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Know what you believe and why you believe it

Local Church, Local Restaurant

If you listened to this week’s White Horse Inn episode Is “The Easy Way” Always Best? perhaps you were intrigued by Kim Riddlebarger’s comment in the latter part of the the show about ministers serving a finely prepared meal to God’s people. This reminded me of a great article by Michael Brown from the July/August 2009 issue of Modern Reformation, “Local Church, Local Restaurant”. In this article, Rev. Brown develops this thought of the minister’s primary duty every week being to prepare rich, well-crafted sermons and how the sheep are to be fed with this divinely-served feast throughout the Divine Service:

As a pastor of a local church, I often walk alone through the empty auditorium of our building during the week. In the stillness, I look at the vacant pews and think of the people who will fill them on Sunday during the dinner rush. I contemplate the text I am working through that week and the sermon I am preparing. I look at the raised pulpit and large table and anticipate the food that will be served to them. I reflect on the movement of the liturgy, which, in some ways, resembles the structure of an Italian meal. The salutation after the invocation is similar to an aperitivo (aperitif). The absolution after the confession of sins is like the antipasto (appetizer). The sermon is the primo (first course), and the Lord’s Supper the secondo (second course). A contorno (side dish) might be served, if there is a baptism that day, but the meal will always conclude with formaggio e frutta (cheese and fruits) and/or dolce e caffe (dessert and coffee); that is, a benediction. I think of how, throughout the meal, we will raise our glasses of fine Sangiovese or Nero d’Avola wine in response to the God of grace, singing his praise, and confessing his goodness and mercy to us. This is a dining hall where God meets his people and feeds them with the surprising feast of Christ. These are the means he has ordained to give us refreshment, nourishment, and delight in this present evil age, a foretaste of that great meal to come, which was prophesied in Isaiah 25:6-9.

I hope you were well fed this past Lord’s Day in the preached Word and the Lord’s Supper and that it sustains you this week as you continue your pilgrim journey. However, as you will get hungry by week’s end, prepare yourself for another feast being lovingly prepared right now by your faithful chef.

To read the article in its entirety click here: “Local Church, Local Restaurant”

WHI-1124 | Is “The Easy Way” Always Best?

There is a deeply held assumption in today’s culture of affluence that hard work should generally be avoided, and that everything should be quick, fun, and easy. But what are the implications of these worldly assumptions for Christian discipleship? The answer is seen all around us: churches don’t place demands but only gratify their parishioners, most Christian bookstores stock their shelves with fluffy “get spiritual quick” type resources, and kids in Sunday school work with crayons, glue and glitter, but are rarely found memorizing Bible passages or catechism answers. Is the easy way always best? That’s what’s on tap this week at White Horse Inn.

RELATED ARTICLES

Sloth
Michael Horton

MUSIC SELECTION

David Hlebo

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RECOMMENDED BOOKS

Made in America
Michael Horton

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WHI-1123 | Taking Every Thought Captive

How are we to raise up the next generation of Christians to think seriously about the Christian faith if they have never been taught how to think in the first place? How are we to keep our kids in the faith if they are constantly propagandized by the messages they encounter in college or via television advertisements? The apostle Paul calls us to “take every thought captive, to the obedience of Christ,” but how are we actually to accomplish this task? Joining me to discuss this important issue are Christopher Perrin, Aaron Larson, and Joelle Hodge, contributors to The Art of Argument (Classical Academic Press, 2010).

RELATED ARTICLES

MUSIC SELECTION

Matthew Smith

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RECOMMENDED BOOKS

The Art of Argument
Larson and Hodge
The Argument Builder
Shelly Johnson
Tactics
Greg Koukl

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Modern Reformation Conversations – Reforming A Local Church

Rev. Ken Jones of The White Horse Inn discusses his views on reforming the local church, and why it’s worth the headache.

The reality is that a church has the right to be wrong – if the conviction of the leadership of the church is different from what your new convictions are, and you try to teach in a secondary capacity that which contradicts what the leadership is teaching, it doesn’t matter how sound your doctrine, you are being disruptive.  It’s not a matter of trying to maintain false peace or maintain; it’s a matter of maintaining church order.

