29 April 2006

this and that

this and that

Last day of classes was yesterday. I'm pretty much caught up on grading though will begin to have final essays trickle in and, by Wednesday, a stack of over 100. I celebrated the brief respite last night with a couple of cocktails and watching the last several episodes of Brideshead Revisited with Laurel. In the end, the story is one of God's compassion for sinners - no matter how stupid, sad, resistant, or simply shallow - and his mission to seek them in his grace. It's a story about conversion, where Christian faith is not the least glamorized.

Today is PCRT and I have to leave shortly to help with morning registration. I believe Phil Ryken and Sinclair Ferguson are speaking in the AM, though I don't know what I'll catch of that. Lunch will be with my dad who is attending the conference. Tonight's the end-of-year departmental party, always a fun event, though I'll need to remember to bring salad. Tomorrow's church, of course, though in the afternoon there is a planning and prayer meeting for the church plant.

Will blog again, perhaps, on Monday.

25 April 2006

newbigin on old and new

newbigin on old and new

I've been recently reading through Lesslie Newbigin's brief meditations on pastoral ministry contained in his book The Good Shepherd (Eerdmans 1977). I appreciate his direct and practical way of speaking on a number of topics and biblical texts. Commenting on Mark 2:18-22, concerning new cloth and old garments and new wine and old wine-skins, Newbigin writes,
It is not surprising that the message about Jesus - his words and his deeds - has acted throughout history as a source of radical criticism of the old order. There is a revolutionary element in the Gospel story which cannot be escaped if you face it honestly.

But we also know that religion is generally a conservative force in society. Almost by definition, religion is what binds society to the past, to the given traditions and to the established ways. This has been true of Christianity in history too. At many times and places the Church has seemed to stand simply for that which is about fifty years out of date. Some of our Madras city churches appear to stand for exactly that. They represent simply a timid clinging to the past. Any proposal for change arouses a violent fear and anger which are plainly pathological in character.

It is obvious that this kind of clinging to the past is something totally different from the religion of Jesus. Anyone who behaved in the way Jesus is reported to have behaved in this text would be quickly excommunicated from most of our churches. We surely ought to be much more seriously concerned than we usually are by the colossal difference between the pattern that Jesus set, and the way our church life is normally conducted. (19)
Newbigin goes on to point to two reasons why this dynamic has a special intensity in our time: first, the growth of knowledge and technology and, second, the growth of population and thus the youthfulness of our culture. The challenge is whether or not the church can learn to be a "church living in the world as it is, and flexible enough to be the authentic representative of Jesus who said that you cannot put new wine in old wine-skins" (20).

But Newbigin recognizes that none of this is simply a matter of cultural changes in knowledge and technology nor the growth of youth culture. Nor is the church's response simply to be one of balancing young and old or respecting the contribution of their distinctive gifts. Rather, Newbigin notes,
The conservative instinct in religious people has a foundation in truth. It does matter that we should be faithful to what has been given to us. It does matter that we should be able to take our bearings and hold fast in our course, not driven about like drift-wood with every current and wind. A church which is merely trying to keep up-to-date is much more pathetic and ridiculous than a church which is merely clinging to the past. Not every new fashion whether in theology or in ethics or in worship is the work of the Holy Spirit. God is at work in the world, but the devil is at work there also. (20)
But here Newbigin moves to the point of what he has to say, that the revelation we've been given and in terms of which we live is "Jesus, incarnate, crucified and risen. And to follow Jesus means to accept death and resurrection as the only law of life." (21). He follows out the implication of this,
It means to accept the fact that every good thing is given to us by God in order to be surrendered for the sake of something better, until finally life itself is surrendered for the sake of eternal life. It means therefore that we can never, never cling to the past - however precious it may be. It means that we are always ready to face the loss of old securities, the obliteration of old landmarks, the shaking of old certainties - knowing that, if we hold fast to Jesus, we shall be led on to better securities, deeper certainties, richer experiences of God's grace. (21)
Newbigin continues this reflection with what Paul says concerning his Jewish past, his old religious traditions that must be relinquished and transformed in order to gain Christ and what he is at work doing in the world. In this way Paul shared in the death and resurrection of Christ who is, himself, in this very pattern of existence, the unchanging rock in which we ultimately find our security.

Newbigin concludes his meditation with the following:
There is a right kind of conservatism in the Church, but it consists in this: to keep absolutely firm allegiance to Jesus who is himself the great revolutionary; to keep absolutely central in our thinkg the Cross which is the final "No" to every human order that claims to be perfect and self-sufficient; and by so keeping close to the Cross, to receive constantly afresh the power of his risen life which is always power for radical renewal.

The old wine-skins have to be thrown away - old forms, old methods, old words - even though they were precious and adequate in their day. God has new wine to pour into our lives in each new generation. Finally these old wine-skins which we call our mortal bodies have to be thrown away so that God may make us vessels fit to receive the new wine of heaven. (21-22)
These are helpful reminders to someone like myself who, in my love for history and philosophy and scholasticism, can easily get lost in the past and cling to old words and formulations that fail to speak today or that mean something different from what they once did. Newbigin's words are good to keep in mind as I attempt to live the Gospel before my students and colleagues in ways that they can understand, that takes up their own stories, and that they might find an attractive sign of the reign of God.

22 April 2006

long on constructivism

long on constructivism

Several months ago I had been reading Methodist theologian D. Stephen Long's book The Goodness of God: Theology, Church, and the Social Order (Brazos 2001).

Long's argument concerns moral theology or, rather, the necessity of theology for ethics, urging that the particularity of the Christian story is necessary for ethics inasmuch as ethics involves God's own goodness as its final end. Moreover, Long argues that the church itself embodies a social ethic and is an indispensible means by which God draws people to himself as the Good.

On the whole, it's a very helpful critique of modern ethics, Kant in particular, offering a comprehensive theological alternative. His outline of a positive Christian ethics on a range of issues is also a welcome contribution and profitable, despite quibbles I might have with various aspects of it. As Long presents the issues, he roots them in a virtue ethics in the spirit of Thomas Aquinas and rooted in Scripture: the ten commandments, the beatitudes, the gifts of the Spirit, etc.

In arguing for his views Long speaks early on of our continuing "enchantment" by the good even in the face of evil and over against various perspectives that suggest that goodness is nothing more than a social construction, perpetually (and a priori) subject to revision and critique. Long instead insists, with the larger Christian tradition, that "the good" is one of the transcendental predicates of being and thus involves a participation in God as the Good and final end of all things.

Long, therefore, must reject any constructivism that results in a thoroughgoing relativism that undermines the possibility of taking a moral stand or qualifies all moral judgments as limited and revisable. For one thing, not only does no one really live as if this were so, but such a position also often "assumes the location of some neutral and universal space where such critique and revision can take place" (18). But this is already to privilege modern secular space as neutral and universal (rather than as yet another social construction) and thereby to marginalize theology and dogma from ethical judgment. Furthermore, this sort of constructivism is itself a moral claim and thus must be seen, by its own claims, as limited and revisable.

What is intriguing about Long's account is that he decidedly does not reject social constructivism of all sorts. He insteads maintains that Christian orthodoxy will necessarily have a constructivist component, though that component is not merely Schleiermacher's religious experience refracted through Wittgenstein's views on language (as I recently read somewhere), which would simply privilege the shared grammar of religious behavior as a merely human construction.

Rather, Long realizes that the acts and words of the church are divinely instituted and authorized acts and words. Thus, when these acts and words are carried forward faithfully in accordance with the Gospel, they are the gifts by which God himself has promised to act and speak. That is to say, in terms of ethics, all ethical discernment involves participation in and formation by a particular social order. Moreover, it is the order of the church, normed by Scripture, that not only makes moral knowing possible, but also is the way in which God communicates himself as the gift of the Good and end of moral action.

