30 July 2004


As some of you may know, on Monday I leave for Tokyo, Japan for two weeks in order to give some lectures, meet with some missionaries, visit friends, and see the sights.

On Saturday August 7, I'll be giving a couple of lectures on Open Theism sponsored by the Covenant Worldview Institute in Tokyo. This will be a fairly formal lecture, with Japanese translation, and a question and answer period. I'll be covering much of the same material on August 12, though more informally with a group of folks involved in founding the Nagoya Theological Seminary, a mission work associated with the PCA.

The following is an abstract of my lectures:

In my first lecture I outline open theism’s challenge against classical Christian theism. Classical theism has maintained that God is essentially immutable, impassible, and self-sufficient, as well as omniscient with regard to the future free actions of creatures. Open theists have challenged such a conception as presenting a God who is static and inert, aloof and detached, unable to feel compassion, to respond to creatures, and to be the loving God of Christian theism.

Thus, open theists have presented a revised notion of who God is, arguing that the God of open theism is theologically and philosophically more credible than that of classical theism. The God of open theism is a God who is responsive to creatures and open to their influence, so that creaturely freedom sets limits upon God, rendering God dependent upon the world in various respects. For instance, for the open theists, God must learn the future as it comes to pass. The bulk of the first lecture is taken up with outlining the argument of the open theists, commending its strengths, and seeking what might be positively learned from it.

In my second lecture I respond to the challenge of open theism from the standpoint of classical theism, arguing that the traditional Christian doctrine of Trinity provides the resources for a philosophically sophisticated and theologically satisfying response. While classical Trinitarian theism has maintained the doctrines of divine immutability, impassibility, and so on, it has done so in terms of a God who is conceived in as an eternal event—“pure act”—explained in terms of the eternal processions among the divine Persons.

As such, while maintaining the contours of classical theism, it is possible to argue that God is not only dynamic and passionate, but also eternally includes a certain kind of analogical vulnerability, self-emptying, and even “suffering” within the divine life. Thus classical theism, unfolded in Trinitarian terms, is able to embrace the sound and legitimate insights of open theism, while still retaining the proper safeguards of a classical theism that preserves our notion of God as “wholly Other.”

Hopefully the lectures will be helpful to Japanese Christians, particularly evangelical university and seminary students.

I've raised about three-quarters of the support I need for the trip. If you'd like to contribute, send a check made out to "Tenth Presbyterian Church" with "missions" on the memo line and enclose a note specifying the gift for "Joel Garver - Japan." For church tax-purposes, it's important that my name not appear on the check itself. Send to:

Tenth Presbyterian Church
attn: Christy Corbett
1701 Delancey St.
Philadelphia, PA 19103

I appreciate your prayers for a safe and fruitful trip.

lancaster county

We had decided not to take any lengthy summer vacations this year.  Travel with a toddler is a bit tricky, with afternoon naps still part of the routine and crankiness always on the horizon. Short days trips are also more cost effective, which is a good thing.

Yesterday we ventured out to Lancaster County--Amish country--to visit a children's museum called the Hands On House

It's a lot like Philadelphia's Please Touch Museum and, while it's smaller, the Hands On House is newer, cleaner, with less wear and tear.  Claire seemed to really have a good time, enjoying the various exhibits, playing with the "hands on" learning stations, and finding out all about animals and farms and space exploration and factories.

This was part of an assembly line that involved putting together a "Whatcha-ma-doozle" at various stations, though Claire seemed to enjoy repeatedly sending her base down the rollers.

We joined my parents for a nice Pennsylvania German lunch, with plenty of noodles, corn, dumplings, rolls, and so on (news of Atkins hasn't reached Lancaster yet).  Afterwards we all took a ride on an Amish-style buggy drawn by a horse named "Baby."

Claire seemed to really enjoy bumping along the country roads behind the horse and seeing the fields of cows and corn.  Though it took her a while to settle down, she did eventually fall asleep on the way home, awakening later to tell us all about horsies and buggies and farms.

29 July 2004

the boy's department

So, I was in a department store yesterday looking at some clothes--not really intending to purchase anything--and noticed that a pair of jeans in the boy's department costs about $10 less than a nearly identical pair of jeans in the men's department, even when they're virtually the same size.  I began looking around at other pants and shirts and found this to be the case more generally.

This was a welcome discovery.  Though I'm 5'10", I'm small boned and only 140 lbs or so.  After some experimentation in a fitting room, I found that I can comfortably wear boy's XL shirts and some size 18 pants, at least if they're "relaxed fit."  On a whim, then, I looked through the sales rack of end-of-season stuff that was up to 80% off and found a nice shirt for $2.  A lot of the stuff looks like it's designed for little kids and teens, but there's a significant amount that is not so age-specific.

Note to self: try shopping in the boy's department to save money.

forbes on the church calendar

On several occasions I've mentioned the Scots theologian, John Forbes of Corse, who, as a Reformed scholastic, was one of the most prominent and respected Scots theologians of his day.

Forbes is an interesting character in his attempts at conciliation among the churches of the Reformation, particularly between Anglicans, the Scots, and the Continental Reformed, as well as favoring a 1637 proposal for a wider union between Lutherans and Reformed.  Though he was an advocate of a Scottish episcopate (both for historical and ecumenical reasons and because he was the son of a Scots bishop), he was not prelatic, had himself received only presbyterian ordination, and was willing to accept presbyterian government.

Forbes attended King's College at Aberdeen (where he later returned to teach divinity), but the bulk of his education was on the Continent at the Reformed schools at Heidelberg, Sedan, and elsewhere.  As a result, he held to certain views that were more typical some Continental Reformed divines than the Scots, particularly the Scots of his own day.  For instance, Forbes maintained the imputation of Christ's active obedience in justification, a doctrine typical of Rhineland theologians of the earth 17th century, which had not yet become characteristic of Scottish teaching.

One of the issues addressed by Forbes in his Irenicum is the question of the church calendar, especially the commemoration the great feasts. 

The First Book of Discipline of the Scottish Kirk had done away with a number of the lesser festivals, particularly "all those that the Papists have invented as the feasts, as they term them, of Apostles, Martyrs, Virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification and other fond feasts of our Lady."  While Christmas was mentioned here, it is categorized as a Marian festival.  As time went on, the church calendar in its entirety was suppressed, though with mixed success and, at times, apparent inconsistency.  For instance, the 1564 Book of Common Order contained a table of feast days and instructions for finding the date of Easter.

By the time John Forbes published his Irenicum in 1629, the various viewpoints on such commemorations had polarized and become more entrenched, the position against any observation of days gaining ground largely in reaction to King James's attempt to impose the obligatory celebration of days upon the Scottish Kirk, as well as for theological reasons.

Forbes, however, took a more moderate stance.  He writes:

It was fitting that a solemn annual commemoration should be held in our Church on definite days of those sublimely excellent and never to be forgotten benefits of God conferred on us through the Nativity, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ, and by the sending of the Holy Spirit.

First, because from the older times of which the fathers of antiquity have memory or record such laudable observance was in practice throughout the univeral Church, wherever it was spread in the whole world.

Secondly, because the annual and careful treatment of these five fundmentals of our creed, and recurrent meditation on them, is, so to speak, a kind of annual instruction in the Christian Catechism, ever fruitful to both clergy and people alike.  For, although these facts may be usefully commemorated at any time, yet the fixing of a definite time imposes an obligation on those who are inclined to be remiss, guards uniformity in the different Churches, and makes the people more disposed to learn; and nothing prevents commemorations being held at other times as well.  In like manner the duty of constant prayer is not hindered but helped by the fixing of certain definite times of prayer--a practice which has won golden opinions and borne much fruit in the Churches.

Thirdly, there is nothing in the practice inconsistent with Holy Scripture, which forbids Christians to observe days and times in Jewish or heathen fashion, but does not forbid the appointment of definite times at which Christians should make opportune and timely memorial, with thankful hearts and lips, of divine benefits.  There is no superstition in this, no will-worship; we attach no mystical sanctity to the date, but simply as a helpful discipline set apart certain days every year for the celebration and recollection of the holiest mysteries of our religion.  In that recollection, it is true, and in the giving of thanks, God is worshipped; but the designation of a definite day for that purpose is not part of the worship of God, but belongs to the good order of the Church and the interests of discipline...

