Luxury Denominations

Paul Helm took time to review/respond to On Being Reformed, the public debate between some Baptists (and others who aspire to be Reformed) Reformed Protestants who still hold either to the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards (yes, with revisions about the magistrate ALREADY!). Along the way, Helm makes an observation that has something to do with differences between the US and the UK.

This debate has smothered a different approach, that of verstehen, of ‘smelling the coffee’. It is one thing to argue the (false) claim that our confessions of faith have remained unchanged since the Reformation, another wonderful thing to live by their gracious doctrines. With others, to rejoice in the privilege of being ‘in Christ’. As already stated, it is a singular, remarkable providence that three of our English confessions are word for word almost identical in Reformed soteriology, including the classic catholic trinitarian and incarnational positions. We could therefore unite here, and encourage each other thereby, even strengthening our grasp of our respective confessions, like ironing sharpening iron. Is that not a distinctive form of Reformed religion, whether or not we are credobaptist or paedobaptist, even if different in our ecclesiology and in the administration of baptism. At a time when the faith is increasingly under threat, and our family life as Christians is being undermined, and as there are various popular distortions as well as ancient heresies freely peddled, to have the strengthening of distinctive Christian fellowship is a traditional activity that should outweigh our marginal confessional differences. Perhaps fostering such fellowship requires a little more social ostracism, and perhaps that will come.

As I understand it, in the UK, Calvinistic Protestants don’t have the luxury of forming separate denominations the way American Protestants do. Whether it stems from laws having to do with the established church and dissenting groups, or the small number of serious minded Protestants who regard John Calvin, John Knox, and John Owen highly, British Protestantism has fewer possibilities and resources than Protestants in the land of the free and home of the brave. Here, despite the OPC’s tiny size (don’t snicker), the United States has made Christians (and other believers) wealthier and has provided structures (or lack of them) that makes easier the challenge of establishing new institutions (congregations, denominations, schools, colleges, seminaries).

That may not make America great, but it does indicate that the US is different from the UK and the old world.

The difference that the United States makes for religion is even evident among American Jews. The Pew Research Forum conducted a survey of Jews in the US and Israel that indicates some of the differences that place and nation make for religion. Consider the following:

American Jews are a highly educated and, on the whole, warmly regarded religious minority in a very large, Christian-majority country. Jews represent about 2% of the U.S. adult population of roughly 300 million people. Only about one-third of American Jews say that either “all” (5%) or “most” (27%) of their close friends are Jewish. A substantial proportion (44%) of U.S. Jews who are married say their spouse is not Jewish – including a majority of those who have gotten married since 2000.

By contrast, Jews make up about 80% of Israel’s adult population of 8 million. The vast majority of Israeli Jews say that either all (67%) or most (31%) of their close friends are Jewish, and nearly all married Jews in Israel have Jewish spouses. There’s also very little conversion between major religious groups in Israel, while in the United States, religious switching is remarkably common, including many U.S. adults who have drifted away from organized religion altogether. In our 2013 survey, one out of every five Jewish Americans said they do not identify with any religion, even though they also said they had at least one Jewish parent or were raised Jewish, and they consider themselves Jewish in other ways aside from religion (such as culturally or ethnically). In Israel, by contrast, nearly all Jews say their religion is Judaism.

Or this:

Most American Jews are part of organized Jewish denominations or “streams,” which include the relatively large Reform and Conservative movements as well as Orthodox Judaism. In Israel, only about 5% of Jews identify as either Reform or Conservative. Instead, Jews in Israel generally place themselves into one of four informal categories of Jewish religious identity. These labels – Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), Dati (religious), Masorti (traditional) and Hiloni (secular) – are not connected to formal Jewish organizations or denominations, but instead are loose identity groups (similar, for example, to an American Christian calling herself an “evangelical” rather than a “Southern Baptist”).

Even better, watch part of the short interview with the Israeli woman who married an American Orthodox rabbi.

America is weird and that means we have the luxury of reading the confessions in ways that other Protestants do not or cannot.

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The More Evangelical You Become, The Less Presbyterian

On this morning’s broadcast with Angelo and company, I heard Carson Wentz describe the bond he shares with Nick Foles by virtue of a common faith.
I’m sure many evangelicals were encouraged.

But I could not help but wonder what would happen when Carson learned that his Lutheran church (I’m speculating) would not welcome Nick to preach because the Eagle’s backup QB is evangelical, not Lutheran. What happens when ecclesiastical requirements get in the way of the bond that comes from being born-again? What even happens if being Presbyterian gets in the way of participating in The Gospel Coalition? The Allies claim “We are a fellowship of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.” How can that be? How can you be evangelical and in the Reformed tradition “deeply”?