While certain secular versions of social constructivism assume atheism and entail relativism, Long suggests that Christian trinitarianism also involves a constructivism that operates under and within the creating and redeeming action of God in Christ, by the Spirit. In other words, God's self-communication is always already mediated and is as much social as it is personal or, rather, is personal only because it is also social (and vice versa) since we are created and redeemed by a God who exits as Persons-in-relation. Thus, Christian orthodoxy requires a constructivist element.

So much for Long's views and my comments on them (and all I've given is the merest sliver of what he has to say). What I'd like to do now is expand upon some of what he says and suggest how Long's views might, in part, constitute a reply to critics of constructivist views, such as R. Scott Smith and others associated with Biola and their particular outlook.

In his Truth and the New Kind of Christian: The Emerging Effects of Postmodernism in the Church (Good News 2005), Smith attempts to argue against the kind of approach that Long presents, though Smith's more direct target is the kind of constructivism offered by figures associated with the emerging church (such as Brian McLaren). I don't have any interest in defending McLaren (besides, John Franke and Stan Grenz are better representatives of such an emerging approach), but I remain unconvinced that the shibboleth of supposed "postmodernism" necessarily poses the kind of threat to Christian orthodoxy that Smith suggests. Moreover, I would think that a more catholic expression of the Christian faith, consonant with the theology of the Reformers, would quite easily involve the constructivism that Long suggests.

Smith begins his book by developing an opposition between "relativism" and "objective truth," where objective truths are defined as "true for all people, whether or not anyone accepts them as true or talks about them as such" (13). For Smith, this entails a rejection of all sorts of constructivism, which he sees as "postmodern" and as involving a rejection of his understanding of "objective truth." Thus, on his view, they must fall into some sort of relativism.

Smith compares constructivist views to the film The Matrix, suggesting that postmodern thinkers see us as within the mediations of language (including all of our various social practices and institutions) as Neo found himself within the computer-generated Matrix. Just as Neo was trapped and unable to access the "real world" of how things actually are, so also our constructions cut us off from access to objective truth.

It is evident, therefore, that when Smith speaks of "objective truth," he does not have in mind primarily an epistemological notion (that we "know objectively" what is the case), but an ontological one (there there is a way that the world "is objectively" in itself that, moreover, can be known). While some recent discussions have focused more on objectivity as an epistemological notion (e.g., Paul Helm's review of Franke), as I read him Smith is more interested in the ontological notion and only secondarily in an epistemology that might flow from that.

When Smith turns to the views of Stanley Hauerwas (whom he presents as an advocate of Christian postmodernism), he interprets Hauerwas not only as saying that we "come to know the world as we learn to use our language," but also that "there simply is no way we can know how things really (i.e., objectively) are" (39). Thus, Smith suggests, Hauerwas is saying that we make or construct our worlds by how we talk, so that language (practices, institutions, concepts) do not represent a reality external to them, but constitute reality. Moreover, the epistemology entailed by this is one in which all knowledge claims involve a linguistically-mediated interpretation of reality rather than a direct access to how things are in themselves.

According to Smith, all of this amounts to embracing relativism. Smith, to his credit, recognizes and attempts to take seriously the fact that proponents of views such as those of Hauerwas would reject the charge of relativism and he examines some of their arguments. Nonetheless, Smith concludes that these arguments fail and thus the views in question do, in fact, devolve into relativism.

Unfortunately, Smith's argument at this point moves too quickly and, it seems to me, fails to move beyond a superficial engagement. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that Smith continually interprets these authors from the standpoint of his own assumed ontology without really stepping into the alternative ontology offered by the authors in question, assessing the claim of relativism from within that set of assumptions.

As Smith explains matters, there are several ways in which these "postmodern" Christian thinkers attempt to respond to the charge of relativism. First, they point out (as Long does above) that "relativism" itself, as a viewpoint or as an accusation, presupposes a neutral and universal space from which a judgment of relativism can be issued. But the views in question reject just such a space and thus lack the conceptual context in which a charge of relativism can even get off the ground.

Smith, however, rejects this response since [a] it seems itself to make a universal, neutral assertion (i.e., that there is no neutral and universal space) and [b] it supposes that we know what reality is really like in itself in order to make the claim that our access to it is only ever linguistically mediated (158).

Second, Smith suggests that these thinkers might reply that the language they use to speak about the world is language that God has given us in Scripture and thus is objectively true. Smith rejects this response as well since, on the view of these authors, Scripture itself must be interpreted by the rules of their particular Christian communities in order for it to function as revelation (159).

Still, it seems to me that these objections beg the question at the level of ontology, presupposing the very thing that Smith needs to argue for in order for his criticism to gain traction: that the world is related to the human mind externally and extrinsically so that we cannot speak of our practices (including practices of knowing) as in any way partly constituting reality. Linguistic mediation, after all, need not suppose that we know what "reality is really like in itself" (or even that there is such a thing) in order to recognize language as a mediation if, internal to language as language users, we are aware of its creative and constructive functions.

I suspect that Smith recognizes this weakness in his argument since it is to this issue that he turns in the final chapter of his book. In that chapter Smith gives several everyday sort of examples (buying a train ticket, refilling a prescription, balls and colors, etc.) that are intended to indicate how we presuppose the reality of "objective truth" (taken here, I think, in terms of ontology) in our daily living. The upshot of Smith's examples is a particular construal of how the interrelation between mind and world operates.

Without going into excessive detail, the bottom line of his account is that "our thoughts, and thus our concepts, do not confer any new properties upon or modify their objects" and, therefore, "we each can compare the object as it is given in experience, with our concept of that object, to see if they match up" (183-184). And if these points are correct, then any sort of constructivism must be rejected. Lest it seems that Smith's account remains question-begging, he does provide some evidence to support these claims.

First, Smith appeals to the process by which we learn and teach others about the world. If our experience and awareness of objects were partly constituted by how we think about and speak of those objects, thereby modifying the objects of awareness, then there would be no common, shared experiences (183). And if there were no common, shared experiences, then how could I teach someone else to rightly name and think about their own experience?

Second, Smith makes an introspective appeal to the phenomenology of experience itself. In particular, he points to our ability to "compare our concepts to things in the world, which can be given in experience" in order to see if they match up. This ability, Smith suggests, "demonstrates a commonsense understanding" that we all take for granted, that our "thoughts don't modify objects." If we assert that our thoughts or language or concepts do, in fact, modify objects (and thus that "we cannot have access to the real thing in itself"), we are speaking "nonsense, for the very ability to have access to reality is presupposed in the denial that we have such access." Smith concludes that result of these observations "undercuts the entire constructivist project" (184; emphasis his).

It seems to me, however, that these lines of argumentation are, ultimately, inconclusive and unconvincing. This is the case, in part, because of their failure to fully imagine what the world would be like and how it would function if some form of constructivism were true. By failing to imagine the contours of the alternative, the critique misses its mark.

For instance, with regard to learning about the world and teaching others about it, Smith's picture appears to suppose a kind of step by step process in which we first experience, then develop a concept in response to that experience, and finally give names to those concepts. But what if matters are not so straightforward? What if immersion in shared conceptual and linguistic practice is also a prerequisite for our ability to engage in the process of learning, so that the world always already appears to us as mediated by those practices?

In that case, there would still be shared, common experiences, even if they are mediated through and partly constituted by human practices. And thus, I would be able to teach you how to properly name, think about, and discuss those experiences from within our shared framework of practices. We would have to conceive the relationship between the mind and the world, and between you and I, as existing in a sort of reciprocal relationship. On such a view, concepts and language are not built up piece by piece from various experiences, but the whole set of practices and the world as mediated through those practices would be more like the sunrise, with dawn arriving over the whole scene at once (to use one of Wittgenstein's images).

