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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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Which Church Would the Reformers Join Today? Avoiding a False Choice

It doesn’t really matter in the final analysis whether Luther and Calvin would find the average evangelical church in America today more or less congenial than Rome. Yet it does suggest an interesting point of departure as we think about the reasons why some find the latter attractive.

Many of us were raised to believe that we had all the answers (whatever they were) and that Roman Catholicism believes in Mary and the pope rather than Jesus and the Bible, in salvation by works rather than grace. And yet, as the surveys demonstrate, we didn’t really know what we believed or why we believed it—beyond a few slogans. If one asked the question in the correct form, we could possibly give the right answer on the big ones at least. However, a rising generation now is indistinguishable in its beliefs from Mormons, Unitarians, or those who check the “spiritual but not religious” box. “Moralistic-Therapeutic-Deism” is the working theology of most Americans, including evangelicals, we’re told. So when it comes to authority and salvation—the two issues at the heart of the Reformation’s concern, Protestantism today (mainline and evangelical) seems increasingly remote from anything that the Reformers would have recognized as catholic and evangelical faith and practice.

In my “cage phase” (when emerging Reformed zealots should be quarantined for a while), I read from a sixteenth-century confession the section on grace and justification. The audience was a rather large group of fellow students at a Christian college. “Do you think we could sign this statement today?”, I asked. Several replied, “No: it’s too Calvinistic.” That was interesting, because I was quoting the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent, which anathematized the Reformation’s teaching that justification was by Christ’s merits alone, imputed to sinners through faith alone. I didn’t quote the whole section, but only the part that affirmed that we are saved by grace and that our cooperation in the process of salvation—even our will to believe—requires God’s grace.

You have to dig beneath the sweeping slogans and generalizations; its precisely in the details—where many eyes glaze over—that the massive differences between Rome and the Reformation appear.

Pelagianism—the view that we are saved by our own choice and effort, apart from grace, was condemned by several ancient church councils and bishops of Rome. Even Semi-Pelagianism—the view that we make the first move by free will and then grace assists us—was also condemned. (The Second Council of Orange in 529 even anathematized those who say that we’re born again by saying a prayer, when it is even God’s grace that gives us the will to pray for Christ’s mercy.) Yet the Latin Church always struggled with the Pelagian virus in varying degrees. Medieval leaders like Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine wrote treatises titled, “Against the New Pelagians.” Thomas Aquinas emphasized the priority of God’s grace in predestination and regeneration. Luther’s own mentor and head of the Augustinian Order in Germany, Johann von Staupitz, wrote “A Treatise on God’s Eternal Election” in which he expressed concern that free will and works-righteousness had begun to undermine faith in God’s grace in Christ. By the time of the Reformation, popular piety was corrupted by countless innovations and superstitions. Luther was first aroused to arms by the arrival of a preacher with papal authority to dispense indulgences (time off in purgatory) for money that would help built St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Reformation couldn’t be dismissed precisely because it resonated with so many who knew that Rome had drifted far from its ancient moorings into myriad corruptions. Awakened by the new biblical scholarship, many of Europe’s leading Renaissance humanists became convinced that the Reformers were correct in their interpretation and application of Scripture to the church’s condition.

The Council of Trent, which anathematized the Reformation’s convictions, affirmed the importance of grace going before all of our willing and running. Nevertheless, it condemned the view that, once regenerated by grace alone in baptism (our first justification), we cannot merit an increase of justification and final justification by our works. Trent said in no uncertain terms that Christ’s merits are not sufficient for salvation. Everything turned on different understandings of grace (God’s medicine infused to help us cooperate vs. God’s favor toward us in Christ) and therefore justification (a process of inner renewal vs. a declaration based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone).

As Hodge and Warfield pointed out, the explicit convictions of the famous evangelist of the Second Great Awakening, Charles G. Finney, were much further down the Pelagian road than Rome. Finney not only denied justification through faith alone in Christ’s merits alone. He based this on a rejection of original sin, the substitutionary atonement, and the supernatural character of the new birth. Consequently, his “new measures”—methods whose only criterion was whether they were “fit to convert sinners with”—replaced the divinely ordained means of grace and his “protracted meetings” (revivals) radically altered the shape of most Protestant services and ministries in America. As Arminian theologian Roger Olson has pointed out, much of evangelical preaching today isn’t really Arminian but is closer to Pelagianism.

