this moment to witness to rulers, authorities, and powers that God is, always has been, and always will be Lord and calls all people everywhere to bow the knee to King Jesus.

And so our task is to join God in his mission by incarnating the Gospel in a variety of contexts, numerous cultural systems and cultural moments all over the world. Our missional friends are reminding those of us who are tempted to be ecclesiastically sectarian, inward, and survivalist that either we join in God’s mission or we live utterly against the grain of what God is doing in his world—which is another way of saying, in disobedience to the Spirit of God.

I must say, I am all for this missional vision. But I want to make sure that as we dream, we keep the modifier “biblically” in place. Because if we are not careful, we can hear the missional call to redeem our present culture by incarnating God’s word in this cultural moment and we can translate it in such a way that it loses the biblical emphasis.

Because, at the end of the day, God did not send us into this world simply to set up orphanages, rebuild houses, do wonderful art, or purify politics. Instead, God sent us into the world to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Ultimately, redeeming the world happens as God through our witness redeems individuals and families in every nation.

To be sure, that does not mean that “deed ministry” is unimportant. Rather, our deeds of justice and mercy flow from the saving mercy that we have received from God and serve his own merciful purposes in the lives of others. And yet, while Jesus went around doing good—healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead—it is important to recognize that his mission, as he defined it, was this: “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). Any sense of God’s mission that gets away from this biblical imperative of preaching the good news of God’s kingdom ultimately is not God’s mission. My hope and dream for our church is that as we seek to live in the light of God’s mission for the nations, that we would do so through word and deed, preaching and mercy, for God’s glory.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

My dream for the PCA, no. 3

Part One
Part Two

Church: Evangelically catholic
Now, the focus on our Presbyterian identity which many of my friends have taught me could lead to a sectarianism that would sanctify our branch of the Christian tradition as the only true church. I say, could, because strictly speaking the Presbyterian tradition has long recognized the unity of Christ’s church even in its different denominational expressions.

Indeed, Presbyterianism has in its own beliefs, practices, and stories, within its own identity, those resources necessary to move away from the “sectarian temptation” and recognize the church catholic. And this is what I and many others long for: that we as a church would be evangelically catholic.

I’ve chosen this quite deliberately because I believe that our catholicity, our ecumenicity, must be motivated and guided by the Gospel itself; not only this, but our catholicity must serve the Gospel, particularly the Gospel has summarized within our own doctrinal standards. In fact, we cannot be catholic or ecumenical unless we take our own identity seriously, unless we speak out of the locality of our own Presbyterian place within the broader Christian tradition. And yet, this catholicity is evangelical and so forces us outside of ourselves into conversation with all those who name Jesus as Lord, who should be our gospel-believing friends (cf. 1 Cor. 12:3).

Still, we have to face this reality: any type of confessional commitment, with doctrinal particularity, could lead to doctrinal isolation and sectarianism. That has led some, particularly in my own generation, to desire to hold our doctrinal commitments more loosely in order to engage in a broader conversation with other Christian traditions and theologians. The thrust of Jesus’ words in John 17:20-21 weighs heavy on my generation; our temptation is to minimize confessional particularity in order to fulfill Jesus’ ecumenical mandate.

I think this is where lessons, both positive and negative, from our own conservative Presbyterian tradition can help us. As we consider that tradition, we learn that it is only when we thoroughly embrace in our own particular religious identity that any form of genuine, meaningful, productive ecumenical dialogue between confessional communities can occur. Hence, our own deep commitment to the Gospel as articulated by our own tradition is necessary if we are going to be able to listen well to other voices, to determine places of convergence and divergence, and to be a true friend who is willing to wound in order to further genuine friendship (Proverbs 27:9). To be together for the Gospel, we must understand for ourselves what the Gospel is and what it demands of us and the world.

And yet this means that we can’t escape Jesus’ words in John 17 too easily. That is why it is my great hope that our denomination would engage in a joining and receiving or organic union process with other Presbyterian denomination in my lifetime. To me, this is another lesson that comes from thinking through what it means to be evangelically catholic: our Presbyterian articulation of the Gospel in our confessional and connectional commitments, as well as the best aspects of our history, demands that we continue to seek structural oneness where there is doctrinal commonality. As we seek to be evangelically catholic, as we seek to live as friends, we will be motivated and guided by the Gospel to seek to further the oneness of the church within our own branch of Christ’s body.

[One of the footnotes in the section had this: This was true even for a jure divino Presbyterian like Thornwell; see, for example, his “Address to all the churches of Christ,” where he writes, “We are not ashamed to confess that we are intensely Presbyterian. We embrace all other denominations in the arms of Christian fellowship and love, but our own scheme of government we humbly believe to according to the pattern shown in the Mount, and, by God’s grace, we propose to put its efficiency to the test” (Ibid., 463). See also his “Church Boards and Presbyterianism,” in Collected Writings, 4:293-4.]

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My dream for the PCA, no. 2

Part one

Presbyterian: Faithfully Presbyterian
When our denomination was founded in December 1973, Jack Williamson’s opening address focused us on our mission as faithful and continuing Presbyterians: that we would be faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission. I would suggest that over the past 35 years while we all have agreed with the motto’s first point—faithfulness to the Scriptures as the inerrant word of God—we’ve struggled to know exactly what it means to be true to the Reformed faith and obedient to the Great Commission.

