Still Protestanting

Heck, we were even kicking and bellyaching back in Rome’s post-Vatican II glory days (from the forum, “We Protest,” a series of reflections on the legacy of John Paul II in the October, 2005 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal):

The Pastor with the Funny Hat

With the passing of John Paul II Protestants might be able to breathe a sigh of relief. For at least fifteen years, the papacy, through John Paul’s skillful handling of his responsibilities, has emerged as arguably the most prominent voice opposing the sins of modernity. As the veteran evangelical apologist, Norman Geisler, put it, John Paul stood up to the three main foes of evangelicalism, namely, “relativism, pluralism, and naturalism.” The best evidence of this opposition was the pope’s defense of the culture of life, which in the words of Southern Baptist theologian, Timothy George, “provided a moral impetus that [evangelicals] didn’t have internally within our community.” The papacy’s understanding of the sacredness of human life, its teaching on sexual ethics, in addition to any number of other declarations or encyclicals affirming the absolute truth of Christianity, made Roman Catholicism an attractive option for young (and sometimes old) Protestants in search of a church that would stand up for the truth, for what Francis Schaeffer used to call “true truth.” While mainline Protestant denominations descended farther into the abyss of moral relativism thanks to their fear of giving offense, and while evangelicals floundered about trying to find hipper ways to super-size their churches, John Paul II was a popular figure, seemingly approachable like the affectionate grandfather, who also refused to equivocate on some of the most important fronts of the culture war.

At his death, several pundits and journalists assessed the way in which John Paul II changed the face of Christianity around the world, improved the health of Roman Catholicism in the United States, and fundamentally altered the relations between Protestants and Roman Catholics, at least in America. Seldom mentioned is how little the Vatican changed during the deceased pope’s tenure and how much the surrounding situation did, thus significantly altering perceptions of the pope and his accomplishments. Back in 1979 during the pope’s first visit to the United States, evangelicals were still worked up about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, even having the Roman Catholic conservative, William F. Buckley, give the opening address at one of the assemblies of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The Bible was then thought to be the bulwark against relativism, materialism, and atheism, and its cultural significance was such that a prominent conservative spokesman, even from the wrong church, could offer encouraging words to conservative evangelicals.

But in the quarter of a century since then, the Bible seems to have run out of gas for Protestants as an authoritative guide to truth. Instead, the imposing voice of one person in a high-profile office (which happens to be in Vatican City) appears to be more effective in countering the drift of secularism and relativism. After all, the Bible’s truth can be fairly relative depending on the eye of the beholder. Much harder is it for one person to equivocate. This has always been the dilemma of Protestantism – its tendency to speak in multiple and conflicting voices compared to the relative unity of the papacy (some of us still remember church history lectures on the difficulties of Avignon and Rome). Before, Protestants would band together in either the National Association of Evangelicals or the National Council of Churches to try to achieve clarity. Today, the conservative ones seem to be willing to rely on the extraordinary ability and connections of the bishop of Rome.

Yet, for all of John Paul II”s gifted use of his bully pulpit, was he opposing secularism and relativism any more than my local Orthodox Presbyterian pastor? My minister has been no less clear over the course of his ten-year (and still counting) tenure in denouncing relativism and secularism. Nor was he any less forthright in condemning sexual immodesty or immorality. In fact, if anyone in our congregation had slept around or received (or performed) an abortion, discipline would definitely have followed. My pastor may not have had Continental philosophy informing his sermons or speeches at session, presbytery, or General Assembly meetings, but this may have made him even more accessible and clear than John Paul II.

Equally important to consider is whether the pope’s courage in opposing relativism, secularism and sexual license was any more effective than my pastor’s. To be sure, the local Orthodox Presbyterian minister never attracts the front pages of the New York, London, Paris, Rome or even Glenside, Pa. dailies. But that may be a blessing. It may also be a lesson that the much vaunted Roman Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity teaches. That idea says that authorities of higher rank should not do what is necessary for lesser authorities to perform. This is partly an argument, for instance, against a federal welfare system that is inefficient, impersonal, and creates a culture of dependence by either upending the work of local charities and government social programs, or by taking over duties that families and individuals themselves should perform.

The doctrine of subsidiarity, likewise, should warn against becoming dependent on the worldwide, highly orchestrated statements of one church official when what is needed is the week-in-week-out teaching and counsel of local pastors who minister to their flocks. Indeed, it is ironic to this Protestant that many young evangelicals convert to Rome because of the pope’s moral stature and careful reflection and yet find themselves in parishes and dioceses where the application of his moral teaching is very often lacking. Without wanting to beat a proud denominational breast, it does seem probable that any number of small, insignificant and seemingly sectarian denominations like the OPC or the Presbyterian Church in America or the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or the Reformed Episcopal Church (to try to be ecumenical) are more disciplined in their sexual practices than American Roman Catholics despite those Protestant denominations’ meager public statements or formal teachings. This is not to say that John Paul II’s encyclicals are without merit – far from it. But the point stands that an encyclical is only as effective as the willingness of the local priest or bishop to apply such truth.

