Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Coming Evangelical Disaster

by M. James Sawyer
(This reflection is a response to “The Coming Evangelical Collapse” by Michael Spencer)

I have for years believed that American Evangelicalism (not Christianity) was skating on thin ice, spiritually and intellectually. As a movement we (not all of us individually) have suffered from a host of problems that began generations ago, as early as the origin of the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century.

We have viewed Christianity individualistically—‘am I right with God?’ (not that this is unimportant). And in so doing have privatized the faith and have lost in large measure the larger vision of the redemption not just of individuals but society and the world.

While Christianity was founded in America by those of Puritan stock who had a high regard for scholarship and the intellectual study of both theology and creation, the heirs of the Second Great Awakening have exchanged intellect for feeling in exactly the same way as did the developing liberalism. When Pentecostalism came on the scene beginning in 1906, it pushed the envelope of anti-intellectualism to the point that you had to “check your brains as the door” when you entered church. To this day as a tradition, it still decries formal study and questioning as damaging to faith.

In the late nineteenth century and continuing through the 20th century we have withdrawn from American society which was founded on Christian/biblical ideals and principles (although some of the founding fathers were either deists or unorthodox they still shared a Christian worldview) and turned the seats of power over to secularism.

The Enlightenment, (c. 1650- 1800) made reason as opposed to divine revelation the final arbiter of truth. Through the 19th century, this assumption increasingly transformed all Western society. By the early 20th century, this presupposition was seen not only in society but also in a large part of the Church. Fundamentalism arose in opposition to this shift. The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the first three decades of the twentieth century saw mainstream denominations capitulate to the zeitgeist (spirit of the age) and abandon their historic orthodox moorings with reference to the sinfulness of man, and the person and work of Christ, and even God as trinity. From a cultural perspective, the Scopes Trial (1925) served to nail the lid on the coffin of historic conservative Protestant Christianity in America.

In the wake of this defeat, the Fundamentalists withdrew from society as a whole and became inwardly focused, anti-intellectual, and other worldly–focusing on the imminent expectation of the rapture and using this as an excuse not to act as salt and light in society, claiming that to do so was like polishing brass on a sinking ship (”It’s all going to burn anyway”).

Modern evangelicalism was born in the late 1940’s when Carl Henry published The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Henry advocated a departure from the “Come out from among them” mentality of fundamentalism and a re-engagement with culture and the life of the mind. At that time in our history, the term “American Evangelical Scholar” was an oxymoron. To be an Evangelical was to be anti-intellectual. On an intellectual level, this re-engagement has met with considerable success. Although it took about a half a century, true Evangelical Scholarship is now a reality.

However, on the popular level the engagement with culture has been something close to disaster. Theologically and intellectually unequipped to deal with the change in worldview, Evangelicalism capitulated to cultural values and lost its distinction from “the world.” It adopted the very same type of political aspirations and tactics that a generation previously it had decried in Liberal Christianity. Evangelicalism identified itself with conservative (largely Republican) politics and became just another special interest group on the horizon that wanted a seat at the political table.

Over the past two generations, we have become so immersed in our national culture that our lifestyle is indistinguishable from that of the non-Christian and secular society. The divorce rate among Evangelicals in the country is at a level that corresponds to that of society as a whole.
In the Bible Belt, it is even greater than the divorce rate of the surrounding culture.

We as a movement decry abortion, yet about 40% of the abortions performed in the US are performed on self-proclaimed evangelical women. It is easier for these women to commit what they believe to be murder than to live with the shame and ostracism of the community that was supposed to love them. We, as a group, have lost our moral authority to speak on this issue.

The ethical reputation of evangelicals in business is so notorious as to make the term Evangelical Ethics an oxymoron. Many Christians let alone non-Christians will not do business with those who make public their evangelical commitment.

Twenty years ago when I was on the Student Life committee at a small Christian College we saw the same behavior among our students (promiscuity, abortion, alcohol abuse and drug abuse and homosexuality) that was prevalent among the broader society. (This was one of the school’s dirty little secrets that it tried not to let be known to the constituency for fear of harm to the college’s image.) What I saw was that in many cases parents who had failed to pass on the faith to their children sent them to a Christian college to make up for their failure.

