Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Anything but inevitable

From Philip Jenkins’ modern classic, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2nd ed.):

Any knowledgeable observer in the 1790s would have concluded that orthodox Christianity had reached its last days, and of course, this sensible opinion would have been absolutely wrong. In the early nineteenth century, orthodoxy and tradition made a comeback, as did the papacy and, indeed, the Jesuits. The rationalism prevailing in many Protestant churches was overwhelmed by a new evangelical revivalism, which received an enormous boost from the revivals that began in 1798. Far from dominating the American scene, Unitarian-Universalists today comprise around .02 percent of the U.S. population. So thoroughly was eighteenth-century liberalism obliterated that many modern writers tend to assume that its ideas were invented anew by Victorian skeptics and rationalists, or perhaps grew out of the controversies over Darwinian evolution. Then as now, the triumph of secular liberalism proved to be anything but inevitable. (11)

The meaning and criteria of "the essentials"

Dan kicked off our discussion about essentials with a proposal: given the Apostles’ Creed, what else should be required as essential Christian doctrine (or, what would be wrong with using even this as the standard for “essentials)?

However, if I may, I would like to take a step back and ask a couple logically more basic questions. That is: 1) What exactly are we saying about when call a doctrine “essential”?, and 2) What is the criteria by which we include doctrines in the essential category (and so come up with something like the apostles’ creed)?

It seems that the term “essential”, at least among conservatives of various stripes, serves double duty: it signifies the boundaries of the Christian church, and of salvation. Thus in tandem with answering any question about what is “essential” one will have to at least consider the issues surrounding the historical claim of extra ecclesiam nulla sallus. Most contemporary Christians, at least, have softened this claim to “ordinarily no salvation outside of the church”, and I think that is a right instinct. An example of a liminal case might be Apollos in Acts, whose preaching was technically incorrect, or at least incomplete (knowing only of Jesus and nothing of the Holy Spirit and the events of Pentecost), but who was not regarded in any way as a false teacher. Similarly, one could imagine liminal cases today, with people who profess (if they are even conscious enough to do so) technically incomplete or incorrect doctrine (how many congregants in the average rural church could explain the ousia/hypostasis distinction?) but who nevertheless seem to have an ardent love for the Lord and display the fruit of the Spirit in their life. Nevertheless, while recognizing the importance of this qualification, the modern ecumenical discussion is basically between leaders of churches and is often directed at the goal of having a common teaching ministry (where pulpits could be exchanged without violating conscience), and so agreeing on what the essentials are and agreeing on the content of them is (pardon the pun) essential. Someone in a teaching position in the church is morally expected (even by scripture, cf. James’ epistle) to have attained a higher standard than the average congregant, and certainly to have reflected enough on doctrine to have a settled opinion on such matters (which places them more firmly in the category of the morally culpable if they reject true essential doctrine). So, sum up the discussion so far: essential doctrine is doctrine that defines the boundaries of the true church, the community of those on the way to eschatological City of God.

The second basic question, and perhaps the most important one (in my humble opinion), involved in this discussion is the criteria by which essential doctrines (in distinction from non-essentials) are identified. It’s here where I think things really get interesting.

Obviously, immediately the issue of theological authority, and correlative theological methodology, becomes directly relevant to this discussion. How one identifies essential doctrine will be dependent on what gets to define the criteria. Now, as in many ways this is the most divisive question of all in the modern ecumenical debate, one could perhaps get hopeless about the possibility of Christian reunion in the present. However, there is possibly still a chance for reunion in advance of resolving all these questions, if we can take for granted that most Christians have some theological authorities in common. For example, between conservative Roman Catholics and conservative evangelicals there is common agreement that the Apostles are the foundational authority of the church and define its doctrine, even while those parties disagree on whether the current Magisterium exercises an authority equal to that of the Apostles (being their successor). This allows for at least the possibility of rapprochement. Obviously, among denominations that are even closer in theological heritage, like conservative Lutherans and conservative Anglicans, the possibility of coming to agreement on what the criteria for essentials is is even greater.

My tentative ecumenical proposal at this stage is the following: let us assume that the Apostles get to define what are essential doctrines and what are not. This will immediately exclude some of the most radical of experience-based types of Christianity, but some starting point is unavoidable (and which one we take will be inevitably biased depending on the one suggesting the starting point), and I personally think those forms of Christianity are the least like the first century Church in comparison to all the other denominational variations. Furthermore, I think such forms of Christianity as inherently uncorrectable, since they claim direct divine authority for whatever they experience to be the “Spirit’s leading”, and it is impossible to question whether they have interpreted a self-interpreting experience correctly, unlike mundanely researched exegetical positions.

Since this post is getting long, I will leave off here for now. The next logical step is fairly obvious: what did the apostles teach was essential doctrine, insofar as “neutral” grammatico-historical research is concerned?