This kind of situation would also help explain Smith's further argument, that there is a commonsense understanding that our thoughts don't modify their objects. If, however, the human practices by which reality is mediated and modified are social practices, they are always already in place before us, have a priority over us, and are received as a gift, a residuum of all the conceptual and linguistic mediations that have gone before us. If that is so, then it is not in the least surprising that we feel constrained by those practices in such way that the world appearing to us mediated through them lies beyond our ability to modify at will with our own personal thoughts, individually speaking.

This also explain why we experience ourselves in the way Smith notes, as comparing our awareness of the world with the concepts by which we attempt to understand reality in order to see if they match up. As those who find ourselves immersed within an established mediation of reality, we can discover anomalies in our practices, where our supposed conceptual competencies fail to operate as they ought.

Furthermore, except for some subset of idealists perhaps, no one positing a constructivist view of reality supposes that "thinking something makes it so" or that reality can be successfully mediated and modified through just any set of concepts, words, and practices. The world is not open to infinite modification and resists certain construals and shapings, thereby necessitating mediations that emerge from a form of life that can practically and successfully function.

Moreover, on such a view, part of the "thing in itself" character of the objects of our knowing is constituted by their "being known," which involves a real operation upon the object in which it unveils itself to us. In part, the experience we have of comparing our concepts to reality to see if they match is a matter of sensing the resistance of reality to some of the ways in which thought and practice may seek to modify it.

That doesn't entail, however, that we ever arrive at or have an awareness of how reality "is in itself" apart from any kind of mediation. After all, on this sort of view, aptness for being known is part of the reality of the blossoming tree outside my window, so that "being known by me" is as much an event in the life of the tree, constituting it's "treeness" as this particular tree, as it is an event within my experience.

I also would think that our ability to shift between languages or various conceptual schemes is part of what reveals to us that we never encounter reality as it is "in itself" apart from the event of our interaction. As with various optical illusions, there is never any seeing the image as it is in itself, but always instead a seeing as this or a seeing as that. The ability to face the world and shift between such viewpoints doesn't require access to some more basic reality in an objective way in order for us to recognize that this is, in fact, what we are doing.

Further still, whatever one might think of constructivist views as claims about knowing in general, it seems to me that at least some objects of our knowing are, in reality, fairly evidently partly constituted by and modified through our practices of speaking and knowing. Consider, for instance, objects such as universities, nations, courts, living rooms, etc.

A university isn't simply a collection of buildings full of classrooms, but is constructed, in part, by human practices and beliefs about higher education, practices of accreditation, admission procedures, academic requirements, rituals of degree conferral, etc. If everyone woke up tomorrow suddenly (and bizarrely) no longer believing in such educational practices, universities wouldn't simply sit empty, but rather, it is plausible to think, they would cease to be. Once we allow this, however, for objects such as universities, then we've opened the door for more generalized constructivist accounts.

These reflections certainly haven't demonstrated the truth of any version of constructivism, nor have they provided sufficient argumentation. I hope they have, however, suggested that some constructivist accounts are not as easily dismissed as Smith seems to think and that the evidence he proffers against constructivism can neverthelesss be accounted for within a constructivist framework.

Additionally, I hope I've given good reason to judge that constructivism of the sort that Long expounds does not at all entail relativism, let alone an "anything goes" relativism. Long's constructivism may, of course, allow for a kind of limited and principled pluralism in some areas (e.g., in the sense that Aquinas admits with regard to the exercise of prudence), but that is not the same as sheer relativism.

If, then, there is a "constructivist moment" internal to truth and to our knowing interaction with reality, then that is part of the order God has created and is thus constrained by that ordering of the world. It is, moreover, a site of divine unveiling of the world, a disclosure of the mind of God in the event of knower and known coming together in their conjoined unfolding towards God as their ultimate end. It is part of the divine light by which God illumines all successful receptivity to his world and, indeed, analogically reflects the eternally "mediated" life of the Trinity.

It isn't surprising to me that this kind of constructivist account of ontology and knowledge meets pointed resistance from individuals associated with institutions such as Biola, which, as far as I am aware, represent an evangelicalism that rejects the sacramental outlook of a more catholic (even if also reformational) Christian faith.

A more sacramental outlook holds that God does not merely work by the direct action of his Spirit upon the hearts of human beings, but that God's Spirit works through created means, embedded within the patterns of human culture, language, and practice: the Word spoken, proclaimed, and preached, and sacraments taking up material elements into human action, all within the church visible as a social organism. On a sacramental view of things, when these means are enacted in accord with divine ordinance, carrying forward the biblical story, and under the blessing of the Spirit, such humanly "constructed" realities are also sites of the presence of God himself in Christ through the power of the Spirit.

Inasmuch as some varieties of evangelical theology are manifestly uncomfortable with such an approach to theology - particularly its soteriology as it intersects with ecclesiology - those varieties of evangelicalism would, not astonishingly, likewise reject the kind of constructivism that Long, Hauerwas, and others represent. Thus, I don't think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that Smith's stance and its popularity in some quarters is rooted, in part, in a bias against biblical and reformational catholicity and perhaps an implicit discomfort with the ramifications of a richly trinitarian theology.

In the end, better than a full-blown critique of Smith's views, one might instead take up the positive and winsome account, steeped in established traditions of Christian reflection, as provided by theologians such as Stephen Long.

21 April 2006

faith through preaching

faith through preaching

The Westminster Confession of Faith states:
The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened. (14.1)
What I want to say a little bit about is the emphasis here on the instrumentality of "the ministry of the Word" in the Spirit's work of bringing sinners to faith in Christ.

This emphasis, of course, is fully biblical. As Paul says in his epistle to the Romans, "But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?...So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (10:14, 17). Likewise, when Philip asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" the Ethiopian eunuch replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" (Acts 8:3).

Thus, the Reformed confessions have rightly emphasized that the very word of God comes to people through the public ministry of the Word and that such a ministry is indispensible to bringing sinners to salvation through faith in Christ.

While a certain sort of primacy is given to the Word here in the Westminster Confession, the function of the Word is accompanied and made further effectual through the administration of the sacraments and the other means of grace. These means, naturally, are not to be pitted against the Word since, after all, they are enjoined by the Word itself and, indeed, the sacraments are partly constituted by a biblical "word of institution" and "promise of benefit" (WCF 27.3).

The primacy of the Word, however, raises the question of the relationship between the ministry of the Word and, in particular, the sacrament of initiation - holy baptism - which stands at the inception of the Christian life, signifies and seals the event of that inception, and marks one's solemn admission into the church visible. So what can be said concerning this?

While there is not one uniquely confessional position here - let alone a single historically Reformed approach - one significant strand of Reformed thought would make some distinctions here along the following lines.

First, in connection with baptism there's a distinction between [a] the ordinary order of adult conversion from unbelief to faith in Christ and [b] covenant child conversion into a maturing faith.

Adults, ordinarily speaking, come to conversion and saving faith by the work of the Spirit through the ministry of the Word, particularly preaching, as we've seen the Westminster Confession teach. We can add that when, as a result of the ministry of the Word, people turn to Christ in repentance and rest upon him in faith, part of that turning takes public form through baptism as a solemn admission into the church visible.

Now, these individuals may very well have believed in Christ prior to the actual moment of baptism, and thus may have already received Christ in a saving way, yet the Gospel holds out Christ and his benefits to us not only in the Word, but also in the sacraments: "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).

Thus, faith receives and rests upon Christ as he is offered and present in baptism as much as in the Word and, in that way, the faith already begun by the Spirit through the Word is nourished, confirmed, and strengthened in baptism. And so, the gifts of Christ received by faith through the Word are reconveyed and reappropriated in baptism.