In 1986 Francis Schaeffer published The Great Evangelical Disaster, addressing the question of the church’s abdication of its responsibility to truth. Ten years later in 1996 Mike Regele and Mark Schultz published The Death of the Church in which they argued, based on generational analysis, cultural trends and several other factors, that within a 20-40 year time frame the Church in America would look like the church in Europe—small, and marginalized within a sea of secularism. Michael Spenser’s article in the Christian Science Monitor echoes these same themes, but from some additional perspectives.

In our tradition, we have been committed to evangelism, but we have generally viewed evangelism strictly in terms of conversion, i.e. praying to receive Christ as savior. However, the call of the Lord in the Great Commission (Matt. 28: 18-19) is not to MAKE DECISIONS, it is to MAKE DISCIPLES. This I suspect is near the heart of our failure. Forty-five years ago as I entered my teenage years, fundamentalists/evangelicals knew and believed the Bible. (Admittedly, some of that belief was shallow and hermeneutically suspect but that is a topic for another discussion.) Today, the knowledge of the Bible in Evangelicalism is abysmal. One noted Evangelical New Testament scholar has observed that while Evangelical Scholarship has never been at a higher point—for the first time in about a century we can go toe to toe with liberal scholarship and hold our own—in the Churches we have entered a new Dark Ages with reference to Bible knowledge. As a theologian, I would argue that in the area of theology the situation is parallel but maybe even bleaker.

A bit over a decade ago, Evangelical pollster and sociologist George Barna concluded based on numerous surveys that nearly 40% of the individuals sitting in the pews in Evangelical Churches do not cognitively know enough theology even to be saved. Salvation was an experience rather than a belief in concrete facts. (I am not suggesting that experience is not involved-but that we by our failure to teach theology and the whole counsel of God, have emptied the faith of content and opened the door for Christians to commit idolatry whereby we create God out of our own desires and experience rather than who He has revealed himself to be.)

To me this is a sign of not only failure but of doom.

The parable of the Sower and the Seeds is telling. It would appear to me that American evangelicalism has become like the rocky soil on which the seed was sown. It rapidly germinates and grows impressively, but withers quickly because there is no root.

The Church as the Church will survive. But I fear that American evangelicalism is spiritually and theologically and intellectually bankrupt, having spent its intellectual capital and failing to heed the warnings of those who saw its headlong rush toward the cliff.

I may be overly pessimistic. But as a student of history I have in history repeatedly seen trends that lead to collapses. It is possible that God will intervene with another Awakening akin to the First Great Awakening. If He does “all bets are off.” But given current trends I don’t see much cause for optimism for long-term transformation in our tradition.

Friday, March 20, 2009

dead and deadly letter?!?

For certain giddy men have lately appeared, who, while they make a great display of the superiority of the Spirit, reject all reading of the Scriptures themselves, and deride the simplicity of those who only delight in what they call the dead and deadly letter. But I wish they would tell me what spirit it is whose inspiration raises them to such a sublime height that they dare despise the doctrine of Scripture as mean and childish. ~ John Calvin, Institutes, Book 1, Chapt 9, Sec. 1

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Wear This "Green" Today

The Shield of St. Patrick

I bind unto myself today the strong name of the trinity,

by invocation of the same, the Three in One, the One in Three.

I bind this day to me forever by power of faith Christ's incarnation,

His baptism in the Jordan river, his death on the cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spiced tomb, his riding up the heavenly way,
His coming at the day of doom I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself today the power of God to hold and lead,

His eye to watch, his might to stay, his ear to harken to my need,
The wisdom of my God to teach, his hand to guide, his shield to ward,
The Word of God to give me speech, his heavenly host to be my guard.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me;
Christ to comfort and restore me;
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the name, the strong name of the Trinity,

By invocation of the same, the Three in One, and One in Three,
Of whom all nature hath creation, eternal Father, Spirit, Word;
Praise to the God of my salvation, salvation is of Christ the Lord!


---by Peter J. Leithart

In his little classic, The Trinity, Karl Rahner said that the decline of Trinitarian theology began at a fateful moment in the medieval period. For Peter the Lombard, writing in the twelfth century, the doctrine of the Trinity was not a separate locus from the doctrine of God. The doctrine of God was simply the doctrine of Father, Son, and Spirit. Thomas Aquinas, writing in the following century, arranged things differently. He dealt with God’s existence, attributes, and knowability, and only then, in a separate “chapter” of the Summa theologiae, explicitly examined the Trinity. Trinitarian categories pop up in the “treatise on God,” but they are not at the forefront.

