Friday, May 22, 2015

Ad Carl

There’s not much more to be said about this, I fancy. Carl thinks that I do not understand the Presbyterian system. Maybe not. There are books of Church Order to be read, the contents of which are mastered by the lawyer-types of the church, and I confess that I do not find these a very satisfying genre. But besides this, I know without looking, that presbyterianism, like any such human system, leaks all the way. It leaks through nods and winks, through unattributable comments, through what is said and what is not said. Human society cannot be otherwise. We all know of poor people who have to protest their innocence all the way up, in courts of law and in Christian denominations, and that have been ruined by the attendant exposure, quite apart from the weeks and months of strain while documents are prepared and friendly counsel advised and the day of judgement awaited…. I say, in such circumstances thank God for religious consumerism. At least the aggrieved party can walk away, find another place of worship, and still earn a living.

I fancy that Carl goes on about this because he suffers from a sort of presbyterian perfectionism. Call it Bannerman’s Disease. A cynic might say that he has the zeal of a convert. When he bids us all to think with him of the church of Christ as a remnant, as living its life as if in exile, I’m with him all the way. And as I said in the post, I agree with critiques of the Big Men such as his. But not with the cure-all of Presbyterianism. The Black Book does not solve the bugbear of accountability. And the point is, if there’s nothing better in the Church of Christ that presbyterianism, let’s at least acknowledge its flaws. Carl recognizes the imperfections of the human natures of those that thumb the Black Book, and this is welcome. And this was my point. A perfect system administered by those with imperfections is de facto imperfect. Spurgeon famously said (from memory) ‘For me “lead me not into temptation” means “keep me off the committee”’.

Carl’s second and third points seem to merge together. His notes that the Mighty Men are implacable. They won’t have anything to do with him. He can’t get through to them. They cannot discern that they have become objects of adulation. They refuse to catch his ball and tell him so (all of which is sad). And as it takes at least two to have a debate the result is stalemate and not as Carl had hoped, checkmate.  No doubt the Mighty Men have feet of clay. No doubt they behave as we wouldn’t behave in their circumstances. From where I am they seem a rather disparate crew, men of different times-in-life, families, temperaments, careers, degrees of intelligence, sagacity, theological savvy, and no doubt personal religion. Yet some of them have been a distinct help to people I know, and to me. I presume (maybe rashly) that they have thought about things as they send emails to Carl. They have made judgments about their churches as ‘normative aspirational models’ and the rest.  And about the usefulness of otherwise of engaging in a public debate about themselves, and what others think of them. And overall they have judged (or are judging) that the benefits of staying as they are outweigh the costs of a flight to presbyterian order. And I say, if Paul rejoiced when Christ was spoken of in jest, in argument, and with contempt (though this was not exactly an ideal state of affairs), then we ought to be able to rejoice in the Mighty Men’s opportunity to communicate the gospel to hundreds and thousands.

So, I say, don’t forget Paul. Here's a bit more of him. (No doubt I’ll be told by some that I’m taking Paul out of context, or even, heaven forfend, of ‘proof-texting’):

‘Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God’; and ‘Who are you pass judgement on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand’; and ‘Only that, in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.’; and finally, ‘For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.  To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law….I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings’.

Relevant? Worth keeping in mind?

In human affairs, when we cannot get our own way, even if we are convinced that that way is God’s way, I suggest that the better course is not to keep banging on about it, but to turn one’s energies and talents in another direction.  Carl's postcard from Palookaville rather confirms me in this view.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Ever so 'umble

It’s hard to dissent from people - a growing number, so it seems - who write critically about evangelical Mega-stardom, para-church  organisations, and their various frailties. (Those of us who are more aged remember similar critiques of the Bill Graham Organisation in the 1950's and 60's.) Not much neo-Marxist social analysis is needed to follow the money, and to spot how the Top Men expect to be treated, and are treated. But there are difficulties and loose ends in the case that the critics make, and sometimes they adopt an unfortunate posture without realizing it. By now there is a repetitiveness  – I was going to say ‘shrillness’ - that invariably afflicts a ‘debate’, when in fact no debate takes place, because the critics fail to engage the other party. There may even be the danger of motes and beams. Here I note two or three such loose ends.
There are charges against the prominence of unaccountable church leaders, the Mighty Men of the Mega-churches, their self-importance, their egotism, the proneness to plagiarism in their writings, or if not plagiarism then a taste for the I-word which may leave the critics themselves in an exposed position. The ego is pops up in the most unexpected places. Who can know it?

