March 30, 2008 Commentary:
On this edition of the White Horse Inn Michael Horton talks with Parker T. Williamson of the Presbyterian Lay Commitee and author of the recently published: Broken Covenant: Signs of a Shattered Communion, a book that recounts Williamson's personal history inside the liberal PCUSA church body, and which also expresses his concern for the denomination's future.
There is no commentary from this broadcast.
March 23, 2008 Commentary:
Christianity vs. Liberalism
Let me give you a quiz. Do you think the focus of Christianity is on what happens inside of you or on what happened outside of you in history? Is Jesus in your heart more important than Jesus in the manger, on the cross, and on his throne? Or, to put it differently, is Easter primarily about Jesus in your heart or Jesus being raised bodily on the third day? Do you think of faith more as an inner experience than God's gift that is delivered to you through an external gospel? Can you say that your faith has some value even if the empty tomb is not a historical fact? Do you believe what you feel over the gospel that you hear? Do you think that people are basically good and just need better advice for how to live? And do you think that the essence of Christianity is "deeds, not creeds"? Although liberalism answered "yes" to all of these questions, the tendency of a lot of American Christianity-even in its evangelical varieties-is to embrace a subjective spirituality over an objective announcement of historical events.
In the 1920s, J. Gresham Machen, a New Testament professor at Princeton Seminary provoked enormous controversy with the publication of his book, Christianity and Liberalism. As the title suggests, Machen did not believe that liberalism was simply a less faithful version of Christianity; he was convinced that liberalism was a different religion altogether. Not only in its rejection of a few fundamentals, but in its entire worldview, from top to bottom, liberalism was as different from Christianity as Hinduism. Although liberals continued to use the same terminology and celebrated the example of Jesus, even expressing deep piety and emotional attachment to the person of Jesus and the Bible, they no longer meant the same things that Christians mean when they confess their faith in Jesus Christ as God's Son and the Savior of sinners.
Could it be that contemporary evangelicalism is drifting toward the same confidence in humanity over God's saving work in Jesus Christ that has led much of Protestantism into apostasy? Is it possible to affirm an orthodox creed on paper while "translating" it into something other than Christianity in the pursuit of cultural relevance? In this edition of the WHI, our subject is "Christianity and Liberalism."
March 16, 2008 Commentary:
Pierced for Our Transgressions
Our theme for this year, "Christless Christianity," may strike some listeners as somewhat extreme. After all, Christ's name appears on t-shirts and coffee mugs, is invoked by presidents and NFL coaches. We have Christian music, Christian coffee shops, Christian diet plans, and Christian business plans. But is it possible that all of this is simply taking his name in vain?
The Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians, "I determined to know nothing while I was with you except for Christ and him crucified-a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to sinners, but to those who are being saved, the power of God and the wisdom of God." According to the prophets and apostles, the heart of Christianity is not only Christ, but Christ and him crucified. It was Jesus himself who said in anticipation of his crucifixion, "For this reason I have come." "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many." Jesus did not come primarily to show us how to live, but to die for our sins and be raised for our justification. Of course, he is also our example and we are called to follow him as his disciples. But in our day, moralism obscures "Christ and him crucified." Where his atonement is even discussed at all these days, it is often subjective: Jesus came to show us how much God loves us, or how seriously he still takes sin, or how much he wants us to love others. In other words, the goal is to get us to feel something or do something, rather than to believe what Christ has experienced and accomplished for us.
As a number of mainline Protestant theologians have pointed out recently, talk of Christ and him crucified is as much an offence in conservative circles today as it has been in liberalism. Yale's H. Richard Niebuhr captured the essence of the liberal message: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross." But doesn't this seem to be at least the working assumption of a lot of American Christianity across the board today? Is Christ and his saving work central in your church and its ministry-I mean in the regular church service-its sermons, songs, liturgy, in the instruction of the young and the old, in the care given to the elderly in nursing homes, in the visitation of families, in missions, and in counseling straying or fearful sheep? Is your faith regularly re-directed back to Christ, or is the church itself distracting you from Christ and him crucified? More than anything else, the reformation of the church that we so desperately need depends on the recovery of this message in our churches. Without Christ and his cross front and center every week, Christianity is just another pointless therapy rather than "the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes."
March 9, 2008 Commentary:
Tradition & Traditionalism
I remember once suggesting to a fellow Reformed minister the idea of sponsoring a monthly event for informal discussion of basic Christianity for seekers at a non-church site where people who might not show up for church could feel comfortable asking questions, offering challenges, and generally investigating the Faith. Steeped in our Reformed way of doing things, he said, "We just don't do things like that." As we interacted further, it became obvious that he thought this would downgrade the ministry and detract from the service of Word and Sacrament. I responded that this was not a public service I was talking about, but an informal occasion. Still nothing. It seemed that this brother simply could not think outside of the box, as though we weren't living in a post-Christian society. Why not try to reach our neighbors who are willing to ask questions without expecting the ordinary service to bear that burden.