I don’t know if it heartens anyone to realize that this struggle over our Presbyterian identity has gone on from the very beginning of the PCA. Aiken Taylor, writing eleven months after the PCA’s formation in Christianity Today, observed that “ever since the organizing assembly in December in Birmingham, where the original lines had been drawn between hardline followers of latter-day Calvinists and those referred to by the hardliners as ‘evangelical,’ the trenches had been dug and the guns loaded.”

Part of the challenge of our life together is that at the beginning of the denomination’s life, we were fundamentalists learning to be Presbyterians. That may account for why we have appeared to some as “Machen’s warrior children.” It has not simply been that we like to fight with each other; rather, there has been a struggle to define what it means to be Presbyterian in a late modern or postmodern world.

Of course, I’m not a neutral observer in this quest for Presbyterian identity. But if I were to wish two things for the PCA when it comes to the “faithfully Presbyterian” part of our denominational label, it would be that we would be faithfully confessional and faithfully connectional.

Faithfully confessional
Presbyterians’ struggle over what it means to be confessional has gone on all the way back to our founding moments in America. I don’t suppose that we will necessarily come to a consensus about it in our lifetimes, nor do I necessarily expect everyone here to agree with what I mean by being faithfully confessional. With those caveats in place, I’ve been dismayed in our most recent theological conversations to hear the pitting against of Scripture and our confessional standards in ways that seem to undercut our commitment to being faithfully confessional.

For example, several of my friends scored the PCA study committee paper on the FV and NPP for focusing not on the biblical merits of the positions considered, but on whether they pass confessional standards. Without getting into the merits (or demerits) of the study paper or the committee itself, this objection strikes me as missing the point—in my thinking, at least, the relationship between Scripture and confession is a hermeneutical spiral that inevitably leads to confession summarizing scriptural belief and guiding future scriptural interpretation while providing means for confessional revision; and all this spiral occurs while our confessional documents still affirm and preserve scriptural infallibility, sufficiency and ultimate authority.

As a result, to be faithfully confessional is to affirm that our confessional documents are sound summaries of those biblical truths most certainly believed among us; and to pit the Scriptures against the Confession, as we have done in recent days, is not merely a non sequitur, it is actually quite dangerous for our long-term health and even existence as Presbyterians. For as we in good faith “sincerely receive and adopt” the Standards as a statement of our own faith (BCO 21-5, 24-6), we are saying to the world and to each other, these are fixed points of biblical truth that I hold in common with these friends—especially, the vitally important Presbyterian beliefs on election, covenant, effectual calling, justification, sanctification, adoption, faith, repentance, perseverance, church order, judgment. We cannot innovate on such doctrines without recognizing, with historian Carl Trueman, that “tinkering with justification, or indeed tinkering with a host of other doctrines with which justification is connected, will serve to place one’s theology outside the bounds of the Westminster Standards.” My dream is that as a church we would be content to be faithfully confessional Presbyterians.

Faithfully connectional
While our public struggle is over what it means to be confessional, our behind-the-scenes and often unspoken struggle is over what it means to be connectional. Part of this is undoubtedly the result of our history: the distrust that former southern Presbyterian churches felt toward the “denomicrats” who ran the old PCUS ultimately led them to dismantle required per capita giving through presbyteries and synods to denominational causes. Another part of this is the “grassroots” polity which several of the founders that has stressed a more “democratic” (rule of the mass of people) than “republican” (rule through representatives of the people) approach to church power, especially at the General Assembly level.

No doubt, explaining all of this is much easier than fixing it. And yet, unless we figure out a way to be faithfully and practically connectional, to live out genuine Presbyterian polity, our denomination will not have a long shelf life. And, in my opinion, while there are a number of things that could be said here, I believe one significant thing that must happen is an incremental and yet definite move toward a cooperative program of giving and funding denominational concerns coupled together with some requirement of church giving to at least some of those denominational concerns in order to remain in good standing in the PCA. In other words, I tend to think we need to be Presbyterian—just like the Southern Baptists.

There are other things, of course, to demonstrate our connectionalism—listening well to each other when we disagree; working appropriate processes within and across presbyteries, partnering together for church planting in strategic areas of North America and around the world. All of these things take money, of course. But in the end, what I would urge us is to commit ourselves anew to the challenge that James Henley Thornwell laid down so long ago: “We shall, therefore, endeavor to do what has never yet been adequately done—bring out the energies of our Presbyterian system of government.” My dream for us is that we would be the first generation to bring out these full energies in our polity and so be faithfully Presbyterian.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

My dream for the PCA, no. 1

[Note: two weeks ago, several folks gathered in Atlanta to discuss the future direction of the PCA. Each of the speakers were asked to address the topic, "What would be my dream for the PCA?" I was the last of the five speakers; this is what I hope for.]

My best friend growing up in northern Virginia was a guy named Tucker Darby. Tucker was larger than life in so many ways: at six foot-four inches, he played offensive guard for Oakton High School’s football team. Everywhere Tucker went, people followed him—old ladies cackled over him; young boys looked up to him; girls secretly admired him. But he was my best friend.

And I needed him as my friend—because by nature I am pretty quiet, a little introverted. In ways that I can’t or don’t understand, there were parts of me that Tucker filled out—his fun-loving, devil-may-care attitude contrasted with my cautious, but-my-dad-may-care feelings; his confidence supplied my insecurity; and his caring (as much as a football player can care) overcame my fearfulness. I needed him as a friend.