So you have a distinctly Protestant kind of hazy moralism (works-righteousness) and an equally hazy notion that somehow Rome believes we’re saved by works rather than grace. It can be a fatal combination, especially when people realize that Rome does in fact believe in original sin and the necessity of grace—more in fact than many who call themselves evangelicals.

Now we see many evangelicals being attracted to the Reformation’s emphases, discovering a tradition that is both catholic and evangelical without many of the trappings of evangelicalism. As their encounter with the Reformation widens beyond election and justification, they bump into views that sound at first “too Catholic.” Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) doesn’t mean that creeds and confessions and the decisions of church councils and assemblies don’t have any authority. Although Scripture alone has magisterial authority, these faithful summaries of Scripture nevertheless have a ministerial authority. Sola gratia (by grace alone) is not set over against the regular ministry of preaching and the sacraments; rather, these are the means of grace through which the Spirit delivers Christ with all of his benefits. It’s not Roman Catholic, to be sure, but to many evangelical brothers and sisters, it sounds “too Catholic.” Reformed and Lutheran churches include the children of believers in baptism. Liturgy, orders and offices, discipline and the accountability of local churches to each other in wider assemblies. These characteristics of Reformed ecclesiology also strike many evangelicals, again, as “too Catholic.”

And that makes some sense. After all, despite its critique of the magisterial authority assigned to the pope officially at the Council of Trent, the Reformation differs at least as much from the freelance ministry of “anointed” preachers who act like popes, only without any accountability to the magisterium.

Churches of the Reformation not only challenged the hierarchical government of the Roman Church but the sects who followed their own self-appointed prophets. Yes, said the Reformers, individual members and ministers are accountable to the church in its local and broader assemblies. God doesn’t speak directly to individuals (including preachers) today, but through his Word as it is interpreted by the wider body of pastors and elders in solemn assemblies. Tragically, evangelical hierarchies today are more prone to authoritarian abuses and personal idiosyncrasies than one finds in Rome.

Reformation Churches and Rome

Dislodged from confidence in Pastor Bob and the givens of the evangelical subculture, they realize that the Reformation was, well, a reformation and not a revolution or “do-over.” Luther was not the founder of a new church, but an evangelical-catholic reformer. As expressed in the title of one of the great works of Elizabethan Puritanism—William Perkins’s The Reformed Catholic, there is a deep continuity with the undivided church.

On the Roman Catholic TV network (EWTN) recently, Fr. Pacwa interviewed a professor who had graduated from Wheaton and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Becoming more interested in the Reformation, the professor pursued a PhD at the University of Iowa focusing on the theology of Calvin. The title of this segment was “How Calvin Made Me a Catholic.” The Reformers were eager to show their connection to the pre-Reformation church. They did not believe that the church had basically gone underground—much less extinct—between Paul and Luther. Rather, they argued that a gradual decay had been accelerated by recent emphases and innovations that needed to be corrected. Calvin is recognized by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike as a scholar of the early fathers and his Institutes and commentaries are replete with citations from writers of the East and West. The great theologians of Reformed and Lutheran orthodoxy engaged the ancient and medieval theologians as their own, yet always subject to critique as well as approval on the basis of their interpretation of Scripture according to a shared confession.

So I can understand why some evangelicals find the Reformation “too Catholic” or, weary of Protestantism in any form, look back to their “Reformation episode” as a gateway drug to the mysteries of Rome. For a long time now, American Protestants have defined their faith and practice in reaction against Rome. Now, a growing number are defining their faith and practice in reaction against evangelicalism. “If the Reformers were alive today, they’d be Roman Catholic before they would join an evangelical sect.” I’ve heard that sentiment on more than one occasion.

However, the men and women who risked their lives in the sixteenth century to defend the sufficiency of Scripture and the sufficiency of Christ would refuse the false choice between a chaotic Protestantism and a Roman Catholicism that still maintains the theology of Trent. (See, for example, the most recent Catholic Catechism.) It would be perverse to imagine that Luther or Calvin would find Rome more acceptable today than it was in their day. Even in the much-publicized “Joint Declaration on Justification,” it was the mainline Lutherans who surrendered their confessional convictions; Rome did not change any of its official positions. In any case, the Vatican has made it clear that this consultation in no way has any magisterial weight.

