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Know what you believe and why you believe it

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.”

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.

WHI-1105 | Antinomianism (Part 2)

The problem of antinomianism is not a result of taking the gospel too far, but of not taking it far enough. After treating the subject of justification, Paul anticipates the question, “Shall we then sin so that grace may abound?” His answer: “No—may it never be!” How, then, do we make those necessary strides in holiness? By adding a dose of fear or by being exposed to the wideness of the gospel? Those who are united to Christ are not only justified but are renewed and transformed. Unfortunately, many people throughout history have been falsely charged with advocating antinomianism simply for preaching the gospel of free justification and imputed righteousness.

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WHI-1104 | Antinomianism (Part 1)

There is growing interest in the pure unadulterated gospel today in evangelical circles. But with all this talk about grace, are we facing a new danger of antinomianism? Maybe we’ve taken the gospel for granted, but are we now overreacting by taking holiness for granted? At what point should a person be considered either a legalist on one side or an antinomian on the other? The hosts will take up these questions and more on this edition of White Horse Inn.

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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!

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

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.

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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Theology for Children

A friend of mine went to visit his family in San José last weekend—he’s a particular favorite with his nephew, James (who can’t stand being away from him for more than five hours if he knows his uncle is visiting), and when James found out that “Buddy” would be flying in Friday night, he announced to his grandmother that he’d be coming over to spend the weekend. After breakfast on Sunday morning, Danny asked him what he’d be learning at church that Sunday. “God,” was the prompt answer. “That’s wonderful,” he said, “do you know who God is?” “God,” he said. While true, it wasn’t quite the answer he was looking for, so he explained a bit more about who God has revealed himself to be in the person of the Trinity.

“You’re teaching a five-year-old about the Trinity?” his mother asked him later. “How is he going to understand that?”

“Well, I don’t understand it, either,” Danny said. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t know anything about it. ‘One essence, three persons.’ I don’t get how it works, but I know what it is—James can understand that.”

I sometimes wonder if parents think that teaching their children theology means plopping them on the couch, tossing them a copy of Bavinck and saying, “Good luck, Junior. Don’t go cross-eyed.” Contributing author (and mother of eight) Simonetta Carr took time out of her busy schedule to assure us that there’s a better (and easier) way to go about it.

Why Do We Go to Church?

How the “Worship Wars” Often Miss the Real Issue

Where going to church was for most Americans the default setting, today it’s a conscious choice. Many churches tried wooing Boomers back with softness and smiles, affirming images of a God who is helpful for our life projects, and myriad activities for the kids. Many of their children and grandchildren are burned out on it all. Some head for the exit, toward Rome, the East, or the “spiritual but not religious” category. Others are calling the church to be less consumer-driven and to make God the focus.

For too long the “worship wars” have coalesced around style. These are not unimportant questions; how we worship says a lot about the object and significance of the event. However, all the sides (simplistically drawn between “traditionalists” and “contemporary-worship” advocates) in the debates share more in common than any do with the rationale of Reformation Christianity.

The most important divide is over this question: Do we come to church primarily to receive or primarily to do something? In other words, is God not only the object but the primary actor in the service, or are we?

I’ve heard some conservatives critique contemporary models for being “human-centered.” God isn’t there to make us happy or give us things; we’re there to bring him pleasure, to praise, worship, and serve him. I don’t actually think that most evangelicals disagree over that premise. It’s hard to make the case that people craving more congregational participation—longer “worship times” (“worship” now being equivalent to singing along with a praise band)—are merely consumers. Indeed, the sermons in many of these churches are pep talks filled with exhortations. They may be friendlier, but the goal is to get people to do something.

Actually, what has now come to be identified as “traditional” worship has more in common with “contemporary” worship than either has with historic practice. There are many examples, but the most important is their shared emphasis on the public service as something in which we (rather than God) are the primary actors. We are the subject of most of the action verbs. We come to church to praise, to worship, to express, to rededicate ourselves, to serve, and so forth. Even when we mention receiving something, it’s often merely so that we can do something: we learn our marching orders for the week. The Bible is our road map for life. Based on it to some extent, the sermon motivates us to follow the map. Baptism illustrates our commitment to following Jesus and Communion provides an object lesson to help us reflect more deeply on how much we owe Jesus because of what he did for us on the cross. Then the songs reinforce the idea: we’re here to do something for God and perhaps also for each other. We are the subject of the action. At most, the sermons, the liturgy and sacraments can be an occasion for us to think, reflect, feel, and act; they are very rarely treated as actual means of God’s action here and now.

