On the Way to the CRC

Tim Challies linked to Chris Gordon’s piece on the demise of confessionalism in the Christian Reformed Church. Challies seemed to find Gordon’s piece a worthwhile caution: “This strong article warns certain Reformed denominations against going down paths that will necessarily lead to destruction.”

But when you look at the six features of CRC declension, don’t at least three of them apply to the New Calvinists?

1. The Abandonment of the Authority of Scripture–This was the first domino to tip knocking everything else over. No longer was Scripture the final say regarding doctrine and life, but major doctrines were called into question due to cultural pressure.

2. The Abandonment of Reformed Principle of Worship–Historic Reformed convictions and principles laid out in the confessions were abandoned based on seeker sensitive assumptions.

3. The Abandonment of the Sabbath and the Second Worship Service–Even the word Sabbath was abandoned in embarrassment. The evening service was jettisoned by claiming better opportunities for Bible studies and home gatherings to reach the lost and love their neighbor.

4. The Abandonment of Gospel-Centered Expository Preaching–Expository gospel-centered sermons through books of the Bible were replaced with topical messages often addressing the current social justice discussion of the culture.

5. The Abandonment of God Assigned Roles in the Church (Women’s Ordination)–The classic distinctions between creation roles and functional hierarchy were abandoned in support of full equality of function in ecclesiastical offices.

6. The Abandonment of Moral Standards for Her Members–Those committing gross sins were no longer called to repentance, but instead welcomed into the life of the church upon the assumption that “justice” demands it. Nicholas Wolterstorff, a professor at Calvin College of over thirty years claimed that biblical justice requires that people of homosexual orientation be granted “the great good of civil and ecclesial marriage.”

New Calvinists of the kind at Gospel Coalition have given up number 2, 3, and parts of number 4. If the cultural servings of Gospel Coalition on-line are any indication, efforts to understand media and politics are more important than explaining the catechism or biblical commentary.

So why don’t New Calvinists see affinities between themselves and progressive Protestants?

Wedding Cakes Are Not Simple

I wish Jack Phillips’ case was easy but after listening to Ben Domenich’s interview with Mike Farris I can’t side entirely with the baker who refused to make a cake for the gay couple, David Mullins and Charlie Craig. One of Phillips’ lines of defense is that he refuses to do something that contradicts his religious convictions about marriage. And making a cake for a gay marriage would be to participate in a religious ceremony that violates Christian teaching.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the couple and guests at a marriage do not consume a wedding cake during the service. Cake is not like the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. A wedding cake is not sacramental (neither is marriage for Protestants). Are receptions biblical? Do we have a “thus saith the Lord” about the necessity and exact order of a reception? Personally, if I were a dad, I’d be saying to daughters from an early age, “cake and punch, cake and punch.” Have the reception in the church basement. Get on the road to your first night. And save the money on the meal and cake for a down payment on a car or home. (In parts of the U.S., homes are as cheap as cars — ahem.)

Which is to say, if I were Mr. Phillips’ pastor, I’d encourage him to rethink how narrowly he identifies a cake with his beliefs. Heck, I think 5:00 each day is borderline sacramental, but the regulative principle helps me draw a line.

As for Mr. Mullins and Mr. Craig, did they really need to take Mr. Phillips to court? Did they have nowhere else to find a cake for their wedding reception? Turns out they did:

As for Mullins and Craig, they got hitched without any other major hitches, marrying in Massachusetts before going back to their home state of Colorado to celebrate with family and friends. After their story spread across the Internet, the couple was inundated with cake offers — “even from China,” Craig noted — and, ultimately, they landed on a special plan.

When whites denied blacks access to certain schools or luncheon counters, African-Americans did not have a long line of people signing up to educate or sell them a meal. This is why gay rights, for starters, is different from ending racial discrimination. Gay people since roughly 1990 have had a remedy for services desired — another business down the block. African-Americans did not have such a remedy.