Worship in Something and Something IV: Words, Words, Words

This is a continuation of my series of disjointed posts on worship. The previous ones can be found here, here, and here.

In a previous post in this series I recall mentioning that I had played on a few worship teams in various churches. I haven’t shared too many observations directly from this experience, but this time I’m going to jump off from one of them: You know what you should not expect in a contemporary worship song? An extended instrumental or solo of any type. The only one that I can think of in a popular worship tune is the four bars or so of lead guitar in Stuart Townend’s “In Christ Alone.” In that case one could even suggest that this riff mainly exists to imply the vocal melody for the verses that ensue.

The only time you can expect a large expanse of instrumental without any singing is as a backdrop for the pastor and/or worship leader to talk and/or pray at the beginning or end of a song. Why is this? Well, one of the explanations that I have heard is that instrumental music would somehow be “indulgent” – there had better be some words to go with all that music – as if the words are the content and music is just a sort of optional form. Contemporary evangelical worship always seems to need to some kind of verbal content, or else the music is apparently of no value.

One of the mostly obscured murals in Geneva

One of the mostly obscured murals in Geneva

Now, step back with me nearly half a millennium. What did Calvin do to the cathedral in Geneva? That’s right church historians, he (or at least his followers) whitewashed it. A few murals survive, but for the most part the interior is blank. So it goes that most protestant churches have fairly austere interiors to this very day. Even if many protestants today think the Geneva cathedral was overkill, we nonetheless follow its example.

What do these two things have to do with one another? In the case of instrumental music, the problem seems to be that main message of the music ought to be verbal (even in the charismatic case where most of the congregation does not know what exactly is being verbalized). Anything not supporting this verbal message is seen as a distraction at best and self-indulgent at worst. In the case of doing away with religious icons the charge is even more serious – they are surely seen as unnecessary at best, perhaps idolatry at worst.

Protestants like to be all about The Word (you know, sola scriptura), but they are also fond of words. You don’t really need to have music if you aren’t going to be singing some words on top of it, you don’t really need some pictures on the walls, they might distract you from the same words being either sung or spoken. Words, words, words, to borrow a line from Hamlet, colonize the entire worship experience for Protestants. While there is nothing wrong with speaking, hearing, or reading words in church, I submit that it is possible to over-prioritize words in worship.

On a practical level let me say that not everyone is into reading and/or listening. There are those of us who vastly prefer a picture, or music, or just the ability to get up and do something as a means to internalize what we learn. I must hasten to point out here that this is not an excuse to not listen to the preacher. One cannot say, “Excuse me, but I’m going to leave for the sermon, I don’t do auditory learning.” On the other hand, many Protestants like to emphasize good teaching, and what is the point of good teaching if it is not accessible.

On a more abstract level abandoning things like images/icons, movement of any kind (aside from standing at the points indicated), and instrumental music is part of our dis-incarnation or excarnation of worship. Who cares about our bodies or our senses, what really matters is our disembodied minds which apparently need only words for instruction. We are on the way out (excarnating) as Christ is on the way in (he was, after all, the incarnation). That way lies gnosticism.

To me this smells a lot like Cartesian dualism and not very much like anything you see church history prior to, say, the 1500s. (Yes, I know that I used Calvin as an example of this, and that he predates Descartes, but they were still operating in that same early enlightenment/late renaissance milieu.) Actually, let’s go further, think about the only bit of a church service that was specifically instituted by Jesus himself – communion. Everyone gets together and partakes in the supremely carnal (in its original sense – meaning of the flesh) acts of eating and drinking.

Now this is not to be a matter of either/or, but of both/and, since we would disregard our minds (embodied, disembodied, whatever) at our peril. But I think it’s fair to say that we need to think again about our physical, carnal selves – our bodies. We need to think about this beyond the sort of optional extras that are sometimes allowed (raising hands in worship) ask what is lost when we no longer think it right to look at an icon or listen to a tune as part of our worship of God.

On Theological Drift


Ah, yes, drifting looks like a lot of fun but what about theological drift? What I mean is statements like the one Keith made in a post a while ago:

All theologies seem to have a certain drift affixed to them.

If a guy can sit down and stomach something like a John Piper sermon, at the very least I know his temptation isn’t going to drift in [Brian McLaren's] way.

Sounds sensible, right? Piper makes a very similar comment using the term “trajectory” instead of “drift” regarding Doug Wilson here:

Again you have the idea that if one starts off going in one direction, one tends to go that way. It’s downright Newtonian you could say. But does it apply to theology like it does in the physical world? As intuitively appealing as that seems, I do not believe that that is necessarily the case.

