Lent Is Methodist

Bill Smith, always worth a read, thinks Old Life has declared another war on objections to Lent. He acknowledges two chief objections among Reformed Protestants to Lent — the regulative principle of worship and the fear of Romish practices. The regulative principle should actually take care of the matter for the sake of corporate worship and the life of the church. If a Christian wants to engage in some kind of Lenten activities as a means to holiness, well, whatever floats your sanctification. But for officers in the church to make Lent the norm for a congregation or a communion, then they better come with something more than “it looks like a pretty good idea” and “our motives are generally pious.” Plus, if church members may opt out of Lenten abstemiousness, then what’s the point of officers calling for the wider body to “special” actions during a certain number of days in late winter?

Still, Bill is not content with those objections. He returns fire and argues that Lent is actually a reasonable form of temporary form of sanctification:

Another objection is that those who observe Lent use it as a time for the temporary repentance from certain sins which are normally indulged, while Jesus calls us to repent of all sins all the time. It may well be that some poorly instructed Christians view Lenten practice in that way, but in my experience I have never heard anyone who observes Lent speak of a temporary giving up of sin.

Fine. So a Christian who pursues holiness 365/12 now adds an intense time of repentance for a specified forty days before a Sunday some communions designate Easter. Maybe that’s how it works among Reformed Episcopalians.

But why THESE forty days and not another thirty in September and October, or maybe a dozen or so in late spring and early winter? Why not more intense forms of repentance sprinkled throughout the year? Or why not leave each family and person to decide when and for how long to engage in certain times of self-denial? Why these days that some designate as Lent?

Could it be that some churches embrace a formula for Lent and so follow the spiritual equivalent of an Excel spreadsheet for the pursuit of holiness? The Lent practitioner follows these forty days with the other saints of similar inclinations and so doesn’t have to consider whether another time of fasting and prayer is needed or useful for another time during the year?

That kind of methodical piety is what Charles Briggs called, “Methodist.” It was a word he applied to the proponents of the First Pretty Good Awakening who insisted that godliness manifest itself in certain predictable and uniform ways. Of course, the idea of likening the church calendar to revivalism is oxymoronic. But to everyone who concedes that believers mature and bear different kinds of spiritual fruit in the course of their lives, the idea that you can prescribe a certain number of days — the same ones every year — for extra special holiness, and the one that requires the same kind of religious zeal to prove your conversion, are not so far removed. Both pietism and prescribed liturgicalism promote a one-size fits all spirituality that is perfect for bureaucracies, but not so hot for the diversity of human experience.


In Christ There is no White, but Lots of Multi-culture

Trigger warning for those who oppose Lutherans (does that include Princeton Seminary these days?), I’m about to quote from a Lutheran pastor who thinks confessional Protestant churches face straw-man objections about how blinkered and ineffective they are:

We are not better than you. However, we do have the same struggles as you do. Namely, we struggle with sin. We have the same inclinations toward pride, jealousy, selfish ambition and self-aggrandizement that you do. We like things a certain way. We like our carpets certain colors. We like people to dress certain ways because those ways make us feel comfortable. We can be hypocritical, judgmental and prejudiced without cause. We are all of these things because we are sinners. No, dear culture, we are not better than you. But that is why we are here every Sunday. We do not seek to be confirmed in those things that divide us. We seek to be forgiven for the times when we do not act like Christ. And we are. We are forgiven and renewed by Christ, and that makes all the difference. You do not want us to judge you by your checkered-past of sins? Why would you judge us by ours?

The church is for sinners of whom we are the worst. The church is the place where God has ordained the forgiveness of sins to take place. The church exists to proclaim the Gospel. It exists to proclaim that you are a sinner, but you are a forgiven sinner when repentant. Why would you exclude yourself from that because you are surrounded by other sinners? Are you differentiating sins and making one sin worse than another? Judging, by chance? Hmmm. Interesting. Please forgive the snark, but this is the point that is made time and time again by the historical Christian Church. We are sinners and we are saints! We are forgiven only by the blood of Christ. The blood of Christ is for us. The blood of Christ is for you. We beg you, come–for your sake, not ours.

