Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Some Perspective on the Impact of NWAC

While I am an all-too-typical Presbyterian in some ways, I am decidedly atypical in being mostly disinterested in, and even dismayed by, matters of polity. I'm no expert in polity, and proudly so. This puts me decidedly out of the mainstream of many active Presbyterians who, from my vantage point, are borderline obsessive about polity issues to the point where little of anything substantive gets accomplished. I offer this background as something of a disclaimer the reader should consider in evaluating the below.

The New Wineskins Association of Churches (NWAC) is a loosely affiliated group of conservative congregations in the mainline PCUSA denomination. Depending on who's doing the counting, the number of congregations 'affiliated' with NWAC is around 150. Recently, NWAC held a convocation at which they petitioned my denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) to establish a non-geographic New Wineskins presbytery that would be designed to 'receive' NWAC churches who feel called to leave the PCUSA over theological issues. At its recent General Assembly, the EPC approved this plan, along with some other polity infrastructure mechanisms, in order to facilitate the receiving of NWAC churches that are interested in exploring or joining the EPC. So much for the background...

Ever since the EPC General Assembly, the assessment of the impact of the above has varied greatly depending on who one consults. The PCUSA regime has largely ignored these events and pretty clearly seems to be trying to downplay the importance of these things. On the other hand, folks in the EPC, along with conservative publications like the Layman, are trumpeting these events as incredibly significant. These folks talk of a fundamental realignment taking place, and characterize the movement of about two dozen churches out of the PCUSA in the last year as an 'exodus'. Who is to be believed?

Well, I think some perspective is in order. It is in the best interests of the PCUSA leadership to downplay these events and minimize the impact upon the denomination and its work. It is also in the best interests of the EPC and other sympathetic voices to loudly proclaim these events dramatize the impact. So right off the bat, neither side's spin on these events is particularly surprising, given their respective vested interests. But there is more to it than that.

From the perspective of the PCUSA, it's not hard to see why they wouldn't be very inclined to see the movement of 25 churches out of their denomination as a big huge event. The PCUSA is currently a denomination of over 11,000 churches. 25 churches is hardly an 'exodus', which Webster defines as a 'mass migration'. 25 churches out of 11,000 is no exodus. Even if certain reports are true that as many as 40 other churches might leave PCUSA in the next year, the total number of congregations bolting the PCUSA because of theological strife would still be only one half of one percent of the congregational total of the denomination. If this is a 'realignment', it ain't much of one.

So does this mean that the PCUSA's muted reaction to the NWAC movement is appropriate and that the EPC/Layman rhetoric is overblown? Not exactly. First, the EPC is a much smaller denomination than the PCUSA. An influx of 25-50 churches within a two year period is indeed a big deal from the perspective of the EPC. It has been suggested that by the time the polity stuff works itself out, the EPC might be close to double the size it was before all this began. That's a big deal, and the EPC is correct to consider it a big deal from their vantage point. In addition, it is pretty well known that a number of the NWAC churches that have left or are contemplating leaving the PCUSA are quite large. I think it's fair to say that while the NWAC numbers are small in terms of the number of congregations, many of these congregations wield more power and influence than what might be supposed because a number of them are/were flagship churches in the PCUSA. Kirk of the Hills, Signal Mountain, Montreat, Memorial, and others are all influential churches with large memberships running from 500-2,000 people. Given the presbyterian government structure of both the PCUSA and the EPC, it is inaccurate to suggest that the movement of these kinds of churches don't have a considerable impact, particularly at the presbytery level. Earlier this year, the PCUSA held a highly publicized conference on the viability of presbyteries given the ever shrinking financial resources they have to work with due to membership decline, dedicated giving, and congregational flight. This conference was held before the EPC General Assembly.

