Living on the Next to Last Word

Dietrich BonhoefferIn the early hours this morning, unable to sleep, I picked up Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. What I read didn’t help me sleep! It was one of those moments when you read something that seems to connect at so many levels with your own recent meditations.

It is only when one knows the ineffability of the Name of God that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ. It is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world. It is only when one submits to the law and one can speak of grace, and only when one sees the anger and wrath of God hanging like grim realities over the head of one’s enemies that one can know something of what it means to love them and forgive them. I don’t think it is Christian to want to get to the New Testament too soon and too directly… You cannot and must not speak the last word before you have spoken the next to last. We live on the next to last word, and  believe on the last, don’t we? Lutherans (so-called) and pietists would be shocked at such an idea, but it is true all the same. Letters to a Friend, Advent II

There is so much to reflect on here, being at once a word about Christian hope, truth and experience, and a word about hermeneutics – how to read and understand the Bible. Bonhoeffer’s words speak into evangelicalism’s tendency towards Christomonism. He points to the God who has spoken words before the last word: words of creation, of blessing, of promise, of judgement, of hope. The last word can only be understood in the light of these words. It is an irony of today’s church that a zeal to see the Messiah everywhere in the Bible leads to a certain blindness to who the Messiah truly is.

I was particularly struck by these words: ‘It is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world’! That statement is to me like a banner high in the wind! A love like that arises from a true vision of, and love for, Jesus the Messiah! Bonhoeffer is correct that the pietist does not understand this. And that is why so many Christians baulk at the idea of loving life and loving the earth in this way. Bonhoeffer’s words express the true hope of God’s word, and are a call to the grand vision of Reformed Christianity.

Critiquing the New Calvinism

tulipFrom time to time on this blog I’ve written about the relationship between evangelicalism and the Reformed church. Or, to put things a slightly different way, between evangelical theology and Reformed theology. So, I was interested to read a recent critique of the New Calvinism (one of TIME magazine’s 10 ideas changing the world right now, 2009), which included the following insightful quote:

[T]he evangelical church has no robust ecclesiology, and thus no structured spirituality to put into practice as the body of Christ. And given the absence of a structured spiritual life, Reformed Christianity tends to be reduced to a set of doctrines to contemplate…. Thus, when you remove Reformed theology from its proper historical place in the structured life of Reformed religion and ecclesiology, and plant it in the foreign soil of modern evangelical gnostic spirituality, it takes a grotesque shape that is contrary to its origins.

The whole of the essay (entitled What Is Wrong With the Young, Restless and Reformed Movement?) is worth reading. The tone is, shall we say, somewhat robust! However, it’s a thought-provoking critique and at heart (it seems to me) an appeal for true, rich and rounded Reformed theology and catholicity, as opposed to a narrow, cerebral, judgemental orthodoxy. And that’s a good appeal to make.
With thanks to my old tutor, Dr Mike Bird, for drawing my attention to the essay.

More Defending Religion

salem_largeLast time, I posted on what seems to me to be a common evangelical meme that goes something like this:

  • religion is about doing good works so that we get saved
  • Christianity is not about doing good works so that we get saved
  • ergo Christianity is not a religion
  • ergo religion is evil

The apostle James is clear that Christianity is a religion and that good works are important. And so the meme begins to unravel…. Whilst some religions might be about doing good works so that people will be saved, Christianity proclaims that faith in Jesus Christ as Messiah-God brings salvation. And genuine faith in Jesus is intimately linked with the good works that flow from it.

So, if the meme is demonstrably untrue, why does it persist? It’s an evangelical meme, the target of which is often legalistic or ‘nominal’ religion. That is, the problem of a faithless Christianity, or mere churchgoing. Doubtless, ‘nominal’ Christianity is a big problem in Britain in 2014. The ritual of mere churchgoing can empty Christianity of its power. It’s seen just as a cultural expression, or a social activity (as an aside, it’s not as big a problem as non-churchgoing!). Anyway, it’s the use of this meme in attacking the church that is, for me, the most worrying aspect. Last year, in an evangelical church outside Scotland, I heard this meme used in a prelude to describing (from the pulpit) other denominations’ religion as ‘poison’. This kind of attack dishonours the Head of the Church and hands a plateful of reasons to non-Christians for ignoring the church, and to other Christians for leaving the church. It’s an example of what Herman Bavinck wrote about (something I’ve quoted before):

Instead of making a broad and inclusive survey of all churches, carefully distinguishing between true and false, not throwing out the wheat with the chaff, they simply with one fell swoop condemn all churches as false, call all believers to secession and frequently elevate separation itself to an article of faith.… What is the fruit of all this? Not a reformation of churches but an increase in their number and a perpetuation of division. The Catholicity of Christianity and Church