But the truth was that he needed me as his friend as well—because even though the girls secretly admired him, they actually went out with me and so I would supply him with dates. Even though the old ladies like him, they fed me and so they would feed him too. And even though he was athletic, he was still an offensive lineman; I was a quarterback (on a bad team) at a different high school—further up the intellectual totem pole, if you know what I mean. And so, even though I needed him, he needed me as well—and that is why throughout high school, our friendship worked so well: we recognized that we were friends who supplied what the other lacked.

There is something similar here to what I think about our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. I genuinely believe that I need each of you here—that each of you supplies something out of your divine giftedness that I lack and desperately need. Perhaps there are things that I bring to this conversation that will strengthen you as well. Yet, at the end of the day, I truly believe that we need each other, that God has called us together to be friends, the church in and for this world.

As you look around this room and you think about the broad contributions these and other friends have made to God’s vision for us as his church, I think we could say at least three things, all of which can be drawn from our denominational name. First, you friends remind me that God has called this denomination to be Presbyterian, faithfully so—living out our unique beliefs, practices, and stories before a watching and wanting world.

As my friends, you also remind me about the larger Church: that God calls us to be evangelically catholic in our orientation.

Finally, you my friends remind me that our denomination as a part of Christ’s church catholic must see ourselves as God’s agents of gospel mission in America and the world. And so, you remind me that God calls us to be appropriately, winsomely, and biblically missional, joining with God in his mission to this world in which he is making all things new.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

When you want a university president... apparently hire a historian. And not just any historian, but a historian of the American South. Everyone knows that Drew Gilpin Faust was just inaugurated as president of Harvard University; what you may not know is that she was a former president of the Southern Historical Association (she won the Parkman Prize for her Mothers of Invention and has a new book on death and the Civil War coming out next year). Her Fleming Lectures, published as The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South, were hugely important to my own thinking, especially issues related to cultural systems, ideology, and identity-formation.

What I did not know until I was surfing around the Internet was that University of Richmond has just hired Ed Ayers as their new president, effective July 1, 2007. Ayers is a very influential historian: his two most important books are The Promise of the New South and In the Presence of Mine Enemies. And of course, Nathan Hatch--prominent religious historian--became the president of Wake Forest University in 2005.

When you think about it, there does seem to be an unusual preponderance of historians in academic administration. While it is fairly unusual for someone from the hard sciences or engineering to lead a university (Lee Todd as president of the University of Kentucky being an notable exception), historians get placed into these spots frequently. I've often wondered why that is: do trustees think that historians do not have enough to do?

I think part of the reason must be that historians, by the very nature of the task, are conservators of traditions (even revisionist historians care for the past, albeit for the value it has for the present). As a result, they tend to value institutions (which are tradition-bounded organisms), desire to care for them, and long for them to be healthy and successful. Such passions often mean that they are led into academic administration, which can have the ironic effect of curtailing historical scholarship (Nathan Hatch, for example, has not published a major book since 1989, which was about the time he became provost at Notre Dame). And yet, these passions also mean that these men and women care enough to participate in conserving institutions and play an important function of public leadership.

Perhaps some day when a later historian (perhaps my great-great grandchild) chronicles the history of Harvard, he or she will make a note that the president of the school while their great-great grandfather was alive was also a historian of the American South and was willing to participate in academic administration--just like him.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Two weeks...gone like a snap of the fingers

Ugh. I just realized that it has been two weeks since I've posted anything here. I'm sorry to those of you who still check this regularly. Covenant Seminary, where I work, is coming down to the last preparations before our joint comprehensive visit by our two accrediting bodies, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association and the Association of Theological Schools. The team arrives Sunday afternoon, meets with us for full days of meetings on Monday and Tuesday, and then gives a preliminary report of their findings on Wednesday morning. It culminates an 18-month process with which I've been involved.

I do have things to post and I hope that I can some of those things up in the next couple of days. Until then, thanks for your patience and keep checking back (and for those of you who email me offline, I will email you back--if not soon, then by November 1!).

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


I'm a huge Springsteen fan. When The Rising came out, I was at a MNA conference in Atlanta. I skipped a session in the morning on the day it came out and bought the album. I went back to my room and listened to it on my CD player...and wept. It was the title track especially that moved me--the imagery of resurrection tied with the poignancy of the dead firefighter (who died during 9/11) longing to be reunited with his wife--was more than I could handle.

There are new tears of joy today because the new E Street band album, Magic, came out today. Unlike The Rising, which only had a few outstanding tracks ("Lonesome Day," "Mary's Place," "The Rising," and "My City of Ruins" were the keepers), this album evokes so many of the best Springsteen and E Street Band moments--from "Long Walk Home" (which has the feel of "This Hard Land") to "I'll Work for Your Love" (the Roy Bittian beginning echos "Thunder Road") and "Livin' in the Future" (which has hints of early complex rhymes that Bruce used to do on Greetings from Asbury Park and ties to "Tenth Street Freeze-Out"). There are also nods to Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys ("Your Own Worst Enemy") and Dylan ("I'll Work for Your Love").

In the end, it will be interesting how this album wears over time. I listened to The Rising hard for three years or so; now many of the songs feel hackneyed (which is the same feeling I have for most of Born in the USA, especially the songs that had the most radio airplay). The two classic Springsteen and E Street Band albums--Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town--never feel old even though I've listened to them over and over (especially "Thunder Road," "Born to Run," and "Candy's Room" each of which I've probably heard 500 times [no exaggeration]). Will songs from Magic have that staying power? If so, then the Boss will have truly been magical.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Manning Meter

The best thing about the Internet? All the joy it brings to fantasy football players and stat-geeks around the world. See, for example, the Manning Meter.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Church Power and "High Church" Presbyterianism

In a conversation happening elsewhere on the web (in which thankfully I am not taking part), the problem of church power and the longing to be "High Church" Presbyterianism has been central. It struck me in reading the back and forth that many Presbyterian and Reformed types love to talk about being "High Church" (whether with ecclesiology or sacramental views) when it supports their view of things, but hate it when it does not.