If anything, Rome is a more confusing place today. The magisterium tolerates views that contradict its official teachings—even on points that we share in the ecumenical consensus. In Rome today there are as many competing schools, sects, and the spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal, as in Protestantism. The only difference is the one doctrine that really matters to Rome: implicit faith in and obedience to the authority of the pope. And make no mistake about it: Anyone who does convert out of a desire to surrender responsibility for interpreting Scripture in exchange for the infallible certainty of an earthly teacher is making a very “Protestant” move. At least that first leap is a personal judgment and interpretation of Scripture, every bit as individual as Luther’s “Here I stand.” The decision to embrace any confession or ecclesiastical body is a personal commitment that involves (at best) one’s own discernment of the plain teaching of Scripture.

Is the growing interest in Reformation theology among younger evangelicals going to mean that, for some, Geneva, Wittenberg, and Canterbury will be a rest stop before moving on to Rome or Antioch? I suspect that there will be this kind of trend of some sort in the future. We dare not treat those struggling with these issues among us as “necessary casualties,” a minimal loss compared to net gains. Pastoral love, wisdom, and patience will be more valuable than gold. There are real questions here—existential, exegetical, theological, and practical, with real lives being affected. It’s not a time for us to grand-stand or to shoot from the hip with speculations about peoples’ motives or character, but for trying to make a persuasive case and leaving the results to the Spirit of truth. In my next post I’ll explore the issue of authority, which is a major issue for those wrestling with these questions.

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Dare to Do the Daniel Diet

The “Daniel Diet” launched by Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Community Church has a lot of people talking. About a month ago, a national paper asked me to comment on this latest plan from a passionately creative Christian leader. It was the health editor. Never talked to a health editor before, ever. I rarely talk to a health provider. So besides unwillingness to criticize a brother in public over a totally unimportant issue, about which I knew nothing except for what the editor told me, I declined in short order.

Yet now here TIME magazine spotlights the “Daniel Diet”-and does such a good job with it, I thought, that something larger is worth bringing to the table (no pun intended). In a land where almost anything with the word “diet” in it sells, “spirituality” isn’t far down the list either. Together, the world’s their oyster. Now, if we can get sex, spirituality, and diet in the same program, I’m guessing we’d see that one at the airport.

What intrigued me about the TIME article was the author’s keen exegetical skills. I’ll explain in a minute.

When I was growing up, the Old Testament was a quarry from which to sculpt heroic examples to emulate. “Dare to Be a Daniel” meant something like “Man up-don’t be afraid of lions.” You do your part, and God will watch your back.

Still in that genre, the “Daniel Diet” focuses predictably on what obsesses most Americans today: obesity. Understandably. To badly paraphrase Isaiah, I am out of shape and dwell among an out-of-shape people. I have lost a few pounds, am back in the gym, but my wife keeps telling me that it’s not about fad diets but about daily decisions. “Just think about what you’re doing,” she tells me. The point is, I don’t need Daniel-or the Bible-to tell me I need to get fit. And a diet of seeds and water that Daniel and his Jewish compadres endured may not even be healthy.

It all goes back to the human-centered way of reading the Bible, as if God were a supporting actor in our drama, rather our being cast as beneficiaries of his bounty in Christ. We appeal to statistics to convince people that prayer makes us happier, healthier, and more fulfilled than non-prayers. Leviticus is relevant only if we can explain how the dietary laws somehow reveal secret principles of universal health, when that wasn’t the point of these laws at all. Their purpose was to separate Israel from the nations: the “clean/unclean” separation, keeping a pure line leading to the Messiah. That distinction was dissolved with Christ’s advent, as Peter was told by God in the dream in Acts 10:9-19. Pork is as acceptable as chicken now, just as in Christ believing Gentiles are co-heirs with Jews.

The problem with the moralizing interpretations familiar to us is not only that they focus the story on us rather than on God and his work in history, centering on Christ; it’s that precisely in making it about us, we trivialize the greatest story ever told. No wonder so many people assume that the Bible is simply a collection of tips for life.

Elizabeth Dias, the author of the TIME article puts his finger on the right issue: “But the historical context of the Book of Daniel suggests that the text in fact has very little to do with diet or health.” (Read more here.)