The church is bigger than you. This is the part that you might not like to hear, but it is the truth. The church is not about you, your preferences or your tastes. The church is about Jesus. It is about the Son of God who came down to earth in humility as part of His creation. It is about this same God-man who dies willingly on the cross bearing the sins of the whole world–bearing your sins. It is about Jesus who left your sins in the tomb and rose victorious to reign for you. It is about the victorious Christ who will come again, who will create a new heaven and a new earth, who will restore these lowly bodies to be like His glorious body by the power that allows Him to subdue all things to Himself. This is the church in which uncounted saints have had their uncounted sins forgiven. Uncounted souls have been saved through the waters of Holy Baptism, taught through countless hours of instruction, bowed at numerous altars and received the infinite body and blood of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and strength for their lives in Him. This church is the voice of ages of martyrs who have not recanted the faith that we make to appear so malleable. This church has a language, an order, a life that is bigger than you. It is a life that includes 90-year-old Uncle Bud and 9-day-old Stryker. It is a life that is big enough to include you also. So if you want to be part of this church, show some initiative. Learn the language. Learn the story of the church that spans all time and space in the promises and words of Jesus.

Some in the PCA, though, may deem this understanding of the church as “white normativity.” Duke Kwon explains:

White Normativity is defining ministry to certain communities and contexts with qualifiers— “ethnic ministry,” “urban ministry,” “international ministry,” or “outreach ministry”—while calling ministry to the majority culture simply, “Ministry.”

It’s savoring the doctrine of justification in Galatians—which we should do, yes—while overlooking the original context in which the Apostle points to cross-cultural fellowship as one of the preeminent fruits—and proofs—of our justification. It’s embedded in an ecclesiology that habitually warns against the dangers of emotionalism in worship, yet ignores entirely the spiritual dangers of joylessness. When was the last time you heard a workshop or read an article that warned against intellectualism in worship?

White Normativity is moral silence on social issues that are ancillary to white communities, but core concerns of black and brown communities. It’s dismissing as “political” what is in fact personal and pastoral and practical theological for brothers and sisters of color. White Normativity is desiring diversity without discomfort. It tries to add diversity without subtracting control. It’s the preservation of dominant culture authority in the name of theological purity. It’s what makes so many young seminarians of color that I’ve spoken to nervous about entering the PCA, as they all-too-often feel forced into a false choice between ethnic identity and theological fidelity.

Because what keeps folks of color out of our churches, friends, is not public racial hostility. And the greatest hindrance to racial harmony in our denomination is not crass bigotry. It’s our shared, institutional blindness to the exclusivity of a white normativity that is protected by plausible deniability.

Mr. Kwon thinks the church should follow Multi-cultural Normativity instead:

Multicultural Normativity is when the Church is a resurrection Banquet Hall more than a Lecture Hall—and, occasionally if you dare, maybe even a Dance Hall. Multicultural Normativity rejects “racial reconciliation” as a pursuit of interpersonal harmony unless it also seeks interracial equity and mutuality. Because it’s about inclusion, not just “diversity.” It’s placing men and women of color in positions of influence and leadership. It’s inviting Irwyn Ince to serve as chair of the Overtures Committee one day again, not because we’re debating racial reconciliation but simply because he’s a Bad Man! Because diversity is about who’s on the team, but inclusion is about who gets to play.

So I wonder, does Mr. Kwon think only white Protestants need to feel discomfort, or does it go both ways — that the banquet hall has to make room for the lecture hall also? Is Mr. Kwon willing to make room for the Gospel Coalition and fans of Tim Keller? Or has PCA church planting been captive to white normativity?

Bill Smith has been asking these questions. So far, the answers are only coming from folks that might fall in the category of white normativity.

Machen Day 2011

I am not sure if our favorite PCA blogger had J. Gresham Machen’s birthday in mind when he posted a piece on the fortunes of Machen’s kind of confessionalism within the PCA, but it was good preparation for today’s festivities. The same goes for Westminster Seminary California which has released Scott Clark’s interview with me about Machen’s legacy and the chapter I wrote for W. Robert Godfrey’s festschrift, a recording that may put party-goers quickly to sleep.

