I've been thinking a lot lately about our cultural impulse to view new as better. You can see this pretty much everywhere we go — from the doomsayers who say Apple is doomed when a new iPhone isn't entirely different to the wailing of the St. Louis Rams about their “old” dome built in the mid-90's. I see it a lot in the Church. People constantly resort to “solving” the problems of any given ministry by suggesting the Old must give way to some magical thing known as the New.
Kai Nilsen critiques this notion in an article a friend sent me. He points to examples of liturgical renewal as a result for people yearning for something more than the constant drive for the New:
I would suggest that many parts of the modern church movement, having sold out to the heresy of “new is always better,” are awakening to the beauty of ritual and the recurring rhythms of the church that embed the life of God deeply within our souls. The season of Lent is one of those recurring rhythms that ritualizes the beauty of God’s life-giving, redemptive work in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
While I think the liturgical year can be overused, I also believe we are foolish when we fail to appreciate the ways traditional practices of the Church may very well be more meaningful than anything new we can cook up.
It is so easy for us to become wrapped up in how we pray — an emphasis on our own “prayer skills” — that we can come to believe that our act of praying, our choice of words and our “faith” is what really matters. Karl Barth addresses this misunderstanding nicely:
Grace itself is the answer to this question. When we are comforted by the grace of God, we being to pray with or without words.
How wonderful it is when we see that prayer is not ultimately bounded by our foundation but God's grace!
There is not an inch in the entire domain of our human life of which Christ, who is sovereign of all, does not proclaim 'Mine!'”
We often think of redeeming society in too small of terms. That is the beauty of Kuyper's famous statement: he points us towards how big the scope of God's plan was.
Here is a pithy tidbit from John Calvin that I was mulling over tonight as I thought about the new Sunday school classes that are starting tomorrow:
“Therefore each individual has his own kind of living assigned to him by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that he may not heedlessly wander about throughout life.”
Peacemaker Ministries's founder and president, Ken Sande, has stepped down from his post at the organization. Most of you know that I am a vocal opponent of Peacemaker's program for a variety of reasons that need not be rehashed here, but I find something telling to the larger situation of the American church that I think is worth interacting with:
The transition from Peacemaker Ministries does not mean that Ken is leaving peacemaking behind. He has already begun work on a new teaching paradigm, which he is calling “Relational Wisdom,” or, simply, “RW.” […] As the transition is completed and our new CEO identified, Ken hopes to turn his attention fully to RW, writing a new book, and starting a sister ministry that focuses on relational wisdom.
This idea of moving from “paradigm” to “paradigm” hints at a problem endemic not only within the sphere of Peacemaker Ministries, but also within many of the other “ministries” that appear in American Evangelicalism today. Too many of them end up being built upon the shifting sands of marketing, buzzwords and “paradigms” (complete with a dash of “shifts”). What is “relational wisdom”? What distinguishes it from normal Biblical teachings on relationships that requires giving it a new name?
Our consumer-driven culture likes these sorts of packages, because they are easy to implement and have clear goals. When everything can be solved with a book and an organization-for-hire, we need not do the hard work of thinking through how the Gospel is to be uniquely applied to the individual situations and people we interact with each day. Programs can be good, don't misunderstand me, but in the Christian life our goal should be to study, teach and preach the whole counsel of God faithfully, not simply to pass through a smattering of programs that cover all the issues we happen to deem important.
Too often, programs that can be dropped into any church with the promise of somehow helping people live better lives end up focusing on one aspect of Scripture, boiling it into a few catchy phrases people memorize, overemphasizing it to the point that it becomes distorted and then calling it a day. Worse, given that we accept that buying “solutions” is a valid means of fixing our problems, once we have completed the program, we are inclined as a culture to assume we know all we need to know. But, as the messiness of real life plays out, these programs end up being forced upon situations they do not really fit. Much as if one memorizes some phrases of a foreign language instead of learning the language's grammar, whether we realize it or not, at some point we hit a dead end.
This is why it is so important that we study the entirety of God's Word and constantly seek to understand how the issues the Biblical figures faced parallel our own issues. When we wrestle with Scripture and see the coherent arc of the story, we can discern the Biblical approach to all sorts of matters — including dealing with conflict — in a way that is much fuller and more applicable than any program ever could hope to be. If we want to be wise in how we relate to and care for our neighbors, all we need to do is immerse ourselves in the Bible and pray for the Spirit's aid in living out the Gospel. That is real relational wisdom that will never become replaced by a paradigm shift.
I put one of my favorite quotes from Karl Barth up on the dry erase board in my office at church the other week. I thought it was worth posting here again:
The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths. The Gospel is not the door but the hinge.
