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King's College - New YorkA guest post by Rev. Dr. Brian Lee from Christ Reformed Church, Washington, DC

There are a lot of interesting ways to slice the recent dust-up over Dinesh D’Souza’s selection as President of the King’s College in New York City, covered thoroughly in a recent article at Christianity Today. We could consider what it tells us about politics and cultural transformation as the core identity of evangelicals, or how it illustrates the transformation of Christian institutions away from their founding principles. But perhaps most interesting is what it says about the status of the doctrine of the church in evangelical circles, and the degree to which individual believers conceive of themselves as atomistic units, defined only by their own faith and experience.

D’Souza is a Roman Catholic married to an evangelical, and has been attending a Calvary Chapel for the last ten years. But none of these ecclesiastical relationships or practices defines him:
“I’m quite happy to acknowledge my Catholic background; at the same time, I’m very comfortable with Reformation theology,” D’Souza told Christianity Today. “I’m comfortable with the evangelical world. In a sense, I’m part of it. …I do not describe myself as Catholic today. But I don’t want to renounce it either because it’s an important part of my background.I’m an American citizen, but I wouldn’t reject the Indian label because it’s part of my heritage. I say I have a Catholic origin or background. I say I’m a nondenominational Christian, and I’m comfortable with born-again.”

Apparently, church membership is like citizenship or cultural self-identification, and we are as free to associate freely with various churches as we are to hold dual citizenship or celebrate our hyphenated ethnic heritage as Indian-Americans, or whatever the case may be. Understood thus, America is as much a theological as well as cultural “melting pot.”

Of course, this flexibility is not unrelated to the fact that the Reformation theology D’Souza is comfortable with is characterized by him as reflecting “an intramural type debate and squabble” among Christians. King’s College Statement of Faith clearly upholds Reformation principles of “Scripture alone,” justification by imputation via “faith alone,” and denies the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. What does it mean to “completely adhere to” such a statement of faith as required by King’s, and not renounce a Roman Catholic faith which explicitly endorses the opposite?

One solution is provided by the Statement of Faith itself, which appears to provide the ultimate escape clause. The introduction notes that:
“We accept those areas of doctrinal teaching on which, historically, there has been general agreement among all true Christians. Because of the specialized calling of our movement, we desire to allow for freedom of conviction on other doctrinal matters, provided that any interpretation is based upon the Bible alone…” (italics added).

This caveat is utterly ambiguous, and doesn’t identify whether it is referring to the list of 17 doctrines that follow, or allowing for some subset of them to be negotiable. The key, however, is in those words italicized above: “Because of the specialized calling of our movement…” Huh? More ambiguity here, but one isn’t sure whether to praise King’s for recognizing that it is at best a “movement” and not a church, or to challenge them for so flagrantly confusing the gospel with cultural transformation.

The Rev. Brian Lee (PhD) is the pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Washington, D.C.. For any information on the church, contact him at pastor *AT* ChristReformedDC.org

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Atheists Know More About Religion?

According to the Los Angeles Times, The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has just released the results of a recent survey on general religious knowledge, and apparently atheists and agnostics outperformed religious adherents.

For example, most Protestants were unable to identify Martin Luther as the leader of the Reformation, whereas those who identified atheist or agnostic were more likely to answer this and other questions correctly.  Just below them were Jews and Mormons.  In fact, according to the article, Mormons fared better than Evangelical Protestants in their knowledge of the Bible.

This matches up nicely with the work of Kenda Creasy Dean, project researcher for the National Study of Youth and Religion.  In her new book Almost Christian, Kenda argues that Mormons are more intentional about passing on the faith than any other religious body in the U.S., and her chapter devoted to this phenomena is titled, “Mormon Envy.”  Michael Horton recently interviewed her for a White Horse Inn broadcast, and that will be available at whitehorseinn.org beginning Sunday, October 3rd.