Moreover, since baptism is a public and tangible act, it is the means by which the church visible publicly and officially receives sinners. Whatever operations of the Spirit may have already occurred prior to baptism (operations which give us a firm hope of salvation for covenant infants and catechumens dying before baptism), it is nonetheless baptism by which the church visible ordinarily recognizes and embraces sinners in Christ. In doing so the church solemnly receives those individuals as belonging to the people and family of God, under his protection and care, and as the proper objects of God's saving actions through the Word, sacraments, and other means of grace.

I've only touched here on what I take, biblically, to be the "ordinary pattern" of adult conversion, setting aside various exceptions, such as those baptized for the wrong sorts of reasons and who only come to saving faith subsequently to baptism, if at all. But that's another topic. Therefore, enough on adult conversion.

With regard to covenant children, it is the hopeful expectation of God's people with regard to these children that, in virtue of the promises of the covenant, God is at work in them, by his Spirit, from the beginning. They are federally holy, are within the covenant with respect to their believing parent(s), and to be regarded as believers. As a result, covenant children are properly to be baptized.

This is where a second distinction comes in, a distinction between [a] the seed or root of faith or faith in principle, on one hand, and [b] the exercise of faith or actual(ized) faith, on the other hand. Covenant children are to be regarded, in virtue of the covenant and its promises, as having the seed and root of faith. Thus their baptism is a virtual profession of faith on their part, as well as a public and official reception of these children by the church visible as believers, with the privileges that pertain to them, in respect to children.

Moreover, Christ is at work in his sacraments, among his people, by his Spirit, presenting and offering himself to our covenant children as much as to adult converts. Baptism thus is a means by which the seed and root of faith is confirmed, strengthened, and nourished in a manner appropriate to the condition of a child.

As these children grow up within the church visible - within the people and family of God, under his protection and care, and as objects of God's saving action through the Word, baptism, prayer, and other means of grace - it is our joyful and hopeful expection that God will mature the seed and root of faith into the full exercise of a faith actualized.

As with adults, coming to a full exercise of faith, turning to Christ and resting upon him in an explicit way - while not a "conversion" from unbelief and perhaps not marked out by a particular "moment" - does nonetheless involve a process that is brought about through the ministry of the Word. This ministry of Word, however, builds upon what has already been offered and presented to the child through the promises of the covenant as held forth in baptism and other means. Thus saving faith, as the exercise of actualized faith, is as much as matter of the ministry of the Word in covenant children as it is with adult converts, in keeping with the Westminster Confession.

Again, I haven't deal here with anomalous situations that run contrary to the nature of baptism. For instance, there are certainly cases where unbelieving parents have their child baptized out of custom, culture, or superstition. I have only explained, however, one view of the hope that Christian parents may have regarding their covenant children in the ordinary course of events.

Even if this view is not necessarily the dominant one in modern American evangelical Presbyterianism, it is certainly one major, historically Reformed position. Moreover, it is a view that was held by a not a few of those who wrote and approved the Westminster Standards.

19 April 2006

philadelphia presbytery core values

philadelphia presbytery core values

When the Philadelphia Presbytery of the PCA recently redrew its boundaries in order to focus on the geographic city, it also adopted a set of core values to help define its mission. These are available on the website of at least one church and will probably show up on the Presbytery website sooner or later. But I just wanted to record them here for my own reference.




1. Our passion is to see the glory of God displayed throughout the whole earth.

The book of Revelation gives us a glorious glimpse of worship in heaven where we see the angelic host singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come”, and the twenty-four elders raising their voices in chorus, singing, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being” (Rev. 4:8b, 11). God delights in such worship. He desires that the whole earth be filled with His glory. All the redeemed of the Lord join in this great worship celebration. Indeed, Christ, by his atoning sacrifice, has “purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9b). Indeed, God is worthy of all praise for the greatness of who He is and for what He has done in His works of creation, providence, and redemption. Yet, in our sinful rebellion, it is our continual tendency to seek glory for ourselves. We do this by worshiping creatures and created things rather than the true and living God. But now as God’s redeemed people our burden is to see God alone receive the glory due His name (Rom. 1:21–25). Indeed, our life’s mission is to know Christ and to make Him known to all those around us in an ever-widening circle to the very ends of the earth so that they too might know Him and join us in worshiping Him (Matt. 28:19–20).

2. The gospel of the Kingdom moves and shapes the Church.

The gospel is the long-awaited announcement that God fulfilled his promise to bring salvation to a broken world—the kingdom of God. John the Baptist announced this good news and then pointed to Jesus as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus came as the King of the Kingdom and through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension we find new life for ourselves and hope for a needy world. Personally, we enter the Kingdom by the new birth as the Spirit enables us to repent and believe the gospel. Then we are brought together as a community that Jesus called “my church.” Now, as Jesus’ Church, we seek to be transformed by the gospel and to see the gospel transform our world. We preach the gospel to ourselves, to the church, and to the world. When the gospel is at work in us, it gives us new freedom, new power, and new relationships. The gospel changes everything.

What a rich and enriching thought: in Christ, the most menial task and the most common man is holy in God's sight and useful in His service. God works powerfully in and through the believer's daily life, whether in the marketplace, the assembly line, or the sanctuary; whether over a meal, a Bible study, or a back-yard conversation. "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31). "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.... It is the Lord Christ you are serving" (Col. 4:23, 24). This changes everything. Life is not cut into compartments, some for Jesus and His service, some not. Every man and woman saved by His grace is a man of God or a woman of God and is in His service every day in every way. So every arena of life is touched by God and can be transformed by the gospel. He has sovereign claim and influence upon all of life.

3. Kingdom-centered prevailing prayer is central to all we do.

Nothing of significance happens in the kingdom of God without prayer. In prayer we acknowledge our weakness and helplessness as we call out to the Lord for grace and power. Jesus tells us that without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5), but that as we remain in Him and His words remain in us we will be blessed with dramatic answers to our prayers (John 15:7). Just as the early church was devoted to prayer (Acts 2:42), we are called to be a community devoted to kingdom-centered prayer (as opposed to survival or self centered prayer), that our lives might be God centered and that we might see His power displayed in transforming us and the world around us. Jesus teaches that persistence in prayer is critical—we can either pray or give up (Luke 18:1). As we face enormous spiritual obstacles and powers, we know that the kingdom will only move forward as God’s people cry out to Him. We are involved in intense spiritual warfare and our battle is not against flesh and blood; therefore we must put on the armor of God and fight in prayer (Eph. 6:10 20). As we do, we will see the forces of evil and darkness destroyed and the power of the kingdom of God revealed.

4. Christ-centered expository preaching is foundational to the vitality and mission of the Church.

Preaching the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is the divinely-appointed means of bringing sinners to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and building believers up in the gospel. How can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Rom. 10:14). At a time when people will not tolerate sound teaching, but would prefer to hear something that reaffirms their own selfish desires, we are charged with this perennial imperative: “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2). Although our preaching is weak in itself, we believe it has the power to transform people’s lives by the life-changing work of God the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:3–5).

By expository preaching we mean preaching that is driven by Scripture and derived from its divine authority, so that God’s Word is declared to God’s people. It is not preaching that merely begins with a biblical text and then proceeds to communicate the preacher’s own spiritual ideas or the values of contemporary culture. Expository preaching carefully and thoroughly communicates what the Bible actually teaches, exploring its context, explaining its meaning, expounding its doctrine in connection to the person and work of Jesus Christ, and applying its gospel to the spiritual needs of those who listen, exalting the glory of God. Because God’s Word is supremely “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), expository preaching is of its very nature practical. And because the Bible contains the gospel on every page, such preaching always is or ought to be evangelistic in its proclamation of the crucified and risen Christ.

