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Know what you believe and why you believe it

The Mediator is the Message

Is the Christ in which the church has put its faith the same person as the Jesus who really lived? Some theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have said “No.” They claim that the real “Jesus of History” differs greatly from the church’s “Christ of Faith.” Some make this pronouncement with glee. So much the worse for Jesus. Free of the Galilean, the theologian is at liberty to spin a religion out of his own spiritual consciousness. Others who doubt the authenticity of the church’s Christ of Faith embark on a quest for the historical Jesus. So much the worse for the church. She will have to bow to new scholarly findings if researchers discover a “new Jesus.”

Some of my readers have probably seen books on these new Jesuses. In our day, he is always said to be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls or gnostic writings. The endorsements on the dustjackets of these books always claim that the new findings will “undermine the foundations of the church.” Such a claim might well unsettle the stomach of an unwary book-browser. When you see books like this, don’t fear them. Pick them up and scan their contents. You will rarely find in these books a scholarly presentation of newly-discovered material. Instead, most are filled with crackpot interpretations of familiar texts which were discovered long ago.

Publishers of such books laud their authors for being “bold and innovative.” Actually, there is nothing particularly bold about these men. Their books are certain to succeed in our sensationalist culture. The truly bold scholars are those who write on such matters without making earth-shattering claims. They enter into a far more risky publishing venture.

The Mediator is the Message
The theologian who accepts a dichotomy between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith will always favor one over the other. The most famous example of opting for a Christ of Faith over the Jesus of History is found in the writings of Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann’s Christ of Faith could be believed in even by those who doubted the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.

To some of us, this sounds like a good solution to our plight. Many of us are not confident in our ability to evaluate the historical evidence for Jesus. But Bultmann’s Christ is impervious to being disproved. If we find that Jesus never lived, so what? The Christ presented by the gospel writers is still a compelling figure-so compelling that we ought to follow him anyway. Besides, who wants to disband their home Bible study just because the Jesus Seminar cannot agree on what Jesus said or did?

The problem with such reasoning is that the New Testament does not speak of Christ in such terms. Bultmann’s Christ is safe because his message is more important than his person. The New Testament Christ is risky because everything depends upon his Person and work. As St. Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). No historical Jesus, no salvation. What really happened in history matters to us. The Mediator is the message.

Who’s Mything?
The position of a writer like Bultmann is much more dangerous than that of other contemporary liberal theologians for two reasons. First, his writing is much clearer. More people can be led astray by him because more can understand him. Second, his claim that jettisoning the supernatural side of Christianity will not leave us without something to believe in is attractive to many. Most people would like to feel as if they were both up-to-date and spiritual. Bultmann says they succeed at both if they follow his advice. The problem is that this cannot be done. While Bultmann’s method is understandable, its ramifications are difficult for many to see, and they spell disaster.

In the space of just a few pages of his book Jesus Christ and Mythology, Bultmann charts a new method of Biblical interpretation. He calls us to question the old understanding of those passages of Scripture where God’s action was local or concrete (which Bultmann termed mythological) or where Jesus spoke of a literal end of the world and coming judgement (which Bultmann termed eschatological). He says:

We must ask whether the eschatological preaching and the mythological sayings as a whole contain a still deeper meaning which is concealed under the cover of mythology. If that is so, let us abandon the mythological conceptions precisely because we want to retain their deeper meaning. This method of interpretation of the New Testament which tries to recover the deeper meaning behind the mythological conceptions I call de-mythologizing. (1)

Bultmann is aware that asking people to give up even portions of scripture would be scandalous, so he claims that even these passages are not eliminated: “[My] aim is not to eliminate the mythological statements but to interpret them.” (2)

The Bible contains a vital message under the cover of mythology. At this point Bultmann’s program is still an abstract theory. We will need to see its application before we know what it will mean for theology.

