Why Presbyterians Are Ambivalent about Evangelicals

Chris Gerhz is a good historian and generally thoughtful about a number of matters (even when you disagree), but his piece about the virtues of mainline Protestantism is an indication of how thin the ties are within the bond of evangelical Protestantism. In the post, he is frank about the mainline’s numerical decline and mentions a few reasons for it. But Gehrz also mentions several features of the mainline that he appreciates and would hate to go away. First up, women’s ordination:

In an inscription on the balcony in our sanctuary, the Apostle Paul reminds us that it is by “the power of the Holy Spirit” that we “may abound in hope” (Rom 15:13). Truly, I have hope for the renewal of the ELCA, the mainline, and all the church, because I trust that God’s Spirit continues to move in our midst: comforting, counseling, and gifting us to accomplish more than we can imagine.

Whenever I need to be reminded of that truth, I turn my head to the right of the choir loft, where I see the two women who serve as our senior and associate pastors preaching the Word and administering the sacraments. Then I think of the women on our staff who direct the church’s excellent children and youth ministries. And while I don’t put a lot of credence in church hierarchies, I may even recall that women currently serve as the bishop of our local synod and as the denomination’s presiding bishop.

In a time when most (non-Pentecostal) evangelical denominations deny such roles to women or fail to back up egalitarian words with regular calls to pastoral ministry and leadership, it’s the mainline that best embodies the Pentecost message that God has poured out his spirit on all humanity, such that daughters and sons alike will speak for him.

Say what you will about the significance of women’s ordination — some could conceivably liken it to Sabbath-Day desecration, which is hardly an offense worthy of ecclesiastical discipline in the Presbyterian world — but what sort of support might a fellow like Gehrz render to fellow Presbyterians if he were in a common endeavor with them? Chances are if a vote came up about recognizing a female pastor or an organization’s ties to a communion that ordained women, Gehrz would vote with mainline Protestants against those Presbyterian communions that refuse office to women. That’s not inherently bad. But it makes difficult the thought that an Orthodox Presbyterian and an evangelical Pietist-turned-mainline-Lutheran could meaningfully cooperate in so-called Christian organizations.

Gehrz also appreciates the mainline’s ecumenical posture:

Here I don’t so much mean the institutional ecumenism of the National and World Councils of Churches as the lived faith of congregations like ours, where we’re regularly reminded both of our Lutheran distinctiveness and our participation in the unity of the church catholic….

“Go in peace,” we’re told at the end of worship, “and serve the Lord.” That’s a charge we can only fulfill together, with Christians who might belong and believe differently than us. During Sunday’s education hour, we learned about our church’s partnership with Dorothy Day Place, which continues that Catholic writer’s commitment to living in solidarity with the poor. The week before, children of all ages had assembled materials for Bridging, a local nonprofit that helps Minnesotans transition out of homelessness; its Catholic founder had died the day before.

There goes the spirituality of the church (or the idea that the church provides services — chiefly spiritual and eternal — that non-government agencies or government welfare can). When the idea of Christian unity comes from race, class, and gender, what’s a Presbyterian to do about the Shorter Catechism or the regulative principle of worship?

Finally, Gehrz thinks the mainline has contributed well to congregational singing and liturgical music (it is hard to disagree, especially if evangelicalism is known primarily for Praise & Worship worship music):

In Paul’s much-debated passage on the mutual submission that marks a united church, he also describes being “filled with the Spirit” in these terms: “you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:19).

