Wednesday, 31 December 2008

System Addicts

In Always Reforming there are two essays that touch on the idea of theology or doctrine as system. Kevin Vanhoozer contributes a whopping 58 pages ‘On the Very Idea of a Theological System: An Essay in Aid of Triangulating Scripture, Church and World’. I decided the chapter was too long to blog about. And I rarely understand much of what Vanhoozer writes anyway.

Stephen Williams with some ‘Observations on the Future of System’ is a little more accessible. Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College, Belfast. I once got a tour of the UTC building that included time on the roof to enjoy a view of Belfast. Alas I had no protest flag or banner.

Williams uses the open theism debate as a means to reflecting on system. He begins with some observations on two works by Charles Simeon, and offers the following theses:

1. Context is important for the coherence of our convictions. Religious or theological convictions do not necessarily sit easily when used in, for example, discussions of analytic philosophy.

2. Biblical theology is less about the mutual relation of doctrines, and more about their relation to life. Systematics should follow this example. The discussion includes the following line: “Obedient response to the word of God is not contingent on systematic explication.” I liked that.

3. There may be a ‘wider system’ but it must be shaped by biblical literature and the economy of salvation. That is basically to say that ongoing exegesis must keep the question of system open.

4. There is a difference between doctrinal rules and doctrinal moves. Rules should not be broken. As in a game of chess moves may or may not be good. Williams suggests that we should trade in rules rather than moves.

Williams concludes his essay with a brief survey of Berkouwer’s theological method, using Divine Election as an example.

Restless and Reforming verdict: More accessible than Vanhoozer but still hard going. We get the feeling that Williams thinks theology has its own logic and reasoning. It was interesting to be reminded of Simeon’s belief that the system of Scripture transcends both classic Calvinistic and Arminian systems.

Friday, 19 December 2008

RPW

In a previous post I reviewed Derek Thomas's contribution to the book Always Reforming. He wrote a chapter on the doctrine of the church, and included a few comments on the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). He has written more fully about the RPW in another place, but the few comments I read were enough to worry me just a little.

RPW is defined by Thomas as follows: nothing must be required as essential in public worship except that which is commanded by the Word of God. Thomas seems to think this is opposed to what he calls the Lutheran/Episcopalian worship principle: anything is acceptable as long as it is not explicitly forbidden. Already there is a sense of false dichotomy here.

But my concern grows. One thing to write that worship must be counter-cultural, conscious of not bowing to the prevailing ways of the world. But another thing entirely to claim that it would be "relatively easy to present a case for what some would regard as high-brow culture..."

The choice is between applying biblical principles in context, or following a tradition. I'm not sure you can really do both at the same time, in the same place. Too often I reckon RPW becomes following a tradition rather than biblical principles in cultural context.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Two Sides One Coin?

One of my ongoing theological concerns is the tension between dogmatics and biblical studies. It strikes me that some of the discussions and debates within Reformed evangelical circles come down to this: Which area takes priority? What is the relationship between the two? Can we work so that both are practised within confessional boundaries? If possible would this be a good thing anyway?

There are several chapters in Always Reforming about the nature of theology. Richard Gamble writes on ‘The Relationship between Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology’.

Gamble begins with definition, and states that theology is “the appropriation by the regenerated mind of that supernatural/natural information by which God has made himself the object of human knowledge.” The Scriptures of the Bible provide the information. God’s revelation of himself is progressive and redemptive. It is progressive in the sense that earlier parts of the Bible’s story inform later parts. It is redemptive in the sense that some events within the story are given heightened importance. Not all the facts of the story possess redemptive power.

Gamble refers to Vos in his definition of biblical theology. It is the study of the form and content of supernatural revelation in its historical unfolding. What then is systematic theology? Gamble cites several Reformed theologians who suggest the need for a new structure to systematic theology. Some even suggest the term should be discontinued. Following John Murray and Richard Gaffin, Gamble proceeds to argue that biblical theology should be normative. Systematic theology should be modelled according to the insights of biblical study and exegesis. Gamble concludes his essay with some objections to biblical theology as the normative discipline, and then discusses how culture influences exegesis and theological method. He maintains that the strengths of biblical theology should inform developments within “systematic” theology.