The survey results also confirm our own White Horse Inn polling data.  In a survey we conducted of approximately 70 Christian adults at a recent Evangelical convention we found that less than half agreed with the statement, “There is no one who does good, no not even one. There is no one who seeks God.”  The quotation is from Psalm 14, Psalm 53 and Romans 3, and is one of the principle proof texts for the doctrine of original sin.  Most of the Christians we interviewed were not only unfamiliar with these Bible verses, but were in active disagreement with the theology promoted in these texts (Program note:  the White Horse Inn episode featuring the results to this recent poll will air in late November).

We also conducted a poll in 2009 of approximately 100 individuals at a Christian Music event (70% of whom were young Christians between 13 and 25) and the results were even more troubling.  When we asked about the same verse from Romans 3, we found that only 1 out of 3 recognized it as a Bible text and agreed with its content (31% to be exact).  You can find the complete results to this 2009 survey here.

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New Mosque vs New Church

This interactive map from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows the locations of 35 proposed mosques in the United States that have encountered community resistance.  According to the Mosque Study Project 2000, 688 new mosques have opened in the last ten years.

According to a 2007 report from Leadership Network, nearly 4,000 new churches are started each year in the United States. The simple math is that new churches outnumber new mosques by nearly 59 to 1.

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Chain of Grace?

So my wife was running some errands this morning and drove through Starbucks to get some coffee. When she pulled up to the window, the cashier said her coffee would have been $3.05, but the guy in the car ahead of her had already paid for it. Odd, she thought, but a nice treat and blessing with a sick little girl in the back seat and a stressful day in front of her. Then the cashier went on: there’s been a chain of nine cars that have done this, each has paid for the person coming after them. She told my wife that she could “take her blessing” or pass it on to the person behind her. If it had been me, I probably would have driven off–I hate chain emails and this smacks of something similar! But my wife, being who she is, paid for the person behind her (spending an extra $.80 for their nicer cup of coffee) and then felt guilty for being a little irritated at having to keep the chain of blessing going.

Blessings aren’t supposed to come with chains (either literal or figurative). The only blessing that really is a blessing is one of pure grace, with nothing expected in return (or “paid forward” as the case may be). I think this is a great illustration for how most of us live our lives with a sense of “sanctified karma” rather than gratitude. Sanctified karma says that we’re getting what we deserve, so we’d better do something nice if we ever hope to receive something nice in return. Rather than being motivated by gratitude, we’re motivated by guilt or by a twisted sense of selfishness. Living and giving out of gratitude allows us to give in the face of rejection, to love in the face of criticism, and to live out of our identity as God’s sons and daughters that we have been freely given in Christ.

May all your acts of grace be given without chains!

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Interpreting Humpty Dumpty in light of other “2nd nursery rhymes”

There are so many things to be thankful for when it comes to New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. If you’re a monthly partner with the White Horse Inn, you heard Mike Horton on the bonus track for the September 19th broadcast list a number of areas where we not only agree with Wright but benefit from his scholarship and popular writing (you can find out more about our partnership program and its benefits here). Of course we also have strong disagreements when it comes to issues like justification. Along that line, we have something special in the works that will be announced around the time of the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Atlanta in mid-November!

So, in light of both our appreciation and criticism of Wright, we offer up this post from the funny fellows of The Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology: how N. T. Wright would read that great nursery rhyme, “Humpty Dumpty.”

Tom Wright Reads Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Clearly the writer is telling an Israel story, and here alludes to the Temple.  This echoes other lines in early 2nd Nursery Literature, such as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard (the “storehouse” of the Temple) and the bone (resurrection life) which she sought for her dog (“Gentiles”). “But when she got there, the cupboard was bare and the poor little doggie had none.”  The temple had nothing to offer the Gentiles, and they thus remained in their state of Adamic sin and decay.

So here, too, one should not be surprised to discover that the Temple and its “wall” are bankrupt. The next line, then, is not a shock, but an expectation:

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

Again, this is patently a forecast of the Temple’s destruction (and contra Crossan and Borg, an entirely possible historical forecasting).  Doubtless this claim is intended to lead the reader to ponder the eschatological recreation of the Temple. Since Humpty stands for the Temple, he seems to be sharing in the divine identity, functioning as the locus of God’s presence, not outside of, but within creation.