Bultmann does not hesitate to offer a test case. He offers the example of those passages in Scripture which seem to teach a localized heaven. He says that these passages employ mythology because their writers were not capable of abstraction. An ancient author’s only way to express transcendence was to portray it spatially:

According to mythological thinking, God has his domicile in heaven. What is the meaning of this statement? The meaning is quite clear. In a crude manner it expresses the idea that God is beyond the world, that He is transcendent. (3)

Ancient man thought, but he thought crudely. This understanding of the ancient mind is common. I have seen a similar example in a recent article on ancient representations of cherubim (those six-winged creatures of Old Testament visions). The author says that

Although ancient man understood concepts like omnipotence and omniscience, he did not express them in philosophical terms. Instead, he did so concretely. Man’s earliest attempts to express abstract, metaphysical concepts took a physical form. (4)

While both the author of the article and Bultmann believed that ancient man had some grasp of transcendental concepts, both believed ancient man to be a thrall to concrete expression. Bultmann saw this as a drawback for modern man who had progressed beyond this point.

If Bultmann was right, then a sensitive modern interpreter is needed to understand what the ancients were trying to convey. In the case of heaven and hell, without a Bultmannian guide, moderns might even give up on the Bible, its timeless message having been lost in mythological language:

These mythological conceptions of heaven and hell are no longer acceptable for modern men since for scientific thinking to speak of “above” and “below” in the universe has lost all meaning, but the idea of the transcendence of God and evil is still significant. (5)

The problem with the ancients is that they weren’t scientific. If they had a telescope or a space shuttle, they would have known that their conceptions were flawed. After the heavens have been trespassed by astronauts, who can believe in a celestial cloudland?

Such thinking reminds me of the Russian cosmonaut who said upon his arrival in space that he did not see God. Even as a child I remember thinking how disappointed I would have been if he had. My feeling was not rooted in a deep-seated need to believe without evidence, but in an inkling of the grandeur of the divine. Has it not occurred to Bultmann that his own conceptions might be analogies?

Perhaps the word “transcendence” is mythological in the same sense as the words “above” and “below.” God’s relationship to the universe is unique. Theologians have chosen to give the abstract word “transcendence” a peculiar meaning when it is used theologically to speak of Gods relationship to the universe. Perhaps the ancients knew how to use the language of “above” and “below” in the same unique sense. Their use would have the added advantage of being recognized by most people as non-literal or analogical. Today’s reader might be fooled by the word “transcendent.”

I have a high opinion of the ancient mind. So do many who are familiar with it. One writer who was well-trained in the reading of ancient documents (he had been reading Homer in Greek since the age of 16) was C. S. Lewis. Professor Lewis faced claims like that of Bultmann in the Church of England of his day. Responding to the writing of one clergyman who said that we moderns had to overhaul our image of God, Lewis wrote:

The Bishop of Woolwhich will disturb most of us Christian laymen less than he anticipates. We have long abandoned belief in a God who sits on a throne in a localized heaven. We call that belief anthropomorphism, and it was officially condemned before our time. There is something about this in Gibbon. (6)

Edward Gibbon was the famous author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The condemnation of anthropomorphism of which Gibbon spoke took place in the early centuries of Christianity. Lewis argues that even in the ancient church, people could read the scriptures without being led astray by concrete imagery. I propose to show that even in Old Testament times men could do this. God himself taught them how in the Old Testament writings. God “demythologized” himself without the help of a twentieth century theologian.

Today You Will Be With Me in Paradigm
Our tendency to believe that we can look down on the religious expressions of ancient man from a higher summit of understanding is rooted in our modern theology. Were the ancients here with us, they would not bow to us as to superiors. They would lament our corrupted understanding and attribute it to the fall of man. For theological superiors they would have looked back to Adam and Eve before the fall, or perhaps ahead to the glorified state, where they would learn pure theology in the “heavenly school.” They would have rejected the idea that mankind is embarked on a progressive quest for God. They believed in a divine quest where God has sought to bring natural idolaters from all generations to a truer knowledge of himself.

I would like to offer a test case to show how God’s progressive revelation of himself in Scripture demonstrates the ability of the Bible to transcend the timebound categories of its ancient authors. I owe this example to Stephen Prickett, whose book Words and the Word offers an unusually broad base of observations showing the foibles of both conservatives and liberals when it comes to Biblical interpretation.

