With this post I officially begin my blog’s companion podcast, The Nicene Nerdcast. I don’t have much in the way of introduction to give you, so here’s the first installment. This is the result of some of my ponderings on race and the Church in recent days.
Two days ago was Reformation Day (and Halloween, of course, but that’s less interesting), and I never did get around to writing anything or throwing in my token of celebration. So I’m taking up a different topic on this later day: the aftermath of the Reformation. I want to offer a few thoughts on the way the Reformation has turned out and what lies ahead. Specifically, I want to highlight some of what I see as the good, the bad, and the hopeful.
- Yay for the abolishment of indulgence sales! Many Catholics took Luther’s critiques to heart. Indulgences still exist, but as more of a formal relic than they did, and they are no longer sold for money and don’t exploit the poor. And of course this whole nonsense has never been a part of the Protestant churches which sprung from the Reformation. By Biblical standards, this was clearly one of the worst and most reprehensible problems with the medieval Catholic church.
- Yay for the rejection of advanced Mariology! I’m not going to say that the official Catholic dogma technically transgresses into idolatry, but in any case I think the fixation on Mary in Catholic theology goes far beyond what is Biblically warranted. The accumulations of doctrines like her immaculate conception and assumption are painful for me to even contemplate. Mary was certainly a good example and should be remembered as such, and she was certainly blessed with a very unique role in redemptive history, but I’m happy that Protestantism is not concerned with thoughts of how Mary could stay a virgin forever, be taken body and soul to heaven, and be preserved from sin through the entirety of her life.
- Yay for the rejection of independent, created grace and human righteousness! While I disagree with many of my Protestant brethren on the precise way that Catholicism went wrong on these issues and the exact way of a Biblical response, the Catholic system, especially in its medieval days, did have serious problems. We depend on Christ alone at every step. Grace is not created into us in some way of generated habits of righteousness. We do not have any hold over God’s grace; it is not an object which can be put in us and which we can then manipulate for better or worse by our wills. The union we share with Christ, by which we are righteous, is personal and alien and Spirit-ually connected at every moment by nature.
- Yay for the rejection of papal and magisterial authority! Whatever role Scripture ought rightly to play in relation to tradition, reason, and experience, the idea that any infallible doctrinal authority might be placed in the hands of a vicar of Christ of a single body of scholars is simply foreign to the Kingdom of God in Christ. In addition to the formal problem of whether such authority is legitimate, much of the doctrine they have propagated from that authority is problematic.
- Yay for the collapse of church/state unity! While the original Reformers continued to unite church and state, it was nonetheless the overall movements begun with the Reformation which eventually toppled this destructive practice. We now (particularly in Baptist circles) strongly resist the idea the Church should make such use of the powers of this age, and even the Catholic Church has come to understand this.
- Boo for the divisions in Christ’s body! While I am glad for the Reformation, and I don’t think we can or should pursue institutional unity between Catholic and Protestant churches at this point in history, I hate the way so many people on each side (especially ours) condemn those on the other. We have serious disagreements that make full unity impossible, but it is to our shame if we refuse to at least be united in love, good works, and our witness to the world and so divide Christ’s Body. (Because, as I have written on multiple occasions before, I don’t believe Catholics are heretics.)
- Boo for the reintroduction of created grace in Protestant theology! After the Reformers rejected so forcefully the idea that God actually creates an independently operating grace in the believer which he can use and manage on his own, modern theologies of regeneration tend to reproduce precisely this error.
- Boo for replacement of magisterium with confessions! Confessions are important, even vital, to establishing certain doctrinal standards and maintaining boundaries of unity. But they are not infallible, and there is not one single confession from the Reformation or any other context which has no errors, no shortcomings, or no room for reformulation (maybe reformation!) as the Church marches on. Yet in many circles, primarily Reformed ones, the classic confessions (particularly the Westminster Confession) are treated as absolutely authoritative. Sure, the people who do this admit they are subservient to Scripture, but they act naively as though any confession repeats univocally the truth of God revealed through Scripture, and thus they create a de facto replacement for the Holy Tradition which so repels them from Catholicism.
