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Evangelicals, Catholics, and Unity

Mike Horton’s booklet, Evangelicals, Catholics, and Unity, is coming back into print. He will be on Stand to Reason later today to talk about the booklet, why Rome is still an attractive option for some evangelicals, and how to equip ourselves to answer critics of the Reformation.

In anticipation of its release, you can read a few sample chapters on our blog this week:

Chapter One: Why Are We Still Divided?

How can the church be the symphony of redemption when its musicians interpret the composition so differently that it sounds more like a wild cacophony than a harmonious concert?

The world wonders.

And so do we.

When we look in the Yellow Pages of the phone book for a certain church or a certain kind of church, we find a bewildering array of denominations. There are hundreds of denominations in America. In some regions, such as Northern Ireland and Central America, Protestants and Roman Catholics still even take up arms against each other. This is not only a scandal to the watching world; it is sometimes overwhelming, especially to new Christians who are simply seeking a solid nursery for their budding faith.

Meanwhile, the growing secularism of our time, reflected in the “culture of death” that naturalism, pragmatism, and relativism have unleashed, reduces the influence of religion in society nearly to the vanishing point. In such an environment, when committed Roman Catholics and Protestants share so much in common, highlighting remaining doctrinal differences strikes many persons as foolishly fiddling while Rome burns.

It is no wonder, then, that there is strong impatience with the divisions that haunt Christian witness at the end of its second millennium. Billy Graham’s crusades broke with a fundamentalism that tended to identify Roman Catholicism with everything that is wrong with the world. Graham has even included local priests and distinguished Roman Catholic leaders on his crusade platforms. Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council opened the windows and allowed the breezes of Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism (both liberal and evangelical) to blow through Rome’s hallowed halls. Modernity, against which Rome had struggled more valiantly in many respects than mainline Protestants, was at last allowed entry, and many changes followed – at least on the surface. Especially in the United States, Protestants and Roman Catholics began to intermarry as religious differences, if not religion itself, receded in importance. There have been countless dialogues, some of them quite helpful in reaching greater understanding of both differences and agreements.

The charismatic movement, Bible study groups, Promise Keepers, the pro-life movement, and other grassroots efforts have drawn individual members of both communions together in non-ecclesiastical ways despite the official church divisions. All of us have come face to face with strangers and have often found them to be friends. In fact, in many cases we have found them to be true brothers and sisters in Christ.

So it happened that in 1994 and 1997, when a group of evangelicals and Roman Catholics drew up two bases of agreement (“Evangelicals and Catholics Together” and “The Gift of Salvation”), many took this as a sign that the issues that have separated the two communions for nearly five centuries were no longer obstacles to genuine unity and fellowship in a shared understanding of the Gospel.

All this has been confusing and troubling for many believers who sincerely long for greater visible unity among Christ’s flock. We wish for unity but cannot willingly surrender essential truth in order to accomplish a false peace. For those who care about such truth, Christian unity must be a marriage made in heaven, not a merger or acquisition made on earth. Yet we ask: How should we navigate these troubled waters?

Let’s begin by asking two important questions. First, are evangelicals catholic? Second, may Roman Catholics be considered evangelical?

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5 Myths about Reformed Theology

Dr. Horton was recently asked to address some of the common misconceptions about Reformed theology. His response can be found on the Resurgence website.

If you would like some more resources about Calvinism and Reformed theology, go to our on-line store where you can purchase Dr. Horton’s book For Calvinism as well as two conversations that Dr. Horton had with Dr. Roger Olson on the subject of “For and Against Calvinism.”

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Reviving Christianity or Christendom?

For nearly a century, conservative Christians have seen the mainline Protestant decline as a sign of God’s judgment on liberals for hitching their wagon to the spirit of the age. That’s also a subtext of New York Times editor Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. The threat of heresy has always been an opportunity for the church to clarify and articulate its convictions. Yet in the past, even heretics were clear in their teaching, Douthat explained in an interview: “But instead, precisely because the heresies we actually have tend to be anti-hierarchical, vague about doctrine, and much more individualistic and do-it-yourself and self-consciously easygoing than some of the past heresies you’re referencing, it’s harder for people to clarify what’s actually at stake in religious debates—both for Christianity and for America as a whole.”

Liberals used to justify their losses by referring to their cultural impact. This strategy has reappeared in recent weeks, even as mainline denominations are slashing budgets and the Episcopal Church is selling off its headquarters in the heart of Manhattan. Diana Butler Bass defends liberalism as the best hope for reviving Christianity.

The Rt. Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, former dean of the venerable National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., has offered a similar argument:

What Douthat sees as a rising tide of liberalism increasingly weakening the mainline churches is in fact a tidal wave of social change washing over the face of Christianity in North America. To put it simply, Americans are in many cases finding in their churches little of the spiritual sustenance they once did. Many have lost confidence in the institution itself, and are too often finding little in church services to win them away from Sunday morning jogging, gardening, and soccer leagues.

In response to these responses, Mr. Douthat has qualified his analysis while holding to the basic plot: namely, that liberal Christianity—for all of its political and social influence—has emptied the faith of its content.

It’s an argument that J. Gresham Machen made in the 1920s, with his controversial book, Christianity and Liberalism.