Prickett finds in the story of Elijah an example of God’s progressive revelation of himself. God had begun this revelation by showing himself a superior force to the pagan gods. The pagan prophets had laid out their sacrifice before Baal, but he did not show up, even after much shouting and self-mutilation on the part of his prophets. Then Elijah set forth his sacrifice. Elijah doused water on the sacrifice to ensure that what was to happen would be a display of great power. Before the prophets of Baal, “the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice….” (1 Kgs 18:38). Even before this demonstration, Elijah was aware that God had a history of revealing himself through the forces of nature. But God knew that if he had terminated his self-revelation at this point in the story, even his trusted servant Elijah might think him a nature-god-certainly the most powerful of nature-gods, perhaps the only nature god-but a mere nature-god just the same. To counter this, God revealed his transcendence by repeating his demonstration of his command over nature, and then dissociated himself from the phenomena he had caused. God finally revealed his presence in a “still, thin voice.” (7) Prickett explains it thus:

Elijah had come to Horeb with certain expectations precisely because of that sense of history that was already, in Israel, distinctively the mark of men of God. Before the assembled prophets of Baal he had already vindicated Yahweh in pyrotechnics-proving once again the power of the God who had traditionally manifested himself by fire. Now he had come to receive the divine revelation for which he believed he had been preparing himself. What followed was the more unexpected. Paradoxically, his notion of Yahweh was disconfirmed by a greater display of natural violence than any yet. But Yahweh is not a fire God. His presence, when at last it is revealed, is experienced as something mysteriously apart from the world of natural phenomena that had been in such spectacular convulsions. Elijah’s own categories are overthrown. (8)

Prickett’s talk of categories being overthrown shows that a Kuhnian scientific revolution was possible even to ancient man. Isn’t this method curiously like the one the de-mythologizer is supposed to follow? God recognizes that the conception of him held by an ancient (in this case Elijah) contained some truth. But Elijah’s conception of God’s majesty was still crude. So God revealed himself in a new way to alter the old conception to a superior and more refined conception of transcendence-all without the help of Rudolf Bultmann!

The Jesus of History Future
The overall clarity of Bultmann’s language obscures the difficulty of some of his concepts. When he claims that modern man ought to be able to retain some kind of Christian faith but without mythology, this is a complex claim. It involves the idea that Christianity contains myth, and the idea that myth is a bad thing, at least for modern man. Both of these ideas are further complicated by the fact that Bultmann offers no precise definition of myth. His examples are understandable enough by themselves, but how is a reader to know what is and isn’t mythical in a given passage? Without a definition, the reader is left to decide for himself. If it is difficult to believe, it must be myth.

In Bultmann’s theory the concrete side of a myth is the flawed attempt of an ancient mind to express a deep truth. This concrete side is rejected by Bultmann. It is untrue. To be sure, the word “myth” can be used in a pejorative sense to mean something untrue. To a theologian, this is the most prominent characteristic of a myth. It is a wrong account of the world. St. Paul himself uses the word in this manner (e.g. 1 Tim 4:7, 2 Tim 4:4, Titus 1:14). But for St. Paul, there is no underlying truth to a myth. There is no kernel of truth to be found in a myth. That is the biblical sense of the term.

If Bultmann is using the term myth in another sense, then it would be nice to know what that sense is. For a man like Bultmann, who claimed to be able to distinguish different kinds of narrative in the Bible, the obvious sense would be the word’s literary sense. But was he in a position to judge this? C. S. Lewis claimed Bible critics wrote nonsense about the Bible and myth because they had never read myths. Not lack of faith, but lack of good training led to this:

…whatever these men may be as Biblical critics, I distrust them as critics. They seem to me to lack literary judgement, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading…If (a critic) tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he had read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour… (9)

Whatever the value of Bultmann’s judgments on a given text, his construction of an overall theory of demythologizing was flawed by his unfamiliarity with myth.

Professor Lewis had read and loved both Greek and Norse mythology his whole life. His book Till We Have Faces is a reworking of the Cupid and Psyche myth. In Lewis’s writing we find an awareness of the complex nature of myth. In our century, we are long past the time when the Greek myths could lead people astray. We can appreciate the power of myth to integrate experience in a way that the early Christians were not free to. In a myth we see an expression of something that happens in nature enacted by great beings or gods. A myth draws together many experiences which were seen as separate.

Bultmann sees the mythical elements of a narrative as being of secondary importance to a message which the narrative was written to convey. Jesus had a message and his disciples valued that message so much that they invested his person with mythical qualities in order to draw attention to his message. Perhaps we moderns can value the message without the myth.

