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Horton on Wright’s Latest

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010 by Eric Landry

UPDATE: Wright responds

Matthew Miller of Christianbook.com interviewed N. T. Wright recently and asked him about this review. Here is the exchange:

Matthew: In a recent review, Michael Horton, writing for Christianity Today, was generally supportive of your book. Yet, he took issue with your, at times, negative articulation of the Reformation and its impact on Christian ethics stating, “in addition to caricaturing Luther’s positions, [Wright’s] criticisms lack any nuance in distinguishing between Reformation traditions.” He argues that your critique is actually more characteristic of “Wesleyan” tradition, rather than the Reformed or Lutheran.

How do you respond to this critique?

Wright: I’m not a church historian and defer to those who are, from whom I hope to learn. I was fascinated by the critique of the medieval ‘virtue’ tradition I found in various sixteenth-century writers, and tried to note that as I went by. I wasn’t trying to give a systematic account of how the different post-Reformation traditions have understood virtue, but was hoping rather to show that the cultural pressures towards a romantic ‘spontaneity’ and an existentialist ‘authenticity’, both of which I see as radically undermining a proper appropriation of NT ethics, have gained (spurious) validation in many quarters by appearing to say what the Reformers say. Some have indeed argued that Luther paved the way for the Enlightenment.

There is a sense in which I think this is true – just as, more obviously, Luther paved the way for Rudolf Bultmann. But life is always more complicated than these over-simplifications. I am much, much more concerned by the fact – and it is a fact – that the Reformers, whom I love and revere, and their various would-be successors to this day, have caricatured St Paul and failed to distinguish different things in his thought. That’s a larger debate I suspect Michael Horton and I ought to have some day. I’ve never met him but I think we would have an interesting conversation.

Christianity Today has posted a review by Mike Horton of N. T. Wright’s newest book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. Horton’s review of this latest book by Wright follows a similar trajectory to his reviews of his other recent books: there is much to be appreciated, especially the way in which Wright paints his word pictures; but Wright’s constant mischaracterization of the Reformers and the confessional traditions that emanated from them is frustrating.

In spite of a few quibbles, I was impressed by this book’s popular presentation of themes that I have come to appreciate in Reformed theology. The eschatological emphasis on cosmic renewal (resurrection, not escape) as the impetus for our lives here and now, the emphasis on the church—in fact, just about everything in After You Believe was a fresh way of exploring many familiar truths.

Hence my surprise at the jarring, frequent caricatures of the Reformation, even when the author articulates long-standing emphases in that tradition. As in his other works, indictments of the Reformation rarely come with footnotes. Wright seems to read the Reformers through the distorted lens of liberal existentialists (Rudolf Bultmann and company) or evangelical pietism. Oddly, he blames the Reformation for the romantic, spontaneous, and existentialist view of the Christian life.

In spite of the rich and varied discussions of virtue by the Reformers, the Puritans, and a host of Protestants since, Wright asserts, “Basically, the whole idea of virtue has been radically out of fashion in much of Western Christianity ever since the sixteenth-century Reformation.” Since we are justified through faith apart from works, “why bother with all this morality? … That, in fact, is more or less what Martin Luther declared, thumbing his nose at the long medieval tradition of virtue.” A footnote to Shakespeare’s Hamlet is brought in as a witness, but there is no footnote for Luther’s alleged proposal.

With many evangelicals, we appreciate Bishop Wright’s work on the historical Jesus but we remain perplexed by his refusal to deal substantively with the Reformation on its own terms in his books on Paul, justification, and now even ethics! At some point one wonders if it’s more than just a difference of opinion; is there an axe to grind?

Michael Horton on Rick Warren, Modern Reformation, and Desiring God

Thursday, April 1st, 2010 by Eric Landry

Update II: More from Modern Reformation

Update: comments closed.

It is not our usual course at Modern Reformation or White Horse Inn to comment on the invitations of other organizations for their conferences.  However, we’re starting to receive questions about our views of Rick Warren’s professed adherence to Reformational theology because an interview in Modern Reformation was posted by Justin Taylor and cited in the comments of his blog as supporters of John Piper wrestle with his recent decision to invite Rick Warren to an upcoming Desiring God conference.  So our team felt that some clarification was needed.

In 2004, Rick Warren graciously accepted our invitation to respond to some Modern Reformation questions in our “Free Space” section, where we engage with various voices, often outside of our usual circles.  We do interviews like this regularly, encouraging conversation, asking questions that we know our readers are wondering.  It’s in our feature articles where we analyze trends and arguments, and I among others have challenged Pastor Warren from time to time.  Our magazine is not just a platform for a few voices or churches.  We’re trying to spark conversation—and, yes, to guide conversation toward a modern Reformation.  Part of that means that we let others speak for themselves.  Yet I think it’s pretty clear to everybody where we land on the main issues.

Speaking first for myself, I admire Rick Warren’s zeal for reaching non-Christians and concern for global challenges.  I respect him for giving away much of his income for charitable purposes.

At the same time, I believe that his message distorts the gospel and that he is contributing to the human-centered pragmatism that is eroding the proper ministry and mission of the church.  Judging by The Purpose-Driven Life, Pastor Warren’s theology seems to reflect run-of-the-mill evangelical Arminianism, especially with its emphasis on the new birth as the result of human decision and cooperation with grace.  There are also heavy traces of Keswick “higher life” teaching throughout the book.  None of this disqualifies him from being an evangelical statesman.  After all, much the same can be said of Billy Graham.  After pointing out how difficult it is to define an evangelical theologically, historian George Marsden famously surmised that it’s “anyone who likes Billy Graham.”  Today, perhaps, it’s anyone who likes Rick Warren.