But whether these resources were designed to highlight today’s anniversary, the following may provide reasons for donning party hats and blowing horns:

There are entirely too many denominations in this country, says the modern ecclesiastical efficiency expert. Obviously, many of them must be merged. But the trouble is, they have different creeds. Here is one church, for example, that has a clearly Calvinistic creed; here is another whose creed is just as clearly Arminian, let us say, and anti-Calvinistic. How in the world are we going to get the two together? Why, obviously, says the ecclesiastical efficiency expert, the thing to do is to tone down that Calvinistic creed; just smooth off its sharp angles, until Arminians will be able to accept it. Or else we can do something better still. We can write an entirely new creed that will contain only what Arminianism and Calvinism have in common, so that it can serve as the basis for some propose new “United Church.” . . . .

When we pass from these modern statements to the great creeds, what a difference we discover! Instead of wordiness we find conciseness; instead of an unwillingness to offend, clear delimitation of truth from error; instead of obscurity, clearness; instead of vagueness, the utmost definiteness and precision.

All these differences are rooted in a fundamental difference of purpose. These modern statements are intnded to show how little of truth we can get along with and still be Christians, whereas the great creeds of the church are intended to show how much of truth God has revealed to us in His Word. (“Creeds and Doctrinal Advance”)

The Danger of Revivals and of Their Critics

Our favorite PCA blogger has once again kicked up a little e-dust with a review of Kenneth Stewart’s new book, Ten Myths about Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition. The review itself is worth reading, as is a subsequent post that explains the author’s perspective (the author being pastor William H. Smith aka The Christian Curmudgeon). But what is particularly striking about the review and its responses (some from Ken Stewart himself) is how sensitive the topic of revivalism is.

Not to make this all about me (about which it generally is), but Stewart even calls my interpretation of revivalism “dangerous.” In fact, one of the underlying factors in Stewart’s purpose and in the book’s reception will be the way Reformed Protestants consider the relationship between being Reformed and being evangelical. Some like Stewart – John Frame may be the most notable exponent of this – tend to view evangelicalism and Reformed Protestantism as co-extensive, with Reformed being in some constructions a subset of evangelicalism. Others like the informal members of the Old Life Theological Society regard this relationship as more troubled than peaceful because of important differences between evangelicals and Reformed Protestants.

One of those differences is revivalism. Stewart believes that Reformed Protestants have generally been supportive of revivals. He even wonders who would not be in favor of unbelievers being converted and believers becoming more devout. Stewart believes that the critics of revivals have been a minority view, and that such folks are – well – dangerous. Is this the evangelical academic version of Gilbert Tennent’s “The Danger of An Unconverted Ministry”?

But the critics of revival, like myself anyway, are not opposed to conversion nor to increased godliness among the saints (why we need to call that revival is another matter). At the same time, critics of revival see that revivals generally undermine those aspects of church life that make Reformed churches Reformed. If you look at the Old Side Presbyterians critique of the supposedly good First Pretty Good Awakening, their concerns about subscription and church polity were not without merit. Similar criticisms informed the Old School Presbyterian critiques of the pro-revival New School Presbyterians. New Side and New School Presbyterians were of course pro-revival and so less attached to Presbyterian convictions and practice that was becoming officers who had taken vows about being Presbyterian. (Do evangelicals have vows?)

Here is how Charles Hodge put the division among colonial Presbyterians during the allegedly Calvinistic revivals of the First Pretty Good Awakening (danger alert!!):

It appears from this history that the great schism was not the result of conflicting views, either as to doctrine or church government. It was the result of alienation of feeling produced by the controversies relating to the revival. In these controversies the New Brunswick brethren were certainly the aggressors. In their unrestrained zeal, they denounced brethren, whose Christian character they had no right to question. They disregarded the usual rules of ministerial intercourse, and avowed the principle that in extraordinary times and circumstances such rules ought to be suspended. Acting upon this principle, they divided the great majority of the congregations within the sphere of their operations, and by appealing to the people, succeeded in overwhelming their brethren with popular obloquy. Excited by a sense of injury, and alarmed by the disorders consequent on these new methods, the opposite party had recourse to violent measures for redress, which removed none of the evils under which they suffered, and involved them in a controversy with a large class of their brethren, with whom they had hitherto acted in concert. These facts our fathers have left on record for the instruction of their children; to teach them that in times of excitement the rules of order, instead of being suspended, are of more importance than ever to the well-being of the church; that no pretence of zeal can authorize the violation of the rules of charity and justice; and on the other hand, that it is better to suffer wrong than to have recourse to illegal methods of redress; that violence is no proper remedy for disorder, and that adherence to the constitution, is not only the most Christian, but also the most effectual means of resistance against the disturbers of the peace and order of the church. (Constitutional History, Part II, pp. 249-50)

So the criticisms of revivalism and evangelicalism more generally is not necessarily the product of idiosyncratic or Dutch Reformed (as Stewart alleges) outlooks. It may simply follow from reading the splits in American Presbyterianism caused by revivals.