Of course, this fall is an exile of sorts, the loss of God’s presence. The tension is palpable: how will humpty’s story not turn out dumpty?  In other words, this line presupposes what I have called elsewhere the great metanarrative of humpty, not least the promise of resurrection.

But all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put humpty together again.

So the Temple will be built again, but not by human hands. Many have undertaken to suggest that this passage runs counter to a belief in resurrection. But this atomistic reading of the text lacks imagination. Of course, it is the king himself who will put humpty together again, and this great act will complete the metanarrative.

After all, Humpty is the place where the Creator God is resident with his creation. But the human inability to recreate Humpty does not negate all human effort for creation, which should be done in light of the proleptic nature of the king’s restoration of Humpty and all creation.

Written in Durham Cathedral, dedicated to Rowan Williams’s left eyebrow.

The author, Jason Hood, also links to “Bultmann Reads Mother Goose.”

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Would Grace Make a Difference?

The other night on a local news-talk station, the usually acerbic hosts were having a pleasant conversation with the communications director for the Humanist Association, which has been sponsoring ad campaigns across the country with slogans like, “Be Good for Goodness Sake,” “No God, No Problem,” and “Don’t Believe in God? Join the Club.”

When asked to describe the central tenet of humanism, the guest quoted the writer Kurt Vonnegut’s definition: “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.” I was struck by the stark simplicity of that statement and I wondered if Vonnegut or any other humanist who might use that term had ever experienced grace.

If this is a good definition of humanism, it certainly sets humanism against what passes as religion (earning the favor of gods or God by our moral performance and fearing reciprocation if we fail to live up to divine standards), but it doesn’t take account of grace. The Christian concept of grace, of course, is the idea that we don’t get what we deserve (either rewards or punishment); instead, we get what Christ deserved by his life and death in our place.

I’ve also recently finished reading Frankie Schaeffer’s recent book, Patience with God, and in it he traces the relationship between many of the New Atheists and their religious upbringing. He asserts that in his own life and in the lives of many of those he chronicles, grace was absent (perhaps believed in, but life never functioned according to it). Is there a relationship between the desire to throw off the tyranny of the Law by embracing oneself as “Lord and Savior” and ignorance of grace?

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Romanticism’s Revenge: The Pope Makes a Visit to the United Kingdom

Editor’s introduction: David Alenskis is a recent graduate of Westminster Seminary California and is an ordained priest in the Anglican Church of North America. He currently serves as the associate pastor of the Anglican Church of the Resurrection (San Marcos, California) and is preparing to serve as a long-term missionary in Buenos Aires, Argentina in early 2011.

Judging by recent news reports, Pope Benedict XVI like so many pontiffs before him suffers from the malady often passed down from one bishop of Rome to the next: he is a consummate Anglophile. Like Paul in anguish for his people, one could say that the Roman pontiff has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart” for British Protestants. Today, he begins his four day trip to the United Kingdom, extending in the process an implicit call for the British to return to the Roman Church. Though short, his visit to her Majesty’s realm resonates with a subtle but powerful message: the vision of the via media, the “middle way” often invoked by the clergy and laity of the Church of England, can only be found in the Church of Rome.

The Pope’s four day excursion in bonnie Scotland and merry England is not a courtesy call: there is serious business afoot. There will be many meetings and even a joint prayer service together with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in Westminster Abbey. But the primary reason for Benedict’s appearance is the beatification of the Church of England’s most famous defector: John Henry Newman. It behooves us as careful observers of current events to consider the content of the life and character of this man to understand the message of the Pope’s visit.

Newman was a bright light and leader of the Anglo-Catholic revival in the early Nineteenth Century. This movement of scholars and churchmen like John Keeble, Edward Pusey, and J. H. Newman was a British expression of religious Romanticism. In brief, Romanticism claims that God is experienced and known primarily through intuition stimulated through contact with the sublime, mediated through the natural world, through artistic expression, or even through romantic passion. According to Anglo-Catholics, this sublime experience of God is found primarily through the formation and use of elaborate rituals (derived from tradition or on top of it) and the control of the ambiance of worship. Together, a feeling of transcendence, mystery, and devotion is cultivated which draws worshippers up to God.

