Lent Is Methodist

Bill Smith, always worth a read, thinks Old Life has declared another war on objections to Lent. He acknowledges two chief objections among Reformed Protestants to Lent — the regulative principle of worship and the fear of Romish practices. The regulative principle should actually take care of the matter for the sake of corporate worship and the life of the church. If a Christian wants to engage in some kind of Lenten activities as a means to holiness, well, whatever floats your sanctification. But for officers in the church to make Lent the norm for a congregation or a communion, then they better come with something more than “it looks like a pretty good idea” and “our motives are generally pious.” Plus, if church members may opt out of Lenten abstemiousness, then what’s the point of officers calling for the wider body to “special” actions during a certain number of days in late winter?

Still, Bill is not content with those objections. He returns fire and argues that Lent is actually a reasonable form of temporary form of sanctification:

Another objection is that those who observe Lent use it as a time for the temporary repentance from certain sins which are normally indulged, while Jesus calls us to repent of all sins all the time. It may well be that some poorly instructed Christians view Lenten practice in that way, but in my experience I have never heard anyone who observes Lent speak of a temporary giving up of sin.

Fine. So a Christian who pursues holiness 365/12 now adds an intense time of repentance for a specified forty days before a Sunday some communions designate Easter. Maybe that’s how it works among Reformed Episcopalians.

But why THESE forty days and not another thirty in September and October, or maybe a dozen or so in late spring and early winter? Why not more intense forms of repentance sprinkled throughout the year? Or why not leave each family and person to decide when and for how long to engage in certain times of self-denial? Why these days that some designate as Lent?

Could it be that some churches embrace a formula for Lent and so follow the spiritual equivalent of an Excel spreadsheet for the pursuit of holiness? The Lent practitioner follows these forty days with the other saints of similar inclinations and so doesn’t have to consider whether another time of fasting and prayer is needed or useful for another time during the year?

That kind of methodical piety is what Charles Briggs called, “Methodist.” It was a word he applied to the proponents of the First Pretty Good Awakening who insisted that godliness manifest itself in certain predictable and uniform ways. Of course, the idea of likening the church calendar to revivalism is oxymoronic. But to everyone who concedes that believers mature and bear different kinds of spiritual fruit in the course of their lives, the idea that you can prescribe a certain number of days — the same ones every year — for extra special holiness, and the one that requires the same kind of religious zeal to prove your conversion, are not so far removed. Both pietism and prescribed liturgicalism promote a one-size fits all spirituality that is perfect for bureaucracies, but not so hot for the diversity of human experience.


You Gotta Exegete Someone

Reformed Protestants may be a tad hung up on Scripture, though it is supposed to be the very word of God. But if you begin to waffle on that canon notice how you begin to add to the authoritative texts.

For Roman Catholics, the doctrine of development has a hard time nurturing content with the Bible (even including the Apocrypha):

The deepest reason for the identity of Revelation in its ecclesial continuity is given in the hypostatic union, i.e., in the unity of the human and divine natures in the one divine person of Jesus Christ. The many words he spoke, revealing God’s plan to us through the medium of human language (cf. Joh 3:34; 6:68), are united in the hypostasis or person of the one Word that is God and has become flesh (cf. Joh 1:1, 14). The Word of God comes to us through the preaching of human beings (cf. 1 Thess 2:13); it is made present through human words, with their grammar and vocabulary. Therefore, it is possible and necessary to grow individually and communally in our understanding of the revelation that has been given to us once and for all in Christ. It is clear, then, that Catholic theology has always recognized the fact and necessity of the development of dogma. It is part of Christianity’s essence as the religion of the incarnate Word—the religion of God’s self-revelation in history—to affirm the identity of the doctrine of the faith along a continuous process by which the Church comes to an ever more differentiated conceptual comprehension of faith’s mysteries.

Make of that what you will about the potential problems of development but here you see an affirmation of continuity between the incarnation, divine revelation, and the ongoing revelation of divine truth in the doctrines of the church. Finding a distinction there between the prophets and apostles, and the teachings of the bishops and councils becomes fairly murky when the word incarnate, the word inscripturated, and the mystical body of Christ (the church) are all pieces of ongoing understanding of truth.