- So much work has been done on the topic of justification in the past century (or centuries) that I truly believe a unified doctrine could be worked out, given sufficient effort, in the next century. That will depend on willingness and cooperation, but I believe the theological and exegetical work necessary to do this has already been accomplished. A unified doctrine of justification accepted by Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox is a goal visible on the horizon of the Church’s future, if we just reach out and take it.
- Despite the many advances since the Reformation, it is not truly over. Much work still needs to be done, both in places where the Reformation never really took root (like Italy and many South American regions) and in places where people are as Reformed as can be. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi Dei: “the church is Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” The Reformation will, in a certain sense, never be finished even if we one day reach some glorious reunification of a purified Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox Church. Until Christ comes, we will always need to reevaluate, criticize, destroy, rebuild, repackage, rediscover, and relearn how to respond, both theologically and practically, to the truth of the Word of God spoken by the Spirit. Fortunately, I see great evidence that this work is ongoing and will be quite fruitful.
- In the near future, I have hope we may see more interdenominational cooperation between conservative Christians of all traditions as the West becomes increasingly hostile in culture and law to orthodox Christian values and ways of life. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics, and Orthodox will all need to work together to do the work of the Kingdom and sustain our Christian witness in the coming dark ages, and I am convinced that many, if not all, will rise to the challenge and make the Church appear more united that it has in a long time.
Theologically-minded people get cynical.
This is to our shame.
One of the worst places that this cynicism shows up is in corporate worship as we sing songs to God. I know because I experience this personally on a weekly basis. I get critical about what we sing, and I hear my friends talk about it, too.
But really, we need to stop.
Yes, there are reasons to dislike certain worship songs.
Yes, it is true that many songs are less than 100% theologically precise.
Yes, some songs even use apparently incorrect theology.
Despite all this, rarely does a song pop up with is legitimately dangerous or so wrong that it cannot be sung by a godly heart. The songs which make rounds in our average evangelical Protestant churches may not always be of the highest musical and theological quality, but that doesn’t give us an excuse to cringe at lyrics when we could be worshipping the Almighty God.
And honestly, I’m rarely convinced that the problems identified with certain songs actually have to be problems. More often than not, we let our idiosyncrasies distort the reality. We’re so smug and proud of our theological purity that we are immediately suspicious of wording that we might not have chosen, even if the actual meaning is perfectly innocuous. We would be better off suspending our judgment and trying to figure out if a line is really flirting with heresy or if maybe we’re reading it wrong.
Take a couple of examples.
In “Holy Spirit” by Kari Jobe, I’ve heard people take issue with the line, “Holy Spirit, You are welcome here.” The usual response is, “Who do we think we are to tell the Holy Spirit where He is welcome? He can come and go wherever He wants!” But this is a silly objection. No one singing this line means to say, “Alright, Holy Spirit, in my personal sovereignty I give You, my humble Servant, permission to enter this room.” The real meaning is clear to anyone who is willing to give the benefit of the doubt: we are eager and receptive to the work of the Holy Spirit. We are praying for Him to act, saying that we are willing to listen and not resist.
“Good, Good Father” also gets a lot of flack, not just among theological types but even many others. I’ve seen some serious hate directed its way, such as here and here. And I’ll admit quickly that it’s a bit silly, certainly not quality music, especially in the first verse. But even so, I think the criticisms are mostly off-base. People complain about “You tell me that You’re pleased” as though the Father does not declare us pleasing to Him in the Son. One Calvinist complained about “I’m loved by You” as though Christians should remain skeptical about God’s love for them while worshipping Him. They hate on the mindless repetition, vague sentimentality, and lack of any distinctively Christian language. But really, really, what can you actually find in this song that explicitly contradicts Scripture and would be sung by your average worshipper in a way that turns them away from their heavenly Father? I find no such thing.