C. S. Lewis shows us another way to view Jesus. Not what he said, but his person and work was the message. His teaching was secondary to who he was and what he did. Better a silent Jesus who paid for our sins than a teaching Jesus who aborted his mission. Lewis is clear that Christianity is only viable if Christ is truly God. Christianity is worthless if Christ’s deity and atonement were myths-falsehoods.

But if we accept the truth of Christianity, and look at myth from another angle, as something other than falsehood, then Christianity can be said to be mythic. Something of true cosmic importance is enacted. All of our moral experiences are explained in one event. But that is not all. Nature is involved. There is some connection between the Resurrection and the coming of spring-a connection not lost on hymn-writers or greeting card manufacturers. But in the Resurrection, the normal relation of mythic event to nature is reversed. Usually, the myth serves to explain the general principle. But the Resurrection was clearly not intended as explanation of a more general Resurrection principle we see happening every spring. Spring is rather a foreshadowing of the Resurrection. Christianity is the true myth that makes everyday reality seem thin by comparison.

What kind of message are we really left with if we break the connection between who Jesus was and what he did? Some might say that Jesus did not have to rise from the dead for his teachings to be of value. He taught us to suffer under persecution in hope. But what is that hope? Perhaps that our values will live beyond us. Jesus died, but the church survived and flourished. But if Christ is not risen, how could that principle apply to our lives? If Christ is not risen, the success of the church was a grand mistake. The only principle we could draw is that if we were to suffer persecution and someone got confused enough, he or she might create a myth about us, and our values would be promoted by unearned fame. And that’s if we’re lucky! Some hope.

True hope looks to the future. Faith is trust that in Christ we have a good future. We have a good future because as the Jesus of History past, he overcame death and sin and wrath. As the Jesus of History future, we expect him to be as successful in overcoming our enemies. He has shown himself worthy of that trust. Instead of a dreary modern attempt to adjust Jesus to a so-called scientific view of the world, let us allow God to adjust us to a better view of things. A real Jesus came into the real world and gave it a real plot. We are living in a better crafted story than any storyteller, ancient or modern could have dreamed. We live in a world where accountants and astronauts are ransomed with the blood of God; where rockets travel through an outer space transcended by a real heaven; and where small-minded people, ancient, modern, or even postmodern, can experience a great paradigm shift when confronted with a word from God.

The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith are not to be separated. The ancients were aware of this when they wrote that “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ…begotten of his Father before all worlds…who was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” Our future depends on holding fast to these ancient words.


About the author: Rick Ritchie resides in Southern California and is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He is a graduate of Christ College Irvine and Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.

Endnotes
1 Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Scribner’s 1958), p. 18.

2 Bultmann, p. 18.

3 Bultmann, p. 20.

4 Elie Borowski, “Cherubim: God’s Throne?” in Biblical Archaeology Review (July/August 1995: vol. 21, number 4), p. 36.

5 Bultmann, p. 20.

6 C. S. Lewis, “Must our Image of God Go?” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 1970), p. 118.

7 See 1 Kings chapter 19 for the story. Prickett says that difficult passages such as the “still thin voice” of 1 Kings 19:12 have suffered at the hands of rationalistic interpreters, even when those interpreters were conservative evangelicals. The King James translators rendered it better, but the English language has changed leaving us without a good translation of this passage.

8 Stephen Prickett, Words and the Word (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 11.

9 C. S. Lewis, Fern-Seed and Elephants, and other essays on Christianity, ed. Walter Hooper, Collins (Fontana), 1975, pp. 107-108; quoted by Prickett in Words and the Word, p. 81.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 1995 issue: “O Come Let Us Adore Him: The Person and Work of Christ” (Vol. 4 No. 6). Pages 33-36

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by Modern Reformation.

Copyright © 2011 White Horse Inn

Tullian on The Gospel Commission

Mike Horton’s new book, The Gospel Commission, which rounds out his three book series that started with Christless Christianity, is now available. Last week Tullian Tchividjian pointed out one of the important points Mike makes in the book:

Mike’s excellent point is one that I’ve made time and time again. Namely, that imperatives – indicatives = impossibilities! Whenever we see an imperative in the Bible (what we must do) we need to look for the indicative that grounds it (what Jesus has done). Because, no matter how hard you try or how radical you get, any engine smaller than the gospel that you depend on for power to do what God has called you to do will conk out…most importantly, the Great Commission!

