Retraining the Hair on the Back of the Deacon’s Neck, Part 2

16 August 2009

As I concluded my previous post, I could fairly hear the deacons in the audience shouting, “Just because the hair on the back of your neck stands up, how do you know it’s right?”

That’s a good question.  There has to be some norm, some standard by which to measure.

There is.  It’s called the Bible, and one of the things it teaches us is this: who the hearer is will determine what he hears.  If this sounds subjective to you, that’s because in a sense, it is.  But it’s entirely biblical: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” as Jesus often said.  This saying teaches us that there is such a thing as having ears to hear, and such a thing as not having ears to hear.  The person with ears and the person without ears are both standing in front of Jesus, and both hear the same parable…but only the one with ears to hear really hears it, after all. The same propositional content for both, but one understands and the other does not.

Nor is understanding, or failing to, the full range of outcomes.  The same content can convey two opposite messages to two different people, as Paul tells us:

Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place.  For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.  To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things?

We carry the gospel on our lips and in our lives, and this bespeaks death to those who are perishing, but life to those who are being saved.  It’s the same content, but different messages are received because the hearers are different.  This is obvious with a little reflection: “Yet I have set My King on My holy hill of Zion” is gospel to God’s people, but chains and a rod of iron to those who will not kiss the Son.

This is to say that there is no substitute for walking with God and being conformed to the image of His Son.  As we do this, we will find that He makes us able to see and hear what would otherwise be invisible and inaudible to us.  All of which returns us to the question: how will we know when this is happening?

Two blind men are standing on a hill, looking out at a sunset.  Suddenly, one of the blind men is healed entirely, and the sunset bursts in on him.  “I can see!  I can see!” he shouts.

“How do you know?” asks his still blind companion.


Skeletal Evangelism

5 July 2009

Having recently become acquainted with Duane Garner through his Church Music Through History series, I have been listening to some of the other things he’s done, most recently a couple of lectures from a series titled “The Christian Imagination: Creativity, Fiction & Poetry.” The following quote comes from the second lecture, starting at 41:55:

So, trying to do theology and to read the Bible, and to live without engaging the imagination — it leaves us without an image of the future, it leaves us with very little in the Bible that we can actually benefit from.  Take out the stories, take out the poetry, and what are you left with?  It’s difficult for me to relate to the sort of mindset that’s only content with the barest and weakest and most anemic expressions of faith : “If we could just boil this down to the essentials, then we’ve got it.”  Wouldn’t we much rather become a people who are enraptured with the stories and the songs that the Bible gives us, even if we don’t understand them all, even if there’s some mystery there, and then bust out with a creativity of spirit that says, “How can we celebrate this; how can we sing that; how can we recognize this; how can we mark that?”
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It’s the very nature of our five senses to pull us into whatever is there: scent, rhythm, texture, vision.  This is the way God’s word pulls us in.  It draws us in with its beauty to participate in it.  And so the mature Christian imagination is concerned with story, and poetry, and creativity.  We hear the stories, we know the stories, we see their beauty, and we see our own part in the story, and the continuation of the story.  The Christian imagination understands life as meaningful history, the structure of which is revealed in Jesus.

Indeed.  And nowhere is this observation more applicable than in evangelism.

We try to make evangelism easier, less intimidating, and we generally do this by boiling it down to seven key statements, or four laws, or three points, or a saving proposition, or whatever.  We want to be able to tell people that they can be confident they’ve “given someone the gospel” when they have said X — whatever X is.

We do this to equip our fellow believers, to build them up so that they can evangelize confidently, and that’s a commendable goal.  But the way we’re going about it has a heavy cost: we lose sight of what actually happens in evangelism.

In evangelism we introduce people to Someone we love.  Relaying a couple of key facts is, at best, only a decent start.

When I try to describe my wife to someone who’s never met her, I may search my memory for that one story or factoid that perfectly captures Kimberly’s quirky sense of humor, or her wit, or her boldness.  But once I’ve relayed that one thing, I don’t sit back and think to myself, “That’s it.  That’s all anyone needs to know.”  No single fact or story could possibly capture the richness or depth of the delightful woman that I married, and when I want someone to know Kimberly, to see her as I do, the stories and facts pour forth without effort.  I’m not concerned to tell them the least they need to know; I want them to know far more than that.

How much deeper and richer is Jesus?

Jesus promises us the life we were always meant to live: harmony with God forever as His image in the creation.  He is able to make that promise because He died for our sins and rose the third day, the firstfruits of the resurrection in which we will all one day partake.  And He does all this for us while we are His enemies. You wouldn’t want to try to convey what Jesus is like without that part of the story.