This is a fundamental tension between Protestants who trace their roots back to the Reformation (Anglican, Reformed, Lutheran) and those who only go as far as the First Pretty Good Awakening. For confessional Protestants, fellowship has standards. But for evangelicals, the bar is low.

And that is why you need to give up a lot if you are a Presbyterian to become an evangelical. If beliefs and practices about theology, worship, and church government matter to being a Christian, then the Reformation gets in the way of being evangelical. But if being born-again is what matters, then you don’t really need the Reformation.

Machen knew the score on this one (came across this after hearing Angelo and Carson):

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)

Spooked by Monarchy

A curious wrinkle in the differences between Presbyterians and Reformed Protestants is the way the former talk about Christ as king. Both teach about the mediatorial offices of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. But when it comes to church order, Presbyterians refer to Christ as king of the church while Reformed speak of Christ as head of the church.

Here’s a sampling of different church orders:

Christian Reformed Church

The Christian Reformed Church, confessing its complete subjection to the Word of God and the Reformed creeds as a true interpretation of this Word, acknowledging Christ as the only head of his church, and desiring to honor the apostolic injunction that in the churches “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Cor. 14:40), regulates its ecclesiastical organization and activities in the following articles.

Orthodox Presbyterian Church

There is therefore but one King and Head of the church, the only Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ, who rules in his church by his Word and Spirit. His mediatorial office includes all the offices in his church. It belongs to his majesty from his throne of glory not only to rule his church directly but also to use the ministry of men in ruling and teaching his church through his Word and Spirit, thus exercising through men his own authority and enforcing his own laws. The authority of all such ministerial office rests upon his appointment, who has ordained government in his church, revealed its nature to us in his Word, and promised his presence in the midst of his church as this government is exercised in his name.

Presbyterian Church of Canada

When satisfactory answers have been given the candidate for ordination kneels, and the presiding minister offers prayer, during which, by the laying on of the hands of the ministers of Word and Sacraments, the candidate is solemnly set apart to the Office of the Holy Ministry, and commended for guidance and success therein to the grace of God. The presiding minister then gives him/her the right hand of fellowship, saying: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only King and Head of the Church, and by the authority of the Presbytery of {name of court}, I invite you to take part of this ministry with us, induct you to the pastoral charge of this congregation and admit you to all the rights and privileges thereto pertaining, subject to the regulations concerning retirement.” The other members of presbytery also give the right hand of fellowship.

Church of Scotland

This Church as part of the Universal Church wherein the Lord Jesus Christ has appointed a government in the hands of Church office-bearers, receives from Him, its Divine King and Head, and From Him alone, the right and power subject to no civil authority to legislate, and to adjudicate finally, in all matters of doctrine, worship, government, and discipline in the Church, including the right to determine all questions concerning membership and office in the Church, the constitution and membership of its Courts, and the mode of election of its office-bearers, and to define the boundaries of the spheres of labour of its ministers and other office-bearers. Recognition by civil authority of the separate and independent government and jurisdiction of this Church in matters spiritual, in whatever manner such recognition be expressed, does not in any way affect the character of this government and jurisdiction as derived from the Divine Head of the Church alone or give to the civil authority any right of interference with the proceedings or judgments of the Church within the sphere of its spiritual government and jurisdiction.

Protestant Church of the Netherlands

So that one office shall not lord it over another, one office-bearer over another, or one congregation over another, but so that all things shall be aimed at obedience to Christ the Head of the Church, the leadership in the church is entrusted to ecclesial assemblies.

Church of England

Her Majesty the Queen is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and she also has a unique and special relationship with the Church of Scotland, which is a Free Church. In the Church of England she appoints archbishops, bishops and deans of cathedrals on the advice of the Prime Minister. The two archbishops and 24 senior bishops sit in the House of Lords, making a major contribution to Parliament’s work.

The Church of England is episcopally led (there are 108 bishops) and synodically governed. The General Synod is elected from the laity and clergy of each diocese and meets in London or York at least twice annually to consider legislation for the good of the Church.

My historical hunch about this difference is that when Henry VIII declared himself — how convenient — the head of the church of England and when Puritans and Presbyterians objected to a temporal monarch as head of the church, those antagonistic Calvinists conceived of Christ as king in order to rival the English (and later British) monarchy. The Dutch Reformed, however, were initially opposed to the King of Spain but that led to the formation politically of a republic that had few ambitions about national or imperial unity. That republic lasted until the French under Napoleon began to force their pastry on the rest of Europe. And so the Dutch Reformed had no reason to posit Christ as king of the church.

