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Archive for the ‘Spirituality of the Church’ Category

(The following was originally posted at Front Porch Republic on December 11th.)

The Manhattan Declaration is almost a month old and it still a statement I regard with great ambivalence.  My discomfort owes partly to the name.  As a native of Southeastern Pennsylvania and a fan of Philadelphia’s college and professional sports teams, I am congenitally disposed to animus (I am hoping within the bounds of the sixth commandment – Protestant numbering) against all things New York City.  At the same time, I like old fashioned cocktails and think beer and wine have too readily displaced drinks like the venerable Manhattan.

One other factor is pride.  Why do the instigators of these projects keep losing my name when the invitations go out for signatures of Very Important Persons?  It could be that I recently moved.  It could also be that I’m not very important.  Both are true but the older I get the more I realize the limits of my import.

But deeper down come other reservations about the Manhattan Declaration which put me seemingly at odds with many of the signers whom I respect and want to encourage in their own convictions about morality, civil society, and the common good.  My questions do not concern the sanctity of human life, the nature of marriage, or religious liberty.  I am more than comfortable with the specific items affirmed in the Declaration.  But like any good conservative who may like planks in the GOP’s platform and then votes for a different candidate because of the mechanisms associated with Republican policies, I resonate with the concerns of Timothy George, Robert George (I don’t think they are brothers) and Chuck Colson but wonder about the methods they employ by drafting and circulating this statement.

First, I wonder what function such declarations serve?  I am open to instruction here, broadminded fellow that I am, but has any such a declaration (other than Mr. Jefferson’s) ever amounted to a real change in ordinary affairs?   I think, for instance, of the recent declarations that Evangelicals and Catholics Together have produced.  For all the seeds of unity these statements may have sown between a certain class of Roman Catholics and born-again Protestants, those statements have also created controversy – at least in conservative Protestant circles – by raising questions about the doctrinal position of the statements’ signers.  Meanwhile, declarations produced by evangelical Protestants – such as For the Health of the Nation or The Evangelical Manifesto – don’t seem to have amounted to much, aside from the comfort given to those who sign that they are on the right side and are public about it.

I do not mean to question the motives of anyone who signed, but isn’t it possible that a measure of moral grandstanding goes into these statements, along with very little policy or legislative reform, because these statements are so far removed from the legislatures, courts, and chambers of elected officials?  Meanwhile, such statements do function to throw down yet another gauntlet in the culture wars, thus inviting as much opposition as support for the stalemate that already exists between the parties of morality and license.

Second, the Manhattan Declaration troubles me because of the progressive narrative that introduces the affirmations about life, marriage, and religious liberty.  The history the authors invoke is one that goes from early Christians down to the suffrage movement and Civil Rights.  This is not much of a variation on the old American Protestant whig interpretation of western civilization and the assumption that the right kind of Christianity was on the side of social, political, and economic progress.  This kind of progressivism (and the Social Gospel that accompanied it) should trouble any American conservative worthy of the name.  Indeed, highly ironic is the reality that now some Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians have identified with such whiggery.  I guess, one question is if the narrative is true, why not affirm it?  One answer is that the narrative leaves out a host of other contributors to this “progress,” among them the Enlightenment and other less orthodox outlooks about the true, the good, and the beautiful.  Another answer involves the irony already mentioned – namely, that it was used once by Protestants to exclude Roman Catholics and other “outsiders” from the mainstream of American society.  The Manhattan Declaration appears to employ it again to do the same to Americans who do not share Christian morality.

This leads to a third concern, namely, how do believers and non-believers co-exist in a religiously diverse society, in one, in fact, where religious freedom also means freedom for the non-religious?  I do not have an answer and I doubt that any readers of FPR do that will achieve consensus for Americans.  One way to negotiate this diversity, once upon a time, was through the autonomy or local governments and communities to regulate their own affairs.  But now that the United States matters more as a collective than as a union of states, that political option seems impossible.  In the meantime, conflating Christian morality with the common good and the foundations of civil society not only seems to discount the contributions made by non-Christian traditions, but the Manhattan Declaration also seems to conflate the involuntary and voluntary aspects of civil society.  In the involuntary realm Christians must try to get along with a number of other believers and their skeptical neighbors.  In the voluntary realm of private associations, Christians may legitimately be concerned to protect the prerogatives of church, school, and organization.  But because the Declaration vacillates between the common good and a private morality, it fails to acknowledge that making Christian norms the basis for American public life will exclude non-Christians.  (Some Mormons have even complained that the Declaration needlessly leaves them out.)  In other words, it would have been one thing for the Declaration to call upon Americans to respect the convictions and practices of Christian institutions.  But the Declaration goes beyond this defensive posture and makes claims about Christian norms being the basis for civil society and the common – period.  So where does that leave an Abraham Lincoln, an H. L. Mencken, or even a Leon Kass?