Restless and Reforming verdict: This is all fair enough though examples of how the classic dogmatic categories should be adjusted are conspicuously absent. Those who admire the likes of Vos, Murray and Gaffin should ponder more how biblical theology informs or shapes their take on the Reformed confessions. Apart from the American revisions on church state relations, why have there been so few substantial and constructive changes?

Time Management for idiots

Over at Sovereign Grace Blog, R.C Sproul has an excellent post on time management. When you're as undisciplined as I am, advice like this is pure gold.

HT: JT

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Books of The Bible

Over this year I've been doing daily(!) readings from a Bible that is utterly unique in format. Utilizing the TNIV text, 'The Books of The Bible' summarises its differences to the common current format in the preface:

  • chapter and verse numbers have been removed from the text;
  • the books are presented according to the internal divisions that we believe
    their authors have indicated;
  • a single-column setting is used to present the text more clearly and
    naturally, and to avoid disrupting the intended line breaks in poetic
    sections;
  • footnotes, section headings, and other supplementary materials have been
    removed from the pages of the sacred text;
  • individual books that later tradition divided into two or more books are
    made whole again; and
  • the books have been placed in an order that we hope will help readers
    understand them better (TBoTB pp iv)

The preface goes on to justify these changes by asserting that, "the chapters and verses that the Bible has been divided into aren't the work of the original authors. The present system of chapter divisions was devised in 1205, and our present verse divisions were added in the 1550s. Chapters and verses have imposed a foreign structure and made it more difficult to read the Bible with understanding." (TBoTB pp v)

A result of the dubious convenience provided by chapters and verses is that they encourage the Bible to be read as "a giant reference book" (TBoTB ppv). It's hard to argue against such a charge. Proof-texting, precious thought-ery, Christless readings of the text and other biblicist lunacy has to be down to, in some measure, the man-made divisions of our text.

Anyway, my wife Sharon and I have loved the new format for a variety of reasons. Sharon said she's never read so much of the Bible in her life. The text feels new and exciting. Gone is the legalistic desire to put the Bible down after reading a chapter or two. Gone is the internal legalistic pressure to read the Bible every day. (The reading plans make it possible to miss days, even weeks of Bible reading and pick up again from where you left off - making it an ideal purchase for justified sinners!) Gone is the stop-start nature of Bible readings like that of the McCheyne reading plan (a good plan, but it seems that just as you are getting into a book, you're whisked off elsewhere). Gone is the urge to mine the Bible for precious thoughts. In place of that you are focused on the argument of an entire book.

You can download a variety of reading plans from The Books of The Bible website. The reading plans work by page numbers and not by chapters. When you download your free plan, the sheet has boxes for you to tick as a reminder as to where you left off. As I've said already, this makes it an excellent plan for the undisciplined who begin reading plans in January with great gusto and crumble by mid February when they get to Leviticus.

Personally, I've only gotten about half-way through the Bible this year. The difference is, I'm still engaged with the text, still excited and motivated by Scripture and not planning to start again at Genesis this January.

American readers wishing to purchase The Books of The Bible can follow this link from the homepage. For British readers, Wesely Owen have it available on pre-order.

Take up and read!

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Church Rules Okay

Derek Thomas contributes a chapter on ‘The Doctrine of the Church in the Twenty First Century’ in Always Reforming: Explorations in systematic theology. The aim of the essay collection is to assess different areas within systematic theology with a view to semper reformanda. Where is development, clarification and progress possible? Is it necessary to restate doctrines? Or encourage further theological reflection? Can this take place within a confessional orthodox framework?

An introduction surveying the current postmodern mix of doctrinal approaches to church gives way to a discussion of the marks of the church. Unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity all prove difficult for Thomas to appropriate given that they come from the fourth, not the twenty first, century. By definition, a Protestant can only affirm the unity of the invisible church at best. But that hardly helps when leading lights (e.g. John Murray) question the legitimacy of defining an invisible church over against the visible one. Following Calvin, Thomas wants to defend church as Mother, and the extra ecclesiam nulla salus formula.

Thomas is on apparently easier ground with two other marks of the church: preaching and sacraments. He also makes the helpful suggestion that suffering should be considered too. But without developing this the essay moves on to the mix within Reformed churches on issues like the nature of the Lord’s Supper, the place of children at the Supper, the number and nature of church offices, the use of Matthew 16:13-19, the continuation or otherwise of spiritual gifts, and the question of women’s ordination to office. This survey leaves the reader bewildered at how any of these areas can form true marks of the church. The RPW is then defined and defended, a section that on its own deserves a blogpost in response.