Fourthly, the same annual celebrations are carefully kept by almost all other Reformed churches.

Fifthly, even though it is not absolutely certain in what month or on what day of the month Christ was born, yet it is certain that he was born on some definite day of some month recurring every year.  As to the rest of the capital events of our creed, the days themselves are known.  But we do not celebrate these divine benefits for the sake of the days: rather for the sake of the benefits we devote ourselves on certain fixed days to annual meditation on them and careful solemn commemoration of them.  The agreement of the whole of antiquity and of all the Reformed churches which kept these solemnities as to the choice of days is constant and unanimous, and is consonant with both truth and godliness; so that to reject it might perhaps seems a foolish and arrogant proceeding, not to say even superstitious: while to choose other days in their stead argues a kind of itching after singularity; a very singular sort of wisdom.

Of course, today most Reformed churches--even those in the Scots Presbyterian tradition--would accept the overall thrust of Forbes' arguments and make some provision for at least some of the five principal festivals in their church calendars.

28 July 2004

on baptism and regeneration

It looks like I won't be able to return to my more detailed "baptismal taxonomy" thread anytime soon, so I thought that in meantime I might say a little bit about the various ways the concept of "regeneration" can function in relation to baptism in traditional Reformed dogmatics.

To begin, the concept of "regeneration" itself can be understood in several different ways:

[1] In a number of earlier Reformed divines, the term "regeneration" referred primarily to the ongoing process of mortification of sin and newness of life that was an effect of faith.  We find such a view in theologians as disparate as Calvin, Musculus, Polanus, Knox, Craig, Rollock, Perkins, Ames, Chamier, du Moulin, among others.

While this process of regeneration certainly has a point of inception and is a creative work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers in union with Christ, it was typically seen in its beginnings as coordinate with the gift of faith and in its progress as an effect of faith, rather than as a discrete event that remains logically prior to faith.

Such a concept of regeneration seems to be in view, for instance, when the Belgic Confession states in Article 24, concerning "The Sanctification of Sinners" that "true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God's Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a 'new man,' causing him to live the 'new life' and freeing him from the slavery of sin."  Similarly, the First Book of Discipline of the Scottish Kirk says, "this the Scripture calleth our 'regeneration,' which standeth chiefly in these two points: in mortification, that is to say, a resisting of the rebellious lusts of the flesh; and in newness of life, whereby we continually strive to walk in...pureness and perfection."

[2] Some Reformed authors will also speak of an objective "baptismal regeneration" or a "sacramental and visible regeneration" or, sometimes (particularly among Reformed Anglicans), of an "ecclesiastical regeneration."  In this case, "regeneration" refers not so much to a subjective transformation as to an objective status in which the offer and promise of salvation has been given and sealed to a person so that he is set apart and admitted to the visible church as one covenanted with God, enjoying all the privileges of Christ's kingdom, along with the common operations of the Spirit. 

Thus the Scots theologian, John Forbes, writes of those who are "regenerated and holy through baptismal regeneration and sanctity," citing the sanctification of which Hebrews 10:29 speaks (Instructiones Historico-theologicae). Likewise, the Puritan, Richard Baxter, writes in these terms: "God hath chosen you out of the world to be members of his visible church, and given you the great privilege of early entrance into his holy covenant, and washed you in the laver of visible regeneration" (Compassionate Counsel to all Young Men, Chapter 5, Section 2).

While the status of visible regeneration is one that is objectively conferred, it also ought, through faith, to become one that is truly lived out, issuing in subjective regeneration.  This, however, does not necessarily happen in every case, but only where a true and persevering faith is present, receiving what has been promised, offered, and sealed.

[3] In later Reformed dogmatics, particularly in the wake of the Synod of Dort, though anticipated earlier, the term "regeneration" came to refer to that secret and immediate work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart of a person, in connection with the call of the Gospel through the Word, introducing what was sometimes called a "new principle of life," transforming the person from death to life and thereby enabling him to believe.  On this conception, regeneration is logically prior to faith.

Thus, under the "Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine," the Canons of Dort state:

...by the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit, he also penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. He infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant; he activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds. (Article 11)

This is "regeneration" in the narrow and strict sense of modern Reformed dogmatics and likely how the term is popularly understood among most Calvinist evangelicals.  Earlier Reformed dogmatics, however, often spoke of "regeneration" in this sense more in terms of "effectual calling," of which the ongoing process of regeneration was the effect.

[4] A number of Reformed theologians will also speak of covenant infants having the "seed" or "principle" of regeneration or "initial regeneration," whether in connection with baptism or prior to it.  In this case, further "actual" regeneration--by which is meant either the calling of God effectually bringing the person to new life and faith and/or the ongoing process of spiritual renovation--is something that follows from those first beginnings of regeneration.

So, for instance, Francis Junius makes this distinction: "Regeneration is considered, in one way, as it is in its foundation--that is, in Christ in principle--and, in another way, as it is active in us" (Theses Theologiae, 51.8).  Similarly, Gijsbert Voetius can write of "the initial regeneration of the Holy Spirit--by which is impressed the beginning and seed of actual conversion or renovation, which is to follow in its own time" (Selected Theological Disputes).

In some Reformed authors, this initial regeneration seems to approach closely the kind of sacramental and visible regeneration that I spoke of above under [2] and thus is something enjoyed by all covenant infants.  In others, it is tied more closely with a kind of subjective transformation, even if only present in principle or incipiently.  In this case, it is typically limited to those covenant infants who are elect to salvation.

We can now turn to the question of baptism in relation to these various notions of regeneration.

[1]  If we are speaking of actual regeneration as a process of death to sin and newness of life, then based on texts like Romans 6, Titus 3:15, and Colossians 2-3, almost all 16th and 17th century Reformed authors see this benefit of salvation as one that is found in union with Christ as he is offered and promised to us by the Spirit in baptism, where he is found and received by us through faith.  In this sense, baptismal regeneration is the historic teaching of the Reformed church.

Thus, Calvin writes in his Antidote to the Council of Trent:

We assert that the whole guilt of sin is taken away in baptism, so that the remains of sin still existing are not imputed. That this may be more clear, let my readers call to mind that there is a twofold grace in baptism, for therein both remission of sins and regeneration are offered to us. We teach that full remission is made, but that regeneration is only begun and goes on making progress during the whole of life. Accordingly, sin truly remains in us, and is not instantly in one day extinguished by baptism, but as the guilt is effaced it is null in regard to imputation. Nothing is plainer than this doctrine. (reply to the First Decree of the Fifth Session) 
The Westminster Larger Catechism expresses a similar perspective when it speak of "improving our baptisms" in terms of "drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace" (Q&A 167).

In connection with the notion of regeneration as a process, we can consider the Reformed emphasis that the effect of baptism is not tied to the moment of administration, but rather extends through the whole of the Christian life as it is lived out under the sign of baptism.  Thus the Belgic Confession states, "Yet this baptism is profitable not only when the water is on us and when we receive it but throughout our entire lives" (Article 34).  Or in the words of the Second Helvetic Confession, "baptism once received continues for all of life, and is a perpetual sealing of our adoption" (Chapter 20). 

[2]  If we are referring to some kind of objective, visible and sacramental regeneration, those Reformed authors who speak in these terms obviously connect that regeneration with baptism itself as a rite that marks out the visible people of God, sometimes even calling the regeneration involved "baptismal."

While this merely baptismal regeneration is directed towards spiritual renewal and renovation as its end (so that such further regeneration is also, in that sense, baptismal), such further regeneration would only be enjoyed by those who receive their baptismal regeneration in faith (whether at the time of baptism or subsequently), reckoning to themselves in fact what they already were, by baptism, in name.  In this approach we find an echo of the Pauline emphasis to become what we already are, the imperative following upon the indicative.

[3] With regard to the narrower notion of regeneration as the implantation of new principle of life, associated with effectual calling, the relation to baptism is more complex. 