5. The heart of our king also compels us to engage our communities in deeds of mercy and love, of justice and truth.

God's heart moves Him relentlessly to implement His holy agenda through His redeemed people, the Church. Isaiah tells us that when justice is driven back, when righteousness stands at a distance, when truth stumbles in the streets, when honesty cannot enter, when truth is nowhere to be found, when whoever shuns evil becomes a prey,... when the Lord sees this and there is no one among His people to intervene, He is displeased and appalled (see Isa. 59:14-16).

Jesus also made it clear in his ministry that the Kingdom was to be lived out as well as taught. He not only preached the gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation, but he demonstrated it in acts of healing, compassion for the hungry and poor, and passion for justice. This is Jesus’ agenda for his Church; we are to continue, in the power of the Spirit, what “Jesus began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1). “Christ’s love compels us, and he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor. 5:14, 15).

Therefore, putting feet on our faith, we seek to bring the power of the Gospel—through word, deed, and community—to our neighborhoods and communities in social healing, racial reconciliation, justice, and cultural renewal, by God’s power. We are called to be salt and light in our culture through our work, Christian ministries, and all of our relationships. Ministries of word and deed need to complement each other, because “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).

6. We are committed to the nurturing of healthy, growing, and reproducing churches.

By its very nature, Jesus’ Church is a vital, spiritual organism. It is the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27); it is the temple God is building, with Christ himself as the cornerstone, where He lives by his Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22). As one expression of Jesus’ Church we as a presbytery long to know that vitality ourselves and, in turn, to nurture such vitality in all of our congregations until “we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). A spiritually healthy church will also be a growing church, with the Lord adding to their number those whom he is saving. They will also pray and work for the nurture of their own children, conversion of unbelievers, and the planting of healthy new congregations.

7. Church planting is of first importance to saturate Philadelphia with the gospel.

To reach new people you need new churches. The New Testament shows the expansion of the Church primarily through the starting of new churches. Individuals are changed by the Gospel, and then they go to others with that good news. As new people are reached in new places, new churches spring up. When the church in Jerusalem was scattered by the great persecution following Stephen's martyrdom, "those who had been scattered preached the Word wherever they went" (Acts 8:4). Paul later devoted his ministry to planting new churches wherever there were groups of people who had not heard the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. He said, "It has always been my ambition to preach the Gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else's foundation" (Rom. 15:20). To the church in Corinth he opened his heart when he wrote, "Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our area of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the Gospel in the regions beyond you" (2 Cor. 10:15,16). We believe this pattern still holds today. It must shape our ministry priorities for reaching Philadelphia.

8. Ministry in the City of Philadelphia is a missional priority.

We have been called to minister in the Philadelphia area. It is impossible to minister effectively in our area without giving attention to the unique needs, opportunities, and challenges of the city itself. Too often the evangelical church has run away from the needs of our cities, seeing them only as centers of crime, poverty, and corruption. But the city of Philadelphia is our primary mission field, and we believe that the Lord Jesus has a redemptive plan for it. We long to see the city of Philadelphia (and its surrounding area) reflect the beauty of the New Jerusalem, the holy city of God. We rejoice in the rich history, diversity, and complexity of the city—and the unique opportunities for the Gospel that it represents. We rejoice that the world has come to us with so many cultures represented here. We long to be used by the Lord to have a lasting impact on the city and its many cultures.

9. Christ's body, the church, is one: this compels us to work in partnership with others of like faith and ministry in order to see our vision become a reality.

Our Savior Himself compelled us to do ministry, not alone or in isolation, but in partnership with others of like faith, vision, and ministry when he prayed:

“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).

Our Presbytery has been given a vision for this region that compels us to work together with others in the body of Christ. None of our congregations can accomplish it alone. None of our churches has been given all of the resources of the Holy Spirit. The various parts of the body of Christ need each other (1 Cor. 12). The body of Christ in the Philadelphia area is rich and diverse. Our vision can be realized only as “the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). Partnership within our Presbytery is essential, as are partnerships with other congregations and ministries. Therefore, we want to cultivate communication and cooperation with other parts of the body of Christ and to work in alliances wherever appropriate.

10. Equipping and mobilizing every member for ministry is necessary in order to fulfill the mission of the King.

We believe in "every member ministry". Real people are the raw material God develops and uses to do His ministry in a broken world. It is the Risen Christ who gives spiritual gifts to those He saves and transforms, that they might serve Him. He gives leadership gifts within the church "to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.... From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (Eph. 4:12,16). It is not optional for us to develop people in the Gospel for ministry; it is essential. The building of a glorious spiritual house takes lots and lots of living stones, not just a blueprint and a work crew (see 1 Pet. 2:4, 5). Every believer has been given permission and potential for ministry by King Jesus Himself.

11. To fulfill our calling, we must develop and empower leadership at every level.

Every leader learns this the hard way: you are just one limited person. You are just a man, just a woman. You can only touch a few lives and do a few things. When Moses tried to be "The Man," the only leader of a redeemed but unruly Israel coming out of centuries of slavery, he burned out. His father-in-law, Jethro, watched him work, and gave him wise advice: "What you are doing is not good.... The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.... But select capable men from all the people...and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.... That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this,... all these people will go home satisfied" (Exo. 18:17–23). Leaders multiplied at every level: the only way to lead the people and get them home to the promised land. So it is into the New Testament. Paul urges Timothy, his young apprentice who was a leader in the next generation: "And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others" (2 Tim. 2:2). To fulfill our calling—to make disciples of the nations until Jesus returns—leaders must be replicated at every level of ministry. Because ministry takes place at every level of life, we need leaders there, too: trained to serve, unleashed to lead, and able to develop new leaders.

12. Leadership and service in the Presbytery flow from the gifts God has given to the church body.

We affirm that Presbytery should seek out men and women from within the membership of the churches for all positions of leadership and service on its ministry teams (except for the authoritative teaching and disciplinary role that the Bible reserves for men, cf. 1 Tim. 2:12–14). God calls people to serve in accordance with the gifts He gives and in response to developing needs.

15 April 2006

easter vigil

easter vigil

At this time of year, many Christian traditions maintain the ancient custom of publicly receiving catechumens into the church through baptism. This is done on the vigil of Pascha, the night before we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord. I have my doubts about the biblical foundations for any kind of extended catechumenate as a pre-requisite for baptism, though I'm sure practical and pastoral arguments could be made in its favor, especially in the early church context of converts from outright paganism. Nevertheless, the Vigil of Christ's resurrection is a wonderful occasion for meditation upon the mystery of holy baptism.

The Vigil is not, after all, just for those being baptized, but is also a time for all the faithful to renew their own baptismal vows, to engage in what the Westminster Larger Catechism calls "improving our baptism," which is to be undertaken especially when we are present at the baptism of others. The Catechism goes on to describe that "improvement" as involving:
...serious and thankful consideration of the nature of [baptism], and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein: by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ, and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.
Or, to use a more wide-angle lens with which to view the sacrament, in baptism we are caught up into the story of God's mission in the world to extend his salvation to the ends of the earth for the renewing of humanity and, in us, all creation. Both our personal experience of salvation - remitting of sins and newness of life - and the broader story of God's redemption of the world are taken up and carried forward in baptism, as we are knit together by the same Spirit into a single new humanity in Christ.

As it is practiced today, rooted in early traditions, Easter Vigil celebrates Christian baptism within a catena of biblical texts that recall the world's first creation, Noah's flood, Israel's crossing of the Red Sea, the Spirit's revival of dry bones, and several other texts that speak of deliverance, cleansing, new life, and the gathering together of God's people, culminating in a reading from Paul's teaching on baptism in Romans 6 and the account of the resurrection of Jesus. In this way, baptism is placed firmly within the context of the sweeping biblical narrative, of all God's promises and typological deliverances, as those are taken up and fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and our baptism into that dead and now risen Person.