Eight(!) prerequisites for future Reformed ecclesiology are suggested in a conclusion. We must return to the Bible. We must embrace Reformed theology at its best while re-evaluating the discoveries of biblical theology. We must hold to fundamental doctrines before embracing ecumenicity. We must be committed to historic formulations of (confessional) Christianity. We must foster biblical spirituality. We must reconsider the role and significance of the (two) sacraments. We must find a way to express the church’s unity in Jesus Christ. We must assert the corporate nature of the Christian life.

Restless and Reforming verdict: We think all the big issues are mentioned in the essay. But we’re concerned at the lack of progress towards a clear statement defining the church, especially when worship war and sacramental strife is escalating within confessional Reformed churches.

Baptism Debate

The following is a link to an excellent baptism debate between Reformed Baptist James White and OPC pastor Bill Shishko. The debate is an excellent introduction for those unacquainted with the paedobaptist argument.

In my opinion, it's the best debate I've heard on the subject, with both men pulling no punches. In this instance, I reckon Shishko wins the day.

http://vintage.aomin.org/BaptismDeb.html

Now how about the ultimate smack down contest: Mike Horton versus Mark Dever? Can you imagine the well mannered carnage? Someone out there has to organise this one.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Recovering the Reformed Confession Part 4 - Just what the Professor ordered

Chapter 4 begins the second part of the book entitled “Recovering the Reformed Identity”. Clark’s contention in this chapter is that , “those in the Reformed confessional tradition...have..wrestled with the proper way to do theology after modernity. Some confessionalists carried on the classic approach to do theology after modernity. Some confessionalists carried on the classic approach to theology, but we have often seemed to forget gradually our own grammar, logic and rhetoric. Confessional Reformed theology, however, works with some basic beliefs about the nature of relations between God and his creation, beliefs that are derived from Scripture and shape theological method. Chief among these is the notion that God is the “beginning of being” (principium essendi) and, as such, the “beginning of knowing” (principium cognoscendi). A corollary to this doctrine is the notion that human knowledge of God is analogical.” (p123)

So then, basic to a Reformed recovery is recognising, along with Duns Scotus (c. 1265 – c. 1308), the fundamental distinction between God as he is “’in himself’ (in se) and as he is ‘toward us’ (erga nos)” (p138). Luther and Calvin also gave assent to the fundamental distinction between “God hidden (Deus absconditus) and God revealed (Deus revelatus).”(p139)
A corollary of this is the distinction between two kinds of theology. There is theology as God does it called archetypal theology, and there is theology as God reveals it to us called ectypal theology (p143). Yet, this “archetypal/ectypal distinction is not in God as he is in himself, but he condescends to make the distinction in order to speak to us and so that we can speak about him.”(p143) Finite human beings are not capable of infinite thought. So, as Calvin describes, Scripture is God condescending to speak to finite creatures in the way one speaks to a little child.
In pages 145-150, Clark gives historical reasons as to why confessionalists “forgot gradually our own grammar, logic and rhetoric.” I don’t have time to go into these reasons, but suffice to say, assumption has played a large part in the downgrade.

“Well,” says some detractor, “so what? Who gives a rat’s bottom about archetypal/ectypal theology? I just want to know and love Jesus.” The answer should go something like, “You either assume that human knowledge and God’s knowledge exists on some continuum, or that there is a distinction between the two. Human beings are little gods on a pilgrimage back to the divine beatific vision, or they are analogues thinking God’s thoughts after him. As Luther declared to the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation, you either embrace a theology of glory or a theology of the cross.”

How else are you going to deal with hard passages of Scripture? What about God ascribing body parts to himself in the Psalms? Either God has eyes, a nose, hands, etc, or he is accommodating his revelation to us in anthropomorphisms. How can God elect sinners while desiring that none should perish and that all should turn in repentance? Do we, in true QIRC fashion, explain one passage away in the light of the other, or do we confess that we are happy to live with the apparent tension, realising that our finite brains cannot cope with infinite truths. We know that they are true, but confess we don’t know how they are true in the light of the archetypal/ectypal distinction. Either we are, in true QIRE fashion, on a road back to a face to face meeting with God, or we will always require that he accommodates his knowledge to us, in the now by word and sacrament, and at the eschaton in the face of his dear son Jesus.

