Preaching

Christopher Hill has a chapter on the contrast between the Puritans who valued preaching highly, and sectors of the established Church that did not. He says:

One of William Prynne’s rare jokes was made in reply to Laud’s taunt that he could not have written Histriomastix single-handed. “It may be their [the bishop’s] laborious preaching once or twice a year permits them not to read or study half so much as meaner men.”

This was because some priests did not preach, they only read homilies or conducted prayers. Some bishops preached even less, so Prynne is attributing his knowledge to his studies in sermon preparation, something Laud (he implies) did not do. Hill continues:

Lord Brooke in 1642, after accusing some of the bishops of Arminianism and Socinianism, could rely on raising an easy laugh by saying that this was evidenced by their writings, “yea and sermons, though these be very rare.” It was a common jest in Dublin in the sixteen-thirties that the archbishop had only one sermon, on the text “Touch not mine Anointed” – “which once  a year he commonly read” on the King’s birthday. His congregation knew it by heart.

Catholics as Just Another Denomination

Mark Horne says:

But what if Roman Catholics are sectarians dreaming they constitute the historic and perpetual center of the identity of the Church?

What if the real Catholic Church is simply continuing on and the Roman Catholic Church is pretending that it is not lacking that full communion because it has created without warrant autistic conditions for fellowship?

Evangelicals have many issues to work on as they continue through history. But there is nothing to rejoin. If the Roman Catholic Church and another denomination join and receive, then that is simply two denominations uniting together. And if they join and receive under the shared assumption that the Roman Catholic Church is some kind of perpetual “center” that all others are “peripheral” to and must come “back” to, then all that would mean is that the Christian people of the other denomination have become persuaded of sectarian superstitions.

Russian Orthodox Fragility

An article by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church [link] points out that the Revolution of 1917 did not spring out of thin air and impose atheism on Russia, rather, the society and even the Church itself was becoming atheist and hollow already:

It has been said that Russia was baptised but not enlightened. Indeed, as far as the 19th century is concerned, it is clear that enlightenment was very often in conflict with religion: the masses of illiterate peasants kept their traditional beliefs, but more and more educated people, even from a purely religious background, rejected faith and became atheists. Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov are classic examples: both came from clerical families, both became atheists after studying in theological seminaries. For people like Dostoyevsky religion was something that had to be rediscovered, after having been lost as a result of his education. Tolstoy, on the other hand, came to a certain type of faith in God but remained alien to the Orthodox Church. It is clear, when one looks at the pre-revolutionary period, that there was a huge gap between the Church and the world of educated people, the so-called intelligentsia, and this gap was constantly growing.

The Archbishop goes on to cite some specific examples from that time of creeping atheism:

I remember reading a book by Father Georgy Shavelsky, the Protopresbyter of the Russian Army and Navy under Nicholas II. Himself one of the senior members of the Holy Synod, he testified that the Synod was in fact very far from the life of people, that it did very little (if anything) to prevent atheist propaganda from spreading among ordinary people. To show how little remained of the people’s traditional devotion to God, Shavelsky cites the following example: when attendance at the Liturgy became, by a special imperial decree, no longer obligatory for Russian soldiers, only ten per cent of them continued to go to church.

Another testimony of the same kind is that of Metropolitan Veniamin (Fedchenkov), who became the Bishop of the White Army after the revolution. He writes that none of the students of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy, where he had studied, ever went to see Father John of Kronstadt, and that some of the students were atheists. He describes the atmosphere of spiritual coolness inside the Orthodox Church, the lack of prophetic spirit. He claims that it was not by mere chance that there arose people like Rasputin:
against the common background of indifference towards religion he appeared as a charismatic figure and was at first accepted as such by the ecclesiastical authorities, who then directed his steps to the imperial palace.