Yet Dean Lloyd makes a good point:

A nation that once went to church on Sunday turns up far less. A culture that emphasizes personal fulfillment, consumer savvy, high entertainment expectations, and impatience with the demands of organizations, does little to encourage the patience required for life in local congregations. And, crucially, many churches have become so at ease in the American establishment that they have lost their sense of urgency for nurturing strong personal faith in their members. The churches have much to learn in this time of transition, and the good news is that the learning curve is now sharp and many are in the game.

It’s true, as Bass and Lloyd observe, that conservative churches are facing decline as well. Secularization is wider than card-carrying liberal Protestantism. The culture of personal fulfillment that he mentions encompasses conservatives as well, and evangelicals have excelled at marketing to this cultural instinct. It points up the fact that it’s as easy to secularize churches by identifying with popular culture as it is by linking them up with the trends of high culture. Liberals pioneered the strategy of marketing a watered-down “faith-experience” with a craving for cultural acceptance, transforming the radical news of sin and grace into therapeutic categories of personal and social well-being. To the extent that evangelicals follow that course, albeit with different cultural agendas, it too will find its relevance operations irrelevant to those who can find entertainment, politics, and advice for their self-help life projects elsewhere.

But what exactly does it mean to be “in the game”? Apparently, it is to continue to shape the left wing of the culture wars. It is not theology that matters, but vital spirituality. Like Professor Bass, Mr. Lloyd believes that the core of genuine faith is morality: love of God and neighbor. This is not just the law that Christians have always seen as essential, but the gospel. And now wonder that this is all that’s left after successive denials of the historic Christian faith. Bass and Lloyd cite the social and political legacy of liberals, from the civil rights movement of the 60s to the gay rights movement of today. “The real issue will not be which churches are conservative and which are liberal, but which are spiritually alive and which are not.”

Being “in the game” for liberals has always meant cultural clout. In this respect, ironically, liberalism has more invested in “Christendom” than in Christianity. Long before the modernist-fundamentalist controversy, American Protestantism sought to be the soul of a Christian America. In many ways, liberal and conservative Protestantism today represent twin offspring of American civil religion—albeit different political wings. Liberalism does not have a gospel, but our response should not be smug self-confidence. As I argued in Christless Christianity, many of the same trends that corrupted mainline Protestantism are alive and well in evangelicalism today.

With all due respect to Dean Lloyd, being “in the game” from a Christian perspective has to do with the faithful preaching of the Word, administration of the sacraments, and the spiritual and temporal care of the saints. To begin with, there has to be a gospel to answer the deep crisis between God and humanity that reflects itself in the crisis between human beings. Only the incarnate God can save us, by his life, death, and resurrection. Take this away and there is no reason for the church to exist. Delivering this message—to lifelong believers as well as to those “far off” is the mission of the church, as it reaches out, draws in, and grows up in ever-widening circles. With this gospel, even the little church in the wildwood is on the field in the middle of God’s action. Without it, we’re not only out of the game, but playing for the other team.

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The Law and Abandonment Among American Youth

A recent conversation I had with a suburban nanny brought to light an alarming trend in teen culture. While the child is too young to clearly articulate his inner turmoil, his nanny described in him a deep sense of isolation and estrangement in addition to anger and resentment toward his parents and situation. Beyond the primary element of her job, which involves driving the child to various artistic, academic, and athletic pursuits after school, the nanny characterized her job as similar to working with an orphan.

Now, I am not describing a child who is a victim of desperate poverty, a deadly epidemic, or a violent war and has found refuge in an orphanage. I am telling the narrative of a suburban American pre-teen who has access to every conceivable material want and life opportunity.  Recent research in the social psychology of American teens identifies this child’s anguish, not as an exceptional circumstance, but as more of a norm.

Researchers have committed much study to the trend of abandonment in teen culture.  The literature has identified an intense sense of disconnection and isolation among teens in their family and community systems.  While researchers consider high-rates of divorce and general family dysfunction as contributing factors, the primary variable among teens with symptoms of abandonment is over-programming and performance-based lifestyles.

David Elkind of Tufts University has dedicated over two decades to following this trend in parenting. Elkind notes that most parents focus on the competence of their child as a performer in the market place as their central mission; the primary role as a parent becomes one of strategic development. During the course of his research on this issue, Elkind documents an intensification of the problem as over-programming increases.

While Elkind describes youth who have been formed in this manner as the “hurried child,” Chap Clark, in his book Hurt, affirms this trend but chooses to use the term “the abandoned child.” He writes, “We have evolved to the point where we believe driving is support, being active is love, and providing any and every opportunity is selfless nurture … Even with the best of intentions, the way we raise, train, and even parent our children today exhibits attitudes and behaviors that are simply subtle forms of parental abandonment.[1] Elkind’s terminology focuses more on the means of parenting (over-programming) and Clark’s descriptor elucidates the results (isolation).

Certainly people can evaluate accurately this issue from various angles (psychology, sociology, education, etc.). From a theological position, this parenting style reflects the natural result of life lived intensely under the law. When I mention law in this context, I do not refer to the moral code but to a pattern of life focused on living up to standards through personal performance and effort. A standard of false righteousness- child competence – exists in the culture, and adults employ whatever necessary means (math tutors, batting coaches, personal trainers, academic camps, intense schedules, etc.) to maximize their child’s performance that they may satisfy the expectations. The standard may manifest itself in language such as, “I want my child to have every opportunity,” or “I want more for my children,” but producing “successful” children constitutes the core hope. This mentality practically plays out in twelve year olds bouncing from early morning swim practice to school to piano to Boy Scouts to homework to bed as a normalized routine.