This chapter again brought home to me how the Reformed faith brings such a balanced approach to epistemology. Had the creator/creature distinction of Reformed theology been embraced by the church at large, perhaps our flocks would not be turning from the idolatrous certitude of fundamentalism to the epistemological uncertainty of Polanyi, Newbigin or McLaren. The archetypal/ectypal distinction should undergird an epistemological conviction that is both hermeneutically and exegetically satisfying.

Really Reformed?

Big thanks to Nick for inviting me to contribute to his blog. Nick remains the owner and editor, with the right to delete anything I post. But I'll enjoy contributing thoughts on church and doctrine.

You can probably find out a little about my background quite easily. So I wont attempt a brief personal history. Suffice to write that I am training to become a minister of word and sacrament in a mainstream (= liberal?) Presbyterian church in the UK.

My first substantial posts will give summaries of selected chapters from Always Reforming: Explorations in systematic theology. I've remarked on this book in a previous blog existence.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Recovering the Reformed Confession Part 3 - Preaching to the QIRE

In chapter 3 of RRC, Clark begins to tackle QIRC’s ugly sister, the quest for illegitimate religious experience (QIRE). Clark defines QIRE as the quest to “experience God apart from the mediation of Word and sacrament”. It is a Pentecostal endeavour to experience an immediate encounter with God.

While confessional Reformed churches would never tolerate Toronto style manifestations or Todd Bentley giving it “Biff, Baff, Bam”, Clark insists that there are evidences of this same spirit creeping into their piety and practice. For example, on page 72 he writes “We tolerate the practice of listening for the ‘still small voice’ (1 Kings 19:12, KJV) of God in order to discern the moral will of God. Such an approach to discerning God’s will is quite foreign to the Reformed confession.”

Clark continues, “If someone asks, ‘What is God teaching you these days?’ one has the sense that the expected answer is not to be a summary of this weeks sermon or reflection on the significance of baptism or the Lord’s Supper, but an insight derived from a special experience or private revelation.” (p73)

Further evidences he cites are examples of Reformed public worship which resemble more Hillsongs than Geneva.

The reason behind such a state of affairs can be summed up by the Reformed churches embracing of ‘pietism’. Pietism seeks to form a bridge between reformation and revival. Clark contends, “reformation and revival are distinct and largely incompatible models of theology, piety and practice. The Reformation…consistently points the sinner first to the objective divine promises and secondarily to one’s awareness of the Spirit’s presence within. Revivalism however, tends to turn first of all to the subjective.” (p74)

How pietism invaded the churches is a long and complex story. However, Clark implicates some of the chief culprits along the way including D. Martyn Lloyd Jones and Jonathan Edwards. ‘The Doctor’, dissatisfied with the confessional approach to piety, advocated a fusion of Calvinism with Methodism. The logical end of this was the Doctor preaching a Pentecostal doctrine of the Spirit.

Jonathan Edwards on the other hand, while advocating a means of grace piety, let subjectivism become de facto the dominating factor. He embraced measures during the First Great Awakening that Iain Murray would disown in the Second Great Awakening due to the fact that they were practiced by Arminians (p82). Clark is not denying that great things took place during the First Great Awakening but is cautioning against the trajectory on which it took Reformed theology, piety and practice.

In concluding the chapter, Clark calls us back to a theology, piety and practice rooted in the ordained means of grace and measured not by miraculous gifts, but by the fruit of the Spirit.

Man, I wish I’d read this book years ago. After having faith awakened in my heart at 18, I read everything I could lay my grubby mits on. Yet a lot of the reading seemed to feed a nagging suspicion that not all was well.

For instance, I read of Tozer’s approach to piety as wordless worship before the Almighty. During these times, Tozer assured us that the Almighty would speak to us in the stillness (and Jack Deere agreed). So off I went on my wordless prayer times, soaking in the presence of God. After these times I generally felt smashing and relaxed but would be unnerved as I read John Owen on prayer and mortification. They seemed like different approaches. John Owen’s was easier to find in Scripture, but Tozer must be correct too, as surely he was ‘Reformed’?