The third testimony which I would like to draw on here is of a more personal kind: it is that of Father Sergei Bulgakov. Himself the son of an Orthodox priest, after studying at a theological seminary, he became an atheist, following the steps of Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov. In his autobiographical notes he asks himself how this happened, and answers: “It happened, somehow, almost at once and in an imperceptible manner, as something taken for granted, when the poetry of my childhood was replaced by the prose of the theological seminary… When I began to doubt, my critical thoughts were not satisfied with traditional apologetics, but rather found them scandalous… My revolt was strengthened by the compulsory devotion: these long services with akathists (and ritual devotion in general) did not give me satisfaction.” Fr Bulgakov gave up his religion easily, without a fight, and neither his clerical origins nor his theological education helped him to resist the temptation, of atheism and nihilism.

He then points out that many people joining the Church today in Russia still don’t believe in God, but are following a fad:

It seems to me that, though the numbers of believers has immensely increased during the last years, Russia is still far from being a Christian country. To be baptised, to be Orthodox has become a fashion. I would not be surprised if the majority of people, when asked whether they are Orthodox, would now give a positive answer. This does not mean, though, that they all go to church. It only means that most of them have assumed a new outward identity to keep up with the ongoing ‘religious revival’. I remember asking one teenager who came, together with her mother, to be baptised: ‘Do you believe in God?’ ‘No,’ was her answer. ‘Why then do you want to be baptised?’ I asked. ‘Well, everybody gets baptised nowadays,’ she said. This case, one of many, illustrates that many people take religion in a very superficial manner, sometimes without even believing in God. Remaining inwardly atheists, they become outwardly Orthodox.

He warns against a type of reactionary Orthodoxy that I see all too much of in the news:

The second danger is that. of militant Orthodoxy, which would be a post-atheist counterpart of militant atheism. I mean an Orthodoxy that fights against Jews, against masons, against democracy, against Western culture, against enlightenment. This type of Orthodoxy is being preached even by some key members of the hierarchy, and it has many supporters within the Church.

This leads me to think that Russia suffered greatly in missing out on the Reformation. The Bible was never put squarely into the life of the people and the Church missed out on a great opportunity to be soaked in the Scripture. In the same way I believe that the modern Russian Orthodox Church misses exposition of the Scripture and reevaluation in the light of the Word. Of course I could be wrong. Perhaps there are movements within Russia that are moving ad fontes back to the Scriptures, but what I see is a reactionary movement that glories in the past and believe in a crystalized version of unchanging doctrine. I believe all this is greatly to the disadvantage of the Russian Church and nation. May God grant them more light and the ability to change where they need to.

N.T. Wright on Predestination

In Wright’s commentary on Romans, he says:

Foreknowledge is a form of love or grace; to speak thus is to speak of God’s reaching out, in advance of anything the person may do or think, to reveal love and to solicit an answering love, to reveal a particular purpose and to call forth obedience to it…More particularly, this foreknowledge produces God’s foreordaining purpose…What we have here, rather, is an expression, as in 1:1, of God’s action in setting people apart for a particular purpose, a purpose in which their cooperation, their loving response to love, their obedient response to the personal call, is itself all-important. This is not to deny the mystery of grace, the free initiative of God, and the clear divine sovereignty that is after all the major theme of this entire passage, here brought to a glorious climax. But it is to deny the common misconception, based on a two-dimensional rather than a three-dimensional understanding of how God’s actions and human actions relate to each other, that sees something done by God as something not done by humans, and vice versa….Woe betide theology if discussions of grace take their coloring from the mechanistic or technological age where all actions are conceived as though performed by a set of machines. God’s foreknowledge and foreordination, setting people apart in advance for particular purposes, are not equal and opposite to human desires, longings, self-questionings, obedience, and above all love. You do not take away from the one by adding to the other….Christian faith, ultimately irreducible to any analogy, and certainly not reducible to terms of “yet another odd paradox,” involves wholeheartedly and responsibly answering the call of sovereign love, gratitude, and obedience that come from the depths of one’s own being and are simultaneously experienced as a response to sovereignty, a compulsion even, to which the closest parallel remains that of the highest love. (on Rom 8.18-30)

He affirms predestination, but seeks to guard from an overly-deterministic mindset – something where I believe the Reformers agree with him, despite perceptions to the contrary.

