Archive for January, 2009

Conserving Biblical Worship -1

January 21, 2009

Conservative Christians conserve biblical worship. We find ourselves in the midst of ‘the worship wars’, an ongoing conflict between Christians about what constitutes biblical worship and what does not. You probably won’t hear as much jargon, clichéd statements and ill-informed musings on any other subject as you will on the topic of worship when modern Western Christians talk about it. Every man is right in his own eyes; every man feels his worship is fitting and is ready to defend his current practice.

What we are witnessing is the harvest of two centuries of abandoning the piety taught in Christian tradition and culture. As Richard Weaver put it, the true bond of community is sentiment. That is, we are held together in fellowship primarily because we love the same things, and we love them in the same way. With the abandoning of a common sentiment as to what it means to worship God, in favour of modernism’s entertainment worship or target market or consumerist approach to worship, we have cut loose from the moorings of centuries of Christian worship, and are now drifting the currents of our own whims, appetites, rationalisations and popular fads. As we are tossed to and fro, we put on brave faces and claim we are ‘balanced’, and ‘relevant’ or ‘traditional’ (!), but in fact, Christians of just two hundred years ago would be very estranged in our worship services.

To conserve the gospel and the whole counsel of God and abandon the battle for biblical worship is to struggle valiantly to win the road and then surrender or flee when it comes to the destination. After all, while the gospel is the boundary of the Christian life, and the whole counsel of God is the life within that boundary, they all aim at one thing: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. In other words, the gospel and the whole counsel of God are means towards the final end: worship. Why men will fight so hard for means, only to abandon ship when it comes to ends is an enigma. All that doctrine aims at one thing: loving God ordinately.

Worship, along with the affections, is one of the hardest battles to fight. When we contend for the gospel and the whole counsel of God, we find many allies amongst evangelicals and fundamentalists. But once we begin calling for biblical worship, the consensus breaks up, people begin mumbling under their breaths, and the crowd thins out. In the atmosphere of post-modernism, it is not surprising that Christians doubt that there is such a thing as biblical worship. The fact that it is unsurprising does not mean it is tolerable. Conservative Christians fight to conserve and restore biblical worship.

How do conservative Christians conserve biblical worship?
First, they do so by understanding and teaching that there is worship which pleases God and worship that does not. Worship that does not please God is ultimately an act of self-indulgence, and idolatry. In the same way, there is a vast difference between worship and entertainment, and conservative Christians can tell the difference.

Second, by understanding and teaching that the worship which pleases God has always been the worship that He prescribes. He does not call for innovation, improvisation, omission or otherwise tinkering with the form in which He calls to be worshipped. Conservatives understand the meaning and the application of the Regulative principle.

Third, by learning what are the prescribed elements of worship for New Testament Christians.

Fourth, by repudiating worship innovations, old and new, and re-introducing elements long neglected.

Fifth, by giving careful thought to the circumstances surrounding the prescribed elements- how they should be applied and fleshed out in private and corporate worship.

Conservative Christians fight to restore what is most precious to us: the true and fitting worship of our great God.

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Conserving the Whole Counsel of God – 3

January 11, 2009

For conservative Christians to conserve the whole counsel of God, it is necessary that they know the relative importance of the various Christian doctrines to each other. This is because not all doctrines are equally important.

We know this because Jesus told us the greatest commandment of all is to love God with the whole heart. This means that it is the most important commandment, stemming from the the most important doctrine: Yahweh is God, Yahweh alone. If this is the greatest commandment, then there are others not as great, others of lesser importance. Certainly every doctrine found in the Word is important. But when weighed against each other, some are more important than others.

Therefore, believers committed to the whole counsel of God must be able to categorise doctrine as fundamental, secondary and peripheral. They must have a taxonomy of doctrine, and be able to order, arrange and classify teachings according to their importance.

Why is this important? For at least three reasons.

1) It balances our study and teaching.  To effectively teach the whole counsel of God and pass it on to others, we must understand how the doctrines of the Word relate to each other, how they fit into the entire system, how each doctrine functions. A teacher who does not have a concept of the relative weight of doctrines will become like a DIY mechanic – pulling bits and pieces out of an engine, tinkering and fiddling, giving the appearance of competence, but ultimately doing more harm than good.

If we do not know the grand design of God’s Word, we will never be able to relate the parts to the whole. They will either become an impossibly tangled up mess of facts, or they will become little ends in themselves. Not knowing the relative importance of doctrines to each other leads to two opposite and equally harmful errors.

One is the error of minimalism, mentioned in an earlier post. The Christian here decides that the whole counsel of God seems like too much trouble to know, classify or work out, so he will relegate most of it to the place of ‘non-issues’ and focus only on the gospel and its fundamental doctrines.

The other is the error of specialism, where the person becomes so fond of (or consumed with) a particular doctrine that he weights it far heavier than it deserves, artificially trying to make it more important than it is, magnifying certain teachings out of all proportion, and minimising others. Certainly the Pharisees had become specialists in a certain sense.