Unfortunately, it seems that Lutherans have a similar problem distinguishing between the apostles and the church’s theologians or pastors:

From a very practical standpoint, we have, as Lutheran pastors sworn to uphold the theology of the Book of Concord of 1580, also consequently, committed ourselves to the hermeneutic of reading the confessions we find in the Formula of Concord, and that is, if ever a question arises within the Lutheran church, the writings of Luther are to be consulted for the answer. In other words, the confessions understand themselves not to be so much a theology in and of themselves, but a summation of Luther’s theology:

“Since Dr. Luther is rightly to be regarded as the most eminent teacher of the churches which adhere to the Augsburg Confession and as the person whose entire doctrine in sum and content was comprehended in the articles of the aforementioned Augsburg Confession and delivered to Emperor Charles V, therefore the true meaning and intention of the Augsburg Confession cannot be derived more correctly or better from any other source than from Dr. Luther’s doctrinal and polemical writings.”[1]

Thus the confessions are not the bottom of a theological well from which Lutheran theologians thereafter would draw, but instead the confessions are the peak of the mountain, the mountain which is the theology of Martin Luther. But if that mountain remains unknown to us, how then are we to understand our task as pastors today in view of the Lutheran confessions?” (Paul Strawn, “Rediscovering the Theology of the Small Catechism, i.e. Martin Luther”)

Luther was great and is always edifying to read. But he did not approach salvation by following a great theologian, unless you consider (as some do) Paul the church’s first great theologian. Here, though, Paul had an advantage over Luther. He was infallible.

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)


The Point of Being Presbyterian

Yes, Presbyterianism is historic — it predates the conversions provoked by Jonathan Edwards. But that doesn’t mean that Presbyterianism uses whatever bits of Christian history that also qualify as historic. Presbyterianism says history doesn’t matter compared to something even more historic — God’s revelation in the Old and New Testaments and the acts of redemption therein revealed.

This lesson from Presbyterianism 101 comes from awareness (supplied by our northern correspondent) that the Presbyterian pastor identified in the following article is part of the PCA, and therefore a man eligible to preach and administer the sacraments in our local OPC congregation.

E. C. is a Presbyterian. I am not. I know that he’d love to make me so. He fits Presbyterianism. He loves the arc of the liturgy, the commitment to ever put God’s grace and covenantal faithfulness in the foreground, and their interpretive lens toward scripture. While I respect his convictions, I am not particularly drawn to the Presbyterian ethos. My friend Bruce is a Quaker. He loves the communal discernment of the Spirit and the diligent pursuit of acknowledging the image of God in every human. I’m not antagonistic toward either of those positions, but they aren’t enough to make me a Quaker. I’m something else. And yet, every winter we three pastors leave the comfort of our desired theological homes to share an Ash Wednesday service.

We can join together on Ash Wednesday because the day is about humility. When else in the Christian life do we acknowledge that we are but dust?

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. ~Traditional Ash Wednesday Blessing

To have the ashes smeared on our foreheads is to embrace a grim truth about our limits: We are not God. From dust we were made—we all arrive here from the same humble beginnings. No one among us came from anything other than the earthly design of human birth. And to dust we shall return—we are mortal. What we have on this earth will end. After a good long life, perhaps, or maybe far too early. Regardless, death’s grim grip will overwhelm even the strongest will.

The thing is, praying before a meal, conducting family worship, attending worship every Sunday morning and evening is also a reminder of our limits and mortality. Ash Wednesday comes once a year. But you can hear “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 124:8) every Lord’s day and remember that you are a finite critter who depends on God almighty.

The Presbyterian pastor involved in this Ash Wednesday service has his own justification for observing Lent:

Lent spans 40 workdays beginning on Ash Wednesday and culminating on the Saturday before Easter. The Sunday’s within Lent are not counted part of the 40 day duration, but rather are called Sunday’s In Lent. The significance of 40 days can be traced to many things within the bible, but in this instance refers to and honor’s the 40 days Christ spent in the wilderness preparing for his ministry. Within CVP, Lent is a time of preparation and prayer spent in readying for Easter and our Savior’s resurrection. As such, we don’t “give something up for Lent”, but rather if something is distracting from focusing on Lent and Christ’s sacrifice, we may set it aside temporarily.

As one gets closer to the end of Lent, we enter what is known as Holy Week. This is started with Palm Sunday, otherwise known as Passion Sunday, and observes the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem where folks waved palm branches proclaiming him as the messianic king. The word passion refers to the final journey of Jesus to the cross and crucifixion. Next would be Maundy Thursday which refers to series of events that took place the day before Jesus was arrested. These events include the last supper where communion has it’s origins, Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, and ended with Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest to be taken before Caiaphas. Prior to the last supper, Jesus washed his disciples feet to illustrate the humility involved in servanthood. He also taught his disciples a new commandment quoted in John 13:45-45 NIV “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Good Friday and/or Tenebrae are one and the same day and come on the last Friday of Lent. The church observes the day of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. Not even a week before on Palm Sunday, the people proclaimed Jesus king and now on this day, they demand his death. Tenebrae is a way the church observes the coming darkness of a world without God by selected bible readings and a growing darkness (either by turning off lights one by one, or extinguishing ceremonial candles). Tenebrae typically concludes with a loud noise symbolizing the closing of Jesus’ tomb. Lent concludes on Holy Saturday – the day Jesus rested in the tomb.