But there’s so much more.  He’s the kind of guy who tells homespun fables that make us see respectable, self-satisfied leaders as disobedient children, or murderous tenants, or inhospitable soil.  Aesop’s got nothing on Him.  When they ask Him what kind of holy teacher hangs out with hookers and drunks, He asks them what kind of doctor spends all his time with sick people.  When He walks into the temple and sees a house of worship turned into a continuing criminal enterprise, He calls it like He sees it — and starts flipping over tables to clean the place out. When the wedding party runs out of wine, He supplies more than a hundred gallons of the very best.  In His presence, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them — and God blesses those who do not shy away from all that Jesus is.

Jesus did not live a minimalist life; the Bible does not give us bare-bones accounts of it.    Why are we so desperate to know how much we can hold out on our unbelieving friends?


A Few Points on the Ethics of Theological Conflict

3 May 2009

I had occasion to recently come upon an article in Credenda/Agenda, the focus of which was an entirely different theological controversy than the one in which the free grace community finds itself presently embroiled. I’ve been following that controversy for some time, and I have a few opinions on it, but for the moment I’m going to keep them to myself, because I want to talk about something else: how God’s people conduct themselves in theological controversy.

The article devoted two of its eight subpoints to that very issue.  Now, I’ve had a lot to say about this over the past few years, but nothing I’ve produced has been as comprehensive as this article, and certainly nothing I’ve produced has been as well said.  Since I can do no better than to quote the article, I am going to do just that, by the kind permission of the folks at Credenda/Agenda and Christ Church of Moscow, Idaho.

You will want to know that since the particular doctrinal context of the article is largely an intra-Presbyterian conflict, there are several references to the Westminster Standards, which are (theoretically, at least) the doctrinal confession of the Presbyterian churches.  For our conflict, substitute something similarly authoritative.  You’ll be surprised how uncannily a propos this is, with that single substitution.

For your edification and reading pleasure, I give you an excerpt of “Credos” by Douglas Wilson, Credenda/Agenda 15 number 5, 2007:

On Heresy

1. I believe that any minister who brings or circulates charges of heresy, particularly when the charges concern a right understanding of the covenant, should have a household that is in harmony with the Scriptures (1 Tim. 3:4-5; Tit. 1:6), with children who all love and honor the Lord Jesus Christ. Who is the false teacher, and who is the true minister of the covenant? By their fruit you will know them (Matt. 7:15-20).

2. I believe that such qualifications are relevant in the current dispute because covenants are understood incarnationally. This statement is a broadside directed at heresy hunters who are doctrine machines, zealous for covenant theology, but whose covenantal lives in their own homes [are] in disarray. This is a widespread problem, and is not a veiled reference to any particular person or family.

3. I believe that the ignorance of the Westminster Standards displayed by some of her zealous defenders is astounding and inexcusable. I believe some people who bring charges of heresy should read a book sometime.

4. I believe that those who bring heresy charges need to take special care that their confidence in creedal advance has not been practically vitiated by other factors. Such factors could include pessimistic eschatology, extreme law/gospel dichotomies, ecclesiastical turf war envy, unhelpful two kingdom distinctions, or personal familial tragedies.

5. I believe that when heresy charges are confused, blurry and distorted enough to include in their charges very different and contradictory heresies, this is evidence, not that the heretics are broadly wicked enough to encompass any error, but rather that any stick is good enough to beat them with.

6. I believe that when lies and slanders are circulated under the cover of heresy charges, those so charged should not lament but should rather obey the Lord Jesus, and rejoice and be exceedingly glad (Matt. 5:11-12). The truth is vindicated, not only when faithful ministers proclaim and defend the truth, but also by those who cannot argue against it without resorting to distortion and misrepresentation.

7. I believe that bringing heresy charges in grief or sadness or with heaviness of heart is not to be thought of as an all-purpose moral disinfectant, allowing one to therefore get the facts wrong, charge individuals falsely, and then claim that the cause of all the trouble was lack of clarity on the part of those misrepresented.

8. I believe that the task of rooting out heresy was not committed to jitney theologians and hedge preachers on the Internet, furiously typing, as busy as the devil in a high wind.

On Giving Offense

1. I believe that few subjects are as badly neglected in the modern Church as the applied field of biblical polemics.

2. I believe that when controversy breaks out in the modern Church, it is therefore likely that all parties to the controversy share certain assumptions about what is appropriate in conflict and what is not, and these hidden assumptions tend to govern their discourse instead of the example and pattern of Scripture.

3. I believe that this hidden compromise of method vitiates the attempts of those believers who attempt to be faithful to the content of Scripture, as well as to the content of their confessional heritage.

4. I believe that in a particular kind of religious controversy the central point is to accomplish reconciliation, and that to fail in this task is to fail in maintaining the spirit of unity in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:2-6). We are to receive one another but not into disputes about debatable things.

