Archive for July, 2008

In Defence of Printed Hymnals

July 30, 2008

Obscurantism is the principle of opposing the progress of knowledge, enlightenment or reform. It is not unlikely that I will be labelled an obscurantist for my insistence upon the use of printed hymnals. In an era of affordable projectors, Powerpoint and similar software, surely insisting upon hymnals is like insisting on horse-drawn buggies for transport or quills for pens? Is this simply an attempt to look and feel old-fashioned? What conceivable reason could there be for putting expensive, bulky, hardcover books into the hands of individuals, who will sing into them and not out, instead of a clear, colourful presentation that results in everyone looking up and forward, and probably singing louder?

Since you asked, I can think of at least five reasons.

1) When you hold a hymnal in your hands, you hold something of your Christian heritage. A good hymnal has hymns spanning the ages, from the first centuries into the present. Good hymnals include the names of the authors along with their era.  In a balanced hymnal, there will be hymns from Christians of all stripes – Church Fathers, medieval mystics and monks, Reformers, Puritans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Moravians. While you may not agree with every group on every point, you nonetheless owe much to these groups and ought to consider them as part of your heritage. When you pick up a hymnal, you identify with the church triumphant, and you sing her experience into yours. Since a projection is not a collection, it cannot convey this sense, or communicate that collective heritage.

2) When you hold a good hymnal in your hands, you are holding the distilled doctrine and resulting affections of hundreds, if not thousands, of believers. A hymnal is more than a songbook; it is a record, a testimony of what Christians collectively have believed and died for. Thumb through a hymnal, and it will usually be organised according to doctrine: God, Christ, the Spirit, the Church, Salvation, Heaven, Submission and Trust, and so forth. A hymnal is not systematic theology, it is doxological theology – truth set to music. Since a projection is not a collection, it can only project the particular hymn or song choice of the moment. No sense of cohesive, collective doctrinal thought can emerge from viewing one projection of a song at a time.

3) A good hymnal remains the best devotional literature we have. Hymnals grow, stretch and shape your affections beyond the narrow vision of one or two popular ‘choruses’. Every Christian should have a hymnal (or several) to have at home for personal and family worship. The Reformers fought and died for the privilege of singing to God in your own language in a hymnal you could read. The metrical indices allow on to find alternate tunes for unfamiliar hymns.  Hymns ought to be contemplated, understood, and sung to the Lord outside of church gatherings. Where hymns or songs are projected, the concept and value of owning a hymnal is often lost.

4) Since hymnals require more time and expense to produce, there is at least the possibility that the editors of those hymnals will sift through the chaff to include the very best of Christian hymnody. While every hymnal represents some theological bias, it at least represents a kind of canon, a settled standard of Christian hymnody in the eyes of its editors, from which a congregation can select appropriate hymns. Projectors connected to laptops or PCs mean songs can be included as easily as they can be deleted. Copy and paste, or select-delete. Forget about the consensus of the ages; a mouse-click and a song is in or out.

5) Hymnals still contain musical notation. In an increasingly musically illiterate age, to remove the last hope of interest in learning music is to resign ourselves to the slide to musical idiocy. If the church is supposed to be a place of training musicians (and it is), one way to do this is to include printed music and gradually teach on the basics of musical notation. Projections seldom, if ever, include musical notation. I can’t help thinking that seeing the bare lyrics on a screen seems to suggest that the music is merely a backing track for your personal Christian karaoke. Since we believe the music itself has a message, and is inseparable from the lyrics, it seems to me that only printed music properly communicates this relationship.

So, if we wanted to have a church with no sense of history or past, no sense of systematic or historical theology, no sense of devotional exercise except The One-Minute Devotional Bible, no submission to the history of Christian worship, and no value or thought for the music itself, we would eliminate printed hymnals.

Doing so wouldn’t accomplish this by itself, but it would go a long way towards doing so.

So maybe I’m not an obscurantist. If I am, then the progress, reform or enlightenment I’m opposing is not something I want my family or my church to be part of – so I’ll continue to oppose it.

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Affections Inside Out

July 20, 2008

When we apply the various elements of worship prescribed in the New Testament to our corporate meetings, we have to decide how to order and combine these elements.

