Keller and Princeton – Another Perspective

Protoprotestant is a fellow who — I think — once commented here and had some brush with the NAPARC world. He blogs at The Pilgrim Underground and The Pilgrim Path/Proto-Protestantism. I’m not sure I can locate his outlook, but he is usually worth reading. Certainly not predictable.

Recently he commented on the dance performance at Redeemer NYC in ways agreeable to many confessional Presbyterians. But before going there, ProtoProtestant’s memories of and reflections on Princeton Seminary are useful for situating his Presbyterian convictions. After a recent visit to Princeton he reflected on his own spiritual pilgrimage over a twenty-year period after his first visit to the seminary town:

Standing in front of Charles Hodge’s house I couldn’t help but think of his approach to Systematic Theology and his struggles to combat Darwinism. While the latter was indeed admirable and right, his unwitting embrace of Enlightenment categories had all but fettered his own hands. I see him as a tragic figure, trying to hold something together and yet incapable, not even fully understanding what is happening.

When I think of his son AA Hodge I cannot help but recall the rationalist nature of his theology and the great lack of wisdom and insight with regard to society and Christianity. An advocate of what I would identify as imperialist missionary work and the kind of Sacralist doctrine at odds with the New Testament, AA Hodge is a breath of fresh air to Dominionists and the Theonomists who still haunt the halls of American Presbyterianism. At one time his name was hallowed to me. Today, even though a volume or two of his writings remain on my shelf, he is not one that I would esteem.

Of course BB Warfield was the ‘Lion of Princeton’, the great defender of Calvinistic Orthodoxy in the late 19th and early 20th century. An author of many fine works Warfield was nevertheless inept when it came to defending Scripture in the face of Modernism. This statement will astonish many for they view him as ‘the great defender’ of Scripture in the face of Modernism. But they say this failing to understand his capitulation and compromise. Unwittingly, Warfield laid the groundwork for today’s Evangelical laxity with regard to Scripture and the collapse of Biblical authority.

. . . Princeton, so hampered by faulty philosophically dependent Evidentialist Apologetics proved weak and began to collapse in the face of Higher Criticism and the Scientific Revolution. Warfield was himself weak on the question of evolution.

Though not buried there I could not help but think of J Gresham Machen, the founder of Westminster Seminary and the figure most associated with the genesis of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). I was once a member of that denomination and would certainly never have anything to do with it again. That said, I cannot but to a certain extent admire Machen and (to a degree) those that went with him. His work on Christianity and Liberalism still holds a place of honour on the shelf. Though authored almost a century ago, the fundamental issues have not changed in the least. It is still a relevant and worthwhile book.

Some merit here, but clearly not an Old Life perspective.

So consider how Tim Keller looks to Protestants like this fellow:

So much for the Regulative Principle….so much for the Sufficiency of Scripture…. these doctrines aren’t even on the horizon for most ‘Reformed’ people anymore. They pay lip service to them but in actuality reject them. Keller, the PCA’s celebrity pastor has led the charge. A Dominionist cut from modern cloth, he’s a man very much at home with the world. When you believe that heaven will look something like Manhattan (investment bankers and all)… then the filth of Broadway, the Theatre District and Lincoln Centre will also be part of it.

In fact Keller’s Church, ‘Redeemer’ PCA is apropos. He believes that all of culture can be redeemed. To put it differently, all of culture can be sanctified and made holy. You must understand this if you wish to grasp why men in tights are dancing around during a worship service. Ballet is being made holy… this is (to Keller) a foretaste of heaven.

Of course this is in addition to the jazz or reggae services they host. It’s a big package. In reality it’s the same worldly gospel of the Prosperity folks but less tacky. It’s for the refined and sophisticated people of the Upper West Side.

Keller is a big deal in Reformed circles and he’s done rather well for himself. I abandoned the Reformed label years ago but even then I realised, if Keller, Piper, Mohler et al. are the Reformed ‘stalwarts’ of the 21st century then the 20th century Calvinist revival will be short lived indeed.

Old Lifers and Old School Presbyterians are not the only ones who see.

The optics!