5. I believe that in another kind of religious controversy the central point is to give offense, and that failure in such controversy is a failure to give offense in the way Scripture requires. And Scripture demands that we seek to offend willful obstinacy of opinion by ecclesiastical officials in the face of the grace of God.

6. I believe that failure to distinguish these two kinds of controversy, or a flat denial that there is ever a time when giving offense is a spiritual obligation, means in effect, that in the great basketball game between obedience and disobedience, the referees are always on the take.

7. I believe that our Lord Jesus, when confronted with ecclesiastical obstinacy, showed us this godly pattern for giving offense. Did you know the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?(Matt. 15:12). Yes, I did, He replied in effect. Mission accomplished (v. 13). The Lord attacked the scribes and Pharisees for their long robes, sanctimonious geegaws, prayer habits, tithing practices, their ways of greeting, their seating arrangements, their hypocrisies, and so on. After one such exchange (Luke 11:43-44), one of the lawyers said that Jesus was insulting them in His indictment too (v. 45). And in effect Jesus said, Oh, yes, thanks for that reminder. You lawyers . . .(v. 46). In short, Jesus was seeking to offend.

8. I believe that in a sinful world giving offense is one of the central tasks of preaching. When the offending word is brought to bear against those who have shown themselves to be unteachable, they are written off by that offending word. Employing a scriptural satiric bite is therefore not rejoicing in iniquity, but rather testifying against hardness of heart.

9. I believe therefore that in every controversy, godliness and wisdom (or the lack of them) are to be determined by careful appeal to the Scriptures, and not to the fact of someone having taken offense. Perhaps they ought to have taken offense, and perhaps someone ought to have endeavored to give it.

10. I believe that sometimes a fool is not to be answered according to his folly (Prov. 26:4), and those who contradict are to be answered in all gentleness (2 Tim. 2:24-25). In other situations a fool must be answered according to his folly lest he be wise in his own conceits (Prov. 26:5), and those who oppose the truth are to be rebuked sharply (Tit. 1:12-14; 2:15). Examples in Scripture and church history of men who can do both are not to be thought of as conflicted personalities, but rather as examples of obedience and balance.

11. I believe that true biblical balance in such things is the fruit of wisdom, and that such balance is not usually found in hot-headed young men, who do not know what spirit they are of (Luke 9:55). Consequently, prophetic rebukes should come from seasoned prophets, from men called to the ministry of guarding the Church of God. The work should be done by men of some age and wisdom, and not by novices, firebrands, and zealots.

12. I believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is always to be our example in dealing with certain kinds of religious leaders, and that where He has set an example, we must strive to follow Him. Part of this means we must be careful not to be hasty in imitating Him, since His wisdom was perfect and ours is not. It is therefore good to take counsel with others.

13. I believe that sharp rebukes and the ridiculing of evil practices should seldom be the first approach one should make, but usually should follow only after the rejection of a soft word of reproach, or when dealing with hard-hearted obstinacy displayed over an extended period of time. If this is not remembered, the satirist will find himself killing ants with a baseball bat.

14. I believe we must be careful not to let strong language and supposedly-righteous anger be a substitute for good arguments, to be employed when we feel threatened. Strong language must be weighed and measured, and must always have a point. Special thanks to Jim Jordan for his comments on the above.

The rest of the article focuses on the doctrinal content of the controversy, and depending on your background, may induce hyperventilation, redness of face, and blog posts.  If you want to read the whole thing, you can link directly to it here or have a look at the whole issue on the page for volume 15, number 5 of Credenda/Agenda.


Church Music Through History

26 April 2009

For many people caught up in the worship wars, the history of church music is presumed to look like this: Generation A comes to faith, grows up, and introduces its music into the worship of the church, bringing fresh vigor and new life to the tired and outdated tunes that preceded them.  Then Generation B comes to faith, grows up, and introduces its music into the worship of the church, bringing fresh vigor and new life to the tired and outdated tunes of Generation A, who have in the meantime become a bunch of obstructionist old geezers.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

It is assumed that each generation’s music is the popular music of its youth, and it is assumed that this pattern has gone on since living memory, or at least since Pentecost.

Both of these assumptions are wrong.

In truth, the pattern is only about 200 years old.  For the preceding 1800 years, the church drew on a rich heritage of singing that was consciously shaped, not by the Top 40, but by the needs and demands of worship, and was made consciously different from the music outside the church.

Now, I’m not saying the early church had the whole thing knocked, and if only we’d forget the last couple of centuries everything would be fine.  Maybe our fathers were right, and maybe they were wrong.  But it seems telling to me that we’ve so thoroughly managed to forget what they did that we just assume the way it’s happened since the 1970s is the way that it has always been.  We’ve forgotten 1800 years of the music that nurtured our fathers, and it seems likely that they knew a few things that might benefit us.