For example, we know Scripture tells us to pray. Should we have someone praying a spontaneous, unrehearsed prayer, or someone reading a prayer from a prayer book? Should we have a pianist playing mood music in the background while someone prays, or should it be quiet?
We know Scripture tells us to sing. Should we sing hymns to the power of an organ, or modern ‘choruses’ to the power of a drum? Should we do both?
We know the Word must be preached. Should the preacher dress soberly, or casually?
We know we must assemble. How should we arrange or decorate the space consecrated for worship?

The answers to these questions are not found in the pages of Scripture. A conservative’s answer to these questions will be rooted in the affections.
Ordinate affections are a way of knowing and understanding. The fear of the Lord (an affection) is the beginning of wisdom (a way of knowing) – Proverbs 9:10. Ordinate affections guide us in the application of the circumstances of worship. In other words, when you feel correctly, you will know best how to answer these questions.

This phenomenon can be illustrated in a number of ways. One is the matter of propriety and modesty. Manners and politeness cannot be explained objectively, they must be sensed and felt within a community of polite people. Try explaining to a barbarian why a loud shhlurrping sound is not fitting at table, or why bodily sounds ought to be muffled. He will argue such things are natural; why suppress them? Some things cannot be explained, they must be felt.

Try explaining to a profane man that he is using God’s name in vain with his exclamations referring to the Deity, damnation or glorification. He will ask for a chapter and verse – and you will lack one. The fourth commandment’s application is not spelt out – it must be sensed, and applied.

Try explaining to a nudist that nudity is obscene. He will ask you to define obscene and to explain the process by which the revealing of the human body becomes obscene. It cannot be explained this way – it must be felt.

The conclusion is seemingly paradoxical. The polite man knows politeness, but until the rude man becomes polite, he cannot know it. The reverent man knows reverence; the irreverent man thinks his desecration of sacred things is, in fact, quite respectful.

The Christian rocker cannot see the incongruity of using musical rape of the senses as worship, until he becomes reverent. The clowning pastor cannot see the sacrilege of kidding about eternal matters, until he becomes sober. The yawning parishioner cannot see the profanity of dressing like a beachcomber when presenting himself for worship, until he becomes humble. The understanding follows the bowing of the heart, not the other way around.

The principle is simple:

“For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.” (Mark 4:25)

A couple of applications:

First, we have no answer to the person who wants to arrange the circumstances of worship based on measurable criteria, except to point them to Proverbs 9:10. Let them accuse us of being subjective or even evasive, or ‘being led by your feelings, not by Scripture’. So be it. Let us pray they will come in from the outside.

Second, we must make the affections a matter of serious reflection. We can be no wiser than our affections. To put it another way, our worship can be no better than we are. People with ordinate affection love God ordinately. We must work on being on the inside of where God wants us, so as to judge correctly.

Far be it from us to embrace the pseudo-conservatism that says we should “not be so emotional”. On the contrary, we should give full attention to the wide range of affections, their nuances, gradations and shades. Instead of generalising, we ought to give attention to the subtlety of this matter.

It may be the difference between profane and God-pleasing worship.

More on Science and Scientism

July 16, 2008

One of the secrets behind scientism’s success at gaining such a hegemony, is its removal of wonder and mystery. Faith has always answered the questions that our universe’s strangeness raises. For it is a very strange and mysterious place. Thomas Carlyle said:

“This green flowery rock-built earth, the trees, the mountains, rivers, many-sounding seas; that great deep sea of azure that swims overhead; the winds sweeping through it; the black cloud fashioning itself together, now pouring out fire, now hail and rain; what is it? Ay, what? At bottom we do not yet know; we can never know at all…We call that fire of the black thundercloud electricity, and lecture learnedly about it, and grind the like of it out of glass and silk: but what is it? Whence comes it? Whither goes it?”

 He asked why we have lost the wonder of existence, since we still do not understand what this world really is:

It is not by our superior insight that we escape the difficulty, it is by our superior levity, our inattention, our want of insight. It is by not thinking that we cease to wonder at it….This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle; wonderful, inscrutable, magical and more, to whosoever will think of it.”

 But scientism has sought to remove all wonder, mystery and awe. After all, such emotions smack of humility, ignorance and possibly even worship. Humanism can have no part with such things, for they will inevitably lead away from human self-sufficiency, self-discovery and self-worship. Therefore, in the religion of scientism, mystery is only a present lack of knowledge, which future research will solve. Wonder or awe is simply the initial admiration we might have for nature’s intricacy. However, once we figure out how it works, we are not in awe any more; we are instead impressed with ourselves for figuring it all out. The naturalist scientist might bandy words like awe or wonder about, but he really is simply confessing what a great task it will be to unravel and decode it all. He does not mean he stands humbled before it, experiencing the supreme wisdom of an Infinite Intellect.