Scripture tells us that a life defined by the law yields alienation from God and man, as one sinks into a lonely, self-absorbed pursuit of perfection. In contrast, the Gospel of grace draws one out of alienation and into fellowship with God and neighbor. In the Gospel the onus of perfection shifts to Christ, and one is freed to enjoy relationship with God and others.

Understanding the pervasiveness of this trend among American teens compels those ministering to youth (parents, youth pastors, teachers, et al.) to recognize the law-driven nature of the culture and to offer the freedom of the Gospel. In addition to this, discussion of spiritual adoption may have more relevance in this context than any other element of salvation. The Father’s role in salvation as the one who adopts justified sinners as sons and daughters resonates with students struggling with a sense of abandonment. The idea of a Perfect Parent who offers free love and constant presence and who calls for rest, rather than effort, provides a sense of relief for students who often live under pressure.

Adoption calls individuals out of isolation and into God’s Kingdom and family. As John says in 1 John 1:2-3,

The life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

This adopting love, made manifest through Christ, not only brings people into union with God but also into the fellowship of the saints.

Certainly all benefits of salvation have relevance to all generations in all contexts. At the same time, in the context of American teen culture, emphasis on the Father adopting sinners and delivering the isolated into a fellowship provides great hope to a generation of estranged teens.

Cameron Cole serves as the chairman of Rooted: A Theology Conference for Student Ministry, which will host its conference, themed Adopted: The Beauty of Grace, at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama on August 9-11. The conference will focus on the Gospel of grace and message of adoption to a generation of alienated teenagers. Those interested can learn more at www.rootedconference.com and can follow the Rooted blog at www.therootedblog.blogspot.com.

 


[1] Chap Clark, Hurt (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 46-47.

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Response to Alan Chambers

 

An interview in a recent issue of The Atlantic provoked more debate over evangelical views toward same-sex relationships. Christianity Today asked me, among others, to respond. My response was posted this morning.

Can Christians embrace a same-sex lifestyle and still be members in good standing in a Christian church?

I’ve been asked to comment on the controversy provoked by a recent interview in theAtlantic with Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International—an evangelical ministry founded to help Christians and non-Christians find freedom from the guilt and power of a same-sex lifestyle.

Christians may debate public policy, but in this interview, Chambers raises issues that are very clearly addressed in Scripture. Especially when we are dealing with human lives, daring to draw our counsel from God, we need to affirm the simplicity of biblical teaching on the subject while rejecting an over-simplifying of the issues involved.

The problem (sin and death) as well as the solution (redemption in Christ through the gospel) are simple, but hardly simplistic. In terms of sin, Scripture is quite clear about the condition (original sin—guilt, bondage, corruption leading to death) and the acts that arise from it. There are versions of the pro-gay and anti-gay agenda that assume a simplistic rather than simple understanding of the issue—at least from a biblical perspective. Reject it or embrace it: that’s the easy choice that makes for great sound-bites but ruins lives.

So let’s apply this “simple but not simplistic” formula to homosexuality.

To read the rest of the article head to Christianity Today’s website.

Also check out this Modern Reformation article “Such Were Some of You”

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Culture-Changers: Mainline Denominations Losing Members but Making Their Mark

 

U. C. Berkeley professor David Hollinger tried to put wind in the sails of liberal Protestants in his recent presidential address for the Organization of American Historians. Not having read the address, I can only refer to the interview that recently arrived in my in-box from the Christian Century.

According to Professor Hollinger, mainline Protestantism may have lost its members in droves, but at least it has decisively shaped American culture—especially politics. So cheer up, heirs of Harry Emerson Fosdick! Funded by parishioner John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Fosdick’s campaign especially targeted the scholarly defense of historic Christianity by the likes of J. Gresham Machen. Fosdick’s 1922 sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” upped the ante in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and in this interview Professor Hollinger holds him up as a model for a reinvigorated social gospel.

It’s always interesting to hear partisans describe their own defeats as victories. However, Professor Hollinger includes himself among the “Post-Protestants”: secularists who hope that liberal Protestants will revive their spirit enough to combat evangelicals. In so doing, they might still lose their own members, but they will at least win the respect of urban intellectuals like himself and perhaps stay in the game of shaping high culture.

There is a lot that could be said about the views expressed in the interview. If anyone is looking for a good example of Machen’s claim that liberalism equals secularization, they will find it here. What I want to challenge is a historical point.

Professor Hollinger is no mean encourager of the downcast. A historian of American intellectual culture, he has contributed an impressive body of work. Nevertheless, one of the central points he makes in this interview is worth a little push-back, even from a non-specialist such as myself. It is the claim that while evangelicalism hails from the sticks–a coalition of fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and Holiness folks who were basically racist, sexist, and with “Red State” political agendas– liberal (he prefers “ecumenical”) Protestantism paved the way for racial, gender, and economic equality. Mainliners, Hollinger believes, need to have more face-time in the media, exposing America to the latest biblical scholarship—which, ostensibly, debunks the Bible. (Never mind the fact that evangelicals are among the leading biblical scholars in the Society of Biblical Literature and have arguably injected new life into New Testament studies in recent decades.) The Christian Century needs to get back its groove to go head-to-head with Christianity Today.

If I am aware of it, I’m sure that Professor Hollinger knows that the Social Gospel movement at the turn of the twentieth century was a mixed bag—even from a twenty-first-century secularist’s perspective.