From DGH on Critiquing Westminster Submitted on 2015 02 12 at 11:15 a.m.


I understand that you live in Canada and do historical theology and so may be unfamiliar with Presbyterian developments in the United States. But when you want to revise the Shorter Catechism Q. 1 with “To glorify God and Christ and enjoy them, through the Spirit,” you may not understand how much you are following the trail blazed by those American Presbyterians who wanted to gut the Westminster Standards of their hard Calvinist edge.

Maybe you can recall the writings from the 1890s of Benjamin Warfield and W. G. T. Shedd against confessional revision. Their arguments failed and the PCUSA went ahead and added chapters to the Confession of Faith on the Holy Spirit and the Love of God. The thinking (if you can call it that) was that the Confession didn’t say much about the Holy Spirit or the love of God and so needed explicit statements — as if you can’t find the Holy Spirit wherever the divines invoked the Word of God or as if the chapters on salvation and its application are not affirmations of God’s love.

The kicker of this revision was that it set up the 1906 merger between the PCUSA and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church — a body that in 1810 had explicitly rejected Calvinism’s harder edges. Affirming the Holy Spirit and the love of God sweetened the deal and made Warfield worry.

So when you add the language about Christ and the Holy Spirit to Q. 1, do you have in mind some kind of merger between the PCA and the Presbyterian Church of Canada? Your later explanation is helpful to a point. But because you continue to live in the world of seventeenth-century English speaking theologians and don’t seem to pay heed to historical contexts of closer proximity, I do worry about this latest move.

Almost All Old Princeton All the Time

The new issue of Credo Magazine is out and it is dedicated almost entirely to the bi-centennial of Princeton Theological Seminary. Here’s an excerpt from Christopher Cooper:

While the Princeton theologians did not oppose the possibility of revival and welcomed them on occasion, they believed that it was neither the common, best, nor desirable mode available for the advancement of the Christian religion. Princeton’s Charles Hodge, for instance, pointed out several problems with revival. First, revivals tend to produce pastors and lay people who envision conversion as always sudden and sensible. Such revivalists take it for granted that children grow up unconverted and in need of the drama of a revival experience in order to enter the Christian fold. According to Hodge, such a scheme does not allow for the more regular, scriptural, and desirable method of Christian nurture. Under this system, parents immerse their children in prayers, catechesis, and Christian encouragement, so that they may be quietly, although no less supernaturally, converted without the pomp and circumstance of revival.

Second, Hodge argued that revivals generate an unscriptural form of piety that makes the exercise of strong emotions essential to true religion and worship. Such an opinion produces unstable Christians whose religious stability is gauged by their emotional state. This approach also demeans the ordinary means of grace that are given by God not to foster great emotional highs that are inevitably followed by lows, but to serve as a more constant encouragement to Christian pilgrims.

Hodge pointed out that revivals are, by their very nature, extraordinary occasions and are not meant to be relied upon by pastors and laypersons to whom God has given the task of parental nurture and pastoral ministry. Likewise, pastors today ought not to rely upon revival or the vestiges of revivalism, but would do well to instill within themselves confidence in the ordinary means of pastoral ministry and into their congregants a sense of responsibility for the nurture and edification of their children.

And in case readers are wondering, Old Lifers do make an appearance in this issue. 201: Wit and Sarcasm

The first installment in this series about this blog was to clarify what a blog is. One aspect that I did not mention was that the more successful blogs are provocative – that is, they agitate readers and that’s why people come back. The most successful blogger in the world arguably is Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of the New Republic, and his blog is hardly tepid.

This leads to the second point in need of clarification. is the on-line presence of the Nicotine Theological Journal. Long before provocations started at this blog, the editors and authors of the NTJ were provoking readers and library patrons in hopes of thinking through the implications of Reformed faith and practice today, with a little levity and sarcasm thrown in. The editors’ inspiration was partly Andrew Sullivan whose time at the New Republic made it one of the most thoughtful, rancorous, and witty magazines on politics and culture at the time. But Sullivan was not the only inspiration. Other authors who wrote on serious matters with wit and sarcasm that provided models for the NTJ were Richard John Neuhaus, P. J. O’Rourke, Joseph Epstein, H. L. Mencken, and Calvin Trillin.