That is why blacks had good reason to make a federal case of Jim Crow. Gays of decorated cakes? Not so much.

Morality Divides, Coalitions Unite

That is, as some may tell, an riff on the old line used during the fundamentalist controversy to counter conservatives — “theology divides, ministry unites.”

Our friend, Chortles Weakly explains how officers in NAPARC communions who also hold official positions in The Gospel Coalition — can anyone identify the Allies? — are looking the other way when it comes to the Second Commandment, the bedrock of the Regulative Principle:

As the cultural exegetes must surely agree, an organization’s use of images, technology, and messaging strategies is fair game for critics. What follows is my attempt to critique some of the ways TGC uses images and innovates. The standard will not be something I learned in business school, the standard will be the confessions of the Reformed churches.

My concern here is not really with Reformed churches as such (which cannot actually align with TGC) or with members (who are free to consume as they will). It is with the officers (elders and pastors) of confessionally Reformed churches who participate in TGC leadership, given the fact that TGC’s content so strongly influences the one culture that really matters, the one culture that truly ought to be ordered according to the Bible – the household of faith, the church of God.

My concern is that the officers of confessionally Reformed churches (basically those from denominations affiliated with the North American Presbyterian & Reformed Council – NAPARC) who sit on the TGC council are giving their stamp of approval to some things that are specifically forbidden by the Bible, the Reformed confessions, and the historic practice of the Reformed churches.

The TGC web page over the recent Thanksgiving weekend provided a notable example of TGC-endorsed aberrant practices. The front page of the site used an image of a nativity scene (with the second person of the Trinity supposedly represented) in support of an article on “8 New Resources for Advent”. This is not an isolated instance. Pictures of Jesus and commendations of movies and materials depicting him are nothing new at the TGC web site.

What specifically is wrong with images of Jesus? Well, simple logic tells us that any image of Christ is necessarily a lie – the Bible is not a picture book. No image of Christ can be accurate. Can inaccurate images be a help to those who view them? Some will argue that serve an essential pedagogical use when it comes to children. Some, as were heard at the last General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, will argue that we cannot appreciate the humanity of Jesus without images.

The Westminster Larger Catechism, to which the presbyterian ministers on the TGC council have taken vows of subscription, would seem to speak both to images of Christ and things like Advent in question 109:

Q. 109. What sins are forbidden in the second commandment?

A. The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed. (http://opc.org/lc.html)

Now, I am aware that there are officers who take exceptions (where allowed) to portions of this section, especially concerning mental images. I am aware that some presbyterian bodies have in the last few decades allowed loose or “system” subscription to confessional documents. Still the question must be raised: Should a NAPARC church officer sit on a quasi-ecclesial body’s board when that that body condones and promotes violations of the second commandment as defined by the confessional standards of the officers’ own denominations?

At a time when America is leading the crusade for obedience to God’s law, do Gospel Allies really want to be caught on the sidelines?

Why Worship Should be Uncomfortable

How do you package assembling in the presence of a holy and righteous God? For Roman Catholics, the way to retain the seriousness of worship requires spaces that elevate the senses to an awareness of divine presence (somehow a cathedral with beautiful stained glass and the stations of the cross is still here on planet earth):

Mass started looking less like the worship of God and more like a pep rally. Our churches stopped looking Catholic and were overrun by iconoclasts. We went from churches that exuded Catholic belief visually, to ubiquitous ‘sacred spaces’ that looked more like theaters.

Some places ran with the theater aspect. Worship transformed to entertainment. What I got out of it became much more important than what I put into it.

By ripping out the transcendent heart out of worship, we reduced Mass. It is little wonder that belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist plummeted. It is little wonder that priestly vocations plummeted. While the generation that ushered these things love them, the subsequent generations fled in droves.

With worship emptied of the transcendent, Catholic life soon followed. Devotional life in parishes dried up. Parish churches became Mass stations. It has been heartening to see a rise in Eucharistic Adoration.