I have yet to formulate hunch about what this means for Presbyterians and politics in North America. I do wonder what the insistence on Christ’s mediatorial kingship over all nations — think Covenanters — does to Presbyterians relative comfort with republican forms of government. If you think of Christ as king over all political entities, does that make you less partial to republics, democracies, and deliberative bodies? Republics are, after all, not the norm but the exception in political history. And if you obsess about monarchy because Christ is the uber-monarch, then maybe you are even less inclined to buy into republics like the United States and the problems that attend them because you pine for the days when the British monarch was in covenant with Christ the king.

Who Transmitted "Calvinism"?

Some of the early responses to Calvinism have, in a friendly way, wondered why I excluded Baptists like Andrew Fuller, John Gill, and Charles Spurgeon from the narrative — even airbrushing them from the history of Calvinism. I understand some of this complaint since Calvinism is an expansive word that establishes long queues (at venues like the Gospel Coalition) in ways that Lutheranism and Anglicanism do not. A better title would have been Reformed Protestantism: A History but that would have been like calling a book about beer, India Pale Ale, when Budweiser is much more likely to draw a crowd. I admit my book is not about ideas as much as institutions, and specifically which institutions transmitted Calvinist ideas and practices. In that case, the Reformed and Presbyterian (with some room for Puritans and Congregationalists) get the nod. Baptists don’t. Sorry.

At the same time, Baptists should take comfort in the recent global history of Baptist churches by Robert E. Johnson. In fact, because that book was already in print, I felt at more liberty to narrow the field of scrutiny (not to mention that the publisher did not want five volumes but one modestly sized book). There Baptists will find (just checking the search engine at Amazon) references to Spurgeon, Fuller, and Gill, and none to Thomas Chalmers, Abraham Kuyper, Karl Barth, and J. Gresham Machen.

Seems fair and balanced to me.

Young, Restless, and Dunked

In case any Reformed confessionalists actually wondered, Justin Taylor has made it official that he is a credo-baptist and by implication that credo-baptism is the default position of the Gospel Co-Allies (despite the presence of Presbyterians in the Coalition). Have any of the Reformed Co-Allies actually raised a finger and applied it to a keyboard to protest?

To support his credo-baptist position, Taylor reprints an interview he conducted with Stephen Wellum, a professor of theology at Southern Baptist Seminary. Wellum attributes the infant baptist position to the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of grace:

. . .the “covenant of grace” is an organic unity across the ages, this entails—so the argument goes—that the people of God (Israel and the church) are essentially one (in nature and structure), and that the covenant signs (circumcision and baptism) are also essentially one, especially in regard to the spiritual significance of those signs. Furthermore, Reformed paedobaptists argue that since one cannot find any repeal in the NT of the OT command to place the sign of “the covenant of grace” upon covenant children, so the same practice should continue today in the church, given the underlying unity of the covenant across the ages. In a nutshell that is the Reformed covenantal argument for infant baptism.

The problem for Wellum (and Taylor) is that this conception obscures differences between the Old and New Testaments:

. . . the problem with the theological category—”the covenant of grace”—is that, if one is not careful, it tends to flatten the relationships between the biblical covenants across redemptive history without first allowing each covenant to be understood within its own redemptive-historical context, and then how each covenant relates to the other biblical covenants, and then how all the covenants find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. I have no problem in using the category “the covenant of grace” to underscore the unity of God’s plan of salvation and the essential spiritual unity of the people of God in all ages. But if it is used, which I contend is the case in Reformed theology, to downplay the significant amount of progression and discontinuity between the biblical covenants, especially as fulfillment takes place in the coming of Christ, then it is an unhelpful term. . . . In short, it is imperative that we do a biblical theology of the covenants which, in truth, is an exercise in inter-textual relations between the covenants which, in the end, preserves a proper balance of continuity and discontinuity across the canon in regard to the biblical covenants.

Actually, the covenant of grace as taught in Reformed confessions like that of the OPC has no trouble recognizing differences between the Old and New Testaments. In fact, the real flattening out took place when Baptists convened in London in 1689 to revise the affirmations of the Westminster Assembly and proceeded to delete important portions of the chapter (seven) on the covenant of grace, like the following:

4. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.

5. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament.

6. Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.

Aside from differences between the Westminster and Baptist Confessions of faith, the bigger problem for credo-baptists is an impoverished view of the person. Everywhere in Scripture, God deals with his people not individualistically but corporately, hence the reiteration that God will save Abraham and his children, or the Philippian jailer and his household (which likely included relatives and servants), or even Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor. 7 that the children of a mixed marriage are holy because of the faith of the believing parent. The solidarity of persons with their families is at the heart of federal theology, with Adam as the head of the human race such that his sin is mine, and Christ is the head of the elect so that his righteousness is mine. As such, children of believing parents receive the sign of the covenant and now that Christ has come that sign is baptism.