For example, in the old PCUS, conservatives abominated progressives' charges that the former were not loyal to their ordination vows when failing to support financially the church's missions and education programs. And yet, if the church corporate speaks under the guidance of the Spirit and lordship of Christ, doesn't that carry weight? Is that or is that not Christ's voice? Conservatives said, no, that was backroom politics; and they left the church.

Likewise, in more recent times, a certain denominational body adopted a study report with an overwhelmingly affirmative vote, standing firm for what it conceived to be doctrines under some measure of attack--justification, union with Christ, perseverance, election. There are those who have charged this denomination with abusing process and resorting to back room politics, even after the opportunity to debate a motion to postpone/recommit. So, did Christ speak through the church's action? Was the Spirit present or not? Many are saying no and are fighting the church's action.

Both examples are interesting because they get at the issues of church power or church authority, which for Presbyterian-types is a major issue of concern. In fact, James Bannerman's classic two-volume treatment on ecclesiology organizes itself around these issues of church power. And the reason this is the case is simple--most Christians are quite fuzzy on what the church's authority is and how they should respond to it. As a result, most conversations about church power devolve to independency on one side or "sacramental magisterium" on the other.

However, genuine Presbyterianism (especially in its "High Church" or "Old School" varieties) has historically represented a third option, melding together the recognition that the resurrected and ascended Christ has granted authority to his church (in line with congregational polities) and that this authority is delegated to representatives who act on behalf of Christ's people (in line with episcopal polities). Tied with this recognition is that "all synods or councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both" (WCF 31:4); and so, church authorities make mistake and must be held accountable by Christ's people through a careful investigation of Scripture (WCF 1:6, 10). Yet when their counsel is demonstrated to be biblical, their voice is Christ's own voice.

And this is where the rub is coming in the conversation elsewhere in cyberspace. One party certainly appears to be saying--we are just a conversation and we want to change things in our respective denominations, but we don't want to be held accountable (which appears the position of congregationalism). Another party is saying--but what about the church? what about ecclesiology? Why are you not submitting to the voice of the church in your respective denomination? And this failure to communicate may be a failure to understand that at the heart of "High Church" ecclesiology is church power, centered in our respective Presbyterian denominations.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The manners of friendship

Richard Mouw blogs about how a biblical understanding of friendship leads to good manners, even towards one's "enemies."

On friendship and the church, no. 4

Part one
Part two
Part three

3. The Place of Christian Friendship: The Church
In other words, genuine friendship should happen as we live in faith and faithfulness to one another as the body of Christ. The Church, as Christ’s body, ought to be a place of friendship, a place where we can speak the truth in love and listen to one another. It ought to be the place where we weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. And it ought to be the place where together we heard the Word, speak the Word, sing the Word to one another.

We are brothers and sisters in Christ, yes; but we also must be friends. Why? We are able to share friendship with one another because we are friends of Jesus Christ.

Jesus himself said, John 15:12-17 (ESV), “"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”

Because we know God’s love, demonstrated by Jesus laying down his life for us; because we hear Jesus call us his friends; and because he commands us to love one another in the same way as he loved us—with the same sacrificial love demonstrated in friendship, we as Christ’s body, as the church, must demonstrate loving friendship for one another. We must be a people who are able to practice Christian friendship with each other. We must be able to speak to each other words of comfort, rebuke, wisdom, vision. We must be able to listen to each other. We must worship together as God’s people.

If genuine friendship, based on faith and faithfulness, does not occur here, where in the world will it happen? And if friendship perishes from the face of the earth, if faith and faithfulness disappear from human existence, do we not become something less than human?

May God then grant us love for one another that we might extend ourselves sacrificially to one another in loving friendship. May God grant us faith, to trust in him and in those with whom he has placed us. And may God grant us grace, to be faithful and loyal to one another, living out lives of Christian friendship with one another. For, after all, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” Amen.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

On friendship and the church, No. 3

Part one
Part two

2. The practices of Christian friendship: talking, listening, and fellowship
So, faith and fidelity are absolutely vital for relationships of any sort. But faith and faithfulness are particularly important for friendship.

Friends make and keep promises to one another. In some friendships, these may not be verbal promises; in others, such as a marriage, they are. Even when unspoken, we know what we expect of friends, we know what they have promised. We expect our friends to listen to us, to keep our secrets, to dream with us, and to stand with us in times of trouble. We expect a “friend to love at all times”; we expect “a true friend to stick closer than one’s nearest kin.”

With our friends, our behavior creates expectations, needs, and loyalties with the other. Even if we don’t say so, there are promises that we make when we enter into a friendship. What we must recognize is that these expectations are based upon trust and loyalty, upon faith and faithfulness. When we enter into a friendship, we implicitly or explicitly promise to do certain things and we trust the other person will do the same. As long as we faithfully keep our promises, and the other party does as well, then the relationship works. When there is break down, when there is broken faith, then the relationship is wounded; our friend feels betrayed; and forgiveness needs to be sought.

