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 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."