Archive for the ‘Church(es)’ Category

Peter Martyr Vermigli on Final Justification

In the past I have discussed the Reformed tradition’s variety regarding the doctrine of final justification by works. There are at least two, or maybe three, different ways that members of that tradition have formulated the relation between initial justification by faith alone, and the final judgment which in some sense will take works into account. Peter Martyr Vermigli is another example of the stream that was comfortable speaking of two justifications:

A different kind of justification follows this upright life of holiness by which we are clearly praised, approved and declared just. For although good works do not bring that first righteousness which is given freely, yet they point to it and show it is present. Hence Abraham is told in the book of Genesis: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have done this thing and have not spared your own son for my sake.” Surely God was not previously unaware of Abraham’s piety; only then does he testify that it will be apparent to all what Abraham’s faith and religion were like. So too David, because of his upright life, is pronounced as a man after God’s own heart, and Job is called holy and just, as are Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Joseph, the man betrothed to the blessed Virgin. And surely we ourselves are also assured and we realize that we are enriched with good works. Peter urges us to make our righteousness sure by this means. And on this same basis we will be justified by Christ in the last judgment by the remembrance of good works, that is, we will be declared just, on the testimony of mercy shown to our neighbors. Since it has been exhibited by us, it will be an indication that the chief and solid righteousness which we dealt with in the first place was not lacking. [p. 147 from The Peter Martyr Reader; excerpted from In Selectissimam D. Pauli Priorem ad Corinthios Epistolam Commentarij (from Vermigli's commentary on 1 Corinthians)]

Steven Furtick vs. Slavoj Zizek

Furtick cult

This past week word has permeated the evangelical world that Steven Furtick of Elevation church maybe drifting into cult territory with his church’s aim to indoctrinate both adults and children into following Furtick’s vision to the exclusion of any other possible influence. Many of the responses to the claims that Furtick has made about his unique power to be a visionary leader in the church are generally met with one of two responses: 1) The person who effectively agrees that yes, Furtick is some sort of visionary and we had all better give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s clearly seeing some kind of success thus far, or 2) Furtick is a charlatan because there is no such thing as the role of “visionary” among pastors and therefore this man is little more than a garden variety huckster and or narcissist who is faking it. I think that there is a third option here as well: Furtick may well have some kind of mystical experiences (whether from God, some other spirit or just straight up undiagnosed schizophrenia) but that doesn’t make him a good man or a wise leader. Watch here as Zizek dismantles a couple of notable mystics:

One’s inner life of prayer or meditation or devotion does not make one righteous. We can grant someone the authenticity of their visions while still holding them to account as ordinary human beings.

Beige Like Church: Thoughts On Donald Miller & Churchgoing

Homer Sleeping in Church

Much has been made of this post by Donald Miller concerning his preference for worshiping God in contexts outside of being in a church for a Sunday service. Now, in the age of the “spiritual-but-not-religious” and the rise of the “nones,”  there probably isn’t anything that special for someone to post online that they are spiritual in ways that do not follow traditional (Christian) religious practice. What makes this post different is that Miller is also the author of a little book called Blue Like Jazz, that has become something of touchstone for particularly younger evangelicals in the last decade or so. Now, I’ve scanned a little bit of Blue Like Jazz and I get a sense of why it had the impact it did with its audience (people more or less like me). With that out of the way, here are a couple of excerpts from Miller’s post and how I read them:

“It’s just that I don’t experience that intimacy in a traditional worship service. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of sermons I actually remember. So to be brutally honest, I don’t learn much about God hearing a sermon and I don’t connect with him by singing songs to him. So, like most men, a traditional church service can be somewhat long and difficult to get through.”

It was funny that so many people in the Reformed tradition were critical of Miller’s piece as this bit could have been lifted almost directly from one of Mark Driscoll’s many insistences that church needs more manliness. He seems to be describing the same problem – albeit coming to a different conclusion (or perhaps not, but more on that later).