I won’t bother with any more examples for now. The point is clear enough. We need to quit with the snobbery, the arrogance, the hyper-particularity that distract our minds from the divine glory. Every once in a while we might stumble upon a song that is legitimately unacceptable, but most of the time we’re being picky, failing to apply the benefit of the doubt, and asserting our superiority over people who write and sing these songs. That’s not worship. So let’s leave this all behind and just focus on God. (And if the lyrics trip you up, be creative. I’m sure you can find an interpretative way to sing them with a meaning that fits your theology, unless your theology is a jerk.)
[This is a post I wrote quite some time ago but which has not been published here.]
I just finished reading the behemoth that is The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul by Douglas Campbell. The book is quite interesting, even if some of its major ideas are rather unconvincing in the final analysis. In this case, it seems to me that the redemption is in the details, while the devil is in the big picture.
All of that is rather tangential to the point of this post, though. I mainly want to address something that came to mind for me while reading a section in TDOG about conversion. Campbell was pointing out the characteristics of conversion experiences as studied by sociologists. He explained that, contrary to ideal evangelical imagination, but rather like the actual experiences of evangelicals if we thought about it, conversions usually take place as the result of gradual shift from one community to another. The basic progression, according to research on people who convert between religions, seems to be something like this:
- Person introduced to (or has attention brought to) new religion by friends, family, or other persistent relationships.
- Person interacts more and more with new group, developing new relationships and connections.
- Gradually, the connections to this new group begin to outweigh connections to the old, and loyalties begin to shift.
- Person, according to the manner learned from the new group, makes a decisive change of association and identifies with the new group. Conversion is complete.
As far as I can tell, this appears to be about right. Certainly, I’ve watched it happen myself within Christianity, with denominations and individual churches. While of course there are exceptions, these do not seem to be particularly normative, and many (though by no means all!) of the people who make less progressive and more instantaneous “conversions” tend to be like the rocky soil, and they wither in no time. If we only count conversions that “stick,” this would seem to be an even more accurate account.
So reading this about conversion got me to thinking just how useful it really can be to invite people into our churches and welcome them with love and kindness. If someone is brought into a community of people worshipping Jesus Christ in faith, hope, and love, and those people actually do treat them in a radically gracious and genuinely invested way, this display of the Spirit through love really can do wonders, and can fill people’s natural social interactions with God’s power unto salvation. Nothing can make people want to follow Christ more than to see Christ’s life being truly embodied before their eyes by a community of His people proclaiming His Word.
Yet there is, it seems to me, a danger latent in this strategy. Welcoming the unbeliever into our association and love is certainly good, but appears to carry with it the danger of mere assimilation instead of conversion on its own. When we simply fellowship with and love and befriend the visiting unbeliever, we might run the risk of them eventually just thinking as though they are one of us, a true Christian and member of the Body, despite having never repented of their sins, responded to Christ in faith, or submitted to accountability within the Church as legitimate member. We might lose them one day to realize that we have lost a friend, but that this friend fell through the cracks of our love and acceptance without ever joining in the new and eternal life found in Christ.
So what can we do about this? How do we leverage the power of Spirit-filled community to draw people to Christ while simultaneously ensuring that people aren’t just silently absorbed without any defining encounter with Christ resulting in a conversion to faith and repentance? I think the proper answer to this potential difficulty lies in the proper use of the sacraments. I am a firm believer in weekly Communion, despite being immersed in a Baptist world where such practice is rare. One day I hope to remedy that. But that is rather beside the point.
Setting up baptism and Communion as strict distinguishing marks, I believe, provides the necessary protection against mere assimilation. Weekly Communion where only those who have been baptized may participate provides a constant and, depending on how Communion is performed, potentially quite conspicuous reminder of the difference between being in Christ, part of His Body, and outside Christ, still part of the world. Even when the unbeliever is loved and welcomed and finds himself deeply wanting to be one of these people and share in their (Spirit-filled) life, the dividing line of Eucharistic separation is bound to create a tension which will have to be resolved at some point, either by abandoning the community he has grown attached to or by converting and joining that community. Arms wide open and altars narrowly restricted, a powerful love and a burning awareness of distinction, should act as the opposite pressures driving the potential convert in one of two directions: join the Body and its Christ or flee from both.