In a recent contribution to Common Grounds Online, Greg Thompson makes the following helpful observation:
One of the things that is most fundamental to our identity as a church is that we are people of a shared story. We are a community formed by and gathered around a common conception of the real, the true, and the beautiful; we inhabit a common story. And when we worship God together, we step into that ancient and divinely wrought story and embody it anew in our own time, language, and locale. ("Baptism: The Old Story Made New")
Thompson goes to apply this to baptism, particularly the baptism of our covenant children, noting that "God's story has always had signs," so that baptism is a way of entering into that story.

In particular, Thompson notes, that story is prior to us - it began long before us and comes to us as our own story only as part of a greater story. Thus, in baptism, we learn about "the prior and pursuing nature of God's love," the story of which "flows through time and space like a mighty river" and into which we are baptized in order to be "swept away into the life of faith."

In whatever manner we draw out the implications of baptism for us personally, for our children, for the identity of the church, and for God's mission in the world, the renewal of our baptismal vows is a call to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil, to repent and turn toward Christ, and to trust with a living faith in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and continues to offer us by his Spirit. Thus almost all traditional baptismal rites include an exchange such as the following:
Question: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Answer: I renounce them.

Question: Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Answer: I renounce them.

Question: Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer: I renounce them.
In situations where the baptismal font stands near the western door of the church, those to be baptized often stand facing out of the doors, out into the world as they renounce Satan, his empty works and pomps, and the temptations of their own flesh. As the baptismal candidates begin to confess the faith of the church in the words of the Apostles' Creed, they turn eastward into the church, turning their backs against those powers they have renounced. In this way the "turning" involved in repentance is embodied and acted out in the very orientation of those to be baptized, a tangible reminder of what all the baptized are called to do daily in a hundred little ways.

But baptism isn't merely a matter of personal repentance. Talk of "the evil powers" afoot in the world marks baptism also very much as a public act of defiance, in God's Spirit, against those powers. New life within God's church and a new stance over against the powers that dominate the world go hand in hand. In his book, A Peculiar People, Rodney Clapp notes the way in which "baptism is the rite most explicitly addressing our constitution and cultivation as a Christian people." Life in the church is, under the sign of baptism, "a kind of resocialization, an enculturation according the standards of the kingdom of God rather than this world" (99).

Clapp goes on to explicate this in further detail, noting how on several occasions Paul
...reminds believers that they have a new identity because they have been baptized into Christ and adopted as his sisters and brothers. When children are adopted they take on new parents, new siblings, new names, new inheritances - in short, a new culture. And those who have been baptized into Christ, according to Paul, have been adopted by God. (100)
As Clapp suggests, baptism therefore means having God as our new Father, other Christians as our new siblings, "Christian" as our new family name, and the life of God's people together as the church as our new inheritance. He concludes, "It is in this profound sense that Paul can speak of conversion and baptism creating a new person - even a new world (2 Cor 5:17)" (100).

Moreover, this is a matter of our public identity, shifting that identity not only away from merely biological ties, but also away from social ties outisde of the church, ties of nation-state, social class, ethnicity, and geography. In this way, baptism is a public act, and a deeply subversive one at that, with political overtones by which the church is constituted as a "distinctive and challenging culture" (101). When the church comes too closely to be identified with prevalent cultural values - structures of authority, social mores, notions of excellence, sources of worth - then the force of baptism is blunted. Our turning away from the western doors of the church falters and only with hesitation and a backwards glance, reminiscent of Lot's wife, do we turn our backs against the powers.

Of course, as Leonard Vander Zee notes in his book on the sacraments, "Our turning from sin and turning to God in baptism is not a matter of our becoming worthy of our baptism, as though the fulfillment of our obligations validates our baptism" (Christ, Baptism, and the Lord's Supper 117). As our Reformed standards repeatedly note, baptism has an ongoing significance for our entire life in Christ that always remains graciously prior to our response, thus also calling forth that faith-filled response.

We read in the Belgic Confession (1561), "baptism is profitable not only when the water is on us and when we receive it, but throughout our entire lives" (Article 34). Likewise, the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) tells us, "baptism once received continues for all of life, and is a perpetual sealing of our adoption" (Chapter 20). And, in light of the Westminster Catechism's teaching on improving our baptism, we find that the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God explains, "the inward grace and virtue of baptism is not tied to that very moment of time wherein it is administered" but rather "that the fruit and power thereof reacheth to the whole course of our life."

And so, the great Puritan divine William Perkins writes,
For although baptism be but once only administered, yet that once testifies that all men's sins past, present, and to come are washed away...Therefore baptim may be truly termed the sacrament of repentance and, as it were, a board to swim upon when a man shall fear the shipwreck of his soul. (The Work of William Perkins, ed. by Breward, 222)
The pattern here is Pauline in shape, the indicative preceding the imperative: we seek to live out what we already are in Christ by baptism and, thereby, in the words of Richard Baxter, "own" our baptismal identity, "personally renew it," and "give up" ourselves to God.

On this vigil of our Lord's resurrection, then, let us keep in mind both all the new brothers and sisters who we today welcome into Christ's church through baptism, as well as our own continuing identity as God's baptized people. As we next pass by the baptismal font, let us remember what it calls us to. Anglican theologian Kenneth Stevenson writes,
Every time we stroll past the font, physically or mentally, we are given a visual expression of the new beginning that Christ will always offer those who come to him. The new beginning is about repentance and renewal, not in abstract ways but in the concrete reality of our ordinary lives...[Those baptized] are going to go on and on renouncing the devil and professing faith in Christ in countless ways all through their lives. Baptism opens a door and keeps that door open. Or to revert to the death and resurrection of Christ, we can roll the stone against the door of the tomb, and shut the door against the world, but Christ keeps coming to burst out of the tomb and to make his entrance into our fearful lives. (The Mystery of Baptism 56)

13 April 2006

1000 posts

1000 posts

Apparently I've reached the 1000 blog post mark on this blog. I'm not sure if that's cause for celebration, especially in the midst of Holy Week, but it's happened nonetheless.

It's hard to believe I've posted that many entries over the past five years. Among the most popular in terms of hits are the following:

Enns on Inspiration
The Bible in the Middle Ages
Trueman on Calvin and the Calvinists
McCarraher on the Enchantments of Mammon
Fergus Kerr on Aquinas

That's an interesting cross-section of posts. Among other favorites in terms of hits are the stories about my daughter Claire:

Of Narnia and New Life
Toddler Prayers
Toddler Breakfasts and Complexity
Secondary Causes
Mouth of Babes

Among my personal favorites in the past year are these two posts that were part of a larger conversation and which generated a lot of good discussion both here and on other blogs:

Personal Jesus
Personal Jesus 2

And, in light of the fact that today is Maundy Thursday, on which we remember our Lord's institution of his Holy Supper, these two posts from 2004 come to mind:

Eucharistic Memorial
Eucharistic Memorial - Part II

This summer will be the fifth anniversary of my blogging and I'll probably take time then to give some more in-depth reflections on the practice of blogging, how it's grown, what I've learned from doing it.

11 April 2006

bible meme

bible meme

1. How many Bibles are in your home?

A quick count turns up twelve. This doesn't include lectionaries or psalters, of which we have several.

2. What rooms are they in?

At the moment, in the office/library, master bedroom, living room, kitchen, play room, and dining room. The Bibles tend to move around.

3. What translations do you have?

Several are original language versions (e.g., Nestle-Aland Greek NT). Beyond that there's the Geneva Bible, JPS Tanach, Everett Fox's translations of the Torah and 1 & 2 Samuel, a Spanish Bible, KJV, NKJV, NRSV, NIV, ESV, and NASB.

4. Do you have a preference?

I like the old RSV, but the new ESV is solid. I use my Oxford Annotated NRSV most often since the notes are useful and it includes the Apocrypha.

