Monthly Archives: May 2006

Jim Jordan on how preaching was set in opposition to the Church

From The Reconstruction of the Church.

The Church in America today is in disarray. Apart from the evil influence of secular humanism and theological liberalism (which are the same thing), the problem is due to two factors: an ambiguous attitude toward public worship, and the development of parachurch organizations.

The first factor is that the institutional Church has not stressed the importance of “command performance worship” and the sacraments. As a result, people are not sure why the Church is important. They can hear good preaching over the radio or television. They can read good Christian books, and get guidance for life. Home Bible studies frequently provide better fellowship. Often the Church seems kind of dead compared to other Christian works. Thus, the institutional Church seems relatively unimportant. We have to say thatthis is the Church’s own fault, for failing to make its purpose clear to the people.

It is important for us to see briefly how this came about. During the Middle Ages, because of a superstitious view of the sacrament, people stopped partaking of it. They removed it from their children, and stopped drinking the wine. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the Italo-papal nationalization of the Church was pretty much complete, and the Church was almost wholly corrupt in its ministry. Lay preachers,monks, and other types of reformers conducted ministry outside the boundaries of the institutional Church, though they always directed people to engage in formal command performance worship on Sunday. At this time it was still understood that public worship was as important as private worship.

[It was the laity, not the clergy, who rejected the cup, out of fear of spilling it. It was also the laity who stopped bringing their children for communion, for the same reason. Until the later Middle Ages, children were welcomed at Jesus’ house for a weekly dinner with Him. All baptized children, from infancy on, were present at the Table.]

With the Reformation, the preachers triumphed, and took over the Churches. The political hold of the Italo-papal court over the rest of Europe was broken. Since the Reformation grew out of a preaching movement, it was natural for protestants to emphasize preaching in their worship services. At the same time, people were not used to taking communion more than once or twice a year, if that often. Though the major Reformers, such as Luther, Calvin, and Bucer, greatly desired weekly (even daily) communion, they were completely unable to persuade the people to go along. Quarterly communion was the most they could get.

As a result of all this, protestant people came to think of preaching as the most important aspect of the institutional Church. This was a mistake, because God has not given many gifted orators to the Church. (St. Paul was ridiculed forhis lack of oratorical skill, and Moses had the same problem; see Exodus 4:10ff. and Acts 20:7-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 10:10.) The proclamation of the gospel needs the pastoral context of the whole whody life–of the Church, and particularly needs the seal of the sacraments. By its exaltation of preaching as a charismatic art, the Reformation moved in the direction, subtly and unintentionally to be sure, of undermining the Church itself.

As time went along, this unhealthy opposition of preaching to sacramental pastoral ministry became more pronounced.The Puritan opposition to prayerbook worship wound up, in practice, often pitting preaching against a more wholistic view of the Church. [It should be noted that all the Reformers had been favorable to prayerbook worship. The more radical Puritans departed completely from the Reformation at this point.] This opposition broke out into the open, in America, during the Great Awakening. Roaming preachers caused tremendous disruption in the normal pastoral life ofthe Church. As Hofstadter has written,

In truth, the established ministers found it difficult to cope with the challenge of the awakeners. The regular ministers, living with their congregations year in and year out under conditions devoid of special religious excitement, were faced with the task of keeping alive the spiritual awareness of their flocks under sober everyday circumstances. Confronted by flaming evangelists of Whitefield’s caliber, and even by such lesser tub-thumpers and foot-stampers as Gilbert Tennent and Davenport, they were at somewhat the same disadvantage as an aging house-wife whose husband has taken up with a young hussy from the front line of the chorus (Anti-intellectualism, p. 67).