I’d love to go off on this subject at great length.  I am preparing to do so.  But I am still in the midst of the preparations.  In the meantime, I would like to recommend a little audio set you’ve probably never heard of.

Some while ago, Duane Garner did a little four-lecture series titled “Church Music Through History.”  The lectures were delivered as part of a ministry training program run by a church down in Louisiana, and but for the miracle of the internet, very few people would ever have heard them.  I would certainly never have heard them.

Thank God for Christendom 1.0, which gave us modern science, a ridiculous degree of wealth, and, in its death throes, the internet.

Garner walks through the history of the church’s music from the beginning right on down to today.  Of course, four lectures is barely enough to give the big picture — we’re talking about millennia here — but he does a masterful job of synthesizing.  These lectures are designed for musical laymen, so don’t worry about getting lost in a tangle of clefs, modes, and dotted sixteenth notes. By the same token, if you want to go further, Garner mentions a number of other resources in the course of his lectures.

Prepare, by the way, to be offended.  As Garner turns the spotlight on poor worship music from the last couple of centuries, it’s highly likely that he’ll be criticizing something you like, something you grew up with.  (His analysis of “There’s Just Something About That Name” was sobering, but hilarious nonetheless.) Don’t feel bad; he did it to me, too.  I was irritated to hear him picking on a song I used to sing when I was a worship team member…for about two seconds.  Then I realized that he was rather clearly right.  I would have wanted to argue more strenuously, but when the weak stuff was being presented cheek-by-jowl with the strong stuff, the comparison was so revealing that I didn’t have the heart to try.

That’s the value of big-picture historical survey.  In C. S. Lewis’ words, “Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds… by reading old books.”

And listening to old music.  As another friend put it to me a few years ago: “Musicians that aren’t conservatory-trained are pretty much trapped in their own century.”  We are Christians; the pilgrim citizens of the New Jerusalem.  Our culture spans the millennia, and we are a singing priesthood.  We, of all people, should not be trapped in our own century, musically or in any other way.

These four lectures are not a conservatory-in-an-ipod.  Not close.  But they’re a good, good place to start.

So get on over to Auburn Avenue Media Center and buy them.  They’re about a third of the way down the page, and at $1.99 a lecture, you’ll get the whole set for less than $8.

Not bad for a ticket out of your own century.


Easter and Eschatology: Is Premillennialism Different from Amillennialism?

12 April 2009

In the last post, I quoted Jim Jordan to the effect that amillennialism is racist, and pre- and postmillennialism have more in common with each other than they do with amillennialism.  I then noted that the ecclesiastical, organizational and confessional lines tend to be drawn the other way, lumping amillennialism and postmillennialism together on one side of the fence, with premillenniallism on the other.

Some people — I know a number — have fled to the premillennial side of the fence precisely because they were unable to make their peace with amillennialism.  Usually the point of serious discontent is the way amillennialism spiritualizes away the promise of kingdom victory over the evils of this world.

However, it has to be said that a great number have fled the other way, from premillennialism to postmillennialism, for very similar reasons.

Premillennial thought understands that Messiah’s kingdom only comes about when Messiah Himself is personally present to set it up.  Until then, human sinfulness presents an upper boundary to the world’s maturation.  That thought, taken by itself, lends itself to a story in which the world descends into the abyss until Messiah appears to save the day and set up His kingdom, and thence to a lifestyle not unlike the amillennial mentality Jordan skewered in last week’s post.  Hence the great number of dispensational premil folks who are “just hanging on until the Rapture.”  They don’t get involved in cultural endeavor because that’s “polishing the brass on a sinking ship.”

This breeds a defeatism, a sense that the gospel cannot have meaningful impact on a whole culture.  The depressive Christianity that comes of this drives people from the premillennial camp to postmillennialism, because they can’t believe that the gospel could be so ineffective.

They’re right to be repulsed; defeatist Christianity is biblically false, historically unsustainable, intellectually stultifying, morally bankrupt, and just plain nauseating.  You’d have to be a gnostic to find any encouragement in it at all…and hey! Guess what?  Most conservative American Protestants are closet gnostics, so there you go.

If the only choices were culturally vibrant postmillennial Christianity and defeatist premillennial gnosticism, I’d be a postmillennialist too.

But these are not the only choices.

Consider the mentality that gives rise to premillennial defeatism: “We’re not going to bring about the kingdom in any case, and Jesus will do it when He comes no matter what, so why invest in culture now?”  Suppose a Christian were to approach his personal sanctification the same way: “I’m not going to become perfect in this life anyway, and Jesus will make me perfect in the next in any case, so why struggle against sin now?”  The biblical answer, of course, is that we are supposed to anticipate and image the life to come in our lives now — and that answer applies at a cultural level as well as an individual level.