First, evangelicalism was American Protestantism until the turn of the 20th century. Second, it’s also anachronistic to project backwards today’s liberal-conservative profiles. Evangelicals in Britain and America did more to bring down modern slavery and the industrial exploitation of women and children than any other group—certainly more than latitudinarian Anglicans (overwhelmingly Tory) and American Unitarians.

I’m not exactly cheering when I say that the Social Gospel movement arose largely out of the evangelical movement—in particular, the Second Great Awakening.

Washington Gladden (1836-1918), a founding father of the movement, at first opposed local workers who went on strikes. Fellow Congregationalist pastor Charles M. Sheldon (author of In His Steps, which coined the famous query, “What would Jesus do?”) changed his mind on the subject. The German Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), author of Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), joined forces with Unitarian minister Francis Greenwood Peabody. So far, so good on the claim that theological and political liberalism go hand-in-hand.

However, the most popular sermon of the movement—and indeed the decade—was Russell H. Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds”: “Because to make money honestly is to preach the Gospel…You ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich…Ninety-eight out of one hundred of the rich men in America are honest. That is why they are rich….The number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins, thus to help him when God would still continue a just punishment, is to do wrong.” This distinctively American message was heard on both sides of the theological and political aisle. The conservative evangelist D. L. Moody was at least as energetic as the others in extending concern to the poor and needy (founding scores of rescue missions, not to mention the YMCA). Yet he too said, “Show me a business man who has accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior and I’ll show you a successful business man.” Both the Social Gospellers and their critics in American Protestantism remained fluid on how exactly to restructure the world’s economy. Socialism, however, was not a live option for either camp, as it certainly was for evangelicals as well as others in Europe at the time.

Nor were Social Gospellers less racist or imperialistic, by and large. Many were in the vanguard of those who defended the Spanish-American War. The Reverend William Rainsford, a Social Gospel Episcopalian, opined, “This war has not been cunningly devised by strategists. America is being used to carry on the work of God in this war, which no politician could create, control, or gainsay.”

Following Charles Finney, New School Presbyterians and Congregationalists were, ironically, the fountainhead of both wings of Protestantism before the fundamentalist-modernist split. In an Oberlin address, “A Perfect State of Society,” Wheaton president Jonathan Blanchard was hardly less serious in his postmillennial vigor when he said, “What John the Baptist and the Savior meant when they preached the kingdom of God was a perfect state of society.” Lyman Beecher, whose trial over denying original sin and the substitutionary atonement finally split the Presbyterian Church in 1835, was a staunch abolitionist as well as defender of prohibition and the restriction of Roman Catholic immigration. Beecher unflinchingly supported America’s “manifest destiny” in conquering the natives in the West.

An especially peculiar figure, both an evangelical and social gospel advocate, was Josiah Strong (1847-1916). A Congregationalist minister, Strong argued in Our Country: Its Promises and Its Crisis (1885), that Anglo-Saxons have a duty from God to “civilize and Christianize the rest of the world.” There are Seven Perils, he announced: Catholicism, Mormonism, Socialism, Alcohol, Wealth, Urbanization, and Immigration. Unlike other European races, whose religion is bound up with external rites and institutions (Rome and state Protestantism), Anglo-Saxon religion is “pure spiritual Christianity.” Thus, the Anglo-Saxon (especially American) race is “destined to be for all men its brother’s keeper.” Missions brings development: “Commerce follows the missionary.” “Christianizing talent on a wide scale,” including “the money power,” will bring enormous gains, along with prohibition of alcohol. Yet this strength of Anglo-Saxon America, uncorrupted even by British monarchism, cannot be limited to one continent. We are about to see “the final competition of races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled.” His chilling words continue:

Long before the thousand millions of immigrants are here, the mighty centrifugal tendency, inherent in this stock and strengthened in the United States, will assert itself. Then this race of unequaled energy, with all the majesty of numbers and the might of wealth behind it—the representation, let us hope, of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization—having developed peculiarly aggressive traits calculated to impress its institutions upon mankind, will spread itself over the earth. If I read not amiss, this powerful race will move down upon Mexico, down upon Central and South America, out upon the islands of the sea, over upon Africa and beyond. And can anyone doubt that the result of this competition of races will be the ‘survival of the fittest’?…The United States is destined to dispossess many weaker races, assimilate others, and mold the remainder until, in a very true and important sense, it has Anglo-Saxonized mankind.

This will lead to “God’s final and complete solution of the dark problem of heathenism among many inferior peoples” (392).

After Our Country, Strong was made General Secretary of the American Evangelical Alliance, then founded his own League for Social Service with its magazine, The Gospel of the Kingdom. He also wrote The New Era (1893), where he coined the terms “Christian socialism” and “the Social Gospel,” and continued his vision in The Next Great Awakening (1902). Strong became a pioneer of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ, forerunner of the National Council of Churches—which, once again, shows that any talk of a clear divide between evangelicals and social gospel advocates at the turn of the century is anachronistic. (By the way, a note to Emergent brothers and sisters: all of this was called “modernism,” not “postmodernism.”)

Lyman Abbott (1835-1922) was another liberal evangelical, whose central message was “What Jesus saw, humanity is becoming.” He too called for the conquest of the native Americans “and other inferior peoples.” “Barbarism has no rights which civilization is bound to respect. In the history of the human race, nothing is more certain than that civilization must conquer and barbarism must be subdued.” President McKinley, an evangelical Presbyterian close to Abbott, spoke in an interview of the “benevolent assimilation” of the Philippines—but it was an atrocious and bloody war with Spain. McKinley told the interviewer, “I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me…that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.” Not to be outdone, even Pope Leo XIII endorsed the war, while Mark Twain wrote, “I fail to understand how the Filipino has been lifted up by the Gospel that was rammed into him with bayonets.”