Charles Taylor uses the example of a preacher preaching hellfire to the congregation hoping that the congregants would be fearful enough to turn to God. One might be inclined to think all that hellfire talk is going to make a strong impression, really put the fear of God into people. The drift of such a congregation would seem not to lead to apostasy. But all the hellfire talk – or so Taylor posits – actually drives people into the arms of humanism, despairing of their salvation. Just as the same threat (and its attendant solution – indulgences) drove Luther to break with Rome.

I think it’s a fair question to ask a pastor or religious teacher or theologian where they think their theological project is going. I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to ask someone what they thought the logical conclusions of their thought was. That said, it is not sufficient to condemn a theology for its apparent trajectory or drift alone. The results of any given theological project can be difficult or even impossible to predict.

Everything Mediated by Screens

Something struck me when I went to the U2 show earlier this month: many of the people seemed to watch nearly the entire show staring into their phones or cameras with which they were recording the concert. Now from where I was sitting, the large screens over the stage dwarfed the actual band. So what were people recording? In large part it was probably the video projections of the band on those giant screens.

In other words a large segment of people at that show payed top dollar so they could look into a 2-3″ screen as they created a lo-fi recording of a video display instead of just watching U2 play. I figured it was futile to point out to them that buying the inevitable concert DVD might have better served their purposes. I bring this up because Andrew’s post about technology and protestantism reminded me of it. What happens when more and more of our lives are lived through the mediation of computer or cell phone screens?

Part of it is objectifying – now in the case of U2, that objectification has been very profitable, but what about the church. Now Christians can pick their favourite super star pastor and objectify their preaching. The reverse side of this is that such an ability allows them to regular weigh the local preacher in the balance against the Big Name. Looking through a screen on YouTube, you get a very small dimension of what a church or a pastor is actually like. In turn this allows us to carry on our fantasies about how much better it would be if we could just go to that other church with that awesome pastor we see on the internet.

As with all fantasies, our YouTube pastors are only a narrow band of the real person. What’s wrong with that? Well, here’s an example: I know of one pastor whose sermons do appear online and whose church is quite large and growing – in other words, a classic fantasy pastor. Wouldn’t it be amazing to go to this guy’s church, you could be in the audience, you could go up to him afterwards and ask him all kinds of theological questions. Except not really. As gifted a speaker as this pastor is on stage, the man is almost painfully introverted once the mic is switched off.

Now I want to be careful because I don’t want to say that every pastor ought to be a hyper-extrovert running around shaking hands like a political candidate, but I do imagine that it partially completes the fantasy of an ideal pastor – the viewer online could just go up and start asking questions. Of course this is just one example, there are I am sure things about any pastor with a substantial following online that would catch all the internet disciples off-guard.

Of course what is true of fantasy church is just that which is true of all fantasies and just as no one goes to a renaissance fair to experience renaissance-era dentistry, and no one  becomes a Civil War re-enactor to actually have their limbs cut off, no one watches a pastor on YouTube to experience all the messy, or mundane, or unfulfilling parts of church life.

We can experience real, authentic connection with people over the internet, we can share, and learn, and grow, but we can also be trapped in a fantasy, and that is arguably the great danger for many Christians.

The Protestant experiment and technology

Most students of history probably know the significance of Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type printing press for the Reformation. Because of it, Protestant theological materials challenging the papacy could be widely disseminated, and had a much greater impact than they would have if they had been restricted to, say, copying the Institutes of the Christian Religion or the Augsburg Confession out by hand.

I’m not the first to raise this connection, but I wonder, if history tends to repeat itself, what the effect of the internet will be. With higher literacy levels in the Western world than at the Protestant Reformation (thanks partly to the Reformation itself), and with mass access to an easily searchable virtually global repository of information (thanks to Google), and the ability now for almost anyone with minimal internet skills to be able to publish their thoughts to that global repository (thanks to blogging and social networking sites), one is led to ask: what effect will the internet have on religion, and specifically the church, in the near future? The hopeful answer would be that increased direct dialogue between people who disagree could lead to eventual consensus (the hope behind all free-speech laws in free societies). The cynical answer would be to point to the inanity of much of the internet, to the degrading of dialogue by “trolls”, and to the even-now-continuing persistence of group-think on the internet, and conclude that the internet will lead to an even greater fragmentation than the Reformation resulted in.

But somehow, in this case, I actually think the hopeful answer is probably closer to the truth. Even granting the trolls and the group-think, the very fact that groups that once could safely ignore each other and write the other into oblivion will now have to face (well, kind of) living, breathing, representatives of the other position means that something new is happening in the world. And I think that’s a good thing.

Calvinism and politics

Sometime in my second-last year of I high school I began to believe in Calvinism. Along with it, I picked up several political opinions that I thought were the consistent outworkings of Calvin’s doctrine of salvation. But now I’m a little skeptical.

Often thinkers have appealed to Calvin’s pessimistic view of human nature as a justification for conservative politics, in the sense of politics which try not to rock the boat too much, try to have many checks and balances, etc.

