Archive for September 2011

Scribbles waiting for a cartographer

September 28th, 2011 — 4:33pm

In the opening chapter of his Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, James K. A. Smith attempts to play, in his words, “the role of a cartographer,” mapping the landscape of a particular theological movement. I have come to wish that someone (who could it possibly be?) would draft something similar for the entire contemporary landscape known as “the Reformed faith.” What (in as much detail as possible, please) are the various consortiums, alliances, and movements within this landscape? (I think it’s safe to say denominational lines will supply little useful information to the cartographer at this point.) Where are the main centers of operation? What are the distinctive points and features of the competing manifestos? (Do let’s be candid about these manifestos: if they didn’t exist, wouldn’t we look just a tad more unified?) Where are the outlaw encampments (here, of course, the cartographer’s prejudices will inevitably color the map)? And so on.

While I wait for someone else to do the heavy lifting, let me offer an observation that I think may be cartographically significant. It was sparked (no surprise to those who’ve read my recent posts) by a paragraph in Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture. He notes a lack of concern among 19th-century American evangelicals over “the [then-] present state of the churches in America” (p. 70); the reason for this, he says,

“was no doubt related to American evangelicals’ characteristic lack of strong views about the nature and authority of the church. Lacking direct experience with such doctrines, they had not formed a distinct concept of the church against which they might react. This general absence in America of a clear theory on the church reflected organizational structures that had developed more for reasons of circumstance than of ideology. Instead of ‘churches’ (in the sense of the official organized religion of a territory) or ‘sects’ (in the sense of separated groups of true converted believers), America had ‘denominations,’ which were sometimes churchly, sometimes sectarian, and usually both. The denominations were the product of a combination of European churchly traditions, ethnic loyalties, pietism, sectarianism, and American free enterprise. Often a denomination would advertise itself as the true church and speak in its own councils as if it were. At the same time the denominational system was really based on the premise that the true church could be denominated in many ways. Moreover, denominational structures were usually loose enough that revivals, reforms, Bible conferences, and schools could be promoted by members outside of denominational control. Hence the system allowed room for a practical sectarianism which often left denominational ties weak or nominal.”

So, if 19th-century American evangelicals (including many in Calvinistic denominations) had a weak doctrine of the church, and assuming this hasn’t improved much since (it’s not as if we’re becoming less individualistic with time), what might this have to do with contemporary Reformed cartography?

I observe two very significant and (to my mind, at least) laudable impulses in today’s Reformed churches. One impulse is toward what I will loosely call “covenant.” Churches under the sway of this impulse are all about the sacraments, Christian worldview, godly marriages, godly children, homeschooling and/or Christian education, family worship, and a thousand generations of those who love God and keep His commandments. This impulse doesn’t always lead to big churches, but it does tend to produce quite large, impressive families who take their Christianity seriously.

A second impulse is toward what I will loosely call “culture.” Churches following this impulse are serious transformationalists: they want to see the world changed by the gospel through the enactment of the Great Commission. They, too, tend to be excited about Christian worldview. They are the “missional” crowd, deeply engaged with the surrounding culture (one finds them wrestling manfully with the problems of “contextualization”) and eager to build culture to the glory of God; they are deeply burdened for the sheep Jesus is still seeking, and for the coming of His shalom to all peoples of the earth.

[Let it be said in passing that plenty of Reformed churches seem to be under the sway of neither impulse. These churches are a fascinating, if somewhat depressing, study in their own right. It should also be noted that the impulses I’ve described aren’t mutually exclusive; certainly there are churches that manifest both.]

Now let me introduce some shading within the groups of Reformed believers in the covenantal and cultural “camps.” At one end of the “covenantal camp” are Reformed Christians who have an extraordinarily low view of the church: for them, family is where the really important action is; in the far extreme are those who even view the keys of the kingdom as belonging to the head of the Christian household. The insular family is on a mission, but this mission is not submitted to the higher and broader mission of Christ’s church.

Likewise in the “cultural camp,” on the far end are those who have an extraordinarily low view of the church. For them, the agenda(s) for God’s people are really set by the surrounding culture; they don’t accept that God’s kingdom is/has/demands a distinctive culture to be enacted among His covenant people (e.g., biblical rituals of worship). These brethren are deeply interested in contextualizing the gospel within agendas set by the surrounding culture; they appear much less interested in setting the agenda of the surrounding culture by the gospel through the church.

In both extremes, what is missing is the third point in an all-important triangulation of covenant, culture, and church. Biblically, there is a priority of church over the covenant family: the family was not given the Great Commission by itself, it cannot fulfill the Great Commission by itself, and a separatist family will eventually (as a close friend of mine has said) enact a wonderful life without any clear sense of what that life is for (the salvation of the world – HT: Jesus).

There’s also a priority of church over culture. We don’t start by trying to reach culture; we start by being the church, and the fruit is that we transform culture. To invert this order opens the way to all sorts of compromises.

Anyway, those are my scribbles. A real map would be a better aid in this sort of self-assessment, but I fear we’re a long way from having one at our disposal.

Comment » | Gospel and Kingdom

Christianity and communism

September 27th, 2011 — 8:40pm

In 1966, Douglas Hyde penned these immortal words:

“If [a person] has grown up in Christian circles he will know that Christianity, like Communism, demands the whole man and that Christians were intended, and are expected, to change the world. That they, too, should be active; that membership of a church is not like membership of a club. That in theory, at least, the Christian should be relating his Christianity to his whole life and to the world about him, all the time, everywhere. Yet in practice, although Christianity has taught him that total dedication is something to be admired and something to which one should aspire in one’s own life, a Communist may be the first totally dedicated person he has met. Or, if that is putting it too harshly, the Communist may be the first dedicated person he has met who is not wrapped up in his own salvation but is devoting himself to the transformation of society and to changing the world.” (Dedication and Leadership, p. 37)

Nearly a quarter century after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the world still awaits the ideological successor of Communism (could it be radical Islam?). But when, oh when, will the Christian church rise to Hyde’s challenge?