What, then, are the promises that we make in friendship? Or to put it differently, what practices or habits do we develop in order to be a friend to another?

a. Speaking
There is great potential benefit in our speaking with our friend. The writer of Proverbs says, “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16.24). Our words penetrate and spread their effects in the lives of our friends. When we as a friend can speak to another and unburden our souls, we find a renewing of our hearts.

There are four kinds of speaking we do with our friends. First, there is the word of comfort. When we sense that our friend is in pain or despair, we deliver “a word fitly spoken [which] is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25.11). We point them to the comfort that is found in our Triune God:
· To the one who has experienced sorrow, we point them to the One who in the last day will make sorrow and sighing to flee away (Isaiah 35.10)
· To the one who is weary, we point them to the One who invited all those who are tired and weary to himself
· To the one who is fearful and who despairs, we remind them that God himself will never leave you nor forsake you (Hebrews 13.5)

We say to our friends: “do you not know? Have you not heard/that firm remains on high/the everlasting throne of him who formed the earth and sky…Supreme in wisdom as in power/the Rock of ages stands;/though you cannot see, nor trace/the working of his hands.” In delivering words of comfort to such ones, we demonstrate our faithfulness in walking with them in their sorrow and suffering for we know that “anxiety weighs down the human heart, but a good word cheers it up” (Proverbs 12.25).

Sometimes we speak the word of rebuke. We know that the Proverbs say, “Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise rebuke to a listening ear” (Proverbs 25.12). And while we fear the others response, we must have courage to blame and scold in a sharp way—in doing so, we let our friends know that we are willing to lose constant contact with them in order to be faithful to them.

As friends, we also may speak words of wisdom. Our friends will face challenges and difficult decisions—when they come to us for advice, they do not want “yes men,” but rather they seek wisdom. We must keep faith with our friends by looking at the situation from our perspective, sifting it through Scripture, and giving them wise words. The Scriptures tell us that “the wise of heart is called perceptive, and pleasant speech increases persuasiveness,” and “the mind of the wise makes their speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to their lips” (Proverbs 16.21, 23). Those who speak wise words know that wisdom is communicated not only in what is said, but also in how it is said. The manner in which we give advice can be just as or even more persuasive as the advice we give. When our friends come for advice, we must entreat them and persuade them with a kind and gentle tone, helping them trust that we have their best interests at heart.

Finally, friends speak words of vision and dreams. I don’t mean that friends experience dreams and visions from God about each other and then relay the information on. Rather, I mean that friends that keep faith will dream what their friends might do and envision further spheres of usefulness for their friends. Thus, when we speak, we open ourselves, our souls, up to our friend in speaking the word of rebuke and of comfort and of wisdom and of dreams and visions.

We keep faith to them and dream for them; we seek their betterment with our words and not their hurt. We are willing for them to see themselves as sinners, for who else will be so faithful?
And we are desirous that they be comforted in times of grief and pain. Speaking is one of the great practices necessary for keeping faith for our friends. In speaking we keep promises and live faithfully with one another.

b. Listening
However, not only is speaking an important practice for faithful friendship, but listening is equally important. Listening is important because communication is always reciprocal. In order to trust another enough to extend ourselves in speech, we must believe that the other will listen to us.

And good listening is difficult. It is difficult because there is so much in our age to hear, both outside and inside ourselves. But we are called upon to “be quick to listen” (James 1.19).

Listening faithfully to our friend involves two things.

· First, listening involves the restraint of ourselves.
We must set aside the voices that we hear inside ourselves, and two in particular, the voice of self-promotion and the voice of self-protection. Self-promotion cries out to us, particularly when our friend is speaking. We want to set ourselves forward as witty, funny, intellectual, aware, sophisticated, and so forth. However, in order to so manipulate our words in order to put ourselves forward in this light, we must be unfaithful to the person speaking largely by ignoring them. In order to set this voice aside, we must practice humility, looking to the interests of others rather than to the interests of self-promotion.

The other voice we must set aside is the voice of self-protection. This is the voice that refuses to bear our soul to our friend—we protect ourselves from our friends from the point they say, “How are you doing?” to the point they say, “Well, see you later.” We never would actually listen to their pain and grief or their successes and happiness for fear that it might demand something from us. And so, much of our conversation devolves into mere hearing and grunting noises to attempt to lull the other person into believing that we are actually listening. Here again, in order to keep faith with our friends, we must be those who are willing to involve ourselves in their successes and failures.

· However, a faithful practice of listening also involves the extension of ourselves.
Listening is a grace which is patterned on how God listens to us. The Psalmists continually asked God to hear their prayers. In Psalm 5, David sings, “Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing. Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God. O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice” (Psalm 5.1-3a; cf. Psalm 17.6, 54.2, 55.1; 61.1; 86.1, 6). And in Psalm 86, David asks God, “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me” (Psalm 86.1). God is pictured as one who will interrupt what he is doing in order to bow down and hear the prayer of God’s people with a single-minded interest.

In the same way, we are to set aside what we are doing and listen to our friend with a single-minded interest. For it is in this faithful listening to one another that we are able to carry out James’ admonition to be quick to listen and that we might keep faith with those who are our friends.

c. Fellowship
A third practice which both demonstrates friendship and preserves faith and faithfulness is fellowship. Commonly, evangelicals have thought of fellowship as that which was done over coffee and doughnuts after church or in a week-night Bible study. And in the evangelical mind, fellowship would entail swapping stories about how the week past went and what is going to happen in the week coming. Or perhaps “fellowship” pictures for many what happens at a place of spiritual experience where there is a lot of people, whether at a retreat or a camp or Christian pep rally—Christians will return from such events and talk about the “fellowship.”