Staring up from the bottom of the mug at  those who level such charges is Juvenal’s usually unanswered question, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guards?  The critics may have an answer to the tu quoque: we are guarded by the churches in which they serve, and these churches are fitted out with structures,  procedures. Implying that the Masters of the Mega-structures have no guards. Which seems not to be strictly true. For often ‘the disciplines of the market’ and the dangers of bad publicity have a restraining if not a cleansing effect. The restraint may often be of the common variety. And of course a Master-of-Mega has his Christian conscience.

What are the proffered structures that the Masters lack? Chiefly, it appears, they are ecclesiastical. There’s congregationalism, and then there’s presbyterianism. What do these ecclesiastical structures have to offer? We know how precipitate, how impatient, and at the other extreme, how supine congregational government can be, when in accountability mode. This applies even where congregationalists have borrowed from presbyterianism the idea of eldership, which has all the advantages of government by a politburo.

And presbyterianism? To say that presbyterians are ‘fond’ of structures is an exaggeration, I suppose. Yet  procedures can be protracted, as the disciplinary ‘case’ moves ever upwards from the local congregation to the presbytery to the appeal to a general assembly. The custodians are slow in getting their custodial arrangements going. This long-windedness has the effect of transmuting justice delayed into justice denied. For if X is charged with O, then that person immediately comes to be under congregational suspicion regarding O. The glances, the whispers. No smoke without fire. The presumption of innocence until proven guilty becomes, somewhere down the procedural line, the presumption of guilt until innocence is declared. Even the success of a final appeal which delivers a legal innocence may never completely rid the person concerned of the lingering suspicion of guilt. The person’s standing in his congregation is thereafter ruined or severely compromised. Confidentiality? You must be joking! The guards are only human. Perhaps it’s the prospect of such ostracism that led our Saviour to command:

First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly  with your accuser while you are  going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over the judge, and the judge to the guard and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you paid the last penny.

But maybe I’m misapplying the text. Maybe it’s the other way round. The Mega Masters should start the reconciling to their brethren. But things haven’t come to that pass yet, and my hunch is that they are not likely to. For as we noted,  this whole business is a ‘debate’ without debaters,  one hand clapping.

There’s the perennial danger of the pot calling the kettle black.  Or of facing the sharpness of Paul: while you preach against stealing, do you steal?

We see that in order to make a plausible case, the critics of the Mega-church mindset believe and  say that they are not tarred with that mindset themselves. What sort of people are they, the critics? Ordinary pastors, with modest-sized congregations, teaching the word of God faithfully. Their message about Mega-structures arises in the course of an expository preaching ministry, at those points when the word of God is being applied to our present cultural circumstances, and never otherwise. The sermons, though they are full of relevant applications, never once mention the preacher, nor his wife and children, nor his home-life, nor which team he supports. The preacher’s tie is always neatly tied. No designer stubble. He knows all his listeners by name and they are regularly visited by the eldership. Ever so ‘umble.

A period of silence may be called for, indicative of the commitment that we are all making to personal restraint, as well as to a certain fatalism

There’s a last thing. We may not know much about the private life of, say Thomas Goodwin, a good thing, but we do know quite a bit about the private life of Paul, of Augustine and Bunyan, and Spurgeon, among others who regularly wrote quite a bit about themselves. Is that a bad thing? And was the Metropolitan Tabernacle not a Mega Church? Westminster Chapel in its hey-day? To whom were Spurgeon or Lloyd-Jones or – going back even further – George Whitfield - accountable?  Maybe  there's a niche in the market for the preparation of a  Michelin Guide to Mega church-dom? A vacation guide on which crowds it is OK to spend Sundays with, and which not?

Or a guide to reading? Examples of wholesome autobiography and worthless or dangerous-to-read specimens?  And instead of dismissing Mega-churches, to offer a distinction between large congregations which are pukka and those which are – shall we say? - sliding. Lloyd-Jones always wore a tie, and a stiff, starched collar, and silk socks. And was evidently something of a control freak. Spurgeon had a full beard, smoked tobacco, and lived like a prince. Were they ‘accountable’? (I can hardly believe I am asking this, but then I did not start this particular ball rolling.)