As another thought, I suspect the impact of this could be further enhanced by weekly fellowship meals, with Communion taking place immediately prior to the general eating. If you want to stay and eat with all of the people you are growing to love but must first watch only those committed to union with one Christ participate in a celebration of Him, I expect the decision-driving tension would only grow more powerful. In the end, the idea is to create a fellowship so attractive, virtuous, welcoming, and gracious that all want to become a part, but to make a public commitment to Christ in baptism the only path to truly do so. I suspect this will weed out many who are not truly concerned, but will provide opportunity for strengthening for those who might find themselves being drawn. May this be what happens, no matter what we actually do.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Communion in recent weeks, and there are three things which have stuck in my mind:
- Communion is first and foremost about Christ and His Body, not Christ and me. Now, I see people give lip service to this notion every once in a while. But I’ve rarely seen it put into practice. Most Communion services encourage people to reflect on Christ’s death for me, deal with my own sins, consider my personal walk with Jesus, and eat individually (or at widest, by family). None of this aligns with what Scripture teaches about Communion. Paul declared, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). He speaks as though coming together as a church is the same as coming together to take the Supper (1 Cor. 11:18-21). They cannot be divided. Communion is designed to unite us as one Body of one Lord, so why do we take it like we’re each only dealing with Christ personally? I would love to see churches take a hard look at how they do Communion. There are surely ways to drive home the corporate, fellowship side of the Christian table.
In Protestant circles, we should speak more freely about Christ’s presence in the Supper. I don’t think we need to accept the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the Lutheran view (often called “consubstantiation,” which most Lutherans disavow, or “sacramental union,” which most accept), or anything along those lines. But we need to be able to call the bread and wine—without any qualifications—Christ’s body and blood. We don’t need 10 minutes (or even 10 seconds) before each Communion saying, “Remember, this is just a symbol.” After all, right after John died the early Christians would write stuff like this:
Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us…They abstain from the Eucharist…because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead.
Ignatius, “Letter to the Smyrnaeans”
Whatever we think about the details of how the Supper works, we should at least get this: Jesus is there, and we are nourished by His atoning sacrifice. And that should give us great joy.
The one loaf is far more appropriate than crackers. This ties in a lot with my first point, but it’s still different. Originally, it seems quite clear that Communion was observed with loaves of bread divided among the believers. This was definitely true when Jesus started the Supper during His last Passover meal. Now most of us use wafers, crackers, or stuff that is probably just edible styrofoam. Practically speaking, it makes sense that this would happen over time. But practicality isn’t the point of the sacraments. I think this development betrays the original purpose. If we break whole loaves together, it reinforces the united body element mentioned above (we all share the same loaves of bread) and the significance of Jesus’ body being broken for us. It picks up on the Biblical theme of meal-sharing in celebration before God. But again, I just have to go back to the point of the united body. The Didache, basically an introduction to Christianity for new converts written in the second century, makes the point in its Communion prayer. I’ll wrap up by quoting it:
We give thee thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.
I just don’t think the Bible is important to Christianity and we don’t need to rely on it as Christians.
Okay, that’s not me. Actually, that’s what people have been getting for some reason from Andy Stanley’s recent controversial sermon, “The Bible Told Me So.” I would have thought this controversy would have settled down a bit since I first ran across it a couple weeks ago, but it really hasn’t. So I’m just going to offer my thoughts.
