Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Wisdom for Living

I am currently reading The Holy Spirit in the Ancient Church by H. B. Swete.  This is a good summary paragraph on the ante-Nicene fathers.
The devotional language of the early Church was in fact on the whole in advance of its doctrinal system.  Men like Origen still had intellectual difficulties in reference to the relation of the Spirit to the other Persons of the Holy Trinity; but they could nevertheless associate His name in their prayers and praises with those of the Father and the Son.  The worship of the Trinity was a fact in the religious life of Christians before it was a dogma of the Church.  Dogmatic precision was forced upon the Church by heresy, but the confession and conglorification of the Three Persons arose out of the Christian consciousness, interpreting by its own experience the words of Christ and the Apostles and the primitive rule of faith.
In other words, they lived it before they could articulate it in systematic terms.  We do not need perfect knowledge of a matter before putting it into use.  Those men were taught well, being able to take sound doctrine and reason out the practical application.  I believe there is much discipleship work to be done to get the current and next generations of Christians living the faith as wisely as those past generations.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Another "What If ..." Question

And when [the king] sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests.  And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.
Deuteronomy 17:18-20

While reading this recently in my morning devotion, I could not help but consider the authorities placed over political entities within the United States.  I ask myself how things might be different if each U.S. president or state governor or city mayor was required to do the same as that expected of the Israelite kings.  And since we have a representative form of government, congressmen should be included in that as well.  I know many elected officials can site proper constitutional authority for their decisions.  If only they all knew the mind of God to the same degree.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tiptoe through the Torah

One study I lead just completed the book of Revelation.  When discussing what to do next, I made known my belief that a study of the Torah/Pentateuch is foundational for understanding the New Testament.  I also understand that most people avoid Exodus - Deuteronomy as boring, repetitious, and irrelevant.  Though nothing is further from the truth, the practical reality is that American evangelicals would rather tear those pages out of their Bibles than read them, for the aforementioned reasons.

Where am I going with this?

I finally decided we should jump into the book of Deuteronomy.  That will give a summary of the Mosaic Law without the potential boredom in the minutiae of laws.  The downside will be in not seeing the wonderful theology in the minutiae of laws.

 So if you find yourself free on Friday mornings from 6:00-7:00 A.M., head over to the Hy-Vee on 32nd and Oakland Rd NE for good fellowship around scripture.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Obey Anyway

As much as I would prefer to remark on the outcome of the Health Care vote, the following passages seem more sublime.

Romans 13:1-2
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

1 Peter 2:13-16
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.  For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.  Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.  Honor everyone.  Love the brotherhood.  Fear God. Honor the emperor.

I figure that if Paul and Peter could write these things under Emperor Nero, we can adhere under President Obama.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Personal Experience as a Mark of Grace

The following is part of an article written by Klemet Preus in LOGIA (Vol. XVIII, No. 2, 15-16) on the subject of Lutherans resisting evangelicalism.  It is a solid warning for any church.

By the time of the Great Awakening in the 1730s, one hundred years after the arrival of the first Puritans, this morphology was completely entrenched in the ecclesiastical and social fiber of New England. The practice of Evangelicalism has always been to cultivate a religious experience as the ground of faith.

In the early 1800s, when the Second Great Awakening occurred, the morphology of conversion had evolved to the point that extreme, emotional experiences were considered mandatory for full assurance of God’s grace. A pastor named Charles Finney codified the type and necessity of such experiences. Possibly the most influential churchman in the history of America, Finney popularized the traveling itinerant preaching of the so-called revivalists and was the most significant preacher in a long line of revivalist preachers including Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and currently, Joel Osteen. Finney lectured extensively on the nature and importance of the conversion experience:
God has found it necessary to take advantage of the excitability there is in mankind, to produce powerful excitements among them, before he can lead them to obey. Men are so sluggish, there are so many things to lead their minds off from religion and to oppose the influence of the gospel, that it is necessary to raise an excitement among them, till the tide rises so high as to sweep away the opposing obstacles. They must be so excited that they will break over these counteracting influences, before they will obey God.14
The special working of the Spirit had to be felt in rather dramatic ways. Finney’s own conversion experience provided his assurance of salvation. In his Memoirs he shares it:
The Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed, it seemed like the very breath of God. I can recollect distinctly that it seemed to fan me like immense wings. . . . I wept aloud with joy and love; and I do not know but I should say, I literally bellowed out the unutterable gushings of my heart. These waves came over me, and over me, and over me, one after the other, until I recollect I cried out, “Lord, I cannot bear any more.”15
Touted as indispensable, Finney’s dramatic experience became the inalienable right of every Christian. Faith was defined as experience.