Once separated, the “treatise on God” and the “treatise on the Trinity” have kept their distance. Until very recently, most systematic theologies, Protestant and Catholic, are worked out in separate chapters. One of the most damaging effects of this arrangement has to do with our understanding of the attributes of God. Typically, the attributes are examined under the “doctrine of God,” and this can suggest that that they are “character traits” of the single divine nature, or the three Persons, considered “individually.” This, I submit, is not only sub-Trinitarian. It is inherently incoherent.

I. I start with a thesis. Stated negatively, the thesis is that a single unrelated person, whether divine or human, cannot have attributes. Stated positively, it is that attributes are always attributes of persons-in-relation, and, if they are attributes at all, they are attributes-in-action. This is most obvious with love. Love requires a beloved for the lover to love. Deep inside, I might have the capacity to be the best lover in the world, but without another, my love is sheer fantasy. Similarly, if god is a single person, at best he can be full of that lovin’ feeling, but his love is pure potential and not actual love, for actual love means acting lovingly. A Unitarian monad perhaps can become loving; but he cannot be love. Everyone since Augustine has known that, but the argument applies as well to all other attributes. A monadic god may have some potential for acting justly, but he cannot be just unless there is another alongside him to be just to. Neither God nor I can be good without a recipient of my good, nor compassionate without an object of compassion, nor gracious without an object of grace.

The point is sharpened when we consider the biblical description of these attributes. As Ralph Smith has argued at length, in Scripture, righteousness has to do with loyalty, and thus God can only be eternally righteous if He is eternally plural. “Joyfulness” may seem an individual quality, but in Scripture joy emerges in festivity. Joy is a communal experience (Deuteronomy 16:15; 1 Kings 1:40; 8:66; Psalm 16:11; 33:1; etc.). “Truth” in Scripture does involve accurate beliefs and words, but is it also, as John Frame argues, “faithfulness in all areas of life” (cf. Deuteronomy 7:9; 1 John 1:6; 2 John 4). Wisdom, we might think, might be a purely individual attribute, but in Scripture wisdom is “skill,” whether artistic or interpersonal (cf. Exodus 31:3). Glory is honor, and depends on the respectful regard of another. Father and Son are eternally glorious because each eternally glorifies the other. Again, attributes are attributes of persons-in-relation, and are always attributes-inaction. And so: Allah is, and can only be, a blank, faceless and without attributes. A Unitarian account of attributes is a step away from nihilism. It is no solution to say that the attributes of a monadic god are attributes in relation to creation. If a god’s potential for justice, love, compassion is actualized in his interactions with creation, then he is dependent on creation to be what he becomes. He gains “moral” attributes at the cost of his aseity.

I am not certain that a Unitarian monad is capable of creation. The best he can to is to emanate a bit of himself, which he could fashion into a world, later to be reabsorbed. If somehow he makes an other, a world truly different from himself, he is dependent on that world, and if he is dependent, how can he control it? Even if he can make matter, he cannot shape it to His purposes.

So, to refine an earlier point: Allah is either a blank or he has features that depend on the creation. Thus, Islamic theology oscillates between sheer transcendence and pantheism. These arguments appear to apply only to “communicable” or, more narrowly “moral” attributes, rather than to “incommunicable” attributes. Is “eternity” a relational attribute? Or “aseity”? It would seem not, but it is important to see that these “metaphysical” attributes are not self-standing. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (q. 7) gets it exactly right: “God is . . . infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, holiness, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” God’s eternity is not “bare” eternity, but the eternity of His being, wisdom, knowledge, etc.

In the end, all Unitarian gods are stuck with potential, but with no way to realize that potential. To do anything at all, to be anything at all, he will need to be himself again otherwise. But then he is becoming Trinity, and helping to prove my point.

