Sabbath, Psalms and Single Malt: The NTJ

Why are you reading yet another venture in Reformed desktop publishing (aside from the fact that we can’t afford a more substantial publication)? After all, confessional Presbyterians do not lack for periodicals that defend sound theology and spot bad imitations. There are many publications that print a steady diet of articles reflecting sound biblical and doctrinal insight, from denominational magazines to theological journals. Yet few, if any of these periodicals, pay close attention to the God-ordained means of grace as well as the habits and sensibilities that articulate, cultivate and reinforce orthodoxy. That is, few publications give proper heed to the embodiment of the Reformed faith, contenting themselves with the propositional and didactic elements of Presbyterian theology while ignoring the visible expression of Presbyterian convictions.

It is the embodiment and practice of the Reformed faith that will be the subject matter of the Nicotine Theological Journal. Here our concern is not with dotting the I’s and crossing the t’s of Reformed orthodoxy, as important as that work is. Instead, our aim is to explore the ways in which the Reformed faith is more than correct doctrine, the ways in which correct doctrine takes visible form in the lives and practices of believers and the organized church, and the ways in which certain practices and habits cultivate Reformed orthodoxy. To use the language of the apostle Paul in Titus 2, the NTJ is about those aspects of our daily and weekly lives that are “fit” for “sound doctrine.” Or to borrow some ideas from the sectarian mainline Methodists, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, we want to use the pages of the NTJ to explore the practices that make confessional Presbyterians “resident aliens.” Like Hauerwas and Willimon, we believe the church is at war with the world, that the kingdom of God is in conflict with the powers and principalities of this age. And just as God gave the Israelites a pattern for daily life that set them apart from the surrounding nations, so we believe that God has given his church specific habits and practices that make believers holy, that is, set apart, distinctive, or as Hauerwas and Willimon put it, “weird.”

This does not mean that we do not recognize important differences between Israel and the church. We do. We are not theonomists. But we also believe that the calling of God’s people in both the old and new covenants is to be different because God is holy. So while the church’s practices will be significantly different from Israel’s (e.g., a lot less bloody both in worship and in government — the church does not bear the sword even if Israel did), Christians will still be odd people in the way they order their lives, from observing the Sabbath to enjoying the good things of God’s creation. The NTJ is about this oddness. In other words, we are committed to recovering the real meaning of practical theology.

Why do we need this kind of publication? We believe that one of the besetting problems of twentieth-century confessional Presbyterianism is the huge disparity between faith and practice. Conservative Reformed folk have been very good (for the most part) about doctrinal fidelity. But they have not been very astute about maintaining distinctively Reformed practices, and we believe that without the “plausibility structures” of these practices, Reformed orthodoxy will die a slow and painful death, which is another way of saying, it will have nothing to say about the way we daily order our lives. Confessional Presbyterians these days are virtually indistinguishable from any garden variety evangelical. They are involved in the work of their local churches, both on Sunday and throughout the week, they listen to Christian radio, subscribe to evangelical publications, watch wholesome television shows, and listen to Christian music. The odd thing, however, is that confessional Presbyterian theology is markedly different from the lowest-common-denominator theology that holds evangelicalism together. Yet, conservative Presbyterians behave in remarkably similar ways. Either that means there is really no difference between Presbyterianism and evangelicalism, or that Presbyterians have let evangelicals establish the patterns for how they practice the Christian faith.

Our intention here is not to imply that Reformed believers will always look different from evangelicals, or even that Christians will always look different from non-believers. Reformed, evangelicals and non-believing people all eat from the bounty of God’s creation. But while unbelievers do not ask for God’s blessing upon their food, and while evangelicals pray before meals, Reformed believers of an older sort used to pray before and after meals along with reading from Scripture. And those who value the passing on of traditions from parents to children, in other words, who confess the importance of covenant relationships, as the Reformed should, may also linger longer over their meals, and recognize the virtue of fellowship, telling stories and playing games. According to C. S. Lewis, “the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him.” Though Lewis was no Presbyterian, we believe that when he wrote those lines he was expressing Reformed wisdom about the simplicity and depth of creature comforts.

