My Podcast Ministry

Just when you thought you heard enough from mmmmeeeeEEEEE, along comes another interview. Adam Holland of The Daily Brew was kind enough to invite me to chat about The Lost Soul of American Protestantism under the heading of pietism and revivalism. I think I showed restraint.

The main reason for engaging in such self-promotion is that I did tell Adam I would mention the podcast here at Old Life. Not to worry, I won’t be heading down the trail of weekly lists of the ten most popular posts.

Enough.

Remember when Global Christianity was Shaming the Church in the West?

Fifteen years ago, bookies were betting on the Global South:

Today the Christian total stands at 360 million out of 784 million, or 46 percent. And that percentage is likely to continue rising, because Christian African countries have some of the world’s most dramatic rates of population growth. Meanwhile, the advanced industrial countries are experiencing a dramatic birth dearth. Within the next twenty-five years the population of the world’s Christians is expected to grow to 2.6 billion (making Christianity by far the world’s largest faith). By 2025, 50 percent of the Christian population will be in Africa and Latin America, and another 17 percent will be in Asia. Those proportions will grow steadily. By about 2050 the United States will still have the largest single contingent of Christians, but all the other leading nations will be Southern: Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. By then the proportion of non-Latino whites among the world’s Christians will have fallen to perhaps one in five.

What could go wrong? All indexes were pointing up.

But human sinfulness even among the saints has a way of defying prognosticators:

Christians in Nigeria are dancing on the brink of moral and ethical collapse. Many Christians who hold public office have become corrupt or immoral, betraying their public Christian testimony. They lack integrity and cannot present a strong moral and ethical witness. They lack the virtue of honesty in public life.

Nigeria is considered a very religious country. Christianity is not limited to churches and prayer meetings. Prayer and Bible readings are found in boardrooms and government offices. Billboards announce upcoming crusades, and exclamations like “to God be the glory” and “praise the Lord” easily fall from the lips of Nigerian Christians, even in public.

But as the well-known and respected Catholic priest George Ehusani has noted,

Alongside religiosity, corruption in its many shapes and sizes is booming in Nigeria—from the petty bribery taken by the clerk in the office or the policeman at the checkpoint, to the grand corruption by which huge project contracts are hurriedly awarded, not for the sake of the common good, but because of the greed of the awarding official, who requires some money via contract “kickbacks.”
He also notes that activities like embezzling and cheating—ranging from school children to high-profile public figures—often go hand in hand with outward expressions of piety. Many Nigerians obtain fraudulent medical certificates, as well as fake birth and citizenship certificates, to be admitted to good schools or to get choice jobs. They evade taxes, over- and under-invoice customers, perform fake audits, and on and on. He concludes, “All these practices are so commonplace and so widespread that many young Nigerians are unable to distinguish between good and evil or between right and wrong.”

Father Ehusani is merely describing what is common knowledge to all Nigerians. These matters are more lethal to the Christian faith than any Islamization agenda.

In the 20th century, indigenously founded churches sprang up across Africa, particularly in Nigeria. After the Nigerian civil war (1967–70), Christians who saw the conflict as a sign of the end times embarked on a massive campaign to spread the Good News of Christ across Nigeria. Student associations and missionary movements sprang up. Nigerian Christians were determined to re-enact what happened in the Book of Acts: turning “the world upside down” (17:6 ESV).

Sadly, today the story has changed. Both mainline and Pentecostal Christianity in Nigeria are still committed to reaching out to the unreached, but the undue emphasis on health and wealth has permanently changed the face of Christianity in Africa and the world at large. Pastors and church members are now more interested in building beautiful and massive edifices than in reaching out to the unreached people groups of the world. Many pastors are obsessed with material possessions, sometimes owning one or more private jets! The corruption of Christian moral values has now given way to the worship of materialism and pleasure. Our real god is now mammon (Matt. 6:24). We have become devoted to what American theologian and social critic Reinhold Niebuhr called self-love, self-interest, and the will to power.

Some of us wondered way back when about the way historians and journalists were evaluating the success of the church in the Global South with Christianity in the West:

The differences between the old and new Protestantism are not simply in the realm of perception, one being invisible or hard to discern, the other being very visible because of its numbers, intensity, and dramatic displays of divine power. Perhaps a more fundamental difference is the one between the eternal and the temporal. As the Brazilian pastor quoted in Jenkins’ book put it, “Most Presbyterians have a God that’s so great, so big, that they cannot even talk with him openly, because he is far away. The Pentecostal groups have the kind of God that will solve my problems today and tomorrow. People today are looking for solutions, not for eternity.” This assertion may not be representative of most pastors ministering in the context of southern Christianity. But its bold contrast between the temporal and the eternal, between the South and the West, does help to illustrate the outlook that has dominated the analysis of global Christianity. Southern Christianity is alive and booming because it daily proves its efficacy in providing real, tangible relief for those enduring great suffering. Western Christianity, by contrast, offers theological complexity or liturgical precision but hardly has the goods to make a difference upon those people most in need.