II. If these arguments are valid, then Christian theology should self-consciously work out its understanding of God’s attributes as a subdivision of Trinitarian theology. We should begin and end discussions of attributes with the realization that in describing the attributes of God, we are describing features of communal, the life of Father, Son and Spirit. Here, I want to use holiness as a test case of this claim. Louis Berkhof’s discussion is typical. Relying on an etymology for the Hebrew qadash that links it with the verb qad (“cut off”), he argues that holiness is not “primarily . . . a moral or religious quality” but rather describes “a position or relationship existing between God and some person or thing.” Its basic sense is that God is “absolutely distinct from all his creatures” and “exalted above them in infinite majesty.” In its ethical uses, it has the connotation of “separation from moral evil or sin.” It is an eternal attribute in the sense that God “eternally wills and maintains His own moral excellence,” and it is manifested in relation to creation as an abhorrence of sin and a demand for “purity in his moral creatures.”

Berkhof doesn’t even consider how the Trinity fits here, but without the Trinity his discussion is fairly nonsensical. If holiness is separation and transcendence, how can God be holy before there is something to be separated from? Berkhof thinks that God is eternally and necessarily holy, but he can maintain that only by shifting the definition of holiness to God’s determination to maintain His “moral excellence.” A Trinitarian account will help, and open new angles on holiness. First, if holiness is separation, and if God is Triune, at least we have something to be separated from. The Father might be holy in His eternal distinction from the Son, the Son holy in His being Son and not Father, the Spirit holy in His eternal self-differentiation from the Father and Son. On Augustinian premises, the differentiation of Father and Son is opened by the Spirit, who is eternally between, making the “interval” that is essential to the music of Triune life. This difference and even “distance” between the Persons is the ground of relation, for without distance there would be no sense in saying that the Word is eternally toward (pros) the Father (John 1:1). If, as in some Trinitarian theology, the Persons are un-distanced relations, there is no “room” for a mutual gaze of love, no space to be overcome in loving embrace. The distance of holiness is the ground also of eternal analogy within the Triune life, for the Son is the Father’s image in the Spirit even before He impresses that image on flesh. As David Bentley Hart has said, “In God is no inward, unrelated gaze, no stillness prior to relation, or suspended in dialectical relation to otherness; his gaze holds another ever in regard, for he is his own other.” For the Trinity, “descent and departure are not secondary movements” but “God’s one life of joy.”

In these senses, then holiness is a Triune attribute, for there must be another if there is going to be “distance.” But the movement of holiness in Scripture is not only the withdrawal that creates distance but the approach that consecrates. Holiness means distance, but also the overcoming of distance.

Most of the references to holiness in Scripture are not describing God’s eternal holiness, but the holiness of what He consecrates as His own. Yahweh is holy, but He consecrates places, things, and people to be holy. According to Exodus 29:43, the tabernacle is “consecrated by My glory.” Once Yahweh indwells the tent in His cloud, the tabernacle and all its accoutrements – its ground, curtains, snuffers, bowls, altars, lamps, plates, and personnel – becomes consecrated as well. To be holy is to be indwelt by the glory of God, by the glorious God, and to be claimed as His by that indwelling (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20). This reinforces the conclusion that holiness is a relational attribute, but from a different direction. The Father is holy/separate in that He differentiates Himself from the Son, distancing by the Spirit, forming the interval that permits His gaze of love and admiration. On the other hand, the Father is also holy/claimed not by holding the Son off but by submitting to the Son’s invasion, by the Son’s indwelling through the Spirit, an indwelling that is eternally simultaneous with the act of the Persons’ mutual self-distancing. The Triune God is holy actively in the eternal self-distancing of each person; the Triune God is holy passively in that each is a temple for each.