5. Nominate an interesting verse.

Hmm. Just a single verse? I find much of Jude rather perplexing, despite having taught through it before. If I must choose a single verse, how about Hebrews 5:8, "Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered." Unpacking that thought intersects with christology and soteriology in intriguing ways.

I'm not going to force this meme on anyone, but if you're looking for something to blog, feel free to use it.

08 April 2006

without delay

According the Presbyterian (PCA) "Directory for the Worship of God," after the birth of a child or the conversion of an older person "Baptism is not to be unnecessarily delayed" (56-1). The wording of this instruction goes back to 17th century Westminster "Directory for the Public Worship of God." What this means in practice, of course, can vary from parish to parish.

In John Calvin's 1542 Form of Prayers for the church in Geneva we read the following instruction:
It is to be noted that children must be brought to baptism either on Sunday at the time of catechism [i.e., at the late afternoon service], or on other days at the sermon, so that as baptism is a solemn reception into the church it may take place in the presence of the congregation.
A later edition of this same instruction becomes more detailed and specific:
And so we are to note the following, that children ought to be brought to be baptized, either, if they happen to be born on a Sunday, to the sermon after dinner which is the called "the catechism," or, if it is born on the working day, to one of the morning sermons. In this way, baptism should be celebrated in the presence of the congregation since it is a solemn usage and sacrament received in the church.
This quotation is adapted from the translation provided by William Huyke's 1550 English translation of Calvin.

What is interesting to note is that Calvin's Geneva offered daily worship and thus expected that a child ordinarily would be brought to church to be baptized on the very day it was born or, at the latest, the next day's worship service. This sort of historic practice makes one wonder what might have counted as "unnecessary delay" in 16th century Geneva and, moreover, what this might imply for contemporary practice.

07 April 2006

newbigin on christian unity

newbigin on christian unity

In his book The Reunion of the Church, Reformed theologian, missiologist, and ecumenist Lesslie Newbigin explains and defends the remarkable convergence of Anglican, Methodist, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Reformed communions that became the Church of South India. Newbigin writes:
It is common to hear churchmen speak as though they did not really regard Christian unity as a serious question this side of the End. This is a disastrous illusion. Christians cannot behave as though time were unreal. God gives us time, but not an infinite amount of time. It is His purpose that the Gospel should be preached to all nations, and that all men should be brought into one family in Jesus Christ. His purpose looks to a real End, and therefore requires of us real decisions. If we misconstrue His patience, and think that there is an infinity of time for debate while we perpetuate before the world the scandal of our dismemberment of the Body of Christ, we deceive ourselves. In an issue regarding the doing of the will of God there is no final neutrality.

Strongs words. And, if he is correct, an important reminder.

Let's remind ourselves then of the Gospel: When we encounter the follower of Christ with whom we disagree or whose doctrine is different, "This too is my brother." When we hear of the minister who embarasses us or church member who is scandalous, "Jesus ate with publicans and sinners." When we are abused or attacked by a fellow Christian, "This is one for whom Christ also died."

Unless we can swallow our pride, give up our presumptions to always being right, and bear with each other in patience, the vocation of Christian unity will languish. I confess I'm not very good at these things oftimes, but I know our Lord continues to intercede on my and our behalf, "Ut unum sint."

05 April 2006

new perspectives and luther

new perspectives and luther

Do you know the story about the Congressman who was asked about his attitude toward whiskey?

He replied, "If you mean the demon drink that poisons the mind, pollutes the body, desecrates family life, and inflames sinners, then I'm against it...But if you mean the elixir of Christmas cheer, the shield against winter chill, the taxable potion that puts needed funds into public coffers to comfort little crippled children, then I'm for it. This is my position, and I will not compromise."

I get the sense that some advocates of the New Perspectives on Paul might say something similar when asked about their attitude toward Luther:

"If you mean the popularizer of an individualistic introspective consciousness, the man who interpreted Paul as an opponent of self-help merit legalism, and the progentior of 'Lutheran' hermeneutics up through Bultmann, then I'm against him...But if you mean the defender of the Gospel of free grace, the advocate of faith's sole sufficiency for justification, the one who deployed Paul's polemic against ethnic presumption against the ills of his own day, then I'm for him. This is my position, and I will not compromise."

04 April 2006

kuklick, stout

kuklick, stout

As I think I mentioned earlier, our philosophy department is sponsoring a spring lecture series on philosophy in America. Bruce Kuklick of the University of Pennsylvania already spoke back on March 15 on the topic of "Varieties of Philosophy in American."

This Friday, April 7, Jeffrey Stout will be speaking on "The Spirit of Democracy." Jeff Stout has been a professor of religion at Princeton University since 1975 and is one of the leading scholars addressing the place of religion within contemporary liberal democratic society. His talk will be from 1pm until 2pm on the mezzanine level of La Salle's Hayman Center. A light lunch will be provided and all are welcome.

While he was on campus several weeks ago, I had lunch with Bruce Kuklick and found out that he grew up down the block on the street where we live. He was able to fill me on the history of the neighborhood and the developments its seen over the decades.

Kuklick's talk was on American philosophy and American character, dealing with the question of whether or not we can properly speak of a distinctively American philosophy (rather than, say, philosophers who just happen to be American). Kuklick suggested that the notion of "American philosophy" is of relatively recent origin, going back to the Cold War era, and the development of "American studies," particularly at Harvard University, in order to vindicate the American way of life over against the threat of communism.

As the notion developed, the two figures originally isolated and valorized as distinctively American were Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James, both with historic connections to Harvard University. The rest of the timeline eventually came to be filled in with Jonathan Edwards, C.S. Peirce, and John Dewey, providing a sweeping trajectory for American thought. The problem, however, is that this American "canon" can be taken as fairly arbitrary.

Of course, Kuklick noted, there are identifiable traditions within American thought, often involving students and teachers or shared institutional settings or general influence. Of these, Kuklick highlighted three as of major importance. First, there is the tradition of the "new divinity" coming out of New England, rooted in English and Continental Reformed theology: Jonathan Edwards, Joseph Bellamy, Samuel Hopkins, Nathaniel William Taylor. Second, there is a tradition indebted to philosophy, particularly Scottish Common Sense realism and its unravelling: Francis Bowen, Noah Porter, James Marsh. Third, there are successive generations of Harvard thinkers: Josiah Royce, C.I. Lewis, W.V.O. Quine.

None of these traditions, however, can be construed as distinctively "American," Kuklick suggested. The first is rooted in the theology of the European Reformation. The second draws heavily upon Scottish and German philosophy. And the third maintained a lively interaction with English philosophy, particularly at Oxford and Cambridge.

Perhaps what might be seen as more American are the social contexts in which various philosophical perspectives arose or were adapted, but even these don't quite give American thought an entirely unique flavor. Kuklick pointed to three contexts in particular: the kinds of political theory the inform the American experiment, the successful inroads of logical positivism into Anglo-American professional philosophy, and the frequency of amateur philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Bushnell, and William Torrey Harris.

At the end of his talk, Kuklick did backtrack a bit, suggesting that we might speak of "American philosophy" in the way we speak of "German idealism" or "English empiricism." There are many examples of Germans who weren't idealists and idealists who weren't German, but it does identify something. As he sees it, there are several aspects to the American experience and character that together distinguish us from other cultures: pervasive religiosity, an emphasis on practical science, and a tendency toward individualism.

These aspects of America, however, fail to really pick out any group of philosophers as distinctively American. Edwards certainly exhibits religiosity and, with his emphasis on personal conversion, helps shore up individualism, but he lacks a focus on practical science. James has a keen interest in religion and in practical science, but he takes a strong stance against the tendency toward individualism.

In the end it seems, if Kuklick is correct, that the category of "American philosophy" may heuristic at best and misleading at worst. All in all Kuklick's talk was challenging and warns us against any too easy generalizations about the character of American philosophical thought.