We would even go so far as to suggest that one’s profession of faith may also affect the food one eats. If God calls us to moderation and self-control, then we may tend to eat simple fare, avoiding either the excesses of heavy sauces and elaborate recipes on the one side or the inhuman mass-produced food of TV dinners and Boston Market on the other end. In the NTJ, then, you may find discussions of what Old School Presbyterians should serve at a party and how they might structure the festivities. You may also find recipes for church pot luck suppers as well as for noon meals on the Lord’s Day. These tips flow from our conviction that Reformed theology has something to say about these seemingly ordinary and irrelevant matters. This is a world-and-life view with a vengeance.

Yet, we also need to say that we believe in Christian liberty. The practices and habits we plan to explore in these pages are not settled; we recognize that they are contested and that Scripture does not speak to them directly. Of course, some aspects of Presbyterian practice involve explicit commands from Scripture that the Reformed tradition has propagated and defended, such as the Sabbath, worship, psalm-singing, and the observance of the means of grace. These more obvious elements of the Reformed tradition will be subjects for discussion in the NTJ. We even hope to encourage debate about these ordinances, allowing for dissent and reservation while also giving preference to the tradition itself, assuming that our forefathers in the faith are innocent until proven guilty. But in other areas of the Christian life, those things that take place on days other than the Sabbath, we believe there is liberty for God’s people. So we don’t want to give the impression that there will be only one way of practicing the Reformed faith, suitable for all times, places and cultures.

But too often Christian liberty has been taken to mean silence. In other words, the liberty that believers have for ordering their lives throughout the week has led to the idea that our faith does not have much to say about our earthly and secular callings except in the case of moral matters that play themselves out in United States’ politics. We want to cultivate thoughtful discussions about the way we practice our faith so that we will do it more self-consciously and, we hope, more faithfully.

Now about our name.  Vice President Gore’s sanctimonious and tearful pledge to fight the wicked weed that produced part of his family fortune is but the latest example of the fierce public hostility to tobacco in our day. And it is another reminder of the necessity to explain why we employ the metaphor of tobacco for the purposes of this publication. We should begin by clarifying what we are not. This is not a Reformed version of Cigar Aficionado. We are not a hobby magazine, and these pages will not be devoted to cultivating yuppie trappings. So don’t expect to hear about the latest seasonal offering of the Boston Beer Company, or what Demi, Madonna and Rush are puffing on these days.

Then why nicotine? First, in order to affirm the social utility of tobacco. As Wendell Berry writes, “Tobacco is fragrant, and smoking at its best is convivial or ceremonious and pleasant.” Smoke and drink are conversation stimulants and together they suggest the relaxed and engaging atmosphere that we want to establish for the arguments and topics you will find here. We also want to suggest that the kind of conversation that accompanies the moderate use of tobacco and alcohol is very important for sustaining us on our pilgrimage this side of glory. It may even be a foretaste of the fellowship we will enjoy when our Lord returns.

Second, tobacco exposes the hypocrisy with which people, including Reformed believers, treat the matter of health and well-being. The anti-tobacco crusade can be a convenient way to overlook the many other distractions of modern life — from sports, to entertainment, money, politics and sex. We have reduced health to mere physical health, but physical health is not man’s chief end. So the modern obsession with physical fitness and material well-being is often unhealthy. In this connection, we can hardly improve on the words of Garrison Keiller (whom we promise not to quote often), “nonsmokers live longer, but they live dumber.”

Third, the cultural antagonism toward tobacco mirrors well the evangelical dismissiveness toward confessional Presbyterianism. Our commitments to things like Sabbath and psalms can’t even gain a hearing in most evangelical quarters. (Raise a question about holidays like Christmas and Advent and evangelicals think you just arrived from Mars.) Like most smokers, confessional Presbyterians are feisty and cantankerous because that is the only way one can take the Reformed confessions seriously in our day. In the light of the ascendency of mass-marketed evangelicalism, it is necessary for confessional Presbyterians to be resistance fighters. Our resistance will often take confrontational, dogmatic and sectarian forms — and we believe in the good senses of those words. But we will endeavor to avoid arrogance and narrow-mindedness. So, for example, along with offering reflections about the value of Sunday evening services, we will also recommend a good blend of Scotch every now and then. And while we have yet to be persuaded of exclusive psalmody, we also remain unconvinced about the virtues of chewing tobacco; nevertheless, we will entertain arguments for both.