However, I would suggest to you that this is a truncated view of fellowship—for fellowship means that friends worship together, as in Acts 2.42: Acts 2.42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.”

· When we practice fellowship with our friends in worship, we share the Word.
And in order to share the Word with them, we must awaken ourselves to our various practices of worship—attentive listening, quiet meditation, thoughtful prayer, heart-felt singing, focused reading. It is only as we practice worship in these various activities that we can in any sense share the Word with our friends and thus practice fellowship with them.

· Likewise, the practice of fellowship means we also share the Lord’s Supper.
As we gather around the Lord’s table, and as we pass the elements among our friends, we are expressing a mystery that we cannot fully understand—that we, disparate people from various backgrounds and experiences which we cannot even guess, come to this table as a mob but in partaking the Lord’s supper, we are Christ’s body.

· Finally, fellowship means we share discipline together.
We share the discipline which the body of Christ receives from God; and we share in the discipline we practice in our own midst. It is only, then, in the means of grace, in the Word and the Supper and discipline, that we can truly practice fellowship.

These three practices—speaking, listening, and fellowship—represent some of the promises on which Christian friendship is based. As we speak and listen to each other and as we worship together, our hearts are tied together in Christian love and affection. We rejoice together and weep together; we speak comfort to each other and listen to one another’s rebuke; we sing songs of praise and heard the Word of God.

On friendship and the church, No. 2

Part one

1. The basis of all human relationship: faith (trust) and faithfulness (loyalty)
“If men no longer have faith in each other,” one modern theologian once asked, “can they exist as men?” At the base of this question is the assumption that human beings exist in connection with one another in faith, or covenant; that faith and faithfulness, or loyalty, is at the root of all relationships; and that if human beings, and particularly if Christians, fail to trust each other, and to act in faithfulness to each other, they will cease being Christians and even worse, will cease being human.

All relationships—whether between God and human beings or human beings with one another—operate on faith and faithfulness, or trust and loyalty. We can only have relationship when we trust the other to be loyal to us and when we reciprocate that loyalty. Once that faith, that trust, is broken by faithlessness or disloyalty, then relationship becomes difficult, if not impossible.
What is the nature of keeping faith and exercising loyalty? How are Christians to keep faith and exercise loyalty in a world that does not embody faithfulness but faithlessness?

Even in our beginning steps into this world of faith, we run into road blocks. For “faith” is a word which is very much like “nice” and “grace” and “holy”—it is a word which we use all the time, but have not a clue what it really means.

Even in Scripture, the closest thing we come to a definition seems to be no definition at all: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11.1).
The nineteenth-century Scottish divine, John Brown of Edinburgh, said of this verse, “I have always felt it difficult to attach distinct ideas to these English words.” Certainly Brown’s words could be uttered by many of us. For at bottom, there are not many things in this world that we are absolutely sure of; and we are particularly skeptical of those things we cannot see. Thomas is the patron saint for most of us.

And so, in order to illustrate what he means, the writer of Hebrews reminds his readers of stories which illustrate his definition:

Abraham obeying the voice of God, leaving his homeland, going to a land which he did not know, believing the promises of God concerning a son, and then willingly offering that son to God, all the time believing that God could raise the dead;

Moses, a special child, being protected by his parents, refusing to be called to son of Pharoah’s daughter, suffering with his people for Christ’s sake, keeping the Passover when the “destroyer” was killing firstborn children all over Egypt, passing through the Red Sea on dry land;

and finally, Jesus, not clinging to those things which could have easily entangled him, running our race, gaining our salvation in the Crucifixion event, and counting death on the cross a joy and not a shame.

Certainly other figures are mentioned in that eleventh chapter of Hebrews—but the main three figures stand out clear: Abraham the Promise-Receiver, Moses the Law-Giver, Jesus the Gracious Redeemer. These three teach us of faith.

And ultimately Abraham and Moses and Jesus’ faith all rested on the promises of God—they believed that God, who made many promises, would in fact keep those promises. The reason they believed this was because they knew God’s character—they knew that God is just and merciful and gracious and truthful and faithful. As a result, they knew that when God made promises God would keep them.

Yet, Abraham and Moses and Jesus’ faith did not stop simply at believing God would keep promises; they acted on that trust. They displayed faithfulness and they displayed it in action, often actions which were based directly on those promises.

Abraham is promised a place which he would received as an inheritance—he believes God and goes to find it, living in tents as an alien in a foreign country.

God promises Moses that God would deliver the people of God, and that Moses would play a starring role—Moses believes God, against his better judgment, and confronts his countrymen and Pharaoh and the wilderness.

Jesus is promised that not only would he die for his people’s sins but that he would be raised to life again—he believes God, scorns death, and willingly goes to the Cross.

Faith that acts is alive and is genuine; faith that sleeps, that does nothing, is dead and is false. In short, faith trusts God to keep God’s promises and acts accordingly.

If the nature of faith toward God is to trust God to keep God’s promises and to act in faithful response to God, then does it not stand to reason that human faith finds its basis in trusting other human beings to keep their promises and to act in faithfulness toward them?