In the end, I think the truth is somewhere in between the respective spins of both sides. In my view, words like 'exodus' and 'realignment' are inappropriate to employ in measuring the impact of NWAC. We're not talking about a flood of congregation departures from the PCUSA, but a drip. But likewise, it is quite disingenuous for the PCUSA to pretend like these developments are not newsworthy and don't have broader harmful implications to a denomination that is already reeling from organic membership decline and distrust of their leadership at the pew level. Interested observers would be wise to consider the source when considering the viewpoints being expressed about the impact of NWAC.

Friday, July 27, 2007

A Stretch in the Klink - Is it the Latest 'In-Thing' to Do?

It started with Martha Stewart. More recently, there was Paris Hilton. Now it appears that both Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie stand a pretty good chance of doing celebrity time in prison. What's going on here?

It's becoming common knowledge that making at least one trip to 'rehab' is the fashionable thing to do. The recent craze of celebrities taking a seemingly revolving door approach to rehab has gotten so worrisome that some in the soft sciences are growing concerned about the impression this is leaving on the larger populace when it comes to the viability and effectiveness of rehab programs. Britney Spears's recent saga of being in and out of rehab so concerns psychologists like Harris Stratyner that he says folks like Spears are "making a mockery of rehabs...In some ways it's starting to make rehabs look like a joke." He's right. A quick perusal of the blogosphere will reveal how cynical most people have gotten about celebrity rehab, and it's hard to believe that this cynicism doesn't extend to larger negative perceptions about rehab globally. Folks like Stratyner are correctly concerned that the celebrity tendency to treat rehab as 'the [cool] thing to do' rather than as a necessary step to take to get one's life back on track harms the viability of rehab as a whole in our culture. Stratyner is ahead of the game in identifying a dynamic that threatens to corrode the cultural credibility of a critical element of the societal safety net. In doing this, he is well ahead of the legal profession, the media, the elite universities, and even the church in understanding how tenuous cultural credibility can be, and how difficult it is to get it back once it's been lost.

But one has to now wonder whether it's no longer enough to join the club of those who have done stints in rehab. Celebrities now seem to be climbing over each other in amping up their behavior to the point where they'll have to do time in the klink. A cynical view might conclude that doing short stretches in the klink is now the 'in-thing' to do. And even if this isn't the actual attitude of the celebrities who seem determined to do the kind of stuff that lands normal people in prison, it's ominous to think how younger people who idolize these celebrities in a celebrity culture might be viewing all this. Do they think it's now cool to go off the grid enough that they might end up wearing orange jumpsuits for a while just like their idols are? It's common knowledge that 'street cred' is imperative to be a player in the hip-hop world today, and there is plenty to suggest that this mentality has found its way into the culture with devastating results if even half of Bill Cosby's rantings have some foundation in reality. Do we think it will somehow be different among the entranced followers of Hilton, Spears, Lohan, Richie, et al? I mean, Nicole Richie recently showed up at some Hollywood premiere wearing a stylish outfit consisting entirely of vertical black and white stripes. Is this a coincidence, or is it confirmation that even the fashion industry is now building cutting-edge clothing lines around jail attire themes to further enhance and legitimize the 'bad girl' image?

The church in particular had better not assume that its teens and college students are seeing all this for what it is - sad. We would be wise to assume the opposite - that there are probably teens in our midst who are instead thinking of the possibilities in ways that might become dangerous and destructive. The onslaught of the celebrity culture is not something to fool around with, and the church would be wise to get out ahead of this latest trend before it becomes a trend in their own church.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

James, Paul, Justification, and Luther

It's no secret that the church has wrestled enormously with the issue of 'justification' in James and Paul. Whereas Paul seems clear that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Gal. 2 & 3; Rom. 3.28, 5.1; Acts 13.39), James seems equally clear that justification involves works as well as faith (James 2.14-26). This issue has been so significant that many theologians have felt obligated to take sides and either interpret one through the prism of the other, or flat out elevate the teachings of one and demote the teachings of the other. Martin Luther unfortunately took the latter approach. Luther famously referred to the epistle of James as an 'epistle of straw' because he believed that not only did it not present the Gospel, but actually contradicted it by allegedly contradicting Paul's teaching on justification. I would humbly submit that Luther was in error for a number of reasons. While the below is hardly a comprehensive examination of the perennial problem of James vs Paul on justification, the following is at least a start:

1) James and Paul are addressing different problems. While Paul (particularly in Galatians) is fighting against a return to lawkeeping and circumcision as salvifically additive to faith, the problem James is addressing is a glib faith that gives scant evidence of supernatural transformation through good works. James likely wrote his epistle before Paul's writings, so he was not attempting to forge some synthesis with Pauline theology (I would argue that a synthesis of James and Paul comes later in 2 Peter). Because the timing and respective contexts are different, one cannot simply put forth a surface level comparison and assume continuity between the authors' respective purposes in order to arrive at a conclusion of conflict or contradiction between the two.

2) What is often missed in this debate is the fact that James does indeed stress monergistic grace in his epistle (1.18-21). In addition, he certainly seems to regard faith as the assumed foundation of the Christian life. In 2.1, faith is assumed, with no mention of works. So James is hardly opposed to the Pauline emphasis of faith alone and God's primary and initiatory activity in salvation.

3) What is also often missed is the significance of the Jerusalem Council reported in Acts 15. Here, 15.1 makes clear that the notion of salvation through works was an issue very early on in the church and prompted the Council meeting. Beginning in 15.13, it is none other than James who makes a speech siding with Paul, Barnabas and Peter against the circumcision party.

4) So what then of James 2? Because of both #2 and #3 above, it is unlikely that James believes in justification through works in a salvific sense. It would run afoul of what he's already said in the epistle, not to mention his actions at the Jerusalem Council. For Paul, 'justification' is a technical term to describe God's activity of declaring someone righteous through faith, which then proves to be the basis of a person's salvation. This makes sense in light of the Judaizing errors he is combatting. Because the Judaizers believed in meritorious works leading to salvation (sorry NP people, you still haven't made your case to the contrary), Paul is emphasizing God's sovereignty in salvation and the primacy of faith alone. But for James, he is confronting a very different problem of glib faith with no accompanying transformation. So when James uses 'justification', he's not using it as a technical salvific term the way Paul does, but as a way of stressing the necessity of good works as a manifestation of authentic and salvific faith. James is using justification to stress the mark of a true Christian - good works that are the inevitable result of a changed life that comes with authentic saving faith.

I would argue that Paul and James are succinctly synthesized in Eph 2.9 - we are not saved by works, but we are saved for works.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

ECUSA - More about The Sopranos than the Bible

With word that ECUSA and the Diocese of Virginia are now seeking to include volunteer laypeople in its lawsuit against 11 breakaway Anglican churches, we have truly reached a point where mafia-inspired tactics are now the acceptable norm in mainline circles. Granted, seeking to sue everyone under the sun is not exactly the same as Tony Soprano executing an informant or Paulie Walnuts capping somebody who didn't pay up. ECUSA, with its embrace of the UN Charter, would have a difficult time being this brazen in its intimidation and enforcement tactics. So instead, they've taken this mob mentality and employed more sophisticated means of shaking people down - they've threatened lawsuits. Intimidating people through legal action is the clean, high-tech way of bringing the mafia into the church, and turning the church into a robed mafia.

I am admittedly making some harsh accusations here. I don't mean to imply that ECUSA has no right to fight for the church property that is at issue here. For all I know, ECUSA may have a legitimate case for gaining the property. But that is a dispute between ECUSA and the individual (or collective) rectors and paid vestry of the congregation who, with the flock's approval, have led the flock out of ECUSA.