My last and biggest reservation is related to the Social Gospel aspects of the Declaration – that is, the idea that Christianity leads to and promotes a just society.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t want to be heard to be saying that Christianity promotes injustice, though, of course, Christianity’s record in human history has not been free from embracing tyranny and injustice (at least as defined by the likes of Kant).  But do the authors of the Declaration believe that Jesus and the apostles would have signed a Rome Declaration if one were available to them?  In other words, is the purpose of Christianity to progress this world or is it to prepare believers for the next?  Is the purpose of the gospel to yield the common good or eternal salvation?   I understand that Protestants and Roman Catholics (I have interacted less with Orthodox about this) differ on questions of continuity and discontinuity between temporal and eternal goods.  Will truth and justice and prosperity in this world be like the truth and justice and prosperity that believers will experience in the new heavens and new earth?

If it is legitimate to raise this question, then the Manhattan Declaration needs to address the concerns of those Christians who believe that the gospel has a higher aim than simply the right ordering of this world.  This doesn’t mean that necessarily that the Christianity of which I speak is opposed in fundamentalist, docetist, or gnostic fashion to a good society, or to ordered liberty.  But I do worry that by directing so much attention in the name of Christ to the great moral concerns of this age, Christians will lose sight of the eternal truths that older professions of the church recognized (and encourage non-Christians to look to the church for solutions to society’s problems.  Older expressions of Christianity put the problems and even the evils of this life into a perspective that saw them as not ultimate but temporary.  It is an outlook that my own communion, the OPC, for some a hangnail in the body of Christ, professes in the following terms:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of.

I understand that this liberty will not fix the woes that ail our society.  But if something like this is true of Christianity, and if statements like the Manhattan Declaration do not address the links and gaps between the common and ultimate goods, then I think my Christian profession requires me to thank the Lord that I was not included among those invited to sign.

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To the RPCNA I owe my new life in Christ. She is my mother and I dearly love her.

In loyalty to my mother I have tried to work through her doctrine of the mediatorial Kingship of Christ over the nations and to defend its 20th Century application National Confessionalism. I have always found National Confessionalism more acceptably moderate than the radicalism of theonomy.

Finding very little content to the RPCNA’s doctrine, I have used the DRC to work out a biblical theology to defend the National Confessional position. Keeping in mind past excesses and failures, I hoped to root a renewed National Confessionalism in the fertile soil of broader Christendom. I looked to Edmund Burke, T.S. Eliot, and Russell Kirk to guide my efforts.

Today, I acknowledge something of a failure. Not that my work at building a biblical theology of Christ’s Kingship has failed. Rather, I have failed to convince myself that National Confessionalism is a worthwhile outworking of the doctrine. I have talked myself out of the National Confessionalist position.

I remain whole heartedly committed to Christ’s Kingship over the Nations. I remain wholeheartedly committed to the belief that nations are moral persons, corporately responsible to God and His anointed King. I stand behind almost every word I have written in my DRC column. Yet, as I have worked through the relationship between corporate responsibility of nations and the doctrine of the two kingdoms I cannot help but think that I have developed a more convincing biblical theological justification for the traditionalist understanding of the American religious settlement within our own Constitutional order.

Further, had the preamble of the US Constitution reflected the Kingship of Christ, I believe that we would be waging the exact same fight as we are fighting today. The Christian amendment was always a purely symbolic gesture. In itself neither harmful or helpful. I will not waste another drop of ink defending it.