First, if you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, you should probably just go hear the whole sermon for yourself before forming an opinion. It would be inappropriate to make a judgment on this matter before hearing everything he says in its proper context. But here’s a summary. Basically, Stanley argued that we should stop hanging the core of our faith on the total perfection of the Bible and instead put it on the Resurrection. It is not the Bible that gives us Christianity, but rather Christianity was created by the Resurrection and the Bible came to be because of that. Sometimes people will find all kinds of objections to believing everything in the Bible (stuff like “What about evolution?” “I heard the Exodus never happened,” or “Archaeology says walls of Jericho didn’t come tumbling down”), but ultimately if their faith is grounded in the historical fact of the Resurrection rather than in the totality of a perfect Bible, they will find themselves reasonably led to stick to the faith and simply wrestle through the other issues. If the ultimate focus is, “The Bible told me so,” then as soon as they find a problem in the Bible that they can’t find a decent answer for, their faith will be in jeopardy. If the ultimate focus is, “Jesus rose from the dead,” then no random archaeological discovery about the Ancient Near East will endanger this sure bit of history on which everything else hangs.
To be honest, it still doesn’t make sense to me how people could truly object to this line of reasoning except by (usually willful) misunderstanding. It is simply true that the Resurrection is the one historical point on which everything hangs, and that even if we had a fallible Bible or no Bible at all this would still be real history deserving of faith in Christ. But of course there has been a great deal of misunderstanding, so I will quickly address two common misconceptions about this argument.
- This is not saying the Bible has errors. Part of the point of this argument is to make it irrelevant to Christian faith whether the Bible has errors or not, but even so the argument does not ask us to say there are errors in the Bible, and Stanley has explicitly stated that he believes in inerrancy: “I believe the Bible is without error in everything it affirms. I believe what the Bible says is true, is true.”
- This is not saying that we know about the Resurrection without the Gospels. Some people have imagined that if Stanley is moving the focus from the “Bible” to the Resurrection, then without the Bible he has no way of knowing about the Resurrection. But Stanley isn’t removing the Gospels from our method of knowing about Jesus. He is changing the focus from the “Bible” as a single, bound, book of 66 books complete with a theology of inspiration—a sacred text—to the fact that it contains Gospels and epistles written in the first century by eyewitnesses whose lives were changed by the event of the Resurrection. The Gospels are being presented as simple historical evidence first. If we can show that the New Testament demonstrates the historical reality of the Resurrection as simply testimony for an event from eyewitnesses, then we can build from the fact of the risen Christ to give someone a full Bibliology.
So, given all of this, I think that what Stanley has said is good apologetics and accurately expresses the historical rationale for why we can believe. Our faith in ultimately grounded in the fact that Jesus did really rise from the dead in space and time 2000 years ago and we have historical witness to that in the New Testament. Everything else in the Bible is true, but even if it were not or if we had reason to doubt, the Resurrection would be enough to hold everything together.
But, I am not willing to let Stanley off easily just because I agree with his basic apologetic point. There is still a problem here, and that is with his overall approach. The problem with “The Bible Told Me So” isn’t so much what Stanley says so much as to whom he addressed it. My problem is with Stanley’s approach to preaching and church. What Stanley said would belong in an apologetics conference or in a conversation with unbelieving friends or doubting Christians, but not in church. His recent interview with Russell Moore highlights what I’m saying. Moore asked him what he would do if we had the power of an evangelical pope. The first part of his response was that he would have all the small, dying churches sell their buildings and stuff and give them to church planters. Then he added a part related to this sermon saying that he would ask pastors to get the spotlight off the Bible and back on Christ’s resurrection, which of course sent people into reactionary spasms of “Heresy! Apostate man!” But the two together, along with everything else about Stanley’s ministry, make my point. He is treating church and its services as the place and time for evangelism, outreach, and apologetics. It’s a seeker-driven model all about getting people in. Thus he uses a primarily apologetic mode for Scripture, one which can’t take Scripture as a presupposition but instead must use it as a tool of historical reasoning. This is a fine way to evangelize, but it’s a terrible way to do church. As I argued before, church is for the Church. Church is a time for edifying believers, uniting us in the Gospel in worship of God in Christ, discipleship, and proclaiming God’s word in Scripture. In church, we can and must treat Scripture as a presupposition. When preaching and teaching to believers we are to take its final, infallible authority for granted. There are other contexts and times, especially one-on-one conversations, for handling Scripture in the merely historical, apologetically strategic way that Stanley is doing, but it is not the way to feed the sheep, which is the true purpose of church gatherings. I criticize Stanley here not for what he says, but to whom he says it. He should be saying these things to unbelievers outside of church, or to struggling believers in personal or training environment, not to a gathered church body. His ecclesiology is the real problem. His Bibliology is actually fine. But this ecclesiological problem is a problem, and it’s why I’m not thrilled with him and his ministry. Get church right, and use the power which comes from healthy church to evangelize in the world. That’s the issue.
