I May Come to the Garden Alone, But Stay (in part) Because of Who’s There

Is it okay for conservative Presbyterians to talk about the perseverance of the saints in terms of social psychology? Not exclusively, but at least a little? The idea is that we certainly depend on the work of the Spirit to endure hardships and doubts. But what if the work of the Spirit includes the people around us, in our homes, congregations, friendships, social networks?

Part of what got me thinking about this was an exchange a while ago between Glenn Loury and Steven Teles about the former’s Christian background and how he experienced tensions between the fairly unsophisticated faith of his charismatic congregation and the intellectual cast of his peers at an Ivy League university. This was not simply a question of faith versus reason. It was one of whether Loury knew other academics who were Christian and, by virtue of associations with them, make his own Christian belief plausible. Here’s a link to that conversation.

These thoughts returned after reading Tommie Kidd’s post about Philip Jenkin’s reflections on fertility and religiosity. First Jenkins (via Kidd):

… there is an inverse relationship between the fertility rates of a community and that society’s degree of religious fervor and commitment. High fertility societies, like most of contemporary Africa, tend to be fervent and devout. Conversely, the lower the fertility rate, and the smaller the family size, the greater the tendency to detach from organized or institutional religion. That shift from high to low commonly takes place in a short time, a generation or so. Fertility rates thus supply an effective gauge of trends towards secularization. What follows is a bare sketch, but I will deal with it in much greater detail in a book that I am currently working on–especially on issues of causation and correlation.

The classic example of demographic/religious change is modern Europe. Not coincidentally, the Europe that has become so secular since the 1960s has also, in these same years, pioneered an epochal demographic revolution of historically low fertility rates. Those rates are at their lowest in such countries as Spain and Italy, where they stand today around 1.3 or 1.4, and they have dipped well below that.

(Ahem. What am I missing about Humanae Vitae, Spain, and Italy?)

Then Kidd:

Religious adherence does have a lot to do with kids. In spite of horror stories about how many youth group kids “leave the faith,” people who took a break often come back into church when they get married and start having kids. Anecdotally, I know of parents who readily admit that they only go to church for the sake of their kids. I recently had a conversation with someone who said they would not go to a certain church because of a lack of children and children’s programs. My family would certainly have to re-evaluate our involvement at our current church if we felt like their programming for teenagers was inadequate (thankfully, it is terrific).

I too know of people who became pillars of Reformed congregations after having kids and recovering the faith that they had mainly abandoned during young adulthood.

But the point I am raising goes beyond families and child rearing. It has to do with the people with whom we hang out and how they keep us in the faith. You may have a doubt or two, but because you know other folks for whom these thoughts are not troubling, you may be inclined to go with the flow until you find a resolution. Conversely, without people in your faith tribe who reinforce your beliefs by virtue of their smarts, humor, outlook, sartorial display, or friendship, if you hit a period of doubt, are you more willing to consider unbelief?

Our dependence (if that’s not too strong) on other believers need not be at odds with the work of the Spirit. After all, the Spirit is also behind providence, which are God’s most “holy, wise, and powerful, preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions.”

So it’s not social psychology or pneumatology. It’s both/and, a win win.

Or maybe not.

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One Take Away from Royal Wedding

Baptism matters.

The bride, Meghan Markle, we learned, grew up in a Christian home but was never baptized. For shame. What kinds of churches don’t sweat the Great Commission, as in “baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost”?

Q. 94. What is baptism?
A. Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.

Q. 95. To whom is baptism to be administered?
A. Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him; but the infants of such as are members of the visible church are to be baptized. (Shorter Catechism)

So, a little less than three months ago, in order to belong to the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury baptized Ms. Markle:

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, confirmed that he baptized the former “Suits” actress into the Church of England last week. Though he admitted he can’t reveal much about the actual ceremony, which took place at St. James’s Palace in London, he described it as “very special.”

“It was beautiful, sincere and very moving,” Welby told ITV News in a report published Friday. “It was a great privilege.”

Of course, baptism in a state church context means that the sacrament carries more baggage than it should:

Meghan Markle’s baptism, by Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, is a necessary precondition for her marriage to HRH Prince Harry, younger son of the Prince of Wales and currently fourth in line to the throne of the United Kingdom. Her May marriage will bring her into the Royal Family, and attendance at Church of England services from time to time will be part of her public life — from Christmas Day in a village church in Norfolk to formal gatherings marking national events in Westminster Abbey. Hence the baptism.

But the point stands. To belong to the church means receiving the mark of the church. And access to the Lord’s Supper requires (along with true faith and belonging to a faithful church) being baptized. Heck, even to marry another church member (of a faithful — or gospelly — communion) means needing to be a Christian, which means needing to be baptized.