Obviously, Rick Warren believes that he is simply translating the gospel in terms that the unchurched can understand.  However, the radical condition of sin is reduced to negative attitudes and behaviors and the radical redemption secured by Christ’s propitiatory death and resurrection are reduced to general and vague statements about God giving us another chance.  His central message seems to be that you were created for a purpose and you just need to fulfill it.  Even at Easter he can say, “…And of course, that purpose now becomes greater — and in fact, I think that’s really what the message this week of Easter is, is that God can bring good out of bad. That he turns crucifixions into resurrections. That he takes the mess of our life, and when we give him all the pieces, he can — God can put it together in a new way” (”Larry King Live,” CNN, March 22, 2005).  I heard him say on a network morning program last Christmas that Jesus came to give us a mulligan, like in golf—a chance for a “do-over” in life.

While I applaud his concern for social justice, I am concerned that he confuses the law with the gospel and the work of Christians in their vocations (obeying the Great Commandment) with the work of Christ through his church in its ministry of Word and sacrament (the Great Commission).

His best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life, begins by announcing that it’s not about you, but about God, and then the rest of the book is about you.  There seems to be a contradiction between the God-centered theology that is professed and the basically human-centered orientation that dominates much of his message and methods.  Some time ago, my wife discovered a letter that Rick Warren wrote to me way back in 1998, in which Pastor Warren mentioned the impact of my first book, Mission Accomplished, and his intention to write a book that highlighted the point that God made us for his purposes, rather than the other way around.  Since then, we have corresponded periodically, but that has not kept either of us from offering occasional critiques of each other’s views.  In fact, we will be together for a panel discussion at Saddleback in June, sponsored by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.

Pastor Warren tailors his appeals to his audience.  To Calvinists, he stresses his support for the “solas” of the Reformation.  Yet he tells prosperity evangelist David Yonggi Cho, “I’ve read your books on Vision and Dreams - speak to pastors about how you hear the voice of the Holy Spirit?…What advice would you give to a brand new minister?…Do you think American churches should be more open to the prayer for miracles?” (“Breakfast With David Yonggi Cho And Rick Warren,” Pastors.com).  In a June 2006 article in JewishJournal.com, editor-in-chief Rob Eshman reported on a speech that Warren gave for Synagogue 3000, after Rabbi Ron Wolfson became involved in the Purpose-Driven pastoral training seminars. “Warren managed to speak for the entire evening without once mentioning Jesus — a testament to his savvy message-tailoring.”  When USA Today asked him why Mormon and Jewish leaders are involved in his pastoral training programs, Rick Warren reportedly said, “I’m not going to get into a debate over the non-essentials.  I won’t try to change other denominations.  Why be divisive?” (USA Today, July 21, 2003).  Rick Warren endorses a host of books, from New Age authors to Emergent writers to conservative evangelicals.  So why not include Calvinists?

The first Reformation was about God and the gospel of his Son.  It centered on the justification of sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  Robert Schuller wrote Self-Esteem: The New Reformation in the 1990s.  And in 2005 Rick Warren announced at the Baptist World Alliance meeting a new Reformation based on “deeds, not creeds.”  As he explained in an interview,

I’m looking for a second reformation. The first reformation of the church 500 years ago was about beliefs.  This one is going to be about behavior. The first one was about creeds. This one is going to be about deeds. It is not going to be about what does the church believe, but about what is the church doing (beliefnet.com/faiths/Christianity/2005/10/Rick-Warrens-Second-Reformation.aspx?p=1).

He has also said he is working toward a Third Great Awakening, which seems like the better comparison, since the basic message is more in step with Charles Finney and the Second Great Awakening than it is with the Reformation.

I agree wholeheartedly when Pastor Warren argues that Christians can work with non-Christians—even agnostics and atheists—on the global challenges of poverty, racism, corrupt leadership, injustice, and disease.  However, this is precisely why his confusion of the Christian’s calling to love of neighbor with the gospel is so dangerous.  Working toward the common good is the calling of every person, believer and unbeliever alike, but it is not the Great Commission.  It is the law of love that obliges us all, but it is not the gospel.

Long ago, the evangelist D. L. Moody responded to criticisms of his message and pragmatic methods with the quip, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”  We can be so proud of getting the gospel right while we don’t bother to get the gospel out to those who need it.  Furthermore, we can be self-confident in our theological integrity while ignoring the Word of God when it impinges on questions of social concern.  Yet the answer is not “deeds over creeds,” but to be re-introduced to the creeds that generate the deeds that are the fruit of genuine faith.  Getting the gospel right and getting the gospel out, as well as loving and serving our neighbors, comprise the callings of the church and of Christians in the world. However, confusing these is always disastrous for our message and mission.

-Michael Horton

An Update from Michael Horton in Brazil

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010 by Shane Rosenthal

I’m writing from Sao Paulo, Brazil.  It’s my third trip down here, and I am told repeatedly that the White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation have had a healthy impact.  Ten of my books have been translated into Portuguese.

This invitation came from the Presbyterian Church—specifically, Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie (Mackenzie Presbyterian University) founded in 1870 by an American Presbyterian missionary.  I’ve known the circle of brothers who invited me for a while, since they were involved with one of the earlier trips.  In fact, Augustus Nicodemus Lopez was my interpreter for a conference.  Today, he’s the chancellor of Mackenzie, a 45,000-student university in the heart of an urban area roughly the size of New York City.