Christ is Lord of All

I’ve nearly finished reading Center Church, by Timothy Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  I’m not prepared to offer a review, but recommend it as a thoughtful exploration of various approaches to church ministry and culture.  There are a lot of “how-to” books on church planting, marketing, and management.  There are also a number of more theological books on the nature, ministry, and mission of the church.  However, Keller’s Center Church fills an important and less populated niche: theological vision, which is somewhere between theological convictions and practical applications.

One of the places where I found the book especially thought-provoking was his engagement with various approaches to Christ and culture—especially transformationalism, pietism, and two kingdoms.  I still would demur with a couple of his descriptions of the “two kingdoms” perspective, but I think he does point out helpfully that this view is no more monolithic than other positions.  I also share some of his concerns about how the model can be used to justify unfaithful witness—as in the way that it was used by Southern Presbyterians (under the rubric of the “spirituality of the church”) to justify slavery.

There is nothing, however, in two-kingdoms thinking itself that would ever justify sin and injustice, whether public or private, or keep the church from preaching all of God’s Word and disciplining members who refuse its clear instruction.  In fact, by more clearly articulating the proper authority and jurisdiction of the church and the state, a two-kingdoms perspective is most allergic to any ideology, movement, leader, or party that would make absolute claims.  The reduction not only of religion but even cultural life to politics is something that such a perspective opposes with might and mane.  Christ is Lord of all, even if he rules his two kingdoms in different ways, with different means, toward different ends.

Anyway, lots to talk about—on this and other points he raises—and Center Church keeps the conversation going.  Regardless of whether one agrees with all of his points, this book is the fruit of decades of theological reflection and pastoral leadership.

I recently came across a post from a WSC alumnus who is finishing his PhD work at Emory University in political theology. It’s well worth a read, showing how “two kingdoms” was used during the Nazi era to justify both complicity with evil and resistance to it. Here’s a preview:

[W]hile virtually all German Christians were politically conservative and therefore susceptible to Nazi ideology, theologically conservative Christians tended to be much more resistant to that ideology by virtue of their commitment to orthodox Christian teaching. Theologically liberal Christians, on the other hand, having rejected such orthodoxy as well as the authority of Scripture, had little basis with which to reject a movement that seemed to be so deeply sensitive to the philosophical and social ethos of the day.

Read the whole thing.

Interview with Steve Bruce

Modern Reformation editor-in-chief Michael Horton asked Steve Bruce, University of Aberdeen sociologist and leading international authority on secularization, to discuss some of the major issues he raises in his new book, Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).


MR: What is the “secularization paradigm” and why has it come under fire in recent decades?
SB: The SP is often taken to be the prediction that, with the passage of time, religion will die out. This is wrong. I take the SP to be an attempt to explain the changes in the nature and social position of religion in western industrial democracies that have accompanied modernization (say, from the end of the eighteenth century). Those changes are complex but they do form a common pattern. At the level of social structure we see the removal of the economy and polity from religious control (for example, religious precepts no longer hinder economic rationality and we allow unbelievers the vote), the gradual marginalization of religion, and the rise of toleration. At the level of culture, religion loses the power to provide the most convincing explanations and the best remedies. For the individual, the key changes are religion’s shift from necessity to choice and the decline of dogmatism. Modern societies have ‘fundamentalist’ enclaves but most of us now accept that religion is a matter of private preference. Those changes are accompanied by a decline in the proportion of the population that takes religion seriously. Note that despite changes in intellectual fashion, the decline in religious adherence continues apace.

There are very many reasons why the SP has lost status in the academy. One is that the social sciences are driven by fashion: revisionism is always more popular than accepting that by and large one’s predecessors got it right. One oddity is that many avowed critics of the SP actually support key elements of it. For example, I cannot think of anyone who doubts that modernization has been accompanied by a social-structural differentiation that sees the economy and polity becoming free from religious precepts. What Western polity now denies Catholics the vote or prevents unbelievers from holding government office? And it is widely accepted that in most states religious pluralism produces increasing toleration and a gradual shift from religion as necessity to religion as choice.

