The Point of Being Presbyterian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Fullness of Sausage

Mark Shea may fault with Rod Dreher for selectivity in reading the Christian past, but has he looked in the mirror lately? As I’ve written before, Protestants do not have the problem of history that Roman Catholics do for one because we don’t have all the history (and baggage) and for another because we don’t promote tradition the way Rome does, and for one more we don’t believe utterances from the past by church authorities are infallible (unless they are part of the canon). So complaints about the way Roman Catholics use and abuse history are inherently self-serving for Protestants.

Still, that does not explain why Roman Catholics keep appealing to the past as leverage against Protestants. Not only do Roman Catholic apologists have a lot of explaining to do about coziness with emperors, the politics of the curia and Rome’s powerful families, or the Crusades, for instance, but they also need to make past decrees square with contemporary ones. And development of doctrine just isn’t working when it comes to worrying about heretics and infidels leading the faithful to hell compared to praying with heretics and infidels.

Consider Shea’s recent celebratory post about religious freedom in the greatest nation on God’s green earth and whether Roman Catholics should embrace such freedom for non-Christians:

. . . the casual description of all non-Abrahamic religion as “satan worship” vastly over-simplifies things, just as the easy willingness to lump all expressions of Judaism and all expressions of Christianity together (presumably consigning Muslims to paganism and illegality) is tremendously simplistic. One pernicious lie embraced by many Catholics since 9/11 is to imagine that Muslims “worship another god” despite the obvious teaching of the Church:

841 The Church’s relationship with the Muslims. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”

Many Reactionary Catholics protest this teaching of the Church and try to pretend that God and Allah are “two different Gods”. . . . Here’s reality: Allah is just the Arabic word for the Deity, as Dieu is the French and Gott the German and Deus the Latin. Some will claim that because Muslims are non-Trinitarian, they don’t worship the same God as Christians. The problem is, Jews also reject the deity of Jesus, yet are mysteriously given a pass, as your friends demonstrate. That’s because such Christians are willing to recognize that you can worship God while having an incomplete understanding of him–if you are a Jew. But because of anger of 9/11 and other Muslim crimes, they refuse to cut Muslims the same slack–and wind up talking as though there are multiple gods and not one God who is understood in various levels of knowledge.

The Church’s habit is always to affirm what can be affirmed in common with any religious tradition while, of course, noting the differences as well. Thus, St. Thomas could find much of value in the thought of both the pagan Aristotle and the Muslim Averroes. But the Church has historically gone much further even with paganism. So we find Paul affirming what can be affirmed with pagans in Acts 17 as he speaks to Greek pagans on the Areopagus. Likewise, the Fathers made all kinds of use of Plato In our culture of polarization however, many find this very hard. Outlawing other religions would only massively exacerbate that–in addition to being both wrong and foolish.

Aside from a theologically weak defense of Islam and Judaism, can Shea really say with a straight face that the church has “always” affirmed what it has in common with “any” traditional religion. How did that work for the Council of Trent in its verdict on Christians who affirmed the Nicene Creed? Or what does that affirmative impulse do to the history of banning books and movies? As one of Shea’s astute readers noted, nineteenth century popes (a few steps above Shea’s pay grade) would not have described the church as Shea does:

We consider another abundant source of the evils with which the Church is afflicted at present: indifferentism. This perverse opinion is spread on all sides by the fraud of the wicked who claim that it is possible to obtain the eternal salvation of the soul by the profession of any kind of religion, as long as morality is maintained. Surely, in so clear a matter, you will drive this deadly error far from the people committed to your care. With the admonition of the apostle that “there is one God, one faith, one baptism” may those fear who contrive the notion that the safe harbor of salvation is open to persons of any religion whatever. They should consider the testimony of Christ Himself that “those who are not with Christ are against Him,” and that they disperse unhappily who do not gather with Him. Therefore “without a doubt, they will perish forever, unless they hold the Catholic faith whole and inviolate.” Let them hear Jerome who, while the Church was torn into three parts by schism, tells us that whenever someone tried to persuade him to join his group he always exclaimed: “He who is for the See of Peter is for me.” A schismatic flatters himself falsely if he asserts that he, too, has been washed in the waters of regeneration. Indeed Augustine would reply to such a man: “The branch has the same form when it has been cut off from the vine; but of what profit for it is the form, if it does not live from the root?”

This shameful font of indifferentism gives rise to that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone. It spreads ruin in sacred and civil affairs, though some repeat over and over again with the greatest impudence that some advantage accrues to religion from it. “But the death of the soul is worse than freedom of error,” as Augustine was wont to say. (Encyclical on Indifferentism and Liberalism by Pope Gregory XVI)

Accounting for history is hard. And the recent dust up between Bryan Cross and Brandon Addison proves the point. In a debate about apostolic succession and the rise of the Holy See (Rome), Addison pushed Cross to brand as heretical those who deny that the Bishop of Rome was a first-century historical reality:

. . . when Brandon in comment #23, says, “I wanted to point out that Catholics of good repute and in full communion with the Church share my rejection of traditional Catholic claims,” if the “traditional Catholic claims” he has in mind are or include either the claim that St. Peter was not appointed by Christ as prince of all the Apostles, or that it is not by the institution of Christ Himself that St. Peter has perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church, or that the papal office did not come from Christ through St. Peter, then such a Catholic is at least in material heresy, and is thus in that respect not in full communion with the Catholic Church. So for any Catholic scholar Brandon cites, if that Catholic is in [at least] material heresy regarding the aforementioned doctrines, then he or she is not in full communion. If, however, that Catholic is in full communion with the Catholic Church, then that Catholic disagrees with Brandon on these points. (footnote 8)

To which Addison responds with a logic that should have pleased Bryan:

Is this a claim that the following men are material heretics:

– Eamon Duffy
– Raymond Brown (and is Thomas Boland guilty of placing his Imprimatur on a work in which a material heretic is explicating his views which are tantamount to material heresy? What does that say about Boland?)
– Patrick Burke
– Bernad Dupay
– Francis Sullivan
– Klaus Schatz
– Allen Brent
– J.P. Meier

These men (among a litany of others) have published their views widely that they do not believe,

“that Christ appointed St. Peter to be the prince of all the apostles, and visible head of the whole Church militant, and that Christ gave to him primacy of jurisdiction.”

This is a point that I have tried to make with Bryan but Brandon makes it much more effectively. Whenever I’ve tried to point out that Jason and the Callers are out of sync with the dominant contemporary Roman Catholic historiography about their communion and its novelty after Vatican II, all I’ve gotten is “you haven’t proved anything.”

So what does Bryan say in response? Surprisingly, his logic goes squishy:

The purpose of our article was not to determine whether or demonstrate that any particular person’s position is material heresy. Rather, our purpose was to evaluate the argument presented in your essay, and present an alternative paradigm in which to understand the historical data.

So rather than comment on the implication of his comment for almost the entire field of Roman Catholic history, Bryan packs up his weapons and chooses a Protestant to critique.

Meanwhile, we hear of another Protestant convert to Roman Catholicism. Why is it that conversion narratives are so common among recent Roman Catholics? Could it be a carry over of the evangelical devotional practice of giving one’s testimony? That wouldn’t be very traditional.

It was difficult to explain my decision to become Catholic to many of my friends and family, most of whom were Protestant. Some of my friends who knew me during college weren’t surprised, since they had seen the progression of my journey and could see that I was heading in the direction of Rome. Other friends and family were surprised by my decision, and couldn’t understand my reasons for it. Many people assumed that it was a matter of taste or preference — as if I chose to become Catholic for the music, the liturgy, the incense, or the hats. But it was only because I was convinced of the truth of her teachings, and for no other reason, that I decided to come fully into communion with the Catholic Church.

Whatever the explanation for the rise of Roman Catholic testimonies, this woman’s sense of having arrived at the fullness of truth sure does not square with the forms of real historical denial in which Roman Catholic apologists must engage before eating the sausage.

The Limits of Theology and of Those Who Use It

Our favorite theonomic pastor in the Christian Reformed Church has ranted yet again on the infection he diagnoses as the “radical 2k virus.” The good pastor’s comments are useful for showing what the two-kingdom view actually says and does not say, and also for showing the inherent weakness of those who overrealize Christ’s Lordship in this life.

The pastor in question is responding specifically to the claim made here that the teaching of history should differ little if taught in a class at a secular university or a Christian college. The point being that the standards governing historical scholarship do not come from Scripture – since the Bible as little to say about the use of primary and secondary sources or about the polity of nation-states and the relations among them – but from organizations like the American Historical Association.

The really right reverend comments:

Can Darryl be so thick as to miss the decided difference between the Marxists Charles and Mary Beard teaching a survey of American History and a R. L. Dabney teaching a survey of American History? Darryl assumes his position and then goes on to act as if the standards of “secular” history proves his position. Talk about circular reasoning! What Darryl has forgotten is that Theology is the Queen of the Sciences. Biblical Christians would insist that History is but Theology clothed in a different discipline, but this is not the way Darryl reasons. For Darryl, Theology resides in the Church and each compartmentalized discipline is Lord over its own realm. Talk about creating sacred and profane realms. By Darryl’s standards a student could become a Marxist historian, complete with all that implies, and still be a Christian as long as he could navigate the gross contradiction.

A couple of points show how convoluted this reaction is. First, hello! Robert Louis Dabney was not a historian and simply being a theologian does not grant proficiency or expertise in every single academic discipline, secular vocation, or square inch (Kuyper even knew this). If it did, then theologians would function in western society the way Imams do in Islamic societies – that is, as interpreters of God’s word they have authority over everything. So, I would likely trust the Beard over Dabney on interpreting American history – though I might give Dabney extra credit on the South.

Second, why does being a Marxist invalidate one’s credentials as a historian? Why even some very good Christian historians such as Carl Trueman have been known to have affection for Marx and the usefulness of Marxist analysis not only for secular but also church history. Our CRC pastor is apparently aware that sometimes Christian historians apply the insights of Marx but rejects outright the compatibility of Christianity and Marxism.

So as in all good circular reasoning, what goes around comes around. We trust the Pastor will not become so dizzy about two-kingdom theology that his mind explodes. Here’s the trick: take two aspirin (get it?) and keep your theology in the appropriate kingdom.