The experiential understanding of faith is propagated in America today by what has been called the Church Growth Movement, an amorphous movement within Evangelicalism that began and is centered in Pasadena, California, at Fuller Theological Seminary. One of that movement’s chief advocates and proponents is C. Peter Wagner, who served as dean of the Institute for Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary, where many leaders of Lutheran churches have studied. Wagner believes that the ideal sermon
is not intellectual, but emotional; it is not rational, but experiential; it is not exegetical, but allegorical; it is not doctrinal, but practical; it is not directed as much to the head as the heart, [the effect being] not that you learn more, but rather that you feel better.16
Notice that sermons are not ideal simply because they are gospel-centered, orthodox, doctrinally sound, or even coherent.

14.  Charles G. Finney, “What a Revival of Religion Is” (1864) in The American Evangelicals, ed. McLoughlin (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 87.
15.  Charles G. Finney, Memoirs of Charles G. Finney (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1903), 20.
16.  C. Peter Wagner, Look Out! The Pentecostals Are Coming (Carol Stream, IL: Creation House, 1973), 39–40.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Your Church Is Too Small (Book Review)

This review is part of a blog tour.  Click here for a complete list of reviewers.

Upon discovering that John Armstrong was releasing a new book through Zondervan, my curiosity was piqued.  I had heard this brother at a weekend conference here in Iowa and was thoroughly intrigued by the man and his mission.  Immediately, I subscribed to Reformation and Revival and followed the ministry until becoming disturbed by changes—some subtle, some not—in doctrine and direction.  I make this known so the reader will understand there is neither ill will nor fawning praise but straight-forward honesty.
Armstrong's two-pronged thesis is stated in the introduction. (14)
a. I will show how your biblical faith is rooted in the living Christian tradition, a tradition found in all the classical historical expressions of the one faith.  This one faith is developing in ways we would have never thought possible while we were still indulging in the cultural luxury of seeing other Christians as our enemies.
b. I will argue that these unfolding developments may ultimately prevail in leading us to reject the conflicts and schisms that drove us apart and that these developments could result in a new commitment to the mission of Christ that will transform the church, especially in America.
In order to accomplish this, he divides the book into three sections pertaining to the past, present, and future eras of the church. These will be handled in order.

Past – Biblical and historical basis for Christian unity
This section begins by demonstrating the need for unity today.  The topic seems out of place in a section to be devoted to history, but it serves as a springboard to discuss the church's propensity for disunity from its beginnings and the final schism between East and West in 1054.  In this Armstrong overreaches by stating that doctrinal differences were tolerated and appealing to apostolic conduct:
During the apostolic era, Peter and Paul openly quarreled about the extent to which precepts of the Jewish law should apply to Gentile converts. (35)
It is true that the early church had a deep commitment to preserve unity, but this sentence appears to be a misstatement of fact.  Some explanation is needed.

Armstrong rightly addresses Jesus' prayer in John 17 in one chapter to convey the desire that the church might be united and that through the necessity of love as an identifying mark.  Other passages were given to bolster these key concepts.  He goes on to explain improper attempts at unity and explains that a spiritual unity demonstrated by loving relations with Christ as the center is the Lord's intention to his disciples.  With that foundation our attention is turned to an explanation of the church's four marks (one holy catholic and apostolic) as found in the Nicene Creed.  It is from here that he moves directly to the present.

I agree with much of what Armstrong says here, but it needs to be bolstered.  The patristic era is only touched with reference to the Apostle's Creed as his personal starting point in the journey.  A more robust explanation of that era would have been in order.  For example, Cyprian is noted by others for his appeal to unity but is relegated here to quotes at chapter beginnings.  As well, the ecumenical councils were key ingredients to its preservation.