MR: Critics of the secularization thesis often emphasize the intentional factors in the process—whether of secularists with a program to marginalize religion or believers with a program to choose their spiritual “products” in the marketplace. On the other hand, you underscore ways in which the process is driven largely by unintended consequences that make further development of modernization inevitable and secularization therefore plausible. Could you give some examples of how that works?
SB: The largely secular state long predates ‘secularists’, whose main role is generally to articulate what everyone else has intuitively grasped long before. One of the greatest unintended consequences is the rise of toleration. Most Protestant sects (the Quakers are the exception) were not initially in favour of toleration. They split from national churches because the state church was not pure enough to justify being imposed on everyone. They initially wanted to do the imposing themselves (consider the New England Puritans!). Only when they failed to win over enough people did they start to think that toleration might just be to their advantage. And gradually they persuaded themselves it was also virtuous. When urbanization and industrialization created an obvious need for better education and social welfare, the British state initially wanted to channel tax funding through the state churches but that did not work because the state churches faced too much opposition from Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists etc. So the state gradually had to make secular provision. That is, the rise of secular provision was a consequence, not of aggressive secularism, but of the internal divisions of the churches.

For another example consider the US Constitution. If the 13 colonies had all had the same established church, the USA could have had a state church. It was the fact of religious diversity and the fears of the minority sects that created neutrality, not the campaigns of secularists.

MR: One of the compelling arguments in your book is that even the type of religion or spirituality that remains personally engaging in the US, for example, is privatized and subjectivized. Could you explain how this fits rather than counts against the secularization paradigm?
SB: Privatized and subjectized religion is evidence of secularization. In the Christian West, traditionally religious people supposed that there was one God and it was our job to obey him and that usually meant trying to impose our vision on everybody else. We no longer expect that everyone will worship the same God in the same way and we lack the certainty and the power to impose our views on others. In turn we fail to pass on what faith we have intact to our children. Instead we encourage them to think for themselves. We solve the problem of competing visions by allowing that apparent contradictory things can all somehow be ‘true’. There is what is true for you and what is true for me. That sort of religion is inherently weaker than the traditional kind because there is no longer a strong psychological dynamic to ensure our children share our perspective.

MR: Some have attributed decline in church attendance in Western countries as “believing without belonging.” What do you make of that interpretation?
SB: ‘Believing without belonging’ is a fairy story church people tell themselves so they don’t get too depressed. There is no evidence for it. We have good longitudinal measures of religious activity, popularity of religious beliefs, and sense of religious identity. The three measures start from different heights: claiming a religious identity is more common than holding some religious beliefs which in turn is more common than engaging in religious activities. But – and this is the crucial point — all three measures decline pretty much in tandem.

MR: Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism are growing in many parts of the developing world. How can the secularization paradigm account for this?
SB: The secularization thesis argues that a series of specific changes (not the passage of time) undermines religion. Large parts of the world are not yet experiencing those changes. So why expect those societies to secularize? For example, religious diversity only weakens commitment when it is underpinned by an essentially egalitarian ethos that puts a high premium of personal liberty. Societies have to first work through the alternative of trying to re-impose a single religious culture through extermination, expulsion, and forced conversion. In Europe we tried that for two centuries before we gave it up.

Actually, far from being a surprise, the shift of many cultures from an organic communal Catholicism to an individualistic Protestantism is largely a repeat of what happened in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There are many parallels between the current appeal of Pentecostalism in Latin America and the appeal of Methodism in England in nineteenth century.

MR: Is it really secularization that we’re seeing across Europe or the march of militant Islam through the vacant ruins of Christendom?
SB: Your question does not actually pose competing alternatives. The ruination of Christendom is what we mean by secularization. And the suggestion that we are being over-run by jihadis is the paranoid fantasy of a few right-wing newspapers and muppet political parties. Four bearded men and a dog with a bomb is still four men and a dog. Muslims are a very small part of the population of most European societies. Militants are a very small pat of the Muslim population. They are easily out-numbered by liberal and ‘secular’ or ‘heritage’ Muslims. The Muslim influx has made religion more controversial because some Muslims wish their faith to enjoy the public presence and prestige it had in their home country but the net effect has been to make Europe even more secular. For example, the UK had blasphemy laws that had long fallen into disuse (last Scottish case in the 1830s) but we left them on the statute book rather than bother to argue about their repeal. When Muslims claimed that parity required that Islam also be protected against insult, we levelled the playing field by repealing the blasphemy laws.