But the idea that ECUSA would see fit to target volunteer laypeople in these churches for civil litigation doesn't merely ignore 1 Corinthians 6, it actively militates against it. Paul's excursus on lawsuits among believers in 1C 6 comes within a larger section devoted to discussing immorality in the church. It is clear from 1C 6.9 that Paul had not abandoned the topic of immorality in discussing lawsuits between Christians. To the contrary, it seems clear that Paul considered the reality of Christians going to secular authorities to resolve legal disputes among themselves to be characteristic of great corruption in the church. In fact, it's not a stretch at all to suggest that these kind of lawsuits were simply one manifestation of the same problem Paul discusses in chapter 5 - a weak doctrine of the church. How ironic it is that ECUSA, a 'high-churchy' denomination if ever there was one, is the denomination most exhibiting a weak doctrine of the church by scuttling Scriptural teaching in favor of Soprano-style tactics of intimidation. Of course, maybe it's not ironic at all, but simply very telling. Whatever it is, it's hard to see how any of this speaks well of ECUSA's moral and ecclesiastical compass. One only hopes that PCUSA will not demonstrate itself to be as far gone as ECUSA in the coming months as the fruit of the New Wineskins movement starts to take tangible shape.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Latest CiC Post

I posted at CiC today on the passing of Harold O.J. Brown...


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Catholic Church's View of Protestantism

It has been widely reported that the Roman Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) recently reasserted the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church in a Q&A-style document made available for the public. The Roman Catholic pope ratified and confirmed its contents.

In the document, Protestant churches are not considered authentic churches of Christ because:

According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called "Churches" in the proper sense. Response to Question 5

Predictably, a number of Protestant leaders, particularly those who are engaged in ecumenical dialogue with Rome, have voiced concern and disappointment about both the contents and timing of the document. It has been suggested that fruitful ecumenical dialogue will now be more difficult because of the viewpoints expressed in this document.

No small number of my Protestant brethren will no doubt take offense to Rome's assertion that churches born out of the Reformation are not true churches. But it needs to be pointed out that this has more or less been Rome's position from the get-go. I think this latest document is largely correct when it asserts that Vatican II itself did not water down this basic view, although the fallout from Vatican II, at least from the sedevacantist and traditionalist Catholic perspective, was to be too charitable toward Protestantism. At any rate, I think this document is reaffirming official Roman Catholic doctrine, rather than hardening the official line. In fact, this same document seems to allow some room that while the 'Church of Christ' "subsists" exclusively with the visible Roman Catholic Church, the 'Church of Christ' may still be somehow "present" in other churches that are not in full communion with Rome. This allows Rome to say the following:

It follows that these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church. Response to Question 3

As such, while I obviously disagree with Rome's assertions regarding the Church, I must confess that I am not particularly offended by what they are saying. Maybe I should be. But in the end, my standing before God, or the standing of my local church before God, is not determined by Roman Catholic theology. (How'z that for a Protestant-style answer!) While Rome believes that it alone has been entrusted by God with the 'fulness of grace and truth', Protestant theology proffers that the primacy of Rome was self-promoted rather than divinely decreed. This, of course, gets to the heart of the question of authority, and why Rome places the tradition of the church on a par with Scripture, since it believes that the church birthed Scripture rather than the other way around. In my mind, when one adopts Roman Catholic assumptions regarding authority and papal primacy, the viewpoints toward Protestantism expressed in this document are actually quite mainstream.

The semantics about who represents the true 'church' and who doesn't is not the central issue here. It is simply one manifestation of a much larger disagreement about authority that has not been resolved and will probably never be fully resolved no matter how many ecumenical discussions take place. The Roman Catholic Church is simply way too far downstream to retreat on the papal primacy issue. To retreat on this question is to undermine the whole of Roman Catholic ecclesiology that is the source of friction between it and both Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy. They simply won't backtrack on this question. Even if the day comes when they might want to backtrack (and clearly that day, if it exists, is a long way off), they can't afford to do so. The only question is whether Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism will truly 'come home' and resubmit to the authority of Rome. Make no mistake, this is what Rome believes must happen in order for folks like me to be in communion with the visible Body of Christ on earth. But those of us who are Protestants must understand that the Roman Catholic position is based greatly on a series of assumptions emanating from the church's own tradition about its own importance. We are entitled to question the validity of this tradition and the assumptions it promulgates, just as Rome is entitled to question the validity of our viewpoints. This is where ecumenical dialogue needs to focus if there is profit to be gained from such discussions. And to the extent that this latest document once again hints to the core issues that divide us, it has the potential to be helpful, even if I as a Protestant am grieved by how Rome's ecclesial assumptions have manifested themselves.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Norman Shepherd's Circle and the Mystery of God