The belief that nations are a morally responsible community of souls binding the dead, the living, and the unborn, a robust doctrine of the two kingdoms, the Spirituality of the Church, the continuing relevance of the moral law, and a traditionalist conservatism rooted in the wisdom of the West… these things I will continue to defend against all foes.

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Here’s an effort to separate the real from the faux neo-Calvinists.

Recent interactions with seminarians have made me realize how popular the notion of cultural transformation is as the best understanding of the Reformed ministry. Whether called mercy ministry, urban missions, or word and deed, a wing of the Presbyterian world believes that the church is called to apply the gospel to all of society and culture as part of the Great Commission. Cultural transformation is essential to the church’s love of neighbors and evangelism. As one prominent Presbyterian pastor puts it, “To say that social concern could be done independently of evangelism is to cut mercy loose from kingdom endeavor. It must then wither. To say that evangelism can be done without also doing social concern is to forget that our goal is not individual ‘decisions,’ but the bringing of all life and creation under the lordship of Christ, the kingdom of God.”

This has an obvious appeal and appears to move the church away from irrelevance to the front lines of social activism. I have long thought that Kuyperianism of this sort is far more popular than the two-kingdom view because it is uplifting and inspiring. It gives the timid the gumption to go out and get things done. By contrast, the two-kingdom view prompts introspection and uncertainty.

But further reflection shows that the inspiration of such transformationalism may be as full of hope as Obama (and as vacuous). How exactly is a small wing of Protestantism going to transform New York City? At my home church in Glenside, Pa., we need a permit from the Virtuous Commonwealth just to remodel our auditorium. Even transforming an intersection in the Big Apple would require a herculean effort. (Can you really call it transformation if you need a permit?)

The need for permits is a reality that transformationalists do not seem to consider thanks to what seems to me a naive view of culture and society in the West (at least). Our society is remarkably complex affair that owes to legal, economic, political, and church-state developments that transpired over two millennia. The legendary sociologist, Edward Shils, for instance, explained some of this complexity when he tried to define the basic components of civil society. The first is that society is distinct from the state. Second, it protects rights to personal property. And third it involves “a constellation of many autonomous economic unites and business firms acting independently of the state and competing with each other.” The virtue of a civil society is that it allows for the diversity of objectives pursued by individuals and institutions. So one could say that civil society allows churches to try to transform society. What civil society will not allow is the conflation of society and the state. This was the mistake of Communism and why it was always the Party’s job even to throw a party.

Sometimes I think the rhetoric of transformationalism leads to a form of tyranny similar to Communism. Instead of conflating society and the state, the ideal of redeeming culture verges into conflating society and the church. If godless tyranny was a bad thing, wouldn’t godly tyranny also be?

Of course, the response is usually the fist-pounding one that quotes Kuyper and says “every square inch is Christ’s.” But the point of this remark is not entirely understood. Two kingdom folks agree that everything belongs to Christ, including civil society. In fact, every square inch is Christ’s even if the church is not transforming it. (Maybe the reason for the popularity of Tim Keller’s new book among the transformationalists is that lacking examples of the gospel’s transforming power they really do need reasons to believe that God exists and is in control.)

So if we can agree that civil society as it has developed in the West is a good thing, then maybe it’s possible to clarify exactly what’s at stake in the debates between Kuyperians and two-kindgomers. Kuyper himself believed in sphere sovereignty and that the institutional church should remain distinct from the spheres of the family and the state. He was also a great opponent of cultural and social homogeneity. So there’s a measure of agreement. Kuyperians and two-kingdom folk would also likely agree that the church is responsible for the gospel. Disagreements may surface over the degree to which the spheres of the family and the state depend for their legitimacy on whether or not they confess Christ. But this is a very different question from saying that the church, for the sake of neighbor love or mercy ministry, should build low-income housing.

Possibly what the soft (as opposed to hard) Kuyperians have in mind by mercy ministry and “word and deed” is simply providing assistance for the poor and destitute. If that’s the case, then wouldn’t the word charity be preferable to social justice (a phrase that eerily unites Jim Skillen and Jim Wallis)? And granted, Reformed Christians may disagree about the nature and scope of diaconal work. But do we really need the mantra of redeeming the city to engage in simple and low-profile acts of charity?