In pursuit of these Romantic goals, these theologians increasingly became disenchanted with the Reformation and its doctrines of salvation, authority, and worship. Instead, Newman and the others propagated belief in the via media: that God had organically preserved the Church of England to become a “middle way” between Rome and the Reformation, rooted in its own pre-Reformation tradition. Newman especially made it his project to reconcile these beliefs and practices with the actual confessional formularies of the Church of England, his efforts culminating in the infamous Tract 90 (where he argued outrageously that the Council of Trent was compatible with the 39 Articles). Newman however was too honest a man and too serious a scholar to continue this path of rapprochement for long, and in 1845 Newman joined the Church of Rome.

In a highly unusual move Pope Benedict intends to preside over the beatification mass of this same John Henry Newman; and what is more, Newman’s motto Cor ad Cor Loquitur (“Heart Speaks to Heart”) is the theme of the Pope’s whole visit to the isle.  The Roman pontiff brings the message that Newman was right: religious Romanticism and the via media find truest expression in the Church of Rome. Newman’s own conclusions are reinforced through essays found in the booklet to prepare the British for the Pope’s visit (“This invitation to faith is always spoken in the language of the heart. It is profoundly personal, most often softly spoken and not at all imperious.”), as well as through interviews with the English Catholic bishops and archbishop who share their own intuitive and emotional experiences of God through nature, pilgrimage, silence, and other encounters with the sublime.

All this comes in an age when the Anglican Communion and other Protestant churches around the world have struggled with or even submitted to a creeping liberalism, seen most obviously in the celebration of homosexuality and the denial of the Lord Jesus Christ as the only way to reconciliation with God. In this context, a post-Vatican II Roman Church issues a compelling appeal to the conservative heirs of religious Romanticism, whether they be Anglo-Catholics or evangelicals: come find the fullness of your intuitive grasping for God in the fullness of the Church led by St. Peter’s spiritual descendent in Rome. It was true for Newman: it can be true for you as well.

But as biblical Christians and heirs of the Reformation, we can submit neither to the Church of Rome nor to any other form of Romanticism. There is no “middle way” when it comes to worshipping God faithfully, and God does not call us to set our hope upon our intuitive experience of God but upon his self-revelation in his living, abiding and active Word as it is read, preached, and proclaimed. We fear and love this God by heeding the commandments he has given us, and we have faith in this God by trusting the promise he has given us to pardon and deliver us completely on the basis of the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God that the Pope Benedict’s trip to the United Kingdom changes none of this: his subtle invitation to a deeper Romanticism in the Church of Rome should not be a serious temptation for those of us who have set our hope upon the living God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has given us a sure Gospel and an unshakeable Kingdom.

-David Alenskis

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Whose Forgiveness?

Forwarded to me by our own Dr. Rod Rosenbladt, a recent article in American Thinker is worth passing on to others. First a little of the article, and then some comment.

I absolutely hate making mistakes. But more than this, I fear them. As a psychotherapist, I’ve spent many hours trying to figure out why.

All roads lead back to my mother: a woman who could be sweet one minute, and then, out of the blue, erupt like a volcano. I never knew what would trigger her rage.

This is my first childhood memory, a hazy image seared into my brain: I am in my bedroom at around age 5 with my mother, having just done something naughty. My mother explodes, “If you keep doing things like that, I won’t love you anymore.”

Night after night, I cried myself to sleep, overwhelmed with despair at this potential tragedy. It didn’t seem humanly possible to survive without her love.

I cried and I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore. Then, when my tears I dried up, I decided, with the logic of a small child, that I would never, ever make another mistake. Being perfect would shield me from disaster.

Not surprisingly, I became an anxious adult, a pleaser, someone who bent over backwards not to offend. But it wasn’t just my mother who catapulted me into lifelong perfectionism. It was the absence of a forgiving God.

Read full article on AmericanThinker.com

The author, “Robin of Berkeley,” offers bracing insight. You can’t forgive yourself when you’re not the one you have ultimately offended and do not have the power or authority to absolve anyone—including yourself—of ultimate guilt. Liberalism encourages a form of “works-righteousness,” where the world is divided into the saved and the damned based on personal performance. “DO MORE!” is the message and, assuming the posture of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, one can congratulate oneself—maybe even thank God—that he or she isn’t like the “tax collector” (i.e., “Republicans and sinners”). The same spirit is evident enough in conservative politics, it should be added, just with a different agenda for salvation.