I also read the Doctor’s book ‘Joy Unspeakable’. He taught me to seek the baptism with the Holy Spirit as, without it, I’d never know the power I needed for evangelism. As I prayed and prayed for ‘the blessing’……nothing happened. For comfort, I’d go back and read his book and find testimonies of great saints who had received 'the sealing'. One testimony spoke of a guy who prayed for it his whole life then got it on his death bead! That was the most depressing story I’d ever heard. What’s the point of getting evangelistic empowerment just as you’re about to croak it? But it must be ok, I reasoned, as the Doctor was ‘Reformed’. I’m now beginning to realise that perhaps he wasn’t.

I love the means of grace based piety and practice. It calls us to look outside of ourselves to objective truth and so roots the emotionally unstable. It calls us to realistic expectations in the Christian life. It calls us not to despise the day of small beginnings. It calls us to seek the Lord and feed on Christ, and not to seek supernatural experiences. It reminds us not to neglect meeting together in favour of ‘personal quiet times’. It shackles the 'fruit police' from declaring a brother or sister 'unsaved' due to some sinful slip up. It calls us to love by looking to the fruits not the gifts. It fuels fear of God by reminding us that an immediate encounter with God would burn us to a crisp and that the only sort of divine presence that sinful creatures can cope with is one mediated by Word and sacrament. Praise God for Reformed theology, piety and practice.

I love big bibles

Thursday, 27 November 2008

God TV

Well we are now in the seventh or eighth week of what God TV calls "Missions Week"! It seems to be a money raising enterprise in order to help the TV station achieve its goal of reaching "one billion souls" for Christ. An admirable vision one might say, until we probe a little deeper into the gospel according to God TV.

Throughout Missions Week, God TV gets famous prosperity preachers from around the world (e.g. Benny Hinn, Steve Munsey, Dr. Mike Murdoch) to preach for one hour rolling slots throughout the day. During these preaching slots, these men encourage viewers to plant a 'seed' in God TV ministries by phoning up and pledging hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds to their cause.

They woo the gullible with promises of God giving them back 'ten fold'. Yet if God TV really believed their own theology, surely they wouldn't need to solicit cash so desperately? Prosperity evangelists trying to raise money is analogous to a deaf healing evangelist (e.g. Peter Popof - who turned out not to have a hearing aid, but a cleverly disguised radio mike through which he received 'words of knowledge' from his wife!)

Surely if God blesses the planting of 'thousand dollar seeds', God TV should lead by example and give all its money to struggling ministries in the sure knowledge that God will give unto them 'ten fold'. Of course, they don't believe this, no matter what excuses they offer for their shameless pimping of prosperity theology. They just entice Christ's poor to part with hard earned cash to fund their drive to propagate this health, wealth and prosperity message to even the third world.

The emperor is butt naked. Stop telling him he ain't.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Recovering the Reformed Confession Part 2

In chapter 2, Clark begins his section on the crisis as he sees it in confessional Reformed churches. This chapter outlines what Clark sees as the quest for illegitimate religious certainty (QIRC).

He defines QIRC as ".. the pursuit to know God in ways he has not revealed himself and to achieve epistemic and moral certainty on questions where such certainty is neither possible nor desirable." (p39)

Clark believes that churches are realigning "theological and ecclesiastic priorities" (p44) in response to "liquidity, or the prevailing sense that nothing is fixed, certain or reliable any longer." (p42) These new priorities reflect a search for solid truths, controlling principles if you will, that give coherence to all other facts. The problem is that these "truths"in many cases represent not only "non-confessional marker(s) of Reformed identity" but are actually "opposed to the Reformed confession." (p44)

The three examples given by Clark are 6 day, 24 hour creation (6/24); Theonomy/Reconstructionism and Covenant Moralism.

Clark argues that to insist upon 6/24 as a matter of confessional orthodoxy is misguided as the WCF 4.1 ("In the space of six days..) was never meant to enforce the literalist view upon adherents. This would be a simplistic reading of the WCF forgetting that "the intent of the divines was to preclude (what they perceived to be) Augustine's nominalist view of the days of Genesis 1 as a literary device without any genuine connection to the acts of creation itself." (p49) Making it a boundary marker also serves to let the wrong people "in" (e.g. Seventh Day Adventists) and keep the right people "out" (e.g. B.B Warfield, Machen, et al).

He goes on to argue that Theonomists engage in QIRC by trying to resolve the tension between living this side of the cross and how to engage with the law. They want to flatten out the tension by bringing in the law wholesale (although they conveniently don't circumcise their children and are happy to wear mixed fabrics).