Regulative principle type Protestants might be tempted to make a similar complain about the megachurch and the praise band. It all seems to reinforce the genius of revivalists like Billy Sunday, which according to H. L. Mencken, was to take the mystifying and make it ordinary:

His impressiveness, to the vegetal mind, lies in two things, the first being the sheer clatter and ferocity of his style and the second being his utter lack of those transparent pretensions to intellectual superiority and other worldliness which mark the average evangelical divine. In other words, he does not preach down at his flock from the heights of an assumed moral superiority — i.e. inexperience of the common sorrows and temptations of the world — but discharges his message as man to man, reaching easily for buttonholes, jogging in the ribs, slapping on the back. The difference here noted is abysmal. Whatever the average man’s respect for the cloth, he cannot rid himself of the feeling that the holy man in the pulpit is, in many important respects, a man unlike himself . . . .; his aura is a sort of psychic monastery; his advice is not that of a practical man, with the scars of combat on him, but that of a dreamer wrapped in aseptic cotton.

Even setting aside [Sunday’s] painstaking avoidance of anything suggesting clerical garb and his indulgence in obviously unclerical gyration on his sacred stump, he comes down so palpably to the level of his audience, both in the matter and the manner of his discourse, that he quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of a debate in a barroom. The raciness of his slang is not the whole story by any means; his attitude of mind lies behind it, and is more important. . . . It is marked, above all, by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying; an angry casting aside of what may be called the ecclesiastical mask, an eagerness to reduce all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and (to the ingenuous) self-evident propositions, a violent determination to make of religion a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern.

Sunday’s revivals may not have inspired reverence, but what if worship is transcendent without the bells and whistles of images, statues, and transubstantiation. What if simply reading the Bible is spooky? It is God’s word after all, and if God spoke to any of us in a burning bush I’m betting we might not sleep for a couple nights.

Isn’t reverence the key to setting worship apart from ordinary experience? A while back Steve Tipton refuted the idea that the problem of diversity in Presbyterian worship services was a failure to follow the regulative principle and concoct an order of service that everyone follows. He was against “liturgical sameness” and had a point. But why can’t we have “atmospheric” or “feng shui” sameness? Why, in other words, can’t a service be reverent no matter what the order of service? Incense could promote reverence until the snowflakes start complaining about second-hand smoke. Singing psalms only could also accomplish a unique experience, at least to push back against the Gettys. But what about praise bands or jazz quartets? Do they cultivate reverence? How about lots of Scripture? The Old Testament narratives sure are mystifying.

One of the most important features of Reformed Protestantism was its capacity to adapt to different settings. No single book of prayer or liturgy or edition of Scripture became required for membership in the club. But in all settings worship was reverent. People gathered with a fear of offending God. As the author to the Hebrews wrote, Christians do not come to Sinai but to Zion. But even there God is a “consuming fire.” (There’s that burning bush again.)

Maybe the way to recapture transcendence and reverence is to begin with a reading of the law and a reminder that we should not attempt to make God conform to our image of him. You can do that even in a storefront church.

At Least It Makes You a Curmudgeon

Presbyterianism, that is.

Bill Smith a good on-line friend is kicking up a little dust of late against Reformed Protestantism or Presbyterianism and maybe a tad triumphal about his own communion (Reformed Episcopal Church) which, the last I checked, was where you still needed to kneel in order to receive grape juice – ba dop bop.

It’s time for pushback.

First, he starts with a legitimate complaint about Presbyterian worship and blames the regulative principle:

Across the PCA you can find strict regulative principle worship (few), traditional worship, contemporary worship, black worship, near charismatic worship, blues worship, revivalistic worship complete with the invitation system, gospel-driven worship, and all sorts of blended worship. You can find ministers leading worship in black Geneva gowns, suits with white shirts and ties, blazers and open collar shirts, polo shirts and sandals, khakis or jeans and sports shirts tucked in or out standing behind pulpits, sitting on stools, walking across and an empty stage. You can find pulpits, baptismal fonts, and communion tables prominently displayed, or entirely hidden. You can sing Psalms and historic hymns, gospel hymns, praise and worship songs, accompanied by nothing, organs, pianos, orchestras, acoustic guitars, and rock bands. Depending on your worship principles, preferences, and personality, you can find the worship in a PCA church comfortable, compatible, challenging, relevant, irrelevant, or offensive.

