Sad to say, this passes as good theology for many American Christians.
Sad to say, this passes as good theology for many American Christians.
Back in the beginning of October, Dr. Horton responded to three questions concerning the Reformed doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. Those three posts have been edited and put into a single document for your enjoyment. So enjoy!
Horton Responds to Two Kingdoms Questions (130 kB PDF)
Recently on the WHI Blog Dr. Horton reviewed the book Justification by N.T. Wright in ten different postings. In order to make it easier to read this review in its entirety we have compiled all the posts and made them available as a PDF.
Horton reviews N.T. Wright’s Justification (350 kB PDF)
[We’re starting a four part series from Mike Horton on some of the misunderstandings that are prevalent within American evangelicalism about the “nature, marks, and mission of the church.”]
In The Courage to be Protestant, David Wells observes that parachurch ministries are increasingly replacing the church itself. The question is whether evangelicalism itself has become a threat to actual churches. Many Christians today believe that going to a Christian concert, evangelistic event, or conference is equivalent to the corporate gathering of the covenant community each Lord’s Day. As George Barna argues in The Revolutionaries (Tyndale, 2005), most Christians will soon (he hopes) receive their spiritual resources on-line and not even find it necessary to attend, much less join, a local church. Stunned by the revelation that many of those most involved were the most dissatisfied with their spiritual growth, Willow Creek Community Church’s self-study, published as Reveal, concluded that believers outgrow the church. Although the respondents actually said that they thought the weak diet was responsible for their poor spiritual health, the leadership concluded that they need to work harder to make people fend for themselves as “self-feeders” and be less dependent on the ministry of the church.
Across the board—from more traditional churches to megachurches and emerging churches, there seems to be a lot of confusion about the nature, marks, and mission of the church. This brief article can’t address all of the issues that I treated in People and Place. However, I’ll mention a few here. Before I do, I should say at the outset that I don’t believe that any of the points below (which I regard as misunderstandings) are new. They all have a long history in evangelicalism.
Misunderstanding #1: “All of life is sacred”
It was revolutionary for me to learn from Francis Schaeffer and others that God cares about the whole world and the whole person. All of life, not just religion, falls under the judgment and grace of the God who is both Creator and Redeemer. I learned that the Reformation recovered the New Testament emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. It’s not just a minister preparing a sermon, but an artist at her canvas, who reflects God’s goodness and fulfills a God-given calling. You don’t need to stamp John 3:16 on the painting to make it “Christian”; our worldly callings don’t need to be justified by their spiritual or evangelistic utility. Nevertheless, as new creatures in Christ, we see everything with new eyes. We don’t approach our work as a job, but as a calling, and we seek to think through the implications of Scripture for the whole range of our activities. I wasn’t alone. Many younger Christians were being freed from a narrow “pietism” that had created a “Christian ghetto,” with an alternative sub-culture (usually of inferior quality).
In all the excitement, however, we seem to have swung to the other extreme. Part of the rationale for affirming this world and our secular callings is that God is the Lord of the common as well as the holy. We don’t need to make things “sacred” in order to affirm them as noble, God-given, and God-glorifying. In spite of their intentions, even atheists glorify God’s common grace when they produce honorable goods and services, write beautiful screen-plays, and develop cures for diseases that plague us all.
In the Garden before the fall, everything was holy. Adam and Eve were given a sacred commission to extend God’s righteous reign through their daily work in cultivating the ground, driving out the serpent, and guarding and protecting the sanctuary. After the fall, the couple was given the surprising Good News of a future redeemer, but their work was now to be done “east of Eden.” The Garden was no longer holy. At Mount Sinai, God delivered the precise terms of Israel’s constitution that would reunite the holy and the common: not only a moral law that repeated the dictates of the law written on the conscience in creation, but civil and ceremonial laws for every detail of daily life. Then God brought Israel into his holy land. Yet when Israel broke this covenant, God evicted the people, as he had Adam and Eve. In their exile in Babylon, the children of Judah were to pray for the city of their captivity, to build houses and plant vineyards, and to participate in the common life of the Babylonians without compromising their faith and practice. And they were called to “be fruitful and multiply” in exile, providing a covenant community for the eventual arrival of the Messiah. Even when the Jews did return to Palestine, they knew that they were still in exile, ruled over by Gentile oppressors.