It’s not that I don’t think nominalism is a problem, but nominalism exists in every church, and we need to be careful to distinguish an ignorant nominalism from what the divines called ‘hypocrisy’. ‘Hypocrisy’ is the phenomenon of people who profess faith and who belong to a church where they hear the true and sincere proclamation of the apostolic gospel of Jesus Christ, but who actually do not truly follow Jesus (often exhibited in an extremely selective following of Jesus’s and the apostles’ teachings). This is ‘nominal’ religion despite and in the face of the truth being proclaimed. It’s the kind of ‘nominal’ religion that is criticised by the apostle James. And it’s closer to home than we often want to admit – Herman Bavinck (assuming a James-like mode) also wrote of the hypocrisy of the Protestant emphasis on truth at the expense of any real emphasis on works, calling it an effective belief in ‘justification by good doctrine’.

That kind of thing is very different to ‘nominal religion’ in congregations where the gospel has been neutered by liberal theology, or  reduced to a kind of social theory. The regular folk (not the leaders, but those in the pews) who are nominally Christians in these churches are like sheep without a shepherd. How does the anti-religion meme attack benefit them? It’s a bit like a home carer who mechanically undertakes their designated tasks without showing any love for the person they’re caring for. What would you do? Tell them that what they’re doing is worthless, poisonous, evil? Or, teach them the importance of loving the person they’re caring for, so that their tasks take on a new quality and significance and so that their relationship with the cared-for person is transformed? The larger point is that a church where there is hypocrisy or nominalism is still a church – thank the Lord for his mercy to us all! Even where the Christian religion expressed by a church is full of faults and errors, it does not mean de facto that its religion ceases to be Christianity. In such churches, an informed critique ought to be directed at those who in such situations have neglected to teach the orthodoxy of the gospel.

It’s wrong to simply write off the rituals of religion, the ‘habits’ of our faith. What about all those times when we ourselves have been carried by the rituals and duties of the Christian religion through rocky and difficult patches in our lives? Sometimes, during periods of doubt, or struggle (whether with stressful circumstances, depression, or sin) we don’t feel like going to church; we don’t feel like praying; we don’t feel like reading our Bibles. But, our sense of duty – the ‘habit’ of attending the ritual – takes us out of the door to the prayer meeting or the Sunday service. And, often, we are blessed. Is that wrong? No. What about all of those people for whom ritual observance is merely the beginning of the journey to faith? In these rituals, Jesus is present and meets with us. Ritual plays an important role in forming our Christian characters and communities, and in giving stability to lives that are not immune to the trials of living in a fallen world. When we meet for worship, the ritual of singing together expresses our corporate worship of God in Christ and binds us together. The ritual of reading together from God’s Word unites us in a corporate hearing and affirmation of God’s truth. The rituals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not mere symbols, but signify deep spiritual truths and carry real spiritual blessings. The rituals and disciplines of gathering for public and family worship, private prayer and Bible reading are at the heart of our faith. These rituals are part of our religion. For other brothers and sisters, the creeds, the Book of Common Prayer – these would be included too. The repeated ‘doing’ of them is important. Our religion and its rituals are important in inviting, nurturing and maintaining faith.

Defending Religion

DSC_0296I’ve been busy writing and taking a holiday (two important activities) and the blog has been quiet. But, I’m taking up my keyboard again to defend religion. It’s not the first time. The blanket attack on religion seems to be a well-established evangelical meme – I come across it with alarming regularity. It’s dangerous and I want to resist it.

The meme usually goes something like this:

  • religion is about doing good works so that we get saved
  • Christianity is not about doing good works so that we get saved
  • ergo Christianity is not a religion
  • ergo religion is evil

There are several fundamental problems with this. The definition of religion is wrong for a start – wrong definitions usual spell disaster. But, far more significantly, one serious objection to this meme comes straight from the pen of one of the apostles:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27

The apostle James knows that religion (that’s θρησκεία in Greek)  is important. And he knows that Christians are ‘doing’ religion. The outward rituals of inward faith are important. Living a holy life, whether in caring for the afflicted or avoiding sinful behaviour, really matters. That’s James whole point throughout his letter. Religion is not just about believing, it is about doing. To be even clearer: Christianity is not just about believing, it’s about doing. Christianity is a religion. The Church has always rightly understood itself as an entity practising a religion. In my own tradition, Christianity-as-religion is the language of the Westminster Standards. For example:

What is the visible church? The visible church is a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children. Longer Catechism 62

The apostle James’s concern is whether people’s religion is true or false (1:26,27). He’s not writing about people of other religions, but about people who profess to be Christians. People who profess to be Christians, but who can’t control their tongues, for example (1:26), have a worthless religion.  People who care for others and seek holiness (a different set of values from God’s word, not from the world around), have a religion that is pure and good (1:27). The irony is that James is actually stressing the importance of good works. True religion involves good works as well as faith. Of course, it’s true that Christianity is not about doing good works so that we get saved. But, we won’t be saved without good works, because faith without works is dead (2:17). If you say you’re a Christian, but your life does not display the good works that come from following Jesus, then is your faith real? This particular evangelical meme illustrates a larger problem: an incorrect separation of works and faith.

