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.

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Machen Day 2017

One of the very greatest evils of present-day religious life, it seems to me, is the reception into the Church of persons who merely repeat a form of words such as “I accept Christ as my personal Saviour,” without giving the slightest evidence to show that they know what such words mean. As a consequence of this practice, hosts of persons are being received into the Church on the basis, as has been well said, of nothing more than a vague admiration for the moral character of Jesus, or else on the basis of a vague purpose of engaging in humanitarian work. One such person within the Church does more harm to the cause of Christ, I for my part believe, than ten such persons outside; and the whole practice ought to be radically changed. The truth is that the ecclesiastical currency in our day has been sadly debased; Church membership, as well as Church office, no longer means what it ought to mean. In view of such a situation, we ought, I think, to have reality at least; instead of comforting ourselves with columns of church statistics, we ought to face the facts; we ought to recall this paper currency and get back to a standard of gold.

To that end, it should, I think, be made much harder than it now is to enter the Church: the confession of faith that is required should be a credible confession; and if it becomes evident upon examination that a candidate has no notion of what he is doing, he should be advised to enter upon a course of instruction before he becomes a member of the Church. Such a course of instruction, moreover, should be conducted not by comparatively untrained laymen, but ordinarily by the ministers; the excellent institution of the catechetical class should be generally revived. Those churches, like the Lutheran bodies in America, which have maintained that institution, have profited enormously by its employment; and their example deserves to be generally followed. (What is Faith? 156-57)

Catechesis or Seminary?

Imagine if this woman had simply relied on the means of covenant nurture to acquire a better understanding of God and salvation:

Is seminary absolutely necessary to get that foundation (or any of the other things I’ve mentioned)? No, not necessarily. Could a person learn all I learned without a seminary education? Probably. But it’s harder to do it on your own. There’s something to be said about surrounding yourself with trustworthy, godly professors who will guide you to a deeper faith in God and knowledge of his Word.

Well, there it is. That’s what I’d tell a friend if they asked whether I’m glad I went to seminary. I’d refill her coffee, double check the time to ensure we weren’t late for preschool pickup or whatever errands we were supposed to be doing, and if we still had an extra minute we’d discuss the ways seminary might be possible for her if she were interested.

No matter where God leads me from here, I’ll never regret the time I spent in seminary.

Makes me wonder if I would have had to go to seminary if my church had offered the kind of instruction that I was seeking. Did I really need Greek and Hebrew to understand what the Confession of Faith lays out so well?

Roman Inquisition's Success

David Kertzer concludes by observing that Edgardo Mortara’s story has fallen through the cracks of history thanks to its embarrassing features for both Roman Catholics and Jews. The difficulty Mortara presents to Rome is relatively easy to see, but one website captures the change in Vatican policy well:

One of the reasons the Church ordinarily restricts the administration of baptism to priests and deacons (while allowing for laity and others to do so when someone is at the point of death and a priest or deacon is unavailable) is to prevent precisely the kind of confusion your mother-in-law has created by taking it upon herself to baptize her granddaughter without the parents’ permission.

1. There is such a thing as conditional baptism, but it is a baptism given when the validity of the original baptism is in question or when there is doubt as to whether a baptism occurred. In this case, the baptism your mother-in-law performed — assuming she did it correctly — would be the original baptism. Should her granddaughter’s parents choose to return to their Catholic faith and raise their daughter as a Catholic, a priest or deacon would perform a conditional baptism both to make sure it is done correctly and to start a sacramental record.

2. Since her granddaughter presumably was not at the point of death when your mother-in-law baptized her, the baptism she performed is presumably valid but illicit. That means that your mother-in-law should go to confession to confess having performed an illicit baptism.