Without wanting to diminish the difficulties that southern Christians face in their economic, political and physical conditions, is it possible to suggest that concentrating on these realities is short-sighted? What happens if another political or economic system takes better care or if another religion provides more control over the spiritual forces seemingly causing so much affliction for Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians? But this is more or less a pragmatic question. The ultimate question is the eternal one of death. Will those Christians miraculously healed or even the ones benefiting from modern medicine still face death? Or how about those believers for whom Christianity has instilled a work ethic that yields physical comfort, whether it be clothing for children or a brand new Ipod? Will these benefits make much difference when men and women, as the prophet says, fade like the grass? And what of the significant manifestations of the Spirit in the worship of Christians, whether in Lagos or Minneapolis? What will be the advantages or benefits of these spiritual gifts on judgment day? To be sure, such questions may sound sanctimonious or wrongheadely obtuse. But if Christianity is at least in part a religion that promises eternal life, that no matter how difficult the sufferings of this life may be, believers have hope for relief in the world to come, then questions of eternal significance have genuine merit in evaluating contemporary Christianity, whether in the global South or West.

No delight here in what’s happening in Nigeria. And the troubles of Christians in Africa in no way proves the health of churches in North America and Europe. It is only a way to raise questions once again about the way scholars analyze and journalists cover religion. Generally speaking, the spirituality of the church is not sexy and enthusiasm (especially among the marginal) is.

And where did academics and reporters receive their training in Christianity?

Perspective on Tim’s Toxic Teaching

W-w will not help you sort this out. Carol Howard Merritt cannot tell the difference between Tim Keller and Tim Bayly:

I know that people are angry that Tim Keller doesn’t believe in women in the pastorate. But, my friends, this goes much, much deeper than women not being able to be ordained as Pastors, Elders, and Deacons. Complementarianism means married women have no choice over their lives at all.

So as Princeton Theological Seminary celebrates Tim Keller’s theology, I will be mourning. As he presents his lecture and receives his $10,000 award, I will lament for my sisters who have been maligned and abused. So much of my ministry has been dedicated to aiding the victims of these poisonous beliefs. In these difficult days, when our president says that women’s genetalia is up for grabs by any man with power and influence, I hoped that my denomination would stand up for women, loud and clear. Instead we are honoring and celebrating a man who has championed toxic theology for decades.

God, help us.

Meanwhile, Justin Taylor can’t tell the difference between Old Life and Carol Howard Merritt.

What help would confessional Presbyterianism give? It could provide a standard for teaching that cuts through male headship, or women’s liberation, or macho heterosexuality as the bright lines of Christian identity.

And notice this. Tim Keller was riding the wave of progressivism that swept through America post-Bush II. The world was getting better, conversations about race were ongoing, the economy was sluggish but improving, tolerance was increasing, cities were becoming more the sites of church life, and Christian apologists were gaining a hearing in the outlets of the mainstream media. Christians really could make a difference. A moderate, New School Presbyterianism with ties to Baptistic Calvinists could recover the cooperative endeavors that fueled Carl Henry, Harold John Ockenga, and Billy Graham. These sensible and extremes-avoiding Protestants could fill the vacuum created by the mainline.

Except that mainstream world, as Merritt indicates, has its own orthodoxy. You can be sensible, moderate, hip — heck, you can even like The Wire and channel Machen — and not measure up.

Maybe it turns out that Keller reached more Christians to think that the skeptics were really friendly rather than reaching the skeptics. Maybe it turns out that New School Presbyterians have more in common with Old School Presbyterians. What if they acted like it?

See Tim Give Away the Covenant

If you are in the business of baptizing children, catechizing those same kids, encouraging parents to nurture their children, and if on top of all that you believe that God uses families (at least in a significant way) to build his church, I’m not sure how you can write this:

In China, Africa, and many other places in the world, Christianity is growing rapidly as those societies are modernizing. Then, as people come to Europe and the United States from Africa, Latin America, and Asia, they plant new churches or strengthen other ones that are growing and reaching those cities. Why? Because, while religion that’s inherited will decline in the modern age, religion that’s chosen will not. The growing Christian churches are evangelical and Pentecostal, and they emphasize the biblical call to “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15) and the biblical teaching that we stand or fall on our own faith, not the choices of our family or community (Ezek. 18). These churches teach that vicarious, formal religion isn’t enough; there must be a radical, inward conversion (Deut. 30:6; Jer. 9:25; Rom. 2:29). Christianity that foregrounds these important biblical concepts and lifts up heart-changing personal faith can reach many contemporary people—and it can reach cities.