Baptists like John Piper who defend male headship in the home should not have trouble with such a view of familial solidarity. But in point of fact Baptists do struggle with the covenantal objection to individualism and ironically embrace the modern view of human beings as isolated and autonomous selves. Of course, they can’t go all the way with such a chilling view of babies and their relationship to the household of God and so devise dedication as a way to bring children in by the back door. But one cannot begin to count the ways that dedication is a man-made contrivance, one of those examples of what Calvin called the idol-assembly line that exists in every person’s soul.

As an aside, Taylor’s post should put to rest the claim by the Young and Restless crowd that they are Reformed. Their position on the sacrament of baptism differs little from Anabaptist teaching. In fact, the Baptist requirement that paedo-baptists be rebaptized (hence ana-baptist) puts the teaching and practice of contemporary Baptists and Anabaptists into remarkable alignment. Does this mean that the Young and Restless or other Baptists are bad people? Of course, not. Does it mean they aren’t Christian? No. Does it mean that they should not claim to be Reformed? Well, duh!

The Original Blended Worship?

With less division [than over church government], the Westminster Assembly also drew up an order or worship and a confession of faith. The Directory for Public Worship, accepted by the Parliaments of England and Scotland alike in 1645, carved a middle ground between the Presbyterian desire for a fixed liturgy and Independent attachment to extemporary prayer by specifying the order of services but merely suggesting sample prayers. Distilling the practices of the “best Reformed churches” and adding a dash of English Sabbatarianism, it prescribed the discontinuation of all “festival days, vulgarly called Holy Dayes,” instituted a simple seated communion, and called for the “Lord’s Day” to be given over entirely to such acts of piety, charity, and mercy as singing psalms, repeating sermons in family groups, visiting the sick, and relieving the poor. No ceremonies whatsoever were to accompany funerals, and the pouring or sprinkling of water on the newborn was the sole approved ritual action of baptism, which could be performed only by a minister at a regularly scheduled worship service. (Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed, p. 401)

If only today’s blends were as good.

Walker Percy on American Protestantism

The main character, Tom More, writing about his Protestant wife:

Later Ellen experienced a religious conversions. She became disaffected when the Southern and Northern Presbyterians, estranged since the Civil War, reunited after over a hundred years. It was not the reunion she objected to but the liberal theology of the Northern Presbyterians, how, according to her, were more interested in African revolutionaries than the divinity of Christ. She and others pulled out and formed the Independent Northlake Presbyterian Church.

Then she became an Episcopalian.

Then suddenly she joined a Pentecostal sect. She tells me straight out that she has had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, that where once she was lost and confused, seduced by Satan and the false pleasures of this world, she has now found true happiness with her Lord and Saviour. She has also been baptized in the Holy Spirit. She speaks in tongues.

I do not know what to make of this. I do not know that she has not found Jesus Christ and been born again. Therefore I accept that she believes she has and may in fact have been. I settle for her being back with us and apparently happy and otherwise her old tart, lusty self. She is as lusty a Pentecostal as she was a Southern Presbyterian. She likes as much as ever cooking a hearty breakfast, packing the kids off to school, and making morning love on our Sears Best bed, as we used to.

She loves the Holy Spirit, says little about Jesus.

She is herself a little holy spirit hooked up to a lusty body. In her case spirit has nothing to do with body. Each goes its own way. Even when she was a Presbyterian and I was a Catholic, I remember that she was horrified by the Eucharist: Eating the body of Christ. That’s pagan and barbaric, she said. What she meant and what horrified her was the mixing up of body and spirit, Catholic trafficking in bread, wine, oil, salt, water, body, blood, spit – things. What does the Holy Spirit need with things? Body does body things. Spirit does spirit things.

She’s happy, so I’ll settle for it. But a few things bother me. She attributes her conversion to a TV evangelist to whom she contributed most of her fortune plus a hundred dollars a week to this guy, which we cannot afford, or rather to his Gospel Outreach program for the poor of Latin America. I listened to this reverend once. He’d rather convert a Catholic Hispanic than a Bantu any day of the week. . . .

Catholics have become a remnant of a remnant. Louisiana, however, is more Christian than ever, not Catholic Christian, but Texas Christian. Even most Cajuns have been converted first by Texas oil bucks, then by Texas evangelists. The shrimp fleet, mostly born again, that is, for the third time, is no longer blessed and sprinkled by a priest.

Why don’t I like these new Christians better? They’re sober, dependable, industrious, helpful. They praise God frequently, call you brother, and punctuate ordinary conversation with exclamations like Glory! Praise God! Hallelujah!. I’ve nothing against them, but they give me the creeps. (The Thanatos Syndrome, pp. 353-45)