The pervasive sense that science will figure it all out in the end, undergirds the confidence of secular man. He does not expect to bow before Infinite Wisdom, or worship at the feet of an Almighty Creator, because science will keep peeling back the onion of our superstitious (and childish) feelings of awe, till we see the plain and uninteresting facts of an impersonal, naturalistic and inevitable existence.

Sadly, the Christian too often imbibes this loss of wonder. We don’t escape the sense of receding mystery. We are raised to know the explanation of phenomena, not the joy of their existence. We are taught to examine how things happen, not to meditate on why. The strangeness of life escapes us – we are so used to being told life was and is inevitable. Our minds have become like the scalpels of biologists instead of the eyes of children.

To remedy this, we must do at least two things:

  • Realise there are some things that mere observation (the basic tool of science) will never know. Science is a metal detector in a universe of many other elements. It can learn much, but only so much. Know that for everything science uncovers, it raises more questions with it, by an almost exponential rate. The more science learns about the universe, the less it knows. Mystery isn’t receding, it is actually growing.

  • Realise that all the names science gives to its observations do not make the phenomena any less marvelous. Just because we have classified it, does not mean we fully understand it, much less can control it. In fact, the Christian should realise the process of discovery, rightly understood, is part of God’s plan

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, But the glory of kings is to search out a matter. (Proverbs 25:2 )

Let us learn again to look at this universe with humble eyes. Such eyes are not trying to know so as to rule, but to learn, so as to worship.

Science and Scientism

July 11, 2008

It is not an exaggeration to say that the high priests of our secular culture are the scientists. The scientist is the only one authorised to tell us what really exists. No one is allowed to speak about truth (which apparently does not exist) but the scientist is allowed to tell us about the facts (which apparently do exist). Somehow, we have arrived at the place where a doctor of religion is scoffed at for talking of God as a metaphysical reality, but we take very seriously the scientist who spends thirty years of his life studying gnats’ eyebrows.

Since the abandonment of belief in eternal, transcendent and permanent things, the sense of uncertainty about any knowledge has been growing. Except, of course, for the facts that emerge from a specialised and intensive study of little islands of decontextualised knowledge like, perhaps, gnats’ eyebrows. Of such things, the modern man tells us, we can be sure. He might even come close to saying, “We can know the truth about gnats’ eyebrows.”

In this way, the scientist is our culture’s high priest. He alone provides us with some anchor in a meaningless universe. He, of all people, can tell us what has existed, what does exist, and what will exist. Put simply, the scientist now answers the major metaphysical questions: How did the universe begin? Why are we here? Where are we going? To understand yourself and your place in this world, you must be catechised by the scientists. In fact, most modern education, from kindergarten to post-graduate, makes sure of that.

The scientist’s role as priest is seen on other fronts. When a scientist emerges from his laboratory or study with a journal article or a published finding, all must believe [the faith]. After all, the scientist used scientific methods [the ritual]to reach his conclusions. If something is not examined with scientific methods, it cannot be true [the dogma]. This is why naturalist scientists and their followers must scoff at faith in God, for God cannot be proved with scientific methods.

Further, look at what happens when one questions the findings of the priests. Something like an excommunication from the society of rational, balanced, thinking people occurs. The rage of of the Dawkins Delusion will roast you for your primitive and superstitious beliefs.

If scientists themselves should question the naturalist presuppositions of the whole system, or of the right of science to speak on metaphysics, they are liable to lose their tenure, funding or their jobs.

Science is simply knowledge. This anointing of the scientist as our priest of all true knowledge is better termed scientism. Scientism arrogates to itself the role of being the sole purveyor of what really exists, while religion and philosophy must trail behind and cater to personal and subjective beliefs of what exists. In scientism, science deals with the solid bricks and cement of facts whereas religion deals with the liquid (if not gaseous) stuff of personal opinions.

Such a categorising of things, of course, presents one with an inauspicious choice – live by our confirmed facts, or live by your whimsical (and probably delusional) beliefs. I wonder, when framed with a choice like the following, who would choose the latter: Do you want to lean on our patented fibre-glass rod, or lean on an invisible magic stick?