Friday, May 01, 2015

Baptists and the early church

Benjamin Keach, one of the signatories to the 1689 Baptist Confession

What do the words ‘Baptists’ and ‘early church’ suggest to you when are mentioned side by side? – ‘NT baptism’, or ‘baptisteries’, or ‘archaeology’,  or ‘Spanish churches’, or ‘fonts, sizes of’, or ‘paedobaptism, growth of’, or something similar? In other words, the words suggest the discussion of the idea of the waning of normative credo-baptism in the early Christian era, or its continuation in those years longer than is usually allowed for, even perhaps until the Constantinian Settlement.

Thus there has been discussion of the baptistery in Stobi, in former Yugoslavia.  Set centrally into the floor of a church there is a big circular font (piscina) 2m. in diameter  and 1.3m. deep. Its use would be expected to cause more of a splash than the daintier bird-bath fonts that are more regular. And naturally, among Baptists, it leads to the thought, May the size of this (and other?) baptisteries be evidence of the practice of the immersion of believers? In other words, the ’Baptists’ and ‘early church’ bring together historical and archaeological arguments, including those derived from church architecture, for the normativeness of credo-baptism  in churches of this period.

‘Without body , parts and passions’

However, on this occasion we are not going to dip our toes into the by-waters of the history of credo-baptism. Instead I am going to put my toe into the relation between Baptists, Particular Baptists in this case, and the early Christian church in respect of the doctrine of God. More precisely, the affirmation that God is ‘without body, parts and passions’, a phrase borrowed from the Westminster Confession of Faith on which the Baptist Confession of 1689 largely modelled. Or perhaps more accurately, is modelled from the Savoy Confession of 1658. This phrase was in turn borrowed  from the  Irish Articles of 1615, which in turn was taken from the XXXIX Articles of the Church of England (Article I) (1571), which borrowed from the Forty Two Articles of 1553. The language is Cranmer’s, then.

What is the significance of these facts? First, note the rather brave and gracious way these Baptists proceeded. In the times when Baptists were persecuted in England (Bunyan put in Bedford jail for preaching Christ, and so forth), they nonetheless appropriated for their own confessions the language of the magistrates and bishops of the persecuting Church of England. (And the same would have been true, I reckon, had the Parliament of the 1640’s had had its way, and its anti-blasphemy legislation but into practice, they had been on the receiving end of Westminster Confession-style persecution. But Cromwell intervened.

I dare say that if we studied the confessional history of the Protestant Church of England we would find many other such ‘borrowings’. Why was this? 

Was it because these lower-class, uneducated non-conformists could not think for themselves? No, obviously not. Many of their ministers had been educated. And they were persecuted and discriminated against precisely because they thought for themselves on the sacraments, church order and toleration.  This is shown by the fact that an earlier Baptist Confession, of 1644, (sometimes called the First London Confession of Faith) confesses the same God though in different wording, “That God… a Spirit who, as his being is of himself, so he gives being, moving and preservation  to all other things, being in himself eternall, most holy, every way infinite in greatnesse, wisdom, power justice…’ Though it has to be said that the words of the 1689 Confession are an appreciable  improvement on this.

 So why this confessional continuity?

Before we attempt to answer this question, let us consider the phrase itself. It is saying what God is not, especially by denying to him properties that are essentially creaturely. We have bodies, parts and passions, and God is not like ourselves. This is what the Second Commandment asserts; nothing creaturely is fit to 'image' God, to help focus attention on him in worship.  That ways lies idolatry. As the seventeenth-century Reformed divines routinely state, numbering among them (and making this inclusion at some personal risk, it might be said) the Reformed or Particular Baptists, God cannot be comprehended but he is apprehended, and the way in which he is apprehended is through his Word, including the various figurative ways in which he accommodates himself to us. (Interesting that; we are not to make God’s creation represent him, but his figurative words about himself in Scripture we can use, as well of course as the non-figurative expressions.)

This language of God as being 'without body, parts and passions' takes us back beyond the Reformed theology of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to that of the medieval and patristic periods. They share this outlook on the doctrine of God as much as did, say, Calvin and the later Reformed Orthodox.  And so by their endorsement of it these Particular Baptists show that they are positively related to the catholic ‘spine’ of the church. They avowed and were not embarrassed by these sentiments occurring in historic Baptist confessions.