In other words, the Triune God is holy because He is eternally locked in a boundless perichoretic life. He is holy because each Person eternally overcomes the “distance” between the Persons thorough mutually exhaustive perichoretic union. In the light of Exodus 29:43, we can refine this formulation: Since the Spirit is the glory of God, it is the Spirit by which the Trinity is consecrated. The Father consecrates the Son through the indwelling glory of the Holy Spirit, and the Son consecrates the Father through the indwelling Spirit that also proceeds from Him. The Spirit arrives from the Father to the Son indwelt by the Father, and is indwelt by the Son in His return to the Father, and so the Spirit is Holy Spirit, eternally distanced from, distancing, and indwelling the Father and Son. Consecration is also claim. To say that the God is holy, then, is to say that each Person of the Trinity stakes out ownership in the other by indwelling. Again, the Spirit’s role is crucial: The Father claims the Son as His Holy Son, claims the Son’s attention, filial love and devotion, obedience, by the indwelling glory of the Spirit that proceeds from the Father, and the Son likewise claims the Father’s attention, paternal love and devotion, promotion, through the Spirit of the Son who inhabits the Father. Through the Spirit, the Father becomes the “holy ground” of the Son, and the Son becomes the Father’s “holy person.” The Spirit is Holy Spirit insofar as He is mutually claimed by Father and Son. On this account, we can see how God can be eternally holy, and at the same time see how that eternal holiness can be expressed in transcendence of creation. The Triune God does not first “experience” distance once there’s a world out there to distance Himself from. The Father’s differentiation from the Son, in whom all things consist, is the eternal ground of possibility for His transcendence of creation. And the Father’s and Son’s mutual consecration by the Spirit is the eternal ground of possibility for the Triune God’s immanence in His world.

III. If the separation of the treatise on God from the treatise on the Trinity were only a matter of theological pedagogy, it would be important. But the ramifications are far, far wider. Had God’s knowledge and wisdom been conceived in Trinitarian terms, would Western civilization have been susceptible to the temptations of scientism and technological rapine? If righteousness had been recognized as justice-in-relation, would totalitarianism have been able to gain a foothold in “Christian” Europe? If the theology of attributes had been worked out Trinitarianly, would the blank Deist god, and his Lockean image, have triumphed in the Enlightenment? If holiness had been conceived as the dynamic of distance and indwelling, would pietist retreat or Pharisaical legalism have held any attractions? Whatever the answer to these historical questions, this brief study points toward this conclusion: When we are reminded on every page of our theology texts, and in every breath of preaching, that there is no God but Father, Son and Spirit, we can see idols for what they are – vanity and vapor.

Dr. Leithart is New Saint Andrews College's senior theology scholar and head of the graduate program. Dr. Leithart received his Ph.D. in theology at the University of Cambridge, England. He also holds an A.B. in English and History from Hillsdale College in 1981, and a Master of Arts in Religion and a Master of Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1986 and 1987, respectively. Dr. Leithart is the author of many books as well as the blog

Friday, March 13, 2009

Belief is not true belief when it does not have a fragrance

“Belief is No Good Without Practice” and Other Stupid Statements (Part I’m Done)

from Parchment and Pen by C Michael Patton

Belief is no good without practice is a stupid statement. Yes, I have read James (once or twice).

My argument has been pretty simple so far. God is glorified when he is known truly. God is glorified by our trust in what he says. It is God’s great pleasure to reveal himself to his children. God is glorified when he is known and understood. God desires orthodoxy and right belief.
But some of my comments have made some people very uncomfortable, especially this one (emphasized in italics):

I was in a small group venting about my expository preaching class ten years ago. I said, “They are trying to get me to pull out direct immediate application—something for the people to do—out of every sermon.” I complained about this. My group of young seminarians were divided. I told them that not only were some passages of Scripture not able to produce direct immediate application without sinful manipulation, but sometimes, I told them, “God simply wants us to believe what he said. This is application enough!”

In our Evangelical/emerging climate, we have those who seem to have come to some sort of personal epiphany about the problem with the church. “Doctrine divides and causes problems.” Fair enough.

“Christians have the tendency to have an arrogant attitude about doctrine, systematically condemning those who don’t agree with them on everything and, in doing so, fail to express love. They elevate correct doctrine above love.” Agreed. “Therefore, we should quite talking about doctrine and just love each other.” Time out! Love without truth is not Christian.

“But what does being doctrinally correct actually do? How can it help the world today? How does it alleviate oppression? How does it feed the hungry? How does it promote equality? And what about the environment?”

You see? There you go again. You think that this life is about you. You think it is about man. You think that if it does not effect the world within the next hour or day or week, according to your standards, it is a bad stewardship of your time.

“Belief is no good without practice.” Translation in our generation: “Since right belief (doctrine, systematic theology, understanding, etc) does not evidence itself in practical matters immediately and causes people to be arrogant, we should not even worry about belief at all and just get out there and “do” what we know is right. Orthodoxy is bad. Orthopraxy is good.”