After all, in this sense of "regeneration," regeneration is prior to faith and, moreover, Reformed theology generally holds that apart from faith, baptism does not produce transformative effects within the baptized.  Thus, from this perspective it would be difficult to see baptism as directly instrumental in regeneration since regeneration is necessary for faith and faith, in turn, is necessary for baptism's effects.  "Baptismal regeneration" would then seem to introduce confusion into the ordo salutis.

In addition, since regeneration in this sense is the outcome of effectual calling, it is more closely associated with the Spirit's work in and through the Word (particularly as it is preached) than with  baptism (cf. WCF10.1).  Furthermore, it seems that this kind of regeneration is something that might equally well occur prior to, along with, or after baptism and thus cannot be tied to the moment of administration.

That being said, it is also the case that, in the ordinary course of events, effectual calling by the Word and Spirit will come to regenerative fruition in faith and that faith is one which will publicly and visibly express itself in baptism as the place in which Christ is visibly received, faith is strengthened and confirmed, and regeneration itself is ratified and sealed.  Moreover, the grace of regeneration produces further sanctifying effects that are themselves of a piece with that initial grace and those effects can be seen as offered and received in baptism. 

Turretin, for instance, says that the "Holy Spirit is repeatedly promised and given also to believers" and that this is "the progress and increase of regenerating grace" by which the Spirit acts "to promote and perfect the good work which began in them" (Institutes 15.5.20).  And baptism, both in its administration and ongoing relevance to the Christian life, is certainly one of those occasions upon which the Holy Spirit is promised and given as part of the progress and increase of regenerating grace, even in this narrower sense of "regeneration."

[4] Finally, infant baptism provides an interesting lens through which we can view these various perspectives on the relation of regeneration and baptism. 

While we can easily enough see how infants might have regeneration in the sense of a objective, sacramental status in which they are covenanted to God and receive the offer and promises of Christ, the more subjective and transformative senses of "regeneration" complicate matters, since it is not clear that infants can fully experience regeneration in those senses.  It is here, then, that Reformed divines have often spoken in terms of the seed, root, principle, or beginnings of regeneration as enjoyed by covenant infants.

Precisely how these initial beginnings of regeneration in covenant infants are related to baptism is a matter of some discussion within the Reformed tradtion.  Some have maintained that covenant children come into the world enjoying the seed of regeneration and are therefore properly baptized since they alread posess the beginnings of what baptism signifies and seals.  Others have tied these beginnings of regeneration much more closely with the adminstration of baptism itself, though always allowing that, for covenant infants dying apart from baptism, the promise of God is sufficient for salvation. 

A further complication is whether these beginnings of regeneration are enjoyed by all covenant infants (which Calvin sometimes seems to suggest), all baptized covenant infants (a view we find in Cranmer, Davenant, Samuel Ward, Thomas Bedford, Le Blanc, and Jurieu, among others), or only elect covenant infants, whether received at baptism or some other time (though the views of Zanchius, Junius, Chamier, Cornelius Burgess, and others tie the initial regeneration of elect infants closely to baptism).

A related matter is that of faith.  Regardless whether regeneration is seen as prior to faith or as an effect of faith, if some infants enjoy even the seed, root, and principle of regeneration, this raises the question of whether such infants also have faith.  The response to this question on the part of most Reformed theologians has been to distinguish, as with regeneration, between faith in principle and faith in its exercise.

Thus Turretin distinguishes between those who have "the saving habit of acting faith" (or "actual faith") and those who have faith in its "principle and root," which an infant can possess since he "can have the Holy Spirit, with which to believe in his own time" (Institutes 19.20.19). Likewise, Junius says, "regarding the species of faith, it is to be considered both with regard to its first act and (as they say) its second." Infants are capable of faith as it in its first act and thus "it false to argue that infants are completely incapable of faith," though this is "God's secret and hidden thing" (Theses Theologicae 51.7).  Alsted similarly maintains that while infants may be "destitute of what is called 'actual faith', they are not on that account destitute of all faith...Faith in principle and seed, and virtually, is to be attributed to elect infants" (Theologia, Scholastica Didactica, 785).

Questions about the relative logical priority of the beginnings of faith and the beginnings of (transformative) regeneration can thus be raised here in a manner analogous to their priority in adult converts. 

Thus, conceived in terms of a process of dying to sin and newness of life, regeneration in principle and seed might be seen as logically following from the principle and seed of faith, so that as faith grows and matures into actual faith, it will concomitantly produce a struggle against sin and yielding unto obedience, wrought by the Holy Spirit.  On such a conception, (at least elect) covenant infants who have the principle and seed of faith are, also in principle and seed, regenerated in baptism, in which the regenerating gift of the Spirit is offered in Christ.  As that baptismal offer and gift remains always present, such infants would continue to receive the further actualization of those beginnings of regeneration as part of living out their baptisms.  Many of early Reformed authors who spoke of regeneration in terms of ongoing transformation understood infant baptismal regeneration in this way (e.g., Zanchius, Chamier).

On the other hand, conceived in terms of an initial work of the Spirit calling a person to belief in the Gospel, the principle and seed of regeneration would remain logically prior to the seed and principle of faith, awaiting the effectual call through the Word and Spirit by which it might be transformed into actual regeneration, producing actual faith.  While on such a view the beginnings of regeneration are offered and received by (at least elect) covenant infants in baptism itself, the ministry of Word would still retain its primary place in effectual calling and the exercise of actual faith.  Some later Reformed authors who spoke of regeneration in terms of an initial work of the Spirit, in turn producing faith, understood infant baptismal regeneration in this way (e.g., Burgess, Bedford).

None of these observations resolve these differences in approach, emphasis, and terminology among a wide swath of early Reformed theologians.  Nor do they address the substantive issues of biblical theology regarding the notion of regeneration and its relation to Christian initiation.  Nevertheless, this has hopefully charted some of the relevant territory and thus will prove helpful in further reflection.

27 July 2004

acts the general assembly

In a previous post I mentioned that when the Church of Scotland adopted the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God, it did so with an act of the General Assembly that clarified the meaning and application of that Directory to the Scottish Kirk. 

The act to which I had referred was a product of Session 10 of that General Assembly, held on 3 February 1645.  The act can be found bound together with the Directory in some editions (e.g., the one published by Free Presbyterian Publications in Glasgow).  What is more difficult to find is the subsequent act of the General Assembly, dating from a few days later, in its 14th Session on 7 February 1645.

This act makes further provisions and specficiations with regard to the application of the Directory, particularly in connection with the celebration of the Lord's Supper. 

In this regard, first, the act upholds the practice of examining members of the congregation prior to their admission to communion.  It was the practice of the Scottish Kirk that, before each communion season, all prospective communicants would meet with the minister and/or elders of the congregation, either privately or in connection with a service of preparation.  This examination was an opportunity to exercise pastoral care, deal with impenitence, catechize the faithful, and exhort them to partake of the sacrament. 

A communion token, usually made of lead in 16th and 17th centuries, would be issued to all those who were examined, unless unrepented sin required otherwise.  The token would grant admission to the Table and they would be collected as part of the celebration of the sacrament. The old Scots communion liturgy, in fact, involved bringing those tokens forward and lifting them up, in connection with the offertory and the covered communion elements themselves being brought up to the Table by elders or deacons.

Second, the act of General Assembly specifies that "there be no reading in the time of communicating, but the Minister making a short exhortation at every table."  That is to say, when each group of communicants came forward to the Table to receive communion, the minister would, in addition to repeating the Words of Institution, add a short exhortation.  But the minister was not to engage in a Scripture reading while the communicants were distributing the elements among themselves.  It is also known from Scots records that, as the communicants finished partaking, the minister would dismiss them with words to the effect, "Go in peace from the Table of the Lord and may the God of love and peace go with you."

Third, the act becomes quite specific regarding the distribution, dictating that "distribution of the elements among the communicants be universally used."  Moreover, the communion bread ought to be "so prepared that the communicants may divide it among themselves, after the Minister hath broken and delivered it to the nearest."  The repeated insistence on this practice of the communicants sharing the elements among themselves is an intriguing feature of the Scottish eucharistic rite, likely not only intended as an imitation of the Last Supper, but also to emphasize the nature of holy communion as an act of God's people binding them together as a single Body.

