It is not to be denied that the vision of the world held by the first Christians was, in general, extremely dark. The apologists saw a work of the devil in pagan culture. Not only the theater but also pagan science, philosophy, and art were strongly condemned by many. Wealth, luxury, and earthly goods were regarded with suspicion. Marriage was not condemned, but a celibate life was still prized more highly. A certain tendency toward asceticism arose rather quickly. The hallmark of a true Christian was a contempt for the world and for death. The second and third centuries are filled with dualism and asceticism. 228
From this view, according to Bavinck, comes the mediaeval conception of the kingdom of God, the work of Christ and of the Spirit. This was the view of the church that the Reformers came out from. Bavinck acknowledges that there are differences between the mediaeval view and that of Roman Catholicism in his day. This will be even more the case today, post-Vatican II, but Bavinck’s description of the Roman Catholic view of grace is still broadly valid:
It does not reform and renew that which exists, it only completes and perfects Creation. Christianity is that which transcends and approaches the natural, but it does not penetrate it and sanctify it. With this, Rome, that considers itself to be truly catholic, changes the character of New Testament catholicity…The catholicity of the Christian principle that purifies and sanctifies everything is exchanged for a dualism that separates the supernatural from the natural by considering it as transcendent above the natural. 229
It is not difficult from this to see how it became necessary for Rome to set itself over against culture, the state, society, science, and art. According to Rome, Christianity is exclusively church. Everything depends on this. Outside the church is the sphere of the unholy. The goal had to be to bring about the church’s hegemony over everything…. Thus, while the natural order is in itself good, it is of a lower order…worldly art is good but ecclesiastical art is better. Marriage is not rejected, but celibacy is the ultimate Christian ideal. Possessions are legitimate, but poverty is meritorious. Practicing an earthly vocation is not a sin, but the contemplative life of the monk has a greater excellence and worth. 230
This outlook, present in mediaeval Christianity and challenged by the Reformers, re-emerged in similar (but not identical) form in Protestant evangelicalism.
One of the most fascinating themes in Herman Bavinck’s The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church is his conviction that a dualistic view of the world (as found in pietism) is an enemy of the catholicity of Christianity. It’s far from a mute point. Evangelicalism grew in the soil of pietism and continues, to a greater or lesser extent, in that vein today. I’ve already posted on Rookmaaker’s brief description and critique of pietism in Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, where he labels it ‘mysticism’.
Bavinck’s own assessment is that pietism
sin(s) against the catholicity of Christianity and the church and (is) thus incapable of the Reformation to which we are called today. 244
Bavinck has no desire to overstate the case in a critique of pietistic Christianity:
It is not our intention here to deny the gift that God gave to the church in times of decline through such men as Fox and Wesley, Spener and Francke, Von Zinzendorf and Labadie, Darby and Irving, Moody and Booth. And who would deny the rich blessing that often rested on their work? Their passion, courage, faith, and love were admirable. Their protest against the worldliness and corruption of the church was not without foundation. Often they were seized by a holy passion for the honor of God and the salvation of people or else, withdrawing to a life of solitude, they excelled in many Christian virtues… 245-6
He does however, highlights its weaknesses:
Nonetheless, there is something lacking in their Christianity. It immediately makes a different impression on us than the truly Christian and also thoroughly healthy worldview of the Reformers. One misses the genuine catholicity of the Christian faith in them…. 246
It needs to be noted that while this orientation has much about it that is Christian, it is missing the full truth of Christianity. It is a denial of the truth that God loves the world. It is dedicated to conflict with and even rejection of the world but not to “the victory that overcomes it” in faith. 246-7
In a Reformed and Reforming church, we must pursue the ‘full truth of Christianity’ – that God loves the world.
A friend of mine died a few days ago. A warm, friendly, intelligent man, I met him almost 10 years ago. At that time he was alone, had few possessions. He was feeding himself and his dogs by fishing and hunting. He was cooking on a small petrol stove in his council flat. Walking with me across the moor, he would stop to identify plants, telling me their Latin names. He would identify otter tracks, pointing out their feeding habits amongst the detritus on the lochside, show me the meals of the birds of prey from their pellets. A walk with him was an education. He was reading The Mayor of Casterbridge. He was a talented musician. He was good company. He was a Christian. We walked together, we prayed together, we laughed together. He was a former heroin addict.
He joined the church. He got a job in the outdoors, a job he loved; walking the moors, out with his dogs. He got married, moved away, settled down in a cottage. Happy. Blessed. But he died alone on a city street. With few possessions, with his dogs by his side. He was a Christian. He was my friend. He was a heroin addict.
Jesus Christ brings His redemption, in part, in this life. He forgives our sins, reconciles us to the Father, gives the Holy Spirit, provides stability through our faith, wisdom to live, eyes to see beauty, a family in the church. But his redemption is not complete until we experience our complete adoption as children of God, the redemption of our bodies. Some Christians escape the destruction of addiction in this life, but many do not. Redemption in its fullness is for the next life, the resurrection life. The freedom of the glory of the children of God is to come. Freedom for my friend. Freedom for Ian.
It was Cyprian who said:
You cannot have God as your Father, unless you have the Church as your Mother.
Many Presbyterians aren’t used to thinking of the Church as Mother. It all sounds a bit ‘high church’. Of course, the Roman Catholics do adopt this language – which may explain why many Presbyterians do not. However, in a day when some seem to think that attendance at Church is optional in Christianity; when some have no intention of submitting to the discipline of the church; and when people leave and join churches as if the were changing their car, the idea of our relationship with the Church as our Mother is one which needs greater attention amongst Presbyterians.
It’s always a good idea to turn to Jean…
But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels, (Mat 22: 30).
For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for, as Isaiah and Joel testify, (Isa 37: 32; Joel 2: 32). To their testimony Ezekiel subscribes, when he declares, “They shall not be in the assembly of my people, neither shall they be written in the writing of the house of Israel,” (Eze 13: 9); as, on the other hand, those who turn to the cultivation of true piety are said to inscribe their names among the citizens of Jerusalem. For which reason it is said in the psalm, “Remember me, O Lord, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation; that I may see the good of thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, that I may glory with thine inheritance,” (Psa 106: 4, 6). By these words the paternal favour of God and the special evidence of spiritual life are confined to his peculiar people, and hence the abandonment of the Church is always fatal. Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.4
Of course, Calvin’s words are mirrored in the Confession, which states that outside of the visible church (made up of those ‘that profess the true religion, together with their children’) there is ‘no ordinary possibility of salvation’ (WCF 25.2). You cannot be part of the visible church if you are invisible; if you do not ordinarily attend church services. Neither can living like that be in any sense a profession of the true religion. Calvin is not wrong to say ‘the abandonment of the Church is always fatal.’