In a footnote of his Romans commentary, Wright comments on Douglas Moo’s recent commentary which adopts the standard view of predestination in Romans and says:

…Moo allows his discussion to be overshadowed by the anachronistic debates between Calvinism and Arminianism…

Some of his comments:

“Paul is not, then, producing an abstract essay on the way in which God always works with individuals, or for that matter with nations and races. This is specifically the story of Israel, the chosen people; it is the unique story of how the creator has worked with the covenant people, to bring about the purpose for which the covenant was made in the first place. It is the story, in other words, whose climax and goal is the Messiah;
…These sections tell the story of Israel’s patriarchal foundation (vv. 6-13), then of the exodus (vv. 14-18), and then of God’s judgment that led to exile and, through it, to the fulfillment of God’s worldwide promise to Abraham (vv. 19-24).
9:11-12. The second explanation occupies center stage in this brief telling of the Jacob/Esau story: it cannot be that God’s selection of Jacob had anything to do with Jacob’s merits, since the promise was made before he and his brother were born. God’s choice has nothing to do with merit observed.
Nor (to meet the objection of a latter theology) could it have been foreseen, and hence explained in terms of God’s knowing how the brothers were going to turn out; Jacob’s behavior as a young adult, cheating and twisting this way and that, would scarcely have earned him favor with an impartial deity. The point is, though, that Paul is not here discussing what an abstract, impartial deity would or should have done; he is discussing the long purposes of God for Israel, and through Israel for the world. Central to those purposes is the principle that all must be of grace, “not of works, but of the one who calls.”
Paul is not, then, using the example of Pharaoh to explain that God has the right to show mercy, or to harden someone’s heart, out of mere caprice. Nor is it simply that God has the right to do this sort of thing when someone is standing in the way of the glorious purpose that has been promised. The sense of this passage (9:17-28) is gained from its place within the larger story line from 9:6-10:21–that is, as part of the story of Israel itself, told to explain what is now happening to Paul’s “kinsfolk according to the flesh.”
As in the parable of the sheep and the goats, there is an imbalance between what is said about the “vessels of wrath” and what is said about the “vessels of mercy” (Matt 25:34, 41). The former are “fitted for destruction,” leaving it at least ambiguous whether they have done this to themselves by their impenitence or whether God has somehow been involved in the process. The latter, though, have been “prepared for glory” by God himself.
“It isn’t a matter of willing, or running, but of God’s mercy” (v. 16); that text alone, even without its context, can bring solace to a troubled and anxious heart. That, indeed, is part of the point of expounding God’s sovereignty: not to terrify us with the sense of an unknowable and possibly capricious deity, but to assure us that the God of creation, the God we know in Jesus Christ, overflows with mercy, and that even negative judgments have mercy in view all along, if only people will have the humility and faith to find it where it has been placed. To be able to rest in the sovereign mercy of God revealed in Jesus Christ is one of the most valuable aspects of the Christian’s calling.”

Catholic Idolatry

Mark Horne has a helpful post on why he is not a Roman Catholic. An excerpt:

  1. Idolatry is a huge sin and praying through icons (whether 3d or 2d) is idolatry.  I cannot possibly engage in such a practice, allow anyone in my guardianship to do so, or excuse such a thing, without falling into rank unbelief.
  2. Necromancy is almost as huge a sin and praying to the departed saints is necromancy.  See #1 above.  People raised thinking bigamy is Christian may be true Christians, but people who know better are living in sin and without hope of eternal life unless they repent of such behavior.
  3. The way some Roman Catholic constituencies provide ministry opportunities for defectors from Protestantism is, of course, tempting–but it can hardly count as anything more than thirty pieces of silver if #1 and #2 hold.  If one must be marginalized and impoverished in the Protestant world due to sectarian sins, well, God has called many Christians and their families to far worse martyrdoms.
  4. Claiming unity can be achieved by everyone else joining one’s own denomination is exactly the sect spirit that is so loathsome in many Protestant groups, and it gains no more attractiveness in Rome.