Just as Moses received the laws for the holy nation at Mount Sinai, Jesus issues his own commands in the Sermon on the Mount. It is not the era of driving the Gentiles out of a geo-political land by the sword, but of suffering patiently, praying for our enemies, and proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth. The kingdom of God is the announcement of the forgiveness of sins. With Christ’s cross, Satan’s head is crushed and with Christ’s resurrection Satan’s kingdom is toppled.
By his Word and Spirit, Christ is even at this moment raiding Satan’s prisons, liberating them as captives in his train. But once again, this spiritual kingdom is distinct from the kingdoms of this age. The former progresses through the forgiveness of sins through preaching and sacrament, while cultural activity is common. Christians work side by side with non-Christians, loving and serving their neighbors with goods and services that promote the common welfare. This work is not redemptive. It is not ushering in that consummation of Christ’s reign that we will see when Christ himself returns to raise the dead in judgment and salvation, making all things new.
In Ephesians 4, Paul tells us that Jesus Christ, in his ascension, is pouring out on his church all of the gifts that he has won for his people, specifically mentioning the gifts of pastors and teachers who complete the body by building it up by the Word into its head, Jesus Christ. The Great Commission that Jesus delivered to his church is not to go into all the world and make it safe for democracy, to redeem culture, or to discover cures for cancer. Rather, Jesus commissions the church as an institution to preach, baptize, and teach. Wherever instructions are given in the New Testament for the lives of believers in the world, they are pretty basic: living peaceably, working well with their hands, giving to those in need, and reflecting the fruit of the Spirit. No less than the work of a non-Christian, a believer’s discovery of a medicinal cure is the result of the Spirit’s work in common grace.
“Secular” simply means “of this age.” Jesus and Paul repeatedly spoke in terms of “this age” and “the age to come.” The former refers to the present regime, under the dominion of sin and death, while the age to come is defined by the re-creation of this world with the glorified Christ as its firstfruits.
So we don’t work with only two categories: sacred and evil. There’s a third one: common. In this respect, the believer’s sphere of activity overlaps with that of his or her non-Christian neighbors. They share common blessings and common woes. Yet the holy nation that Christ is creating by his Word and Spirit is a remnant from all cultures, across all times and places. It is holy, not common, because it is claimed by God as the cherished object of his saving grace. Through his gospel, signified and sealed to us and to our children in baptism, the covenant community is that holy commonwealth that began with the announcement to our first parents after they had sinned.
Enjoying God’s creation is common. In its commonness, it is a remarkable testimony to God’s goodness, power, and other invisible attributes, as Paul tells us in Romans 1 and 2. However, hearing God’s gospel is holy and hearing and receiving it makes us holy, as Paul says in Romans 3 (and chapter 10). A great concert may witness to God’s glory in human creativity, but God delivers his saving Word in the covenant assembly. God is omnipresent and his creative power is evident through everything that he has made. However, the question for sinners is where God has promised to be present in grace and mercy.
God still separates one holy day out of six common ones. God still separates specific activities: preaching of the Word, public prayer, confession and declaration of pardon, administration of baptism and the Supper, singing the Word of Christ, and the fellowship of saints, from the common activities of work, friendships, and entertainment. So all of life is indeed blessed and upheld by God’s common grace, but there remains a distinction between the common and the holy; common grace and saving grace; that which is honorable, God-glorifying, and helpful to our neighbors and that which is redemptive.