3. I can only recommend that your mother-in-law admit to the child’s parents what she has done. They need to know so that they will know that the child needs conditional baptism, not unconditional baptism, should they decide to raise her Catholic or should the child eventually decide to become Catholic herself. Even were the child baptized when she was in extremis, the parents would still need to know about the baptism once it was clear she would survive. The only difference is that your mother-in-law should apologize for an illicit baptism. If the child was baptized while in extremis, an apology is not necessary. If such an admission is not made, and the parents or the child decide eventually for baptism, then the child may receive an unconditional baptism — which would be objective sacrilege since baptism cannot be unconditionally repeated.

4. No, the child does not now need to be raised Catholic either by her parents or her grandmother, particularly if her parents continue to remain opposed to it. The Church now recognizes that it is not necessary to impose a Catholic education on a baptized child who was baptized without the permission of the parents and whose parents are opposed to their child being a Catholic. The Church learned the hard way from the case of Edgardo Mortara that such attempts to do so only cause bitter resentment by the families and by future generations and thereby deepen estrangement from the Church.

The embarrassment to Jews is less obvious until we remember how Edgardo turned out. He became a faithful Roman Catholic, entered the priesthood, and ministered out of a monastery in Belgium for much of his life. As a boy, Edgardo adopted Pius IX as his second father as much as the Pope adopted him as spiritual (and temporal?) son:

At Christmastime each year, Edgardo was called to the Vatican for a visit with the Pope. On these occasions, as Edgardo himself later fondly recalled them, Pius IX “always lavished the most paternal demonstrations of affection on me, gave me wise and useful training and, tenderly blessing me, often repeated that I had cost him much pain and many tears.” When he was still little, he recalled the Pontiff, “like a good father, had fun with me, hiding me under hi grand red cloak, asking jokingly, “Where’s the boy?’ and then, opening the cloak, showing me to the onlookers. . . . The Pope beamed with pride, as, at his prompting, the little convert translated Latin passages for him, to the delight of his visitors. (David I. Kertzer, Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 255)

Edgardo did have meetings with family members later in life. One came when his brother, Riccardo, was part of Italian freedom-fighter forces to liberate Rome from the Vatican’s rule:

When, however, Riccardo appeared in the doorway of Edgardo’s convent room, wearing the uniform of the Italian light infantry, he was in for a rude welcome. His 19-year-old brother, dressed in an initiate’s robes, placed one hand over his eyes to shield them from the sacrilegious sight and raised the other in front of him, signaling Riccardo to stop where he was. “Get back, Satan!” Edgardo shouted. But, the crestfallen Riccardo replied, “I am your brother.” To this Edgardo responded, “Before you get any closer to me, take off that assassin’s uniform.” (263)

Edgardo also met his mother once he had been ordained:

In 1878, Mariana Mortara, now widowed and with all of her nine children grown, heard that Edgardo was preachign in Perpignan, in southwestern France. Accompanied by a family friend, she went to see him. It had been twenty years since she had last laid eyes on her son. It was a poignant reunion, for Edgardo felt great affection for his mother. But try as he might to turn her onto the path of eternal blessing and happiness, he could not gt her to agree to enter the Catechumens and convert.

From that moment Edgardo, remained in touch with his family and, as he aged, sought out family members when he found himself in Italy. But while his mother made peace with him, not all of his siblings were so kindly disposed. (298)

That is why Edgardo Mortara never became a cause celebre for Jews:

For Italy’s Jews, it is not the pain of the Mortara memories that has made its discussion uncomfortable, but the embarrassment. The battle between the Jews and the Church was played out in a struggle over a 6-year-old boy. For the Jews, the Church’s claim that Edgardo could not remain with his Jewish parents because he had been supernaturally transformed by baptism was doubly insulting. Not only did it demonstrate their vulnerability to the Church’s political power, but it also asserted a Catholic claim to possession of the true religion, to a privilege relationship with the Almighty, and to the dismissal of Judaism as error, if not worse. When the Church began to publicize reports that Edgardo was showing signs of his supernatural transformation, the discovery of what, in fact, the little boy actually believed, and whether he truly preferred to stay in the Church rather than to return home to the Judaism of his ancestors, became a kind of public test of the relative merits of the two religions. It was a test the Jews lost.