Why would a Presbyterian minister write this since he has subscribed teachings like these?

2. Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with legitimate issue, and of the church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness. (Confession of Faith, 24)

2. The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (Confession of Faith, 25)

Just because you believe that infant baptism, catechesis, and covenant nurture is the way God ordained to advance the kingdom of grace does not mean you don’t evangelize or do missions. But don’t you at least have to tip the cap to the tradition in which you minister? Aren’t you as a Presbyterian supposed to believe in covenant children who, like Isaac, grew up never having known a day that you did not trust Jesus?

But if you read Richard Lovelace more than John Williamson Nevin — who is a lot hipper and accessible to urbanists than Hodge or Warfield — I guess you forget what happens to covenant children who try to convert:

I had come to college, a boy of strongly pious dispositions and exemplary religious habits, never doubting but that I was in some way a Christian, though it had not come with me yet (unfortunately) to what is called a public profession of religion. But now one of the first lessons inculcated on me indirectly by this unchurchly system, was that all this must pass for nothing, and that I must learn to look upon myself as an outcast from the family and kingdom of God, before I could come to be in either in the right way. Such, especially, was the instruction I came under, when a ‘revival of religion,’ as it was called, made its appearance among us, and brought all to a practical point. . . .

It was based throughout on the principle, that regeneration and conversion lay outside of the Church, had nothing to do with baptism and Christian education, required rather a looking away from all this as more a bar than a help to the process, and were to be sought only in the way of magical illapse or stroke from the Spirit of God;. . . An intense subjectivity, in one word — which is something always impotent and poor — took the place of a proper contemplation of the grand and glorious objectivities of the Christian life, in which all the true power of the Gospel at last lies. My own ‘experience’ in this way, at the time here under consideration, was not wholesome, but very morbid rather and weak.

Alas, where was mother, the Church, at the very time I most needed her fostering arms? Where was she, I mean, with her true sacramental sympathy and care? How much better it had been for me, if I had only been properly drawn forth from myself by some right soul-communication with the mysteries of the old Christian Creed. (My Own Life, 1870)

Jesus Didn’t Turn the Water into Coffee

Martyn Wendell Jones thinks coffee at church a good indication of communion of the saints:

My own church serves coffee and tea in the cafeteria of the high school building we’re renting after the service ends in the auditorium. I look around: everyone is talking, and almost everyone is drinking from paper cups swathed in napkins for insulation. The scene is one part French salon, one part daycare, and one part indoor picnic. At a glance, it is impossible to tell the specific role played by the coffee, although it clearly gives everyone a common reason for entering the room as well as something to do with their hands (a significant task, as any person on a first date will tell you).

“This coffee is amazing,” my wife tells me, and it’s at this moment that I realize I’m not sure I know what good coffee tastes like. I take another sip. It’s kind of sour and acidic.

“Mhmm,” I reply.

I ask my pastor later to expand on the church’s strategy re: coffee. What does it represent to him?

“Coffee is like a comfort blanket that young professionals carry around after the service, and it gives them courage to interact with one another,” Pastor Kyle replies. “For me, hospitality is guided by the principle that we welcome the stranger as we would welcome Christ. For me, coffee is the way I would welcome Christ.”

Jesus would not be disappointed here—at least not if he were a coffee guy.

But what about wine? Particularly, what about the beverage that accompanies true communion?

1. Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein he was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of his body and blood, called the Lord’s Supper, to be observed in his church, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of himself in his death; the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto him; and, to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other, as members of his mystical body. . . .

7. Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses. (Confession of Faith, 29)

How hipster is that? Imagine confessional Protestants outdoing Protestant urbanists. Doesn’t wine beat coffee any day of the week?

Rah Rah T(eam) G(ospel) C(oalition)

Justin Taylor recommends Richard Lovelace’s pro-revival book, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, and shows the telltale faults of the gospel allies. Taylor praises a book that is more theology than history as a work of church history, and he reproduces endorsements from TGC heavyweights about how important Lovelace’s book was for their ministry and careers:

There is not another book quite like Richard Lovelace’s The Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (IVP, 1979).

It was published before Tim Keller and John Piper had written any popular books.