Present – Restoring unity in the church
Armstrong's asks an optimistic first question.  It is not “Can we restore unity?” but “How can we restore unity?”  His solution is an appeal to the Apostle's Creed—ancient, simple, and compact—as a symbol of core theology.  In order to attain to a catholic understanding of the church, find a catholic statement of faith on which to ground the unity, shying away from “no creed but Christ” and cultish proof-texting.¹

The modern church's prevalent sectarianism is rightly pointed out by the author as a major inhibitor to godly unity.  I agree wholeheartedly as one guilty of the same and as a member of a local church likewise engaged.  So how does the church get past this?

The author notes that there are new appeals at ecumenism, such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together and Christian Churches Together.  Yet movement-based churches remain popular.  A point is made that we need to see the entirety of the church, both in the world and in history, and act with the whole picture in view.  Taken together, the church is God's servant kingdom in this world.

Lastly, there is the question of traditions.  The apostle Paul speaks of correct traditions in 2 Thessalonians 2:15—handing down entrusted things from one generation to the next.  There is a need to re-introduce ourselves to the Church Fathers to get at the roots of where we are as individuals and churches today.  Bridge the gap, and learn from history.

Future – Missional-Ecumenical Movement
In the final section we are asked to look forward to what can be done to promote catholicity.  Armstrong defines the ideal church as the company of all those that call on the name of the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:2; Acts2:21).  This is the to be the starting point of our understanding. From there he looks at who is a real Christian.  Here are brought forth the attributes of anointing (1 John 2:20, 27) and having the Spirit (Romans 8:9).  The idea is that I as a Protestant must put away the thought that a Roman Catholic is not somehow a Christian, and he of me, because we do not have any business judging another who calls on the name of the Lord differently.

The future for the church is called “missional-ecumenism” with John Mott and Leslie Newbigin as instrumental thinkers in the process of missional thinking and functioning.  He also states seven converging elements purportedly attributable to the ancient church being used today that help point to the future:
  1. Greater commitment to the Sacraments
  2. Increasing appetite to know more about the early church
  3. Open expression of love for the whole church and its unity
  4. Blending of worship, devotion, and prayer practices from the three Christian streams (Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox)
  5. Integrating more liturgical depth and structure with spontaneity and freedom in the Holy Spirit
  6. Greater involvement of sign and symbol in worship
  7. Continuing commitment to personal salvation, solid biblical teaching, and work and ministry of the Holy Spirit
This is overreaching, mixing a call to find useful elements of the early church without regard for their appropriateness either then or now and assuming these are all acceptable because the three major traditions use them in some aspect.  He then gives examples of the paradigm being used today: incarnational evangelism (treat those not in the church are sojourners, not unbelievers), protestants evangelizing with Roman Catholics, Alpha course, Taizé, etc.   All are viewed as adding value to the church's future.  And finally, he seeks for God to get us moving.

My Final Thoughts
I want to praise the author for his writing style.  The autobiographical material coupled with second person grammar allows the reader to enter into the experiences leading to this book.  Also, I commend the use of words in bold font which are defined in a glossary.  This is welcome and should be used more in materials meant for popular audiences.  Knowing how an author uses technical terms helps the reader follow the flow.  My preference is that these words would have been defined at the bottom of the page where referenced.  Feel free to keep the end glossary, but do not make the reader stop in the middle of a sentence or paragraph to flip back for a definition.

There is no question that the modern church needs to revisit the Church Fathers.  In a striking number of ways, Western Civilization is replicating the Roman Empire.  The church is once again doing battle over doctrines of God and Christ.  We would do well to take heed to what has gone on before and avoid the errors.

This book had some beginning promise in the relevant matter it addressed.  The evangelical church of today has discovered that the past Church Growth and Seeker Sensitive (and maybe even Purpose Driven) movements were long on assumed relevancy and short on sound basis.   Armstrong makes his point that there is a tradition within the church that reaches back to the apostles.  What he fails to do is demonstrate that there are clear, historic movements away from that apostolic teaching leaving us with the denominational hodgepodge we have today.  This must be addressed before there can be an idea of performing mission together.  In the end, Armstrong has given nothing but empty philosophizing as a solution, which, by the way, is the only thing missional-ecumenism could offer to a lost world. 