Because this is so important, and because there is so much mythology about how wonderful the Great Awakening and subsequent revivals were, I want to insert here some comments on George Whitefield; but since I dare not criticize him myself, I shall let the eminent Charles Hodge do it for me:

It is impossible to open the journals of Whitefield without being painfully struck on the one hand with the familiar confidence with which he speaks of his own religious experience, and on the other with the carelessness with which he pronounces others to be godly or graceless, on the slightest acquaintance or report. Had these journals been the private record of his feelings and opinions, this conduct would be hard to excuse; but as they were intended for the public, and actually given to the world almost as soon as written, it constitutes a far more serious offence. Thus he tells us, he called on a clergyman, (giving the initials of his name, which, under the circumstances completely identified him) and was kindly received, but found “he had no experimental knowledge of the new birth.” Such intimations are slipped off, as though they were matters of indifference. On equally slight grounds he passed judgment on whole classes of men. After his rapid journey through New England, he published to the world his apprehension “lest many, nay most that preach do not experimentally know Christ .”

. . . White field was much in the habit of speaking of ministers as being unconverted; so that the consequence was, that in a country where “the preaching and conversation of far the bigger part of the ministers were undeniably as became the gospel, such a spirit of jealousy and evil surmising was raised by the influence and example of a young foreigner, that perhaps there was not a single town; either in Massachusetts or Connecticut, in which many of the people were not so prejudiced against their pastors, as to be rendered very unlikely to be benefited by them” (from a Letter to Whitefield from Edward Wigglesworth, in the name of the faculty ofHarvard College, 1745). This is the testimony of men who had received Mr. Whitefield, on his first visit, with open arms.

Hodge also comments on the belief, new at the time, that anyone had the right to set himself up as a gospel preacher, over against the ministry of the Church. The perspective which Hodge sets out here, which has been the universal catholic view of the Church of all ages, is almost completely lost today, and seems very odd to the modern reader:

Whitefield. . . assumed the right, in virtue of his ordination, to preach the gospel wherever he had an opportunity, “even though it should be in a place where officers were already settled, and the gospel was fully and faithfully preached. “This, I humbly apprehend,” he adds, “is every gospel minister’s indisputable privilege.” It mattered not whether the pastors who thus fully and faithfully preached the gospel, were willing to consent to the intrusion of the itinerant evangelist or not. “If pulpitsshould be shut,” he says, “blessed be God, the fields are open, and I can go without the camp, bearing the Redeemer’s reproach. This I glory in; believing if I suffer for it, I suffer for righteousness’ sake.” If Whitefield had the right here claimed, then of course Davenport had it, and so every fanatic and errorist has it. This doctrine is entirely inconsistent with what the Bible teaches of the nature of the pastoral relation, and with every form of ecclesiastical government, episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational. Whatever plausible pretences may be urged in its favor, it has never been acted upon without producing the greatest practical evils .

Thus, the Great Awakening went far toward breaking down the historic connection between the wholistic ministry of the local Church and the preaching of the gospel. Subsequent revivals have only worked to further the disaster. Piety came to be seen exclusively in individualistic terms–individual souls responding to the ministry of the preacher–and corporate piety as the public performance of worship visibly on the earth before the throne of God for His glory, was increasingly lost from view

Incarnational or not?

In my opinion, this is pure genius:

Now this is why intellectuals … can sit up until two in the morning talking about how a particular French filmmaker was deconstructing the suburban instantiations of gnosticism with his gritty authenticity, while down the street another man puts them all to shame by getting up three hours later to go duck hunting with his son. Contemporary intellectuals tell us all to overcome abstractions, but whenever Joe Somebody in a red state says “Okay!” and heads off to a NASCAR race to eat corn dogs, the intellectual goes white in the face. “When we told you to walk away from the realm of abstractions, we didn’t mean . . . to just walk away.”

When did Protestantism degenerate to claim that the doctrine of justification by faith is the gospel

Question 22. What is then necessary for a christian to believe?

Answer: All things promised us in the gospel, (a) which the articles of our catholic undoubted christian faith briefly teach us.

Question 23. What are these articles?

Answer: 1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: 2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord: 3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary: 4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell: 5. The third day he rose again from the dead: 6. He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty: 7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead: 8. I believe in the Holy Ghost: 9. I believe a holy catholic church: the communion of saints: 10. The forgiveness of sins: 11. The resurrection of the body: 12. And the life everlasting.