So none of this Jesus in my heart, be a part of the fellowship, feel the buzz of the Spirit without the rites and ceremonies of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the word preached and read. The Church of England may gum up the ecclesiastical works by tying matters of state to church forms. But they followed the right pattern in this case by requiring baptism for church membership.

Drunk on Postmillennialism

Peter Leithart thinks Pentecost has lots of relevance for social order:

The Bible does not permit us to confine the work of the Spirit to the inner man or to private experience. Through Isaiah (44:3), the Lord promised to pour out water on the land of Israel and his Spirit upon Israel’s seed. When the Spirit is poured out like water, he turns desolate places to fruitfulness, transforms the dry land into a grove, transfigures the withered leaf into a green (Isa. 32:15; Ezek. 39:29; Joel 2:29; Zech. 12:10; Acts 2:17¯18, 33; 10:45). Restoration of nature symbolizes cultural flourishing. When the Spirit is poured out on Israel, the Lord promises, the nation will be renewed.

At the first Christian Pentecost, the apostles filled with the Spirit proclaimed the gospel in multiple languages, and by the end of the day a community of believers had been established, drawn from “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). The miracle of languages that took place at Pentecost reversed the curse on languages at Babel; the divided nations are reunited by the Spirit. For the Bible, international peace is a Pentecostal reality.

That’s one way of reading the Bible. But what does Leithart do with these?

scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. 4 They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, 6 and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. 7 But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you,a not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Peter 3)

Or?

For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.

9“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24)

Or?

2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. (I Thessalonians 5)

I get it if you want to avoid dispensational premillennialism’s bleak (never mind the flannel graphs) picture of human history, though I hear Leithart has a Lutheran past. But if you are going to try to turn Pentecost into a banner for socio-economic progress and world peace, don’t you need to keep an eye on other parts of the biblical narrative? How about postmillennialism meets nuclear winter? After millennia of human flourishing, suffering takes over the world and runs things until Jesus returns.

Words that Only Some Western Christians May Sing

1 A debtor to mercy alone,
of covenant mercy I sing;
nor fear, with Your righteousness on,
my person and off’ring to bring.
The terrors of law and of God
with me can have nothing to do;
my Savior’s obedience and blood
hide all my transgressions from view.

2 The work which His goodness began,
the arm of His strength will complete;
His promise is yea and amen,
and never was forfeited yet.
Things future, nor things that are now,
nor all things below or above,
can make Him His purpose forgo,
or sever my soul from His love.

3 My name from the palms of His hands
eternity will not erase;
impressed on His heart it remains,
in marks of indelible grace.
Yes, I to the end shall endure,
as sure as the earnest is giv’n;
more happy, but not more secure,
the glorified spirits in heav’n. (Augustus Toplady, 1771)

Irish Presbyterians are Exceptional

If you take that word, exceptional, as synonymous with unusual. In other words, the Presbyterian communions in Ireland don’t line up with the mainline vs. conservative brands that we know in the U.S.

Here‘s one piece of evidence. Two former moderators of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland have issued a statement opposed to abortion. If you didn’t know better, you might think the PCI is the mainline equivalent of the PCUSA. The PCI is closer to the mainstream of Irish life than the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a communion that started with some inspiration from J. Gresham Machen and set up a rival communion to the PCI. But I can’t imagine this ever happening in the PCUSA:

Two former moderators of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland have written to all TDs and Senators expressing grave concern at recommendations that unrestricted abortion be allowed in Ireland up to 12 weeks and for health reasons thereafter.

In their letter, Rev Dr Trevor Morrow and Rev Dr Norman Hamilton have said “our church holds a strongly pro-life position, while recognising that there can be very exceptional circumstances when the termination of pregnancy may be necessary”.

They continued: “However, we are very gravely concerned about the [Oireachtas] Committee’s recommendations to introduce abortion with no restriction as to reason until the 12th week of gestation, and beyond 12 weeks on health grounds.

“Even if the recommendation of abortion on request is excluded, the health proposals on their own will create similar provisions to those in Britain, which have, in practice, brought about abortion on request (we note that one in five pregnancies ends in abortion in Great Britain and that of the 190,406 abortions in England and Wales in 2016, 97 per cent took place on health grounds).”

For some reason, apparently, Irish Presbyterians do not stumble over Orwellian language like “women’s reproductive health.”

Another indication that Irish Presbyterians are exceptional odd comes from this recent announcement:

True Christian Piety

Speaker: D.G. Hart

Subject: “True Christian Piety”

Dates: 2-3 August 2018

Times: 10am-4pm

Venue: Stranmillis Evangelical Presbyterian Church

Darryl Hart teaches at Hillsdale College, USA, and is a well-known writer on historical and ecclesiastical matters. On 2-3 August 2018, he will lead a workshop that will explore major themes in his work, teaching and leading discussions on such themes as the Sunday gatherings, marriage as a means of grace, and sanctified work. Attendees should prepare for the workshop by reading Darryl’s books, “Recovering Mother Kirk,” “The Lost Soul of American Protestantism,” and “Deconstructing Evangelicalism.”