Although the missionaries that Calvin sent from Geneva to Rio (the first Protestant missionaries in the New World) were killed by Frenchmen who returned to the Roman Catholic Church, today Reformed theology is making a huge comeback.  Lots of people—especially younger generations—are embracing the doctrines of grace.

The Presbyterian Church of Brazil is a confessional denomination: with over 700,000 members.  That’s A LOT more members than all of the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations in the US.  There is a new Reformation spreading down here.  In fact, the Presbyterian Church of Mexico, a sister church of Brazil’s, has 1.5 million members and growing.  There is also something afoot in Africa (there more confessional Reformed Christians in Nigeria than North America), and Asia (especially South Korea).  Many Pentecostals in these countries are becoming attracted to the Reformation.

Here in Brazil, I’m speaking at a pastors’ conference this week at the University, with about 700 people in attendance.  The response could not be more encouraging.  It is a privilege to be a part of the ministry of such courageous, generous, and clear-minded reformers.  We have a lot to learn from our sister churches abroad!

In addition to Reformed and Presbyterian efforts, the doctrines of grace are spreading down here through groups like FIEL.  I had the privilege of speaking at one of the early FIEL conferences and today they have over 1,000 in attendance regularly.  It draws a lot of brothers and sisters from Baptist and other evangelical denominations.  Since Angola and Mozambique are Portuguese-speaking, these groups and churches are having a huge impact on Africa as well.

Information about the conference I am speaking at is available online (see our previous blog entry for more information). We hope to work more closely with similar groups down here and make our resources available to Portuguese-speakers around the world.

In Christ,

Mike Horton

Horton in Brazil

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010 by Eric Landry

imagesMike Horton is in Sao Paulo, Brazil this week speaking at the Congresso Internacional de Religião, Teologia e Igreja, which is being hosted by the Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie.  If you’d like to watch a live webcast of his lectures, you can log into the University’s website and click where it says “ao vivo” (which means “live” in Portuguese).  His next lectures are scheduled for 5:30 PST/8:30 EST and 2:30 PST/5:30 EST.

On Monday, Mike sent the following message:

The service went well last night and they’re expecting over 500 pastors and others for the conference.  Great dinner with the leaders last night, and again (with others) for lunch.  These folks are really making a huge impact here.  The Presbyterian Church of Brazil has 700,000 members and the University has 45,000 students.  This group has been given theological leadership of the whole denomination and they’re really solid folks.  They want to keep working on how to have a closer relationship with WHI/MR and the 10 books in Portuguese, they say, have really made an impact … a new Reformation is spreading around the world.

Today, he said that the number of registrants for the conference is rapidly increasing so the organizers moved the sessions to the main auditorium on campus, which seats 700 people.  Continue to pray for Dr. Horton and for Reformation in Brazil!

Evangelism and Social Justice

Thursday, February 25th, 2010 by Eric Landry

[What is the relationship between the Great Commandment (to love God and neighbor) and the Great Commission (to make and baptize disciples)? In this preview of Mike Horton's newest book, he lays out the challenge our churches are facing.]

A while back I asked the general secretary of the World Council of Churches if his organization still holds to its old slogan, “Doctrine divides; service unites.”  Chuckling, he said, “Good grief, no.” He went on to relate that the group has learned over the decades that service divides.  Some think capitalism is the way forward, while others insist on socialism.  The pie cuts a thousand ways.  “But then we’ve found that when we go back to talking about the Nicene Creed or some such thing, there is at least a sense of people coming back into the room and sitting down with each other to talk again.”

In a recent issue of Christianity Today, Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw relates the story of his article submission to the flagship evangelical magazine, then under the leadership of Carl Henry. Henry himself had challenged evangelicalism to engage with social concerns in his book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947).  However, he told the young  graduate student that he needed to tweak some of the arguments in his article.

Though grateful that Henry was considering the article, Mouw recalls, “I was also troubled by the change he was proposing.  This was a period in my life when I had often felt alienated from evangelicalism because of what I saw as its failure to properly address issues raised by the civil rights struggle and the war in Southeast Asia.  As a corrective, I wanted the church, as church, to acknowledge its obligation to speak to such matters.”

Henry wouldn’t budge.  Where Mouw insisted it was the church’s duty to address these issues directly, Henry wanted him to say it was the Christian’s duty.  The church has a responsibility to proclaim God’s Word, even with specific application, wherever it speaks.  It has the authority from God to announce a final judgment of oppression, wanton violence, and injustice and to call all people (including Christians) to repentance and faith in Christ in the light of this ultimate assize.  However, “The institutional church,” said Henry, “has no mandate, jurisdiction, or competence to endorse political legislation or military tactics or economic specifics in the name of Christ.”

Henry quoted Princeton University ethicist Paul Ramsey: “Identification of Christian social ethics with specific partisan proposals that clearly are not the only ones that may be characterized as Christian and as morally acceptable comes close to the original New Testament meaning of heresy.’”  At the same time, Henry argued that evangelicals are not only authorized but commanded to proclaim God’s clear “No!” to excessive violence, racial injustice, and other serious moral crises.  God’s Word shapes the moral conscience of its hearers, but where it does not offer specific policy prescriptions, the church has no authority to speak.

Drawing on his Reformed heritage, especially the legacy of Abraham Kuyper, Mouw points out that there is an important place for Christians thinking and working together to apply biblical teaching to such issues, he concludes, “Henry was right, and I was wrong.”