Question 59. But what does it profit thee now that thou believest all this?

Answer: That I am righteous in Christ, before God, and an heir of eternal life. (a)

Question 60. How are thou righteous before God?

Answer: Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; (a) so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, (b) and am still inclined to all evil; (c) notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, (d) but only of mere grace, (e) grants and imputes to me, (f) the perfect satisfaction, (g) righteousness and holiness of Christ; (h) even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; (i) inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart. (j)

Thus teaches the Heidelberg Catechism. How different this is when we compare it to the words of the highly respected nineteenth-century Presbyterian church historian, William Cunningham:

I think it is much to be regretted that so very inadequate and defective a summary of the leading principles of Christianity as the Apostles’ Creed—possessed of no authority, and having no extrinsic claims to respect—should have been exalted to such a place of prominence and influence in the worship and services of the church of Christ; and I have no doubt that this has operated injuriously in leading to the disregard of some important articles of Christian doctrine, which are not embodied in it, but which are of fundamental importance. Even in the third century, we find the doctrines of grace—the true principles of the Gospel which unfold the scriptural method of salvation, were thrown into the background, were little attended to, and not very distinctly understood; while the attention of the church in the fourth century was almost entirely engrossed by controversial speculations about the Trinity and the person of Christ; and it is, I believe, in some measure from the same cause—i.e., having the Apostles’ Creed pressed upon men’s attention in the ordinary public services of the church, as a summary of Christian doctrine, entitled to great deference and respect—that we are to account for the ignorance and indifference respecting the great principles of evangelical truth by which so large a proportion of the ordinary attenders upon the services of the Church of England have been usually characterized—a result aided, no doubt, by the peculiar character and complexion of the other two creeds which are also sanctioned by her articles, and which are sometimes, though not so frequently, used in her public service—the Nicene and the Athanasian.

Since William Cunningham was famous as a Church historian, his statements were not a secret but were widely read–as far as I know with general approval. What a huge difference! The Heidelberg Catechism defines the promises of the Gospel as the content of the Apostles Creed and then teaches that anyone who believes these promises is righteous before God. That is justification by faith, not the content of the Gospel, but the result of believing it.

The Heidelberg Catechism is a sixteenth-century document, while Cunningham is nineteenth. But we can narrow the time gap a bit. Consider the witness of Francis Turretin the world renown Reformed Theologian of the seventeenth century, he asks in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology,

Is the true Church indefectible, which always was and always ought to be in the world until the consummation of the ages? We affirm against the Socinians.

In elaboratingon this claim, Turretin asks another one: “Where was our church before Luther and Zwingli and how was it preserved?” Turretin is typically thorough and gives several lines of argument. Partially, he answers that

our church was in the papacy itself, inasmuch as God always preserved in the midst of Babylon a remnant for himself according to the election of grace (to with, true believers who, groaning under that captivity, panted for spiritual deliverance; who are said to have been in the papacy not as to communion with it [since they disapproved of and turned away from its errors and superstitions], but as to tarrying and as guests because they lived in the midst of the papal church, not conjointly, but scattered through kingdoms, provinces, cities and families, in which God wonderfully preserved his people) (v. 3, p. 61).

This leads to more arguments and explanations. Here is the one that is relevant to William Cunningham’s verdict regarding the Apostles Creed: Turretin states that, “by the providence of God the principal heads of religion were comprehended in the Apostles’ Creed, the Decalogue, the Lord’s prayer, and the sacraments” (p. 65).

Turretin later elaborates on the value of the Apostles’ Creed, saying

Although the church which was in the papacy before the Reformation did not have among the articles of its faith justification by faith alone, the rejection of all sensible sacrifices beside the sacrifice of Christ and the repudiation of the worship of images and of the invocation of the saints and other articles (concerning which there is controversy between us), it does not follow that believers did not have in the doctrine received for that time the necessary food for salvation. Such articles are not positive and affirming, containing things that are to be believed and done, in which therefore the essence of faith and religion consists, but negatively and excluding the errors which ought to be rejected, which do not pertain to the building up of faith. As no one would put down among nourishments the care of avoiding poisons which could produce death, so the positive articles work salvation properly, while the negative only remove those things which can interfere with salvation.