Now, there are good arguments for those things, but I’m not sure it follows necessarily from Calvin’s view of human nature. For starters, among all the post-Reformation denominations, Calvinism was certainly one of the most radical (alongside non-pacifistic anabaptism). The American revolution was known early on as the “Presbyterian Revolt”, for example. At least for some people, Calvinism meant not conservatism, but radicalism.

Further, the strong postmillennial strain (of which I consider myself a part) of Calvinism would push in the opposite direction: as many historians have suggested, the Enlightenment myth of progress was in many ways a secularized version of the postmillennial hope of the Puritans.

And apart from these things, there is also the much-discussed doctrine of “common grace”, the basic idea being God’s continual work in history outside of the church to restrain human beings from being as evil as they could be.

I think it would be fair to say, then, that Calvinism does not really require a conservative politics in the most literal sense of that term. Though Calvinism does say that, in itself, human nature after the fall is depraved and alienated from God, God’s activity in history, both inside and outside the church, makes it virtually impossible to deduce a political theory from that fact. No prediction can be made, like in Hobbes’ system, because unlike Hobbes’ system, Calvinism is all about God and what he is doing in this world. It can allow for broader thinking than a heel-dragging conservatism, and historically it has.


Just added a link to Steven Wedgeworth’s blog, Wedgewords. It’s an excellent resource for lots of things, but especially for early church and Reformed church history.

Protestantism is to blame

[The popularity of this post led me to reconsider it, and I think there is a significant inaccuracy that has to be taken into account: the Wars of Religion proper were not wars between Protestants (English revolutions are the exception). However, the fragmentation of Protestantism still occurred, and still would be a strong motivator for a philosophical shift toward non-theological views of the world in Protestant nations, so I think there is still a significant truth in my post.]

The historical debate about the genealogy of modern atheism continues amongst historians and theologians, blaming various figures such as Duns Scotus, Francisco Saurez, the deists, René Descartes, and many others. I don’t doubt that some of these figures may have contributed in one way or another, but I remain persuaded, at least for the moment, that the main culprit is really Martin Luther.

Now, I say this as a convinced Protestant. I agree 100% with Luther’s sola scriptura. But I think it was probably the cause of atheism. To boil it down: Luther raised the possibility of a Christianity not founded on Papal (or at least clerical, in Councils) primacy, but based on the individual scholar/Christian reading the scriptures for themselves. Unfortunately, those who agreed with Luther on this starting point failed to present a unified front on several of the important issues in theology and ethics, with the result of the (in)famous fragmentation of Protestantism. This fragmentation became (at least perceived to be; see below) violent with the Wars of Religion, with the result that philosophers started to look for a grounding for politics and ethics outside of any kind of theology. This led to a distinctively modern kind of foundationalism, which, combined with a judgment that there was no good evidence for Christianity, led to atheism.

Now, I think there are two needed qualifications to this thesis. Firstly, I think William Cavanaugh has at least put a big question mark on the general idea that the Wars of Religion was really about, or fought along the lines of religion. More likely it was about the princes trying to get power, and using religious disputes as a justification for their taking more power. Secondly, I doubt there could be a significant explanation of French atheism apart from the apparent friendliness of Catholicism and royal corruption.

But, nevertheless, I think Protestantism has to take a large part of the blame. Because Protestants were unable to secure unity, the state stepped in to do it for us instead. Theologically, this lines up perfectly with Jesus’ statements in his final discourse in John, at least as a mirror-image of what he wanted: Christ said that the world would come to believe based on the unity and love amongst Christians, and so the lack of those things led to the world doing the opposite.

The sad part, bringing things closer to home, is that this failure shows no signs of improving in the near future (witness Dan’s most recent post).

Understanding the OT

Just a quick comment:

Since Marcion, the church as a whole has been very clear that the OT is part of its scripture, and since the Reformation, Protestants have at least tried to understand the OT on its own terms (as opposed to merely allegorizing it). But the success of that attempt has been very uneven, I think most would admit, and certainly at the popular level even the most “bible-centered” evangelicals leave something to be desired in their understanding of the OT. Consider for example: if pressed, I think most evangelicals would probably explain Leviticus as 27 chapters of flowery metaphors for the theory of penal substitution.

In my own personal journey, two men in particular have helped me immensely in growing to understand the OT: James Jordan and Peter Leithart. For quite a while I have linked to Leithart on the sidebar of this blog, but I also just added “Biblical Horizons”, which is a blog associated with the ministry of the same name founded by Jordan. I personally do not think I would be understating it if I called Jordan a genius when it comes to the depth of his knowledge of the OT. For those who read this blog that might care, he is virtually the source of the entire “Federal Vision” (or at least, anything truly distinct about it), though one has to follow the threads back a few years to see that. I highly recommend everything these men have written.