Comment » | Gospel and Kingdom

Dispensationalism and Marxism

September 27th, 2011 — 5:29pm

Marsden again (p. 64):

“Despite its overall similarities to older Christian views of history, dispensationalism has a number of peculiarities that identify it as a product of nineteenth-century thought. These have to do especially with its explanation of how dramatic historical change takes place, a common preoccupation of the thought of the era. In the prevailing naturalistic explanations of change the principal model was development through conflict. This is apparent in the work of the two most influential theorists of mid-century, Darwin and Marx. Marxism in fact has some formal similarities to the nearly contemporary development of dispensationalism. History is divided into distinct periods, each dominated by a prevailing principle or characteristic. Each age ends in failure, conflict, judgment on those who rule, and the violent introduction of a wholly new era. History thus proceeds in dramatic steps toward a final age of peace. The crucial difference is that in the Marxist scheme the scientific approach to history assumes that the laws of change are governed by wholly natural factors of human behavior; in dispensationalism science discovers revealed principles of supernatural laws that have guided historical change.”

Comment » | The Way of All the Earth

Dispensationalists and liberals

September 27th, 2011 — 5:18pm

I’m creeping my way through Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture; creeping, because it’s one of those books I have to set down every few pages so I can think for awhile.

He makes connections where I’m too dull-witted to readily see one. Here’s an example (p. 54):

“Ironically, the dispensationalists [in the 19th century] were responding to some of the very same problems in Biblical interpretation that were troubling theological liberals in the nineteenth century. If the Biblical statements were taken at face value and subjected to scientific analysis, major anomalies seemed to appear. Among these were that many Old Testament prophecies did not seem to refer precisely to the church, that Jesus and his disciples seemed to expect his return and the establishment of the kingdom very shortly, and that much of the teaching of Jesus seemed to conflict with the theology of Paul. Liberals resolved such problems by greatly broadening the standards for interpreting Biblical language. Dispensationalists did the opposite. They held more strictly than ever to a literal interpretation but introduced a new historical scheme whose key was the interpretation of the church age as a parenthesis. Once the key step was accepted, the rest of Scripture could be fit into the scheme, and aspects that others viewed as inconsistencies could be explained as simply referring to different dispensations.”

Comment » | The Way of All the Earth

Which transformationalism?

September 25th, 2011 — 7:34pm

Reading through George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture, I came across an interesting comment about late 19th-century Christian transformationalism; it helps, I think, to distinguish genuinely Reformed transformationalism from the civil religion and/or social gospel with which it is frequently confused:

“Americans were easily persuaded that their nation was destined to lead the way in . . . cultural advances. By the Revolution many evangelicals were already loudly proclaiming that the triumph of the American cause and of American principles was a sign of the kingdom [of God]. The spiritual hope was thus partly secularized and nationalized as the American civil religion was born. At the same time, however, the American experiment and the continuing efforts for cultural reform and progress were to a degree Christianized. The idea of transforming the culture fit well with the Calvinist Puritan tradition, but the idea of ‘Christianizing’ the culture never turned out to be as simple as supposed. In some areas – such as the campaign against slavery – evangelicals succeeded somewhat in transforming the culture by Christian standards. In other areas, just as certainly, the culture – with its materialism, capitalist competitiveness and nationalism – helped shaped [sic] American Christianity. Seemingly oblivious to this distinction at the time, evangelicals generally regarded almost any sort of progress as evidence of the advance of the kingdom.”

This illustrates (and it is too often ignored) that without a robust biblicism undergirding the transformationalist project (i.e., a view of the Bible that takes its authority and truthfulness absolutely seriously), there is no standard for determining whether “progress” is in a Christianizing or secularizing direction.

Comment » | The Way of All the Earth

Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

September 25th, 2011 — 6:18am

A wonderfully fitting prayer as we launch Trinity Church this morning. Hear our prayer, O Lord!

“Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity; and that we may obtain that which thou dost promise; make us to love that which thou dost command, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Comment » | Grace and Life

Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

September 18th, 2011 — 7:00am

“Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service; grant we beseech thee, that we may so run to thy heavenly promises, that we fail not finally to attain the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Comment » | Grace and Life

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

September 11th, 2011 — 8:37am

“Almighty and everlasting God, which art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve; Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving unto us that that our prayer dare not presume to ask, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Comment » | Grace and Life

Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

September 4th, 2011 — 7:12am

“God, which declarest thy almighty power, most chiefly in showing mercy and pity; Give unto us abundantly thy grace, that we, running to thy promises, may be made partakers of thy heavenly treasures; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Comment » | Grace and Life

The central citadel

September 2nd, 2011 — 9:20pm

“A missionary encounter with our culture must bring us face to face with the central citadel of our culture, which is the belief that is based on the immense achievements of the scientific method and, to a limited but increasing extent, embodied in our political, economic,and social practice – the belief that the real world, the reality with which we have to do, is a world that is to be understood in terms of efficient causes and not of final causes, a world that is not governed by an intelligible purpose, and thus a world in which the answer to the question of what is good has to be left to the private opinion of each individual and cannot be included in the body of accepted facts that control public life.” (Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, p. 79)

Comment » | Science, Theology, and Priestcraft

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