This fails to understand that right belief itself is the application—the ultimate application. How so? Because belief will always produce of itself. This belief will sometimes evidence itself in ways that are immediate and sometimes in ways that become an integral part of a persons life and personality. (Hang with me).

Let me give some examples of beliefs that are easy to apply immediately:
We should do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
We should forgive one another.
We should carry each others burdens.
We should seek justice for the weak.

But what about the beliefs that don’t seem to be tagged with this type of immediate application? What about God’s sovereignty? God’s nature? Human sinfulness? The second coming? What about the genealogies of the Bible? What about the doctrine of creation ex-nihilo? What about the canon of Scripture, the definition of predestination, the flight to Egypt (all of them), the historicity of the Bible, the arguments for God’s existence, the doctrine of sola Scriptura, sola fide, the Reformation, or hell and the wrath of God?

“Sorry Michael. Our generation, though a series of epiphanies, has made those teachings and beliefs off-limits because of their counter-productive tendency to divide. Plus, they don’t have any direct application to our lives. If someone is to have an opinion about them, lets just keep it at that—an opinion.”

The problem with this line of thinking is that it puts God in the practical application box of our own design. We get out easy by calling foul with regard to doctrine. But, in the end, we end up with a load of rubbish that exiles God to the unknowable. The acceptable “application” of our generation could be applied to any religion. There is nothing distinctly Christian about them. When we do this, we tell God that since his revelation only has limited application we are going to wear selective earplugs while listening.

I believe that all good is defined by the degree which we listen to, understand, and believe the whole council of God, both in his world and in his Word. I also believe that when we say that what you believe about doctrine does not matter as much as what you do, we have fundamentally misunderstood, misdefined, and mishandled what belief means. In doing so we are creating an artificial preservative that we are trying to dress up like the real thing, but whose substance has limited shelf-life.

When we listen to God, when we prioritize truth, doctrine, understanding, and belief, when the time is right, you will see that we have changed, not from the outside in, but from the inside out. We are what we believe, not what we do. This is Christianity 101. It is about belief first. Belief must have content.

For example, take the Theology Proper (the doctrine of God). God has revealed himself as one who is the creator of all things, who transcends all of creation, being holy, unchangeable, without any need whatsoever (aseity), who loves man but will not let the unrighteous go unpunished. It is only when we have intellectually wrestled with and reflected upon it that we can recognize his majesty. It is only when we recognize his majesty that we can recognize our sinfulness, hopelessness, and helplessness without him. It is only by doctrine—right doctrine—that we can come to a state of brokenness. It is only in this brokenness that we can worship him truly. This belief—when truly understood and believed—will produce a fragrance of a character which is in conformity to Christ. Call the fragrance “application” if you will, but it is only present because of an understanding and belief.

But what you must understand is that this brokenness is application. It is not the place holder for application that will come later.

It pleases God to be known as Trinity. Knowing God is application.
Worship is expressed as the deepest longings of our heart are fulfilled by coming to know our creator and all that he has revealed to us and we rejoice in this knowledge.

We need to recognize that giving people the truth is our first priority. The fragrance produced by this truth will be inevitable. It is the nature of belief to find expression. I can’t always tell you exactly what this expression will look like and in what manner it is identified. But the belief is the foundation. The belief brings great glory to God. Belief is always enough. So long as it is true belief, the fragrance will permeate from us. If it does not, then the belief is not there. This is what James meant: “Belief is not true belief when it does not have a fragrance.” But he was not trying to elevate the action above its source.

Will there be people who believe—truly believe—but don’t have this fragrance? No. Never.

What is our mission? To do our part to make God known. Truth, orthodoxy, belief, and understanding are foundational to Christianity as the substance is foundational to the aroma produced.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Beliefs are foundational to all else.

“Belief is No Good Without Practice” and Other Stupid Statements (Part Deux)

from Parchment and Pen by C Michael Patton

Part one in a nutshell: God is glorified by right belief. Right belief is foundational to right practice.

In Peter Rollins’ book How Not To Think About God (a book I enjoyed and recommend) it is said that we are to love God as a newborn baby loves his mother. Rollins says that the baby does not need to know anything about his mother to love her. He simply recognizes her as his mother and rests in her protection.