My noble comrade JK cited this piece from Peter Leithart yesterday. Notably, I think this is the only time I have referenced Leithart on my blog, but I thought a quote from the cited piece was worth sharing:
If Jesus is Lord of His church; if the text of Scripture is uniquely from God, such that God speaks in human language; if Christ's Spirit can make His human words intelligible to human beings; if human beings can, under the guidance of the Spirit, speak God's words accurately and intelligibly to the church - then sola scriptura follows. Denying sola scriptura entails denial of one or more of those conditionals: God can't in fact speak without distortion in human language; or Scripture is not uniquely God's Word in human words; or Jesus is a titular but not a living Lord of His church.
This sums up well the Reformational sense of what sola scriptura meant. The force is not on throwing out all other sources of knowledge about God, but rather in recognizing the unique role of Scripture as the final authority that overrules all else. As the Westminster Confession says in 1.6, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.”
One might ask if it is ironic that in discussing sola scriptura I turned to a tradition's confession (the Westminster Confession), but the very nature of the view of Scripture described above points to a clearly resounding “no.” The vows of the PCA make the distinction clear: the ordinand is to affirm believing that the Scriptures are “the only infallible rule of faith and practice,” but on the second count affirm only receiving and adopting the Confession “as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” The Confession does not stand alone, but rather is entirely dependent for its authority on the Word of God.
That's sola scriptura.
One interesting thing that happens based on the way Facebook handles “likes” of notable figures in more recent times is that these figures (or, rather, someone posting as these occasionally deceased figures) will post choice quotes that show up in one's news feed. The other day, the following quote popped in based on my “like” of Joseph Campbell:
You have the three great Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - and because the three of them have different names for the same biblical god, they can't get on together. They are stuck with their metaphor and don't realize its reference. They haven't allowed the circle that surrounds them to open. It is a closed circle. Each group says, “We are the chosen group, and we have God.”
While the quote attracted many positive comments on Facebook, it is actually quite problematic. This claim may be true for some people,but the main points of division between the members of the Western religions are not the names used, but the contents of their beliefs. A simple demonstration of this comes from an increasing number of Christian missionaries who use the word “Allah” to refer to God when in a country where that word seems to be the most logical (linguistic) equivalent of elohim or theos in Scripture (i.e. “God” in English). The signifier (the word) stays the same, but the signifieds (the deities behind the word) look different in key ways.
Oversimplifying this matter and thinking in the way Campbell does is a common enough error to be sure, but one we ought not to make. Such a mistake ultimately demonstrates a failure to take these religions seriously, because each has distinct claims to the truth. Those deserve to be taken seriously and not immediately flattened.
A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to this piece yesterday. I think the article does a good job of explaining some of the reasons why people have left the Reformed world for Catholicism while also noting very clearly some of the core beliefs that are lost when one goes “swimming.” I think his points about what makes Catholicism attractive ought to urge us Presbyterians to think critically about what we do well as part of the body of Christ and what we could improve on. In some cases, we could simply do a better job and deal directly with those yearnings people have that we are currently inadequately caring for. In other cases, the best course of action is simply teaching why we don't do or believe certain things (and, as an important companion, why we do and believe other things).
Call it my historical bias, but I also think we need to spend more time teaching people within the Church about church history. The things that people of faith have faced before are far more relevant than many of us are prone to think. In relation to the topic of the blog post I linked to above, I think that plays out in two very clear ways. First, church history helps us to understand why the Reformation happened and see how it has historical continuity with the church as a whole. Second, thoughtful study of church history helps us to think through how we apply tradition within the church today.
Reading B.A. Gerrish's excellent essay on Calvin's view of Luther in a festschrift for Wilhelm Pauck edited by Lewis Spitz, I was struck by a particularly astute quote from Calvin's Commentary on Romans:
God has never seen fit to bestow such ravor on his servants that each individually should be endowed with full and perfect knowledge on every point. No doubt, his design was to keep us both humble and eager for brotherly communication. In Ihis life, then, we should not hope for what otherwise would be most desirable, that there should be continual agreement among us in understanding passages of Scripture. We must therefore take care that, if we depart from the opinions of those who went before us, we do not do so because excited by the itch after novelty, nor driven by fondness for deriding others, nor goaded by animosity, nor tickled by ambition, but only because compelled by pure necessity and with no other aim than to be of service.
Gerrish speculates that Calvin may have originally penned this statement as part of an apology he planned to send to Luther, but under advisement chose not to send. Whether it was aimed directly at what disagreements there were between the two great reformers or the Church as a whole, both points the Genevan reformer makes are invaluable. We ought to remain humble, recognizing out inability to reach “perfect knowledge,” and we should never depart from the faithful of ages past lightly.
Luther and Calvin both seemed to understand these principles better than many of us who are their theological decedents do. I am thankful for their examples.