We can’t be put right before God on the basis of the good things we do, or try to do. That’s the only part of the four-part meme that’s actually correct! We are put right with God, entering into a new relationship with our Creator, through faith in Jesus Christ – thank God for that! But that faith is not merely mental assent. It entails an all-embracing change of priorities called repentance, and that leads to a very different way of life. It’s not fundamentally fired by our desire for self-improvement. It is fundamentally fired by our desire to love Jesus Christ in obedience, which in turn is fired by Jesus’ own presence with us through the Holy Spirit.

Christianity is a religion. A religion with Jesus the Messiah at the centre. Christianity is about doing good works. Good works for Jesus the Messiah. And the meme begins to unravel…

One Church’s Unity

stgilesAt the 2013 General Assembly (GA) of the Free Church of Scotland, a call was made for evangelicals to leave the Church of Scotland and join the Free Church. Last weekend, Church of Scotland evangelicals met in Perth and formed a network committed to staying within the Church of Scotland in order to seek reform and renewal.

The Free Church GA was also reminded of the Free Church ideal of seeking the prosperity of the Church of Scotland so that one day the Disruption might be reversed. In the Free Church today, I wonder how many really do still hold to this ideal. History has landed us where we are as denominations (Free Church and Church of Scotland). Even after 170 years, the events of the Disruption still upset many in the Church of Scotland. And some in the Free Church still see the Disruption as for ever defining the denomination over and against the Church of Scotland. The GA address reminded those of us in the Free Church that the Church of Scotland is our mother church. Even if it has demoted the confession, and continues to struggle with issues of biblical authority, it has not ceased to be a church, it has not ceased to be the national church (even if its claim to be so is eroding), and it has not ceased to be the mother church whose prosperity we seek. It has not ‘forfeited the right to be called a church of Christ.’

Reformed people have long-argued about the rights and wrongs of secession. In the last century, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott argued the same issue. Stott, not Lloyd-Jones, was right – and history, it seems to me, has judged it that way. Stott’s position best reflects a Reformed ecclesiology. He said:

I would only contemplate seceding if the official doctrine of the Church of England denied the Gospel as I have been given to understand it in any fundamental particular. Then, and not till then, would be the time to secede.

Should people leave the Church of Scotland right now because of the GA fudge on non-celibate homosexuals in ministry? Has the Church of Scotland ceased to be a church because of this? Does it represent the abandonment of a ‘fundamental particular’? I’m sure there is a need for reflection and discussion, but it is not as clear cut as many suggest. Of course, those who suggest it is clear cut tend to hold the a particular ecclesiology, and see it very simply: evangelicals should leave the impure behind. But, is that the ecclesiology of the Reformers, or of the Anabaptists? Herman Bavinck writes of the tendency amongst those who hold this kind of pietistic ecclesiology:

Instead of making a broad and inclusive survey of all churches, carefully distinguishing between true and false, not throwing out the wheat with the chaff, they simply with one fell swoop condemn all churches as false, call all believers to secession and frequently elevate separation itself to an article of faith.… What is the fruit of all this? Not a reformation of churches but an increase in their number and a perpetuation of division. The Catholicity of Christianity and Church

There is a great need in Scottish Presbyterianism for a return to Reformed ecclesiology. Too many have turned to the ecclesiology-lite of Evangelicalism. There needs to be a return to Reformed doctrine on the nature of the Church, and a fresh appreciation of the biblical importance of Christian unity (and of the terrible track-record of Scottish Presbyterianism in this regard). There needs to be recognition of the  need for improved ecumenical relationships between the churches, and the gravity and difficulty of the situation facing Church of Scotland people with orthodox, biblical views on homosexuality. And, within the Free Church there needs to be a commitment to the ideal of praying for and seeking the good of the Kirk. Putting all this together, Church of Scotland congregations holding to the orthodox faith of the Confession need support and encouragement, especially on the ground at a local level. Calls for Christians to leave the Church of Scotland and join the Free Church are a case of one church’s unity being another’s disunity. If calls are made to those who have already left, that’s a different thing. Those members and congregations who have already left the Church of Scotland need to be persuaded most of all not to further abandon the ideal of unity within Scottish Presbyterianism.