All of this is true. But you can’t fault the regulative principle which only identifies the elements (as opposed to circumstances and forms) of worship. Those are word, sacrament, prayer (song), and offering (never forget to collect the offering). The RPW does not guarantee uniformity in congregations. It should exclude silliness and frivolity. But if you have officers who are willing to tart worship up to make it relevant, convincing them of the RPW won’t solve anything.

Conversely, rule by one (episcopacy) is fairly effective in generating liturgical conformity. But then there’s Rome. Doh!

Second, he moves to the tragic death of Iain and the allegations swirling around it to argue that Presbyterian government doesn’t work very well. I actually wish Bill had not gone here. It’s still fresh and details are uncertain. But there he went. And his point is that harsh forms of discipline is what Presbyterians are good at:

it also set me thinking again, as I often have, about the way discipline of ministers was handled in my former connection. And it impresses me that it was handled in the way a particular kind of father might deal with his son. The son took the family car out on a Friday night without permission. The father becomes aware of what the son did because (1) the son confessed it, (2) someone who witnessed the son with the family car told the father, or (3) the father himself discovered it.

What does this particular type of father do? (1) He takes away the son’s keys and intends to return them (a) never or (b) after observing his son’s repentance for a long time. (2) He beats the hell out of the son. (3) He requires the son to confess his disobedience and avow his repentance at a council of the whole family.

Now the father may cry. He may even cry with the leaders of his church. He may pour out his heart to God about how he has gone wrong in the bringing up of his son. He may ask others to pray for him and his son. He may tell his son he loves him and that his heart is broken. Still, he takes the keys away forever or an indeterminate time. Still he beats the hell out of the kid. Still he requires the son to humiliate himself before his family.

Does Bill think that the threat of draconian measures were what drove pastor Campbell? Perhaps, but the analogy of a son taking out dad’s car without permission is not necessarily on the same order of a man who has taken vows to a wife and — wait for it — a church (can we get a little high church Reformed Episcopalianism here?). And what is Father Bill going to say to the wife of a man who has cheated on her or abused her? Has Bill Smith had to face down Valerie Hobbs?

Finally, Bill goes all in and defends Lent against its Reformed Protestant critics (“war”? On-line?). He notes that Banner of Truth once had to rearrange a conference because the Dutch Calvinist participants needed to hold Ascension services. He concludes:

Those who object to Ash Wednesday and Lent on principial grounds should recognize that that what they object to on principial grounds is the Christian year. For those who do not reject the Christian year, but allow for the observance of some parts of it, the issue of Lent is one of preference and discretion.

No problem. I’ve been arguing against the church calendar for years. The inter-advental liturgical calendar is 52 Sundays a year.

But at least, Bill still has a Presbyterian attitude.

Don’t We Pay Pastors to Answer These Questions?

Joseph Franks lists questions that have hounded him throughout eighteen years of ministry:

Does God care about theater seats, stackable chairs, or pews?

What is God’s preference in regards to instrumentation? Are the the organ or piano more excellent and preferable than the guitar and drum?

What about the songs people sing? Are uninspired older songs that we call hymns more holy than uninspired new songs that someday might be called hymns? Some would have us only sing psalms.

Are women and men who sing from the choir loft more preferable to God than men and women who sing from the stage? In God’s eyes, is a choir more sacred than a praise team?

What sort of bowing, kneeling, hand-raising, clapping, and bouncing is allowable in the presence of God? Exactly when does responding with tears or dance become too emotional?

How ought water be applied to worshiping folk? This is an especially problematic question when sprinkling, pouring, and dunking can be found throughout the pages of sacred scripture.