“Research suggest there are three learning styles, auditory (hearing) visual (seeing) and kinesthetic (doing) and I’m a kinesthetic learner. Of course churches have all kinds of ways for you to engage God including many kinesthetic opportunities including mission trips and so forth, but if you want to attend a “service” every Sunday, you best be an auditory learner. There’s not much out there for kinesthetic or visual learners.”

Miller says he’s studied psychology and education, but this is such a gross oversimplification of the theories surrounding different types of learning that I fear that he’d have done better just leaving this little bit out. That said, for what it’s worth, I can’t help but remind myself here that evangelical Protestants are about the worst when it comes to this. Traditional liturgies involve a lot more movement and many other Christian traditions incorporate all manner of iconography into their places of worship. Evangelicals are uniquely skilled in making church seem like a large-scale office meeting with the appropriately bland walls, pseudo-comfy seating, and fake plants. [I had to pause after I wrote that, I think I just described hell.]

I think Miller has a point, and one that is not particularly new or different, but I don’t know if he’s articulated it well or really sought to explore how he can best connect with God other than by looking at vegetation or something.

The Magic of a Kind Word

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

-Proverbs 15:1

Much has been said about Pope Francis’ statements on atheism or homosexuality, the sorts of things that have earned him the nod from Time as Person of the Year for 2013. What’s remarkable is that nothing that he’s said really contradicts what either of his two most recent predecessors have said. What he has really changed is more a matter of tone. There is nothing in the substance of Francis’ statement about how he can’t judge a gay man who seeks God that contradicts Benedict’s assertion that all gays are “objectively disordered.” There is a world of difference however in the tone of such remarks. Benedict was successful at capturing very conservative church people from Evangelical denominations, Francis is capturing the attention (and the imagination) of pretty much everyone else. And yet for all those who either laud or damn him as a crypto-Marxist, nothing he has said seems to fall outside of conventional Catholic teaching.

Not Good. But Safe.

southpark

I apologize to C. S. Lewis for inverting a Narnia quote, but I think this quite roundly captures what the Christian media complex is today – not good, but safe. One such example was already quoted by Andrew on our humble site. Michael Gungor has pointed out that “creative” is a word often used to describe certain Christian recording artists whereas creativity is often a given in most other musical subcultures. (In fact, it’s the inverse that will be brought to criticize certain acts – “derivative” – as if, even in the often highly controlled world of corporate pop and rock there is still a presumption that an artist should at least attempt to display some kind of creativity.)

The other, arguably more serious case, is one involving a big-name pastor plagiarizing a book. The pastor in question is the Reformed enfant terrible, Mark Driscoll, and while the (alleged) incidence of plagiarism is a wrong in and of itself, Carl Trueman has rightly pointed out that this is compounded by the Christian media complex essentially giving Driscoll a pass and going after radio host Janet Mefferd for having the temerity to ask a tough question of a popular Christian leader. Trueman’s article (which should be read in its entirety) makes it clear that this is not an isolated incident either:

“Some years ago (another time, another webpage), someone I know made thinly veiled criticisms of a powerful evangelical organization. The response was swift: First, he received a series of personal pleas from people at the organization, telling him to stop; then he later discovered that his boss had come under direct pressure from head office at the other organization to remove him. The truth of what he had said was not (as far as I am aware) challenged at any point. It was simply that his comments were very inconvenient from a public relations perspective. Thankfully, the boss sided with his writer, not with the external critics.”

Is the Christian media complex good? Increasingly the answer seems to be “no.” But, as long as you have celebrity status, it is safe.

The Minor Polytheism

Mumford & Sons, Doug Phillips, and Martin Luther all share some things in common. But beyond the superficial banalities, I want to note two in particular. Firstly, they are all examples of popular Christians. Perhaps not popular with everybody (who is?), but at least Christians who are known to be Christian and have a “following” of some kind (in the case of Mumford & Sons, “fans” would probably be better, though that’s a short form for “fanatics”).