Cost: £40 for both days, including lunch and refreshments.

For some reason, Irish Presbyterians do not consider “Old Life” and “True Christian Piety” oxymoronic.

I Didn’t Think Kevin Spacey was an Orthodox Presbyterian

Despite what we now know about the actor, I remain a big fan of The Big Kahuna, a movie I even recommended as one of Hollywood’s better renderings of evangelicalism. (Trigger warning: language is vulgar in places.) Spacey starred in and produced the movie. Am I in danger of my publisher removing all copies of That Old-Time Religion in Modern America because of the way the book opens?

The Big Kahuna may not have been a box office hit, but the 1999 movie starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito offered a surprisingly candid glimpse of the way many Americans have come to regard the subject of this book, twentieth-century evangelicalism in the United States. The film features three men who work for a firm that produces industrial lubricants and are assigned to host a cocktail party at a hotel in Wichita, Kansas, during a convention for industry-related vendors and producers. Two of the characters are from the sales division, experienced salesmen for whom the task of pitching the company’s product has nurtured a degree of cynicism and weariness. The third is a young, bright and somewhat naive evangelical Protestant who works in the research division. Their chief task on this particular evening is to make contact with the owner of Indiana’s largest manufacturing company, the “big Kahuna,” whose contract could salvage the salesmen’s declining careers.

Of course, Kevin Spacey is not the only one vulnerable. But we have no better sign of how Harry Emerson Fosdick lost and fundamentalists won than the way that mainstream institutions are employing standards that would have made my fundamentalist Baptist congregation think they were living in a Christian nation. Back then, as I have remarked before, I was under the impression that anyone I should esteem as a hero should also be a Christian. And with that logic, I turned my favorite athlete, Richie Allen, 3rd-baseman for the Phillies (and rookie of the year in 1964), into a born-again Christian, only to be crushed when a television camera showed him smoking a cigarette during a game.

Has our culture really come to that, the moral calculus of an eight-year-old dispsenationalist Baptist?

Of course, Peter Leithart tries to put a better spin on it:

But is private morality so easily distinguished from public ethics? Can we trust someone who lies, bullies, and manipulates to cover up the embarrassment of private sin? Doesn’t such a person prove himself a liar? Hasn’t he proven that he lacks the basic public virtue of justice?

Leithart is writing with politicians in mind, but the same point applies to artistic expressions? Should I sit with an author, director, or musician for anywhere between 30 minutes and two weeks who may be performing acts in private that would prove distasteful in public?

But here’s the other side that few of the new morality police seem to consider: why are good works whether performed in private or public any sort of guarantee of admirable character? If good works are filthy rags, if people do good works for noble and ignoble reasons, and if someone is unregenerate, how trustworthy are they (especially by our current Wesleyan standards)? According to the Confession of Faith:

Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God. (16.7)

I get it that sexual abuse is bad. But let’s not fool ourselves about any actor or politician. The doctrine of total depravity teaches that behind that image of virtue and decency lurks a heart that is desperately wicked. Who can know it? Agents, spouses, interns, anyone who sees the public figure off camera.

If Daniel Could Serve a Pagan King, Why Can’t Old School Presbyterians vote for Bill Clinton?

Kevin DeYoung offers some perspective for Alabama voters (though he never mentions Roy Moore):

9. Am I casting my vote for someone who will damage the reputation of Christ and may harm the cause of Christ in the world? While it is often good to vote for other Christians, we have to consider how someone conducts himself in public as a representative of Christian convictions, ethics, and character.

10. Am I willing to consider that thoughtful Christians may answer some of these questions differently than I would? I certainly have my opinions about how these questions might apply in specific instances, but more than a particular vote, I want to encourage Christians to think critically and strategically about their civic participation. There is more to consider than majorities for our side and defeat for theirs.

I am glad he follows point 9 with point 10 because Daniel, the prophet, would have had a hard time answering the ninth question. Not only could Daniel not vote, but he served a King who worshiped and served false gods. Sure, Daniel resisted the king in some ways, but he also excelled in pagan learning (and so distinguished himself for public service):

17 As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams. 18 At the end of the time, when the king had commanded that they should be brought in, the chief of the eunuchs brought them in before Nebuchadnezzar. 19 And the king spoke with them, and among all of them none was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Therefore they stood before the king. 20 And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom.

If not obeying the first table of the law is a big deal — and we’re not simply talking about images of Christ — how could a faithful believer excel in pagan literature and wisdom (which by Neo-Calvinist standards had to be worse than public schools) and then also serve a king whose cult involved idolatry?