Today, “Deeds, not creeds,” is likely to be heard most frequently from the quarters of evangelical Protestantism as it has been now for a century in mainline Protestantism.  In part, this is an understandable reaction to an apparent lack of concern for bodies, and not only for human bodies but for the creation itself.  If salvation is all about the soul’s escape from the body and this earth will be destroyed (both ideas being explicitly rejected in Scripture), what’s the point of getting all worked up over social injustice?

As we become more aware of global warming and its attendant threats to our whole planet, it is theologically erroneous and spiritually irresponsible for churches to remain silent on God’s command for stewardship.  Anchored not only in the past work of God (creation) and his ever-vigilant providence, the church’s hope is oriented toward the restoration of the whole creation (Ro 8:20-25).  However, is the church competent to deliver pronouncements on specific policies?  And in doing so, is it possible that the church loses its legitimate authority by over-reaching, rather than encouraging its members to pursue their own research and form their own personal and public policy agendas on the specifics?

We easily underestimate the impact of the church’s theology—its preaching and practice—on the wider culture, thinking that if the church is really going to make a mark, it has to be as a political action committee.  A lot of times it is bad theology that underwrites evil practices or at least encourages passive toleration.  Slavery in Europe and the United States and apartheid in South Africa were defended in pulpits through grave distortions of God’s Word.  Yet it was by recovering sound biblical teaching that churches were able to repent.  In the case of apartheid, it was when the South African church—excommunicated from its sister Reformed churches in the world—finally confessed apartheid to be heresy that the practice lost its moral legitimacy.  Without a civil war, the nation was able to face itself and dismantle the oppressive system in courts, congresses, and commissions.  The church did what only the church can do: that is, declare its perverted exegesis to be heretical.  Yet Christians, together with non-Christians, fulfilled their vocations in the world by changing the laws and customs of their society.

I went through this reaction myself.  I felt challenged and liberated by Reformed theology, resonating with J. I. Packer’s description I heard at a conference: “Fundamentalism is world-denying and Reformed theology is world-affirming.”  In college, I began delving into liberation theologians and found much there that resonated with what I had learned from Reformed theology about the problem of soul-body dualism.  Material-spiritual reality forms a unity.  United in its creation, in its corruption, and in its redemption, the whole world is God’s domain.  Then I spent a summer at the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.  Staying up late nights with human rights advocates from all over the world, my naivete crumbled as I heard eye-witness accounts of the most flagrant violations, often by regimes supported by my nation’s government.  Why had I—and so many of my American brothers and sisters—not spoken up?  In fact, why were we committed to a “My America, right or wrong!” kind of philosophy?

But now evangelicalism risks merely changing its political affiliation, tying the gospel to a different political agenda.  Many evangelicals have come to see that the movement was largely  co-opted by the Republican Party, but this repentance seems somewhat superficial when the alternative is simply to switch parties and to broaden political agendas.

[This is an excerpt from a chapter of Mike Horton's newest book (still untitled), set to published by Baker as part of his Christless Christianity and Gospel Driven Life series. We'll post more information as it becomes available. Stay tuned to the WHI blog for more excerpts like this one.]

Five for Friday: The Robert Morrison Project

Friday, January 22nd, 2010 by Eric Landry

Five for Friday is an occasional interview series on the WHI blog that features Reformation pacesetters: those who are actively bringing Reformation into their own circles.  In this edition, we’re talking to the people behind the Robert Morrison Project, a nonprofit publishing enterprise dedicated to legal publication of Christian books in China.

What is the Robert Morrison Project?

Starting about ten years ago it became possible to legally publish some forms of Christian literature in China. Slowly, over the past few years, more and more titles entered legal circulation.  The door is not completely open but it is cracked open and some good quality Reformed titles are being published and distributed in China. Most amazing of all, the genres of literature that the government has been allowing to be published are the very genres that Reformed publishers have been focusing on for the past 50+ years.  In recent years the government has been allowing biographies, old books with historical value (e.g. Pilgrim’s Progress), and marriage and family books to be published.  Soli Deo Gloria, Evangelical Press, and especially the Banner of Truth, are all extremely strong in these areas and have a large number of titles that have a good chance of passing government censorship.  With the church in China approaching 100 million members and growing at 9% a year and with a very small number of Christian titles in legal circulation, this is an opportunity that we can not ignore. Currently, neither the local church nor the Chinese Christian publishing companies are able to self finance high quality translations in large numbers.   In most cases, foreign funding is required.  The purpose of the Robert Morrison Project is to raise funds to help lay the foundation for the long term, legal presence of Reformed literature in China.

What sorts of books are at the top of your list to be published?

Biographies and old literature with historical value from the Banner of Truth, Solid Ground Books, Evangelical Press, etc. all show great promise in China.  We will also seek to publish local Chinese authors.  All titles have been reviewed by an editorial team in China to evaluate whether or not they can pass government censorship.

What effect has the Project already had in China?

The Robert Morrison Project is only two months old.  So far we have not raised sufficient funds to finance our first title but we hope to do so in the near future.

What are your long term goals?

The English language is highly, highly saturated with quality Reformed literature.   There are approximately 35 reformed publishers in the US and UK publishing books in English.  In China, however, there is a massive publishing vacuum of Christian literature.  Our initial goal over the next five to ten years is rectify this publishing imbalance by translating and publishing 50 titles in China.  By publishing these titles we will be increasing the total number of Christian books in circulation by approximately 12%.   Another goal is to respond to the heretical literature now in print.  Currently, few titles are available to answer these authors. Looking even further down the road, our goal is to establish independent, financially self-sufficient Reformed publishing companies in China and Asia.