Are we all God’s children? In this case by “we” I don’t mean specifically Christians, but all people in all of the world. Is it true as some say that all people are children of God? The more pop-theology answer tends to be “yes,” whereas more theologically astute Christians usually tend to answer “no, only Christians are” though there are exceptions. But the best answers have never been quite so simplistic. We should recognize that there are multiple dimensions to the Fatherhood of God, and in fact I would present it as having three aspects in particular. Depending on what you mean, it can be right or wrong to call God “Father” of all people. So what are these three “fatherhoods?”
- Creational fatherhood: In one sense, because God is the Creator all things He is also their Father. Paul says this while preaching to Greek thinkers in Acts, “as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring…” As a human father creates a child, so God created the world. (The fact that God creates the world as apart from Himself, rather than enclosing it within Himself like in panentheism, also makes it more true to speak of God’s role as Creator in terms of fatherhood than motherhood.) In this sense, God is Father of everyone and everything He has created. We should not make light of this. God is every bit as much love and every bit as generous in His creational fatherhood as in anything else.
- Covenantal fatherhood: In another sense, God is specially regarded as Father in His covenant relationships. When God elects and establishes a covenant, He sets Himself up as Father to the newly elect. Of Israel God said, “Israel is my firstborn son,” (Exod. 4:22), and He later says when He makes a covenant with David, “You are my son: today I have begotten you” (Ps. 2:7). Likewise, He now calls those in the new covenant His children (Rom. 9:8). This is a more intimate use of the term “Father,” for in this case God is highlighting a special relationship of love, care, and obedience between God and His covenant partner.
- New creational fatherhood: As God is Father to all He has created, He is also Father to all that He creates anew. There is a special sense in which those who are born again into the new creation are God’s children. Their new birth involves a change of parentage. They were once, by their sin, children of Satan, but now they are reborn into God’s family. John basically says everything we need to know about this sense of God’s fatherhood in 1 John 3:1-2.
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.
We should also understand, though, that in Christ this new creation is already accomplished for all people (John 5:29, 2 Cor. 5:19), even though not all have yet received it by faith in Him (Gal. 3:26). Not all will ever receive this new status as new creation children personally, but it objectively exists in Christ.
So from these three we can see that it can both be appropriate to speak of all people as God’s children and to speak specially of believers as God’s children. The one God is the one Father of all (Eph. 4:6), but it is also true that many are children of Satan rather than children of God (1 Jn. 3:8-10).
What we should see underlying all of this, however, is the eternal Father-Son relation of the Trinity. If anyone else is to be God’s child, it is first grounded in the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. It is is because Christ is the firstborn over all creation (Col. 1:15b) and the image in whom we were made (Col. 1:15a, cf. Gen. 1:27) that God is our Father creationally. Israel became God’s son, but their destiny was always defined by the coming of the only-begotten Son (Matt. 2:15). Of David and Solomon it was said that God became their Father, but Israel’s kings were only ever types of the one true Son and King (Heb. 1:5). And we are God’s children now, but only by union with Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:26, Eph. 1:5). Thus it all comes back to Jesus. He is the Son of God, and no one else can claim any such honor except through Him. And in that way it is true both that all are God’s children in Christ, and yet we who believe alone are God’s children in Christ. May we live our lives with the goal of seeing these two groups become one!