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Huckabee’s pulpit squad better beware. It seems the IRS is on to them.

What Caesar gives he can take away. Best to mind your p’s and q’s.

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Talk about immanentizing the eschaton… a scary vision of the Kingdom.

With Republican candidates struggling to make headway among evangelicals it would not be surprising to see 2008 as the year of the Christian left.

How can people who reject all historic forms and tradition on Sunday not drift leftward the other six days? The world of Rick Warren will never be friendly to Russell Kirk.

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This week I begin a preaching series through Galatians.

In reading through J. Gresham Machen’s Notes on Galatians, I found this interesting quote. It first appeared in Christianity Today in January 1931. Machen died in 1937. I assume this comment is a product of Machen’s more mature thought:

“In the second place, Christians should by no means adopt a negative attitude toward art, government, science, literature, and other achievements of mankind, but should consecrate these things to the service of God. The seperateness of the Christian man from the world is nto to be manifested, as so many seem to think that it should be manifested, by the presentation to God of only an impoverished man; but it is to be manifested by the presentation to God of all man’s God-given powers developed to the full. That is the higher Christian humanism, a humanism based not upon human pride but upon the solid foundation of the grace of God (pg. 33).”

A great quote. I do not think this quote erases Machen’s sense of eschatological dualism (an area where I am in full argreement with Dr. Hart). It does raise the question, what does the consecration of culture (things secular) to God mean/look like?

I wonder would DGH thinks of the quote and how he understands it?

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Andrew Matthews

Obedience and Exaltation

What is a theology of cross and glory? We all know what a “theology of the cross” is: since our Lord suffered, his followers must as well (John 15:18-21). Oppression and suffering provide the context in which hatred of God is revealed for what it is, in which the perseverance of the saints is proven, and in which sanctity increases in the lives of the saints. We also know what a “theology of glory” is: the servant receives better treatment than his master; victory and exaltation are achieved without passing through the testing of fiery trials.

Theologians of the cross are humble men who place no hope in this world because of its irremediable corruption by sin and Christ’s absence from it. Theirs is a sober “not yet” assessment regarding the presence of the future kingdom. Theologians of glory are proud men who downplay human limitation and act as if Christ were come already. Theirs is an obnoxious triumphalist insistence on the “already” presence of the kingdom. So, on one hand, there is a theology of cross without glory, and on the other, a theology of glory without suffering.

This cross/glory bifurcation is calculated to buttress anabaptist secularism and malign theocracy. However, overweening ambition is not the provincial characteristic of any of the major eschatological options. There are plenty of arrogant amillennialists and not a few humble postmillennialists. Amills can be just as adept at finding comfortable accommodation with the reigning spirit of the age as were the liberal postmillennialists and social gospellers of yore, perhaps more so. Furthermore, history shows that the Church has both suffered and enjoyed outward prosperity. This variance of disproportionate experience cannot be attributed to the attitude, piety, or eschatology of any church.

Suffering cannot be manufactured like pre-washed faded jeans. Lacking the outward circumstances of oppression, Western amills who wax eloquent about pilgrim suffering can no more conjure up the perseverance, character & hope such experience shapes than can theocrats cultivate qualities of wise statesmanship, all their plans for world domination notwithstanding. The Lord decides who to exalt to high office and when to chasten his people under tribulation. Faithful martyrs and good leaders become such, not through breeding or schooling, but essentially through the trials they have been chosen to pass through. In life, it is a general rule that every genuine accomplishment comes after a period of testing in which commitment is proven.

Not all such testing is governed by the Covenant of Works (CoW). While the works principle (“Do this and live”) is operative for all who remain outside of Christ and under Adam’s headship, it is not operative for the elect. The believer has “died to the law” in this sense (Rom. 7:1-6). He has been covered by the robe of Christ’s righteousness and freed to a new obedience, without condemnation, through the “law of the Spirit of life” (Rom. 8:1-2). Under the economy of grace a role remains for trials of obedience: “To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations…just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give him the morning star…To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 2:26,28; 3:21). It should be evident that all Christians must endure testing of trials throughout their lives whether they face any actual oppression or not. Any victory—any reward—they “achieve” as a result, is fundamentally based not on their own merit, but on Christ’s, who fulfilled the CoW for them.