It was written back when Jonathan Edwards was hardly anybody’s homeboy.

It was written by an author who is a bit eccentric, but whose every page—agree or disagree—is worth wrestling with and pondering.

Tim Keller says that if you read this book, you’ll say that you now know where he got all his material. He still thinks we can’t do without this book.

David Powlison says he read the book multiple times in the 1980s.

Ray Ortlund has said that this book is rarely far from his thoughts.

So we have the problem of the veneer of uncontested scholarship followed by the problem of group think. Does anyone challenge Lovelace on historical or theological grounds? Or is Lovelace wonderful all the time because he means so much to TGC celebrities? (I suppose Justin has to adjudicate such questions sometimes as an editor at Crossway books but among TGC eminences such critical perspectives rarely arise.)

I ran a search of Lovelace’s book and discovered that it received no reviews in the standard historical journals (religious or secular). But at Reformed Journal, Mark Noll, then a relatively obscure young scholar, raised precisely the sort of concerns that should have dawned on Taylor, Tim Keller, Ray Ortlund, and David Powlison before praising the book in such glowing ways. Noll’s concerns are also those that confessional Protestants bring to the book:

The more diffuse second half of the book proposes programs for personal and parish renewal, while warning against emotional, spiritual, and theological errors which lead revivals astray. It contends for a faith that neglects neither personal spirituality nor doctrinal orthodoxy nor structural reform. It concludes with a potpourri of concerns pointing out the value to renewed Christians of remaining in their denominations, offering a blueprint for artistic revival among evangelicals, and stressing the need for a socially active faith.

The book attempts so much that it is bound to leave each reader unsatisfied at some points. To quibble, I found it strange that Lovelace would exalt Jonathan Edwards as a flawless model for ongoing spiritual renewal. However influential Edwards’ Narrative of Surprising Conversions was for the Great Awakening of the 1730’s and 1740’s, the message of renewal evidently did not permeate even Edwards’ own Northampton congregation, which dismissed him less than a decade after the flowering of the revival. Also, Lovelace’s repeated contrast between the spiritual vitality of today’s young people and the enculturated sterility of the older generation is naive.

More seriously, Lovelace exhibits a strange lack of concern for “steady state” Christianity. He focuses so intently upon the manifestations of spiritual renewal in local churches, denominations, and society as a whole—his enthusiasm is so great for the rare moments of dramatic spiritual quickening in Christian history—that he neglects what have been the day-in, day-out realities for most Christians in most eras of the church’s history. Work and family life, for instance, receive little attention here Yet if spiritual renewal is to be a sustaining presence in the church at large, it must certainly go beyond what theologians, preachers, denominational officials, and other professional Christian workers do for a living It must even go beyond what lay people do in devotion, worship, witness, and Christian social involvement. One group of Lovelace’s heroes, the Puritans, recognized the need for Christian renewal to remake relationships in the home and workplace. Yet, except for a few brief comments concerning “theological integration,” Lovelace seems content to leave untouched that artificial division between spiritual and secular worlds which has so bedeviled the church. (“Breadth and Longevity,” Nov. 1980)

Is Noll being unnice to suggest that Lovelace promises more than he delivers? Or that steady state Christianity (what some might call confessional Protestantism) is superior to the emotionally laden and earnest evangelicalism that Edwards promoted and for which the gospel allies are nostalgic? Are the gospel allies guilty of the same flaws as Lovelace? Who will compel them to see their weaknesses if critics don’t do it? If they refuse to listen to meanies like Old Life, how about Mark Noll?

Fewer high fives, more sobriety.

Integration and Separatism

I’m behind on podcasts at Reformed Forum and Proto-Protestant nudged me to listen to Camden Bucey’s discussion with Alan Strange about the spirituality of the church. I was not surprised to learn that Alan (and Camden) have concerns about aspects of the spirituality of the church as articulated by contemporary 2k folks like David VanDrunen, John Muether, and mmmmmeeeeeeEEEEE. I was surprised, though, to hear the word “integration” used as much as Alan voiced it during the hour-long recording. Alan wants to affirm the spirituality of the church and on this we agree — the church can’t take a stand on say the War between the States. But he also wants some measure of integration between the church’s witness and civil authority and seems to think that the Scottish Presbyterians are a good model of such engagement.