Although it is impossible for one to work out his salvation under a Socinian ministry (because it formally and directly destroys the foundation of Christianity by denying the mystery of the Trinity and of the divinity of Christ and of the truth of his satisfaction), it ought not to be said that it was equally impossible to live under the papal ministry, although corrupted in a different way… (v. iii, pp. 67, 68).

To my mind this is an immense contrast. On the one hand, according to Turrettin, the articles of the Apostles’ Creed are “the essence of faith and religion,” and “nourishments” that “pertain to the building up of faith.” On the other hand, for Cunningham, the Apostles’ Creed is virtually useless–only encouraging fruitless Trinitarian and Christological speculation in the Early Church and led to the neglect of “the true principles of the Gospel which unfold the scriptural method of salvation.”

So somehow there was a switch. It is true, of course, that Protestants have always considered justification by faith alone a vital matter. But it was later when it became equated with the very content of the gospel so that anyone who did not affirm this doctrine could be consigned to a place outside Christ’s kingdom.

Mercersberg again

One of the great things about “the Mercersberg Theology,” was that it dealt with the tractarian movement in a way that addressed their concerns but defended the Reformation and vindicated justification by faith alone. In fact, in his The Principle of Protestantism, Philip Schaff articulated what Charles Hodge declared to be a “thoroughly evangelical” expositon of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. I agree with Peter Leithart when he writes,

Schaff’s book is not perfect. It is hard not to cringe when Schaff enthuses over German theology, and his affection for German idealism and Hegelianism is evident on the surface of the text. One wishes, moreover, that he had paid more careful attention to Puritanism, which he condemns as unhistorical and unchurchly.

Yet, the value of Schaff’s book goes far beyond its importance as a summary of the main thrust of the Reformation; its practical relevance for contemporary Protestants, especially Reformed Protestants, is incalculable. During the past several years, conservative Reformed churches have become increasingly polarized, and polarized precisely in regard to issues that Schaff’s book addresses.

On the one hand are those Reformed theologians and churches who appear to believe that the Reformed tradition has done and can do no wrong. All we need to address the doctrinal confusions of our day is a return to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and all we need to do to resolve liturgical chaos is to preserve a worship purer than Puritanism ever envisioned. To such, I recommend a prayerful read of chapter 3 of Schaff’s book, “The Diseases of Protestanism,”Efor the diseases that Schaff identifies are still plaguing us. And they are mortal.

On the other hand, some within the Reformed churches are all too aware of the diseases of Protestantism and conclude that, while there is no balm in Geneva, there is balm in Rome. For anyone facing this temptation, there is no inoculation quite like The Principle of Protestantism, for here Schaff, reflecting the concerns of his Mercersberg colleagues, especially John Williamson Nevin, presents a vision of a thoroughly catholic Protestantism that embraces tradition and that is not spooked by sacramentalism. Moreover, Schaff shows that this was the original Reformation vision. Few tasks are more pressing for the Reformed churches today than articulating and embodying that vision.

That which God has joined together…

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith (Romans 3.28-30; emphasis added).

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Galatians 2.15, 16: emphasis added).

I recently quoted Dr. Richard Gaffin from these lectures. I can’t help but add now an excerpt from N. T. Wright’s opening lecture which included an exposition of the implications of those monosyllabic words I emphasized in the texts above.

