Sunday, September 25, 2016

For a Continuing Church, by Sean Michael Lucas -- a brief review

Those who like their history sanitized and scrubbed won't enjoy this book, but it is well worth the read.
Lucas traces over the course of the 20th century the background leading to the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973. Courageous ministers and laymen took stands for biblical authority, evangelical commitments, and the reformed faith in the face of growing heterodoxy and authoritarianism in the southern Presbyterian Church.
If only the story could be told fully in those terms! Even those with iron wills often have clay feet, and the same Presbyterian conservatives that defended orthodoxy most often also wanted to defend the southern way of life, including commitments to racism and segregation that they claimed were rooted in the Bible. While the stain of racism defended in biblical terms was diminishing to a significant degree by the time of the PCA's founding in 1973 largely due to younger ministers who repudiated that history, it is necessary to recognize the role that the south's racial culture played in conservative Presbyterian's 20th century.

This is an important story, well told.

If I had one request of the author, I would have liked to see more about conservatives in the south prior to 1950 that disagreed with the majority on social questions. Does silence in that regard in this work mean that there were none? It would be interesting to know.

That said, this book is readable and meticulously researched. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Specifically Religious

I am in the midst of reading Kathryn Greene-McCreight's marvelous "Darkness Is my only Companion: a Christian Response to Mental Illness."

The book has been illuminating for me, and I would encourage Christians to read it, as this is an area where the church has not thought clearly, but needs to. I hope to write a review of it once I complete the reading.

While the book deserves a review that keeps its main points in view, a statement made by the author that I read this morning jumped out at me because of its wider applications. While hospitalized due to her mental health condition, she attended once a "Spirituality Group" led by the chaplain, but did not return. Explaining that decision, she wrote, "It was generically religious. I am not generically religious."

Better than I could have said it myself, that explains my indifference bordering on hostility toward the American civil religion that seems to excite so many people.  I suppose it means something to the generically religious.

I am not generically religious.

Monday, July 18, 2016

More on the Trinity

In response to my previous post, I have been asked to explain the Trinity. Rather than try to write something original, I thought I would simply provide the summary description found in the Belgic Confession along with the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds. These should provide good resources for Bible study.

Article eight of the Belgic Confession reads as follows:

God Is One in Essence, Yet Distinguished in Three Persons
According to this truth and this Word of God, we believe in one only God (1 Cor 8:4-6), who is one single essence (Isa 43:10), in which are three persons (1 John 5:7 [TR]; Heb 1:3), really, truly, and eternally distinct, according to their incommunicable properties; namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost (Matt 3:16-17; 28:19). The Father is the cause, origin, and beginning of all things, visible and invisible (1 Cor 8:6Col 1:16Eph 3:14-15); the Son is the Word (John 1:1-2; 1:14Rev 19:13Prov 8:12), Wisdom (Prov 8:12, 22, etc.; 1 Cor 1:24), and the Image of the Father (John 5:17-26Col 1:15Heb 1:3); the Holy Ghost is the eternal Power and Might (Matt 12:28), proceeding from the Father and the Son (John 15:26;Gal 4:6). Nevertheless, God is not by this distinction divided into three, since the Holy Scriptures teach us that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost have each his personality, distinguished by their properties; but in such wise that these three persons are but one only God. Hence, then, it is evident then that the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father, and likewise the Holy Ghost is neither the Father nor the Son. Nevertheless these persons thus distinguished are not divided nor intermixed; for the Father hath not assumed the flesh nor hath the Holy Ghost, but the Son only (Phil 2:6-7Gal 4:4John 1:14). For the Father hath never been without his Son (Mic 5:2John 1:1-2), or without his Holy Ghost. For they are all three co-eternal and co-essential. There is neither first nor last; for they are all three one, in truth, in power, in goodness, and in mercy.
For further elaboration, I would suggest additionally reading through and looking up the Scriptures found in Article 9, Article 10, and Article 11.
Older expressions of Trinitarian faith can be found in the ecumenical creeds recited in Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern churches to this day. These include, among others, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Teaching the Trinity