None of these sources, readers may object, are Reformed. Which raises the question whether Reformed authors may engage in wit and sarcasm when pursuing their convictions. Well, the answer is yes. If you spend much time in the polemical writings of the Old School and Princeton theologians, you will find a fair amount of wit and sarcasm. Here are a couple examples, the first from Charles Hodge after a seven-round dogma fight with Edwards Amasa Park (named for Jonathan Edwards – ahem) over theological method and the nature of Calvinism:

It is a common remark that a man never writes anything well for which he has “to read up.” Professor Park has evidently labored under this disadvantage. Old-school theology is a new field to him; and though he quotes freely authors of whom we, though natives, never heard, yet he is not at home, and unavoidably falls into the mistakes which foreigners cannot fail to commit in a strange land. He does not understand the language. He find out “five meanings of imputation!” It would be wearisome work to set such a stranger right at every step. We would fain part with our author on good terms. We admire his abilities, and are ready to defer to him in his own department. But when he undertakes to teach Old-school men Old-school theology it is very much like a Frenchman teaching an Englishman how to pronounce English. With the best intentions, the amiable Gaul would be sure to make sad work with the dental aspirations.

The second comes from Benjamin Warfield in one of the last pieces he ever wrote, an article objecting to the latest proposal (1920) to unite the largest Protestant denominations in the United States:

Now it is perfectly obvious that the proposed creed contains nothing which is not believed by evangelicals. and it is equally obvious that it contains nothing which is not believed by Sacerdotalists – by the adherents of the church of Rome for example. And it is equally obvious that it contains nothing which is not believed by Rationalists – by respectable Unitarians. That is as much as to say that the creed on the basis of which we are invited to form a union for evangelizing purposes contains nothing distinctively evangelical at all; nothing at all of that body of saving truth for the possession of which the church of Christ has striven and suffered through two thousand years. It contains only “a few starved and hunger-bitten” dogmas of purely general character – of infinite importance in the context of evangelical truth, but of themselves of no saving sufficiency. So far as the conservation and propagation of evangelical religion is concerned, we might as well for a union on our common acceptance of the law of gravitation and the rule of three.

By the way, these were a couple of quotes readily available from Hodge and Warfield. If you go farther into their works, along with those of Old Schoolers like Dabney and Thornwell you will find many more examples, sometimes of laugh out loud proportions.

One last source of inspiration for and the NTJ is – duh – J. Gresham Machen. He did not show a lot of wit or sarcasm in his writings. But his polemics were nonetheless blunt, so much so that many who believed charity to be the only Christian virtue considered Machen mean and beyond the pale. But it is precisely Machen’s candor and warrior spirit that is worthy of emulation. The following is from a piece he wrote for an inter-faith gathering on the relations between Christians and Jews:

The fact is that in discussing matters about which there are differences of opinion, it is really more courteous to be frank – more courteous with that deeper courtesy which is based upon the Golden Rule. For my part, I am bound to say that the kind of discussion which is irritating to me is the discussion which begins by begging the question and then pretend to be in the interests of peace. I should be guilty of such a method if I should say to a Roman Catholic, for example, that we can come together with him because forms and ceremonies like the mass and membership in a certain definite organization are, of course, matters of secondary importance – if I should say to him that he can go on being a good Catholic and I can go on being a good Protestant and yet we can unite on common Christian basis. If I should talk in that way, I should show myself guilty of the crassest narrowness of mind, for I should be showing that I had never taken the slightest trouble to understand the Roman Catholic point of view. If I had taken that trouble, I should have come to see plainly that what I should be doing is not to seek common ground between the roman Catholic and myself but simply to ask the Roman Catholic to become a Protestant and give up everything that he holds most dear.

. . . So to my mind the most inauspicious beginning for any discussion is found when the speaker utters the familiar words: “I think, brethren, that we are all agreed about this . . .” – and then proceeds to trample ruthlessly upon the things that are dearest to my heart. Far more kindly is it if the speaker says at the start that he sees a miserable narrow-minded conservative in the audience whose views he intends to ridicule and refute. After such a speaker gets through, perhaps I may be allowed to say that I regard him as just as narrow-minded as he regards me, and then having both spoken our full mind we may part, certain not as brothers (it is ridiculous to degrade that word) but at least as friends.