The point he makes is that the Christian life, like the newborn, is not so much to love God by knowing or understanding him, but to be known, understood, and loved by him. While this has much to commend as we as children of God recognize and find protection in our Father’s love, the analogy does not provide a sustainable or stable illustration of the Christian worldview. It can also be misleading, giving people the impression that God does not care about what you think about him or whether you understand or know him.

What we must realize is that the baby is unable to move beyond its state which necessitates the passivity of his interaction. As many of you know, my wife Kristie and I have been blessed with four children, two girls (10 and 9) and two boys (5 and 2). Not too long ago Zack was an infant. I remember holding him in my arms and was talking to him. One day when I was doing this Will (my then three-year-old son) profoundly informed me that Zack could not understand. “Daddy, Zack does not know what you are saying!!” was his comment. I said to Will, “This is how you learned to talk and understand. If we keep talking to him someday he will be able to respond.”

Though there is a part of me that desired my children to stay a small, helpless, innocent newborns, there is a greater hope—a great anticipation—that one day they will grow to understand and know me. There is the great hope that we will one day have a relationship that is not one sided. In this relationship I will, among other things, tell them my name, let them be involved in my life, share with them things about myself that I would not share with others, and hope that they would love and trust me based on what I have revealed to them. I will hope that they will come to know and understand me.

It is the same thing with God. A relationship is never meant to stay one sided. God did not make newborns to perpetually remain in a state of passive interaction where love comes by default. God created people to grow in our understanding.

The writer of Hebrews exhorts his audience to mature in their thinking. They had become like newborns in their faith which was not a good thing.

Hebrews 5:12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.

“You ought to be teachers” assumes that they needed to grow in their understanding. But sadly these people were like newborn babes, ignorantly feeding off their mother’s milk once again. The time for immaturity in our faith has passed for all of us.

Let me use Jeremiah again and expand on it a little more:

Jeremiah 9:23-24 “Thus says the LORD, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the LORD.

We are not to boast in our supposed wisdom, strength, or riches. But we can boast in our relationship with God. This relationship is defined very particularly in this passage. It requires knowledge and understanding. We can only know and be satisfied in God to the degree that our understanding of Him is growing. The Hebrew word here for “understand” is one that communicates comprehension based upon reflection. This does not mean that we will exhaustively understand God or any one thing about Him. But it does mean that which He has revealed about Himself is essential to our relationship with Him.

What are these things? God is one who “exercises loving kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth” and that he “delights in these things.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I see this as quite a bit of information here—quite a bit of doctrine, theology, truth, correct information. Who is this God that you love? He is one that is kind, but He is also just. Each of these characteristics go far beyond the information that a newborn can have of a parent. It goes far beyond a theology of milk that says our love for God can stay and grow in a state of joyful agnosticism.

God is good. God is righteous. God will provide. God loves us. God has a plan for the future. God is involved in history. God will not lie. God does not change. God made us in His image. God will not drop us. God will feed us. God will clothe us. God is in control of the good and bad. God gives us comfort. God cares when we cry. God will heal the wounds. These are all statements of belief. This is theology. While we can and should enjoy being loved and understood, our relationship must become reciprocal. The Christian faith is one of understanding God, not simply being understood by him. You cannot have a perpetual relationship that is one sided. There is really no such thing.

Proverbs 2:3-6 “For if you cry for discernment, Lift your voice for understanding; If you seek her as silver And search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will discern the fear of the LORD and discover the knowledge of God. For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth comes knowledge and understanding.”

Again, while God cannot be understood exhaustively, he can and must be understood truly. He himself has said as much.

Beliefs are foundational to all else. Don’t ever think you can have right practice (orthopraxy) without right belief (orthodoxy).

Monday, March 2, 2009

Men, give them something to believe!

“Belief is No Good Without Practice” and Other Stupid Statements

from Parchment and Pen by C Michael Patton

It was in my expository preaching course that I learned it. It was driven into my teaching psyche and intended to become a part of my basic presupposed knowledge of ministry. Without it, all your preparation would be in vain. Lacking this, your message will fail to do what God actually intended it to do.

It is the message for a new generation. It is something emergers know and they know that they know it. It is what I hear on blogs, read in books, and a continued favorite among those who are despondently depressed and shamed when surrounded by “fundamentalists.” It is pridefully stated as if this epiphany is going to miraculously wake a sleeping Evangelical culture of John MacArthur and John Piper groupies.