Of course, we are the subject of action in the public service at appropriate points. We do confess our sins and our faith in Christ; we pray, give financial support to his work, and present our laments, petitions, and praise to the one who has given us every spiritual blessing in Christ. But that’s just the point. When do we actually receive these spiritual blessings? Is there room in the service for God to give us anything when we’re doing all the talking, blessing, expressing and acting?

Far deeper than instruments and music styles, this divide is the real one. Historically at least, Reformed and Lutheran churches believed that the Triune God is the primary actor in the public service. That’s one reason it was called “divine service”: the Father, in Christ, by the Spirit, serving his people with his good gifts. We find it referred to as “the divine service” routinely in churches of the Reformation over much of their history.

Drawing on the biblical view of the public service as a covenantal event, Reformed churches have understood the Triune God as the primary actor. If the covenant of grace is based on God’s unchangeable promise, with Christ as its mediator, then the public service is where this covenant is established and extended. Here the risen Lord of the covenant assembles his people to bless, convict, absolve, instruct, guide, and send them out into the world as “a kingdom of priests to our God” (Rev 5:9). The key moments in this covenantal event are God’s speech, baptism, and Communion—in each case, God being the actor. The very media themselves indicate that we are recipients of the action.

In every covenant, there are two parties. In the covenant of works, God delivers the commands, with attending threats for disobedience and promises for obedience. The spotlight is on the people who swear the covenant, “All this we will do!” In the covenant of grace, however, the spotlight is on the Triune God. He is the oath-maker, assuming the ultimate responsibility for realizing its goal. There are also commands; however, they are not conditions for inheriting the family estate, but the “reasonable response” of God’s people “in view of his mercies” (Rom 12:1). In the covenant of grace, God has allowed himself to be put on trial—even to be convicted by his own just law, fulfilling its conditions, bearing its sentence for our transgressions, and being raised as the beginning of the new creation.

In the public service, this is not just a story we talk about; it is actually happening here and now. The kingdom of grace is landing in the middle of us, turning a barren desert into a lush garden. As the keys of the kingdom are exercised, God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven; prison doors are being unlocked, releasing captives. God himself is walking through the animal pieces cut to seal his oath (see Gen 15). It is the new covenant, which is not like the Sinai covenant that Israel swore and transgressed (Hos 6:7; Jer 31:32-35). It is the new covenant in Christ’s blood, which he shed at Calvary and now gives to us as the source of forgiveness. Our Lord’s words and actions in the Upper Room are re-enacted in the regular preaching and celebration of the Supper.

In this public service, we are always passive in relation to God—receiving everything as a gift. God addresses us, here and now, with his commands and promises. He doesn’t just tell us about forgiveness, but forgives us through the ministry of fellow sinners who themselves need forgiveness. He does not take away our speaking parts in the script, but gives us a new script with himself as the central actor—and by his Spirit loosens our tongues to speak his praises. We do have a role in this covenantal event. It is not only the role of hearing and receiving, but also of praising and pledging. However, the latter are our reasonable response to God’s saving work, not conditions for it. In other words, the benefit of this Lord’s Day assembly is based on God’s work for us, not on our work for God. When we say, “This was a really great day at church,” we don’t mean that the choir or praise band was especially good, or even that the preacher was especially motivational. Rather, we mean—or should mean, “Our God did it again today—the holy Father aquitted us by his grace, clothed in his Son, giving us every spiritual blessing in Christ by the Spirit, through his Word and sacraments.”

It is significant that faith is attributed in Scripture to the Spirit through proclamation of the Word (specifically, the gospel); that baptism is effectual not because it is our pledge, but because it is God’s—we don’t baptize ourselves, but are baptized by Christ through his minister; that Communion is effectual not because of our imagination and intensity of commitment, but because through it believers actually receive Christ with all his gifts. These are means of grace.

However, where the sermon is primarily a “to-do” list and baptism and the Supper are primarily our means of commitment and re-commitment, respectively; where the “worship time” (i.e., music) encourages us to focus on our love, our praise, our promises, our sacrifices, the covenant being ratified takes place closer to Mount Sinai than to Mount Zion. It is more like a kingdom that we are building than one that we are receiving (see Hebrews 12:25-29). For this covenant and the public service it ratifies, Christ becomes more of a facilitator than a mediator.

Consider the argument of Dan Kimball in Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004). Kimball urges, “…we need to recognize that going to a worship service is not about us, the worshipers. It is not about God’s service to us. It is purely our offering of service and worship to God—offering our lives, offering our prayers, offering our praise, offering our confessions, offering our finances, offering our service to others in the church body” (3).