I’m not Scottish, and the only Scottish church I have belonged to is the Free Church of Scotland. I love the Free Church. I love its people, its values, its theology, its history. Through this church, the Lord has greatly blessed me, my family, my children. However, I also feel a deep love and concern towards the Church of Scotland. I’ve worshipped with my family in her congregations, and been blessed. I’ve met many extremely gracious and gifted ministry candidates, ministers and members – a lot of these during my time at Highland Theological College. I love the Church of Scotland and pray that those who fight to uphold orthodoxy and resist heterodoxy within it would weather the current storm, as they did the storm of the old liberalism. The Church of Scotland is still one of the Lord’s churches. Impure, yes – as all are. Moving in the wrong direction, yes. In great danger, yes. But still part of the Lord’s Church. Those within the Church of Scotland who seek to follow the agenda of the world and disregard the authority of scripture need to be opposed. They need to be opposed from within the church by those who seek faithfulness to the Word of God. For the good of Scotland we must seek the peace and prosperity of the national Kirk.

So, I’m glad that a couple of days ago, 350 Church of Scotland evangelicals decided to stay within the Kirk to work for reformation and renewal. May the Lord bless their witness and work.

Evangelicalism & Ecclesiology

tron2For some time, I’ve not been inclined to describe myself simply as ‘An Evangelical’ (although I used to). David Robertson recently wrote that he doesn’t want to use the term ‘evangelical’ any longer. However, his reasons and mine are different.
David Robertson’s comments were made in relation to the debates about the events at St George’s Tron Church of Scotland in Glasgow, which have been making the news here in Scotland in recent weeks. David has been very critical of the Church of Scotland. Let me say at the outset that my sympathies are with the Tron to a very great degree as proclaimers of the orthodox, biblical faith in a denomination where a significant proportion strongly express liberal theological values. And, judging by the reports, the Glasgow presbytery seem to have dealt with their desire to secede in a disgraceful manner.

The Tron’s secession brings up the issue of Evangelicalism and Ecclesiology, but first back to the term ‘evangelical’. David Robertson thinks that the term now covers such a broad range of views within the church that it has become meaningless. It has always been the case that ‘evangelicalism’ is a broad movement (although I think in many cases it is being applied too broadly). David feels like he does because conservative evangelicals have attempted to co-opt the term as exclusively their own. The term is not meaningless. David Bebbington and others have argued that evangelicalism has four or five basic features. The fact that these features are present in many parts of the church doesn’t make the term meaningless. Evangelicalism’s four or five features can be worked out in different ways – it really is a broad term.

Evangelicalism technically takes no position on ecclesiology. However, in practice it tends to espouse one. And that is the ecclesiology of independents and baptists: the church is an invisible, virtual reality that exists within structures that are at best benign encumbrances, and at worst, necessary (or unnecessary) evils. The church is a pure body. The external structures and government are not the church, but are the impure paraphenalia. This was the view argued by Lloyd-Jones over against John Stott. The desire to find evangelical unity also inexorably and subliminally carries the view that ecclesiology is not important. This Evangelical View is not Reformed ecclesiology. Presbyterians believe in the Church. The church as a visible body and as a necessarily (for now) impure body. There exist within the church both those who are of true faith, and those who are not. It has ever been thus. Any particular church or denomination is either more or less pure to the degree that it seeks to be obedient to the Word of Life. The Church of Scotland is currently sailing close to the wind in flirting with the idea of sanctioning the ordination to the ministry throughout the Kirk of practicing homosexuals. Evangelicals seem to believe they must leave. But what about Evangelical Presbyterians, which they all ought to be? A Reformed ecclesiology doesn’t necessarily see things the same way – but very few seem to be arguing it’s position. And so the Evangelicals leave the CofS in dribs and drabs, and their warnings of demise become self-fulfilling prophecies.
One thing seems clear to me: an Evangelical is not the same as an Evangelical Presbyterian.  Especially in ecclesiology. Therein lies, to my mind at least, part of the problem with the situation at St George’s Tron. The problem is very similar to that in Wales in the second half of last century. Many Evangelicals responded to the call of Lloyd-Jones and left Presbyterianism to become Evangelicals in independency. I don’t personally believe that this has strengthened the witness of the church in Welsh society. Within the Presbyterian Church of Wales, a small number of congregations who have abandoned the tenets of Presbyterianism for so-called Evangelicalism continue to this day in the denomination, functioning as de facto Independents (and sometimes as baptists). If these congregations (whether in Wales or Scotland) are not Presbyterians by conviction, why do they reside in a Presbyterian denomination? Independency is there for them. But any congregation that changes its ecclesiology ought not to expect the denomination to embrace their change of doctrine with gladness. Professor Donald Macleod wrote in the West Highland Free Press some years ago: we are not Evangelicals, we are Presbyterians.