Of course, there are many ways of living this out in practice. We all have our own preferences. You won’t be surprised that an evangelical who laments the removal of hymnals is no fan of worship that takes its cue from megachurches, where the congregation is too often reduced to a passive audience standing silent as professional performers sing words that are too shallow to the accompaniment of tunes that are too monotonous. …

Of course, “traditional” worship has its own problems. … But at its vibrant, creative best, such worship embodies Pelikan’s definition of tradition (“the living faith of the dead”). For example, my heart swells as the centuries-old words of Nicolai’s Epiphany chorale again “teach us / God’s own love through you has reached us.” And it’s worth pointing out that five of the eight texts our congregation or choir sang in that single hour of worship were written by authors born in the 20th century. This, too, is living tradition: Christian composers and writers continuing to adapt old musical forms to accompany still older words (mostly from Scripture itself)… and Christian laypeople continuing to sing them, actively participating in worship. (Many of them even singing in four-part harmony, another way we may learn Christian unity.)

That this happens is not the result of mere inertia. It has taken the conscious, ongoing investment of mainline churches in publishing houses that encourage musical creativity and in colleges that provide musical training for professionals and amateurs alike.

At this point, Gerhz might appreciate the OPC and URC’s cooperation in producing a Psalter-Hymnal, an expression of Reformed Protestantism’s tradition of congregational song. What is unclear is how interest in the past when it comes to worship fits with the relative recentness of ideas about ordaining women and the social gospel. It actually looks like the mainline tradition, as it appeals to some evangelicals, is a relatively arbitrary collection of ideals and convictions — good taste when it comes to music, overturning hierarchies when it comes to gender and class.

To his credit, Gehrz concedes that mainline Protestantism can go wrong:

Beautiful music can become the end of worship, rather than one of its means. Practiced for its own sake, ecumenism easily turns bureaucratic or latitudinarian. And the conviction that the Spirit is bringing renewal can tempt us to exchange dead orthodoxy for living heterodoxy.

But I don’t suspect he will want any help from confessional Presbyterians in spotting if and when the mainline veers from orthodox norms.

Which makes me wonder again why conservative Presbyterians ever thought they would get much in return for joining forces with so-called evangelicals. Heck, it looks like evangelicals — think Charles Erdman — resonate more with liberal Protestantism than with confessional Protestantism. It is another variety of third-way Christianity — neither modernist nor historic. But always with a nod to the Holy Spirit. Just not too much like those crazy Pentecostals.

Spiritual Real Presence

H. L. Mencken remarked that Calvinism was in his “cabinet of horrors” but little removed from cannibalism. If you are alphabetizing horrors and putting them on a shelf in alphabetical order, Mencken’s observation makes sense. What he did not mention is that alphabetizing items that scare means that Catholicism would also near cannibalism in Mencken’s cabinet. And here the connections are greater than mere spacial proximity. Roman Catholics regularly need to answer the charge that if the bread and wine in the Mass become the actual body and blood of Jesus, then aren’t participants engaging in cannibalism?

Here’s one response:

The brilliant medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas examined the philosophical issues and conundrums elicited by the belief in transubstantiation. Most interestingly, Aquinas addressed the confession of an earlier theologian, Berengarius of Tours, who was forced to assert that Christ’s bones were truly crushed by teeth when laypeople received the consecrated host during Holy Communion. To this very literal interpretation, Aquinas responded that “Christ’s very body is not broken” but only “under the sacramental species.”

In other words, Christ’s presence is real and bodily, but this real and bodily presence is not to be understood as the same as Christ’s real and bodily presence as a historical being like you and me. Under the species of bread and wine, as Paul VI made clear, Christ “is present whole and entire in His physical ‘reality,’ corporeally present, although not in the manner in which bodies are in a place.” We Catholics aren’t cannibals – not exactly, anyway.

Since a bloodstained Eucharistic host would presumably be quite easy to fake, it’s more common to see the Catholic Church distance itself from such claims, rather than naively endorse them. But there is something about Christ’s real, bodily presence that Catholics see as particularly comforting in an age such as ours: Jesus might be hidden, but he is present among us nonetheless.

So Roman Catholics are not literal about Christ’s presence. It is not the actual body of the ascended Christ that is present in the Mass. It is a spiritual presence with some physical aspects.