None of this is to suggest that pulls off the wit, sarcasm, polemics, or bluntness of the writers who have inspired this endeavor. It is only to point out that the tone and style of is not over the top.

Did Warfield Make the World Safe for Piper?

Are Lutherans different from Reformed Protestants? Duh! The odd aspect of the arguments that distinguish Lutheranism from Reformed Protestantism is that the arguers don’t seem to be so conscientious when it comes to Baptists. Are Baptists Calvinistic? Some are. Lots aren’t. So when it comes to drawing distinctions among Protestants why the urge to draw lines between Reformed and Lutherans and not between Reformed and the uncles of Baptists, the Puritans?

Of course, contemporary discomfort with Lutherans among Reformed Protestants and Calvinistic Baptists is not new. Benjamin Warfield, who rarely strayed in his judgments, was also inclined to draw a distinction between Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism. He did so by observing the tendency of Lutherans to stress justification by faith in contrast to the Reformed impulse to push beyond faith and its benefits to the underlying circumstances of justification. Here is how Warfield put it (thanks to Scott Clark via Timothy):

Just as little can the doctrine of justification by faith be represented as specifically Lutheran. It is as central to the Reformed as to the Lutheran system. Nay, it is only in the Reformed system that it retains the purity of its conception and resists the tendency to make it a doctrine of justification on account of; instead of by, faith. It is true that Lutheranism is prone to rest in faith as a kind of ultimate fact, while Calvinism penetrates to its causes, and places faith in its due relation to the other products of God’s activity looking to the salvation of man. And this difference may, on due consideration, conduct us back to the formative principle of each type of thought. But it, too, is rather an outgrowth of the divergent formative principles than the embodiment of them. Lutheranism, sprung from the throes of a guilt-burdened soul seeking peace with God, finds peace in faith, and stops right there. It is so absorbed in rejoicing in the blessings which flow from faith that it refuses or neglects to inquire whence faith itself flows. It thus loses itself in a sort of divine euthumia, and knows, and will know nothing beyond the peace of the justified soul. Calvinism asks with the same eagerness as Lutheranism the great question, “What shall I do to be saved?” and answers it precisely as Lutheranism answers it. But it cannot stop there. The deeper question presses upon it, “Whence this faith by which I am justified?” And the deeper response suffuses all the chambers of the soul with praise, “From the free gift of God alone, to the praise of the glory of His grace.” Thus Calvinism withdraws the eye from the soul and its destiny and fixes it on God and His glory. It has zeal, no doubt, for salvation but its highest zeal is for the honour of God, and it is this that quickens its emotions and vitalizes its efforts. It begins, it centres and it ends with the vision of God in His glory and it sets itself; before all things, to render to God His rights in every sphere of life-activity.

Several items are worth noting in this quotation. First is Warfield’s notion that Reformed Protestantism is not content with faith alone but embarks upon a deeper quest to find the origins of this faith. He does not explain here what this quest looks like, but his could be an argument in favor of the kind of introspection that experimental Calvinists like Edwards and Piper favor.

A second curious feature of Warfield’s contrast is the idea that Lutheranism emphasizes justification while Reformed Protestantism stresses the glory of God. This suggests common view in some union with Christ circles that Lutheranism manifests an anthropocentric view of Christianity (e.g., man’s salvation) that contrasts with Reformed Protestantism’s theocentric outlook (e.g., God’s glory). After all, an oft-made contrast between Heidelberg (which is considered a catechism that made concessions to Lutheranism) and Westminster is that the former catechism begins with man’s “only comfort” while the Shorter Catechism begins with “God’s glory” as man’s chief end.