Should believers be concerned over the amount of fermentation found in the fruit of the vine or leaven found in the bread?
Where would one go in Scripture to find the discussion of how the communion elements must be properly covered?

Are all good sermons delivered in the same manner? Does God prefer robed men, suited men, or less formal men? Does God love the wooden pulpit? Does plexiglass really prove the compromising minister? Should the faithful church disapprove of the man delivering his sermon from a seated position?

What would we say to Jesus who often sat while those who listened stood?

Why can some appreciate air-conditioning technology, lighting technology, audio technology, but then look at visual technology as a step down the slippery slope of sin?

Before the worship of God, ought men and women come together in quiet, meditative, somber silence, or should the worship service of God be preceded by festive communion between worshiping friends?

Ought generous New-Covenant worshipers to make a big deal of the percentage and the plate in financial giving?

Who was it in the Presbyterian tradition that declared a young man could be licensed to preach, deliver his sermon, but then not be able to declare the benediction from Jesus to those who just received his message?

Must the pulpit be centrally located in order for the Word of God to be rightly honored?

Such a list might imply that those who ask such questions are trivializing worship. But Franks insists that’s not his purpose:

I am not saying that anything goes; my Bible is full of stories of good-hearted individuals who are judged or disciplined due to their failure to take God’s commands seriously. I would just merely ask them to not confuse the “Traditions of Man” with the “Doctrines of God.” I am not even asking them to let go of their traditions. Some love the worship style passed down from Jerusalem, to Rome, to Geneva, to Scotland, to Westminster Abby, and to our Scots-Irish fathers in the South. But again, allow them to prefer and pass along their traditions without pretending they come from the sacred text.

The missing category here it seems is wisdom. Lots of the answers to these questions are “it depends.” If you are a church plant meeting in a theater, deciding whether to use theater seats is a no-brainer. And if you are an established congregation with a pulpit centered at the front, why would you even countenance a church renovation that moved the pulpit to the side?

After eighteen years, doesn’t a pastor have answers to these questions? Even more pressing, after eighteen years haven’t you had a chance to instruct church members so they can see the difference between the elements, circumstances, and forms of worship? Or is it wise to pile up questions without answers so that believers think most aspects of worship are mere preferences. Franks writes,

Let us not throw away our ancient roots, but at the same time, let us not be bound by the extra-biblical regulations of our fathers that some well-intentioned friends present as the “Doctrine of God.”

Does that apply to heating, plumbing, and speaking in known tongues? Or might some of the aspects of church life that modern people living in the West take for granted be valuable even if not holy? I mean, Franks asks questions the way that John Frame used to about worship. That’s ironic because that defense of contemporary worship included the notion that all of life is worship (which is not from from all of life is sacred) and so the regulative principle should apply to all of life. If that’s the case, then each of the questions Franks asks have holiness and eternity written over every square inch of them. And since he is a minister of God’s word and the Bible speaks to all of life, he’s got the answers.

Frame, Escondido, and Worship

One of Frame’s objections to “Escondido Theology” pertains to worship. Here are the bullet points from his book:

• It is wrong to try to make the gospel relevant to its hearers.
• Worship should be very traditional, without any influence of contemporary culture.
• The Sabbath pertains only to worship, not to daily work. So worship should occur on the Lord’s Day, but work need not cease.
• There is no immediate experience of God available to the believer.
• The only experience of God available to the believer is in public worship.
• Meetings of the church should be limited to the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments.
• In worship, we “receive” from God, but should not seek to “work” for God.
• We should take no interest in our inner feelings or subjective life.
• Preaching should narrate the history of redemption, but should never appeal to Bible characters as moral or spiritual examples.
• Preaching “how tos” and principles of practical living is man-centered.
• Those who try to show the application of Scripture to the daily problems of believers are headed toward a Christless Christianity.