Nifty. I guess this points to something a little more mysterious, a little more cosmic, something with a little more umph than your average Protestant service which — oh by the way — only relies upon the inspired and infallible word of God, recorded, written, and given over five centuries before anyone dreamed of using ashes to put the sign for addition on someone’s face. The Bible, as common as it is, really is spooky. Of course, it doesn’t help when Protestants turn Scripture into a manual for everyday living, complete with instructions for thinking the right thoughts while you cross the street (unless you get distracted by a fast-approaching car).

Yes, low church Protestants messed up the awe and reverence that God speaking to you and memories of Christ’s death (in the Supper) should instill. Why and how Presbyterians contributed to this debasement of worship is a long and sorry story. But today’s Presbyterians who are trying to be historic should know better because Reformed Protestants did something to upend the direction of Western Christianity. You really can turn the clock back before Whitefield and Edwards without losing your Presbyterian self. Keep it simple, keep it biblical, and remember you are a sinner coming in the presence of a holy God. You don’t even need to wear dirt on your forehead.

But Larry Ball does not blame Ash Wednesday practicing pastors for problems in the PCA. He blames 2k. Easy peasy.


Thread 1.2

(A series on the history of Calvinism)

Reformed Christianity existed before Calvin became a Protestant and so calling the churches Calvinist to which he belonged is anachronistic. Before Geneva became a home for Protestantism, several cities in the Swiss Confederation, Zurich chief among them, had initiated reform. At the same time, Geneva was a late addition to the Swiss Confederation and always dependent on stronger Swiss cities. This meant that in addition to the struggles Calvin faced in his adopted city, he also encountered resistance and sporadic opposition from the other Reformed churches in Switzerland. His difficult dealings with the other pastors make all the more ironic the later identification of Reformed Protestantism with Calvinism. For instance, in 1554 around the time that Calvin was facing stiff opposition in Geneva from old-time aristocrats who fought the new spiritually inspired regulations of city life, the government of Bern banned Calvin=s writings from the lands under its authority and ordered that they be burned. Burning books was what Roman Catholics were supposed to do with Protestant texts but here was a Reformed city judging Calvin=s teaching beyond the pale. In point of fact, the opposition to Calvin from the Bernese officials had less to do with theology than politics; Geneva was an upstart city that seemed to be acting independently of Bern and so the Bernese wanted to teach the Genevans a lesson. As one biographer argues, this treatment of Calvin=s writings said more about the personalities involved than the intricacies of double predestination or any other contested point of doctrine. Still, the incident is instructive for remembering Calvin=s status among the Reformers and their civic patrons in Switzerland. (p.21)


Thread 1.1

(A series on the history of Calvinism)

Fourteen years after the sausage-eating incident in Zurich, on May 25, 1535, the citizens of Geneva pledged to Alive according to the Law of the Gospel and the Word of God, and to abolish all Papal abuses. The apparent orderliness and consensus of that expression of popular sovereignty in Geneva could not hide the turmoil by which the Reformation had come to a city that, although not part of the Swiss confederacy, would soon rival Zurich for leadership among Reformed Protestants. For the better part of a decade, the citizens of Geneva had been trying to gain independence from the House of Savoy. To do this Geneva needed the support of nearby Swiss cities, Fribourg and Bern. When political autonomy of the 1520s led to religious reforms in the 1530s, political rivalries turned ugly. Fribourg officials, who were Roman Catholic, used the death of one of their citizens during a religious riot in Geneva in 1533 to pressure the Genevans back into the fold of Rome. But thanks to friendly relations with the Protestant Bern, Geneva resisted Fribourg=s intimidation. In turn, Geneva sponsored two public debates between Protestant and Roman Catholic representatives, one in January, 1534, the second in June, 1535. Both led to riots. They also increased Geneva=s resolve for political independence and the prerogative to establish the city’s religious identity. By the time that Geneva=s citizens vowed to submit to the word of God in the spring of 1535, the city had withstood intimidation from both Fribourg and Bern, and had informed its Roman Catholic clergy that they either needed to convert to Protestantism or leave.


Do Muslims and Jews Have This Problem?

In the mood of the season, I found a Youtu.be video with Frank Sinatra’s rendition of Hark, The Herald Angels Sing.