The danger in this contrast so far – man’s salvation vs. God’s glory – is that Lutherans had good reasons for not becoming absorbed with God’s glory. Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation was a forceful warning to theologians who were tempted to identify God’s glory with outward and external signs or forms. In other words, writ large in Luther’s theology is the idea that God’s ways are not man’s, and so God may not actually glorify himself the way that man expects. The cross is folly. Preaching is weak. Christians are poor and humble. In which case, God saves an unlikely people through surprising means. And that may also mean that God’s glory is not always as glorious as human beings expect it.

If God’s glory can be a complicated affair, then perhaps Warfield is wrong to draw the contrast between Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism the way he does. If Lutherans actually believe in God’s glory but are also aware that it comes in surprising ways, then maybe Reformed Protestants need to learn a thing or two about how to be truly theocentric. The Lutheran theology of the cross could teach Reformed Protestants a measure of humility in their self-ascribed ability to locate God’s glory in every nook and cranny of the created order. Reformed might also consider that Lutherans understand better than Reformed triumphalists and experimental Calvinists that God’s glory is nowhere more on display, at least in this world, in the justification of sinners. After all, if man is the crown jewel of the created order and if Christ took on human form to save fallen sinners, then contra Warfield, we may not need to go much beyond justification and man’s salvation in seeing the glory of God.

If this is so, then Reformed Protestants may need to be content with the glory that is revealed in the cross and the salvation it yields instead of yielding to the temptation to find God’s glory in human powers of discernment. If Reformed Protestants followed the lead of Lutherans more, we might be spared many of those neo-Calvinist efforts to show the “Christian” meaning of calculus, Shakespeare, or Dutch history.

So while the game of saying that Reformed highlight God’s glory and Lutherans stop with justification sounds theocentric, it may turn out to be an unintended example of anthropocentricity in which believers try to prove their own godliness by discovering God’s glory through forced interpretations of general and special revelation. Perhaps Lutherans are the truly biblical ones who rest content with the glory that God has revealed in the salvation accomplished by Christ for weak and poor sinners. What could be more glorious than that!

Where's Waldo Wednesday

I am still wondering about the advisability of turning union into a polemical doctrine that divides Reformed Protestants and Lutherans. Benjamin Warfield supplies support for that wonder.


It is unfortunate that a great body of the scientific discussion which, since Max Goebel (“Die religiose Eigenthumlichkeit der lutherischen und der reformirten Kirchen,” Bonn, 1837) first clearly posited the problem, has been carried on somewhat vigorously with a view to determining the fundamental principle of Calvinism, has sought particularly to bring out its contrast with some other theological tendency, commonly with the sister Protestant tendency of Lutheranism. Undoubtedly somewhat different spirits inform Calvinism and Lutheranism. And undoubtedly the distinguishing spirit of Calvinism is rooted not in some extraneous circumstance of its antecedents or origin — as, for example, Zwingli’s tendency to intellectualism, or the superior humanistic culture and predilections of Zwingli and Calvin, or the democratic instincts of the Swiss, or the radical rationalism of the Reformed leaders as distinguished from the merely modified traditionalism of the Lutherans — but in its formative principle.

But it is misleading to find the formative principle of either type of Protestantism in its difference from the other; they have infinitely more in common than in distinction. And certainly nothing could be more misleading than to represent them (as is often done) as owing their differences to their more pure embodiment respectively of the principle of predestination and that of justification by faith. The doctrine of predestination is not the formative principle of Calvinism, the root from which it springs. It is one of its logical consequences, one of the branches which it has inevitably thrown out. It has been firmly embraced and consistently proclaimed by Calvinists because it is an implicate of theism, is directly given in the religious consciousness, and is an absolutely essential element in evangelical religion, without which its central truth of complete dependence upon the free mercy of a saving God can not be maintained. And so little is it a peculiarity of the Reformed theology, that it underlay and gave its form and power to the whole Reformation movement; which was, as from the spiritual point of view, a great revival of religion, so, from the doctrinal point of view, a great revival of Augustinianism. There was accordingly no difference among the Reformers on this point: Luther and Melanchthon and the compromising Butzer were no less jealous for absolute predestination than Zwingli and Calvin. Even Zwingli could not surpass Luther in sharp and unqualified assertion of it: and it was not Calvin but Melanchthon who gave it a formal place in his primary scientific statement of the elements of the Protestant faith. . . . Just as little can the doctrine of justification by faith be represented as specifically Lutheran. Not merely has it from the beginning been a substantial element in the Reformed faith, but it is only among the Reformed that it has retained or can retain its purity, free from the tendency to become a doctrine of justification on account of faith. . . . Here, too, the difference between the two types of Protestantism is one of degree, not of kind . . . .