03 April 2006

recent presentations

recent presentations

I've been busy the past two weekends giving presentations at two different philosophy conferences. Both were good experiences, which generated helpful discussion in a spirit of collegiality.

The first conference was on "The Significance of Francisco Suarez" and was held March 24-25 at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. My presentation concerned the influence of Suarez on emergent Protestant (and especially Reformed) scholasticism in the first half of the 17th century, though it remained largely on the level of a sketchy overview. The other presentations were really quite good and profitable, addressing Suarez and his significance from a variety of angles.

Regarding questions of ontology, Daniel Heider's paper helpfully (at least for me) clarified Suarez's teaching on the univocity and analogy of Being, distinguishing his view from that of both Aquinas and Scotus. Daniel Novotny likewise explained some issues raised by Suarez's views on "entia rationis," while Mariano Crespo used Suarez's theory of beings to address and fill out Husserl's account of the constitution of objects.

John Montag gave a historical overview of Suarez's role in the composition of the "ratio studiorum" (a document that shaped Jesuit education), placing it within the context of the development of modern curricula as well as the struggle of the Jesuits for identity. Jorge Gracia likewise presented a historical overview, but he did so with a wide-angle lens, placing Suarez within the context of medieval category theory.

Steven Brust, Matthew Lomanno, and Jose Pereira all addressed, in various ways, the place of Suarez in the context of the rise of modernity and the political, making various arguments and suggestions about how Suarez is a transitional figure, yet still not fully "modern" in the way that Hobbes or Locke might be.

A number of other papers presented were also well-done and informative. I certainly came away with a much richer knowledge and appreciation of Suarez's contribution to philosophy and theology. I was also very much impressed by the students and faculty of Franciscan University. It's really quite an unusual school, on the more evangelical and charismatic end of Roman Catholicism, which flows over into the evident piety and spiritual vitality of their student body.

That translates not only into a high level of voluntary participation in the religious life of the campus (e.g., very active chapel attendance), but also a high level of intellectual curiosity along the trajectories of the Christian intellectual tradition. This evidenced by Franciscan having nearly 170 philosophy majors out of around 2000 undergraduate students. By comparison, a Catholic school such as La Salle has between 30 and 40 majors out of 3200 students, while a secular university such as Lock Haven has 11 majors out of 5100 students.

This past weekend, April 1, I attended the Spring meeting of the Eastern Pennsylvania Philosophical Association, which was held at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. I'd never been to Susquehanna before and would consider it more "central" than "eastern" Pennsylvania, but it has a very pretty campus in the river valley, surrounded by low mountains.

The conference was good, involving several concurrent sessions and a keynote speaker. I presented a paper on Aristotle, which worked out nicely in light of the several other papers that dealt, directly or indirectly, with issues of ancient philosophy, as well as the keynote address by Roslyn Weiss of Lehigh University concerning justice and moderation in Plato's Republic.

After two weekends away, I'm glad to be back, but have some catching up to do on various tasks and I look forward to this coming weekend at home.

02 April 2006

of grace

In the context of some recent theological discussions among conservative Reformed believers there are three issues, I think, that are central: the absolute priority of grace, the sufficiency of faith, and the imputation of righteousness. I realize, of course, that those outside of the Reformed tradition may not be inclined to see things in the following ways, but I'm addressing a discussion internal to a tradition.

The first is the absolute priority of grace. At the end of the day, is salvation all of grace from beginning to end? That is to say, is grace truly grace, or have we somehow isolated some area of human initiative apart from grace, some remnant of autonomy? This is the issue between Augustine and Pelagius and, more recently, between Calvinists and Arminians.

The Reformed doctrine of "effectual calling," or (in terms of its more subjective side) "regeneration" is designed to protect the gratuity of grace. It does this in at least three areas:
[a] insisting upon God's sovereign and ultimately (what has been called) "monergistic" work in salvation, electing and saving whom he chooses apart from any prior work or response on their part, actual or foreseen

[b] the absolute priority of God's grace in Christ over any response on the part of the individual who is, apart from that grace, unable to respond

[c] the nature of salvation as total "gift" even in regard to the gift of faith by which salvation is received

These overlap to some degree, but identify key issues of concern in the Reformed doctrine of effectual calling.

The problem seems to be, if we don't posit some "difference" between the person who perseveres and the person who falls away - a difference in how God efficiently operates and how that is subjectively received (which are two sides of the same coin at any rate) - then it would seem that we've allowed for some kind of non-gracious initiative on the part of the creature by which the creature must "do" something that is prior to (saving) grace.

We probably can say, in an important sense, that two baptized persons who have been presented with the Gospel and have apparently embraced it by some kind of faith, may have both received "sufficient grace" for their salvation. As Dordt says, if there are those who finally do not embrace the Gospel unto salvation and fall away, this "must not be blamed on the gospel, nor on Christ, who is offered through the gospel, nor on God, who calls them through the gospel and even bestows various gifts on them, but on the people themselves who are called" (3rd and 4th Heads, Article 9).

Rather, as the next Article goes on to says, the differing responses to sufficient grace are not a matter of human autonomous "freedom," but a matter of God's effectively calling the elect to himself in a saving way. Thus there is an asymmetry between faith unto salvation, on one hand, and apostasy or unbelief, on the other, so that salvation can only ever be ultimately attributed to God and his grace while falling short of salvation is to be blamed upon the creature and not any deficiency on God's part. (This line of thought is partly due, no doubt, to the fact that unbelief is a privation and thus not properly some "thing" to be ascribed to God.) There is an element of mystery in all that, but Dordt refuses to resolve it.

Second, the priority of grace isn't enough. Plenty of medieval theologians were "monergists" insofar as they insisted that even cooperation with grace was itself a gift of grace. But one can say that and still make salvation a matter of being good enough to be accepted by God. The tendency then will be to rely upon one's own efforts and begin to regard those efforts as, in some way, independent of God's working in and through us by his Spirit. Even faith can be turned into a work, the mere fulfilling of a legal condition by which God's favor is obtained.

This is where the Protestant emphasis upon faith alone comes in or, better, the sole sufficiency and instrumentality of faith. Faith, insofar as it rests upon and receives Christ for salvation, is extraspective and instrumental, and thereby not a work or fulfillment of a legal condition. It may also be the case that the kind of faith that looks to Christ is also a faith that works itself out in love and is an act of evangelical obedience, but it does not rest upon and receive Christ insofar as it operates in those ways, which are logically subsequent and delcaratory in nature.

Third, the sole sufficiency of faith isn't enough. Thomas Aquinas and some other medieval theologians arguably held that faith was preeminently extraspective and self-divesting, an instrument by which Christ and his grace were received. But they lacked the Protestant understanding of imputation, so that justification was still seen mostly in terms of infused sanctifying grace that made an individual, inherently and subjectively, sufficiently righteous to be accepted by God. Justification was not so much a declaration based upon Christ's finished work, but a new work of grace transforming the individual's moral character.

Again, even with an emphasis upon faith, the tendency here can be to see salvation in terms of some transformation that is, at least in part, wrought in us through our own efforts, even if not in its initiation, in its continuance, by which our efforts maintain the grace already received. Even if this effort of maintainence is attributed ultimately to grace, it turns us again to our own working and tempts us to take that to be independent in some way from God's working in us. Thus it is important to maintain that our fundamental acceptance before God is purely one of grace, based upon what God has done for us in Christ apart from us, outside of us, imputed to us (whether that's conceived more in terms of the imputation of Christ's own moral quality or action or of Christ's own status that results from an inherent quality or action on his part).

At any rate, those are the concerns that motivate a number of people within the Reformed tradition. Anyone who wishes to be Reformed while maintaining a "high" sacramental theology or re-conceiving aspects of covenant theology will, I think, do well to take account of these concerns and show how what they believe meets these concerns, thereby fully assuring the gratuity of grace.