Another author answered the question this way:

Many people miss the mark with regard to the faith because they make the mistake of applying terms in a human way to God who is infinite. We could speak of Mormons who claim God, the Father, has a physical body because the Scriptures speak of God’s “back parts,” in Exodus, or “the hand of Lord,” the “eyes of the Lord,” etc. You’ve probably heard the classic rejoinder to these Mormon claims: “Psalm 91 refers to God’s ‘feathers and wings’. Does this mean God is some sort of bird?”

The error here, of course, is rooted in interpreting texts that were not intended to be used in a strict, literal sense, as if they were. “Back parts” have to mean “back parts,” right?…

When it gets down to brass tacks, the nay-sayers who reject the Eucharist, and most specifically, those who accuse us Catholics of cannibalism because we say we “consume” the Lord in the Eucharist, body, blood, soul, and divinity, fail to understand what we actually mean by consuming the Lord. They end up objecting just as the unbelieving “Jews” of John 6:52, who said, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

If you are thinking about a cannibalistic blood-meal, he can’t. But if you understand, as Jesus said, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail, the words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life,” then you understand. The Eucharist represents a miracle confected by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Christ’s presence in the Supper is essentially spiritual. Again, it is not the literal body and blood. That would be cannibalism. Instead, it is a spiritual body and blood.

How exactly is that different from Reformed Protestants who claim the real presence of Christ in the Supper?

Q. 96. What is the Lord’s supper?

A. The Lord’s supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.

Presbyterian Sex

Decency and order come to mind but I am not sure you want to create a bumper sticker about how Presbyterians have sex.

Reading Emily Suzanne Johnson’s new book, This is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right (Oxford University Press), took me to quotations from Marabel Morgan’s Total Woman and Tim and Beverly LaHaye’s Act of Marriage. Morgan wrote in 1973:

For super sex tonight, respond eagerly to your husband’s advances. Don’t just endure. . . . He may enjoy making love even when you’re a limp dishrag, but if you’re eager, and love to make love, watch out! If you seduce him, there will be no words to describe his joy. Loving you will become sheer ecstasy. (75)

That’s not very graphic, but it’s way more explicit than anything that H. L. Mencken printed and that subsequently landed him in a Boston jail under the charge of publishing obscenity.

But the LaHayes discussed the subject in ways that likely forced parents to hide their book, Act of Marriage (1976), from adolescent boys:

The husband who would be a good lover will not advance too quickly but will learn to enjoy loveplay. He will not only wait until his wife is well-lubricated, but reserve his entrance until her inner lips are engorged with blood and swollen at least twice their normal size.

Yowza!

Morgan was some kind of fundamentalist, a graduate from Florida Bible College. The LaHayes were Southern Baptists (Tim is deceased, Beverly is still alive). That kind of discussion of sexual intimacy is not what I learned was fitting in the Baptist fundamentalist home and congregation in which I grew up.

Meanwhile, Tim and Kathy Keller arguably discussed briefly and more openly than I would care to do their sexual history, but the theme is restraint:

Kathy and I were virgins when we were married. Even in our day, that may have been a minority experience, but that meant that on our wedding night we were not in any position to try to entice or impress one another. All we were trying to do was to tenderly express with our bodies the oneness we had first begun feeling as friends and which had then grown stronger and deeper as we fell in love. Frankly, that night I was clumsy and awkward and fell asleep anxious and discouraged. Sex was frustrating at first. It was the frustration of an artist who has in his head a picture or a story but lacks the skills to express it. (Meaning of Marriage, 79-80)

That is still TMI for my own comfort. But it is a very different picture of sexual intimacy than what the fundamentalist Morgan and Baptist LaHayes presented.

Which raises the question: if you can be a Presbyterian in the bedroom, why not in worship?

If Not Imprecatory Psalms, What About the Lord’s Prayer?