John Frame tells the story of how Dr. Norman Shepherd came into class one day and wrote a circle on the board. This circle, and more particularly the space inside the circle, represented our knowledge of God. The circumference of the circle represented our exposure to the mystery of God and everything about God that we don't know that lies outside the circle. Shepherd then postulated that as the size of our circle increases as our knowledge of God increases, the circumference of our circle also increases. This means that our exposure to the mystery of God increases, which means that the more we know, the more we come to realize how much we don't know. Shepherd's circle is instructive, but it is also potentially dangerous if taken too far.

Positively, Shepherd's circle squarely puts us in our place with regard to our understanding of God. Put simply, the more we study, the more we contemplate, the more we seek after God's will, and the more we pray and watch for God in the events of the world, the more we will know about God and the better we will understand him on some level. But this comes with the danger of becoming arrogant and puffed up in our knowledge if we don't take heed of the increasing circumference that gives us an increased taste of how much we don't know God that paradoxically accompanies our increased knowledge of God. This is the inevitable result of Van Til's Creator-creature distinction, and of all attempts by finite beings to understand the infinite. What this means practically is that theologians in particular ought to be far and away the most humble people we ever meet, since they ought to have the most vivid appreciation of how much they don't know by virtue of having accumulated all the knowledge they do have. The fact that humility is so often in short supply among the theological elite speaks volumes about the quality of their knowledge and lack of grasp of divine mystery, and it serves as a warning to the rest of us in our novice studies of the eternal and infinite character of God.

Negatively, Shepherd's Circle, if misunderstood, carries with it the danger of overemphasizing mystery and 'otherness' in ways that undermine the reality of authentic divine revelation. Shepherd, of course, came after Karl Barth. But the early Barth is a classic example of how divine 'otherness' can obscure the reality of revelation. For the early Barth, God was 'wholly other', which made it very difficult to affirm any concrete knowledge of God (though that didn't stop Barth from writing 13 volumes about God in his Church Dogmatics). To his credit, Barth was reacting against the domesticated God of theological liberalism that made God a tame and all too knowable entity that could be easily grasped and manipulated by finite humans. But in properly rejecting this domestication, Barth lurched in the direction of unbridled mystery and 'otherness' that made it difficult to ascertain a firm foundation for human knowledge of God. This is the danger that comes with underappreciating what we do know and what God really has revealed to us and the world through his Son, through the Scriptures, and through creation. Put simply, if in thinking about Shepherd's Circle, we become exclusively fixated on the circumference of mystery, we will lose sight of all that is inside the circle that helps us preserve a sense of biblical knowability (1J 2.13-14).

In wrestling with Shepherd's Circle in our own lives, we have to be cognizant of both knowability and mystery. Instead of emphasizing one and deemphasizing the other, we have to radically stress both to ourselves and to others. God is beyond our complete understanding, and there is an incalculable amount of knowledge about God that we do not possess. Barth is right that God cannot be domesticated without arriving at a God that is completely foreign to the Scriptures. But on the other hand, the whole biblical account, and even Scripture itself, is a story of how God reveals himself to humanity. The God of the Bible is not a God who runs and hides from us because he doesn't want us to know him. To the contrary, God wants to be known and worshipped in truth. As humans, we are left with the sobering reality that there is so much about God that we don't know, and that all we do know about God is the result of God proactively revealing himself and giving us eyes and ears to process his revelation to us. Humility and awestruck gratitude are the only acceptable responses, and are in fact requirements for us to know God rightly (Proverbs 11.2, 22.4; James 3.13).