Maybe yours doesn’t but my mind boggled (again). Frank Sinatra, the singer alluded to in The Godfather, with real ties to the Rat Pack, and no model of family mores, is singing Charles Wesley (one of the original Methodists’ better verses). Again, the mind boggles.

This is how familiar Christmas is for Americans (and people in the West more generally). Not only did Sinatra sing Wesley. But producers in the recording industry believed that Frank singing a batch of Christmas songs would be a revenue enhancer. And these entertainment geniuses decided not only to include some of the secular and corny songs, like Jingle Bells, but also the sorts of material that Anglican cathedral choirs include in Lessons and Carols services.

Is your mind boggling yet?

Do Muslims have songs to sing about the birth of Muhammad? Do Jews sing about the birth of Abraham? One way to tell is to live in a Muslim or Jewish society during the holy days? How much religious music seeps out into the larger commercial world?

I don’t know (and am willing to learn from readers).

But one of the things that makes Christmas great (in all senses of the word) is that recording celebrities have put out so many albums and cds devoted to the birth of Jesus.

For the New Schoolers out there who like to chalk such cultural expressions up to the church’s (which one?) transformatalistizational powers, the pervasiveness of Christmas cheer is a sign of the longing that many people have the good news that the nativity narratives begin. Yes, we need more Christ and less Frank in Christmas, but for Americans to devote the better part of six weeks every year to the celebration of Christmas is an indication of Christianity’s abiding appeal.

For Old Schoolers, though, the relentless persistence of Christmas in all its schmaltz and devotion is an indication of how little discomfort Christians feel about making their own holiday an affair for Muslims, Jews, and secularists to enjoy or endure. Imagine thinking that Frank Sinatra’s Christmas albums would sell in Istanbul.

At the same time, Old Schoolers who know the history of the church calendar should not blame Roman Catholics for the ubiquity of Christmas sales and music. Protestants in the United States did not observe Christmas (minus some Episcopalians and Lutherans) until the late nineteenth century when department store entrepreneurs like New School Presbyterian, John Wanamaker, connected the dots between God’s gift to man in sending his son, and the gifts that Americans could give to friends and family to participate in that incarnational spirit.

Protestants made the world safe for Frank Sinatra singing Wesley, not the bishops.


Roman Catholics at Plymouth Rock?

In the department of strange bedfellows comes George Weigel’s praise for the Museum of the Bible:

On September 29, 1952, the publication of the complete Revised Standard Version of the Bible was celebrated at the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C., and the principal speaker was the U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. The son of the Episcopal bishop of Connecticut, Acheson movingly described the ways in which the King James Bible, which the new RSV was to supplant, had once shaped American culture and our national life:

In the earliest days in the Northeast, the Book was All. The settlers came here to live their own reading of it. It was the spiritual guide, the moral and legal code, the political system, the sustenance of life, whether that meant endurance of hardship, the endless struggle against nature, battle with enemies, or the inevitable processes of life and death. And it meant to those who cast the mold of this country something very specific and very clear. It meant that the purpose of man’s journey through this life was to learn and identify his life and effort with the purpose and will of God.

That biblical vision helped form the bedrock convictions of the American idea: that government stood under the judgment of divine and natural law; that government was limited in its reach into human affairs, especially the realm of conscience; that national greatness was measured by fidelity to the moral truths taught by revelation and inscribed in the world by a demanding yet merciful God; that only a virtuous people could be truly free.

Of course, the U.S. is a free country and anyone can assemble the past in ways consoling.

But does anyone else feel a certain discomfort with a Roman Catholic recommending the Bible without also mentioning the objections that sometimes Bishops registered against Bible readings in public schools without comment? The United States would not have as many parochial schools as it does if not for Bishops who worried about sending children to public schools where teachers read the Protestant version of the Bible.

Not to be missed is the odd relationship between the Bible and the founding. If the settlers who came to America and launched the tradition of Thanksgiving wanted a society with a biblical vision at its bedrock, don’t you also have to mention that those same Bible-only Christians were a tad jittery about including Roman Catholics in the nation that emerged from their colonial enterprises?

This may be why some Roman Catholic political theorists are uncomfortable with Roman Catholics getting comfortable with the founding.


We Got This Not

An academic institution where Protestants and Roman Catholics teach together sponsoring a conference about the Reformation is one thing, but a Presbyterian seminary holding a series of lectures on the Reformation that includes Roman Catholics and Protestants? That’s what’s happening at Covenant Theological Seminary this fall. The explanations do not add up:

“Though significant differences still divide Protestants and Catholics, there are real reasons to listen to each other, even learn from each other, so that we might give better testimony to Christ by loving one another across our differences,” said Ryan, professor of religion and culture at CTS and director of the seminary’s Francis A. Schaeffer Institute. “Our goal is to somehow get past lingering caricatures of each other’s positions to find the common ground we share as we seek to bear a more credible witness for the Lord before the watching world.”