Then I've also had conversations with fellow pastors who want to transform the ministry of Word and Sacrament into a seeker-service. Instead of the formality of a covenantal assembly where God himself addresses us and we respond, the service is now all about us. This brother welcomes people no longer in the name of the Triune God, but as if it were a get-together in his living room. Gone are the off-putting, odd, or offensive parts of the liturgy. The goal of the music is no longer so that, as Paul says, "the Word of Christ may dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual psalms," but to give people an opportunity to express themselves so that non-Christians might see how happy we are. Passages from Scripture are used to make a point, but this friend has become increasingly reticent about preaching Christ from books of the Bible. There is no creed and Baptism and the Lord's Supper have now been moved to specialty services outside of the normal weekly gathering of God's people. Meanwhile, the young people no longer have catechism, where they learn the faith of the whole people of God down through the ages and in all places, but are entertained with countless gimmicks-again, all in an effort to draw in unchurched youth. So here are two radically different approaches and they often feed off of each other. Traditionalists need revisionists to justify their traditionalism and vice versa. But are they both actually more alike than either would want to recognize?
The larger point that this episode raises in my mind is the relationship between tradition and traditionalism. Jaroslav Pelikan once said that there is a big difference between the living tradition of the dead and the dead tradition of the living. You see, in the living tradition of the dead, "the faith once and for all delivered to the saints" gets passed down from generation to generation. We are enriched and our faith is deepened by our brothers and sisters who lived long before we arrived on the scene. We sing their songs, pray their prayers, join our hearts and minds in the same confession, and read their works. If we cut ourselves off from tradition, we are consigning ourselves to a life of narrow-mindedness, imprisoned within the narrow confines of our own experience and our own time and place. At the same time, traditionalism-the dead tradition of the living-is a different kind of narrowness, but narrowness just the same. "That's the way we've always done it" is a cop-out. It means that we don't actually have to know why we believe what we believe or do what we do; we don't have to reflect, we don't have to think. Don't ask questions that folks might not know the answers to around here. Both the rejection of tradition and the passive acceptance of traditionalism reflect a certain kind of laziness. Tradition itself is neither a blessing nor a curse. Like all interpretations of Scripture, there are good traditions and bad traditions. We have to exercise discernment-and not just by ourselves, but with the cloud of witnesses, both dead and alive.
Christians confess their faith in "one holy, catholic, and apostolic church." Among other things, that means that the church is not a closed circle of friends but an open fellowship looking outside of itself, up to God in faith and out to our neighbors in love. It means that our local church is part of a fellowship that extends backwards to the past and forward to the future. Every generation has to be willing to listen to the wisdom of its elders and to the visionary aspirations of its youth, ready to learn from our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world and in other eras.
Most importantly, the careless rejection of tradition never really gets rid of traditions; it only creates new traditions that are often nothing more than "the way we've always done it (at least for the last ten years)." So instead of pretending we don't have any traditions or caving in to traditionalism, biblical wisdom calls us to test our traditions by God's Word and allow them to lead us from our narrow confines of our own experiences to that Word. This discussion is absolutely critical to our ongoing series on "Christless Christianity" precisely because the question is not whether we will respect tradition, but whether the traditions we respect draw us closer to Jesus Christ, "the Author and Finisher of our faith."
March 2, 2008 Commentary:
Gift Centered Churches
If you were raised in evangelical churches, you may have had the same experience I did , where the Bible study leader passed out a survey in order to determine our spiritual gift. It was sort of like astrology. I know that it's all hokum, but when I'm on the plane I can't keep myself from reading my horoscope at the back of American Way magazine. We all love to dote on ourselves. We all like to think that we're unique and if we had our way, the world would be all about us.
Now I'm not comparing spiritual gifts to horoscopes, but I am suggesting that our fascination with charting our spiritual gifts can be a pious way of indulging in the same kind of narcissism. For one thing, a lot of the gifts on that survey were general gifts given to every believer, in varying degrees: the gift of faith, discernment, hospitality, and so forth, are not reserved for a special class of saints; they're given to all of us and we're expected to open the gift and share it with others. So, as it turns out, most of the gifts on the list don't actually distinguish me from everybody else.
Furthermore, the two major lists of gifts are found in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4. In Romans 12, the list includes gifts given to the whole body of Christ, while Ephesians 4 concentrates on those gifts given to the ministers in order to bring the body into deeper knowledge of, communion with, and maturity in its living head, Jesus Christ. In both passages, it's Christ who is the center. He is the gift and the giver. Like our election, redemption, justification, sanctification, and glorification, all of our spiritual blessings are found in Jesus Christ alone. We don't have some gifts in Christ and other gifts from some other source or higher-level experience.
These passages make it clear that these gifts were given to us not for our own personal ego trip, but to enrich the lives of our fellow-saints as well as non-Christians we serve as neighbors in our callings. They aren't even necessarily supernatural gifts, as our redemption is, but the Spirit's enrichment of our natural gifts. The point is that every member of the body of Christ has something to bring to the party. To paraphrase Paul, don't think that it's only the people who bring the turkey; what's Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce?
The most important thing about spiritual gifts is that they come from Christ, are given through Christ, and lead to Christ. That's why all the talk about prophecy, tongues, second blessings, and other hot topics can lead us away from Christ regardless of the position that we take. Are some gifts obsolete after the era of the apostles? What does it mean to speak in tongues? What do people mean when they say they're "Full Gospel" Christians who have experienced the second blessing? These are our topics in this edition of the White Horse Inn.