This is not true of all Baptists. Many Baptists situate themselves in the wider evangelical ethos, for whom God is much more ‘dynamic’ and ‘dramatic’.  If as Baptists they are at all aware of the historic Confessions of the Particular Baptists, they are rather dismissive of this language. For them it is a good example of the way in which biblical language about God was corrupted by a cold and purely cerebral language derived not from Scripture but from Greek philosophy. If such people value the earl Baptist Confessions at all it is because of their Augustinian soteriology, not because of this rather ‘remote’ and ‘static’ language regarding God, that he is without body, parts and passions. They might even say, how can such an aloof God, so much unlike ourselves who have been created in the image of God, be regarded as a loving and  caring God?

So the Particular Baptists who are endorsing the thought of the historic Christian theology as mediated through the English confessional tradition, are swimming against that Baptist tide, being carried along by a theological current that is going in the opposite direction. Thinking ecclesiologically for a moment, we might say that that tide is antisectarian. Political and social circumstances have often meant that Baptists have been regarded as a sect. But Baptists, or some Baptists, regard themselves as very much in the line of  catholic theology, of the early creeds and councils of the church.

Recently Samuel Renihan has gathered together statements of many Reformed theologians (and some others) into a Reader. It is a considerable achievement,  historically arranged showing how the idea of an impassible God was thought about and discussed by adherents to it, from roughly the period 1500-1700. It includes some particular Baptists, and extracts from confessional documents. (God without Passions: A Reader ed. Samuel. With a Foreword by Carl Trueman. (Palmdale Ca. Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2015))

There is one thing to notice about how these men thought. Divine impassibility was not an isolated quirk. They show that it is possible to be committed to impassibility and for the remainder of the understanding of God to be unaffected.

The package deal

So consider the following typical extracts, taken from the Renihan Reader

Wolfgang Musculus

First therefore of the essence of God it is most truly said, that is one alone setting before us one God:  now let jus look what else may be conveniently said thereof. Surely there is many other things, but fir this present we think good to rehearse but a few, as, that it is not made of any other thing but simple and pure. With simplicity it agreeth that he is a spirit: with the pureness, he is called a light in which there is no darkness. It is also without body with simplicity, occupying no place, incomprehensible, immutable, indivisible, impassible, incorruptible, immortal, unspeakable perfect & everlasting: which all appertaineth to the consideration of the quality of God’s being.

William Ames

The will of God is single and onely one in God.
The will of God is unchangeable:  because he always willeth the same, and in the same manner Psal. 33.1. The counsel of the Lord remaineth forever.
The will of God is eteranall; because hee doth not begin to will before he would not, nor ceaseth to will that which before hee willed. Mala. 3.6. I Jehova change not.
The will of God may be said to be infinite: because it hath no outward limitation.
The affections which are given to God in Scripture, as love, hatred, and the like, doe either set forth acts of the wil, or doe agree to God figuratively.

Thomas Cartwright

Q. What is Simplenesse or Singlenesse in God?
A.  It is an Attribute of God, whereby is noted, that euery thing that is in God, is God himself.And therefore he is vncompounded, without parts, inuisible, impassible, all essence:whence it is , that hee is not onely called holy, but holinesse; not onely iust,  but iustice, &c.
Q. What learne you thereby?
A. That he is no sorte mutable, or changeable but in all things euer one and the same, without any alteration, or shadow of change.

Stephen Charnock

If God were not a Spirit, he were not immutable and unchangeable. His immutability  depends upon his simplicity. He is unchangeable in his essence, because he is a pure and unmixed spiritual Being.

Christopher Blackwood (Particular Baptist)

Properties of the perfection in God
1. It’s independent. The creatures may be perfect in their kinde, yet they depend on something else; as a River though it be a perfect River, yet it stands need either of the fountain or of the sea to maintain it. He stands not in need of Princes, of men and Angels. Though he use them as instruments, it is not because he cannot act and bring about his ends without them, for he that could make the heavens and earth by the word  of his mouth, Psal. 33.6. what cannot he do?

This post has gone on for long enough. Next time we shall look at patterns of thought that such a way of thinking about God exemplifies.