Although Abbott was an outspoken liberal (basically, Unitarian), when the aged Charles Finney published his self-congratulatory Memoirs, it bore this endorsement from Abbott: “This is the most fascinating religious biography that I ever read. It is as dramatic, full of surprises, almost as marvelous in its manifestation of divine power, as the Book of Acts. It is coming out at just the right time.”

If Professor Hollinger’s historical narrative is open to question, his simplistic portrait of evangelicals and “ecumenical Protestants” is as black-and-white (or “Red” and “Blue”) as that of any fundamentalist. Readily available, a host of recent studies show that evangelical Protestants give far more of their income per capita than their neighbors, including mainline Protestants. And they give not only to missions but also to myriad causes for the relief of human suffering around the world. Organizations like World Vision continue a long history of pioneering benevolent work by evangelicals. Nor can evangelicals, who helped to elect Jimmy Carter as well as Ronald Reagan, be considered a predictably Republican voting block.

I get the secularist narrative, and why its proponents find it persuasive—indeed, need it to be persuasive. But this interview illustrates how history can be the hottest resource and the greatest casualty when you’re engaged in a culture war.

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Should You Pray for God to Save Your Loved Ones?

 

Calvinists hear Arminian friends ask this question all the time. It’s usually intended as a rhetorical question. In other words, it’s really a statement: If you believe that your unbelieving friend is dead in sin until God unilaterally regenerates him or her, and that God has unconditionally chosen whom he will save, then what’s the point? Que sera, sera: Whatever will be, will be.

Of course, this is a terrific objection to hyper-Calvinism, but misses its Reformed target. Our confessions teach that God works through means. Though the Father has chosen unconditionally some from our condemned race for everlasting life in his Son, the elect were not redeemed until he sent his Son “in the fullness of time,” and they are not justified until the Spirit gives them faith in Christ through the gospel. To invoke Paul’s argument (on the heels of teaching unconditional election), “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?…So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:14-15, 17).

For years now, I’ve reversed this rhetorical question, asking, Why would anyone pray for the conversion of their loved one if God were not sovereign in dispensing his grace? Arminians shouldn’t pray for God to save their loved ones, because God could reply, “Look, I’ve done my part; now the ball is in your court.” Yet, I note, Arminians are typically no less zealous in praying for the salvation of the lost than Calvinists. We’re at one on our knees.

Not so quickly, says Roger Olson, a distinguished Baptist professor and author of Arminian Theology. By now, readers of this blog may know that my friend Roger and I have been engaged in conversations about these things. He wrote, Against Calvinism, and I wrote For Calvinism, and we have taken up these issues in person as part of our White Horse Inn “Conversations” series. We’re both trying to understand each other’s views charitably, if nevertheless critically. In that spirit, the following…

In a recent post, Roger stirred up a hornet’s nest by suggesting that “Arminians should not pray to God to save their friends and loved ones.” It may be that one is using “save” differently. However, “Normal language interpretation would seem to me to indicate that asking God to save someone, without any qualifications, is tantamount (whatever is intended) to asking God to do the impossible (from an Arminian perspective).”

He adds, “So, if a person asks me about such praying I will lead off the discussion with ‘What do you intend for God to do?’ If the person says ‘I am asking God to intervene in their life to force them to repent and believe’ I will say ‘That’s not possible’ and explain why.”

(Now, Roger, I do have to quibble here: Who on earth, including the staunchest Calvinist, is going to mean by that, “I am asking God…to force them to repent and believe”? Again, you have to look at our confessions for our views on the subject and they all unanimously teach that in effectually calling us the Spirit does not coerce or force our will, but frees it from its bondage to sin and death. Faith is entirely the gift of God and entirely the free response of a human being who has been made alive by the Spirit through the gospel.)

Roger’s point is that an Arminian who prays this kind of prayer is acting like a Calvinist, but in fact asking God to “force them to repent and believe” is not a Calvinist way of praying.

Having said that, I do think that Roger has consistency on his side when it comes to his own position. “‘Lord, save my friend’ (without qualification) normally reflects monergism, not synergism.” (Since Paul said that “my heart’s prayer to God for [fellow Jews] is that they may be saved” [Rom 10:1], I’m delighted now to find that this is yet another proof-text for monergism!)

Professor Olson is not being picky, going around telling fellow Arminians not to pray for folks; he just wants their prayer to be consistent with their theology. He explains, “If I hear my pastor or Sunday School teacher or a student pray something like ‘God, please save so-and-so’ I will probably go to that person and inquire what they meant and suggest changing the words in the future to match the intended meaning. Why? Because public prayers also teach. People hearing a pastor or Sunday School teacher or student pray such a prayer will probably get the wrong idea (unless the prayer was intended monergistically).”

I’m glad that most Arminians are not consistent on this point. Since God does use means (including our prayers) to accomplish his purposes, it is a good thing indeed that Christians of any stripe are asking God to bring their loved ones—and ours—to saving faith in Christ, just as God used the prayers of all sorts of people in our case. And it’s a good thing that God can in fact answer that prayer, isn’t it?