How can people get involved?

There are many things that people can do.  Most important of all, please pray!   Publishing a Christian book in China is often a very long, difficult process.  Typically, it takes 6 to 24 for months for a title to pass government censorship and sometimes the approval process can be rather arbitrary.  Pray that God would open the door for more Reformed titles to be published.  Tell your friends about us!  Place a link on your church or organization website to our website.  Finally, please consider making a monthly donation to this Project (we have 501(c)3 tax exempt status). Including us in your church or family budget would be a big help.  Income on a monthly basis will help us set long term publishing goals.

The Virgin Mary and ECT: A Response

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009 by Eric Landry

In the 1960s, it was virtually inconceivable that a Roman Catholic candidate could win a presidential election and conservative Protestants were at the forefront of the opposition to John F. Kennedy’s campaign.  However, in only two decades, everything changed.  With the rise of the Moral Majority and concern over a loss of cultural values, particularly the concern to protect the unborn, Roman Catholics and evangelicals found themselves working together, speaking together, and praying together.

Moving beyond political cooperation toward deeper theological and spiritual understanding, a new initiative was born when Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, and evangelical leader Charles Colson gathered a group of friends to discuss their differences and agreements.  In 1994, the first statement was issued from the group: “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.”  Arousing debate within evangelical circles over issues that many of us considered (and still consider) essential to the gospel that were nevertheless left murky or marginalized, this document was followed by “The Gift of Salvation” in 1997.  As the group summarizes in the current document, a third statement, “Your Word is Truth” (2002), “affirmed a convergence in our understanding of the transmission of God’s saving Word through Holy Scripture and tradition, which is the lived experience of the community of faith under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”  This was followed by “The Communion of Saints” (2003), “The Call to Holiness“ (2004), and “That They May Have Life” (2006).  This year’s installment, recently released, is “Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life.”

The authors of the recent document are to be commended for having managed to distill a complex history of differing interpretations in a brief space.  The format contributes to its clarity: framing the issues and allowing both traditions to speak charitably yet frankly of their differences.  The Roman Catholic partners in the dialogue begin by affirming the centrality and uniqueness of Christ, arguing that Mary, along with all saints in heaven, “cooperates” in Christ’s intercession rather than completing or contributing to it.  Although there is much here that challenges popular Protestant caricatures (often drawn from popular Roman Catholic practice), attempts are not made to explain some of the problematic language in dogmatic encyclicals and the First Vatican Council.  We must wait for the evangelical response before there are references to Mary as “co-mediatrix” and “co-redemptrix” (terms, of course, that the evangelical partners rejected).  Nevertheless, the point of the statement was to find common ground and further discussion.

The Roman Catholic partners continue by defending the traditional Marian dogmas: her immaculate conception (officially promulgated in 1854 by Pius IX), which is said to have preserved her from the stain of original sin; her assumption, body and soul, into heaven before death (promulgated in 1950), her perpetual virginity (i.e., celibacy even after the birth of Jesus), and the propriety of offering prayers to and through her.  They do point out that the immaculate conception was debated in the Middle Ages (rejected by Thomas Aquinas, for example), but affirm it as binding dogma.  Upon her assumption, Mary became the “Queen of Heaven,” “the Ark of the Covenant,” and “Mother of the Church,” although the authors insist that in these roles Mary directs us to her Son.  “In drawing closer to Mary, we are drawn closer to Christ….Any mediation attributed to Mary is only part of the mediation of Christ, the ‘one mediator between God and men’ (1 Tim 2:5).”  When “the prayers” are mentioned as part of the ordinary worship of the early church in Acts 2:42, the authors interpret this as encompassing the communion of saints in heaven and on earth: “As we ask for the prayers of the Church on earth, so also we ask for the prayers of the Church in heaven.”

To anyone aware of the developments at the Second Vatican Council and since, these reflections will not be surprising. Although they omit important statements that might stand in some tension with their qualifications of official Marian devotion, they provide a helpful summary.

The evangelical participants are also to be commended for their clarity and conviction.  The recognize the special honor in which Mary was held by the Protestant Reformers, who were happy to refer to her (as some of our confessions do) as “the Blessed Virgin Mary” and other titles.  In fact, even Zwingli, Bullinger, and other Reformers still referred to her as “immaculate” and “ever-virgin,” so they at least did not regard these beliefs as church-dividing—although we should be glad that their successors rejected these views.  The evangelical representatives recognize that the churches of the Reformation have always affirmed with the Council of Ephesus that Mary is Theotokos, “God-bearer.”  Reformed Christians do not share the reticence of most evangelicals in calling Mary the “Mother of God,” since, as the evangelical authors point out, this was a Christological debate meant to affirm the divinity of Christ rather than to raise the status of Mary.  The evangelical partners also offer respectful challenges (supported by exegesis) to Mary’s immaculate conception and perpetual virginity, pointing out the unlikelihood of “brothers and sisters” of Jesus (Matthew 13:55-56) being cousins, as Rome contends.  They also challenge the bodily assumption of Mary and defend the exclusivity of Christ’s mediatorial work.