Fourth, the act notes and endorses the custom of communicants singing a portion of a Psalm as one group leaves the Table and another comes forward.  The Psalm text that was most often used in the 16th and 17th centuries was Psalm 116:13-19:

I will take the cup of salvation,
and call upon the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows unto the Lord
now in the presence of all his people.
Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his saints.
O Lord, truly I am thy servant;
I am thy servant, and the son of thine handmaid:
thou hast loosed my bonds.
I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and will call upon the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows unto the Lord
now in the presence of all his people.
In the courts of the Lord's house,
in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem.
Praise ye the Lord.
The act follows this with a number of additional regulations in order to see that the celebration of the holy Supper be done an orderly fashion, including suggestions for how to handle a situation where the members of a parish cannot fit into the church all at once.

The Assembly's act concludes with a curious note that the practice of "bowing in the pulpit," though "a lawful custom in this Kirk," is to be discontinued for the sake of unity with the English Reformed.  So far as I am able to determine, the reference here is to the practice of the minister kneeling in prayer after ascending the pulpit, making a brief humble and silent petition for himself, prior to preaching his sermon.  According to Robert Baillie the Scots commisioners to the Westminster Assembly were unable to get the Divines to agree to allowing the practice because some Puritans objected to it as too reminiscent of the priest's bow to the east and the altar, as practices among the prelatical party in the Church of England (Letters II, 259).

I note these historical details not necessarily to commend the practices of the old Reformed Scottish Kirk at every point, but as a matter of information and consideration as we continue to make discernments about what might be most fitting today.  At the very least, I find the details intriguing. 

26 July 2004

blogger visit

As Laurel noted, the recently wed Rick and Rachel Capezza came down to Philly to spend a weekend with us.  It's always great meeting folks you've gotten to know online via their blogs, email, and IM.

Rick and Rachel arrived on Friday night, and on Saturday we did some of the typical Philly historical sites and then spent the afternoon and evening mostly talking and relaxing. 

On Sunday we visited Church of the Good Samaritan Episcopal in Paoli, which is a great parish--traditional, catholic, evangelical, and vibrant.  The afternoon involved more relaxing and a walk around Manayunk with the dog.  Sunday evening we went down to our home parish, Tenth PCA, for their evening service.

Rick and Rachel were headed back on Monday to the summer camp they're working at in New Jersey, so I offered to drive them as far as Princeton so they could get a look at the campus of the university and seminary before catching their train.  This also gave me a chance to use the seminary's library, which is full of all kinds of wonderful old Presbyterian stuff.

Claire was very sweet and was sad to see them go, but we had a wonderful visit.

23 July 2004

ingesting jesus

I've been reading through my sister-in-law's doctoral dissertation, entitled, Ingesting Jesus: Eating and Drinking in the Gospel of John (Atlanta: SBL, 2003).  Jane is professor of religion at Barton College in Wilson, North Carolina.

It's really a very insightful treatment of these themes in John's Gospel, even though, in some respects, rather constrained by the methodological structures required for this kind of scholarship in the contemporary academy.  Nevertheless, Jane's book would serve as a helpful guide for anyone studying the Gospel of John, unfolding the motif of eating and drinking as a way of talking about salvation and connected to the eucharistic life of the early church.

22 July 2004

worship, posture, and practices

In the history of the church various postures and other practices have been adopted with regard to the celebration of the divine liturgy: standing, kneeling, hands lifted, sitting, bowing, processing, and so on. Over time, however, practices develop and change, often in response to specific historical contexts, doctrinal development, popular notions, and the like.

For instance, in the early centuries of the church, the congregation stood in the orans posture during the eucharistic prayers, that is, with arms held out, palms up, in a gesture of openness, self-offering, and worship. In the west this practice later gave way, during the middle ages, to kneeling, though there was debate for some time regarding just when and for how long it was appropriate to kneel (see John Brooks-Leonard and Nathan Mitchell, The Posture of the Assembly During the Eucharistic Prayer, Liturgy Training Publications, 1995).

It's beyond my knowledge and expertise to produce anything like a general description of how such practices have evolved and varied from time to time and place to place. Still, a couple of historical notes might be helpful--or at least interesting--especially in connection with the practice and piety of Reformed churches and, among them, giving attention to the Scottish Kirk and various developments within it over the centuries.

We can begin by recognizing that within the Reformed tradition, quite generally, certain principles and patterns have remained relative constants, often for theological reasons, limiting what kinds of practices and piety were permitted. Nonetheless, within these constants there often was a diversity of application and actual practice.

For instance, one constant is that Reformed churches have always rejected the practice of reserving the eucharistic elements after the celebration, even for the purpose of communing the sick and dying. This was due to the perception that eucharistic reservation had the effect of distorting the character of the eucharist as an action of the assembly, turning an event into a "thing," with the danger of abstracting the eucharist from its purpose as a communion in the body and blood of Christ.

But the Reformed tradition did not thereby reject communing the sick and dying altogether. Calvin was quite insistent that the sick and dying should be permitted to receive the eucharist, but prefered to see this done by celebrating a condensed form of the eucharistic rite at the person's bedside, along with a gathering of some of the faithful. Calvin's successor, Theodore Beza, on the other hand, prefered to see the communing of the sick accomplished in connection with the regular Sunday eucharist, the elements being carried out directly to the sick as an extension of the distribution. Thus both men accomplished the same goal, apart from eucharistic reservation, but with a significant difference in application and practice.

Another example is the posture for prayer. The common practice of the Christian church has always been, following biblical example, to stand or kneel for public prayer and this practice was continued among the Reformed churches. Thus, in the 1559 Book of Discipline of the Reformed churches of France, it states:

We shall reform the great irreverence that is found among various persons who at public and private prayers do not uncover their heads or bow their knees; this is a matter repugnant to piety, gives suspicion of pride, and scandalizes those who fear God. Therefore all pastors shall be advised, along with elders and heads of families, to carefully see to it that during prayer all persons...shall, by these exterior signs, give evidence of the inward humility of their hearts and the homage they yield to God (unless anyone is prevented from doing so by sickness or otherwise).

This was also the practice of the Scottish Kirk from the time of the initial reform until the middle of the 17th century.

After that point, however, the posture for prayer shifted to sitting in many places in Scotland so that by the end of the 18th century it was the common practice. The precise reasons for this shift are unclear, but it seems that it was part and parcel of numerous shifts stemming from the liturgical disarray that was the result of various forms of interference in religious affairs by the king and parliament, the influence of the Independents and other more extreme Puritans, the disuse of the 1564 Book of Common Order, and the introduction of "communion seasons" rather than the regular parish celebration of the eucharist.

The eucharistic service of the Reformed church of Scotland had always retained a unique character among Reformed liturgies, in keeping with local customs and Scottish developments. The Scottish Reformed liturgy, in large part the work of John Knox, had its origins in Calvin's reforms at Geneva (which, in turn, were based upon his experience in Strasbourg), where Knox and others had found refuge after Mary's succession to the English throne in 1553. Calvin's liturgy, in turn, was a significant revision of the medieval Roman mass, simplified and altered in light of the New Testament and the practices of the ancient church, particularly some of the early liturgies of the Byzantine church (e.g., restoring the prayers of the faithful based on the rites of Sts. James, Basil, and Chrysostom).

Calvin himself explains his reforms, outlining the flow of his Strasbourg rite in terms of confession, absolution, psalms, hymns, the reading and preaching of the Gospel, the creed, prayers for all the conditions of men, and finally, the eucharist itself. He writes:

...because we receive Jesus Christ truly in this sacrament...we worhsip him in Spirit and in truth, receiving the eucharist with reverence, concluding the whole mystery with praise and thanksgiving.

Rather than seeing his reform of the eucharistic liturgy as in any way innovative, Calvin suggests that "it agrees with it adminstration in the ancient church of the apostles, of the martyrs, and of the holy fathers."

Prior to Knox's return to Scotland in 1559, however, the 1552 Anglican Book of Common Prayer (BCP) had enjoyed widespread use. Nevertheless, in 1560 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland directed that "the sacraments be ministered after of the Order of the Kirk of Geneva," eventually leading to the publication of the 1564 Book of Common Order as "approved and received" by the Scottish Kirk. This particular edition of the service book had revised Knox's original composition at various points, often bringing it closer to Calvin's own liturgy, but also drawing upon various other Scottish and Continental sources.