Even Psalms that don’t register on the list of imprecatory ones can be a challenge to use if only because of their depiction of the death of God’s enemies. Some advise against their use and this was one of the reasons for not producing, as the OPC and URC did, a complete Psalter:

The psalmist was praying against those who persecuted him. The theocracy, God’s reign in Israel from the time of Moses to the time of Christ, was a shadow of future events (Heb. 10:1). One of those events is the final judgment of God. The destruction of the Canaanites in the days of Joshua was a shadow of the final judgment and not, therefore, normative for how we are to deal with our neighbors who do not believe in Jesus. The imprecations against the wicked in the book of Psalms were also shadows of the final judgment—appropriate for the era of the theocracy, but not for this present age. The gospel era is one of kindness, tolerance, and patience—intended to bring people to repentance and faith (Rom. 2:4). This is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2). And this is why Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to pray for them, not against them. This is why Paul taught us to pray that God would bless our enemies (Rom. 12:14; 1 Cor. 4:12). Like the psalmist we leave vengeance to God, but unlike the psalmist we pray that God would bless those who bring pain into our lives. (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Psalms and Proverbs, pp. 348–49)

Others, though, notice that Christians still pray for God’s judgment upon his enemies even in the New Testament:

We need to be very conscious of trying—that part of what we’re called to be as the light of the world is people who love our enemies. Paul talks about how loving your enemies will further increase their punishment. So setting love of enemy radically over against judgment is not biblical.

I think it is not illegitimate to use the imprecations of the psalter to pray for judgment on God’s enemies. Every time we pray, “Come quickly Lord Jesus,” we’re praying an imprecation on God’s enemies. When Jesus comes again, there will be judgment for God’s enemies.

In other words, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he included the petition, “Thy kingdom come,” which as the Larger Catechism explains involves praying for the “hastening” of the kingdom of glory:

that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him forever

Not to be missed is the nature of the office that Christ executes as king:

Christ executeth the office of a king, in calling out of the world a people to himself, … restraining and overcoming all their enemies, and powerfully ordering all things for his own glory, and their good; and also in taking vengeance on the rest, who know not God, and obey not the gospel.

In which case, the anti-imprecatory Psalm position implies editing the Lord’s Prayer.

That does not mean that prayers for judgment day are easy to pray. The image of that great separation of the saved and the lost is haunting. At the same time, the thought of the end of the world is never absent from Christian devotion and worship.

On the upside, at least Protestants debate something that Roman Catholics don’t anymore thanks to an effort to manage less than good acts and desires with procedural standards and practices.

What Happened to Preaching?

For some evangelicals, the options in worship are either the sacraments or the gifts of the Spirit:

This Sunday, thousands of believers will enter a sanctuary in which all eyes are drawn to the table near the front. They will brush past a baptismal font as they find a seat, sing hymns and recite prayers that have sustained believers for centuries, confess that they believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and receive bread and wine. Spiritual gifts, however—with the exception of teaching—are unlikely to make an appearance. An occurrence of prophecy or healing would be very surprising, if not unprecedented. Tongue-speaking would result in either a baffled silence or an embarrassed cough.

Thousands of other believers will enter a very different worship space, in which all eyes are drawn to the stage. They will expect, and frequently experience, a meeting in which people practice the laying on of hands, spontaneous prayer, anointing with oil, prophecy, languages, healing, and any number of the other spiritual gifts described in the New Testament. But there will probably be no corporate confession, no creed, no psalms, and no shared liturgy. If the Lord’s Supper is celebrated at all, it will appear on collapsible tables, transition quickly into the next part of the service, and take no more time than the announcements.

There are, in other words, churches that are eucharistic and churches that are charismatic (as well as a good many churches that are neither). So it is interesting that the New Testament church about whose corporate worship we know the most, namely the church in Corinth, was both. The Corinthians were apparently unaware that those two strands of Christian worship were incompatible, and they happily (if somewhat erratically) pursued sacramental and spiritual gifts at the same time. Neither did Paul regard this as strange or problematic; in fact, he encouraged them to continue celebrating Communion together (1 Cor. 11:23–6) and to eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy (14:1). Paul, in that sense, wanted the church to be “eucharismatic”—and that invitation extends to us as well.

