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.]