As to Federal Vision advocates or Covenant Moralists, Clark believes that they engage in QIRC by trying to resolve the tension between being simultaneously justified and sinful. By introducing works into final justification, they flatten out the tension and make the doctrine more palatable and reasonable.

All in all it was an engaging and thought provoking chapter. Something that struck me again and again was how this Reformed approach to epistemology should be a safe place for people desperate to escape the misguided doctrinal certitude of many fundamentalist churches. Geneva is the place to find a safe haven, not with Rome or with latte quaffing readers of 'A Generous Orthodoxy'. Calvin and his successors were teaching a balanced "chastised epistemology" in non-revealed matters long before the emerging crowd embraced the term and used it to encompass even perspicuous doctrinal truths.

C.S. Lewis and the RPW?

Earlier today, I was emailed the following C.S. Lewis quote regarding novelty in worship. It's good stuff, although the sender couldn't site the book from whence it came. Sounds awfully like an inadvertent endorsement of the Regulative Principle for Worship.
"Is this simply because the majority are hidebound? I think not. They have a good reason for their conservatism. Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don't go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best—if you like, it 'works' best—when, though long familiarity, we don't have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing, but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don't notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God."

HT: John Thomson and Jim Gamble

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

The ESV and all that

Wayne over at betterbibles.com has serialised Mark Strauss's paper to the ETS on "Why the English Standard Version should not be the Standard English Version".

Wayne has broken the paper up into a series of bite-sized chunks and the above link refers to the first of these.

In later posts Strauss talks about the 'Oops' factor in some of the ESV translations. One of my favourite howlers is Luke 17:35 "Two women will be grinding together". It sounds like a scene from a 50 Cent video.

Throughout, Strauss juxtaposes the ESV with translations from the TNIV and, IMO, strikes a blow for functional equivalence in translation.

I like the ESV. I even have a Highland Goatskin edition by Allan's that cost me a cool £85, so I am by no means an antagonist. But come on, the bible we read from in public should not unnecessarily send teenage boys into fits of giggles.

Further, why endure reading through trawls of turgid OT narrative passages in outdated English, just so that when we get to Romans 3:25 it reads 'propitiation' instead of 'sacrifice of atonement'?

It may not be popular, but for me the Bible of the future is the TNIV. It reads the way we speak and only by hearing the word of God in a manner that is linguistically relevant will our hearts resonate and be renewed.

Noah, the Gospel and Personal Transformation

Coming from the Brethren/Evangelical tradition, I'm pretty used to the 'testimony meeting'. What happens is that, instead a sermon from a text of Scripture, one or two people give their personal stories telling of 'what God has done in their lives'.

Quite often, these testimonies involve descriptions of the most dramatic personal transformations. I've heard stories of drug addicts, murderers, drunkards, adulterers, gangsters all finding Christ and having their lives turned upside down by the gospel.

While these testimonies are encouraging, they can give rise to damaging misconceptions. The first and obvious misconception that can arise is that the gospel is about solving our own moral dilemmas. This is damaging because it overlooks the fact that the gospel is not about me but about Christ. It's not about what he's done in me, but about what he's done for me. The gospel is a story about someone else, not me.

When we take the focus from Christ, his penal-substitutionary atonement and perfect righteousness for me and replace it with my spiritual story of striking moral change, it creates and feeds instability in Christians.

When the focus of the Christian story boils down to our moral change, we lose courage. We lose courage to witness, because our lives are no different from those around us. We lose courage to approach God, because we haven't witnessed or attained a stage of personal transformation that pleases him. We lose courage to persevere in the faith, as life seems like such a long road ahead of personal transformation and I don't know if I can keep 'it' up. In the end we just want to get blind drunk and not think about running on this endless treadmill.

Another unhelpful result of the striking testimony is that it takes the spectacular and makes it normative. It makes an exception an every day occurrence so that radical pietism becomes the standard for Christian experience. Our young people listening get unsettled. I remember thinking "I've never experienced the deep conviction of sins. I've never had a radical change and conversion. I've never led my teddy bear to the Lord. I must not be a Christian."

Constantly listening to "I used to do X, now I'm saved I don't do X anymore" fosters unrealistic expectations. Will everyone who comes to Christ experience spiritual victory over sins? What categories do we have for testimonies that go, "Before I got saved I was an adulterer. I came to Christ and then cheated on my wife"?