Once upon a time, critics accused Protestants of being logocentric because the placed so much emphasis on the Word. In fact, you could blame Paul’s letter to the Corinthians for Protestants’ emphasis on the reading and preaching of the Word:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Charismatics and sacramentalists don’t seem to be drawn to wisdom but are looking for signs, for tangible, visible, physical manifestations of God’s presence. That wasn’t how Paul understood either his ministry or the one he passed on to Timothy.

No matter what you think of Paul, can’t writers for the evangelical magazine of record remember that some Protestants still make a big deal of the Bible in worship?

Why I Won’t Vote for Intinction

From the Bible:

21 After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 22 The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. 23 One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side, 24 so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25 So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” 26 Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” (John 13)

I see Dale Irwin beat me to it:

I’ve heard much on the symbolism of the elements given separately, but not much on the symbolism communicated by the act of intinction. I’ve attended as a guest two services where the Supper was by intinction. Both times I felt, not like a disciple of Jesus partaking, but more like Judas dipping the sop (the “sop” at the Passover meal was a fruit puree mixture, so dipping bread into fruit juice is closer to “dipping the sop” than what many realize.)

When I visit a church and intinction is practiced, I am placed in a very difficult situation: do I violate my conscience by “dipping the sop,” or do I violate my conscience by abstaining from the Supper when I otherwise ought to partake?

Wedding Cakes Are Not Simple

I wish Jack Phillips’ case was easy but after listening to Ben Domenich’s interview with Mike Farris I can’t side entirely with the baker who refused to make a cake for the gay couple, David Mullins and Charlie Craig. One of Phillips’ lines of defense is that he refuses to do something that contradicts his religious convictions about marriage. And making a cake for a gay marriage would be to participate in a religious ceremony that violates Christian teaching.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the couple and guests at a marriage do not consume a wedding cake during the service. Cake is not like the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. A wedding cake is not sacramental (neither is marriage for Protestants). Are receptions biblical? Do we have a “thus saith the Lord” about the necessity and exact order of a reception? Personally, if I were a dad, I’d be saying to daughters from an early age, “cake and punch, cake and punch.” Have the reception in the church basement. Get on the road to your first night. And save the money on the meal and cake for a down payment on a car or home. (In parts of the U.S., homes are as cheap as cars — ahem.)

Which is to say, if I were Mr. Phillips’ pastor, I’d encourage him to rethink how narrowly he identifies a cake with his beliefs. Heck, I think 5:00 each day is borderline sacramental, but the regulative principle helps me draw a line.

As for Mr. Mullins and Mr. Craig, did they really need to take Mr. Phillips to court? Did they have nowhere else to find a cake for their wedding reception? Turns out they did:

As for Mullins and Craig, they got hitched without any other major hitches, marrying in Massachusetts before going back to their home state of Colorado to celebrate with family and friends. After their story spread across the Internet, the couple was inundated with cake offers — “even from China,” Craig noted — and, ultimately, they landed on a special plan.

When whites denied blacks access to certain schools or luncheon counters, African-Americans did not have a long line of people signing up to educate or sell them a meal. This is why gay rights, for starters, is different from ending racial discrimination. Gay people since roughly 1990 have had a remedy for services desired — another business down the block. African-Americans did not have such a remedy.

That is why blacks had good reason to make a federal case of Jim Crow. Gays of decorated cakes? Not so much.

If You Can Take Passion Out of Sex

Why do you want to keep it in worship?

Garrett Kell explains that sex is not supposed to be all zowie and pizzazz:

God created sex to be a bond between a husband and wife that strengthens over time. Married couples make love on their honeymoon and after a miscarriage. They make love to conceive children and after they bury them. They make love when bodies are healthy and during battles against cancer. As a husband and wife pursue each other through intimate service, sacrifice, and struggle, God blesses them in a way the world can never know. . . .