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Muslim Persecution of Christians

As we have seen the Arab Spring turn into a scorching summer throughout many countries in the middle east, we are also beginning to hear more and more about the difficulties faced by minority Christian populations in those regions. Even where somewhat democratic regimes have offered promising hopes for religious freedom (as in Indonesia), the pace of persecution is stepping up around the world. A recent article by the Gatestone Institute provides an up-to-date summary:

Muslim Persecution of Christians: May 2012

Unlike those nations, such as Saudi Arabia, that have eliminated Christianity altogether, Muslim countries with significant Christian minorities saw much persecution during the month of May: in Egypt, Christians were openly discriminated against in law courts, even as some accused the nation’s new president of declaring that he will “achieve the Islamic conquest of Egypt for the second time, and make all Christians convert to Islam;” in Indonesia, Muslims threw bags of urine on Christians during worship; in Kashmir and Zanzibar, churches were set on fire; and in Mali, Christianity “faces being eradicated.”

Elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa—in Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya, Sudan, the Ivory Coast—wherever Islam and Christianity meet, Christians are being killed, slaughtered, beheaded and even crucified.

To read the rest of this article click here: Muslim Persecution of Christians: May 2012.

To read more about Christianity and Islam, check out the July / August 2012 issue of Modern Reformation “The Cross and the Crescent

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“It’s a wonder I didn’t leave the church…”

The need is still great for missions to far-flung regions where the gospel is virtually unknown. One of the things I’ve become more convinced of over the past 20 years, however, is that the gospel is as foreign to us in the West (including North America) as anywhere. You can get a lot of support from Christians on that point when you’re talking about the culture, but I’m talking about churches.

It’s increasingly possible to grow up in the church today without ever having really heard the gospel. In fact, many churches – and the parachurch Christian subculture – actually move people further away from Christ, even in the name of mission and “reaching the kids.” In response to a recent White Horse Inn program on “Reforming Youth Ministry,” a young adult named Kristy wrote in:

It is a miraculous wonder that I didn’t leave the church completely. I had never heard of apologetics, reformed theology, justification, etc… until I was in my late 20′s. I grew up in a very small country church. I learned much about love & serving others but nothing about sound theology or doctrine. I don’t completely fault my home church because I doubt the majority of the adults in the church had ever heard any of those topics. Most of the elders probably didn’t even have a high school degree. They taught us what they knew, the love of God. However, when I went off to college, I didn’t have the solid foundation that I should have. I was…still am…very drawn to New Age/The Occult. It was only for the Grace of God that I didn’t end up in some weird cult. I feel like I am now having to play catch up. Comments like “they won’t understand,” “they’ll shut off,” “they won’t remember this stuff” make me SO angry. It really irritates me to think how they underestimate these kids. If you don’t expect much out of kids, you won’t get much. Expect the most from kids & most of them will strive to prove themselves to you & the ones who don’t will catch a couple of nuggets that may return later in life. If you expect someone to fail, they will be less likely to give it their all. If you are there as a support & encourager, they will thrive & even surprise you down the line.

We can’t repeat it often enough: we’re not a church. Still, God is using White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation to introduce people to solid biblical teaching, to give them the criteria and passion for finding a good church, and to reform churches that have found themselves drifting into “mission creep.”Through your generous support, conversations in homes, schools, lunchrooms, and churches are changing and the scandalous gospel is being rediscovered – and discovered for the first time – by people who had thought previously that they knew it all along.

Would you please consider a special gift in support of our work, here and abroad, as we conclude our fiscal year end? Donate any amount by June 30 (only 10 days left). All gifts are important! Donate $100 and receive an MP3 cd of your choice loaded with White Horse Inn episodes and articles from Modern Reformation magazine.

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Who’s in Charge Here? The Illusions of Church Infallibility

In my experience with those who wrestle with conversion to Roman Catholicism—at least those who have professed faith in the gospel, the driving theological issue is authority. How can I be certain that what I believe is true? The gospel of free grace through the justification of sinners in Christ alone moves to the back seat. Instead of the horse, it becomes the cart. Adjustments are made in their understanding of the gospel after accepting Rome’s arguments against sola scriptura. I address these remarks to friends struggling with that issue.

Reformation Christians can agree with Augustine when he said that he would never have known the truth of God’s Word apart from the catholic church. As the minister of salvation, the church is the context and means through which we come to faith and are kept in the faith to the end. When Philip found an Ethiopian treasury secretary returning from Jerusalem reading Isaiah 53, he inquired, “Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I,” the official replied, “unless someone guides me?” (Ac 8:30-31). Explaining the passage in the light of its fulfillment in Christ, Philip baptized the man who then “went on his way rejoicing” (v 39).

Philip did not have to be infallible; he only had to communicate with sufficient truth and clarity the infallible Word.

For many, this kind of certainty, based on a text, is not adequate. We have to know—really know—that what we believe is an infallible interpretation of an ultimate authority. The churches of the Reformation confess that even though some passages are more difficult to understand, the basic narratives, doctrines and commands of Scripture—especially the message of Christ as that unfolds from Genesis to Revelation—is so clearly evident that even the unlearned can grasp it.

For the Reformers, sola scriptura did not mean that the church and its official summaries of Scripture (creeds, confessions, catechisms, and decisions in wider assemblies) had no authority. Rather, it meant that their ministerial authority was dependent entirely on the magisterial authority of Scripture. Scripture is the master; the church is the minister.

The following theses summarize some of the issues that people should wrestle with before embracing a Roman Catholic perspective on authority.