Last year my wife and I visited an Anglican church. We weren't thinking about becoming Anglicans -- we are committed to both Presbyterianism and to our local congregation -- but we saw it as an opportunity to see how another Christian tradition worships. Some of my favorite authors -- James Packer, John Stott, Leon Morris, C.S. Lewis, and on and on -- are Anglicans, so I thought it would be interesting to see a bit of the tradition that they were nurtured in and participated in.
As I would have expected, there were things I liked and things that I found confusing or that I disagreed with. Much of Anglican worship centers around the Book of Common Prayer. It creates the form and content for most of the service. What I most noticed about the worship that day -- and I think that this is fairly standard in churches that adhere to historic Anglicanism -- is that the worship service generated by prayer book was relentlessly Trinitarian. That is to say that no one could leave the service without realizing that they had participated in the worship of one God who eternally exists in three persons. It was emblazoned into the entire fabric of the service.
Over the years, I have known many laymen who have struggled with the doctrine of the Trinity. My own view is that Scripture -- when it is all pulled together -- is clear on the Trinity, but people have a hard time understanding it because it is not similar to anything in human experience. People attempt analogies to explain how God can eternally exist as one God and three Persons, but the metaphors tend to break down in one way or another. Because of that, there is a tendency to resist the data from Scripture. When compiled, the scriptural data is clear and impressive.
Yet, many laymen have said to me that not only do they struggle to believe it; they say that they have never heard it clearly taught. That is sad. Also sad is the fact that in recent weeks a controversy has broken out among some Christian scholars -- mostly reformed leaning folks who do not come from confessional denominations and are not accustomed to thinking creedally -- over the Trinity. If even Christian scholars are not understanding scriptural teaching about the Trinity, what is a layman to do?
I think sermons alone, while helpful, are not enough. Though I am not an Anglican, I like their worship approach, which, as I put it, was relentlessly Trinitarian from start to finish. As another approach, I thought recently about a church I preached at several times last year. They recited the Nicene Creed every single Sunday. While I thought that perhaps every week was a bit excessive, the regular reciting of the creed certainly would serve to help those under the church's care to understand who God is.
And, that is what is important. We can talk all day about the various functions of the church, but if we are wrong about who God is, we have erred on something that is very serious. Whether we are Presbyterians, Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, or whatever, there is an understanding derived from Scripture, forged out of controversy, and articulated by God's people that has stood the time for 1600 years. By whatever means we determine best, we need to make sure that the people in our churches understand it.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Which calendar?

For those churches that follow a liturgical calendar, Pentecost Sunday falls 50 days after Easter -- this year on May 15. Ascension Day, 10 days prior, fell on May 5, though some churches will mark it on Sunday, May 8, rather than have a special service on Thursday. Of course, a large percentage of churches don't follow such a calendar and won't mark those days at all.

That is fine, as I confess that I have never marked these days myself. However, it seems curious that churches that don't find a need to mark these biblical events will nonetheless observe a purely secular holiday, Mother's Day, on this Sunday.

Again, I can understand the belief that anniversaries of biblical events don't require marking. However, ignoring the church calendar while observing a non Christian one seems to be a strange choice.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Do We Need Jesus in the White House?

Recently, a friend posted on Facebook a picture of Jesus superimposed over a picture of the White House. A caption suggested that the country would be better off when Jesus moved in there.

But, aren't we better off with Jesus right where he is: at the right hand of the Father making intercession for us?

Given that the religious right has attempted to be a force in American politics for nearly four decades, one would think that along with such activism should come among evangelicals an understanding of church teaching, church authority, and how it relates to that of the state. Unfortunately, Americans tend to be doers, not thinkers, and the evangelical movement, not to mention individual Christians, has been harmed by the failure to think clearly about the same.

Christians -- and the world around us -- are much better off with Jesus at the right hand of the Father making intercession for us, for it is with the Father that true authority lies. Christians seem frustrated that it is not the power of the sword that spreads the Gospel -- it is the foolish power of Word and sacrament by which God's church is grown -- but that is the ordinary means that God has used over these last 2000 years.

In the news recently: the Tennessee legislature voted to make the Holy Bible the state book of Tennessee. The governor fortunately vetoed that legislation. In explaining her vote in favor of the bill, one state legislator said she hoped that the legislature would start a great national revival. 