MR: From a sociological perspective, what would have to happen if secularization were to be reversed?
I am not sure I understand this question. If you mean, what would we make of the UK or France becoming more religious, then the answer would depend on what changes brought that about. If religion became more popular while the social forces that we believe weakened it were still in play, then that would suggest the SP was mistaken. If some of the causal secularizing forces changed, that would just tell us that the social world is understandable but not (in the physics sense) predictable. If you mean ‘Can secularization be reversed?’, I would have to say it is as unlikely as the reversal of the slow road to gender or racial equality. Precisely because we now lay such store by personal liberty I cannot see the degree of religious diversity being reduced, I cannot see state imposition of religious uniformity being accepted, and I cannot see economic rationality giving way to religious precepts. Show me the advanced industrial economy that will shut down continuous production machines to respect the sabbath or the democratic polity that will deny the vote to heretics!

The Flying Nones: Latest Report from Pew Research Center

More U.S. adults than ever now identify themselves as “religiously unaffiliated,” according to Pew Research Center.

Reporting the Findings

The findings, released October 9, 2012, report that this group has grown over the last 5 years from 15% to just under 20%. Dubbed the “nones,” this growing demographic is not only unchurched but doesn’t even identify with any particular religion. “In 2007 60% of those who said they seldom or never attend religious services nevertheless described themselves as belonging to a particular religious tradition.” In 2010, it’s 50%— “a 10-point drop in five years.” And while whole ministries were geared toward “seekers” among the Boomer generation, 88% of the religiously unaffiliated now say they’re not even looking.

“Three-fourths of unaffiliated adults were raised with some affiliation (74%).” However, as affiliation falls, more Americans emerge with little or no past encounter with the church at all. One-third of adults under 30 self-identify as “religiously unaffiliated” or “nones,” compared with one-fifth more generally.

In spite of their lack of religious identification, two-thirds of the unaffiliated say they believe in God. “More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as ‘spiritual but not ‘religious’ (37%) and 1 in 5 say that they pray every day.” Their view of religious organizations seems somewhat contradictory. On one hand, there is the usual complaint that such institutions “are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.” On the other hand, “most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.”

For decades now evangelicals have celebrated growth while pointing out the precipitous decline of mainline Protestantism. Yet according to this study, “The decline is concentrated among white Protestants, both evangelical and mainline.”

Interpreting the Findings

Sociologists of religion have been debating the “secularization thesis” for at least a century. According to this theory, the process of modernization (the triumph of technology, calculative reason, routinization of behaviors, material prosperity and bureaucratization) gradually edges out religion. As the realm of the sacred shrinks and pragmatic—purely “this-worldly”—routines prevail, people look less and less to supernatural explanations. For example, agricultural communities in which annual harvest festivals culminated in a thanksgiving service at the parish church found it harder to know quite what to do at such a service when nearly everybody in the parish now buys its produce at the supermarket.

We interviewed a widely recognized sociologist who defends the secularization thesis from recent challenges. We’ll run that interview in the next post.

The secularization thesis may be briefly summarized: It explains why, in modern societies, we can expect the children to be less religious than their parents.

According to its proponents, religion becomes more privatized—especially without the reinforcement of widely shared cultural practices (such as the rhythm of holy days, festivals, and Sunday observances) and public policy (such as state support for a particular church, anti-blasphemy laws, and religious instruction in schools).

Privatization leads to pluralization, especially as new immigrants arrive with varied religious backgrounds. Religious pluralism, of course, is a fact—especially in Europe and North America. Religious freedom is a right. However, these two facets of pluralism are often confused in people’s minds with the idea that all religious paths are equally true.

This leads typically to the relativization of truth claims, as those practicing a particular religion are reluctant to defend their beliefs as true for everybody and increasingly commend their private commitments merely as personally useful and meaningful.

At last, religion is reduced to a form of personal therapy, as objective claims are psychologized into subjective experience. “God” becomes equivalent to “source of inner empowerment” and the Bible’s historical plot-line of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation is turned into an individualistic and inner striving, from an autonomous selfhood to dysfunction to recovery and self-enlightenment.

According to this story, we came from nowhere and are going nowhere but in between we can make something of ourselves. To the extent that we see the basic trajectory of this process in evangelical circles today as well, we should not be surprised to discover in the latest report that the sharpest rise among the “nones” is among evangelical as well as mainline Protestants. Accommodating ourselves to the culture of modernity, we can no longer use the old growth-versus-decline argument as an anti-mainline polemic.

Resisting the Powers and Principalities

It’s not only explicit ideas that determine the course of secularization, but cultural practices that assume the validity of a completely immanent (naturalistic) interpretation of reality. Conversely, it is not merely the recovery of sound doctrine that will fortify our churches and families—and our own lives, but the routines that presuppose a different reality, in which we are God’s creatures, fallen in sin, and redeemed by Christ awaiting his return in glory to restore all things.