But is that compatible with premillennialism?

Sure — just as a sanctified life is.  Premillennial eschatology sees that Jesus’ presence on earth as king is necessary to setting up His earthly kingdom, and nothing less will suffice.  But it’s a far cry from that to saying that obedience to the dominion mandate now is worthless.  Jesus is Lord, and He knows far better than I what value my cultural contributions may have, so simple obedience is sufficient as a motive.  But beyond that, consider: what has been the impact of Christianity on Western culture?  Is Western culture measurably better than those cultures that have never had the benefit of 1500 years of Christian cultural hegemony?

It is.

Cultural endeavor is not polishing brass on a sinking ship after all; it’s continuing repair and improvement of a ship that will always need bilge pumps until the Lord returns.  Sometimes she floats pretty well; other times, she’s listing to starboard and the water line is two feet above the deck.

Presently, the ship of Western Christendom is a shattered ruin, and even what remains is slowly falling apart.  But Christendom gave us the neonatal respiratory ventilator, modern science, and an outpouring of philanthropy unparalleled in the history of the world.  God is pleased when those made in His image snatch the helpless from the jaws of death.  God is pleased when we cultivate the earth as He commanded.  God is pleased when we care for the poor, the weak, and the downtrodden.

But what if it all disappears?  What if the whole culture sinks beneath the chaotic sea as if it had never been? I mean, isn’t that what premillennial eschatology tells us?  I’m not certain that it is, necessarily, but let’s consider it as a worst-case scenario: Christendom 1.0 disappears as if it had never been, and “round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”  Then what?  What was the point?

Then we will know that the words Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes are true, that all our labor under the sun really is shepherding wind.

By the same token, we will know that to fear God and keep His commandments is man’s all, and we will be glad to have done it.

So let us labor as Solomon labored to build the temple, now long destroyed.  If it was worth doing then, it’s worth doing now.  We are the church of Jesus Christ; we believe in resurrection from the dead.  We live in light of eternity, and can afford to wait and see how God will resurrect all that has died to a brighter and yet more glorious future.

He is Risen!


Is Amillennialism Racist?

5 April 2009

In the preceding post, I addressed the accusations of racism that often attach to premillennialism.  In this post, I’d like to discuss another accusation of racism, this one leveled by Jim Jordan against amillennialism at this year’s Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference.

…which brings me to amillennialism, more evil than you can imagine.  The Great Commission is a postmillennial and a theocratic command.  Let’s go over it, in case there’s somebody here who doesn’t know that.  Jesus said “All power has been given to Me.”  How much power?  I can’t hear you.  All power?  All of it?  Where?  In heaven and on earth.  Any other place besides that, that counts?  Go therefore and disciple all nations.  Which nations?  All nations.  Do what to them?  Make converts in all nations?  No, disciple all nations.  Now what do the Jews understand by “disciple all the nations?”…They’re living in [a discipled nation].

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They understand that this is a theocratic command to disciple all nations.  Is Jesus going to fail?  I can see it now…”Jesus… can come back tomorrow, He can come back any day.”  And what’s Satan going to say?  “All power, huh?  All authority in heaven and on earth, and you just couldn’t pull it off, could you, boy?”  Do you think that’s gonna happen?

I don’t.

And I think it borders on blasphemy to suggest that that’s gonna happen….Gentlemen, I don’t think we should be be very tolerant.  Premils understand that Jesus’ kingdom is going to conquer all the nations and it’s going to fulfill the purposes of this creation.  I can get along with premils.  Amils say, “God is going to toss this world; Jesus is going to fail; the nations are not going to be discipled.”  I don’t think that we can afford to be very respectful to that.

The amillennial outlook is racist. It says that because white, European civilization is falling apart, Jesus is coming soon.  Jesus isn’t really going to bring much Christianity to the black and brown and yellow people in the world.

It’s arrogant to assume that God’s center of history is on the white, European race, and because the whites are falling apart, God has got to end history.  That is arrogant.  It’s racist.  And it ends history, and this is where the problem comes in the church.  The amillennial attitude says there’s nothing new, there’s nothing more to be learned, there’s no need to have a continuing conversation….Guys who look forward to the day, a thousand years from now, when theologians in Sri Lanka bring new insights out of the book of Nehemiah — that’s not going to happen.  We don’t need new insights.  We’ve got it all written down in our confessions and catechisms and in a few of our commentaries.  Don’t tell us there’s anything new that’s going to come.  Don’t tell us that vast new insights are going to come from Africans and Asians and Polynesians, when those people, with their gifts, convert to the Lord.  No, there’s no need for any new insights.