Yet they also have something else in common. They have very public failings. Mumford & Sons was recently ejected from a burlesque establishment. Not only were they present, but they did something bad enough to get kicked out. Doug Phillips has just confessed to having a long term non-physical but “inappropriately emotional and affectionate” relationship with a woman who was not his wife. (It’s worth noting that his apology seems sincere.) Finally, Martin Luther wrote copious amounts of venomous anti-Semitic literature.

Now, as spectators, we could easily sit back at this point and condemn them from a vantage point of moral superiority. And, let’s be honest, it’s probably likely many of us would be morally superior to these individuals in specific ways. But that would miss the deeper lesson here.

Perhaps not ironically, it was Martin Luther who memorably taught us this lesson in recent history. One way of understanding his singular insight is as a recognition that the “inner” and “outer” of the human world can fail to match up. The believing poor are saved, while the unbelieving and proud rich and powerful are damned. The believer is united to Christ by faith in his heart, and yet continues to sin in his body. Furthermore, he recognized the imperfectability of human beings in the time before the consummation of the kingdom.

Or, in other words, we can never expect things to be just as they seem, and we can expect even the people on the highest pedestals to have real flaws. We should not identify the kingdom of God with any visible institution, since God does not work so infallibly through any such thing as to be identifiable with it. And this means we ought to kill in ourselves what some Muslims call the “minor polytheism”: the worship of man. All people, even Christians, are tempted to this sin, since human beings are often glorious in many ways. But when we fail to remember that these are just created beings, and that their glory derives from an uncreated Glory, we can begin to put our hope in those creatures. And this step will always be a catastrophic one to take, for human beings will always let us down.

Is Cessationism Responsible for David Hume?

There are, of course, many positions on modern charismatic gifts in the church. In my previous post, I quoted Robert Mullin who listed four possible kinds of approaches. One of the most popular in the history of Protestantism has been cessationism, which argues that miraculous gifts were limited to the age of the apostles. However, this general approach has contained within it several strategies, rather than just one. More concretely, when the cessationist position came up against claims of contemporary miracles, as in the Roman Catholic apologists, it had at least two possible responses (though in reality, there was at least one other, which I think they overlooked): they could claim the miracles were demonically inspired, or they could question the veracity of the miracle claims.

Earlier on Protestants like Increase Mather opted for the first approach in their response to Catholics; later on, though, the latter approach gained more popularity, with writers like John Locke and Conyers Middleton arguing against the reliability of modern miracle claims. This was useful for Protestants in the dawning age of the Enlightenment, but it’s worth asking if, in retrospect, it might have been a devil’s bargain.

Robert Mullin notes the effects of this position:

The idea of a radically limited age of miracles, and the marriage of a Protestantism and the Enlightenment that it reflected rested, however, on a precarious base, namely the willingness to distinguish between the plausibility of biblical events and that of nonbiblical events. It was precisely this point that David Hume challenged in his famous discussion of miracles in his Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). As is well known, Hume’s essay has two parts. In the first he argues against miracles from probability. Because miracles were violations of a law of nature established by the “uniform experience” of humanity, he explained, no testimony is ever sufficient to establish a miracle “unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.” It is his second argument, however, that is more important for our purposes. In order to illustrate his assertion about the improbability of miracles, Hume proceeded to put the Protestant argument for a limited age of miracles on its head. He offered three postbiblical miracle stories: healings associated with the Roman emperor Vespasian, the regeneration of the leg of the doorkeeper of the cathedral of Sargossa (Spain), and healings associated with the tomb of the Jansenist Abbé Pâris in early-eighteenth-century France. Middleton had also appealed to the case of Abbé Pâris, for it was widely discussed in eighteenth-century England; but he had used it to discredit the claims of postbiblical miracles. Hume, however, argued that the “evidences and authority” of the accounts of the French miracles surpassed that of any biblical miracle. The evidence was particularly impressive because it included testimony from some Jesuit authorities who were the arch enemies of the Jansenists. Hume’s implication was clear: if the better attested postbiblical miracles were to be rejected, then the biblical ones should be jettisoned. 1

To put a point on it: is cessationism responsible for David Hume?