I know Frame would likely object to what follows, but it is hard to read his books and other writings on worship, look at his objections to “conservatives” on worship, and not conclude that he is oriented — in his terms — to the horizontal rather than the vertical. How a Reformed theologian would gravitate toward the human aspects and relations of worship as opposed to the implications of worship for God is beyond me. In fact, the difference between a seeker-sensitive and a God-sensitve worship service was at the heart of the debate in which Frame and I engaged almost fifteen years ago.

What follows is a lengthy excerpt from my closing statement in that on-line debate:

I hope it is not a contested assertion to say that worship reflects theology. Our understanding of the God in whose presence we assemble will color what we do in that sacred assembly. Here I believe that Reformed worship best embodies the kind of encounter between God and man that we find at the end of the book of Job. In its stress upon divine sovereignty and man’s utter dependence upon God, the Reformed tradition has captured best what God says to Job, “who then is he that can stand before me? Who has given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine” (41:10-11) and in return Job’s proper response to this great and mighty sovereign, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:5-6). Reformed theology is premised upon this radical gulf between a holy and transcendent God and man who stands at the apex of God’s good creation.

When Reformed believers have worshiped, then, they have been guided historically by the relationship between God and man such as that expressed in this encounter between God and Job. There is an enormous gulf between God and his creatures, not simply because of sin, but because God is, in the language of the Shorter Catechism, a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. Man is not on equal footing with God. He comes before God as an inferior, wholly dependent, and utterly impotent. The fitting way to approach God is in humility and godly fear.

The RPW, as defined by the Westminster Divines, is a good and necessary consequence of the Reformed tradition’s understanding of God and man, not to mention a Reformed hermeneutic. Man cannot please God on his own. He must go to the Bible to see how God desires to be worshiped. And that this means is that there are certain elements that are regular parts of corporate worship and these elements must be conducted in a way that recognizes the gulf between God and man and what God has done to make it possible for man to enter God’s presence. The RPW and Reformed theology are like the proverbial hand and glove. If you give up one, you relinquish the other. A different understanding of divine-human relations yields a different understanding of worship, while a different conception of worship means adopting a different conception of the relationship between God and man.

I believe that true worship, that is, Presbyterian worship (sorry to sound sectarian), is under attack in conservative Presbyterian circles on two fronts. The first comes from church planting and home missions efforts that make worship serve as a form of outreach. Once worship becomes (even slightly) a means by which we self-consciously recruit new members our understanding has shifted dramatically from that of Job in chapter 42. This statement in no way denies that the preaching of the word becomes an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners. But all of the literature on contemporary worship that I keep tabs on emphasizes music, a casual atmosphere, and such other diversions as drama, dance and rave masses as means to attract the unchurched. The stress overwhelmingly is on intelligibility. But there may be a biblical form of intelligibility that is unpleasant to unbelievers, that makes them feel uncomfortable, such as Jesus’ interaction with his disciples in John 6. Our Lord in this passage was intelligible the disciples could understand his words, but the meaning and binding address of those words made them unacceptable.

The second form of attack comes from the common distinction in Presbyterian circles between form and content. We have been so good (relatively) at keeping our theology pure and our Bibles inerrant that we have forgotten about the practice of the faith, especially the one sacred practice that orders our week, namely, corporate worship. As I have tried to argue at several points in this debate, forms are not indifferent. For instance, we cannot package the dramatic encounter between God and Job in a sit-com. Nor can soft rock music appropriately carry the weight of the burning bush. As the writer to the Hebrews says, our God is still a consuming fire, even in the wake of Jesus’ better covenant. This means that our posture in worship should not be like Yule Brenner’s in The King and I, bare breasted, hands on hips, and feet apart in effect, saying “look at me.” Nor should it be the casual pose of sitting in the barcalounger with feet up and Styrofoam cup of coffee in hand in effect saying “dude!” Instead, our posture should be like that of the angels and elders in Revelation 7 who “fell on their faces before the throne of God” (v. 11). This doesn’t mean that we may not enter confidently into the holy of holies. Because of Christ we are able to go boldly where only Israel’s high priests went before. But when we get there, we must know that our response will be one of self-abasement. And again, I believe the RPW best preserves this reverential character of worship while also guarding and defending the proper elements of worship. In other words, it preserves (but does not guarantee) worship that is acceptable to God.