The Eastern church stopped everything with the seventh ecumenical council.  Our amillennial brethren have stopped everything three hundred years ago.  And that’s deadly.  And it’s intolerable….It cripples the Reformed faith.  In all our Presbyterian and Reformed denominations and seminaries, we have to pretend that this is a perfectly okay way to think, and what winds up being the case is, that view dominates.  Sorry, I just don’t think we can have that.

…There’s no longer any time left to be tolerant of people who have that idea of what it means for Jesus to have all authority that He, by His Spirit and through His church, is going to disciple all nations.

Jordan says a lot of highly charged things here, as of course he is well aware.  I’m not sure he expects anyone to agree with them all.  But he does point out an important dividing line in eschatology.  Pre-, post- or amil view is less important than believing that there will be a real victory, and that God will win it, taking seriously the promise that the God will win the nations to Himself.  A premil view that takes the dominion mandate and the great commission seriously — a combination I am presently calling dominon premillennialism, for lack of a better term — is every bit as committed to this as a postmil view; we just quibble a little about the timeline.

And yet, as Jordan points out, the organizational and denominational lines are repeatedly drawn in a way that lumps postmil and amil folks together on one side of the fence, with premil folks on the other.  Why is that?

And given those choices, can anyone blame people for fleeing to the premil side of the fence, where there’s generally no need to tolerate amillennialism?


Liturgical Theology

22 March 2009

Liturgy is one of those unavoidable issues.  If you gather in church, you’re going to do something.  The word for that something is liturgy.

To my considerable detriment, and the great shame of my tradition, I managed to get through 4 years of Bible college and 4 more years of seminary, graduate from both, and be ordained as a minister of the gospel, all without receiving any training in liturgical theology.  Not one course; not one recommended book; not so much as a casual conversation over coffee.

If you paid close attention to my first paragraph, you’re probably wondering, “What? First you say it’s unavoidable to have liturgy, and then you say you got no training in liturgy?  How’s that possible?”

It’s not.  Everyone gets training in liturgy every time they go to church.  I was no exception.  I even got a little formal training in liturgy.  Not much, but enough to get me through my first church service, first communion service, first wedding, etc., without disaster.  What I didn’t get was training in liturgical theology — being conscious of what the liturgy communicates, understanding the underlying theology of it.  I had lots of training in the theology of what I say in church, but none at all in the theology of what we do in church.

God be praised, He maneuvered me into a pastoral situation where a couple of very divergent liturgical traditions were coming together, and this forced me to confront these issues.  If I’d taken a pastorate in a normal church in my tradition, I could have gone to my grave having never thought these things through.

But it was not to be.  The only way we could have church at all without fighting about what to do was to agree that nobody, including the pastor, was allowed to import traditions into our church without a discussion of the issues and a biblical grounding in why we were doing that particular thing.  The resulting ground-up examination of every last facet of the service has been excruciating for me, very slow going for everyone, and generally a difficult process, but very, very rewarding.

Why excruciating?  Not through any fault of my congregation, I can assure you.  They’ve been unfailingly loving, patient, and helpful throughout the process.  I couldn’t ask for a better group of fellow believers to hash through these things with, and I couldn’t possibly have gotten where I am without them.  I thank God for them constantly.  In spite of that, this process has been very painful for me because I had thought of myself as pretty well prepared for the ministry.  Oh, I knew I had a lot of experiential learning to do, just like every young pastorling does, but I though I was pretty solid in terms of what I knew.  Liturgical reform forced me to confront my abysmal ignorance in a very basic area of church practice.  Worse yet, about half of the little I thought I knew has turned out to be, not just wrong, but utterly indefensible.  So far.  I’m not making any bets about the reliability of the rest of my tiny fund of knowledge, either.

Unfortunately, I am far from alone in my benighted ignorance.  I recently heard a former Presbyterian minister bewailing the fact that there’s not a Reformed seminary on this continent where a student can get a course in liturgical theology.

Why is that?

I suspect because it would force us to confront areas of weakness and sin that make us very, very uncomfortable.  The implicit theology of a church service from my tradition is heartily gnostic.  The focus of the service is on delivery of information from pastor to people.  The hymns are screened for doctrinal content (and little else), the Lord’s Table is an occasion for a sermonette on the cross and resurrection, and the baptismal services are used as occasions to preach the gospel to unsaved loved ones who are invited to the service.  Everything is a sermon — spoken, set to music, or presented as an object lesson.  In some subsets of my tradition, even the word “service” has been replaced with the term “Bible class” — because that’s all it is.

It’s all about the ideas, disconnected from historical, experiential reality.