The Book of Common Order, however, was never a book of common prayer in quite the same sense as the Anglican book. For one thing, it provided alternatives and variations of several of the most significant prayers. For another, it permitted the alteration of the prayers to local circumstances and customs in a way that the Anglican BCP, at least officially, did not.

Thus, for instance, while the Scottish service book did not include an epiclesis invoking the Holy Spirit as part of the eucharistic liturgy, the use of such an epiclesis apparently was nonetheless widespread in the Scottish Kirk. For instance, in 1620 the Scot, David Calderwood, describes the Scots communion prayers as including an epiclesis and noting that this had been the standard practice for at least 60 years, going back to the introduction of the Book of Common Order, though it lacks such a prayer.

In fact, the absence of the epiclesis was a point of difference between the Scottish Kirk and the Church of England. While the 1549 BCP had included an epiclesis, it disappeared from later editions. This omission was a point of objection to the BCP on the part of English Presbyterians at the Savoy Conference and, indeed, due in large part to the influence of Scots and English Presbyterians, an explicit epiclesis had made its way into the Westminster Assembly's Directory for the Public Worship of God. That epiclesis instructed the minister:

Earnestly to pray to God, the Father of all mercies, and God of all consolation, to vouchsafe his gracious presence, and the effectual working of his Spirit in us; and so to sanctify these elements both of bread and wine, and to bless his own ordinance, that we may receive by faith the body and blood of Jesus Christ, crucified for us, and so to feed upon him, that he may be one with us, and we one with him; that he may live in us, and we in him, and to him who hath loved us, and given himself for us.

With regard to the rite of the Supper itself, while the Scots rejected kneeling as an inappropriate posture for receiving the eucharist, they had in fact maintained the practice of the minister and congregation kneeling for the Words of Institution, epiclesis, and other prayers prior to the distribution. The distribution itself, however, was another matter.

On the Continent, in France and Switzerland, the practice had been for the congregation to come forward and gather, standing, around the communion Table for the distribution and, where the congregation was large, to do so in shifts, a group at a time. In Scotland, however, the practice was to run a long communion table from the front of the church, down the center aisle and to actually seat the congregation around the Table, as was the practice in the Netherlands and Westphalia. Where the congregation was large or the Table small, it was again done in shifts.

While the Words of Institution had been already been read earlier, prior to the epiclesis and other prayers, the Words were repeated for the distribution, along with various manual acts. Thus, when the minister recited the words, "he took bread," the minister held up the bread. At the words, "he broke it," the minister broke the bread. And at the words, "take, eat," he distributed it to the gathered communicants, first communing himself. Similar actions were done in connection with the cup.

We may note, however, two practices particularly insisted upon by the Scottish Kirk. First, it was the custom of the Scots for the communicants to distribute the elements among themselves when gathered together at the Table, each serving another, rather than the minister serving each communicant individually. While the Westminster Directory is ambiguous on the precise mode of distribution, the 1645 Act of the General Assembly of the Scottish Kirk adopting the Directory clarifies, stating that the Directory is not to be interpreted "as if we did approve the distributing of the elements by the minister to each communicant, and not by the communicants among themselves."

A second practice was the very custom of the communicants gathering at the Table. Again, the 1645 Adopting Act states that it accepts the Directory so long as the clause that "mentioneth 'the communicants sitting about the table, or at it,' be not interpreted as if, in the judgment of this kirk, it were indifferent, and free for any of the communicants not to come to and receive at the table." The ambiguity introduced by the Directory is that "sitting about the Table" appears to be distinguished from "sitting at the Table," suggesting that the congregation might remain in their pews, gathered about the Table, rather than coming to it. The Scots removed any ambiguity, requiring that communicants actually come to the Table itself.

Thus, it is no surprise that there was something of an uproar when, in 1824, St. John's Church in Glasgow was the first to allow the congregation to commune while still sitting in their pews. Indeed, the innovation was rejected strongly by the General Assembly of 1825, though over time the practice came to be widespread and now remains the common practice.

There are many more interesting observations one could make along these lines, but these shall suffice for the time being.

It seems to me that such historical inquiry can open up some space in which practices, often assumed to be longheld or distinctively Reformed, might be questioned, re-thought, evaluated, or even seen as relatively recent innovations. Liturgy is necessarily a conservative business, instilling habits that are not easily changed, but when those habits have perhaps arisen for the wrong sorts of reasons, when they lack warrant in either practicality or piety, or especially when they seem at odds with the shape of biblical religion, then it is time to stand back so that we might assess and discern. And in that process, history can often be a useful counselor.

bucer on apostolic tradition

In his treatise, What Should Be Believed about the Baptism of Infants, Martin Bucer appeals of the practice and faith of the church catholic among his defences of infant baptism against the Radicals. He writes:

...what the universal church holds, and has always been retains without having been instituted by councils, is most assuredly believed to have been handed down not without apostolic authority.

It should be recalled in this regard that the Reformers thought of themselves as returning to "the catholic consensus of the churches" (see, e.g., Bucer's Lectures on Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, 47-50) while it was their opponents--both Radical and Papal--who had departed from it. One might question that historical judgment at various points, but it nonetheless was the ideal in terms of which the Reformers conceived their own movement.

Thus, in the words of a later Scottish divine, "I am first a Christian; secondly, a Catholic; thirdly, a Calvinist; fourthly, a paedobaptist; and finally, a Presbyterian."

20 July 2004

bucer and musculus on baptism

In my recent wanderings, I did spend some time poking around old Reformed books in some seminary libraries. Though not the direct object of what I was studying, I did run across the following quotations and thought I might pass them along.

The first are from Martin Bucer (1491-1551), the Strasbourg Reformer, a former Dominican friar who was Calvin's friend and mentor during his stay in Strasbourg. His baptismal rite had a profound influence over the shape of both the traditional Reformed rite, as well as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

In his "Brief Summary of the Christian Doctrine and Religion Taught as Strasbourg" (1548), Bucer wrote regarding baptism:

We confess and teach that holy baptism, when given and received according to the Lord's command, is in the case of adults and of children truly a baptism of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, whereby those who are baptized have all their sins washed away, are buried into the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, are incorporated into him and put him on for the death of their sins, for a new and godly life and the blessed resurrection, and through him become children and heirs of God.
Along similar lines, Bucer wrote in his "On the Significance and Practice of the Sacred Ministry" (1550):

Baptism saves none of years but believers. Salvation is indeed offered in baptism to all, but those of years do not receive it except by faith and infants through the secret operation of the Holy Spirit by whom they are also sanctified unto eternal life.

After a review of Scriptural data regarding baptism, Bucer concludes:

From all these places we now clearly see baptism to be commended unto us as an instrument of divine mercy, which God condescends to grant only so that we should use it in order that, by the ministry of his servants, he might confer upon his elect every one of these gifts: saving repentance, certain ablution and purgation of our souls, undoubted hope of the resurrection, incorporation into Christ, putting on Christ, that is, the saving communion, regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Spirit. Nor is this instrument of baptism any less effectual for all these uses in the elect, whom God has resolved to regenerate, than is any remedy, however effectual, that by a natural energy gives health when applied to a body that is most capable of such a remedy. For, it is upon God's word that the effect of anything depends. Thus, it is much more certain that the elect of God partake of all the previously mentioned benefits by baptism than it is that human bodies receive health by the application of natural means.

While Bucer limits these full effects of baptism to the elect--as those to whom baptism and all its benefits are not only offered and given but by whom they are also properly received--he also notes that "In conferring sacraments, regard is to be had to God's promises, not election" (Commentary on Romans, 1536).

Some other quotations come from Wolfgang Musculus (1497-1563), a former Benedictine monk who joined the cause of the Reformation and, eventually, became a professor of theology at Bern.