Golfers have a saying that you drive for show and putt for dough, which is the duffer’s way of saying that the church universal may be great on paper but is only as faithful as the local church. John Paul II used his powers as the head of the Roman Catholic church to raise the visibility of the universal church’s power and wisdom. Seldom noticed is the unintended consequence of making local clergy, church members and even Protestants dependent on a universal voice when what is most needed is the fidelity of local clergy and church members. The Protestant Reformation was partly a reaction by local churches against religious dependence on Rome. If only evangelicals were more concerned about their ecclesiological heritage and the difficult responsibilities it includes than they seem to be in seeking encouragement and affirmation from a pastor who is as far removed from their churches as Tiger Woods’ drives are from mine.

Confessional Lutherans Don’t Try So Hard

This story caught my eye because of a recent speaking engagement — a Reformation Day observance — at an LCMS church in Fort Wayne.  For this ELCA church plant in Orlando, the church is both brewery and church:

The high-pitched sounds of children playing kazoos echoed off the walls of the indoor beer garden at Castle Church Brewing as Pastor Jared Witt began the blessing ceremony for the new 20,000-square-foot establishment in Orlando.

“And that is how you scare the demons out of a brand new brewery church,” Witt told a crowd of about 175 on Sunday including visitors from the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Plans for the nontraditional church have been fermenting for five years. What began with Witt and a few others bonding over a love of home brewing and fellowship in Aaron Schmalzle’s Kissimmee garage has evolved into a church community whose members gather every Sunday at 11:11 a.m. for worship services.

Early on, members of the fledgling church met in small groups in homes, then graduated to outdoor services at the site of the future church-brewery when it was picked about a year ago. Now, with construction complete on the church’s home, members have a roof over their heads while they celebrate Jesus with a frosty cold beverage.

But at the Reformation Day event in Fort Wayne, we heard (and I gave one of the) lectures on the Christian in the public square from both sides of the Tiber, sang hymns from the marvelous Lutheran Service Book (2006), punctuated by Scripture readings, and then adjourned to the fellowship hall where we drank beer (or cider) while eating snacks.

You tell me which is more organic — church as brewery or beer as beverage.

Reformation Day Sobriety Test

Travels and responsibilities from a former life have taken me to Wheaton College this weekend for the closing public events of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. I directed the place from 1989 to 1993 and learned much from the Institute’s senior directors and many programs. In reflecting on my time at the Institute the past few weeks, I recognized that much of the literature on evangelicalism has accentuated the positive, from the upbeat corralling a disparate group of Protestants under the seemingly tidy umbrella of evangelical to telling stories of evangelical figures or institutions that have been filled at times more with wonder than woe. This positive disposition certainly goes with evangelicalism more than with Calvinism. Having Jesus in your heart is a different mindset from remembering your sinfulness and the need for a savior. But this sunny side of evangelical history may also explain the need I felt to hit back with Deconstructing Evangelicalism.

Enough about me.

During my perusal of Wheaton’s campus I came across a display by the French department on — of all things — the Reformation, Reformation Day and all that. Among the factoids on the brochure that audience members of the booth could take away was this one about Protestantism in France (would we call it “evangelical”?):

Today, the nation of France practices religious tolerance. However, the majority of French citizens consider religion to be a private affair. In spite of this, the number of Protestant churches in France has been rapidly growing since the 1800s; there are approximately 600,000 practicing Protestants in France today.

To evangelicals used to reading of up to 35 percent of Americans identifying as evangelical (roughly 120 million), that seems like a paltry figure. From the perspective of the little old OPC which continues to hover around 30,000 members, the France figures seem like a hades of a lot. But to keep it all in perspective, the figures from sixteenth-century France may be the most relevant. Considering that Reformed Protestants had captured 10 percent of the kingdom’s population, which numbered roughly 15 million Huguenots, 600k looks pretty feeble.

So to all those celebrating the Reformation today, drink to console your sorrows.

Talk About Justification Priority

Peter Leithart has posted an excerpt from his Reformation Day sermon. I suppose I should find this encouraging to see a man who does not wear tradition readily, but enjoys the “creative tension” that he learned at least while studying at Westminster Seminary, affirm the blessings of Protestantism. But like so much that Leithart writes, the points that lead to agreement are cheek-by-jowl alongside matters of serious contention.