Of course, Italian Jews were well aware of the psychological pressures exerted on the small boy and had no trouble coming up with a secular explanation of his ultimate decision to abandon his family and Judaism and embrace the Church, but this did not make his transformation any more palatable. That he followed the long – and, for the Jews, vile – tradition of such converts and dedicated himself to trying to convert his own family, and indeed Jews everywhere, meant that Edgardo came to be viewed with horror: he was a changeling. The child who had once been portrayed in the most glowing terms, the object of Jewish compassion, became a man who was disdained, whose character had to be discredited. He could not be happy he could not even be fully saine, for were he happy and sane, it wold reflect poorly on the religion of the Jews. It was best not to talk of him at all. (302)

All the more reason we need Javier Bardem to play Edgardo’s father, maybe Franka Potenta as his mother.

Experimental Catechesis

The news of the gospel allies teaming up with Tim Keller to produce a catechism is a target too big to miss. Given the urban hipster brand of TKNY, one can only wonder if the catechism (which is supposed to include material from the older catechisms) will have Q&A’s like this:

Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him hedonistically, especially in the city.

Q. How does God execute his decrees?
A. God executes his decrees in the works of creation, providence, and urbanism.

You get the point.

Keller’s own explanation for the import of catechesis, however, did not produce laughs but did cause some head scratching. He begins with a Jeremiah-like lament:

The church in Western culture today is experiencing a crisis of holiness. To be holy is to be “set apart,” different, living life according to God’s Word and story, not according to the stories that the world tells us are the meaning of life.

This is a curious way to begin for someone whose church has been such a booster of a city not exactly known for its restraint and modesty. If you wanted to be holy, you might pick a different city — say, Toledo — in which to live and minister. Granted, New Yorkers also need to be holy. But the pro-city rhetoric of Keller and Redeemer PCA has not echoed Tertullian, as in what has Jerusalem to do with Athens? Instead, the refrain has been more like how can Athens embody Jerusalem.

When Keller turns to his brief for catechesis he invokes the sort of experiential piety that Old Lifers have long associated with New Life Presbyterianism.

Catechesis is an intense way of doing instruction. The catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts in deep, encouraging meditation on truth. It also holds students more accountable to master the material than do other forms of education.

Truth be told, catechesis can actually be dull, tedious, and hard. And the results of mastering the doctrines taught in the answers will not necessarily be immediate. If you carry around the truths long enough, you may begin to see their significance. But just like the process of learning the difference between the nominative and accusative cases in Greek grammar seems pedantic until the student goes farther in reading and even writing (as is the case with grammar instruction more generally), so to the doctrinal grammar of the catechism will likely strike many students as boring. The new case for catechesis really should set expectations at the right level.

Keller appeals to another warm and fuzzy reason for catechesis when he writes:

Catechesis is also different from listening to a sermon or lecture—or reading a book—in that it is deeply communal and participatory. The practice of question-answer recitation brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning.

Again, I wonder if Keller is getting catechumens’ hopes unrealistically up. Communal and participatory is not what comes to mind when I think of taking out my Shorter Catechism pocket cards while I was out walking and memorizing the catechism. “Deeply” communal and participatory produces a giggle. Of course, catechesis done in a certain environment could turn out to be communal and participatory. But the catechism itself won’t do this. It will require a pastor, elders, parents and teachers creating settings that may have such qualities.

And if that’s the case, if the deeply communal nature of catechesis depends more on the environment than the catechism itself, then I sure hope the gospel allies are going to provide a manual that describes wall colors, carpeting or wood floor covering, lighting options, room temperatures (radiators or forced air?), seating arrangements, and which cookies are best dunked in milk to go with the topic of baptism. Call it New Measures Catechesis (and hear John Williamson Nevin’s bones rattling around in his grave).