Let me categorically state that we should be nurturing our young in Christ instead of trying to convert them. We must be careful to tell our kids that the goal of their growing up in a Christian family is to have a boring testimony. It's ok not to know the exact date when you came to Christ. All that matters is that you are resting in and receiving Christ by faith now, not whether you can pinpoint a date or detect some radical change in your life. Before and after pictures are unhelpful, as sometimes the after reveals we're in an even worse state now than ever!

The testimony of Noah is an interesting one. Maybe we should listen to his 'story'. Here we have a man clearly saved by grace. Genesis 6:8 tells us that "Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord" (TNIV). It was only because Noah found grace in God's eyes that he could be counted 'righteous' in the next verse.

We all know the story that he passes through the flood in the ark. According to the apostle Peter, this passage through the flood was Noah's baptism (1 Peter 3:20, 21). As a result, Noah was baptised into a new world. What a story! We would normally expect a testimony like this to go on and record Noah's personal victories, but not according to Moses! We read in Genesis 9:20, 21 that Noah proceeded to get drunk and lie butt-naked in his tent.

Noah, saved by grace, baptised into a new life and still screwing up! He reverted to the ways of the world that God had destroyed in the flood. Thankfully, Moses doesn't stop the story there. I don't think it's pressing the text too much to see the gospel in 9:23 where we read, "Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it accross their shoulders; then they walked in backwards and covered their father's nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father's nakedness." (TNIV)

There's a true gospel testimony. A saved by grace, baptised and righteous man gets blind drunk and naked. Yet his sons graciously cover his nakedness with a robe. True righteous, baptised saints continue like Noah, screwing up, losing their minds and getting naked. The good news is that God the Father doesn't see our nakedness. He continues to clothe us in his Son's robes despite our rebellious ways. God continues to "justify the ungodly" (Romans 4:5) not those who have an amazing story of personal victory.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Recovering the Reformed Confession Part 1

It seems that every man and his Genevan dog call themselves Reformed these days. What exactly does it mean to be "Reformed"?

Does it mean you believe in predestination? "No" contend those who claim that even
Arminius was Reformed!

Does it mean you believe the 5 points? "Non" screams the Amyraldian, "4 points are more than enough pour moi".

What about the Holy Spirit? Do we experience him only through the means of grace? "No" bark our charismatic friends, "you can be Reformed and believe every Wimber doctrine".

Ever since Colin Hansen's book
"Young, Restless and Reformed" documenting a journalist's experiences involved in the stateside "Reformed Resurgence" it seems that being "Reformed" has come to define a variety of groups and personalities loosely united by a predestinarian soteriology (doctrine of salvation). So, for instance, in the same breath, Hansen can describe Charismatic C.J Mahaney and Baptist Al Mohler as being "Reformed". It seems that the term "Reformed" is up for grabs.

This, according to R. Scott Clark, is an insufficient state of affairs. Clark argues in "
Recovering the Reformed Confession" that the word "Reformed" does have an "objective referent" (p3). He contends that "the word denotes a confession, a theology, piety and practice that are well known and well defined and summarized in ecclesiastically sanctioned and binding documents." (p3)

The documents Clark refers to are "the sixteenth and seventeenth-century Reformed confessions, which we might call the six forms of unity (i.e. Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort, Westminster Confession of Faith, Westminster Larger Catechism and Westminster Shorter Catechism.)" (p3) It is not enough to be predestinarian according to Clark (and he does have a point - Thomas Aquinas believed in predestination!)

To cut a long chapter short, Clark believes that many who identify themselves with the label "Reformed" are nothing of the sort. Many in the confessional Reformed churches of NAPARC (and by extension the Reformed Resurgence crowd) have gone on two illegitimate quests. The first is the quest for illegitemate religious certainty (QIRC) and the second is the quest for illegitemate religious experience (QIRE).

Controversial stuff. Clark is taking a flame thrower to the cold potato question of "What/who is Reformed". Sacred cows will be gored. Old, loved Reformed forefathers will not be so much punched on the nose as forearm smashed. Over the next week or more, I'll be blogging my way through the book as a wee introduction to the new blog.


PS: My language about Scott forearm smashing loved Reformed forefathers was a tad provocative and unfair to the spirit of the book. I should have said "Cherished forefathers have their Reformed credentials examined and are politely taken to the woodshed."