I have no desire to get embroiled in a controversy over legal merit and the “Federal Vision.” Men on both sides of the debate should be able to agree that whatever merit is, it is not operative in the “economy of testing” that Christians endure. With some qualification, James Jordan’s insights regarding “covenant maturity” should be generally acceptable touching this point.

“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited…But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:8,10-11).

It is not pious to prefer the lowest station over others that are higher. To love the “lowest seat” for its own sake is unbalanced piety, or, pharisaical piosity. It is the sort of piety on display in Spielberg’s Last Crusade, when Indiana Jones discovers the Holy Grail, a simple wooden cup, hidden among hundreds of gold and silver chalices.

It makes no sense to praise the virtues of poverty, folly, and weakness. The whole point of choosing (not desiring) the lowest place is to faithfully endure testing and wait on the appropriate occasion to be exalted. It is unseemly to grasp for greater glory before the proper time. In this, Christ is our model (Phil. 2:3ff.). In passing, I’ll pointed out that there is no evidence here of an incommensurability between natural and Christian ethics. Pagans are just as capable of seeing the wisdom in Christ’s illustration as are Christians.

When Jesus enjoins humility he in no way implies that impotence, poverty and hunger are preferable to power, wealth, and prosperity. These good things are not to be refused when offered. In terms of Christ’s illustration, it would be unseemly to refuse the banquet host’s beneficence out of some morbid preference for dishonor. Throughout the course of a Christian life there are numerous occasions for such honors. Of course, at the end of a life faithfully lived, the greatest glories will be bestowed.

It is the anabaptist-leftist error to suppose that the Sermon on the Mount extols outward poverty. The “poverty of spirit” Jesus blesses (Matt. 5:3ff.) has to do with an inward disposition of the heart instead of outward circumstances. Certainly, Jesus has outward lowliness in view, but only because spiritual humility befits a low estate. We are not to invert the priority of genuine inward humility over bodily condition. Not that outward circumstances are unimportant–they are–but the essential thing is a matter of the spirit.

Darryl Hart manifests this interpretive distortion when he writes, “Maybe the apostle Paul will help. He wrote: ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God’ (1 Cor. 1:27ff). If the Bible, nay God, is our model, why would we choose the wise, the strong, and the high and reputable (say Christendom) for our cultural model if God chooses to use the opposite in his work?”

The ante-Nicene Church followed the exact same model as St. Paul: the Lord Jesus Christ. After accomplishing his course of obedience unto death, our Lord was resurrected and glorified to sit at the Father’s right hand. The pattern is first suffering, then glory. After two centuries of often fierce persecution, the Roman emperor was moved to convert and raise the Church to high prominence. It is only by means of an invalid differentiation between Christ’s providential and redemptive rule that such a momentous event can be conceived as a sort of fall from the original grace of impoverishment. Such is Anabaptist, not Reformed, historiography.

There is no contradiction between the ultimate glorification of the Church and its various lesser “glorifications” in history. Did Jesus refuse the crowd’s acclaim on Palm Sunday? No, it was an appropriate time for him to receive their praise. Should Christians refuse cultural responsibility in this life because they have a better inheritance in the next? Of course not.

In the same passage Darryl cites, we read the following: “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26). The apostle did not say, “None of you were wise, etc.” The Church honors great reformers (Gregory the Great, Martin Luther) and thinkers (St. Augustine, John Calvin) in her memory. Such men and women (e.g., St. Joan d’Arc) are rightly regarded as great persons. But the wonderful thing about Christianity is that it holds up the exemplars of great humility in the highest place (e.g., Moses, Mary, Jesus).

Yes, God chooses the low and humble things to shame the proud and mighty. This is how he works and continues to work. But we do not do this. Again, suffering cannot be manufactured: God alone creates the unique circumstances of each individual’s testing. The theology of cross and glory I am proposing is able to account for tests of commitment (of whatever kind) along with the legitimate temporal blessings Christians and the Church at large have had and continue to experience. To promote a theology of cross without glory is an obvious ploy to disparage Christendom’s true and proper glory in light of the supposed genuine piety of separatist enthusiasm. It is anabaptist piosity.

More to come…

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