That doesn’t mean sex is always enjoyable or easy for married couples. Because marriage is the union of an ever-changing and ever-growing pair of fallen people, we can expect that sexual intimacy to have both sweet and sour days and seasons. That is part of God’s wise design.

He has called a man and a woman to be committed to each other and to make love with each other during every season of life. Lovemaking on a honeymoon may be wonderful or awful. Intimate times are shared when buying a new house or burying a parent. It is pursued when God gives conception, and when he withholds it.

So if sex and passion can be ordinary and even sour, why have New Calvinists insisted that worship much be intense, earnest, deeply heart-felt if it is genuine? If married couples have seasons of less and more vibrant sex, Christians may also experience worship that is true and genuine even if all the religious affections aren’t bubbling.

Or maybe it was a mistake in the first place to introduce the language of passion and hedonism into the realm of piety. The Bible invariably uses agrarian imagery to explain the Christian life. Farms and gardens do not produce the intensity or sound of fireworks. Sure, Spring flowers pop (and they last a lot longer than even the best fireworks display). But even the flowers fade. That’s why we need less passion and more routine in worship.

What married couples do in the boudoir is on them (sheesh).

Why Worship Should be Uncomfortable

How do you package assembling in the presence of a holy and righteous God? For Roman Catholics, the way to retain the seriousness of worship requires spaces that elevate the senses to an awareness of divine presence (somehow a cathedral with beautiful stained glass and the stations of the cross is still here on planet earth):

Mass started looking less like the worship of God and more like a pep rally. Our churches stopped looking Catholic and were overrun by iconoclasts. We went from churches that exuded Catholic belief visually, to ubiquitous ‘sacred spaces’ that looked more like theaters.

Some places ran with the theater aspect. Worship transformed to entertainment. What I got out of it became much more important than what I put into it.

By ripping out the transcendent heart out of worship, we reduced Mass. It is little wonder that belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist plummeted. It is little wonder that priestly vocations plummeted. While the generation that ushered these things love them, the subsequent generations fled in droves.

With worship emptied of the transcendent, Catholic life soon followed. Devotional life in parishes dried up. Parish churches became Mass stations. It has been heartening to see a rise in Eucharistic Adoration.

Regulative principle type Protestants might be tempted to make a similar complain about the megachurch and the praise band. It all seems to reinforce the genius of revivalists like Billy Sunday, which according to H. L. Mencken, was to take the mystifying and make it ordinary:

His impressiveness, to the vegetal mind, lies in two things, the first being the sheer clatter and ferocity of his style and the second being his utter lack of those transparent pretensions to intellectual superiority and other worldliness which mark the average evangelical divine. In other words, he does not preach down at his flock from the heights of an assumed moral superiority — i.e. inexperience of the common sorrows and temptations of the world — but discharges his message as man to man, reaching easily for buttonholes, jogging in the ribs, slapping on the back. The difference here noted is abysmal. Whatever the average man’s respect for the cloth, he cannot rid himself of the feeling that the holy man in the pulpit is, in many important respects, a man unlike himself . . . .; his aura is a sort of psychic monastery; his advice is not that of a practical man, with the scars of combat on him, but that of a dreamer wrapped in aseptic cotton.

Even setting aside [Sunday’s] painstaking avoidance of anything suggesting clerical garb and his indulgence in obviously unclerical gyration on his sacred stump, he comes down so palpably to the level of his audience, both in the matter and the manner of his discourse, that he quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of a debate in a barroom. The raciness of his slang is not the whole story by any means; his attitude of mind lies behind it, and is more important. . . . It is marked, above all, by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying; an angry casting aside of what may be called the ecclesiastical mask, an eagerness to reduce all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and (to the ingenuous) self-evident propositions, a violent determination to make of religion a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern.

Sunday’s revivals may not have inspired reverence, but what if worship is transcendent without the bells and whistles of images, statues, and transubstantiation. What if simply reading the Bible is spooky? It is God’s word after all, and if God spoke to any of us in a burning bush I’m betting we might not sleep for a couple nights.