I am not sure that I would put my disagreements as starkly as Proto-Protestant does:

His final appeal to Acts 17 struck me as patronising and pedantic if not silly. Of course we preach the Word. Does any Two Kingdom adherent deny that? We call all men to repent. That’s a far cry from arguing for the Sacralisation of culture and the state, let alone taking covenant law and ‘integrating’ it with the temporal non-holy order. There is no Biblical precedent for his view in either the Old or New Testaments and he assumes categories completely outside anything found in the Apostolic writings. Instead what he suggests is that natural fallen man can be compelled to ‘keep’ God’s commandments and work together with the Spirit to build the Kingdom of God on Earth in the form of institutions and culture.

Calvin’s comments on the state are wrong. He misinterprets Romans 13 let alone Christ’s words concerning Caesar in Matthew 22. The state is not holy or redemptive. It is temporary and yet serves a ‘ministerial’ purpose. That’s true with Assyria, Persia and in the New Testament context, the Roman Empire under Nero. The Reformed tradition got this desperately wrong and sadly their view has become the Evangelical standard.

It is a caricature to suggest that 2k folks don’t think the church can preach about abortion or same-sex marriage. The Bible forbids the taking of innocent life and has no grounds for marriage between two men or two women. But just because the church preaches against idolatry doesn’t mean that the OPC, for instance, opposes Roman Catholics or Muslims living and worshiping in the United States. Morality is one thing. Civil legislation and public policy are another. And if Hodge was correct that the Presbyterian Church could not back the federal government during the beginning of the Civil War (as Gardiner Spring proposed) even if the Bible requires subjection to the powers that be, is it really that far to go to say that the church cannot endorse a politician or legislative initiative even though the church affirms the morality for which said politician might stand?

But here’s the aspect of this discussion that caught my ear. What does it mean for the church to be integrated with the state? At first, I thought of the Roman Catholic position on integralism. Here’s how one Roman Catholic blogger describes it:

Contrary to popular belief, Catholic integralism—or what I shall refer to simply as “integralism” for the duration of this essay—is not first and foremost a political program. For the integral understanding of Christianity begins first with the supernatural society established by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, namely the Corpus Mysticum, the Holy Catholic Church, which transcends the temporal sphere and has for its end the salvation of souls. By carrying out its mission in the world, the Catholic Church possesses indirect power over the temporal sphere which is exercised for the good of souls. This indirect power in no way sullies the Church’s divine mission nor dilutes it by way of overextension since the civil authority retains at all times direct power over temporal matters.

Of course, Alan does not endorse this or even Erastianism. But integration is too close to integralism for that word to work for Protestants (in my book).

As matters now stand, churches in the United States are related (integrated?) to the civil government but obviously not in the way that the Church of Scotland is to the United Kingdom. The latter is likely somewhere in the constitutional provisions for religion in the realm. In the United States churches relate to the federal and state governments as tax exempt institutions. That means that churches don’t pay taxes and that contributions to churches can be deducted by individual tax payers. That’s not a recognition of Jesus Christ as Lord. It means the OPC is no better or worse than Rotary (another 501c3 organization). But it is a relationship between church and state at which Christians should not sneeze.

And mind you, the church and Christians in the U.S. fair better than Christians during the Roman Empire. What kind of integration to Paul or Peter experience? Did they have a tax-exempt status?

If we want more overt forms of integration, though, what might that involve? If the United States is going to give legal preferences to Christians, does that include Protestants and Roman Catholics, Calvinists and Arminians, Lutherans and Wesleyans? It’s not a foolish question since even the venerable Puritans (who did believe in the spirituality of the church) wouldn’t let Baptists or Lutherans in Massachusetts Bay. Then again, if we want religious freedom for believers (as many seem to since gay marriage went on-line), then where does the good form of religion to free stop and become the bad kind of faith? In other words, isn’t the system we have for church state relations the best we can do without an established religion/church?

But let’s complicate the idea of integration even more. Churches are integrated in the federal government through the military chaplaincy program. But boy oh boy does that look like a disagreeable relationship. In the Armed Services, Orthodox Presbyterian chaplains minister God’s word cheek-by-jowl with female Lutherans and male Wiccans. Of course, if that sounds provocative, it should. If Orthodox Presbyterians insisted on being separate from modernist Presbyterians in the PCUSA, and if those same OP’s remained separate from Arminians in the National Association of Evangelicals, why wouldn’t Orthodox Presbyterians be comfortable now with separatism rather than integration? I mean, if you have the stomach for being separate from other Protestants, surely you can fathom separation (rather than integration) from the federal authorities.

I understand that Alan Strange wants to prevent Presbyterians from being Anabaptists. But 2kers are not separate from the government because civil authority is a corruption of Jesus’ rule. 2kers advocate separation of church and state because politics is only good but not holy. Magistrates maintain public order. They don’t minister salvation. The one is good. The other is great.