  1. The Reformers did not separate sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) from solo Christo (Christ alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (through faith alone). As Herman Bavinck said, “Faith in Scripture rises or falls with faith in Christ.” Revealed from heaven, the gospel message itself (Christ as the central content of Scripture) is as much the basis for the Bible’s authority as the fact that it comes from the Father through the inspiration of the Spirit. Jesus Christ, raised on the third day, certified his divine authority. Furthermore, he credited the Old Testament writings as “scripture,” equating the words of the prophets with the very word of God himself and commissioned his apostles to speak authoritatively in his name. Their words are his words; those who receive them also receive the Son and the Father. So Scripture is the authoritative Word of God because it comes from the unerring Father, concerning the Son, in the power of the Spirit. Neither the authority of the Bible nor that of the church can stand apart from the truth of Christ as he is clothed in his gospel.
  2. Every covenant is contained in a canon (like a constitution). The biblical canon is the norm for the history of God’s saving purposes in Christ under the old and new covenants. The Old Testament canon closed with the end of the prophetic era, so that Jesus could mark a sharp division between Scripture and the traditions of the rabbis (Mk 7:8). The New Testament canon was closed at the end of the apostolic era, so that even during that era the Apostle Paul could warn the Corinthians against the “super-apostles” by urging, “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Co 4:6). While the apostles were living, the churches were to “maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (1 Co 11:2), “…either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Th 2:15). There were indeed written and unwritten traditions in the apostolic church, but only those that eventually found their way by the Spirit’s guidance into the New Testament are now for us the apostolic canon. The apostles (extraordinary ministers) laid the foundation and after them workers (ordinary ministers) build on that foundation (1 Co 3:10). The apostles could appeal to their own eye-witness, direct, and immediate vocation given to them by Christ, while they instructed ordinary pastors (like Timothy) to deliver to others what they had received from the apostles. As Calvin noted, Rome and the Anabaptists were ironically similar in that they affirmed a continuing apostolic office. In this way, both in effect made God’s Word subordinate to the supposedly inspired prophets and teachers of today.
  3. Just as the extraordinary office of prophets and apostles is qualitatively distinct from that of ordinary ministers, the constitution (Scripture) is qualitatively distinct from the Spirit-illumined but non-inspired courts (tradition) that interpret it. Thus, Scripture is magisterial in its authority, while the church’s tradition of interpretation is ministerial.
  4. To accept these theses is to embrace sola scriptura, as the Reformation understood it.
  5. This is precisely the view that we find in the church fathers. First, it is clear enough from their descriptions (e.g., the account in Eusebius) that the fathers did not create the canon but received and acknowledged it. (Even Peter acknowledged Paul’s writings as “Scripture” in 2 Peter 3:16, even though Paul clearly says in Galatians that he did not receive his gospel from or seek first the approval of any of the apostles, since he received it directly from Christ.) The criteria they followed indicates this: To be recognized as “Scripture,” a purported book had to be well-attested as coming from the apostolic circle. Those texts that already had the widest and earliest acceptance in public worship were easily recognized by the time Athanasius drew up the first list of all 27 NT books in 367. Before this even, many of these books were being quoted as normative scripture by Clement of Rome, Origin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others. Of his list, Athanasius said that “holy Scripture is of all things most sufficient for us” (NPNF2, 4:23). Also in the 4th century Basil of Caesarea instructed, “Believe those things which are written; the things which are not written, seek not…It is a manifest defection from the faith, a proof of arrogance, either to reject anything of what is written, or to introduce anything that is not” (“On the Holy Spirit,” NPNF2, 8:41). Second, although the fathers also acknowledge tradition as a ministerially authoritative interpreter, they consistently yield ultimate obedience to Scripture. For example, Augustine explains that the Nicene Creed is binding because it summarizes the clear teaching of Scripture (On the Nicene Creed: A Sermon to the Catechumens, 1).
  6. Roman Catholic scholars acknowledge that the early Christian community in Rome was not unified under a single head. (Paul, for example, reminded Timothy of the gift he was given when the presbytery laid its hands on him in his ordination: 1 Tim 4:14). In fact, in the Roman Catholic-Anglican dialogue the Vatican acknowledged that “the New Testament texts offer no sufficient basis for papal primacy” and that they contain “no explicit record of a transmission of Peter’s leadership” (“Authority in the Church” II, ARCIC, para 2, 6). So one has to accept papal authority exclusively on the basis of subsequent (post-apostolic) claims of the Roman bishop, without scriptural warrant. There is no historical succession from Peter to the bishops of Rome. First, as Jerome observed in the 4th-century, “Before attachment to persons in religion was begun at the instigation of the devil, the churches were governed by the common consultation of the elders,” and Jerome goes so far as to suggest that the introduction of bishops as a separate order above the presbyters was “more from custom than from the truth of an arrangement by the Lord” (cited in the Second Helvetic Confession, Ch 18). Interestingly, even the current pope acknowledges that presbyter and episcipos were used interchangeably in the New Testament and in the earliest churches (Called to Communion, 122-123).
  7. Ancient Christian leaders of the East gave special honor to the bishop of Rome, but considered any claim of one bishop’s supremacy to be an act of schism. Even in the West such a privilege was rejected by Gregory the Great in the sixth century. He expressed offense at being addressed by a bishop as “universal pope”: “a word of proud address that I have forbidden….None of my predecessors ever wished to use this profane word ['universal']….But I say it confidently, because whoever calls himself ‘universal bishop’ or wishes to be so called, is in his self-exaltation Antichrist’s precursor, for in his swaggering he sets himself before the rest” (Gregory I, Letters; tr. NPNF 2 ser.XII. i. 75-76; ii. 170, 171, 179, 166, 169, 222, 225).