What Kimball is reacting against especially is a consumer-driven model, where we come to church to “get something out of it.” However, where his answer seems to be to make the service more about what we give than what we receive, I’m convinced that more scriptural way to talk about it is to say that we come to have God tell us what we really need (regardless of our “felt needs”) and to give us what we need most. The problem that properly concerns him—namely, consumerism—is not solved by making it all about what we do! How does saying it’s all about what we do counter the problem he identifies correctly of making us rather than God the center? (Elsewhere, Kimball has criticized the Reformation for identifying the “marks of the church” with preaching and sacraments, precisely because it defines the church as a place where God is doing certain things rather than a people who do certain things.)

How can one say that the worship service “is not about us” and then categorically deny that it’s “about God’s service to us” and instead say that “It is purely our offering” to God?

This even affects the horizontal aspect of the service. There’s a big difference between saying God meets with us and saying that we meet with God. Who called the meeting? Whose agenda? Is God being included in our fellowship or is our fellowship constituted by God’s including us in his great plan for the ages in Christ? According to Kimball, leaders should ask, “Is this environment and what we do allowing us to become more intense worshippers of God?” (115). Similarly, Sally Morganthaler suggests that this approach means that “worship experience emerge from the people themselves,” rather than “the generic wrapper” (I think she means liturgy.) [1]

Again, the cure seems worse than the disease. How can the solution to human-centeredness be found in my determining with other sinners means of more intense worship and more “worship experience” emerging from the very people, like me, who need to be saved from ourselves and our experience? Does God even have a role to play in any of this? Is God nothing more than a passive spectator and recipients of our works? At least in traditional liturgies, there is usually a covenantal conversation: God’s speech-acts provoke a response. But if God is merely a passive recipient of our action, what can our own role be other than self-expression, drawing on our fund of personal experience rather than on the objective Word?

If I enter church regularly with the default setting of narcissism, consumerism, and so forth, then I don’t need better techniques, rules, or motivation for becoming a more intense worshiper of God; I need to be killed and made alive in Christ! “Emerging generations are hungering to experience God in worship,” Kimball says (116). That’s great! But isn’t that precisely why we need God to be the main actor?

If church services are merely places where we get our marching orders for the week, have a little fellowship, and offer our praises, money, and prayers, then why do we all need to actually show up every week to do this? What can be done here that cannot be done in all sorts of informal ways throughout the week? In fact, Kimball adds, “We adore the Lord all week, not just at ‘worship gatherings.’ Our minds, our hearts, our bodies, our marriages, our families, our jobs—everything should be offered to him in worship. This includes what we think about, what we do, what we say, what we eat, and what we spend time doing—they are all acts of worship.” “It is offering our love, our adoration, and our praise to him through all of our lives,” so it’s “extremely sad that we have trained people to think that worship primarily happens when they come to church and sing” (4-5). Our speaking parts (means of commitment), not God’s (means of grace), are the reason for going to church, in this view.

There are certainly many passages that affirm with Kimball that our worship is to be an expression of our daily lives—whether eating or drinking, working at the office, living with neighbors and family members, all to the glory of God. However, that’s exactly why we need to be on the receiving end Lord’s Day. Before we can be active in good works, we must be recipients of grace. On the Lord’s Day, we have a foretaste of that everlasting rest that is already ours objectively in Christ. We are served by God, and then God serves our neighbors through us in the world throughout the week. We come to church because the Creator and Redeemer has called us to assemble. He has something to tell us that will rock our world. It’s bad news and good news. Through all of these words, he is performing miraculous wonders for, in and among us. Christ is present in our midst, in the power of his Spirit. Preaching and sacraments aren’t just more occasions for us to act, but means of the Father’s action, in his Son, by his Spirit. Even our own singing has as its chief purpose not mere self-expression, but making the word of Christ dwell in us richly, with thanksgiving in our hearts (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19).

In short, the problem in many of our churches today is not only that we aren’t God-centered enough. It’s that even in our attempt to be God-centered, the focus is on what we bring the table rather than actually being on God and that remarkable work that he is doing in delivering Christ to us with all of his benefits. Only when we recover the biblical emphasis on God’s ministry to us—where he has appointed, when he has appointed, and through the means that he has appointed, will the priority of God’s grace in his covenant mercies be central. And only when this is central is our desperate need for regular participation in this feast evident as well. We come to church regularly not primarily to do something again, but to receive something again—and, yes, also to respond in gratitude. True enough: it isn’t about us, but it is for us. And a funny thing happens when we surrender to this divine charity: we actually become active again in faith and its fruit of love and service to others.


1. Sally Morganthaler, “Emerging Worship,” in Exploring the Worship Spectrum: Six Views, ed. Paul E. Engle and Paul A. Basden (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 229.[Back]

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