The crucial missing point in this work is the place of doctrine in unity.  Armstrong mentions that the early church were basically unified in what they believed into the mid-second century, even citing the Didache as evidence of the core message.  Here he states:
While tensions and disagreements between leaders were real, the testimony of history shows that a common core of belief and practice kept the church together. (86)
Exactly!  But the rest of the book ignores the foundational unity of doctrine in the early church.  The first four ecumenical councils (Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon) were organized largely to deal with matters concerning how we are to understand matters such as the Godhead and person of Christ.  These are fundamental to the church.  The men who came together argued back and forth for days and weeks in order to hammer out what we now know as matters of course today.  There was no spiritual, relational element to any of it—just a firm stand on the truth of Scripture.  These men would not condone heresy.  Today, why should I be asked to overlook the fact that Roman Catholicism teaches another gospel?  I am all for working out the issues that separate.  Let's do that hard work.  Let's spend the effort necessary to hammer out these truths.  If I need to relent on a doctrinal position, so be it.  Let me be convinced by sound reason and the Scriptures, not a desire to just get along as Armstrong seems to promote.

¹ This is know as the Least-Common-Denominator solution. It has an appeal because everyone can agree, but inevitably, that's where it remains. No growth occurs because effort and tension is required for growth, but those elements are actively resisted as counter-productive.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

I Wanna Talk about Me Bein' with You

For your reading pleasure, I present two songs side-by-side.  One is a popular country song.  The other comes from the world of contemporary Christian music (CCM) and was part of the set we sang this past Sunday morning as part of worship.  Look at them both before moving to the questions that follow.

I want to hear you say words to me "Well done."
I want to hear you say "Good and faithful servant."
I want to hear you say "I've prepared a place for you."
Let all the treasures of this world, fade away.

Jesus, you are my reward.
To hear your voice on that day,
Is all I'm looking for.
Jesus, you are my reward.
To see your face on that day,
Is all I'm living for.

Written by Paul Baloche
I wanna talk about me
Wanna talk about I
Wanna talk about number one
Oh my me my
What I think, what I like, what I know, what I want, what I see
I like talking about you you you you, usually, but occasionally
I wanna talk about me
I wanna talk about me

Written by Bobby Braddock
Performed by Toby Keith

What is the difference in theme between them?
Most readers will react with something like, "Duh!  One is talking about being with Jesus, and the other is not."  OK, but if we replace the name Jesus with Johnny, Billy, Bobby, or some other typical country name, what would you say?  Now it becomes a song of a woman longing to see her departed husband or a girl looking forward to a big date with her boyfriend.  Is my relationship with Christ to be that of a star-struck lover?  Such feelings are intense but generally wane quickly.  The relationship does not last.

Who is the focus in each?
Again, most readers will react with something like, "Duh!  The country song is about self, and the other is about Jesus."  Really?  Analyze the two.  Both use the same words—I, me, my—to build phrases promoting the same self-directed message.  How can the song be God-honoring when man is at the center?

At their root these songs have no difference.  The CCM piece is simply a Christianized version of the formulaic love song where someone opines the loss of a lover and sentimentalizes when they can be together again.  It may "play in Peoria" (ask your grandparents what that means), but please do not call it praise or worship.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Offering the Daily Sacrifice

Origen, in his commentary on John's gospel, gives notes pertaining to the baptizer's statement, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!"  As part of the thought, Origen pursues the significance of the lamb among the acceptable altar offerings in Leviticus.
Now we find the lamb offered in the continual (daily) sacrifice.  Thus it is written, "Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs a year old day by day regularly.   One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight.  And with the first lamb a tenth seah of fine flour mingled with a fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and a fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering.  The other lamb you shall offer at twilight, and shall offer with it a grain offering and its drink offering, as in the morning, for a pleasing aroma, a food offering to the Lord.  It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance of the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there.  There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory.  I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar."  But what other continual sacrifice can there be to the man of reason in the world of mind, but the Word growing to maturity, the Word who is symbolically called a lamb and who is offered as soon as the soul receives illumination.  This would be the continual sacrifice of the morning, and it is offered again when the sojourn of the mind with divine things comes to an end.  For it cannot maintain for ever its intercourse with higher things, seeing that the soul is appointed to be yoked together with the body which is of earth and heavy.