[next week, we’ll take up the relationship between salvation and participation in the visible church]
Have you ever heard of the doctrine of justification? What’s the best way to summarize the Christian gospel? On this edition of the program the hosts interact with answers to questions like these as they walk through the results of a White Horse Inn survey of approximately 100 Christians.
Covenant Presbyterian Church in uber-hip Los Angeles has started a pet-centric worship service. The linked article says this is something of a mini-trend, crossing denominational boundaries and showing up as “pet blessing” services or “Woof and Worship” services.
It’s easy to write this off as just another bad idea that emanates from a failing evangelicalism, but I wonder if we should pay closer attention to the crying need for community that is expressed by some of the “worshippers” at the Covenant service. They have traded in family connections for pet connections. As important as those are, they cannot be life-sustaining, no matter what sort of piety we dress them with.
If the pastor and church in question recognized this, the possibilities for true outreach would be significant. Instead, doggie treats are served and the congregation sings a hymn titled, “GoD and DoG.” Sigh.
In the 1960s, it was virtually inconceivable that a Roman Catholic candidate could win a presidential election and conservative Protestants were at the forefront of the opposition to John F. Kennedy’s campaign. However, in only two decades, everything changed. With the rise of the Moral Majority and concern over a loss of cultural values, particularly the concern to protect the unborn, Roman Catholics and evangelicals found themselves working together, speaking together, and praying together.
Moving beyond political cooperation toward deeper theological and spiritual understanding, a new initiative was born when Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, and evangelical leader Charles Colson gathered a group of friends to discuss their differences and agreements. In 1994, the first statement was issued from the group: “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” Arousing debate within evangelical circles over issues that many of us considered (and still consider) essential to the gospel that were nevertheless left murky or marginalized, this document was followed by “The Gift of Salvation” in 1997. As the group summarizes in the current document, a third statement, “Your Word is Truth” (2002), “affirmed a convergence in our understanding of the transmission of God’s saving Word through Holy Scripture and tradition, which is the lived experience of the community of faith under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” This was followed by “The Communion of Saints” (2003), “The Call to Holiness“ (2004), and “That They May Have Life” (2006). This year’s installment, recently released, is “Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life.”
The authors of the recent document are to be commended for having managed to distill a complex history of differing interpretations in a brief space. The format contributes to its clarity: framing the issues and allowing both traditions to speak charitably yet frankly of their differences. The Roman Catholic partners in the dialogue begin by affirming the centrality and uniqueness of Christ, arguing that Mary, along with all saints in heaven, “cooperates” in Christ’s intercession rather than completing or contributing to it. Although there is much here that challenges popular Protestant caricatures (often drawn from popular Roman Catholic practice), attempts are not made to explain some of the problematic language in dogmatic encyclicals and the First Vatican Council. We must wait for the evangelical response before there are references to Mary as “co-mediatrix” and “co-redemptrix” (terms, of course, that the evangelical partners rejected). Nevertheless, the point of the statement was to find common ground and further discussion.
The Roman Catholic partners continue by defending the traditional Marian dogmas: her immaculate conception (officially promulgated in 1854 by Pius IX), which is said to have preserved her from the stain of original sin; her assumption, body and soul, into heaven before death (promulgated in 1950), her perpetual virginity (i.e., celibacy even after the birth of Jesus), and the propriety of offering prayers to and through her. They do point out that the immaculate conception was debated in the Middle Ages (rejected by Thomas Aquinas, for example), but affirm it as binding dogma. Upon her assumption, Mary became the “Queen of Heaven,” “the Ark of the Covenant,” and “Mother of the Church,” although the authors insist that in these roles Mary directs us to her Son. “In drawing closer to Mary, we are drawn closer to Christ….Any mediation attributed to Mary is only part of the mediation of Christ, the ‘one mediator between God and men’ (1 Tim 2:5).” When “the prayers” are mentioned as part of the ordinary worship of the early church in Acts 2:42, the authors interpret this as encompassing the communion of saints in heaven and on earth: “As we ask for the prayers of the Church on earth, so also we ask for the prayers of the Church in heaven.”