A word also needs to be said about joy. Prof. Frame emphasizes it, and I stress reverence, as if the two are mutually exclusive. But I would argue that Prof. Frame’s emphasis is one-sided, and that even though he talks about reverence he hasn’t explained how the “rejoice” texts of the Bible he cites square with all of those biblical texts, like Psalm 2:11 that say we should rejoice with trembling. In other words, there are reverent ways to express joy. But by making joy and reverence two different things we might be tempted to think that the elders who fall face down before God in glory are unhappy, that is, not rejoicing. I would argue instead that those elders are joyful and part of the way they are expressing their joy is through their utter self-abasement. So saying that we need to rejoice in worship doesn’t solve the matter of what form our joy takes.

Prof. Frame is by no means guilty of all the excesses that goes under the name, “contemporary worship.” But his books do open the door, in my opinion. As he explains in the introduction to WST, he writes for those Presbyterians who worship with guilty consciences, who recognize that they are not worshiping as the Puritans worshiped but who still adhere to Puritan theology. I don’t know how this separation is possible. I have tried to argue that it is theologically, intellectually and historically impossible. By saying that dance, drama and humor MAY be used in worship, Frame technically violates the heart of the RPW. Either the Bible commands a specific element or practice, or it doesn’t. According to the RPW, if it doesn’t we may not do it. But aside from this technical reading of the RPW’s intent, even worse is the idea that I find implicit in Frame’s books, namely, that God will accept most of what we do as long as we are doing it with the right motives. To me this nurtures the idea that God is not zealous for his worship and that we may be more casual in our observance. God’s jealousy for his worship, I believe, is what the RPW protected so well.

In other words, I believe Frame wants it both ways. He wants to worship like a charismatic . . . but wants the blessing of being a good Presbyterian. Would he allow the same inconsistency in apologetics? If R.C. Sproul practiced evidential apologetics but claimed to be a presuppositionalist would Frame let that claim go? Yet, this analogy reveals a dynamic that has been lurking around our debate about worship. On the one hand, it suggests that there is a wrong (of false, as I learned it at WTS) way of doing apologetics, one that conflicts with our theology, with our confession of God’s sovereignty and human depravity. On the other hand, the parallel I am making with apologetics also teaches that forms matter. What Sproul is doing is apologetics; he is defending the faith. But he is using the wrong form of argument, according to presuppositionalism, one that contradicts his Reformed profession. This analogy, applied to worship, means that there can be false worship even when done by people with good theology. It also suggests that if there are Reformed forms for apologetics (i.e. presuppositionalism) why not Reformed forms for worship? In the same way that we need to recognize that what Sproul is doing is a form of Christian apologetics, we also need to recognize that the Roman Catholic mass, the charismatic P&W service and Reformed liturgy are all forms of Christian worship. They all use the same elements (i.e. the word, sacraments, prayer, and song). But just because
someone uses a Christian form of worship doesn’t mean it is true worship, anymore than someone who uses a Christian form of apologetics (one practiced by Christians throughout the ages) is necessarily using the true argument.