Lutheranism, the product of a poignant sense of sin, born from the throes of a guilt-burdened soul which can not be stilled until it finds peace in God’s decree of justification, is apt to rest in this peace; while Calvinism, the product of an overwhelming vision of God, born from the reflection in the heart of man of the majesty of a God who will not give His glory to another, can not pause until it places the scheme of salvation itself in relation to a complete world-view, in which it becomes subsidiary to the glory of the Lord God Almighty. Calvinism asks with Lutheranism, indeed, that most poignant of all questions, What shall I do to be saved? and answers it as Lutheranism answers it. But the great question which presses upon it is, How shall God be glorified? It is the contemplation of God and zeal for His honor which in it draws out the emotions and absorbs endeavor; and the end of human as of all other existence, of salvation as of all other attainment, is to it the glory of the Lord of all. Full justice is done in it to the scheme of redemption and the experience of salvation, because full justice is done in it to religion itself which underlies these elements of it. It begins, it centers, it ends with the vision of God in His glory: and it sets itself before all things to render to God His rights in every sphere of life- activity. (The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. 5, pp. 357-58)

Granted, the worldview rhetoric is not the most appealing, but we try to serve red meat occasionally here at Old Life to the tried and true transformationalists.

Forensic Friday: Warfield (the Lutheran?) On Lutheran Theology

There is no evidence presented here that the New Testament represents sanctification as received immediately by faith. In point of fact there is no direct statement to that effect in the New Testament. It is to Jellinghaus’* credit that he does not adduce for it either Acts xv.9 or xxvi.18, which are often made to do duty in this sense. His strong conviction that sanctification is obtained directly and immediately by faith is a product not of his Scriptural studies, but of his “mediating theology.” According to that theology, when we receive Christ by faith we receive in Him all that He is to us at once; all the benefits which we receive in Him are conceived as received immediately and directly by the faith through which we are united with Him and become sharers in all that He is. Justification and sanctification, for example, are thought of as parallel products of faith. This is not, however, the New Testament representation. According to its teaching, sanctification is not related to faith directly and immediately, so that in believing in Jesus we receive both justification and sanctification as parallel products of our faith; or either the one or the other, according as our faith is directed to the one or the other. Sanctification is related directly not to faith but to justification; and as faith is the instrumental cause of justification, so is justification the instrumental cause of sanctification. The vinculum which binds justification and sanctification together is not that they are both effects of faith – so that he who believes must have both – because faith is the prius of both alike. Nor is it even that both are obtained in Christ, so that he who has Christ, who is made to us both righteousness and sanctification, must have both because Christ is the common source of both. It is true that he who has faith has and must have both; and it is true that he who has Christ has and must have both. But they do not come out of faith or from Christ in the same way. Justification comes through faith; sanctification through justification, and only mediately, through justification, through faith. So that the order is invariable, faith, justification, sanctification; not arbitrarily, but in the nature of the case. (B. B. Warfield, “The German Higher Life Movement,” in Perfectionism, vol. 1, pp. 362-363)

As one friend said after reading this, “Wow”!

*Theodore Jellinghaus was a German Lutheran missionary to India, and later a Lutheran pastor in the vicinity of Potsdam.

Where's Waldo Wednesday

As part of oldlife’s continuing effort to assist in clarifying the Reformed faith and overcoming unnecessary disagreements, we will be featuring a number of quotations on the application of redemption from noted Reformed theologians. What drives this series is an effort to understand how the doctrine of union with Christ has or has not functioned in discussions of the ordo salutis and the benefits that believers receive through Christ’s mediatorial work. If we feature quotations where the discussion of union is absent, we are confident that others will see union even where we don’t.