Desert Island Texts


I recently heard a sermon that included the point about the value of biblical memorization. Along with it came the warning about what would happen if we found ourselves in a situation without access to the Bible. If believers do not hide the word in their hearts, the logic goes, they will not have any spiritual nourishment when either deserted or imprisoned. The idea of finding yourself in a situation either hostile to Christianity or without the public ministry of the word is obviously troubling.

But upon further reflection, so is the Marcion-like canon one might actually have stowed away in one’s heart in preparation for such circumstances. Unless you are Jack Van Impe – the prophecy guy who has the entire Bible memorized (I think) – you are like me left with a very odd assortment of memorized biblical passages that may or may not come to mind in solitary confinement. In my own case, I have at one time or another memorized Psalms (1 and 23), the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, the Luke birth narrative, the Magnificat, and John 3:16 (does John 3:16 actually count?). And to pass Hebrew in seminary (received an A, mind you), I memorized the entire book of Ruth from which the final exam came. That way, as long as I knew enough Hebrew to see there the passage assigned for translation began and ended, I could “translate” “competently” for a satisfactory grade.

But again, unless you memorize the entire Bible, doesn’t committing to memory an isolated passage undermine the point of why God gave us the entire Bible? Does memorizing a passage on the love of God, or on the free offer of the gospel, or a specific parable help us to know all of what God has revealed? Granted, isolated texts contribute to the whole. But without the whole, could the isolated texts lead us astray and defeat the point of sermon exhortations to memorize more Scripture? Surely, a selective approach to the canon did not work out well for Thomas Jefferson or Marcion.

Perhaps a better memory aid to all of God’s truth is the catechism. Here is a tool that is a summary of all of Scripture. It gives the high points about God, man, Christ, salvation, the church, and Christian duty. It also is relatively easy (except for the Larger Catechism) to memorize.

This is another way of suggesting that the gap between man-made creeds and God’s word is not as large as people think. Of course, if the gap is as large as the biblicist strain of Protestantism alleges, then Christians like Gilligan better have mastered large portions of Scripture if they are going to withstand the wiles of Ginger. But if it is possible and even right for those appointed by God to teach his word to develop faithful summaries of biblical truth in the pedagogical device of questions and answers, then the texts that Christians should be memorizing in preparation for Bible-less conditions is the catechism.

Machen, the Educational Ecumenist

catechism_lessonSo Machen thought highly of Christian day schools among the Dutch Reformed. He also thought that public schools had their place. And to round out the picture, here he is on Lutheran education:

. . . it should, I think, be made much harder than it now is to enter the Church: the confession of faith that is required should be a credible confession: and if it becomes evident upon examination that a candidate has no notion of what he is doing, he should be advised to enter upon a course of instruction before he becomes a member of the Church. Such a course of instruction, moreover, should be conducted not by comparatively untrained laymen, but ordinarly by the ministers: the excellent institution of the catechetical class should be generally revived. These churches, like the Lutheran bodies in America, which have maintained that institution, have profited enormously by its employment; and their example deserves to be generally followed. (What is Faith, pp. 156-57)

Now we’re talking Christian education.

We Need More Dads Like H. L. Mencken's

Or maybe not.

An op-ed in the Journal reflects on the contemporary demise of Sunday school as an American religious institution and wonders about the effects of this development on the spiritual nurture of the nation’s youth.   Among the findings the author, Charlotte Hays, cites the following:

A study by the Barna Group indicated that in 2004 churches were 6% less likely to provide Sunday school for children ages 2 to 5 as in 1997. For middle-school kids, the decline was to 86% providing Sunday school in 2004 from 93% in 1997. Similarly, there was a six-percentage-point drop in Sunday schools offered for high school kids — to 80% from 86%. All in all, about 20,000 fewer churches were maintaining Sunday-school classes. And the future does not look bright: Only 15% of ministers regarded Sunday school as a leading concern. The younger the pastor, the study showed, the less emphasis he placed on Sunday school.

Continue reading “We Need More Dads Like H. L. Mencken's”