Some Labour Day Reading

Zach Hoag posted a series over this past summer that was titled “Smokin’ Hot Conversations” about the perception of pastors who go on about their “smokin’ hot wives” as well as the wider world of sexuality and gender in American evangelical circles, particularly from the perspective of various female interlocutors. It’s worth reading views on the matter that is not either from an outsider or from another male voice.

John Piper Emerges As New Threat To America

There’s a new threat on the horizon, one that the Values Voter Summit ranks up there with Communism and Islam: the Emergent Church. There’s so much that’s almost comically wrong with this. First of all, this is 2013, not 2003. Second of all, the category of “Emergent” that’s being used is, well, bizarre. You see the list of Emergent leaders includes Rick Warren, Bill Hybels and even John Piper.

John Piper, Emergent Church leader and threat to a Christian America.

I don’t know if this is some kind of Overton window business where the Values Voter people want their audience to be so conservative as to worry that John Piper is some kind of soft mainline liberal. Maybe these guys genuinely believe that Piper, by not being explicitly in support of the GOP, is therefore a danger. I hope it’s not anything to do with Piper’s views on racial reconciliation in the US:

Whatever it is, it’s surprising that this would come out as at least one observer reckons that The Gospel Coalition (with which Piper is associated) seems poised to become a whole lot more political and activist in socially conservative causes and start to constitute a new religious right.

The Truth About The Truth

truth2

It is perhaps a little less remarked on today than it was in the 1990s, but it still comes up in evangelical circles: the “truth.” Actually, no, it’s the Truth and evangelicals can still often be heard denouncing “moral relativism” as a threat to capital-T Truth. Now it’s not talked as much since the perception that New Atheism is the big threat to North American evangelical protestantism, but there is still a concern about moral relativism causing impressionable young Christians to abandon orthodox Christian views in favour of a this-is-my-truth-tell-me-yours mindset. Now though, the big threat seems to be the rise of the “nones” including various sorts of “new” atheism as well as increasing interest in the Roman Catholic, High Anglican, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox traditions among disaffected evangelicals.

Why?

The unchanging, capital-T Truth.

The evangelical community that has made such a big deal about the threat of relativism and the importance of an eternal, unchanging, objective truth as a starting point possesses another key characteristic that is utterly contradictory: the centrality of personal testimony. This is especially the case in youth groups (and hence this is perhaps why twentysomethings and thirtysomethings are most affected by this return to older church forms). Almost any speaker at a church youth group in the 1990s-2000s, be it the regular youth pastor or some kind of guest speaker or one of the students themselves would, if given any length of time to talk, weave in a personal testimony of sorts. Most youth group kids likely had a better understanding of the personal conversion and faith story of their youth pastor than they did that pastor’s take on any number questions about theology or ecclesiology.

That’s a tremendous zig-zag there. The truth is unchanging and objective, but here’s my own personal story of what I think God did in my own life. In other words: this is my own personal truth. Oops. The kids coming through the churches in the last three decades were fed this contradiction, is it any wonder that they leave to go look for the capital-T truth. An Eastern Orthodox/Roman Catholic/Anglican priest, if you asked him, might tell you a little about his own life and faith, but that’s not what he’s leading with. Not because it’s a secret or it’s of no importance, it’s just not nearly as important as the other stuff such an individual might wish to share. The same might be the case for at least some of the Reformed types who have lately gained much traction in the evangelical world. Conversely, remember those New Atheists, they also like to talk about the truth: in this case the truth that science might be revealing an ugly, uncaring, material world, but if that’s what can be shown to be true (albeit through an entirely different process than the traditions and rites of ancient Christianity) it can be equally appealing to those who were told by their church youth groups to search out the unchanging, immovable capital-T Truth.