Read the whole thing.

You can now purchase The Gospel Commission directly from White Horse Inn through our new online store. We’re slowly adding resources to the store and the prices are hard to beat. Right now, you can get all three books in this trilogy for less than Amazon sells them.

Piety vs. Pietism / Confessional vs. Confessionalism

One of the great things about movements is that they can bring together people from diverse backgrounds for a common cause. One of the dangerous things about movements is that they can create artificial positions that undermine the integrity of institutions that have grown organically through the years.

In recent discussions, especially in the blogosphere, “pietism vs. confessionalism” has provoked fresh debate. Some of it is helpful. Some of it, in my view, is not. The much-publicized “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement tends to side with pietism in this debate. While passionate critics of the nearly Pelagian revivalism of the Second Great Awakening (especially exemplified in Charles Finney), this movement’s leaders are equally ardent defenders of the First Great Awakening (especially exemplified in Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield). Then the “confessionalists” (some of them, at least) claim John Williamson Nevin in his famous contrast between “the system of the Catechism” and “the system of the anxious bench.”

Lines in the Sand
As is often the case with movements, there is always a danger of raising flags that each side can salute and under which each side can defend its territory—even if these positions are of rather recent origin.  The hard-and-fast categories of “pietism” and “confessionalism” can easily fall into this over-simplification.

When you look back at Lutheran and Reformed churches in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth churches, it’s a lot harder to identify the clear lines between “pietists” and “confessionalists.” Especially in the Reformed tradition, many of the formative figures in what’s called “orthodoxy” or “Reformed scholasticism” were also defenders of further reformation in doctrine and life.  They not only wrote doctrinal treatises and liturgies, but devotional guides, prayers, and resources for evangelism and missions.

For example, there is Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676).  A pastor at a time of great turmoil in the Dutch Reformed Church, Voetius was used by God to convert many Roman Catholics and to defend the gospel against the rising challenges of the Remonstrants (Arminians).  Voetius rose to prominence as a leading delegate at the Synod of Dort.  Appointed first as professor of Oriental science (teaching Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac) at the University of Utrecht, he also taught physics and theology, eventually becoming the rector (president) of the University.   Among the first critics of the new rationalism associated with René Descartes, one of Voetius’s students wrote a dissertation that was so persuasive that Descartes himself felt obliged to write a refutation.  In Voetius we find not only an ardent defender of the Reformed confession but one who played a prominent role in drafting one of them: the Canons of the Synod of Dort.  Defending the confession against Arminianism, he also challenged a rising tide of mysticism, identified with Jean de Labadie, who called for a separation of truly sanctified believers from the institutional church.  At the same time, his first book was The Proof of Godliness and he was especially ardent in his defense of the Christian Sabbath over against fellow Reformed theologian Johannes Cocceius. In addition, Voetius was was a pioneer of Reformed missions.

Meanwhile, the leading defenders of further reformation in England were nicknamed “puritans” by their detractors, because they wanted to pursue more serious discipleship and reforms in church government.  They decried the nominalism of state churches, while warning also against Anabaptist mysticism and separatism.  It’s hard to call them pietists, since this term has come to be identified with an individualistic, unchurchly, and enthusiastic tendency.  But they could hardly be dismissed as advocates of “dead orthodoxy.”

William Perkins, the father of Elizabethan Puritanism, was a staunch Anglican whose book, The Reformed Catholic, reminds us that reformation, not radicalism, was the goal.  The “spiritual brotherhood” that led from Perkins to Richard Sibbes to Thomas Goodwin was cut from the same cloth, despite growing differences between episcopal, presbyterian, and independent views of church government (respectively).

The Westminster Confession and Catechisms were drafted by “Puritans.”  From these documents one cannot detect any internal conflict between a high view of the church’s ministry (Word, sacrament, and discipline) and a clear delineation of the need for personal conversion and piety.  It was not a “church-within-a-church”—the truly regenerated remnant within the institutional church—that these divines encouraged, but a visible church truly reformed according to God’s Word.  Anyone looking for a clear line between confessional orthodoxy and concern for personal piety will not find much support in these writers.  The body of their work, from Perkins to John Owen, exhibits a fuller range of interest than “pietism versus confessionalism” might suggest.