While Mark’s honesty will offend many who justify idolatry by appealing to John of Damascus, we have an opposite example in the Internet Monk’s interview with Bryan Cross, someone who has made that plunge into idolatry. I don’t know why these issues are never raised in these ecumenical interviews. Many Protestants still seem to assume that justification is the core issue between us and Rome, while in fact idolatry is and always has been one of the central concerns of the Reformation, if one that is often ignored today.

Wright on Rome

Over at Christianity Today there is an article on Protestants who defect to Rome. Bishop N.T. Wright is quoted in the article, but his full quote is not provided. Here is his full quote:

a. I’m on sabbatical writing Volume IV of my big series, on Paul; so I don’t have time for more than a quick response.

b. ‘Sacramental, transformational, communal, eschatological’? If you gave me that list and said ‘Where in the Christian world would you find that?’ I could easily and truthfully answer: (i) in the best of the Reformed tradition — spend a couple of days at Calvin College, or read Jamie  Smith’s new book, and you’ll see; (ii) in much of the best of the  charismatic movement, once it’s shed its low-church prejudices and discovered how much God loves bodies; (iii) in the best of… dare I say it… Anglicanism… ; (iv) in some bits (not all) of the Emerging Church movement . . .

c. Trent said both much more and much less than this. Sacramental, yes, but in a muddled way with an unhelpful ontology; transformational, yes, but far too dependent on unbiblical techniques and practices; communal, yes, but don’t let the laity (or the women) get any fancy ideas about God working new things through them; and eschatological?? Eschatology in the biblical sense didn’t loom large, and indeed that was a key element in the Reformers’ protest: the once-for-allness of the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection as producing, not a new system for doing the same stuff over and over, but a new world. Trent, and much subsequent RC theology, has had a habit of never spring-cleaning, so you just live in a house with more and more clutter building up, lots of right answers to wrong questions (e.g. transubstantiation) which then get in the way when you want to get  something actually done. In particular, Trent gave the wrong answer,  at a deep level, to the nature/grace question, which is what’s at the  root of the Marian dogmas and devotions which, despite contrary  claims, are in my view neither sacramental, transformational,  communal nor eschatological. Nor biblical. The best RCs I know (some  of whom would strongly disagree with the last point, some would  strongly agree) are great conversation partners mainly because they  have found ways of pushing the accumulated clutter quietly to one  side and creating space for real life. But it’s against the grain of the Tridentine system, in my view. They aren’t allowed to say that but clearly many of them think it. Joining in is just bringing more of your own clutter to an already confused and overcrowded room…

d. I am sorry to think that there are people out there whose Protestantism has been so barren that they never found out about sacraments, transformation, community or eschatology. Clearly this person needed  a change. But to jump to Rome for that reason is very odd. It reminds  me of the fine old German NT scholar Heinrich Schlier, who found that the only way to be a Protestant was to be a Bultmannian, so, because he couldn’t take  Bultmann, became a Roman Catholic; that was the only other option in  his culture. Good luck to him; happily, most of us have plenty of  other options. To say ‘wow, I want that stuff, I’d better go to Rome’ is like someone suddenly discovering (as I’m told Americans occasionally do — sorry, cheap shot) that there are other countries in the world and so getting the first big boat he finds in New York to take him there . . . when there were plenty of planes lined up and waiting at JFK. Rome is a big, splendid, dusty old ocean liner, with lots of grand cabins, and, at present, quite a fine captain and some excellent officers — but also quite a few rooms in need of repair.  Yes, it may take you places, but it’s slow and you might get seasick  from time to time. And the navigators have been told that they must never acknowledge when they’ve been going in the wrong direction . . .

e. I spent three very happy weeks as the Anglican observer at the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops last October. They were talking about the Bible: about how for so long they have more or less banned the laity from reading or studying it, and how now they want to change all that, to insist that every Catholic man, woman, child, cat and dog should have the Bible in their own mother tongue and be taught to read it, study it, pray with it, individually and together. Hallelujah! Who knows what might happen. Question: why did nobody say this in 1525? If they had, we’d have been saved a lot of bother.
Let’s engage cheerfully in as much discussion with our Roman friends as we can. They are among my best ecumenical conversation partners, and  some of them are among my dear friends. But let’s not imagine that a renewed biblical theology will mean we find ourselves saying ‘you guys were right after all’ just at the point where, not explicitly but actually, they are saying that to us . . .

