If Priests Created the Secular . . .

So reasons Peter Leithart:

Our secular age can be sustained only if the secular has been carefully distinguished from the sacred, and only if the boundary between the two is vigorously, not to say violently, guarded.

But boundary-drawing between the sacred and profane is the work of a priest. It is the sacred act par excellence (cf. among many many texts from many religions, Leviticus 10:10).

So our secular age depends on a sacred gesture.

Which means that our secular age isn’t ultimately a secular age at all. Its secularity is a ruse, a trick of priests.

At least the Enlightenment was right about one thing: You can’t trust priests.

Is discomfort with the secular-sacred distinction the affliction of the shaman?

Bible-Thumping Clericalism

Reading Steven Wedgeworth’s comments about the clericalism of Reformed confessionalists reminded me of an important point about ministerial authority that seems worthy of comment. Buried within the Confession of Faith’s first chapter, arguably one of the best presentations of the Protestant doctrine of Scripture, is a point about the necessity of knowing the Bible’s original languages:

8. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal unto them. But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.

That paragraph has all sorts of implications for distinguishing Protestants from Roman Catholics: 1) Protestants were generally humanists who valued and benefited from the discovery of the most reliable manuscripts of the Bible as opposed to Rome’s doubling down on the Vulgate; 2) Protestants advocated the translation of Scripture into the vernacular for the laity to read but Roman Catholics opposed such access to Scripture (which was by the way a literary boon to national languages such as German and English); 3) (In the category of Duh!) Protestants put the authority of Scripture above the Pope and/or magisterium.

But Protestants did not advocate a Bible-study free for all where any reading of the Bible was as good as any other. That’s where the business about needing to know Greek and Hebrew provides ammunition for Presbyterian and Reformed clericalism. In all controversies of theology and church life, believers are to rely upon the Word of God as opposed to tradition. But the version to be consulted is not the NIV, KJV, or ASV. The church is supposed to consult the Bible in the original languages in the hope of deriving the most authentic understanding of God’s revelation. This means that laity and even your average Presbyterian elder bishop can only stand by and watch as assemblies of commissioners appeal to the Greek and Hebrew either in committee work or on the floor of presbytery or General Assembly. After all, to be a member of the church, you don’t even have to be able to read — though it helps with singing and other parts of worship. And you certainly don’t need to read Greek or Hebrew to be a member or even an elder bishop. But to be a minister in a Reformed church, you need to know Greek and Hebrew. For instance:

The Recommended Curriculum for Ministerial Preparation in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

This Recommended Curriculum was approved by the Fifty-fourth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to serve as a guideline to ministerial candidates, presbyteries, and seminaries (Form of Government, Chapter XXIII, Section 3). The elements in the Curriculum are not to be understood as additions to the constitutional requirements stated in the Form of Government (XXI, 3, 4; XXIII, 3, 6) regarding the preparation and evaluation of qualifications of candidates for the ministry of the Word. Seminary course work by itself may not ensure fulfillment of the Recommended Curriculum for candidates whose presbyteries use the Curriculum as a guideline; therefore presbyteries may expect supplementation of a candidate’s seminary course work through individual guided study, supervised ministry experience, or other means.


I. Bible Content
Study of the English Bible
The candidate should be required to read through the Bible in English.
Course work should include areas such as archaeology, history and geography, emphasizing the significance of these disciplines for the grammatico-historical interpretation of Scripture.
Required comprehensive examination on Bible content

Goal: The candidate should have a thorough knowledge of the content of the English Bible and an ability to communicate it.

II. Biblical Languages
Grammatical forms
Syntactical principles
Exegetical procedures
Required readings in the Hebrew Scriptures
Grammatical forms
Syntactical principles
Exegetical procedures
Required readings in the Greek New Testament

Goal: The candidate should be able to exegete the Scriptures from the original languages in the preparation of sermons and Bible lessons, using lexical and grammatical tools.

III. Hermeneutics (or, Principles and Methods of Interpretation)
Principles of Interpretation
Biblical Theology
History of and Issues in Biblical Criticism (Higher and Textual)
Special Hermeneutical Issues
Old Testament
New Testament

Goal: The candidate should understand the principles, procedures and problems involved in the interpretation of God’s Word, and should demonstrate a growing proficiency in the faithful exposition of Scripture. He shall be able to read the Bible as God intended it, in its organic unity and its historical diversity. The centrality of Christ, the covenant and the kingdom in the Scriptures determines our understanding of the Scriptures as a whole and as individual texts. The Bible is the progressively unfolding history of the redemptive acts and words of God, climaxing in the coming of Christ and his kingdom, ushering in the new age, the last days.

Christ has accomplished this through his death and resurrection, and the sending of his Spirit to the church on the day of Pentecost. The Bible also holds out the blessed hope to Christ’s church that this new covenant kingdom, which is not yet consummated, will appear in the fullness of God’s glory with Christ’s return on the last day.