But to make sure my own views of revivalism are not obscure, and to let folks see if they are dangerous, I conclude by listing my major objections:

1) Revivalism (and evangelicalism generally) is anti-formal because of an emphasis on the work of the Spirit (especially in conversion but also in preaching). This stress makes presbyters or church members less worried about the wording of creeds or the requirements of polity than they should be. “It’s the Spirit that matters, not whether presbytery follows church order.”

1a) Revivalists (and evangelicals generally), because of their anti-formalism, disregard the importance of the sacraments. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the way that pro-evangelical Reformed folk regard Baptists as Reformed.

2)Revivalism (and evangelicalism generally) cultivates an appetite for the extraordinary in matters of devotion. This leads to a piety that is often discontent with the outward and ordinary means of grace that God has instituted in the church, such as the word preached by ordinary ministers, and the ordinary elements of bread, wine, and water, or even the really dull aspects of session and presbytery meetings.

3) Revivalism (and evangelicalism generally) does not know what to do with children of the covenant except to demand conversion. How you take a child who has grown up participating in family and corporate worship, has tried to lead a pious life, has prayed regularly, and tell him to convert from his wicked ways is beyond me. It is also a recipe for spiritual schizophrenia or a baptized child going to a non-Reformed church as an adult.

These views may be dangerous. But how could anyone who has studied the history of the church look at revivalism or evangelicalism as Christian expressions without problems? Reformed churches, of course, have problems too. But you can’t be Reformed if you think that basic aspects of your creed and ministry are your problems. And that is what evangelicals want from Reformed Protestants – give up those distinct aspects that make you Reformed (in doctrine, worship, and polity) and we’ll give you a seat under the big evangelical umbrella. (I might be tempted if they were serving drinks with umbrellas, but that would be really, really dangerous.)

Is This Where Neo-Calvinism Leads?

Our favorite PCA blogger (why? He’s more my age than Stellman) has adapted an older article from the Nicotine Theological Journal for his blog, calling it “Bye, Bye Kuyper.” Here is an excerpt:

Christians have come to believe that they worship God as much in their weekday jobs as they do on the Lord’s Day gathered with the congregation to pray, sing, read, and preach. In fact, Monday can be more important than Sunday. Sunday’s gathering is justified not by offering God acceptable worship and dispensing the means of grace, but only if it has some good effect on one’s work and leisure Monday through Saturday.

Ministers who lead in worship, preach the Word, and administer the sacraments are doing nothing more important than the politician or housewife (or husband) or professor of physics or laborer. In fact he may be doing something less important as he provides only the spiritual inspiration for those who really advance the kingdom. The Christian school is as important as the Church, perhaps more important if we want to prepare our young people to conquer the world for Christ.

The whole thing has led to a denigration of the traditional mission of the church. Churches are embarrassed to say that they have no more to offer than the ordinary means of grace. Ministers feel they must apologize if they do no more than preach the Word, administer the sacraments, show lost sheep the way to the fold, and help make sure the gathered sheep have the provision and protection they need as they make their way to the heavenly sheepfold. The world, it is contended, will rightly condemn the church if it does not see the “practical effects” of its existence (hence the church must distribute voters’ guides to promote Christian political agendas, create faith-based ministries to provide cradle to grave welfare, put on get seminars so everybody can communicate and have good sex, and offer concert seasons and art shows to provide the congregants and community with cultural experiences).

I know that not all Kuyperians approve of the way Kuyperianism has been domesticated. But what I am still waiting for is an account of neo-Calvinism that avoids the unhinging of the church that The Christian Curmudgeon describes. It is one thing to say that voters’ guides are a problem. It is another, though, to say that voting is kingdom work. It seems to me that Kuyperians are so reluctant to give in to the spirituality of the church that they end up making the world safe for both Jim Skillen and Jim Wallis.