Not all pastors and theologians of the official churches in The Netherlands, England, Scotland, Switzerland, and elsewhere were advocates of the “further reformation.”  Some staunch Reformed leaders in the Church of England, for example, were nevertheless opposed to the reforms in church government and piety that Puritans encouraged.  Nevertheless, the lines between “pietists” and “confessionalists” are not as thick as contemporary debates often suggest.

Revival, Anyone?
“Pietists” and “confessionalists” are in danger today of making one’s stance toward “revival” a litmus test of fellowship.  This is hardly new, of course.  Many Reformed Christians have been opposed to the idea of revival as subverting the ordinary means of grace, encouraging Christians to look for spiritual vitality in surprising and extraordinary works of the Spirit.  Isn’t this like trying to pull Christ down from heaven or descend into the depths to bring him up from the dead, when he is actually as near as the preached Word, as Paul instructed in Romans 10?  It certainly can be, and has been.  Our generation is especially given to enthusiastic hyperbole.  It’s not enough that God’s covenant mercies be experienced through Christian nurture in the home and church, gradually over a lifetime.  Authentic conversion and piety require adjectives like “radical,” “glorious,” “overpowering,” and so forth.  This longing for spontaneous, unmediated, and visible experiences of grace often creates impatience and ingratitude for God’s normal way of working.  Some Calvinists have fallen into spiritual depression waiting for the revival that never came.

We desperately need to recover the emphasis evident in a host of New Testament passages that celebrate the gradual, ordered, organic work of the Spirit through ordinary means.  At the same time, the  promise is not only “for you and your children,” but also “for those who are far off.”  Regardless of whether one is pro- or anti-revival, it’s one thing to imagine that one can manipulate God into sending revival by “new measures” and “excitements” and quite another to pray and hope for seasons of greater blessing.  Writers like Iain Murray who speak of revival as the Spirit’s extraordinary blessing on his ordinary means of grace stand in a long line of “experimental Calvinism.”  If revivalism is antithetical to “the system of the Catechism” (and I agree that it is), it is nevertheless true also that confessional Protestants have often prayed for special periods of awakening and revival.  Pro-revival Calvinists include the Puritans and the great Princetonians (Alexander, Hodge, and Warfield), not just Edwards and Whitefield. So the debate over the meaning and legitimacy of “revival” is in-house.  There is no historical justification for pro-revival or anti-revival Calvinists to write each other out of this heritage.

So what does all of this mean for the current discussion?  Several things could be mentioned:

  1. Regardless of the historical accuracy of our definitions, what we call “pietism” today is different from the piety exhibited in the Reformed and Presbyterian heritage.  To the extent that “pietism” conjures the picture of a personal relationship with Christ and an immediate work of the Spirit over against the public means of grace and ministry of the church, it is inimical to Reformed piety.
  2. At least in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, “confessionalism” is just as unhelpful a description.  I know what it means to be confessional: it’s to affirm that Scripture so clearly reveals “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” that churches can recognize and affirm this faith together across all times and places.  But what exactly is a “confessionalist”?  Typically, this is a swear-word hurled at those who are simply confessional.  However, sometimes it is worn proudly as a label by anti-pietists. If “pietism” sets the inward work of the Spirit over against the external means of grace, “confessionalism”—in some versions, at least—simply reverses the antithesis.  This is a dangerous opposition that is foreign to the Reformed confession.  And that leads to the third point.
  3. For some—on both sides of the debate, “confessionalism” is in danger of becoming identified with extreme views that are opposed to the actual teaching of our confessions.  The Belgic Confession treats the marks of the true Christian (faith in Christ, following after righteousness, love of God and neighbor, mortification of the flesh) in the same article as the marks of the true church (Art 29).  Although assurance of God’s favor is founded solely on his promise of justification in Christ, “we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 86).  Personal faith, repentance, and growth in godliness are enjoined in the Westminster Confession (chapters 13-16).  There is no hint of the public and corporate means of grace being opposed to one’s personal relationship to Christ.  It would be ironic—and tragic—if “confessionalism” became identified with positions that are actually inimical to the confessions themselves.  Jonathan Edwards and John Williamson Nevin have become flag-bearers for Calvinistic “pietism” and “confessionalism,” respectively.  However, in my view, both are somewhat idiosyncratic representatives of the Reformed tradition.  To move beyond polarization, we need to include more mainstream voices through the ages.