IV. Use of the Bible in Ministry
The candidate should be required to prepare advanced exegetical papers on assigned Old Testament and New Testament passages.
The candidate should be required to use his interpretive skills and tools in the preparation of sermons and Bible lessons/courses.

Goal: The candidate should be able to faithfully explain Scripture for the building up of God’s people, moving from a careful study in the original languages through the interpretive process, and arriving at a clear exposition of the text’s meaning and application for the church today.

So while Roman Catholics appeal to apostolic succession as the basis for episcopal authority, Reformed Protestants appeal to ministers who can actually read and make sense of what the apostles wrote.

The Freedom of Ecclesiastical Vows

In the question from the Christianity Today interview about Tim Keller’s new book on marriage, the New York pastor explains a notion of freedom that if applied to ecclesiastical vows and relationships might put a crimp in organizations like the Gospel Coalition.

Q. One of the paradoxes you talk about is how the commitment of marriage actually produces freedom: the freedom to be truly ourselves, the freedom to be fully known, the freedom to be there in the future for those we love and who love us. Why do you believe that the commitment of marriage is viewed as largely anything but freeing today?

A. Our culture pits the two against each other. The culture says you have to be free from any obligation to really be free. The modern view of freedom is freedom from. It’s negative: freedom from any obligation, freedom from anybody telling me how I have to live my life. The biblical view is a richer view of freedom. It’s the freedom of—the freedom of joy, the freedom of realizing what I was designed to be.

If you don’t bind yourself to practice the piano for eight hours a day for ten years, you’ll never know the freedom of being able to sit down and express yourself through playing beautiful music. I don’t have that freedom. It’s very clear that to be able to do so is a freeing thing for people, with the diminishment of choice. And since freedom now is defined as all options, the power of choice, that’s freedom from. I don’t think ancient people saw these things as contradictions, but modern people do.

Here is how Keller’s answer might sound in the voice of a confessional Presbyterians (italics indicated changes):

If you don’t bind yourself to the practices of a Presbyterian pastor for eight hours a day for ten years, you’ll never know the freedom of being a Presbyterian churchman. I don’t have that freedom. It’s very clear that to be able to do so is a freeing thing for ministers, with the diminishment of choice to participate in parachurch organizations. And since piety is defined as possible in all sorts of pious environments, the power of choice, that’s freedom from. I don’t think the old Reformed clergy saw these things as contradictions, but evangelical Protestants do.

Hate the Sin, Demonize the Sinner?

Shameless self-promotion alert: a post I wrote for First Things’ blog “On the Square” about the recent vote within the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. on the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians prompted me to reflect on a point that I could not include because of space constraints.

One of the responses from a joyous Presbyterian to the news that gays and lesbians could now be ordained in the PCUSA (though the constitutional process forward is anything but clear) was to the effect that homosexuals could be regarded as normal, or better as moral. Instead of regarding homosexuality as inherently perverted, the recent presbytery votes indicated, to this happy observer, that mainline Presbyterians are more willing than before to see that within the spectrum of homosexuality are standards that run the gamut from virtue to sexual license. In other words, a gay man can be part of a committed relationship and faithful to his partner, or he can live like most young men – gay or straight. The important consideration, accordingly, is not the sexual practice or orientation per se but whether a person pursues these acts modestly and responsibly.

I appreciate this distinction, especially since fans of The Wire are forced to confront a similar ethical dilemma in countless of the series’ characters. Jimmy McNulty doesn’t follow the chain of command within the police force but he is really trying to bring criminals to justice. Omar steals from drug lords but he has an honor code that only allows him to retaliate for just reasons. Avon Barksdale makes millions of dollars in dealing drugs and destroys many lives but is a man committed to his family (and only gives up family members for justifiable reasons).

In other words, the reality of the fall is that sinners are human beings and they do wicked things even while they retain the image of God in ways that endear them to friends, family, and writers.
This also means that sinners are not monsters. “Monster” was the word I heard repeatedly on CNN when the perky evening news anchor (I never once found her attractive, really!) interviewed various officials about the significance of Mr. Laden’s death. She kept referring to Mr. Laden as a “monster.”

This way of demonizing evil helps may help to make better sense of how ordinary people can commit such heinous acts. If we can simply chalk them up as deranged or as inhuman then we have a ready explanation for their wickedness and don’t have to reflect upon the extent of the fall.

But such demonization also shelters us from recognizing the sinfulness that afflicts each and everyone one of us. If only monsters commit wicked acts, and if I am not a monster, then I must not be so bad after all. Whew!

In reality, sin does not turn human beings into monsters. Some of the most evil figures in human history such as Adolf Hitler were real people with feelings, loyalties, reason, and virtues (see Downfall). In which case, the standard for sin is not the degree to which a person is a human being or a monster, but whether his or her acts conforms to the law of God.

Plenty of gays and lesbians are great people or characters (think Omar), and many are likely involved in very caring, faithful, and committed relationships. But none of this excuses the nature of homosexuality, nor avoids what the Bible (in the case of the PCUSA) reveals about sexual relations.