Jerram Barrs, CTS professor of Christian studies and contemporary culture and one of the speakers at the lecture series, agrees. “It is important that we do not merely endlessly rehearse the reasons as to why the Reformation took place as if neither we nor the Roman Catholic Church have learned any more or changed in any manner since the 1500s.”

The lecture series will feature five speakers — two of them Catholic — discussing topics ranging from why the Reformation still matters today, to the pastoral legacy of the Reformation, to an evangelical and Catholic and Reformed view of faith and culture.

The part that stuck out to mmmeeeeEEEE was about “endlessly rehearsing the reasons as to why the Reformation took place.” Last time iiiiiIII checked, Protestants and Roman Catholics in the United States are seriously in need of learning the reasons for Luther’s original complaints and Rome’s rejection of Protestant proposals. Consider the following:

nearly half of U.S. Protestants today (46%) say faith alone is needed to attain salvation (a belief held by Protestant reformers in the 16th century, known in Latin as sola fide). But about half (52%) say both good deeds and faith are needed to get into heaven, a historically Catholic belief.

U.S. Protestants also are split on another issue that played a key role in the Reformation: 46% say the Bible is the sole source of religious authority for Christians – a traditionally Protestant belief known as sola scriptura. Meanwhile, 52% say Christians should look both to the Bible and to the church’s official teachings and tradition for guidance, the position held by the Catholic Church during the time of the Reformation and today.

When these two questions are combined, the survey shows that just three-in-ten U.S. Protestants believe in both sola fide and sola scriptura. One third of Protestants (35%) affirm one but not the other, and 36% do not believe in either sola fide or sola scriptura.

Pew’s findings corroborate Ligonier’s survey. (And Redeemer NYC’s outreach to skeptics isn’t doing much to put the sola in the Reformation.)

The thing is, works righteousness comes naturally to human beings. That’s why whenever you have the chance to bang the gong for the sufficiency of Christ and the insufficiency of human virtue (not to mention the sin of pride that virtue sometimes encourages), you take it.


The Connection between Baptists and Revivals

Charles Hodge explained that Christianity rooted in the covenant favors Presbyterianism and rejects credo-Baptism as well as revival:

. . . what we think is plainly taught in Scripture, what is reasonable in itself, and confirmed by the experience of the church, is, that early, assiduous, and faithful religious culture of the young, especially by believing parents, is the great means of their salvation. A child is born in a Christian family, its parents recognize it as belonging to God and included in his covenant. In full faith that the promise extends to their children as well as to themselves, they dedicate their child to him in baptism. From its earliest infancy it is the object of tender solicitude, and the subject of many believing prayers. The spirit which reigns around it is the spirit, not of the world, but of true religion. The truth concerning God and Christ, the way of salvation and of duty, is inculcated from the beginning, and as fast as it can be comprehended. . . . He is constantly taught that he stands in a peculiar relation to God, as being included in his covenant and baptized in his name; that he has in virtue of that relation a right to claim God as hi Father, Christ as his saviour, and the Holy Ghost as his sanctifier; and assured that God will recognize that claim and receive him as his child, if he is faithful to his baptismal vows. The child thus trained grows up in the fear of God; his earliest experiences are more or less religious; he keeps aloof from open sins; strives to keep his conscience clear in the sight of God, and to make the divine will the guide of his conduct. . . . This is no fancy sketch. Such an experience is not uncommon in actual life.

That kind of covenant religion makes revivals not only superfluous, but a threat to Christian nurture. Revival, in other words, is antithetical to rearing children in the faith:

Does not a theory of religion extensively prevail which leads believing parents to expect their children to grow up very much like other children, unconverted, out of the church, out of covenant with God, and to rely far less on the peculiar promise of God to them and to his blessings on their religious culture, than on other means for their salvation. . . . They look upon conversion as something that can only be effected in a sudden and sensible manner; a work necessarily distinct to the consciousness of its subject and apparent to those around him. This conviction modifies their expectations, their conduct, their language, and their prayers. It affect to a very serious degree both parents and children, and it arises from false, or at least imperfect views of the nature of religion, it of course tends to produce and perpetuate them. We see evidence of this mistake all around us, in every part of the country, and in every denomination of Christians. We see it in the disproportionate reliance placed on the proclamation of the gospel from the pulpit, as almost the only means of conversion; and in the disposition to look upon revivals as the only hope of the church. (Hodge, Bushnell on Christian Nurture)