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:
Picture

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?

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Certainly Not Calvinist But Not Even Baptist

How do you explain selectivity (cafeteria Protestantism) about — wait for it — the Ten Commandments? But the Allies have their ways of satisfying itching ears. Here’s the latest — positive thoughts about Nativity Scenes:

I’ve changed my views because our culture has changed. As society becomes increasingly secular, it seems to me that just about anything that ties Christmas back to the historical account of Jesus’s birth provides an important point of connection. These small displays are an opportunity for engagement and conversation between those in our communities who celebrate nothing more than Santa and those who love the message of the Jesus’s incarnation.

In fact, I’m always intrigued when someone is offended by the presence of a nativity scene. It’s quite fascinating that people can be offended by a collection of miniature ecclesiastical characters. Why do people get upset? Perhaps it’s because they recognize that what’s being said in that small scene is challenging and even personal: “This happened, this is history, there is a Jesus, and you have to deal with him one way or another.” The person who gets annoyed by public nativity scenes is someone I want to have a conversation with.

Actually, it may be that the people who most often miss the message of the nativity scene are Christians. How easy it is to rush through the whole Christmas experience—the music in the mall, the services in your church, the presents in your house—and be left with sweet sentiments but no real worship in your heart. How easy it is to sing along to “Once in Royal David’s City”—

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all.

—and feel neither awe nor offense, but simply nothing much at all.

My point is that it’s not only non-Christians who trivialize Christmas. It’s us. The claims the Bible makes about the first Christmas are either fact or fiction, so they’re either awesome or offensive. They should move us to worship or to resistance. But so often Christians seem to be pursuing a pristine Christmas experience that more reflects the store-bought nativity scene than the costly and messy account of the Bible.

Calvinists did not celebrate Christmas. They avoided also any representation of any member of the Trinity. The same goes for Baptists. Until the twentieth century, non-Episcopalian and non-Lutheran Protestants didn’t do Christmas or display its wares. They only way to get around the second and fourth commandments (for the fourth, one day in seven is holy, not Jesus’ birthday) is if you so elevate feelings or evangelism and argue that rules don’t matter (sometimes). That’s more Whitefield than Edwards. In which case, the Allies can’t even honor properly their “homeboy.”

Just to keep score: justification is supposed to result in sanctification.

Good works constitute indispensable evidence of saving grace. Living as salt in a world that is decaying and light in a world that is dark, believers should neither withdraw into seclusion from the world, nor become indistinguishable from it: rather, we are to do good to the city, for all the glory and honor of the nations is to be offered up to the living God. Recognizing whose created order this is, and because we are citizens of God’s kingdom, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, doing good to all, especially to those who belong to the household of God. The kingdom of God, already present but not fully realized, is the exercise of God’s sovereignty in the world toward the eventual redemption of all creation. The kingdom of God is an invasive power that plunders Satan’s dark kingdom and regenerates and renovates through repentance and faith the lives of individuals rescued from that kingdom. It therefore inevitably establishes a new community of human life together under God.

Maybe the Allies problem with the Decalogue is that they think of obedience too much in the context of the city and not being ye separate. Don’t want to take God’s word too far.

Next Time You're Tempted to Blame Escondido

Since Jeremy Tate (from Called to Communion) decided to pop up here and offer guidance to we Protestants on Rome’s views of sainthood, I decided to take a wee peek at his posts. And I ran across a fairly amazing one. It may give the blame-Escondido-firsters pause. Tate’s post is about images of Jesus and he notes that both Tim Keller and John Frame were not exactly ardent defenders of Reformed Protestant interpretations of the second commandment:

It would be an understatement to say I was incredibly excited to see Dr. Keller preach in person. Even to this day, I have the highest respect for the man. As I walked into the Redeemer service, however, I was shocked by the church bulletin I was handed. A gory painting of Jesus, dead on the cross, covered the entire front cover of the bulletin. Having been schooled by “truly reformed” folk in the Deep South I could hardly believe my eyes. The leading church in my denomination was openly violating the Second Commandment! I was so disturbed I could hardly listen to a word of the sermon.

In seminary, however, I came to reconsider what the Bible actually teaches about images. My reason for re-examining the issue had nothing to do with Catholic influences, but rather the teaching of an RTS Professor, John Frame. In Frame’s massive book, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, he takes exception to the historic rejection of images of Christ by Reformed Churches. He makes the argument that having no images of Jesus can lead to practical “Docetism,” the ancient church heresy which claimed Jesus had no physical body. Frame concludes his argument by writing, “So I know of no reason to forbid pictures of Jesus… And there are positive reasons to use pictures of Jesus in the church’s pedagogy.”

Tate concludes with a charitable reading of Keller and Frame:

Here we have two men, both of whom are among the most influential leaders in the Presbyterian Church in America, rejecting the traditional Reformed understanding of 2nd Commandment. These men have not rejected the historic understanding of this commandment in order to stir up trouble in their denomination. Instead, they believe that Christians are actually being deprived of something when images are forbidden. Frame specifically references and affirms the 2nd Council of Nicaea in 787, which affirmed the beneficial use of images in places of worship. These men have been bold in standing against the majority opinion in their denomination in order to affirm what the Catholic Church has always believed. Images are good. Gazing at a crucifix has the effect of freeing us from our habitual skepticism as we see the concreteness of our Savior.

Everyone makes decisions for a variety of reasons, including those who leave Protestantism for Rome. But the reasons for leaving Protestantism are harder to find when know that justification, sola Scriptura, the regulative principle, and Presbyterian ecclesiology matter to being a Reformed Protestant. If you are looking for reasons to denounce the theological scholars who teach and write in Escondido, defending the hallmarks of Reformed Protestantism would not be one of them.