So first for the encouraging bit. To the question, “Is the Reformation dead?” Leithart responds without hesitation:

We don’t believe so. We believe that the achievements of the Reformation are still worth defending, that the work of the Reformation is still worth preserving. The Reformation recovered biblical truths that had either been rejected or buried in late medieval Catholicism. In themselves, the Reformation slogans are just slogans, but they get at central biblical truth.

But then comes the contentious part. Standing for the Protestant Reformation may not mean maintaining the doctrines of the sixteenth century in a dogmatic way:

If defending the Reformation means nothing more than repeating the Reformation slogans or assenting to (or claiming to assent to) the Reformation confessions; if defending the Reformation means we carry on with business as usual, carry on in the way the Reformation churches have always carried on; if being Protestant means we stay still – then the Reformation has become a kind of tribalism.

If that is what being Protestant means, then the Reformation has been turned upside down and inside out. It began as a protest against fossilized and distorted tradition, and it will cease to be genuinely Protestant if it becomes another kind of traditionalism. The Reformers called for a reform of the church according to the word of God, but the Reformers knew that the work of reforming the church would not end in their generation, or ever.

If being Protestant means simply trying to preserve or recapture the sixteenth century, then the Reformation is already dead and deserved to die.

This hostility to tradition evokes similar words from John Frame with whom Leithart studied at Westminster. In his defense of biblicism, Frame wrote that “The notion that Scripture addresses, to some extent, every important human question, produced at Westminster a high quality of theological creativity. We often associate orthodoxy with stagnancy and traditionalism. But at Westminster, the commitment to sola Scriptura propelled it in the opposite direction.” Frame added:

During my student years, I was never asked to read any of the Reformed confessions, or Calvin’s Institutes, except in small bits. I never read any official standards of church government or discipline, not to mention Robert’s Rules of Order. We used Hodge and Berkhof in our systematics classes, but for the most part we were graded not on our reading but on our knowledge of Murray’s lectures. After graduation I became ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and I confess I was rather surprised at the seriousness with which my fellow ministers took the Confessional Standards and Presbyterian traditions. Eventually I became more like my fellow Orthodox Presbyterian (and later Presbyterian Church in America) elders, but not without some nostalgia for the openness of theological discussion during my seminary years.

Would Leithart say the same of his years at Westminster? The answer is anyone’s guess. But the idea of theological creativity is one that links Leithart to Frame and Westminster Seminary of a certain era. As valuable as questioning and creativity may be in Reformed theology, the Federal Vision is not a very good way to carry on the tradition of the Reformation. I would assume that Frame agrees with that assessment. Leithart obviously does not (though I am not sure that even the Federal Vision capture and tame the footloose and highly original Leithart).

The oddest and least successful part of Leithart’s sermon comes in his paean for justification by faith:

For Paul, justification is not only a work of God but a work of all of God, a seamless work of the Father, Son and Spirit, like all God’s works.

When we do that, we find that justification by faith includes or implies everything that we want to say about a twenty-first century Reformation.

Justification means being made right with God through Christ, through the faithful death of Christ.

Justification by faith means that righteousness is given to us, not through the law but through the cross, which we receive by faith.

Justification means that Christ lives in me, and I no longer live and the life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God.

Justification means that God has created a community of the justified, a community united without division of Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, Lutheran or Methodist, Baptist or Catholic.

Justification means that righteousness has come, the righteousness by which God will restore the world.

Justification means that God’s promises to Abraham have been fulfilled, and that we are swept up in that fulfillment.

Justification means that God is blessing the families of the earth through the seed of Abraham.

Justification means that the Spirit has been given to those who hear with faith, the Spirit that fulfills the promise to Abraham, the Spirit of righteousness and justice, the Spirit of life and renewal.

Justification, finally, means that this is all God’s work, and that all of God has done all this. The Father sent the Son whose death brought righteousness, which is the gift of the Spirit. The Father counts as righteous those who are in the Son, and shows His acceptance of us by giving us the Abrahamic promise, the Spirit. Justification means that the Triune God is God, Just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus.

Justification means that in Christ’s death and resurrection, the Triune God has revealed His righteousness, the undying commitment of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit to their own eternal communion, the eternal, undying, triumphant commitment to incorporate us, the seed of Abraham, into that communion.

Maybe, but why can’t justification simply mean an act of God’s free grace wherein he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ, imputed to us and received by faith alone?

That is a whole lot clearer than Leithart’s list of meanings, and it indicates why some of us still prefer the era of Reformed orthodoxy to the one of Reformed biblicism – it’s just better.