I think so. Faith which stands at the basis of our relationships with one another—our friendships, marriages, churches and societies—demands faithfulness, it demands faith and fidelity. In truth, this trust and responsive faithfulness is absolutely vital for relationships to function normally. Marriages which excuse unfaithfulness by one or both spouses generally do not last long;
parent-child relationships which are characterized by unfaithful dealing and resentful distrust are termed “dysfunctional”; congregations which cannot trust their ministers and begin to act in unfaithfulness by failing to attend to the Word and Supper and disciplinary fellowship will soon be putting the “for sale” sign outside their sanctuaries; and societies which sow the seeds of dishonesty, greed, and cynicism born of distrust and infidelity will begin to implode.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

On friendship and the church, No. 1

[I've been thinking about friendship as a way for understanding the nature of the church for quite a while now. In fact, I believe that Christ calls the church to exist as a community of friends; I first explored that claim in this meditation that I preached five or six years ago. Remember, these are notes for a sermon (and it was a little long); but it may provide some background for some things I may post in the future.]

In his recent book, A Visit to Vanity Fair, Alan Jacobs asks provocatively, “Why are there so few attempts, by Christians anyway, and for all I know by Jews, to formulate a theology of friendship?” Pondering that question the other night, I had to admit that it was a curiosity indeed. After all, friendship was a major issue in classical Greek thought—one writer observed that while it would be false to say that the entire history of Western thought about friendship is a series of footnotes to Plato, yet if we said to Plato and Aristotle, we would be closer to the truth.

In addition, the Christian Scriptures were not devoid of texts that could be used to construct a theology of friendship. Perhaps some of you can think readily of familiar accounts—

We think of Ruth crying out to Naomi, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” (Ruth 1.16-17)

We remember David’s friendship with Saul’s son Jonathan, which led the writer of Scripture to observe that “The soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18.1)

We recall texts like the one we have read in the Proverbs, and one that counsels, “Some friends play at friendship, but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin” (Proverbs 18.24).

And yet, though we know that Scripture teaches us on this matter of friendship, most of us have never considered fully what friendship means, what friendship consists in, and what Christian friendship might look like.

Perhaps we think that friendship is something that teenagers should be concerned with, but once we become adults, it is no longer an issue.

Perhaps the most we have ever heard was the text most frequently used in my youth group growing up, 1 Corinthians 15.33, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals’.”

Perhaps we approach friendship with the consumer and managerial mindset of our generation. We become “one-minute managers” of our friendships—our talk has a minute of praise, a minute of rebuke, and a minute of concern.

Or perhaps we reduce friendship to mere “accountability” on some moral issue so that we might live more “productively” for Christ’s sake.

As Christians can we say more than this? Is it possible to develop a picture, a theology, of Christian friendship? I think it is possible; I think we need to take a step back and attempt to think theologically about this vital area of human relationship.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Snicker, no. 2

Rodney Trotter/Carl Trueman and another "separated at birth"--I suppose this is why Ligon prefers to preach the Sunday and Wednesday evening services??

New Presbyterian "Style"

...Machen's Warrior Children clothing line.

[HT: Warfield List]

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Back from Little Rock

I got back last night from Little Rock, Arkansas, where I was presenting a paper at an international conference on "The Little Rock Crisis: Fifty Years Later." This past week was the 50th anniversary of the attempt by the Little Rock 9 to integrate Little Rock Central High in 1957. The conference was arranged to focus on issues of Civil Rights, both as narrowly applied to the Little Rock Crisis and more broadly.

As it so happened, my paper was slated for a plenary session and represents one of the chapters in the book that I've been working on forever (at least, it feels that way; I started researching in 2002). The book is tentatively titled, For a Continuing Church: Fundamentalism in the Presbyterian South, 1934-74 (I keep fiddling with that subtitle); the chapter and paper was titled, "'Red and Yellow, Black and White': Southern Presbyterian Conservaties and the Crises of Postwar America." In the essay, I look at how PCUS conservatives developed an anti-progressive ideology that used biblical and theological warrants to link anti-integration, anti-Communism, and anti-centralization.

As such, these leaders serve as an important signpost on the road from the Old Christian Right (1910-1930) and the New Christian Right (1970-present) as well as a bellwether in the South's movement from the Democratic to Republican Parties. After all, Corwin Smidt has demonstrated in Pulpit and Politics that 93% of PCA clergy voted Republican in the 2000 Presidential election; I think the story I'm telling is important for understanding how this happened. Needless to say, told in its entirety and truthfully, it is always not a pretty story, especially our abysmal and unbiblical positions on race and segregation in the 1940s and 1950s--and yet, it needs to be told in order to continue to foster the truth and reconcilation that our denomination began in 2002 (with the passage of overture 20, apologizing for Presbyterians' covenantal role in slavery and segregation) and 2003 (with the adoption of the pastoral letter on racism).

The other thing I did while I was there was go to the Clinton Presidential Library, which was about a mile from my hotel. Since I am a presidential library junkie (surprise, surprise--I've been to Nixon, Carter, and Reagan as well; next summer we plan to go to Truman and maybe Ike), I was interested in seeing what they did with it.