Secularism could not survive long without its priests. Man longs to believe; man senses he is eternal; man longs for mystery and wonder. If the priests did not keep the doctrine of materialism and naturalism in our textbooks, newspapers and TV programmes, secularism would wither and die.

The thoughtful Christian must see where science crosses over into scientism. A Christian is thankful for all knowledge discovered by scientists, for it forms part of the universe God created. He is happy to allow the universe’s intricacy to praise the wisdom of its Maker.

However, when all bow before the image of scientism, the Shadrachs, Meschachs and Abednegos of today must remain standing, whatever the cost. 

But that’s how scientism categorises the choices for us. The result is that most people develop some kind of uncomfortable syncretism. They don’t want to be card-carrying Flat Earth Society members, so they can’t (or won’t) question the findings of scientism. Equally, they sense there is more to reality than the naturalism of Dawkins & Co, so they settle for a compromise where one system deals with the objective, and the other deals with the subjective: “I believe in the Big Bang, and I also believe in a Supreme Being, but my faith is very personal.”
Scientism snorts at such attitudes, but it is a demure enough response to tolerate. It is those heretics that insist that religious faith can provide us with objective knowledge that must be hunted down and all but burnt at the stake.  If religion ever dares to clear its throat and speak in the name of truth and reality , expect hostility and conflict as wrathful as any medieval Inquisition.

Worship by the Book

July 5, 2008

I have said that conservative Christians reject worship innovations. That is because conservative Christians hold to what is called the Regulative principle. Put simply, this insists that only what is specifically commanded in the New Testament is to be used in New Testament corporate worship, and for that matter, church life. This stands in opposition to the position held by Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists and many, many evangelicals. Amongst these evangelicals are many Baptists, some even flying the Fundamental flag. Their position might be stated as, “If the New Testament doesn’t forbid it, it can be used in worship.” This approach is known as the Normative principle. Indeed, this is where Luther and Zwingli parted company – Luther wanting to retain certain Roman Catholic practices, Zwingli wanting to be rid of anything unauthorised by the Scriptures.

Baptists (and Anabaptists) have held to the Regulative principle , stating in the 1689 Confession of Faith:

But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God has been instituted by Himself, and therefore our method of worship is limited by His own revealed will. He may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan. He may not be worshipped by way of visible representations, or by any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.

Since we believe God has placed into the Scriptures all we need to know to behave properly in the house of God (I Tim 3:15, 2 Tim 3:16), it is wrong to introduce our own innovations simply because the Scriptures do not forbid them. Look around, and see what a harvest the normative principle has reaped: plays and dramas, art exhibitions, strongmen demonstrations, comedians, jugglers, magicians, puppet-shows, flag-waving, movie-screenings, dancing, barking and convulsing- all done as part of ‘worship’. Some of these things have their place in everyday life, but where did God call for any of the above in New Testament worship?

As an aside, worship innovations are nothing new. Infant baptism goes back to the third century at least – but it is still an innovation. Altars, priesthoods, icons are ancient innovations – but they are innovations nonetheless.

We have very clear instruction detailing the things God commands in corporate worship: gathering together (Hebrews 10:25); the reading of Scripture, exhortation and preaching (I Tim 4:13, 2 Tim 4:2); corporate prayer (I Tim 2:1-8 ) [which may include corporate confession of sins, corporate covenanting together]; the singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16); the collection of offerings (2 Cor 8, I Cor 16:1-2); the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (I Cor 11:23-34); the administration of baptism (Matt 28:19); and, when necessary, the administration of church discipline (Matthew 18:17-20, I Cor 5:4-5).

Now, amongst conservatives we may find legitimate differences in our application of the Regulative principle. But our differences are not over the validity of the principle, but over how to implement it. Some differ on whether we should use musical instruments or not. The types of music (congregational hymns, chorales, folk spiritual songs, art music for preludes or offertories), where we should meet (the architecture of the building, how often and at what times), the length of our prayer times, our dress and demeanour in our gatherings – these are questions over the circumstances of worship, not the elements themselves.

Understanding how best to implement these circumstances is another matter, for another post or series of posts. The point is, conservatives need to defend the pattern of worship laid out for us in the Scriptures. We need to know what God expects of a New Testament church, and what is strange fire in the sanctuary.