Isn’t reverence the key to setting worship apart from ordinary experience? A while back Steve Tipton refuted the idea that the problem of diversity in Presbyterian worship services was a failure to follow the regulative principle and concoct an order of service that everyone follows. He was against “liturgical sameness” and had a point. But why can’t we have “atmospheric” or “feng shui” sameness? Why, in other words, can’t a service be reverent no matter what the order of service? Incense could promote reverence until the snowflakes start complaining about second-hand smoke. Singing psalms only could also accomplish a unique experience, at least to push back against the Gettys. But what about praise bands or jazz quartets? Do they cultivate reverence? How about lots of Scripture? The Old Testament narratives sure are mystifying.

One of the most important features of Reformed Protestantism was its capacity to adapt to different settings. No single book of prayer or liturgy or edition of Scripture became required for membership in the club. But in all settings worship was reverent. People gathered with a fear of offending God. As the author to the Hebrews wrote, Christians do not come to Sinai but to Zion. But even there God is a “consuming fire.” (There’s that burning bush again.)

Maybe the way to recapture transcendence and reverence is to begin with a reading of the law and a reminder that we should not attempt to make God conform to our image of him. You can do that even in a storefront church.

You Can Take the Curmudgeon out of Presbyterianism . . .

But you can’t take Presbyterianism out of the Curmudgeon.

The best priest we know serves up even more reasons for thinking New Calvinism is a sham:

Drs. Moore and Mohler have also been involved in another SBC fight. They are Calvinists in a denomination that has embraced evangelism and church growth of first of the Second Great Awakening sort (100 verses of “Just As I Am” waiting for one more sinner to be converted or one more backslider rededicate) and then of the church growth/contemporary church sort (rock bands, smoke machines, and preachers sitting on stools). But large number of Southern Baptists have embraced what they call “Calvinism” (How is a credo-baptist really a Calvinist?), or “the doctrines of grace” (“soteriological Calvinism, though one must also ask what kind of soteriological Calvinism denies a means of grace, baptism, to children?). The tension between traditional Baptists and the so-called Calvinistic Baptists is another fault line in the Convention, though a piece of plywood has been put over crack.

To keep it straight, the Gospel Coalition attracts and promotes Calvinists (think Tim Keller and the PCA) who do not minister as Calvinists, that is, Calvinists who look the other way when it comes to worship and the ministry of the word. To be sure, New Calvinists care about ministry, but their concern is for relevance, influence, size (matters). Their concern is not like Calvin’s or Bucer’s or Ursinus’ to make ministry conform to Scripture — Reformed according to the Word.

That is where tranformationalism goes. It sups with practices designed to be strategic, to win a hearing, to sit at the table. And all along, the freedom to minister word and sacrament, follow the regulative principle, administer church discipline is still overwhelmingly available. The problem is that the traditional means of grace and serious worship won’t rise above the hum drum of congregational life to amount to a movement, a following. Shouldn’t New Calvinists trust the God-ordained means of grace? Or do they know something God’s word doesn’t?

It reminds me of Hughes Oliphint Old’s point about contemporary worship:

In our evangelistic zeal we are looking for programs that will attract people. We think we have put honey on the lip of the bitter cup of salvation. It is the story of the wedding of Cana all over again but with this difference. At the crucial moment when the wine failed, we took matters into our own hands and used those five stone jars to mix up a batch of Kool-Aid instead. It seemed like a good solution in terms of our American culture. Unfortunately, all too soon the guests discovered the fraud. Alas! What are we to do now? How can we possible minister to those who thirst for the real thing? There is but one thing to do, as Mary the mother of Jesus, understood so very well. You remember how the story goes. After presenting the problem to Jesus, Mary turned to the servants and said to them, “Do whatever he tells you.” The servants did just that and the water was turned to wine, wine rich and mellow beyond anything they had ever tasted before.