Observations: 1) The building, which was hailed in 2004 when it opened, felt very sterile; while it was supposed to represent a bridge, connecting with the railroad bridge next to it, it reminded me of a double-wide trailer. 2) There was a ton of staff and police there; especially when compared to the number of tourists (no school kids the day I went), it seemed like overkill. 3) For the size of building, there weren't that many displays, especially compared to Reagan and Nixon's libraries. 4) The most enjoyable displays were the ones that showed Bill Clinton's essential humanity--the guided tours of the White House in which you touched a monitor and Clinton would appear to talk about various artifacts in a given room; and the video of Clinton's talks at the White House Press Dinner (which were very funny). Regardless of your politics or how you feel about Clinton's presidency, I thought the visit was worth it, especially if you are in Little Rock anyway.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A theology of hugging

Richard Mouw posts some thoughtful reflections on a theology of hugging. One story along this line: when I became the interim pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in June 2005, one of our elders, John Hancock, asked if there was anything he could do for me. I said, "Yes, there is. Every Sunday you are here, if you were to give me one of your big hugs, it would help me immensely." And for nearly 20 months, every Sunday, Hancock would give me a hug.

I have to say--it was such an encouragement. Even when the voices in my head and my heart told me that I was worthless, foolish, pointless, John's hug was God's grace coming to me saying, "Not only are you not worthless, you are loved by God and by God's people." Those hugs sustained me in a sacramental sort of way--by being means of grace to my often doubting soul.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Convocation Benediction 2007

This is the benediction I gave today at our 52nd opening convocation, drawn from Ephesians 4:20-21:

As you enter into this new year,
receive these good words from God:
May God grant you his grace to learn Jesus this year,
his great and dying love for you,
his continued intercession for you at the throne of God,
his ongoing work in and through you;
and as you gain this knowledge,
may God grant you to delight
in his love, intercession, and work
for his glory, your joy, and the nations' good.
Go in God's love, Amen.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Carl Trueman on southern theologians

Carl Trueman is back at it again with a thoughtful post listing three reasons why 19th century southern theologians are not worth one's time (along with a reference to my long-lost brother, Rob Lowe). While admitting that perhaps they aren't the most useful when it comes to systematic theology (a debatable point--Dabney, for example, was the theologian who best convinced me about the biblical and theological rationale for infant baptism), I would submit that it is exactly on the issue of how theology operates within cultural systems that Dabney and Thornwell prove most useful. That is to say, Dabney and Thornwell are important for historical reasons (and contemporary lessons), even when they may fail our tests for theological purposes.

I think this was one of the points that I tried to weave throughout my biography on Dabney. It was why I used this Dabney quote as the epigraph for the entire book: "We shall be wise, therefore, if we harken to the striking instruction of these instances, and make it our method to submit with modesty to the sober teachings of the past in all our legislation for the future." All too often, we have a hard time thinking self-critically about how our theological claims serve to legitimate (illegitimately!) various familial, economic, political, social, moral choices we make. By looking critically at someone like Dabney or Thornwell who blew it so royally on race and slavery, we have a better opportunity for noticing our own blind spots in our cultural systems.

I've made this point before from the perspective of cultural history (here ; here, here, here, and here; as well as here and here)--but it bears repeating: we can only gain perpsective on our present cultural systems through a critical appraisal of the way others have lived in cultural systems in the past. But even more, it is only as we view this past critically and sympathetically do we really understand that all human beings are deeply and profoundly sinful and flawed, save one: Jesus is the only hero of the historical story.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Christ and Culture, no. 1

I intend to post more on this issue, one about which I care much and have dedidicated much thought. But John Piper's reflections on this theme are so very useful (and so very Piper). You can read the whole here, but a salient quote: "The fact that Christians are exiles on the earth (1 Peter 2:11), does not mean that they don’t care what becomes of culture. But it does mean that they exert their influence as very happy, brokenhearted outsiders." And all I can say to this is, yes.

Setting Up False Devils

Read this piece by Richard Mouw....

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Overcoming Sin and Temptation

Overcoming Sin and Temptation: Three Classic Works by John Owen, edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006.

I have to admit it: I have struggled to read John Owen. This is not exactly the best thing for a church history professor who has an abiding interest in Reformation and Post-Reformation theology. And yet, like many, I found Owen’s sentence and argument structure to be so long and convoluted that I gave up in despair ever truly accessing his theological and pastoral insights.

Until I received a copy of this newly edited version of his three classic works on sin and temptation. Kelly Kapic (from Covenant College) and Justin Taylor have done believers a great favor in producing this edition of Owen’s Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers; Of Temptation: The Nature and Power of It; and Indwelling Sin. Unlike other editions of these works that either modernized the language or rephrased Owen’s main theological points in different words, this edition is straight Owen—with important differences.

In terms of form and style, the editors helpfully defined nearly every archaic word at the bottom of the page (I swear sometimes Owen makes up these words!); Justin Taylor provided a helpful introduction at the beginning of each treatise that summarizes the argument; and they provided are very helpful outlines in the back of the book to assist the reader follow the flow of the argument (necessary for Indwelling Sin especially). Most helpful to me was the way the editors italicized Owen’s main points and broke up long paragraphs to make the reading much easier. All of this made Owen much more accessible for the struggling modern reader.

In terms of substance, Kelly Kapic’s marvelous introduction was both inspirational and informational. Not only did Kapic highlight key themes with a light and masterful touch, but he demonstrated why Owen is worth all the trouble. And of course, Owen himself was rich, reminding us “to be killing sin or sin will be killing you” (p. 50). I found him making pithy observations on sin and sanctification that I would subsequently write into my journal for meditation and future use.

One hint from my own experience that may prove useful: I made it my determination to read ten pages from Owen every day as part of my morning worship. That set a good limit for what my mind could absorb and consider throughout the day, but it also provided a natural pace through the book. It took me the better part of two months to complete, but the net result was worth it. However you go about reading this book, for the good of your soul, please do.