In his Common Places (1554), Musculus writes:

We define baptism to be the sacrament of regeneration, purgation, initiation, sanctification, obsignation, and incorporation into Christ our saviour. For all of these are effected in the elect and faithful by the Spirit of Christ and of all these graces baptism is the sacrament, so that in it these may rightly be said to be accomplished because truly and spiritually they are effected by the Spirit of Christ. ("Of Baptism", question 1, section 8)
He goes on to say:

All infants belonging to Christ, born of Christian parents, and being of the number of the faithful are rightly said to be in the faith of Christ, to be faithful, and believers, even though, as of yet, they are not endowed with actual faith.
The attribution of faith to covenant infants is a common teaching of the Reformed tradition, even though that faith is usually qualified as only a "seed" or "root" of faith, which awaits full fruition as "actual faith" or the "exercise of faith" in response to the ministry of the Word and Spirit.

Some of you may recall that I began what I called a "baptismal taxonomy" a while ago, in an attempt to outline the various theological options that have been proposed within the Reformed tradition on the topic of baptism. These quotations remind me that I should return to that at some point.

19 July 2004

many meetings

Last week Laurel and a friend took the toddlers on a roadtrip out to visit some friends in far western Pennsylvania, leaving me at home for several days. Since I had a summer evening class Wednesday and a Bible study to lead Thursday, this worked out just fine.

It also gave me the opportunity to catch up in person with some folks I've been in touch with on and off over recent months or years and had wanted to meet and talk with, in a couple of cases for the first time. All these visits lasted for several hours and included thoughtful, meandering conversation, whether over coffee or beer on, in one case, burritos.

Since a couple of the folks were at a bit of a distance, it also gave me the chance to do some driving--taking the scenic route when possible--and to make use of some more distant resources, in particular, an academic library and some used bookstores.

In any case, I'll be trying to catch up with some work today (grading papers for the summer class) and hopefully blogging a bit later this week. I've got probably almost a couple dozen projects and blog entries and some household repairs either already begun or slated to do. Now, off to do some work...

14 July 2004

enns on apostolic hermeneutics

Associate professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, Peter Enns, has a fascinating article in the Fall 2003 Westminster Theological Journal, entitled "Apostolic Hermeneutics and an Evangelical Doctrine of Scripture: Moving beyond a Modernist Impasse."

We a book group that meets sporadically here in Philadelphia, consisting mostly of folks from Tenth PCA, and this article was the topic of our last discussion, which was quite a lively and helpful one. It didn't hurt that we invited Pete Enns himself to the group and he graciously obliged.

I recommend the article for your perusal. Even if you don't accept Enns's every conclusion, it is good food for thought and represents some of the kinds of issues that evangelical interpreters of Scripture need to grapple with and think through in formulating their doctrine of inerrancy.

12 July 2004

head in vise

Saturday night I had a bit of a headache, but Sunday morning it woke me up out of a sound sleep at around 6:30am, accompanied by nausea, sensitivity to light and noise, and so on.

After the better part of the day in the ER and a CT scan that showed nothing, they put me on some meds that seem to help...at least until they wore off around 2:30am this morning.

In any case, no more blogging or computer for the time being. Back to remaining very, very still with my eyes closed.

09 July 2004

reno on radical orthodoxy

A couple of years ago, R.R. Reno wrote an essay in First Things entitled "The Radical Orthodoxy Project" giving an initial analysis and critique. Much of the substance of this essay later appeared in revised and expanded ways in his book, In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Brazos, 2002).

Reno's observations regarding Radical Orthodoxy are, on the whole, quite fair, especially given what publications were available for reflection at the time he wrote. In particular, he does draw attention to the ways in which some (perhaps much) of Radical Orthodoxy's writings remain theoretical and intellectual, projecting an abstract ideal that seems to bear little obvious connection to "the concrete faith and practice of the Church."

Some more recent writings associated with the Radical Orthodoxy movement have perhaps begun to make more explicit connections with actual lived ecclesial practice, Christian formation, and so on, and have done so without deploying the full jargon-laden apparatus of postmodern discourse. Moreover, Radical Orthodoxy has gained the attention of some more practically minded folks, such as those associated with the Emerging Church. These developments, perhaps, help soften Reno's critique to some degree.

Still, I think some further observations and comments might provide some balance to those made by Reno, without denying his legitimate insights and criticisms.

[1] I think that, despite the "constructedness" of the Anglo-Catholic tradition, the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy would maintain that their way of doing things does emerge out of an ongoing history of reflection upon Scripture and tradition, as well as parish community. It's not quite such the airy-fairy idealism that Reno suggests and associates with Anglo-Catholicism, though there is plenty of that within that tradition (and I'm much too Protestant to be entirely comfortable with many aspects of Anglo-Catholicism).

Besides, Radical Orthodoxy is not confined to Anglo-Catholic circles, even if its first and main proponents do identify as such. Still, it is increasingly ecumenical, embracing Methodists and Reformed, Roman Catholics and others.

[2] Reno is correct that Milbank's earlier theology of atonement was deficient, but I'm not sure Milbank was attempting to be comprehensive, rather than perhaps highlighting narratological aspects of that theology, reading the story of Jesus through insights such as those of Hegel and Girard, in order show how the work of Christ already contains within it a response to certain concerns of postmodernism. Whatever the case, since the publication of Reno's first article, Milbank has discussed the atonement further, sounding more traditional all the time and even highly recommending David Bentley Hart's rehabilitation of Anselm in Pro Ecclesia ("A Gift Exceeding Every Debt: An Eastern Orthodox Appreciation of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo," 7:3, 333-348).

[3] Reno seems to set up "either/or's" that the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy would reject. For instance, he says that with a turn towards the human "as we lose confidence in a single voice of conscience or a universal cultural teleology, my conscience wars against yours, and we fight for control of the cultural process." But are "single voice of consience" and "consciences warring" the only two possibilities?

I would think the larger Christian tradition (e.g., Aquinas on conscience) would lead us to expect differences of conscience, especially on matters of detail, and the necessity of a process of discernment as a community, in conversation with Spirit speaking in Scripture. By overlooking this, Reno seems to be playing into the hands of the modernist dilemma of either a universalistic deontology or sheer adversarial relativism. Similar either/or's seem to run through Reno's critique.

[4] Milbank's use of Scripture, as Reno suggests, is at times fairly appalling, involving exegetical moves that seem strained or barely touching down in the biblical text at all.

On the other hand, some of the moves that Milbank makes are not so unwarranted given the wider history of interpretation and reflection upon various texts. What Milbank does when referencing certain texts is not so different from what, e.g., the Gospel writers do when picking up a snippet of Old Testament text, apparently out of context, to bolster their Gospel account, except that Milbank is at a couple of further removes.

Instead of focusing directly upon Christ as the interpretive telos (as do New Testament writers), he is looking at the Scriptures in Christ through the lens of the revelation of God as Trinity, the transcendent and immanent Creator, and the overall ontology that, upon reflection, the biblical story requires as discerned by centuries of theologians. Through that lens, certain texts can be accessed to illustrate various points, but that text is only drawn upon while assuming the whole of its narrative context, including the context of post-biblical Christian tradition. This isn't fundamentalist "prooftexting," but still runs all kinds of dangers, which Reno is right to point out.

One should also point out that other writers associated with Radical Orthodoxy are much more careful in their use of Scripture and take time to actually explain their use of texts (e.g., James K.A. Smith, William Cavanaugh).

[5] As for the neoplatonism, a number of the central figures in Radical Orthodoxy are "neoplatonic" in some sense of the term (though Pickstock more than Milbank and both of them more than Ward), just as was true of Augustine and Aquinas, William Ames and Jonathan Edwards. But their neoplatonism is [a] thoroughly Christianized, [b] more in the tradition of Proclus and Iamblichus than Plotinus and Porphyry, and [c] corrected by later theological and philosophical developments.

I don't really see a problem with making use of neoplatonism any more than, e.g., van Til made use of post-Kantian idealism or Dooyeweerd used phenomenology. And it's simply part of history that neoplatonism is where the Christian faith first seriously engaged philosophical thought on an intellectual level. I'm not sure it's possible to move forward without retreading that ground to some degree.