To anyone aware of the developments at the Second Vatican Council and since, these reflections will not be surprising. Although they omit important statements that might stand in some tension with their qualifications of official Marian devotion, they provide a helpful summary.
The evangelical participants are also to be commended for their clarity and conviction. The recognize the special honor in which Mary was held by the Protestant Reformers, who were happy to refer to her (as some of our confessions do) as “the Blessed Virgin Mary” and other titles. In fact, even Zwingli, Bullinger, and other Reformers still referred to her as “immaculate” and “ever-virgin,” so they at least did not regard these beliefs as church-dividing—although we should be glad that their successors rejected these views. The evangelical representatives recognize that the churches of the Reformation have always affirmed with the Council of Ephesus that Mary is Theotokos, “God-bearer.” Reformed Christians do not share the reticence of most evangelicals in calling Mary the “Mother of God,” since, as the evangelical authors point out, this was a Christological debate meant to affirm the divinity of Christ rather than to raise the status of Mary. The evangelical partners also offer respectful challenges (supported by exegesis) to Mary’s immaculate conception and perpetual virginity, pointing out the unlikelihood of “brothers and sisters” of Jesus (Matthew 13:55-56) being cousins, as Rome contends. They also challenge the bodily assumption of Mary and defend the exclusivity of Christ’s mediatorial work.
Of course, in consensus documents something more could always be said. Rome’s claim that Mary is “Mother of the Church” is nowhere supported in the New Testament (or by Old Testament prophecy). In fact, given the unity of the covenant of grace, it may be more easily said that Sarah is the mother of the church. Or, since the church was already born with the announcement of the gospel in Genesis 3:15, Abel’s sacrifice, and Seth’s calling on the name of the Lord, perhaps Eve is the mother of the church. However, all of this is speculation.
Ask many Protestants today why they are not Roman Catholic and they may refer to “something about Mary and the saints.” However, for the Reformers, the heart of the problem was the sufficiency of Scripture and especially the sufficiency of Christ the Mediator for sinners. Are we justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, or by grace and our merits, faith and our works, Christ and the intercession of Mary and the saints.
The mediation of Mary and the saints belongs to a whole system that includes purgatory as the place where departed souls may be relieved in their suffering by our prayers. The Roman Catholic partners, in fact, mentioned this point, citing Lumen Gentium 49. The sufficiency of Christ’s merits remains the most church-dividing issue between us and wherever there has been convergence, it has been the Protestant partner rather than Rome that has moved. I am glad that the evangelical representatives added in this document their concern to guard the Reformation’s emphasis on “the normative authority of Holy Scripture and justification by faith alone,” especially since both are compromised in the two earliest documents. In my view, genuinely evangelical convictions were more faithfully articulated and defended with respect to Mary than with regard to these other issues that are more central to the faith and to our unresolved differences with Rome.
I applaud the evangelical participants for offering renewed reflection on the mother of our Lord. She ought to be honored as the chief of saints for her unique role in redemptive history. Nevertheless, as Calvin argued so long ago in making this same point, the greatest significance of her example for us is that she, though a sinner, was the recipient of God’s free grace and blessing in the Son whom she bore for the salvation of us all. Let us, with her, embrace that Good News so that we, with her, may be blessed forever.
The old bumper sticker declared, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
Here’s a t-shirt for the less certain among us (ht Inhabitatio Dei)
How can we believe in God when there is so much evil and suffering in the world? Isn’t it arrogant to insist that Christianity is the only true religion? These questions and more will be addressed on this edition of the White Horse Inn as Tim Keller joins the panel to discuss his New York Times bestselling book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.
Our good friend, Gene Edward Veith over at his blog Cranach, asks the question, “If the Church were to go through another Reformation today, what do you think needs reforming? What are the issues today?”
Take a look at some of the answers. Then, contribute your own, here (comments are now open) or over at Cranach.