Now someone will justly complain that of course, the preaching — musical, spoken, and object lessons — hammers unceasingly on the need for the ideas to be applied into daily life.  Sad to say, there are occasional exceptions to this, but for the most part, this is true.

But that’s just the point, isn’t it?  While what we say certainly passes all the tests of orthodoxy, what we do in the church service pictures a different theology entirely.  The entire service is delivery of intellectual content from pastor (or choir) to people.  It pictures a theology in which pleasing God is all about knowing things, and the more content you know, the more pleased God will be with you.

That’s gnosticism.

And it leads to believers who have heavy notebooks bursting with information, and unholy lives empty of meaning.  And as much as we might decry the results from the pulpit in the next week’s ‘Bible class’, those very problems we so despise are results of our bankrupt worship.

As opposed to what?

Thought you’d never ask.

As opposed to the Church gathering consciously as the Cabinet of the New Jerusalem (temporarily in exile), in order that we, as royal priests ordained through baptism into Christ’s one body, might enter boldly into the Holy of Holies to confess our sins, receive grace to help us in need, offer up the new covenant sacrifices of praise, hear His Word to us, and be fed by Him at His Table.  Gathering as royal priests to bring the world before God in prayer, that God will bring HImself to the world through us, and gathering as royal priests that we might wage war in the heavenly places against the ruling powers of that same world, secure in the knowledge that its many kingdoms will become the single Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ.

In other words, an actual, Christian worship service,  a time in which we serve God through worship rather than just downloading some content from the pastor’s head.

Now what does the liturgy look like when that is the implicit theology behind it?

I don’t know.  (I have no training in this, remember?)

But by God’s providence, through study and prayer and lots of trial and error, we’re going to find out together.


Preparing for Ministry

17 March 2009

A friend recently indicated to me that he’s interested in formal preparation for ministry.  He’s somewhat constrained as to time and prior commitments, so he’ll be taking the long road, not just putting his whole life on hold to go to seminary for a few years.

Increasingly, I think that is a great blessing.  Seminary, by its very nature, is optimized for very lopsided growth.  It’s helpful in certain circumstances, but it’s not the best choice for ministry preparation.

But what really surprised me was what I told him when he asked me for advice on how to proceed.  It didn’t just pop out; he asked the question by email, so I’d had a week or two to consider my answer.  But I found the conclusion I came to surprising.

In addition to continuing in faithful ministry in his own church — which he’s already doing — I suggested just two areas in which he should pursue competence.  The first was exegesis, and for me, that was a no-brainer.  He can’t minister well if he can’t handle the Word well, period.  That starts out with basic hermeneutics and Bible study methods, moves into deeper study and heavier-duty tools, and if he cares to pursue it far enough, to Greek and Hebrew.  No real surprises there.

What did surprise me was the second area I suggested.  In my background, the traditional suggestions would be exegesis and theology.  But instead of theology, I suggested church history.  In my experience, the focus on exegesis and theology tends to indoctrinate a person into a very specific tradition.  In studying the timeless truths of Scripture and theology, he becomes bogged down in his own century, his own culture, his own interests, and consequently in a series of increasingly narrow, ever-more-partisan battles.  This is sub-Christian; we are to look not only on our own interests, but also for the interests of others, particularly others in the church.

I was myself rescued from that narrowing tendency — to some extent — by knowledge of church history.  As I continue to grow in my understanding of the church, I find myself being rescued more and more.  All the theological squabbles come up anyway, just as they would if I focused on theology.  But they come up in proper context, as part of the overall story of how my people have grown and developed in their understanding of the Lord and His Word.

We profess to believe in the communion of saints and the value of fellowship.  Mentally, though, we often add “as long as you’re under 40 and use an iPhone,” or “as long as you come from the Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912,”* or whatever arbitrary constraint will protect our comfort. And in fact, this is what the study of theology usually comes down to: study of an arbitrary extract of church history designed for the maximum comfort of some particular group or other.  This is the historical version of a man surrounding himself with handpicked yes-men who already agree with him.

Straightforward study of church history, though, forces us to reckon with a bunch of people who don’t think like us.  People we don’t approve of.  People we would never choose and might very well want to disown.  And yet by God’s providence, there they are, and they have many, many lessons to teach.

The sectarian tendency wants to say, “But look at all these things where they got it wrong!”  Sure.  But a great portion of the learning will be in exploring the tension between church history and exegesis.  Why did these people come to that conclusion about this passage?  What were they thinking?  What did they miss?  …or did I miss something?   Both?

We may find that they got it wrong less than we thought.  We will surely find great stores of practical, pastoral wisdom along the way.  And as the proverbs say, he who walks with the wise will be wise, and in a multitude of counselors is safety.