Aside from what may be an implicit endorsement of women’s ordination in there, that’s pretty good stuff! I particularly like his rejection of Mariolatry in Rome. Perhaps Rowan Williams should listen to Bishop Wright more.

Americans hate ritual

Reviewing a book by Lori Branch in Touchstone magazine, Peter Leithart writes:

English Protestants attacked the ceremonies of the Catholic Church and the remnants of ceremony in Prayer Book liturgies because they thought these ceremonies lacked biblical support but also because they believed that set liturgical forms were, in themselves, inimical to religious sincerity. This had the effect of detaching believers from communal actions. Medieval Christians were participants in rituals; after the Reformation, Christians began to see themselves as detached individual selves, desperately ginning up religious passion.
For many Protestants, sacramental rites could not accurately represent or effectively communicate the grace of God. Faced with this “crisis of representation,” Christians looked inward to find a place of communion with God. Not just any experience would do, however. Sincere religious expression had to be the product of the Spirit working on the human soul. Genuine prayer arose from agony, pressed, in Bunyan’s phrasing, from the solitary soul as “blood is forced out of flesh.”

More of the Reformers on Islam

Some time ago I listed the thoughts of Luther and Calvin on Islam. This post continues that summation. 

Calvin observes that although Muslims were thought to be far away, they could quickly arrive in Protestant Europe:

When we preach at the present day about the Turk, all think that it is a fable, because they think that he is still at a great distance from us. But we see how quickly he overtook those who were at a greater distance and more powerful. So great is the insensibility of men that they cannot be aroused, unless they are chastised and made to feel the blows. Let the inhabitants of Babylon, therefore, be a warning to us, to dread, before it is too late, the threatenings which the prophets utter, that the same thing may not happen to us as happens to those wicked men, who, relying on their prosperous condition, are so terrified when the hand of God attacks and strikes them, that they can no longer stand, but sink down bewildered. (on Is 13.5)

He cautions against being happy to see Muslim armies defeat other nations in Christendom:

Something of this kind happened, not long ago, to many nations who had taken great delight in seeing their enemies vanquished by the Turk: they found that such victories were destructive and mournful to themselves; for, after the defeat of those whom they wished to see destroyed, the road to themselves was likewise thrown open, and they also were defeated. (on Is 14.31)

He also blames France in his day for collaborating with the Muslim Turks and in doing so endangering the rest of Christendom:

The case was similar to that of the Turks at this day, were they to pass over to these parts and exercise their authority; for it might be asked the French kings and their counsellors, “Whose fault it is that the Turks come to us so easily? It is because ye have prepared for them the way by sea, because ye have bribed them, and your ports have been opened to them; and yet they have wilfully exercised the greatest cruelty towards your subjects. All these things have proceeded from yourselves; ye are therefore the authors of all these evils.”  (on Jer 13.21)

A Brief History of Theonomy

An excellent email from James Jordan to the Wrightsaid list:

The problem with interacting with this is that “theonomist” refers to three different groups of people. Bahnsen had a very airtight logical system that was almost completely devoid of any covenant-historical approach to the Bible. Rushdoony was looser, and was dealing with practical rather than theoretical questions.

Persons like myself, and under my influence Gary North, were very much covenant-historical from day one. I got my Schilder and Gaffin in the early 1970s at the same time I was reading all of Rushdoony’s works. What we all had in common, of course, was being “Whole Bible Christians” as against your evangelical “New Testament Christian.” (There is, of course, no such thing as the New Testament, any more than there is such a thing as the Pentateuch or Second Samuel. As far as the Bible is concerned, it is all just Scripture, one long book, one long story in several acts.) And we all understood that Jesus had set up a kingdom (Christendom) not an ideology (Christianity). That as one nation had been baptized (in Red Sea and Jordan) and discipled (under Divine law), so the great commission says all nations are to be baptized and discipled. We tried to hear the great commission in that way, which is the way the disciples heard it: theocratically. And we all took Psalm 119 seriously.