Of course, in consensus documents something more could always be said.  Rome’s claim that Mary is “Mother of the Church” is nowhere supported in the New Testament (or by Old Testament prophecy).  In fact, given the unity of the covenant of grace, it may be more easily said that Sarah is the mother of the church.  Or, since the church was already born with the announcement of the gospel in Genesis 3:15, Abel’s sacrifice, and Seth’s calling on the name of the Lord, perhaps Eve is the mother of the church.  However, all of this is speculation.

Ask many Protestants today why they are not Roman Catholic and they may refer to “something about Mary and the saints.”  However, for the Reformers, the heart of the problem was the sufficiency of Scripture and especially the sufficiency of Christ the Mediator for sinners.  Are we justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, or by grace and our merits, faith and our works, Christ and the intercession of Mary and the saints.

The mediation of Mary and the saints belongs to a whole system that includes purgatory as the place where departed souls may be relieved in their suffering by our prayers.  The Roman Catholic partners, in fact, mentioned this point, citing Lumen Gentium 49.  The sufficiency of Christ’s merits remains the most church-dividing issue between us and wherever there has been convergence, it has been the Protestant partner rather than Rome that has moved.  I am glad that the evangelical representatives added in this document their concern to guard the Reformation’s emphasis on “the normative authority of Holy Scripture and justification by faith alone,” especially since both are compromised in the two earliest documents.  In my view, genuinely evangelical convictions were more faithfully articulated and defended with respect to Mary than with regard to these other issues that are more central to the faith and to our unresolved differences with Rome.

I applaud the evangelical participants for offering renewed reflection on the mother of our Lord.  She ought to be honored as the chief of saints for her unique role in redemptive history.  Nevertheless, as Calvin argued so long ago in making this same point, the greatest significance of her example for us is that she, though a sinner, was the recipient of God’s free grace and blessing in the Son whom she bore for the salvation of us all.  Let us, with her, embrace that Good News so that we, with her, may be blessed forever.

-Mike Horton

There was a Reformation, you remember.

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009 by Eric Landry

After a week away from the blog, it’s gratifying to come back to it with some much to write about! Later today we’ll take up the next installment of Wright Wednesdays and there’s another “issue” we’re contemplating, too!

But first, let’s go to Bishop Martyn Minns of the newly formed Anglican Church in North America, who is reacting to the announcement yesterday that the Roman Catholic Church is making it easier for traditionalist Anglicans to convert to Catholicism: “I don’t want to be a Roman Catholic,” said Bishop Minns. “There was a Reformation, you remember.”

This is just a great quote and it highlights the real issue at hand. Apparently the doctrinal issues separating Rome and Canterbury aren’t the issue, it’s gay ordination and Rome comes down on the right side of that issue.

Some internet commentators have said that this shows Benedict’s concern for Christian unity and ecumenicity. Um, not really. He says the Anglicans can keep their hymns and work with people who understand them as they go through the process of converting to Roman Catholicism.  One doesn’t bargain with the RCC, it’s her terms or no terms.  Certainly the worldwide Catholic Church is large enough and diverse enough to appeal to a number of people with differing beliefs and emphases, but the clincher is that one must always accept pontifical authority.

Maybe that’s enough for a few Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians out there, but it shouldn’t be enough for those who think that the Reformation was an important event with modern day implications. Thanks, Bishop Minns and the New York Times for reminding us.

Five for Friday

Friday, October 9th, 2009 by Eric Landry

Reformation and Revitalization

In this week’s edition of Five for Friday, our blog interview feature, we welcome the Rev. Harry Reeder, a PCA pastor in Birmingham, Alabama, and the founder of “Embers to a Flame”: a ministry of church revitalization.

If you know of a Reformation pacesetter that we should interview, please email us and we’ll feature their story as someone leading the way for Reformation.

Give us a brief summary of the work that Embers to a Flame does.

Embers to a Flame is a focused ministry to address the issue of leading a church that has plateaued of declined or lost effectiveness for the work of the kingdom back to vitality and effectiveness in serving Christ. While Embers To a Flame certainly encourages preaching and praying for revival, the focus is upon leading a church to spiritual health and vitality, thus the term RE – vitalization. Just as a parent is dependent upon the Lord for the health of one’s child they also realize that they have been given the wisdom to encourage and nurture health and vitality in their child. Leaders of the church are dependent upon the Lord to give life to the church but have been called of the Lord and given direction as to how to nurture health and vitality in the body of Christ. It is important to understand that the objective is NOT church growth but church health. We do not TELL our children how many inches to grow. We feed them, rest and exercise them trusting the Lord in fulfilling what he has purposed through the DNA of their body. Likewise church leaders nurture the body of Christ trusting the Lord in the DNA of the work of the Holy Spirit in that church’s testimony as a manifestation of the Body of Christ. Certainly statistical growth in conversions, members, giving and missionaries, would be an expected consequence of health and vitality BUT it is not the objective. When growth becomes the objective it is only a matter of time until pragmatism guides the decision making process of the leadership. Just as athletes who value size put steroids into their body many churches, for the sake of size, will introduce “cultural steroids” into the body not realizing that like the athlete there may be immediate expansion of size but actually you have introduced an inevitable death through this process. Embers to a Flame rejects the notion that big is good and small is bad and equally rejects the notion that small is good and big is bad. If “small” becomes the objective to the church’s attempt to purity then the church again introduces death the way individuals who become obsessed with smallness develop eating disorders which causes the body to turn upon itself and destroy itself…so those churches eventually become ingrown and eventually self destruct.