Yet there is something crucially missing from this article. Rod Rosenbladt points it out in his comment: “I hope someone does a little with her about who Christ was and what His cross did, so all of this hope gets grounded where God Himself grounded it. If someone doesn’t do some “cross, blood, death, atonement, sacrifice” stuff with her, the usual trajectory is (because it is still law-based) a crash! I think Robin is more in need of a Gospel-preaching pastor than she realizes—a very, very tenuous position for any human being!”

The only place where God’s judgment and grace can be safely found is in Christ—specifically, in his thirty-three years of faithful obedience to his Father’s will from the heart, his blood-shedding substitution on the cross, and his triumphant resurrection for our justification and entrance into the new creation. The author properly points out that release from guilt only comes from God and not from our striving to do better next time. However, there is no mention of Christ. Yet apart from Christ, we cannot know God as merciful and forgiving, but only as the one to whom we are accountable and whose judgment we will face at the last.

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The Strange Effectiveness of the Law

This old article from Fast Company has been sitting in my inbox for awhile now (ht Matt Perman), but its theological implications warrant a long shelf life. Consultants, authors, and brothers Dan and Chip Heath in the January 15, 2009 issue of the coolest business magazine around talk about the power of incentives for business performance. Most of us are familiar with this routine: a vacation to Palm Springs for the highest performers or lower commission percentages for the lackluster performers.  But the Heath brothers argue that inherent in that power is the chance that the incentive will backfire.

Ken O’Brien was an NFL quarterback in the 1980s and 1990s. Early in his career, he threw a lot of interceptions, so one clever team lawyer wrote a clause into O’Brien’s contract penalizing him for each one he threw. The incentive worked as intended: His interceptions plummeted. But that’s because he stopped throwing the ball.

The law in this case, the incentive, backfired and couldn’t produce the desired result.  I think many of us resonate with that experience when we consider our relationship to God. Many of us wrongly relate to God on the basis of what we do. If we accomplish our goals (the Law) we get the perk (closeness with God, a sense that God is pleased with us).  Of course, this is all an illusion since we cannot keep the Law as God requires nor does God relate to us on the basis of our Law-keeping.  Most of the Christian life for some folks is spent trying to convince themselves of this fiction.

The Law cannot empower us to throw the ball down the field. Only the love of the game and a sense of our calling/vocation can do that. And that is exactly what the Gospel does for us. It does not hold out a divine carrot for good behavior, the Gospel announces that we are accepted in Christ.

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Does Your Church Pass the IRS Test?

“Paging Balaam’s ass…”

God sometimes reveals truth in the most unlikely of places: on August 16, 2010, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled against the “Foundation for Human Understanding” (FHU) which had appealed an IRS action revoking its nonprofit status as a church. The Court ruled that FHU was not a church and it based its finding in part on a 14 point test created by an IRS commissioner in 1979. Those 14 points were:

(1) a distinct legal existence
(2) a recognized creed and form of worship
(3) a definite and distinct ecclesiastical government
(4) a formal code of doctrine and discipline
(5) a distinct religious history
(6) a membership not associated with any other church or denomination
(7) an organization of ordained ministers
(8) ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed studies
(9) a literature of its own
(10) established places of worship
(11) regular congregation
(12) regular religious services
(13) Sunday schools for religious instruction of the young; and
(14) schools for the preparation of its ministers
(emphasis added)

So, let’s make sure we understand: In order to be a church in the eyes of the federal government, you need more than a charismatic leader and willing followers. You need a liturgy, doctrine, a learned ministry, accountability among ministers, regular worship in a regular place of worship, and Sunday school!  How does your church measure up?

Why is it that the secular world can see what so many in our own circles cannot see? Too many of our own church leaders are actively downplaying each one of these elements in favor of something so bland and nondescript that soon it will be hard to distinguish the average church from neighborhood associations, MOPs groups, and fraternal organizations.

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