The following comes from B. B. Warfield’s article on sanctification:

The evangelical doctrine of salvation common to the Lutheran and Reformed Churches includes the following points: 1) The soul after regeneration continues dependent upon the constant gracious operations of the Holy Spirit, but is through grace, able to co-operate with them. 2) The sanctifying operations of the Spirit are supernatural, and yet effected in connection with and through the instrumentality of means: the means of sanctification being either internal, such as faith and the co-operation of the regenerated will with grace, or external, such as the word of God, sacraments, prayer, Christian fellowship, and the providential discipline of our heavenly Father. 3) In this process the Spirit gradually completes the work of moral purification commenced in regeneration. The works has two sides: a) the cleansing of the soul from sin and emancipation from its power, and b) the development of the implanted principle of spiritual life and infused habits of grace, until the subject comes to the stature of perfect manhood in Christ. Its effect is spiritually and morally to transform the whole man, intellect, affections, and will, soul, and body. 4) The work proceeds with various degrees of thoroughness during life, but is never consummated in absolute moral perfection until the subject passes into glory. (Selected Shorter Writings – II, pp. 327-28)

For What Do We Pray?

JETS V ARIZONA CARDINALSReformed Protestants are generally dismissive (or worse) of prosperity gospels. They know, at least intuitively, that suffering is part of the Christian life and that calculating God’s favor on the basis of material well being is not good theology. Max Weber, the sociologist who interpreted capitalism as the republication of the covenant of works, never read the psalmist who wrote,

Be not afraid when one becomes rich,
when the glory of this house increases.
For when he dies he will carry nothing away;
his glory will not go down after him.
Though, while he lives, he counts himself happy,
and though a man gets praise when he does well for himself,
he will go to the generation of his fathers,
who will never more see the light.
Man cannot abide in his pomp,
he is like the beasts that perish. (Ps. 49: 16-20)

And yet, when Reformed Protestants pray, or at least when they make prayer requests, our desires generally run along the lines of Joel Osteen. Which sort of upends Benjamin Warfield’s remark that every Christian on his knees is a good Calvinist. His point that when praying every believer is acknowledging the sovereignty of God. But he didn’t ask what believers were praying for and whether it conformed to God’s revealed will. We pray for surgeries, broken ankles, test results, catastrophe survivors, and the unemployed. None of these concerns are of themselves illegitimate. Jesus does tell his disciples not to worry about their physical needs, not because they are unimportant but because if God provides for the lilies of the field then he’s likely to care even more for his children. And yet, that passage in Matthew 6 concludes with the importance of seeking first the kingdom of God and then all these other things will be added.

Not to be missed is what the Lord’s Prayer says and teaches. Whether Reformed Protestants actually use it to the degree that Lutherans and Anglicans do, our catechisms do go into some depth in explaining the Lord’s Prayer and usually begin the instruction with words to the effect that this prayer is a model or example for how to pray.

If that is the case, then by my count only one of the six petitions has to do with material needs – “give us this day our daily bread.” The others concern God (his glory, church, and will) and man’s sin (forgiveness, and temptation). By my math that works out to roughly 17 percent of our prayers being devoted to physical needs.

And yet, when we listen or read the requests for prayer in most congregations, the percentage tilts almost in the exact opposite direction, with God and sin receiving about 17 percent of our requests. Now, some of the problem here is that requesting prayer for Aunt Bessie’s gallbladder surgery is a lot less embarrassing than asking for prayer for my struggles with lust. Also, not to be missed is that some physical afflictions actually threaten life, and prayers for the living as they approach death is surely appropriate.

Even here, though, I wonder if our prayers are filled more with petitions for healing and prolonged life rather than God’s will. Indeed, most of our prayers for the physical well being of believers, at least publicly, are on the order of asking God for what we want – lives without suffering, pain, and death. We would need to be locked up if we prayed for more suffering, pain, and death, or more hunger, poverty, and unemployment. But again the point is for what do we pray and what does it say about our understanding of the gospel’s consequences for the lives of Christians. When we pray are we endanger of endorsing implicitly a prosperity gospel? Is prayer effective when it brings the results we want? Or is prayer accomplishing its purpose when through it our appetites conform to God’s will?