But if any one asks what the saint is to do in the time between morning and evening, let him follow what takes place in the cultus and infer from it the principle he asks for.  In that case the priests begin their offerings with the continual sacrifice, and before they come to the continuous one of the evening they offer the other sacrifices which the law prescribes, as, for example, that for transgression, or that for involuntary offences, or that connected with a prayer for salvation, or that of jealousy, or that of the Sabbath, or of the new moon, and so on, which it would take too long to mention.  So we, beginning our oblation with the discourse of that type which is Christ, can go on to discourse about many other most useful things.  And drawing to a close still in the things of Christ, we come, as it were, to evening and night, when we arrive at the bodily features of His manifestation.
(Book VI, cap. 33-34)
Origen's point is clear.  The believer as priest begins and ends with Christ each day in a continual fashion, being diligent not to slack in the faithful endurance with which we start.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Should Pastors Be Salaried?

A blog I follow, Early Church Studies, has linked to a 1997 piece by Darryl Erkel entitled Should Pastors Be Salaried?  The author makes a solid case that believers in the New Testament church did not regularly pay those in positions of spiritual leadership.  And those who, like Paul, might be able to demand remuneration actively eschewed the notion so that the gospel would not be hindered.

Been Busy

You have not heard from me in the past couple days, because I have been busy reviewing an advanced copy of a book published by Zondervan entitled Your church Is Too Small by John H. Armstrong.  This is part of a blog tour the week of March 14-20 promoting by the publisher to promote the book.

Come back then to see my review.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Grounded in the Gospel

I regularly listen to White Horse Inn.  There are some programs that I consider exceptional because they pertain to vital matters for the church.  On Sunday, Michael Horton interviewed J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett who co-authored a book to be released in April entitled Grounded In The Gospel: Building Believers The Old-fashioned Way.  The interview can be heard here.

The authors' purpose is to renew the practice of catechesis.  Here is a descriptive blurb from the publisher's website:
Historically, the church's ministry of grounding new believers in the essentials of the faith has been known as catechesis—systematic instruction in faith foundations, including what we believe, how we pray and worship, and how we conduct our lives.  For most evangelicals today, however, this very idea is an alien concept.  Packer and Parrett, concerned for the state of the church, seek to inspire a much needed evangelical course correction.  This new book makes the case for a recovery of significant catechesis as a non-negotiable practice of churches, showing the practice to be complementary to, and of no less value than, Bible study, expository preaching, and other formational ministries, and urging evangelical churches to find room for this biblical ministry for the sake of their spiritual health and vitality.
This is a subject dear to my heart.  I have watched as well-meaning Bible teachers feed both adults and children sound doctrine that ends up as useless, because no comprehensive foundation is laid: overview of Bible books, doctrines, theological concepts, etc.

To be sure catechesis of any kind is difficult and time-consuming work.  The instructor needs to arrange the material in workable fashion that can be absorbed, retained, and regurgitated.  Yet despite the work involved, this was once a regular feature of any local church.

I really do not know if the contemporary church dismisses the practice as irrelevant, old-fashioned, or not worth the investment, but cults and other world religions have no difficulty indoctrinating their adherents.  Maybe Christians should rejoin the bandwagon.

Jesus, the Great High Priest

Yesterday, Aaron gave a message another in a series on the unfinished work of Christ, this one dealing with his current work as our great high priest.  The passages covered were from Hebrews (given with my one-word subjects).
4:14-16 – Sympathizer
7:23-25 – Intercessor
6:19-20 – Forerunner
My only disappointment with the message came at the end, because it concluded.  The glories of Christ are incomparable and a delight to hear.  This message could easily have been expanded into multiple weeks.  I am not finding fault.  I am just longing for more.