[6] A few of Reno's quotations in the First Things article seem taken out of context, though, given the lack of footnotes, I can't really track them down very easily to check. For instance, Reno's quotation that the church is a "new social body which can transgress every human boundary, and adopts no law" doesn't sound quite right to me, taken on its own, given [a] Milbank's insistence that grace shouldn't be opposed to law, but rather transforms and evelates law, [b] the general commitment of Radical Orthodoxy to the ecumenical creeds with their Trinitarianism and high Christology. So, I'd have to check all the quotations in context to see if Reno's being entirely fair.

Having said all that, perhaps my initial description of Reno's article as "fair enough" doesn't seem fair, but I think in a general way Reno does point out a number of legitimate concerns and potential pitfalls of the Radical Orthodoxy program. I would also probably want to add several more criticisms of my own (e.g., regarding the position of some proponents on matters of sexual ethics; questions of practical ecclesiology).

I'm not sure, however, that any of Reno's criticisms really strike at the heart of what the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy are up to, which is to provide a critical Augustinian reflection on orthodox Christian theology that [a] addresses the postmodern academy with the claims of the Gospel and [b] critiques many of ways which theology and the church have been complicit with modernism since the late middle ages. On both these counts, I think Radical Orthodoxy is overwhelmingly successful at what it does, even if it's own positive theological project still has some serious problems.

In any case, these are a just few thoughts that some hopefully might find helpful and which might move discussion forward.

08 July 2004

assurance and sacraments

RC Sproul Jr had some comments over at his Highlands Study Center on the role of the sacraments in assurance, in a entry entitled, "Cutting Off One's Nose." Meanwhile, Larry Ball has a related article over at the Center for Cultural Leadership entitled, "For the Bible Tells Me So."

I don't read either of those websites regularly, but links to both articles had been forwarded to me and I was asked for my input and perspective. The following is, therefore, how I would generally approach the question of assurance and the role of the sacraments in that. It's not designed exactly as a response to Sproul Jr or a comment on Ball or even a defense of the so-called "Federal Vision" folks. It's simply an elaboration of my own perspective, which I hope is grounded in Scripture as that is understood within the Reformed tradition.

There are certain people for whom, for whatever reason, assurance of salvation is a difficult thing--whether that is a matter of temperament, depression, weak faith, life circumstances, theological error, ongoing struggle with sin, or some other situation.

Of course, sometimes one should be worried, for instance, a person who, on a continuing basis, indulges in sin without remorse, without desire to be set free from it, particularly in the face of correction and opportunity for repentance and offers of forgiveness. Such a sin pattern rightly undermines assurance of salvation and should be an occasion for repentance and renewed faith.

But there are others for whom assurance is a difficulty quite apart from patterns of sin and the like. For such persons, I suspect, there are no easy answers. RC Sproul Jr is correct to suggest that there are some who are overwhelmed by a peculiar logic of the divine decrees, one that attempts to look into the eternal purposes of God and thereby access one's own election as a matter of sheer information. This is a losing proposition. It is an attempt to somehow get into the mind of God and his will for one's life apart from Christ as he is offered to us in the Gospel. As such, it is not truly of faith and therefore cannot provide assurance.

But certain temperaments are attracted to the logical system of a decretal theology of that particular sort and thereby make trouble for themselves, rejecting any sort of mystery or paradox in favor of a sheer and remorseless consistency. This is the kind of logic that makes election and reprobation wholly symmetrical and has little room for the free offer of the Gospel. There is often more involved in such a temperament and some persons face completely different problems with regard to assurance (e.g., someone who, due to past betrayals, finds all trust difficult). But Reformed theology in particular seems to attract this kind of rationalistic mindset.

In light of these observatons about temperament and circumstances, it seems to me that the question of assurance is not one of how we can provide such assurance of salvation to everyone, willy-nilly. Pastoral concern will always address the Gospel to each person in his or her own context and circumstances, sometimes ministering assurance to a simple faith, sometimes unsettling a too-easy presumption of salvation, sometimes challenging a human logic that undoes the truth of the Gospel, and so on.

The question, instead, is the general question of what precise resources and means God has provided his people with for the assurance of salvation and, among those assurances he has provided, how are they received and how are they interrelated? That is to say, what is the overall shape of Gospel assurance as God wants us to present and teach it within the wider ministry of the church, even recognizing that in specific cases of pastoral care, these general truths may need to be shaped to specific circumstances?

The general answer, of course, is that we are to look to Christ in the Gospel, and to do so in faith, a gift of the Holy Spirit. Assurance is always the assurance "of faith," that is, an assurance that proceeds from faith in God's promises, all of which are found in the person of Jesus Christ, as the very revelation of God's mind and heart. Assurance is not first and foremost a matter of our looking inward, to our own works, to a sense of God's presence, to signs of the Spirit, and so on.

All of these may have some role in assurance and their complete absence might be an apt occasion for concern. But assurance in itself is a matter of faith in Christ and these other matters are accompaniments of, subsidiary to, and consequent from that faith, by which alone we receive and rest upon Chirst for salvation.

If, for instance, we look to our own works as a sure sign of salvation apart from faith in the promises of God in Christ, then either we will despair, seeing the wretchedness of our own strivings and mixed motives, all tainted with sin, or we will become presumptuous, relying more upon what we do than what God has done for us, thinking that our works are somehow pleasing to God in themselves.

While the Gospel of John and 1 John both give the love of God and of God's people a place in assurance, it is subsumed under the overarching concern for us to "believe on the name of the Son of God" (1 Jn 5:13). Or, as Jesus replied to those who asked what they must do, to be doing the works of God: "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent" (Jn 6:28-29).

Since abiding in Christ by faith is the wellspring of our love for him and for our brothers, works of love can only be contemplated with regard to assurance insofar as they emerge out of the faith we have in Christ and remain under the trusting gaze of that faith.

So, if faith in Christ himself--as the Son of God in whom we find every promise and blessing of salvation--is the only basis God gives us for true assurance, then the next question is where do we find Christ in order to place our faith in him? Where is this Christ to be found whom God offers us?

The first answer, naturally, is that Christ is to be found in the Word of the Gospel as that is given to us the Scriptures, particularly as they are proclaimed and preached and applied. This is a clear and pervasive teaching of the Scriptures themselves, one we find in the mouth of Jesus and from the pen of Paul, and as such needs little further comment. In looking to Christ in the Gospel, we are not looking into ourselves to find Christ, but his to Word of promise that comes to us from outside of us, as the instrument of the Spirit for our faith and salvation. And all the Word points to Christ and offers Christ since he is that very Word Incarnate.

But the promise and offer of Christ in the Gospel comes to us in various ways for our salvation and not only once, but in an ongoing way throughout the Christian life. Each and every time we are offered the Gospel, God is renewing his promises to us in Christ, and as we receive those promises in faith we persevere in our salvation, receiving the forgiveness of sins and walking in newness of life, a work of the Spirit in us.

This ongoing growth and renewal in Christ through the Gospel by faith happens in various ways: through the public reading of the Scriptures, through preaching, through mutual exhortation and encouragement, through confession and absolution, through receiving God's blessing from his ministers, and so on. Sometimes these are more public and general occasions (e.g., preaching) and sometimes these are more personal and specific (e.g., recieving private counsel and assurance of God's forgiveness from a pastor or brother). In addition, within the context of the Word of the Gospel, recieved in faith, we may also sometimes find ourselves experiencing God's forgiveness, a sense of the Spirit's presence, greater love for his people, and so on.

Moreover, among those occasions upon which Christ is offered to us personally and specifically we must also place the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, though these naturally occur within a more public and general context. Nevertheless, the same Word of the Gospel--that is, the same Christ with all his benefits--is offered to us in Baptism and in the Supper, enacted and conjoined with material elements, there also to be received by faith unto the forgiveness of sins and newness of life.

And these sacraments are particularly effectual means by which God, through the Spirit, assures us of our salvation, confirming and strengthening the very faith by which they are rightly received (and how else could they be rightly received, inasmuch as they are signs and seals of God's own faithfulness in Christ?).

Perhaps I've heard the preaching of the Gospel, but how do I know that God means to offer Christ specifically to me? If I am baptized, then I know that God has placed his own name upon me and has promised that Christ is mine if only I believe in him. If I receive the Body of Christ in the Supper, then I know that this Body is truly given for me if only I partake in faith.