I get it, Daniel did eventually disobey, which is music to the socially righteous warriors ears (thanks to one of our Southern correspondents):

We might hide our motives or blanket them in a veil we call authority or expertise. We will always become like the things we worship. Daniel writes about three men who stood in bold ambivalence to the foolishness of a conqueror king, because he was not their true king. They knew who they worshipped, and the more they lived like Him the closer they came to His presence.

Resist!

But that perspective on Daniel entirely misses the prophet’s assimilation to a regime tainted throughout by blasphemy and idolatry. Again, if 1789 affected all of European society, imagine the intersectionality of Babylonian gods and society. What did Daniel do? He cooperated as much as possible.

Don’t resist!

Honor (even the pagan megalomaniac)!

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

In which case, the lesson is that as long as a Christian does not worship the senator, create statues of him for worship, pray to the senator, hand out the senator’s voting guide on Sunday, still honors his parents while working or voting for the senator, is not the senator’s hit-man, doesn’t lust after the senator’s wife, doesn’t embezzle for the senator, doesn’t lie to or for the senator, and doesn’t envy the senator, or his wife, or servants, or property, the a Christian can vote for the senator.

But if you want to be a pietist about it and consider primarily what a vote says (all) about you, then chances are you have the makings for being an Anabaptist.

The Problem with Cessationism

Cessationists apparently have the reputation of not believing in miracles after the apostolic age:

No issue has been more controversial among Protestants in the past 40 years than the charismatic gifts and the role of miracles in the post-apostolic age. The issue was controversial in previous eras of Protestant history, too, although theological lines were not usually drawn as hard and fast as they are between “cessationists” and “continuationists” today.

In the 1700s and 1800s, suspicion of claimed miracles was connected to anti-Catholicism. Protestant critics saw the Catholic tradition as riddled with fake claims of miracles. Ridiculing the fake miracle claims of Catholics (such as icons bleeding a liquid that turned out to be cherry juice) became a staple of Reformed polemics against the Catholic Church. So when seemingly miraculous events happened in Protestant churches, even sympathetic observers warned against the threat of bogus miracles.

Odd, but the cessationists I know all affirm the ongoing reality of miracles. How could you ever believe in people lost in sin becoming regenerate without resorting to the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit?

The real problem comes with the “gift” of speaking in tongues. Why do we need ongoing revelations from God if scripture is sufficient?

1. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased. (CofF 1.1 emphasis added)

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: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. (CofF 1.6 emphasis added)

Continuationists who want to defend tongues are in the same predicament as Roman Catholics who defend the continuing infallible teaching of the magisterium and the authority of tradition. Does God’s word have all we need for salvation and godliness? Or do we need ongoing revelations for becoming right with God? If you make an infallible pope or a Spirit-filled Christian the arbiter of Christianity, you deny the sufficiency of Scripture.

Selah.

What’s a Plumber to Think?

In which category, flesh or Spirit, fall washers and gaskets?

5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8)

American Exceptionalism Perfectionist Style

Forget the meme that has Roman Catholics winning. The big winner of late is Charles Finney, that evangelist who insisted that Christians renounce all sin in their lives and taught a generation of Protestants that compromise with sin in politics was — wait for it — sin.

Evidence of the prevalence of such perfectionism comes in Theon Hill’s piece on Charlottesville. Surprising is his acknowledgement that black Civil Rights advocates were far from pure:

The practice of accommodating white supremacy is not unique to white America. People of color have often deployed accommodation strategically, hoping that it will lead to greater acceptance by whites. Booker T. Washington, in his famous Atlanta Exposition Address, embraced the logics of “separate but equal,” expecting blacks to experience upward mobility as they demonstrated their worth to white America. W. E. B. DuBois called on blacks to avoid racial activism during the First World War, believing that loyalty to the nation during this difficult moment would produce greater acceptance during the post-war period. Even my personal hero Dr. King hesitated to oppose racists in the Democratic Party in 1964, believing that accommodation would produce greater gains for blacks in the long term.

Isn’t that the nature of politics? Don’t you take certain gains while recognizing you don’t get everything? Since politics is about maintaining order and equity in a world that consists of sinners, and since you can’t eradicate sin in this life and don’t want to live in a society where government (who uses force legitimately) is looking into everything you do and think, maybe you live with a little compromise? Maybe you fight another day for another round of proximate goods.

Not so when you apply the standards of perfectionist Christianity:

Scripture and history repeatedly warn that accommodating sin never produces greater holiness.

That is certainly true for the believer and even the church — oh, by the way has anyone asked how pure the mainline churches are in their efforts to combat the alt-right? But monuments and social protests are not about personal righteousness. They are about what we share as people inhabiting the same national borders and government by the same civil authorities.

When did people ever start expecting a nation to be holy?

Oh, that’s right. Mr. Finney.