Appealing to Choon-Leong Seow, an Old Testament professor at Princeton Seminary, Dias notes, that “Daniel is less a story of resisting rich food than a story of resisting a foreign king.” “Daniel and his friends resisted the king’s table, Seow says, as a tangible expression of their reliance on God’s power instead of the king’s.” “If the text were actually about diet, Seow argues, there would be evidence that the king’s table violated Jewish food laws. A Jewish diet would have meant no pork, Seow notes, but most other meats, slaughtered properly, are O.K. Wine too is permissible. Nor does the text give any indication that the king’s food had been offered to idols, which is another thing that would have made it off-limits to the young Jews.”

Dias, who studied with Seow, points out, “It’s no surprise many people don’t realize this, since English translations sometimes miss the original emphasis the Bible places on contrasting what the king could give Daniel (earthly pleasures) and what God could give him (something much greater). ‘The point is not the triumph of vegetarianism or even the triumph of piety or the triumph of wisdom,’ Seow concludes, ‘but the triumph of God.’”

Wow! Talk about getting the point! Just then, though, Dias drifts toward another form of moralizing the story. Daniel’s actions were mainly about solidarity with his oppressed fellow-Jews. “There’s a lesson or two here for a modern culture in which the income and opportunity gap grows wider every day.” The Book of Daniel may not be about a diet plan. “Still, it’s the call for restraint, for choosing not to get drunk on excess, that may be the Book of Daniel’s most powerful message. Not only does this benefit the privileged, but also the needy, who may then have a chance to enjoy the choicest portions too, as opposed just society’s leftovers. That’s a message Daniel himself would probably celebrate and support.”

Predictably, evangelicals often use Daniel for personal well-being and moral uplift, while mainliners go for the social justice angle. In both cases, the story is about us and what we can use from it for our self-crafting and world-crafting projects. Yet something more wonderful is lying there in Daniel waiting to be discovered! Even in exile, God is faithful to his covenant people. The most powerful king in the region of that day is not Lord, as it turns out. Yahweh is. (That’s what the actions of Daniel and his friends, the fiery furnace, and the visions are all about.) With the vision of the four beasts (or kingdoms) in chapter 7, the message becomes crystal-clear: The Ancient of Days takes his throne in the courtroom and the “Son of Man” appears. All of the empires are shaken, but this kingdom that will arise has no end. “But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever’” (Dan 7:18). The prophecies go on to relate in apocalyptic imagery the triumph of the Son of Man over the earthly empires. God has the last word in the book: “‘But go your way till the end. And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of days’” (Dan 12:13).

It’s this prophecy that Hebrews announces as having been fulfilled with Christ’s coming: Everything that can be shaken will be, “in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.” “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe” (Heb 12:26-28). In this version, God has the starring role. He is building his kingdom, installing his Messiah on his holy hill, and we’re recipients of the victory he has won-for us and for the whole world. Now that’s a headline story!

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Update from Kim Riddlebarger

Dear friends,

Great news to report.

In the providence of God, the serious GI bleed revealed the presence of a polyp turned tumor which caused the bleeding. Had I not had the bleeding, I would never have known the nasty little polyp was in there growing and turning cancerous. The doctor was able to remove the polyp/tumor, and found nothing outside. The pain, while great, is bearable and the doctors anticipate a full and complete recovery with little to no change in diet and lifestyle.

We felt your prayers and are deeply moved by so many thoughtful well-wishes. I will remain hospitalized a couple of days and may even be at church sooner than expected.

God is good.

Blessings,
KR

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Please Pray for Kim Riddlebarger

Kim Riddlebarger will have surgery tomorrow to remove a tumor and part of his colon. Please pray for our friend.

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WHI-1103 | Growing in Grace & Knowledge

Knowledge and truth have fallen on hard times in contemporary American culture. We are distracted from thinking deeply about anything because we are too busy focusing on ourselves and our own entertainment. Sadly, this problem is not merely “out there” in the world. Overnight, contemporary churches have become entertainment centers and purveyors of self-centered spirituality. Encouraged by smiling television preachers to have our best life now, modern Christians have almost lost sight of Jesus and his saving work. We desperately need to follow the advice of the apostle Peter, who encouraged believers to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet 3:18). R. C. Sproul joins the panel for this special edition of White Horse Inn recorded before a live audience in Orlando, Florida.

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