Moreover, these sacraments identify us as God's people and call upon us to reckon ourselves as dead to sin and alive in Christ, sharing in his death and resurrection. As such, through faith, these sacraments, as instruments of the Spirit, begin to produce in us the fruit and evidence of faith, apart from which faith is no true faith. In addition, they provide part of the objective and stable theological and liturgical context within which experiential religion can thrive and grow.

None of this is to say that all who are baptized automatically have Christ and all his benefits in a saving way. But the Holy Spirit truly offers Christ to them in a personal, concrete way. They have received that offer inasmuch as they have received the sacraments. But they will not have truly received Christ unto salvation until they receive him aright, that is by faith.

This kind of perspective on assurance of salvation is, I think, what God has provided for us generally in the Gospel. The sometimes difficult pastoral labor of applying this perspective to particular persons in their various circumstances is another, though closely related matter and beyond what I can address here in detail.

A remaining question, I suppose, is the one raised by those who are hypocrites or only enjoy a temporary faith. If such persons can be self-deceived regarding their own assurance of salvation, how can we be sure that we are not likewise deceived. After all, the human heart is deceitful above all things and who can fathom it?

Does this mean that, at the end of the day, assurance is impossible? I don't think so, but it does raise the question of what we mean by "assurance" and what exactly it is of which we are assured. Remember that the Reformers' concern with assurance grew from an apprehension of human sinfulness and weakness. Each of us would surely apostatize were it not for the work and grace of God. Thus they maintained that, while subjective certainty of salvation may waver, the objective certainty of salvation for each of us is held forth in Jesus Christ, given to us in the Gospel promises communicated through Word and Sacrament. A personal sense of assurance is a hope grounded in faith in those Gospel promises.

With this assurance by faith in the promises, however, we must never nullify the equally certain warnings against apostasy. Since we are in a relationship with God, we must take his warnings seriously and thereby daily receive his offers to renew our faith in the promises of the Gospel. If we persevere we know, by faith, that we have only done so through the electing grace of God. And if we fall away, we shall have no one to blame but ourselves, though as apostates we are not likely to admit it.

Does this mean we can have no hope of future perseverance, but only an assurance of presently being in a "state of grace" and possibly even self-deceived? No. The revelation of God's electing grace is not to be received merely as quasi-scientific "data" from which we may or may not deduce our future perseverance, but rather as a Gospel revelation which is to be apprehended by faith. It is precisely when we try to deduce logically how God must deal with us, that assurance is undermined by presumption or by supposing that God could not let us falter. But if we set aside presumption and any claim to our own merits or boasting, we must all the more cling to Christ in faith. But such a faith--continually aware of its own nature as a gift of grace, which sets aside all presumption, which clings only to the promises of the Gospel--such a faith provides a most certain and sure hope of salvation.

And such hope is not only present, but also looks to the future since, by faith, we see the consummation of salvation in the person of Jesus himself, who persevered and received the promise. He, then, is the Elect One, the pioneer and finisher of all faith.

Such an approach to assurance, it seems to me, both allows for the reality of apostasy, resolves the practical difficulty of self-deception, takes the Gospel warnings quite seriously, and still provides the assurace of faith in the person and promises of Jesus. In all these ways, then, I think can we avoid the snare of an overly logical and deductive decretal theology that destroys the possibility of assurance or a self-assured legalism that glories in its own works.

Thankfully, for most Christians assurance of salvation is not a struggle, but a simple joy and reflex of the faith by which we rest upon Christ and apprehend what he has done for us and continues to do among us by his Spirit.

07 July 2004

fourth of july

Ok. So the Fourth was several days ago now, but I'm only getting back on my feet after a busy week or so.

Last week we took a day trip with Claire up to Beltzville State Park, which has one of the nicest man-made beaches among mountain lakes in Pennsylvania (though the lake itself is the result of a dam). And it's only about an hour and a half from Philadelphia. We had a great time, though Claire was a bit afraid of the water at first.

After we got home Claire seemed over-heated and out of sorts for the next 36-48 hours or so, which we've come to realize was probably the virus both Laurel and I have likewise succumbed to over the past day and half. It's one of those swollen glands, feel crappy all over, low grade temperature, and have a sore throat sort of viruses, where the symptoms are all quite vague, but you know you're not well. No wonder Claire was so grumpy.

Still, we Claire was well by Sunday and, in the late afternoon we went with my parents to a small town 4th of July parade in Glenside, PA. The parade consisted mostly of caravans of firetrucks from all the local companies (including some nice antique ones), a police brigade, several politicians and political candidates, and some scouts. Claire really was impressed by the firetrucks and is still talking about them.

After a nice cookout, my parents offered to keep Claire overnight so Laurel and I could go downtown to the Philadelphia fireworks display at the Art Museum, which is always an impressive show. We hadn't been able to do so for several years and, after getting home late, it was nice to be able sleep in Monday morning without a toddler waking us up at 7am.

Monday morning we hung out at my parents for a while and then came home in order to pack for a beach trip to the Jersey shore on Tuesday. We ended up going all the way down to Wildwood, which is one of the few beaches left down the shore that doesn't require buying beach tags. After an hour and a half or so of surf and sand in North Wildwood we had a nice picnic lunch at a beachside playground.

Wildwood also has a long boardwalk with several piers of attractions, particularly amusement rides. We took Claire on a carousel, an experience that began with some tears, even though we were sitting with her, but she mellowed out pretty quickly and later was enjoying herself. Later in the evening, after she had napped and had dinner, we returned to the piers and she tried out a carousel-like ride involving her driving a car by herself.

Since I absolutely love roller coasters of all kinds and "The Great Nor'easter" was immediately at hand, I couldn't resist a ride. It's a pretty nift suspended-ride coaster that goes 150 ft above the beach, has a great initial drop, and does a couple of loops and a nice corkscrew, though it only goes around 50 mph at top speed.

Wednesday morning, however, I woke up feeling sick, though I managed to go with Laurel and Claire to Sears for a family photo portrait and later teach my evening class. Today, fortunately, I'm feeling some better, though Laurel isn't.

In any case, I'll be back to blogging now again after a few days break.

01 July 2004

theology journals

I'd be interested in knowing which academic theological journals folks out there find most stimulating and helpful.

I've been giving some thought to subscribing to a handful of theological journals in addition to the handful of philosophical journals I already get.

One theological journal I do currently subscribe to is Communio: International Catholic Review, which is edited by David L. Schindler. I find the article in there to be consistently thoughtful, interesting, orthodox, and provocative.

Their latest issue, for instance, focuses upon two topics. The first is part of an ongoing series on "The Mysteries of the Life of Jesus," this time with three short articles taking a look at the "hidden life" of Jesus, that is, those 30 years of Christ's life of which we only get the barest glimpse in the Gospels.

It is remarkable to think that the Incarnate Son of God grew and learned, worked and played, and was part of an extended family for some 30 years prior to his public ministry. Moreover, this life of Jesus was wholly unremarkable and beneath the notice of the Gospel writers as the genuinely human existence and sharing in the common human condition, within a culture, a language, a community, and a tradition. God is revealed even in this silence and hiddenness as a God who dwells in the everyday, where he doesn't seem to be revealed at all.

The second topic is a symposium on "Evangelical Catholicism," attending to the phenomenon of younger Roman Catholics who have a sense of Catholic identity that is outside of the "immigrant Catholic subculture" with its tendency to mesh Christian faith with a particular isolated ethnicity along with an accomodation to prevailing American values. Thus, this emerging "Evangelical Catholicism" is retrieving something that is genuinely more catholic, that lies beyond the "Liberal" vs. "Conservative" impasse within American Catholicism.

Some recent issues of Communio have explored topics such as "Does God Suffer?" and "Sacramentality and Culture."

Other theological journals I'm considering subscribing too include Pro Ecclesia: A Journal of Catholic and Evangelical Theology (published by the Center for Evangelical and Catholic Theology), Scottish Journal of Theology (published by University of Aberdeen), Modern Theology (published by Blackwell), and Westminster Theological Journal (a publication of Westminster Theological Seminary). Any commendations? Any further suggestions?