But, IMO, having put their hand to the plough, both the Bahnsenians and the Rushdoonians pulled back. They got a lot more of the Bible than evangelicals get, because they took the social principles of the law seriously. But when the rest of us continued on into the symbolic and ritual parts of the Bible, and the narrative, transformative history of the Bible, they renounced us.

The “theonomists” (and I never liked the word and did not use it, but there you are!) were the ONLY people in Christendom who actually believed 2 Timothy 3:16-17. They believed that ALL Scripture (including, say, Deuteronomy) is profitable for instruction in ALL of life (including, say, statecraft). They were the only people in Christendom who were not afraid of the so-called Old Testament.

Times are better now. But in the 1970s & 80s thinking about political and social issues with an open Bible was scandalous. I think the bottom line on post-recons and NTW is just that all of us post-recons are Total Bible people. We think Bible first — we don’t read it through the lens of the Westminster Confession. (The WCF plays the same idolatrous mediatorial role in conservative presbyterianism that the saints play in Medieval catholicism.) We are not Bibliophobic. So, we find lots of cool stuff in NTW — stuff that in no way conflicts with historic Reformation thought, btw — and so we chow down on it.

But we also chow down on Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Rene Girard, and lots of others. Another aspect of this is that Recons were/are catholic. Most of us had mixed ecclesiastical backgrounds (Bahnsen didn’t, and he was not very catholic). Rushdoony had been both presbyterian and episcopalian. My background included Lutheranism and a lot of other stuff, including Roman Catholic grammar school. So, it was natural for us to be Bible-first Christians. Which meant that we did not care a fig for denominationalism. Plus, believing in paedocommunion meant that there was no denomination that would really want us.

Anyway, a whole lot of the prejudice against NTW in conservative presbyterianism is there simply because Wright is not “one of us.” He’s an Anglican. The world is following after him, when it should be following after us presbyterians. Plus, how could his work be any good, since it was “not invented here”? And, becoming at home in the so-called OT also plays a role here as well, I think. The “NT” cannot stand alone. If you pull out the OT foundation, you put something else as foundational. The NT cannot be read alone; it demands a context. Hence, “NT Christians” adopt all kinds of trash from prevailing philosophies. They do it unwittingly, but they do it. That’s a lot of where denominationalism comes from. For instance, your average “NT evangelical” thinks that the great commission says, “Go and make disciples in the nations, baptizing those individuals….” Which is not what it says, and not what the apostles heard. But your “NT” Christian does not even perceive what it actually says; he reads right past it. He reads it in a context of rationalistic individualism, which is the philosophy he has substituted for the OT. So, having an OT background tends to evaporate denominational prejudice.

But finally, only the Theonomists had the guts, the cojones, to look straight into the face of hard questions and think seriously about them. Only a theonomist would have the guts to suggest that maybe (maybe, I say) Charlemagne was right to march the Franks through the river. Only a theonomist would have to guts to ask if maybe the death penalty for homosexual acts is a good idea. After a while, being a theonomist, you get used to thinking the unthinkable, and you get very used to people screaming at you for daring to do so. So, then you read NTW. He says some new things. Yawn. People are screaming at him for daring to say some new things. Yawn. Been there. Theonomists have been lied about, called names, and excluded from positions a whole lot more than NTW has. Back when I was in those circles, it amazed me that the people writing to criticize it never, ever, dealt fairly and accurately with what theonomists were saying. Well, now we see the same thing with NTW. All of which is to say, I guess, that post-recons are not going to be upset by NTW, and because NTW is putting out good stuff exegetically, post-recons are naturally going to read and appreciate him. That’s probably way more than you asked for. But I had to assume that lots of younger people on this list did not know what you were asking about.