I’ve thus discovered that my reformational call to be a faithful reader and interpreter of Scripture impels me to take seriously the fact, to which many writers in the last hundred years have called attention, that whenever Paul is talking about justification by faith he is also talking about the coming together of Jews and Gentiles into the single people of God. I didn’t make this up. It’s there in the God-given texts. I do not draw from this observation the conclusion that some have done—I think of Rader and Schweizer, namely, that justification is therefore a mere secondary polemical doctrine but not at the very center of Paul’s thought—on the contrary—since the creation through the preaching of the gospel of this single multiethnic family promised to Abraham,

  • the family who were justified,
  • declared to be in the right,
  • declared to be God’s people on the basis of faith alone,
  • the family whose sins had been forgiven through the death of the Messiah in their place and on their behalf,
  • the family who constitute the first-fruits of the new creation that began with Jesus’ bodily resurrection

—since the creation of this family was the aim and goal of all Paul’s work, and since this work was by its very nature polemical over against the pagan world that resisted it from top to bottom, and against the Jewish world which resisted it for quite other reasons but equally fiercely—since all of that, it was natural and inevitable that Paul’s apostolic work would itself involve polemical exposition of the results of the gospel and that justification by faith as a key polemical doctrine would find itself at the center when he did so.

That which God has joined, joined not least through the single little syllables which serve as the tiny rudders for the large ship of His Holy Word, let us not put asunder. And since these little words join together whole arguments, let us pay attention to the actual arguments Paul mounts, not to three or four verses snatched here and there out of their real-life God-given context. This is my first appeal to you, an appeal which is for the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura to have its way over against all our human traditions.

If you haven’t bought these lectures, I highly recommend them.

How Van Til misled me

A lot of this is just impression, and perhaps a better title for most of it is “how I misunderstood Van Til.” But the hard evidence is this: For years, on the basis of what I read in the works of Cornelius Van Til, I was absolutely certain that Thomas Aquinas was what amounted to a theologica/soteriological Arminian.

And the more general problem was that I came away from Van Til thinking that the primary thrust of intellectual idolatry was a denial of God’s comprehensive control over human life. Only us Reformed Christians were willing to consistently affirm the Godness of God. Which meant to affirm his power, his control, his invincibility, his authority, his alienness to humanity.

That was the impression. Van Til was better than this. He affirmed and defended the incarnation and the perspecuity of God’s word, which would both be rendered untenable if we followed only this other line of thinking. But over and over again Arminian thinking was treated as the essence of fallen thinking.

In retrospect, I realize that I was turning the North American Calvinist minority complex into a cosmological demonology. Obviously. But it wasn’t obvious to me then. And I don’t think I am the only Van Til reader who came away with the assumption that Thomas Aquinas was an Arminian and that all unbelief amounted to an affirmation of synergy.

But there is simply no reason to think that non-christians can’t be comprehensive theological determinists. And the errors of Aquinas do not include a denial of Augustinianism. There are other errors besides Arminianism that we can fall into and there are other idols than human autonomy.

Again, I’m not sure how much of this can really be pinned on Van Til. I’m confident that some of it is his fault, but maybe most of it was my own misreading.

And I think some of this runs in the wider Reformed world in general. How many books have I read by Reformed authors who start by defining God in terms of power and control, only to later add love and compassion? Perhaps my memory exaggerates, but I don’t like thinking we have a tradition that specializes in relativizing John 4.7, 8, 16. Even though we do see a lot of imbalance in the wider Evangelical world that ignores God’s holiness in favor of a more sentimental perspective, I don’t know that it is necessarily healthy to preach against this by always saying that, “God is not really like that. God is great and powerful.” God is great and powerful, but I think we need to make sure no one forgets that God is great enough to empathize with the weakest and powerful enough to be able to identify with them.

The fact that God is infinite doesn’t mean he is alien; it means he gives each one of us as much of his attention as if we were the only creature he ever made.

When to go to war and when to make peace

Lig Duncan relays some good material about why some Anglicans are saying that the call to unity does not allow them to continue in a church that blesses homosexuality.

It is, among other things, a good reminder of what real issues exist in the world that we must deal with as a Church and not compromise. And I think it shows, by comparison, how horrible it must be when we go to war over things that don’t matter at all.

If you haven’t considered signing Presbyterians & Presbyterians Together please go look at the document (again?) and give it some thought.