*****

*A reference to a truly stellar, and badly under-attributed, joke by Emo Phillips.


A Narrative Statement of Faith: Impossible?

9 March 2009

As I’ve come to grips with the narrative character of the Scriptures, I’ve become increasingly interested in seeing that reflected in statements of faith — the one I write for myself personally, and others that I’m involved in framing.

I spoke to a number of friends about the possibility of doing this, and they fell into one of two groups: those who thought it an admirable idea, but weren’t sure how one would go about it, and those who thought it was flatly impossible, or at least so difficult as to be impractical.

Thus encouraged, I began to look around for help.  Having been trained since I was very, very small that people get into great trouble in the ministry because they don’t study church history, I turned to church history to see what help I might be able to glean from God’s people of past ages.  As I studied I began to realize something that ought to have occurred to me immediately: it’s already been done. More than once.

So for your edification and reading pleasure, I present the following historical statement of faith, composed in narrative form:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,

And in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hades.
On the third day He rose again from [among] the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
Whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church
The communion of saints
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Amen.

Sound familiar? (If it doesn’t — alack and fie for shame on your teachers — google ‘apostles creed’ and see what comes up.)

Does this mean I’ve stopped working on a narrative statement of faith?  Not hardly.  Versions of the creed above were floating around as early as the second century, and it was modified countless times.  The most prominent example of this would be the Nicene Creed — the version of the Apostles’ Creed that was ratified by a genuinely ecumenical council.

The trend continues today, as it should.  God’s people are writers of creeds and confessions aplenty.  We never speak God’s Word in a vacuum, but only at a particular time, in a particular place, to particular people.  While the Word never changes, the times, places and people change constantly, and therefore constant recasting and reformulation is required if we would speak to the people before us, rather than to their ancestors.

So I’m still working on it.  But now, with some guidance from my fathers.


Sons of Korah

22 February 2009

Friday night some friends and I went to see the Sons of Korah in concert at Calvary Chapel of Montebello.

I’ve been hooked on Sons of Korah since my first visit to Australia in 2001, but I’ve never had the chance to see them live.  They’re an Australian group based in Melbourne, which rather seriously impaired my chances in any case, and when they did make it to the US, their tours were largely confined to the Midwest.

Not anymore.  This time they’re playing a number of Calvary Chapel churches and some other venues in California, and best of all, a pastors’ conference in San Diego.

It was incredible.

It’s a little difficult to explain the experience.  We hear the word ‘concert’ and instantly categorize the affair: guys up front playing instruments and singing, yeehaw.  It’s another Christian rock band.

But no.

First of all, these guys sing psalms.  Not, please notice, soulful ballads based on the psalms, nor peppy choruses made up of two lines from a psalm.  They sing whole psalms, beginning to end, set to music that will adorn the words and suit the themes of the inspired text.

That ‘beginning to end’ part is important.  I’m a big fan of metrical psalms, but there’s a serious problem: when you turn a psalm into a hymn, you’re going to sing the first verse and the last verse to the same tune. This is a problem because there are an awful lot of psalms that have multiple moods.  The psalm may start out grabbing God by the lapels and demanding “Where are You??  Why aren’t you doing anything about this??”  It may go on to rehearse the evil deeds of the psalmist’s oppressors, and then rehearse the many times that God has delivered His people in the past, and close with a vow to praise God in His sanctuary when He delivers from the present trial.  That’s at least two movements, musically, and it would be better with four.  One tune, repeated four times hymn-style, can’t possibly cover the emotional range of such a psalm.  So to really hear the psalm the way it’s meant to be heard, you need to hear it through-composed with an arrangement custom-built for it.

That’s what Sons of Korah do.  And they are gooood at it (click the album art in this post for some samples.)

And they do it for free.

You read that right.  They make some money on CD sales, but they charge nothing to come and do a concert.

Why would they do that?  Because it’s their ministry.  All they need is enough invitations in one tour-able area to cost-justify the trip, and they’re willing to come.  Their goal is to get the word out.  As Sons of Korah founder and front man Matt Jacoby put it last night, the goal is “to wake people up to the psalms.”  Concert performance allows the widest possible range of musical expression, so that’s what they focus on.  Future projects may include teaching tools and arrangements for congregational singing, but for now, performance is the tool that brings the most people into meaningful contact with the psalms quickly.

These guys ought to be in much greater demand than they are.  They should be buried under years’ worth of invitations.  A cynical man might take the fact that they are not as an indication that the church has simply lost its taste for God’s songs, that the church would prefer not to know how to handle its worship, its prayers, and its emotions in a way that requires faith.  All of that is certainly true in some measure.  But I prefer to think that most believers just don’t know the Sons of Korah exist.

Now you do.