  8. Nevertheless, building on the claims of Roman bishops Leo I and Galsius in the 5th century, later bishops of Rome did claim precisely this “proud address.” Declaring themselves Christ’s replacement on earth, they claimed sovereignty (“plenitude of power”) over the world “to govern the earthly and heavenly kingdoms.” At the Council of Reims (1049) the Latin Church claimed for the pope the title “pontifex universalis“—precisely the title identified by Gregory as identifying one who “in his self-exaltation [is] Antichrist’s precursor….” Is Pope Gregory the Great correct, or are his successors?
  9. Papal pretensions contributed to the Great Schism in 1054, when the churches of the East formally excommunicated the Church of Rome, and the pope reacted in kind.
  10. The Avignon Papacy (1309-76) relocated the throne to France and was followed by the Western Schism (1378-1417), with three rival popes excommunicating each other and their sees. No less than the current Pope wrote, before his enthronement, “For nearly half a century, the Church was split into two or three obediences that excommunicated one another, so that every Catholic lived under excommunication by one pope or another, and, in the last analysis, no one could say with certainty which of the contenders had right on his side. The Church no longer offered certainty of salvation; she had become questionable in her whole objective form–the true Church, the true pledge of salvation, had to be sought outside the institution” (Principles of Catholic Theology, 196).
  11. Medieval debates erupted over whether Scripture, popes or councils had the final say. Great theologians like Duns Scotus and Pierre D’Ailly favored sola scriptura. Papalists argued that councils had often erred and contradicted themselves, so you have to have a single voice to arbitrate the infallible truth. Conciliarists had no trouble pointing out historical examples of popes contradicting each other, leading various schisms, and not even troubling to keep their unbelief and reckless immorality private. Only at the Council of Trent was the papalist party officially affirmed in this dispute.
  12. Papal claims were only strengthened in reaction to the Reformation, all the way to the promulgation of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870. At that Council, Pope Pius IX could even respond to modern challenges to his authority by declaring, “I am tradition.”
  13. Though inspired by God, Scripture cannot be sufficient. It is a dark, obscure, and mysterious book (rendered more so by Rome’s allegorizing exegesis). An infallible canon needs an infallible interpreter. This has been Rome’s argument. The insufficiency of Scripture rests on its lack of clarity. True it is that the Bible is a collection of texts spread across many centuries, brimming with a variety of histories, poetry, doctrines, apocalyptic, and laws. However, wherever it has been translated in the vernacular and disseminated widely, barely literate people have been able to understand its central message. Contrast this with the libraries full of decreetals and encyclicals, councilor decisions and counter-decisions, bulls and promulgations. Any student of church history recognizes that in this case the teacher is often far more obscure than the text. It’s no wonder that Rome defines faith as fides implicita: taking the church’s word for it. For Rome, faith is not trust in Jesus Christ according to the gospel, but yielding assent and obedience unreservedly simply to everything the church teaches as necessary to salvation. There are many hazards associated with embracing an infallible text without an infallible interpreter. However, the alternative is not greater certainty and clarity about the subject matter, but a sacrifice of the intellect and an abandonment of one’s personal responsibility for one’s commitments to the decisions and acts of others.
  14. Those of us who remain Reformed must examine the Scriptures and the relevant arguments before concluding that Rome’s claims are not justified and its teaching is at variance with crucial biblical doctrines. A Protestant friend in the midst of being swayed by Rome’s arguments exclaims, “That’s exactly why I can’t be a Protestant anymore. Without an infallible magisterium everyone believes whatever he chooses.” At this point, it’s important to distinguish between a radical individualism (believing whatever one chooses) and a personal commitment in view of one’s ultimate authority. My friend may be under the illusion that his or her decision is different from that, but it’s not. In the very act of making the decision to transfer ultimate authority from Scripture to the magisterium, he or she is weighing various biblical passages and theological arguments. The goal (shifting the burden of responsibility from oneself to the church) is contradicted by the method. At this point, one cannot simply surrender to a Reformed church or a Roman church; they must make a decision after careful personal study. We’re both in the same shoes.
  15. Most crucially, Rome’s ambitious claims are tested by its faithfulness to the gospel. If an apostle could pronounce his anathema on anyone—including himself or an angel from heaven—who taught a gospel different from the one he brought to them (Gal 1:8-9), then surely any minister or church body after the apostles is under that threat. First, Paul was not assuming that the true church is beyond the possibility of error. Second, he placed himself under the authority of that Word. Just read the condemnations from the Council of Trent below. Do they square with the clear and obvious teaching of Scripture? If they do not, then the choice to be made is between the infallible writings of the apostles and those after the apostles and since who claim to be the church’s infallible teachers.

As I have pointed out in previous posts, the frustration with the state of contemporary Protestantism is understandable. I feel it every day. Yet those who imagine that they will escape the struggle between the “already” and the “not yet,” the certainty of a promise and the certainty of possession, the infallibility of God’s Word and the fallibility of its appointed teachers, are bound to be disappointed wherever they land. As Calvin counseled on the matter, Scripture alone is sufficient; “better to limp along this path than to dash with all speed outside it.”

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