As I suggested at the beginning, debates like this one point up the benefits and dangers of movements.  “Iron sharpens iron,” and it’s helpful to move out of our parochial rooms from time to time and mingle in the hallway.  It’s easy for healthy emphases to sink into unhealthy fetishes; we need the occasional diversion.  Movements, with their conferences, blogs, books, and sound-bites can provide occasions for these “hallway” conversations. Yet they are not churches, where we are bathed, clothed, fed, taught, and raised.

Let’s stop expecting too much of the hallway and let it be what it is: a place for mingling conversation.  Movements have no authority to marginalize or excommunicate, but they can provide opportunities for mutual admonition and edification.  As for me and my house, our church’s confession will continue to articulate my own understanding of the Bible’s faith and piety.  And a movement—whether “pietist” or “confessionalist” is no substitute for that.

WHI-1045 | Stricken, Smitten & Afflicted

Continuing their series through the book of Acts, the hosts arrive at chapter 8 where they find Philip talking with an Ethiopian about the meaning of Isaiah 53, which says in part, “All we like sheep have gone astray, each of us to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Like Philip, the hosts take this opportunity to walk through the text of the original prophecy, showing how the Servant Songs of Isaiah are ultimately fulfilled in the gospel of Jesus Christ. White Horse Inn: know what you believe and why you believe it.

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How is He changing me?

One of the more embarrassing campfire ditties I sang way back when went a little like this:

He’s changing me, my precious Jesus
I’m not the same person that I used to be
Sometimes it’s slow-going, but there’s a knowing
That one day perfect I will be!

When it comes to our progress in the Christian life, I think this chorus reflects an overly optimistic view that we all have (even if we wouldn’t dare admit to singing that particular song): the Christian life is always upward, victory upon victory, making small but regular advances toward the perfection that will be ours in our glorification. But is that the way our Christian life actually looks? Is that the right way to define progress?

These questions become especially pressing whenever we turn inward to consider the work that Jesus is doing in our lives. If you’re anything like me, you wonder how much Jesus is really doing when you can see next to nothing that is commendable in your life. And after a few times of venturing into the dark chasm of my inner-man, I stop making the journey because I know that it will become a never-ending and despair-inducing search for what does not exist. But of course the problem here is that I have misunderstood what it is that is commendable to God.

The work that God does in me does not commend me to him–that is, it isn’t the basis of my standing before him; only Jesus and his perfect righteousness can put me on a sure foundation before God. Instead, the work that God is doing in me bears witness to the act of God already accomplished, to the verdict of “not guilty” already announced over me intruding into this life from the Day of Judgment.

When I understand God’s work in that way, I don’t just look inwardly for evidence of my obedience; I also look for evidence of my repentance. Any good thing that I do is a fruit of the Spirit’s sanctifying work in me and is rightly counted a progress in the Christian faith. So too, any recognition of sin and failure, any longing for the fullness of eternal life, any feeling of the ache that recognizes in me a life not yet in line with the promise is also a fruit of the Spirit’s sanctifying work and should be rightly counted as progress in the Christian faith.

When we consider that God is changing us, not just by making us do better things but recognize and repent of our sin, our view of progress changes. Our good friend, Tullian Tchividjian, wrote up a great blog post on this very subject. As you prepare to worship God this Sunday, we commend it to you:

[R]eal change happens only as we continuously rediscover the gospel. The progress of the Christian life is “not our movement toward the goal; it’s the movement of the goal on us.” Sanctification involves God’s attack on our unbelief—our self-centered refusal to believe that God’s approval of us in Christ is full and final. It happens as we daily receive and rest in our unconditional justification. As G. C. Berkouwer said, “The heart of sanctification is the life which feeds on justification.”

Read the rest.