Embers to a Flame is a distillation of biblical principles to help lead a church to health and vitality through spiritually healthy leaders and leadership. The focus is upon the documented revitalization process in Scripture of the Church of Ephesus, first through Timothy and then specifically, following the prescription of Christ in Rev. 2:4-5 ~ Remember – Repent – Recover the First Things is the Lord’s roadmap back to a church’s “first love” and its vitality. Furthermore, this three-fold paradigm is implemented through 10 strategies drawn from the Scriptures.

When most people think of Reformation today, they think of starting new churches much like the leaders of the Protestant Reformation did in the sixteenth century. What is the relationship between the reformation of the church and the revitalization of the church?

The 10 strategies of Revitalization of necessity called for Reformation. The premise is from Scripture and history that “Great Awakenings” come from revitalized churches and therefore believers through the process of reformation which is encompassed in the paradigm Remember – Repent – Recover the first things.

Why is revitalization a necessary work?

In today’s ecclesiastical fascinations, Church Planting has center stage and for many reasons that are appropriate. But, when the Apostle Paul went back for the second and third missionary journeys he specifically added revitalization of the churches that had been planted as an objective to be achieved. It is interesting that Acts 17:6 records the word of a frustrated pagan all the way from Europe declaring “these people who have turned the world upside down have come here also.”

We know Who turned the world upside down – the Holy Spirit through his church (acts 1:8).
We know What turned the world upside down – the Power of the Gospel (Rom 1:16).

What is interesting is How they turned the world upside down in less than 25 years after the Ascension of Jesus. The strategy was four- fold:

  1. Gospel evangelism and discipleship
  2. Gospel church planting
  3. Gospel leaders developed and deployed
  4. Gospel deeds of love, mercy and justice

This four-fold initiative was enhanced in the second and third missionary journeys of Gospel Church Revitalization (Acts 15-16 – “strengthening the church”)

Therefore, if we are to be Biblical in our strategy and not driven by sociology and psychology but by Biblical precept, it is our conviction that every church and denomination must be focused upon Christ- centered and Gospel-driven Church Planting AND Church Revitalization. When one sheep wonders Christ pursues it and when a flock wonders Christ pursues them. That is why Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus and gave him a handbook on revitalization – I Timothy – And Titus was sent to Crete to “set in order what remains” with a similar handbook on revitalization. Then 55 years later John is given a message of revitalization not only for Ephesus but for four other churches from Christ himself – Revelation 2 and 3.

What kinds of churches need to be revitalized? That is, what are the signs that a local church might take note of?

Churches that are candidates for revitalization are those who have become spiritually and numerically stagnate, plateaued or declining. The symptoms that reveal the need for revitalization are many and varied. Here are a few:

  1. Program dependent
  2. Fascinated by personality leadership
  3. Financial decline
  4. Loss of impact, usually in the younger generation
  5. Numerical decline – decline of members
  6. Prayerlessness
  7. Loss of hope
  8. Nostalgia dominated
  9. Survival mentality and multiple excuses catalogued to rationalize ineffectiveness
  10. More of a museum than a movement

How do you define a healthy church?

First of all, we must be committed to the Biblical definition of the church as the core of the Kingdom of God, the equipping center for the Kingdom of God and a manifestation of the Kingdom of God. The church is NOT the Kingdom but at the core of the Kingdome of God. Secondly, the church must lose their fascination with hyphenated churches that are driven by highly contextualized models i.e. Emergent churches, Sonship churches, Seeker-centered and Traditional churches. We must return to our confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture to define for us what the church is. And furthermore it doesn’t matter if it is 800 AD or 2800 AD and it doesn’t matter if its Kansas or Kenya, this is what the church is and does. Once that is established then the Biblical model must be effectively contextualized in the location where the church is being planted or revitalized. The symptoms of a healthy church are described in Acts 2:

  1. Participatory God-centered worship
  2. Daily evangelism
  3. Sacrificial giving
  4. Observable sacrificial love of the brethren
  5. Primacy of the ministry of prayer and the Word
  6. Intentional disciple making through small groups
  7. Proper observation and implementation of the sacraments i.e. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
  8. Intimate fellowship and the use of spiritual gifts by the members of the church in ministry
  9. A sense of the presence of God
  10. Transformed lives through the Gospel of Grace resulting in a testimony of the preeminence of Christ. The Holy Spirit will be at work and no one will be speaking about Him because His work is that everyone will be speaking of and proclaiming Christ.

For more information on Embers to a Flame, visit their website or purchase Dr. Reeder’s book, From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church 2nd ed. (P&R, 2004).

Five for Friday

Friday, September 25th, 2009 by Eric Landry

In the Land of Edwardsjonathan-edwards

In this week’s edition of Five for Friday, our blog interview feature, we welcome Rev. Stephen LaValley, a PCA pastor in Enfield, CT, the same town in which Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

If you know of a Reformation pacesetter that we should interview, please email us and we’ll feature their story as someone leading the way for Reformation.

What is the religious historical significance of the area in which you minister?

On the right hand side of Route 5, in the south-central portion of Enfield, in front of a day-care facility for children, under the overgrown bushes there is a medium-sized stone.  Long-forgotten, it memorializes July 8, 1741, the date upon which Jonathan Edwards preached his magisterial sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Enfield was one of the first sites in New England where revival began, brought about by that great sermon.  Soon, some 300 souls were accounted as being added to the Kingdom of God. This wasn’t only due to Edwards’ preaching, but also numerous other colonial ‘Clergymen’ who were preaching throughout the countryside to the common folk with simple exposition of the Scriptures.  Many more souls would be added to the Kingdom of God through itinerant preaching ministries and the outbreak of The Great Awakening all over New England.