But why, someone might ask, is historic Reformed worship so difficult and so unappealing? If one is starting a church plant Reformed liturgy as practiced by Calvin and the Puritans is hardly something to bring in the crowds. At the same time, believers who know little of Reformed theology may find little in Reformed worship that is immediately edifying. Here we might want to learn a few things from the social and cultural critics. Rather than regarding contemporary worship music (CWM) or the movements that produced them as the work of the Holy Spirit, that is, as revivals as Frame does (WST, 115ff; CWM 5ff) we might plausibly interpret them as the work of the spirit of the age. The English sociologist, David Martin, argues in a book on contemporary Pentecostalism (TONGUES OF FIRE) that Wesleyan Arminianism has defined the cultural ethos of the United States since 1800. One way of seeing this is to observe how Americans insist on “sincerity and openness rather than on form and privacy.” For this reason, he says that the “whole American style was, and is, Methodist’ in its emphases, whereas in England the culturally prestigious style remained Anglican.” Of course, Martin is only a sociologist, not an inspired author of Holy Writ. But if he is right might not our expectations be for forms of worship that stress sincerity and openness to be more appealing to all Americans (Reformed or not) rather than the formal and reverent kind of Calvin’s Geneva? In other words, David Wells, whom Frame too quickly dismisses, may be right to argue that contemporary evangelicalism reveals much more about modernity than it does about biblical religion. Charismatic worship may be more appealing because it fits the cultural ethos more than because it demonstrates the power of the Holy Spirit. Which is why the work of historians, sociologists and cultural critics, the folks whom Wells reads and cites, is so valuable for the church in her work of testing the spirits. Which is also why Frame’s defense of biblicism can produce a lack of discernment both about the culture and about how it shapes religious expression. (Another argument on behalf of the impossibility of separating form and content, by the way.)

. . . Prof. Frame and the “audience” may think I have been judgmental. I would only say in response that judgment is integral to the existence of moral communities. Moral communities, like churches or theological traditions always have to decide what is and what is not acceptable. To neglect this task is to give up the possibility of saying defining anything. Our Lord warned that we should not judge lest we be judged. But I don’t think I am guilty of judging in this sense. I want to be judged by the same standards by which I am judging Prof. Frame, that is, on the basis of a theological tradition that has stood the test of time and, more importantly, that has better than any other Christian tradition given all glory and honor to God. I do so not simply because I want to be right, but also so that this generation and generations to come can say, as Dr. Machen did, “isn’t the Reformed Faith grand!” . . .

The Regulative Principle and the Transformation of Culture

1566_Dutch_Calvinist_IconoclasmOn balance, Reformed Protestants were no more responsible for the glories of the modern world (e.g., science, capitalism, education, liberal democracy) than were other western Christians. That is at least the conclusion of Phillip Benedict in his remarkable social history of Calvinism, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed. But Benedict does detect a level of activism among the Reformed that differentiated it from Lutherans. And the difference has a lot to do with the Reformed’s zeal for church polity and liturgical reform. Benedict writes:

It remains the case that at certain critical moments Lutheran church leaders held back from establishing churches under the cross or from defending such churches by force when the Reformed plunged ahead and did so – most notably in the Low Countries in 1566, where the Lutheran refusal to oppose the duly constituted authorities contributed to the Reformed church’s assumption of leadership in the movement of resistance to Habsbourg rule. . . . Surveying the entire period of 1517-1700, one cannot avoid concluding the Reformed embraced and acted upon such views more than any other confessional group. This is not because of any enduringly distinctive features of Reformed thinking about political obligation. It stems instead from two other foundational stone of Reformed theology: its profound hostility to idolatrous forms of worship and its conviction that certain kinds of church institutions derived from scriptural authority. The former drove Reformed believers to separate themselves from the church of Rome in situations in which other evangelicals were prone to compromise, and thus to find themselves especially often on a footing of threatened minority impelled to fight for its ability to worship as it pleased. The latter [church government] sparked movements of resistance to perceived threats to the purity of the proper church order.

This is a key difference between paleo- and neo-Calvinists (not to mention other Presbyterian transformers of cutlure). In the case of old Calvinism, the aim was to reform the church, which in turn led to various forms of political resistance and activism in order to worship God truly. In the case of new Calvinism, distinct marks of Reformed worship and polity are sacrificed in order to work with other Christians for the sake of a righteous and just society.

So if neo-Calvinists really want to enlist the support of paleos for the sake of transforming society, they’ll need to clean up their liturgy and bone up their ecclesiology. Please no Fosdickian responses of “what incredible folly.”