Mike Horton on Rob Bell with Tony Jones

On Sunday afternoon, Mike Horton was a special guest on the Doug Pagitt Radio program in Minneapolis on AM950. The show’s guest host that day was Tony Jones, who works with Doug at Solomon’s Porch, an emergent church. Mike had referenced a book by Tony in a March WHI blog post on the internet and the church. That sparked a few blog comments and offline conversation between Mike and Tony, culminating in Tony’s invitation to Mike to participate in the show.

It was a great dialogue and it models how those who disagree can speak honestly about their disagreements without being flippant or dismissive. If you haven’t yet tired of the whole Rob Bell/Love Wins/hell and universalism dialogue, you should spend some time listening to the show from Sunday. In fact, even if you are tired of it all, you should listen to the show to get a better understanding of what we mean when we say that theological conversation is at the heart of what we do here at White Horse Inn. After all, if we only talk with those with whom we agree, the conversation will grow dull and we will be ingrown and inattentive to what people are saying outside our circles. But by honestly engaging those outside our circles, we are able to better articulate what we believe and why it matters.

We’re grateful to Tony Jones and the Doug Pagitt Radio show for the opportunity to join an important conversation. You can read Tony’s thoughts on the conversation here.

WHI-1044 | Words of Life

In Acts chapter 5 we read that the apostles were arrested and imprisoned for speaking about Jesus, and that an angel set them free and spoke to them about their mission. So what was it that the angel said? Did he mention anything about working for social justice? Was there anything about “being the gospel.” No, the angel simply told the apostles to go and “speak to the people all the words of this life.” And so they went back to teaching and preaching. On this edition of White Horse Inn, the hosts continue their series through the book of Acts as they unpack the implications of the Great Commission.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

The Gospel Commission
Michael Horton
The Message of Acts
John Stott
Why Johnny Can’t Preach
T. David Gordon

PROGRAM AUDIO

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MUSIC SELECTION

Dave Hlebo

WHI-1043 | Faith in Christ Alone

What was the basic message of the world’s earliest Christian missionaries? Did they focus on psychological or emotional wellness, having your best life now, or moral or political agendas? Is the essence of Christianity living life Jesus’ way? On this program the hosts continue to unpack the radical message of the Great Commission as it’s unpacked throughout the book of Acts. Focusing on chapters 3 and 4, they discuss the early emphasis on Christ’s death and resurrection, and the fact that there is “no other name under heaven…by which we must be saved.”

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

The Gospel Commission
Michael Horton
Christ Alone
Rod Rosenbladt
Let’s Study Acts
Dennis Johnson

PROGRAM AUDIO

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

MUSIC SELECTION

Doug Powell

Horton on Biblical Theology

The good folks over at The Resurgence asked Mike Horton to write up a short piece on biblical theology. Here’s his conclusion:

Biblical theology is essential if we’re going to feel the Bible’s own pulse and follow its unfolding plot. Without it, systematic theology can easily succumb to a deductivist scheme. Going back to the street-map analogy, it’s easy to deduce where roads must go because of the map even if they don’t! Yet it can never be used as a rival of systematic theology. Christ was not only crucified and raised; he was “crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification.” Doctrine arises from the drama, indicating the significance of God’s acts in creation, redemption, and consummation.

Read the whole thing.

Live at The Gospel Coalition

Our friends at The Gospel Coalition have invited us to record a live taping of the White Horse Inn in the Skyline Ballroom at the McCormick Place in Chicago on Tuesday, April 12th at 5:30 p.m. All four hosts will be in Chicago to discuss the important relationship between the Great Commission and the Great Commandment:

The Great Commission (making disciples through the gospel) and the Great Commandment (serving our neighbors through loving works) can neither be separated or confused. What is the relationship between the church’s divine mission and the Christian’s high calling? What is the relationship between our worship and our vocations? The hosts of the White Horse Inn want to equip Christians to know what they believe and why they believe it!

If you were at the Desiring God conference last September, you got to see first hand how much fun a live recording is. We’re very grateful to the folks at The Gospel Coalition for this opportunity. We have one or two other live tapings planned at other national conferences this year and next. We’ll post more information on that as plans are finalized.

We’ll be recording during the dinner break, but you’ll have time to grab something to eat before or after the recording.

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