Finally, our name sets a tone of lightheartedness that we want to characterize these pages. The NTJ will be occasional and occasionally serious. Along the way we hope to have fun, not least by poking fun at ourselves. Several friends have asked if smoking and drinking are requirements for membership in the Old Life Theological Society. Of course, the answer is no. One can be an Old School Presbyterian in spirit if not Old School in spirits (though there are some things we will expose as irredeemably New School, such as light beer or any alcohol-free pretender). As for smoking, to borrow a phrase from Richard John Neuhaus, we only ask those who refuse to light up that they at least strive to lighten up.

Whatever readers may think about tobacco or our title, the more important issue concerns the way we practice our faith. We hope that all Reformed (and not so Reformed) believers who are troubled by the increasing disparity between Reformed orthodoxy and Reformed practices will read and write for this publication. And for those who love Reformed theology but have not thought about the visible and tangible ways in which believers express and are sustained in those convictions, we trust that they will also read the NTJ because sound theology cannot be abstracted from the means that God has ordained for cultivating and encouraging faithfulness. Ultimately, our profession is only as good as our practice.

This originally appeared as the first editorial in the Nicotine Theological Journal.

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16 thoughts on “Sabbath, Psalms and Single Malt: The NTJ

  1. Pingback: The Old Life
  2. “And while we have yet to be persuaded of exclusive psalmody, we also remain unconvinced about the virtues of chewing tobacco; nevertheless, we will entertain arguments for both.”

    As one who holds both matters in the same light, I immensely appreciate this quote.

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  3. […] The Old Life Theological Society, which was founded by John R. Muether and Darryl G. Hart, has come online. . . . I began reading NTJ about five years ago when I came into the OPC. One of the first Reformed resources that John Muether, an elder of my church in Florida, stuck in my hands (along with a complementary cigar) was NTJ. As one who did not grow up in the OPC, or any confessionally Reformed ecclesiastical setting, I have found that embracing Reformed theology is easy–its knowing how to consistently live it out that is the challenge! NTJ has done much to help shape my OPC identity. I highly recommend this resource to any who long to better put feet and hands to their Reformed theology.

    http://apilgrimsredress.blogspot.com/2009/02/nicotene-theological-journal-online-at.html

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  4. Smoke and drink are conversation stimulants and together they suggest the relaxed and engaging atmosphere that we want to establish for the arguments and topics you will find here.

    True enough. But so do wine and cheese and Appleby’s appetizers. I suppose “The Cheese-Stick and Hot Boneless Wings Theological Journal” isn’t quite as drop-dead cool.

    Presbyterian sub-culture is so adorable I could just pinch its little cheeks.

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  5. Camden,

    Ok, OK, we can go into the bar. Sheesh, between Stellman’s anti-Walt-martism and “hurting the local economy” I don’t know where I am supposed to go. Kidding, I kid.

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  6. Speaking of Al Gore . . .

    I find it ironic (though I am not surprised) that the Republic of New Jersey has condemned tobacco smoking at any and all public facilities – including outdoor sports stadiums – but are on the verge of legalizing medicinal marijuana. Hey, if I get a disease like alcoholism, can I get a prescription for some good Virginia Flake (you can keep the marijuana)?

    Thank you Comrade Corzine!

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  7. I want to learn how to smoke like a Calvinist.

    I’ll resist making reference to cigars, Calvinism and Clinton and saying you might want to re-think that desire. Oops.

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  8. Nick, we do have some overseas subscribers. We usually add an extra $8 for airmail. You should send some form of payment to John Muether. He’s our accounts receivable representative because he has a Reformed world and life view of accounting.

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