Today, however, no Reformational presence remains in Enfield or the surrounding community.

What is the most difficult aspect of ministry there?

The most difficult aspect of ministry today in Enfield is very much the same as it was in Edwards’ day.  He would complain of declining ‘moral principles’, declining church membership, and a general lack of the knowledge of God and concern for one’s standing before Him.  That same spiritual lethargy, or outright rebellion, remains in place today.  Among professing Christians, rampant Arminianism steals from the glory of God in the salvation of sinners while leaving men and women without the foundation of an assurance founded upon the gracious promises of a loving, justifying God.

There is a prevailing pagan/unbelieving mindset amongst non-Christians that sees little need of God or simply knows nothing, by choice, of Him.  Many are simply agnostic.  Others are turned off to ‘religion’ because of the rampant sexual abuse of the Roman Catholic clergy throughout New England.  Some 21 Roman Catholic churches in our immediate area will be closing soon due, in large part, to people leaving Roman Catholicism in droves.  Sadly, they are not seeking an alternative. They are merely ceasing their practice.  There is also a significant and growing presence of Islam in our area with 3 mosques and a number of Sufi communities.

In addition, those professing to be ‘Christian’ or ‘evangelical’ tend to gravitate to the more charismatic or Pentecostal-influenced churches where modern ‘tastes’ for spontaneity and excitement can be assuaged.  In fact, when folks come to visit and participate in our worship, the typical comment is that we are ‘a lot like the Catholic church.’  As I’ve spoken to and visited with these folks, they are essentially responding to what they perceive as the ‘regimented’ order of our worship.  Our worship is traditional (not for tradition’s sake) because of our Reformed and biblical convictions that worship must be offered unto God and set forth in as simple and unadorned a way as Scripture permits and commands.  Additionally, either myself or one of our two Ruling Elders participates in the leadership of our worship.  This, too, is different from what they usually see.

Christians seem to have little or no understanding or knowledge of what pleases God in worship (Romans 12:1) and little burden to concern themselves with the effort of finding out!

These prevailing perspectives, I have found, seem to come from, not only what is coming out of churches in our area, but also the ‘self-esteem’ messages of modern television ‘preacher personalities’ such as Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyers.  At a recent Saturday morning Men’s Breakfast in our home, we spent a large part of our discussion responding to the questions and observations of a number of the men regarding how they find either of the two aforementioned personalities to be ‘uplifting’ and/or ‘inspirational’.  In large part, due to this phenomenon, the gospel seems to be fundamentally misunderstood and misapprehended—and this was glaringly apparent as our discussion over our pancakes and sausage continued.

What part of the Reformation message is most effective at penetrating the hearts and minds of people in your community?

One of the great benefits of the Reformation was the propagation of the Word of God.  The Bible remains the best tool of the church today.  Discipleship over opened Bibles with young believers, or men and women who have missed the gospel for self-esteem and individual ‘purpose’, is essential.  Simply proclaiming the cross of Christ and the resultant justification of sinners through imputed, alien righteousness is more often than not something that has never been heard.  Justification by faith continues to be the unfailing cry that must be relied upon by any church that desires to bear fruit for God’s glory.

The message of the unadorned gospel, through faithful preaching and disciple-making, has unending application and power for both believers and unbelievers alike; both in initial conversion and ongoing sanctification.  God’s Word is our only rule in faith and life.

What has been the most effective in your ministry?

Discipleship–that one-on-one, costly, and time-consuming effort to help professing believers and new Christians alike to live grateful lives pleasing to God–is always an ongoing effort.  We connect men and women to mature believers and help them to form sustained relationships.  We also intentionally build relationships with people as a means of gospel-witness and/or simply displaying the love of Christ.

Ultimately, the continued presence and progress of a gospel-proclaiming, witnessing, fellowshipping, worshipping, local church is what we believe the Lord will bless—even if the progress is often slow and indiscernible.  We have ministered to the community and advertised the presence of our church in a number of ways because we believe that the community’s awareness of our presence is an essential part of the Lord’s leading them to salvation.

One gentleman recently walked in to our church for worship on a typical Sunday morning and pronounced when greeted that, he “…might come back if [the greeter at the door] leave[s] me alone and if the Word, and none of that other [stuff], is preached.”  He is still attending…

What gives you hope and confidence when faced with a difficult ministry experience?

The cross of Jesus Christ is what gives me hope and confidence when I am faced with difficult ministry.  The Apostle Paul proclaimed, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).  There are many discouragements:  slow progress, half-hearted repentance, few conversions, apathy, immorality, the overwhelming costs of maintaining a ministry with physical property in costly Connecticut, a sometimes-lack of awareness on the part of the established church to recognize the mission field that is New England, the difficulty of recognizing and training leaders, etc…

But the greatest danger to our church (any church) is a loss of confidence and hope in the power of God in the gospel of His Son.  The cross of Christ is the only event of faith that gives us any confidence in ministry—it is our only ‘boast’.  In 1734 it was Edwards’ desire to “bring the sinful to a knowledge of God and to the experience of spiritual rebirth.”  This is our driving concern and the constant repetition of our prayer.  We are praying for badly-needed revival to come again to Enfield and to New England.

Stephen LaValley is the pastor of Grace Chapel in Enfield, Connecticut. For more information, feel free to email the Rev. LaValley.


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