The people of Tennessee are better served by legislators who understand their role of punishing evil and promoting civic righteousness. Revival, if such is to come, will be a work of God, performed through the ordinary ministry of the church. The power of the state is not required.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

When did Christianity start to lose its hold on American Culture?

Taking the long view, I would say around 1770.

Yes, 1770, give or take.

While many evangelicals see the revolutionary period as a golden age in American history -- and in many ways it was-- Christians during that era frequently lamented that religious commitment had waned. While such jeremiads have been common throughout American history, there is reason to think that in this instance they were correct. Clearly, religious fervor had declined since the end of the Great Awakening around 1750. The clergy claimed that the realities of the Revolutionary War distracted the population from religious exercise, and in the aftermath of the war Christians became concerned at the influence of French skepticism making inroads in the culture.

The Second Great Awakening, which began around 1800, provided a religious response to these trends, but it was one that did not come without a cost. As American religion became democratized, traditional forms of religious authority began to be marginalized. In some ways that was a positive for American Christianity: the growth of a menu of democratic religious options meant that most of the people could find something to their liking, unlike in Europe where more limited choices resulted in people dropping out. Nonetheless, Christianity during this period became more emotional and anti-intellectual, which would become problematic as the nation became more diverse. In addition, American Christians became more concerned with religious fervor than with coherent commitments to historic orthodoxy.

Nonetheless, the Protestant mainstream maintained a quasi-establishment role in the country through the 19th century; however, once again, it did so at a cost. The population of the country was becoming much more diverse, as the result of democratizing influences, frontier expansion, immigration, and other trends. This diversity resulted in greater religious pluralism. Thus, in order to maintain that Protestant establishment, American public religion came increasingly to emphasize moral over doctrinal concerns. There is an irony in the fact that many modern evangelicals will cite early American affirmations of the need for religious morality for the health of the Republic without realizing that such moralizing actually represented a decline in Christian specific content proclaimed by the churches.

The standing of the Protestant establishment became further strained in the latter half of the 19th century, as industrial and academic trends tended to push Christian concerns and activism toward the margins. Urbanization proved challenging to the essentially agrarian outlook of much of American Christianity. As American industry began to look to colleges to produce workers capable of meeting the needs of the new economy, the presence of clergy among college directors seemed less advisable, and they began to be replaced with business leaders. In addition, naturalistic philosophy, as well as scientific Darwinism, took American academia by storm. Even in divinity schools, naturalism began to have influence, with the result that many schools began producing ministers that no longer believed in Christianity. One result of this was the withdrawal of many religious conservatives from mainstream culture in a movement known as fundamentalism.

By the 1950's, as noted by historian George Marsden, American thought leaders shared a belief in the goals of America's founders, but they no longer believed in the basis for those goals, which largely consisted of a belief that inalienable rights came from a creator. Efforts at resolving that gap failed, resulting in the deterioration of America's civil debates into an era of identity politics that has continued up to the present. Thus, what emerged in the 1960's had obvious roots in the culture of the 1950's. In that atmosphere of identity politics, beginning in 1980 the Moral Majority (note the emphasis on morality without  any theological commitment and majoritarianism rather than shared commitment) provided foot soldiers for conservative victories for a while, though anyone looking at the demographics of those holding varying views should have recognized that, in fact, the moral relativists had already won. As older generations died out, they would be replaced by those without the same moral, much less theological, commitments.

Thus, American culture had changed long before the recent same sex Supreme Court rulings made the country less hospitable toward evangelical views. Many have responded with a sense of betrayal -- in spite of past Court actions (particularly Roe v. Wade), many still considered this to be a "Christian country." It would benefit them to think more carefully about both their theology and their history.

Of course, Christianity remains broadly influential in the United States, though it may never again hold the level of respectability and influence that it has had in the past. However, that is not entirely a bad thing. Christians should now be humbled from their quest to impose some form of Christianization on the country by political means, thus providing an opportunity to return to basics, i.e., the preaching of the Gospel. The reality is that Christianity has always taught that sound theology is at the core of what the church is, with moral action being the outworking of what we believe. Christian teaching has become sloppy, often not being adequate for those within the church and not providing a compelling message for those outside.

With the lack of social influence, perhaps American Christians can repair those breaches. These days, everyone knows what evangelicals think about gay marriage. The church will be healthier when the world knows what the church thinks about justification by faith.