What is it?

“Belief is no good without practice.” Wake up and smell the manna!

Sounds reasonable doesn’t it. Let’s put it another way.
“Belief is not the end, it is a means to an end. The end is doing not believing.”

In preaching, it goes like this:
“If you don’t have a way in which people can apply the lesson to their lives today, you have not really done anything.”

“Introduction. Body. Three points of application.”

A friend said it the other day. We visited a church led by a young seeker-friendly preacher. After the lesson he said, “Now I really liked that sermon.” “Why?,” I asked. “Because it has so much application,” he responded. “That is what I need—application.”

The idea here is that belief, in and of itself, is not the end game that God has for us. God primarily wants us to be active in our practice. Good works, being nicer to people, acting out our love, giving to the poor, self-sacrifice, not cheating on tax-returns, avoiding certain web-sites, bringing home flowers to your wife, forgiving your father, protecting the unborn, knowing when to set down the beer, taking your daughter out on a date, remembering to say “I love you” (don’t just suppose they know), and trading your Hummer for a Honda. These are all things I can do today. This is what we need. Right?

emergento moschos skubula
(Excuse the French). Nice translation: “What a load.”

I am not saying that application is not important or that it is not an essential end. What I am saying is that it is not the only or even primary end.

God cares more about belief than he does practice. Belief, truth, doctrine, theology, and, yes, being correct, is more important than all the good works one can ever practice.

The “why” is more important than the “what.”
The “how come” is more important than the “when.”
The “because” is more foundational than the “so that.”
In fact, I believe the “what?” “when?” and “so that?” have no meaning outside the “why?” I also believe the “what” can exist alone in many cases and serve to bring great glory to God.

What I am saying is that God is glorified in our right belief. God receives great pleasure in correct doctrine. It is God’s first desire that we believe correctly. Belief, truth, doctrine, and theology are not merely a means to an end, but are the end themselves. Yes, this “end” will, more often than not, have natural consequences that will produce certain effects (i.e. good works), but the substance is in the truth understood and believed.

Oh that Jeremiah could be resurrected and speak to this pragmatic generation who wants to set aside knowledge and understanding for minimally based practice. He may say what he said before:

Jeremiah 9:23-24 “Thus says the LORD, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the LORD.

This is about boasting (something we are not supposed to do?). While we are not to boast about things that are of themselves empty, we are commanded to boast about something. Something that our generation is increasing preaching as being among the unboastable areas of life:

understanding. “Let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me.”

I was in a small group venting about my expository preaching class ten years ago. I said, “They are trying to get me to pull out direct immediate application—something for the people to do—out of every sermon.” I complained about this. My group of young seminarians were divided. I told them that not only were some passages of Scripture not able to produce direct immediate application without sinful manipulation, but sometimes, I told them, “God simply wants us to believe what he said. This is application enough!”

We have downgraded belief, truth, doctrine, and “understanding” to a secondary level of importance. It has become the handmaiden of immediate application. We are losing our reason for boasting.

In reality, application is the handmaiden of truth. God wants us to know and understand him. Statements such as “Belief is no good without practice” fails to understand that belief is the foundation of practice and that belief—right belief—brings as much glory to God as anything.

Preaching right belief and understanding, unfortunately, has become the red taped taboo of our generation. Avoidance of such is justified in the name of baseless pragmatism. It is the Evangelical and Emerging misdirection that could alleviate the church of the only legitimate reason we have for boasting. I believe that it is the crisis of the church today.

Friends, if people believe correctly—and I mean truly believe—they will act correctly when the situation calls for it. Not only this, but their good works will be done for the right reasons, based on a motivation of truth. Knowing and understanding God will change lives by bringing people in a right orientation with the way things actually are.

I know that not everything can be understood. I know that God has not revealed himself to us fully. And I know that there is legitimate room for disagreement on many things. But this does not alleviate us of our search for God. Theology, truth, doctrine, understanding, and belief are foundational to all else. God rejoices in correct doctrine.

Lewis Sperry Chafer, the late founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, used to end each class with this statement, “Men, give them something to believe.” I end with the same.