These routines center on the public ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline in doctrine and life—as Jesus instituted for making disciples in his Great Commission. They entail mutual submission and service in Christ’s body. Our public gatherings announce that in Christ and by his Spirit, the age to come has broken into this present age that is fading. We aren’t just consumers in a mall of endless choice and felt needs that the culture of marketing has created in our hearts, but recipients of a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

Our families are not the products of contracts, but of covenants—and the most formative influence in passing the faith down from generation to generation. As we eat our daily bread in gratitude, our children grow up seeing that we also depend on our Triune God and his word, seeking him in prayer, and that they are part of this circle of forgiven sinners who look to God’s gracious provision and salvation. They come to learn by experience that in all of our half-hearted ways, we are seeking to “read” the world with God’s spectacles, to see our neighbors in the transcendent light of God’s greater love and purposes.

We immerse ourselves in Scripture not simply to consume yet another product or program, but to find our story in Christ’s. Our callings are not just jobs, but are anchored in a transcendent purpose. We were made for something great. Lost in sin and death, we were reconciled by God by his gift of his Son and are united Christ by his Spirit. Telling that story, teaching its doctrines, baptized into Christ’s body and receiving Christ again and again in his Supper, worshipping with God’s people in confession, praise, and thanksgiving, we are being formed by the Spirit into citizens of the new creation rather than prisoners of trivial pursuits.

Maybe this latest study can jolt us out of going further and further down that path of captivity to a culture of the “nowhere man, making all his plans for nobody”—and reach out to unbelieving family and friends with the greatest story ever told along with tangible gifts of love and service that commend it. Hopefully it will give us pause to wonder how much our churches, families and lives have become captive to our culture’s narcissistic demand for a constant state of extraordinary excitement, making it increasingly difficult to embrace patiently and lovingly the ordinary ministry of the church and the daily routines of family, friendship, and sociality that yield an abundant harvest over the long haul. Perhaps the report will help make us reconsider our message, mission and strategies and help us discover renewed confidence in the power of the gospel to create, sustain, and expand Christ’s church.

In any case, these findings shouldn’t lead us to despair, because it is still as true as it ever was that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. Therefore, let us keep the feast!


Note: Dr. Horton was asked about this study by Christianity Today along with some other Christian leaders. Read that article here: New Report: Non-Religious Grow, Protestants Wither (to below 50%)

New Book!

Michael Horton recently wrote a chapter for the new book, Calvin’s Theology and Its Reception: Disputes, Developments, and New Possibilities. You can get your copy through Amazon for less than $20!

Dr. Horton’s chapter is entitled, “Calvin’s Theology of Union with Christ and the Double Grace: Modern Reception and Contemporary Possibilities.” Here’s a brief preview:

A typical trajectory among many Roman Catholic interpreters conceives of Calvin’s theology as a series of contrasts, with a radical diastasis between God and humanity, transcendence and immanence, reality and signs…. Obviously this interpretation gives little attention to Calvin’s considerable emphasis on union with God in Christ. This thesis is pressed in spite of Calvin’s explicit and sometimes stern criticisms of nominalism and an emphasis on divine-human communion (indeed participation) that appears already in the opening paragraph of the Institutes.

Obviously not for the faint of heart (or mind), but if you know a budding or seasoned scholar who wants to dig deeper into the development of Reformed theology, this is a good volume for his or her library.

Mike Horton and Ken Jones Invite You

It’s almost time for the Semper Reformanda conference in Houston, Texas. Here’s Mike Horton’s and Ken Jones’ personal invitation to you to join them and Voddie Baucham and Thabiti Anyabwile later this month at Grace Family Baptist Church.

Laugh along with Mike and Ken as they poke a little fun at one another and totally mispronounce Thabiti Anyabwile’s name. I’m sure there will be some retribution coming!

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For more information, check out the White Horse Inn calendar page.

 

Modern Reformation Conversations – Dr. Rod Rosenbladt

We sat down to chat with Dr. Rosenbladt about his article in this month’s issue of Modern Reformation, ‘What Drove Luther’s Hammer’, and learned about sleeping on concrete floors, a ruined gastrointestinal tract, and the stupidest decision ever made in Western Christianity.  If you know of anyone who thinks they can earn their way to heaven with good behavior, share the video.

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