Matthew 23:23-24 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. 24 “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

We all know specialists who have magnified apologetics, or eschatology, or spiritual warfare, or spiritual gifts, or evangelism, or Calvinism, or Bible versions, out of all proportion. We have a limited amount of time on this earth to study and to teach. We must determine how much attention we are going to give each doctrine, leaning more heavily on what is most important, ‘without leaving the others undone’.

2) It helps us pick our battles. Conservatives battle against false doctrine because it undermines the whole counsel of God. However, because we do not weight all doctrines equally, we do not fight for them equally either. A taxonomy of doctrine leads to the understanding of what to battle, when, and how vigorously. A conservative Christian must be able to see if a false teaching is catastrophic, urgent, isolated, or tolerable. In other words, arising out of a taxonomy of doctrine is a corresponding taxonomy of militancy toward error.

An error can threaten the gospel itself, making it catastrophic to believe it. An error might not threaten the gospel, but so skew the entire system of doctrine as to be a very serious error. An error might not skew the whole system, but be significant enough to present real differences in doctrine and practice. An error might be over a peripheral teaching (say the identity of the sons of God in Genesis 6), one that should not seriously affect fellowship – a ‘tolerable’ error. For each type of error there is a type of response, ranging from the censuring of apostates commanded in  2 John to the friendly parrying of ideas about Genesis 6 between two believers.

A conservative Christian can see what an error does to the whole system, where it is heading, and where it may lead. The irony of the minimalists who want to conserve only the fundamentals is that, lacking a holistic view of doctrine, they become unaware of how, very often, errors in secondary doctrines by implication deny the fundamental doctrines.

Further, to grow in this mindset is to be able to distinguish between one articulation of a doctrine and another. One man might word his understanding of Calvinism or Arminianism so as to constitute an isolated error. Another articulation could constitute an urgent error. The way a teacher relates the doctrine to the gospel and to the whole system of faith can determine how one must respond to it.

Once again, we have limited time on this earth. We must pick our battles and the ‘hills we will die on’. Conservatives do not fight for a finger if the beating heart is under threat.

3) Finally, this weighting of doctrine informs how we fellowship with other Christians, the subject of the next post.

How do we come to understand the importance of doctrines relative to each other? Once again, it requires training. It is helpful to study systematic theology, Old & New Testament theology, historical theology, biblical theology, along with studies and surveys of books of the Bible. How long does this take? At least a few years to build a solid foundation. Not everyone needs to be a theologian, but every Christian should understand some basic theology. Not everyone needs to be an expert (though we do need some experts), but everyone should at least aim for competence. It is the role of the Christian family, the local church, and on certain levels, educational institutions to build this understanding into Christians.

Conserving the Whole Counsel of God – 2

January 5, 2009

The first way that we conserve the whole counsel of God is by learning it ourselves. That requires a particular approach to the study and teaching of the Bible. We might say the conservative approach is exegesis and exposition, the opposite of which is eisegesis and imposition.
Exegesis (from the Greek ἐξηγεῖσθαι ‘to lead out’) is the analysis and explanation of a text, in our case, biblical texts. Exegesis is an approach which believes that God has invested biblical texts with meaning. The meaning was there when the human authors put it down. The meaning was there when the first audience read or heard it. That meaning is unchanged and has applications for listeners and readers today.
Therefore, the task of the exegete is to use various tools to bring out of the text its true and original meaning. He does this by understanding the original biblical languages, the historical context of a passage and its immediate context within the book and within the rest of Scripture. Once he knows what it meant, he knows what it still means, for it can never mean what it has never meant.
Certainly, he comes to a text with certain pre-understandings: he has a particular systematic theology to which he relates the parts he finds, and he has a particular system of interpretation (hermeneutics) that guides him as he practises exegesis. But hopefully, honest exegesis feeds back into his theology and hermeneutics, reshaping, re-ordering and revising as necessary – cleaning and sharpening the lenses of his interpretive spectacles, if you will.
The result of the process of exegesis is a growing understanding of biblical and systematic doctrine. The person or church interested in exegesis is interested in what the Bible says. All of it. The whole counsel of God, nothing less.

Exegesis is a rigorous task. It requires years of training to do well. It requires more skill to turn this exegesis into an interesting, digestible and memorable sermon. Exegesis should not be boring, because the Word of God is not boring. It requires even more skill to deliver such a sermon in a rhetorically adept fashion.
Even once trained in these skills, it requires a significant investment of time to execute adequately. For that reason, a church interested in exegesis should do its best to free its pastor(s) up to give themselves to this task.

Eisegesis is the opposite of all this. Eisegesis is the inserting of one’s own ideas, beliefs or hobby-horses into the text of Scripture, and disguising such an approach as the preaching of Scripture. It shows no humility before the text of Scripture, but is willing to impose its own ideas upon the text, and ‘make it say what it never said’. A pastor given to eisegesis is not interested in biblical doctrine. He may have certain noble goals for his congregation, he may even sincerely want to see practical holiness in the life of his people. But because he is not practising exegesis, he is not grounding their practice in theology, which means it will certainly dissolve once the agitations of his messages are forgotten. He wants the sheep to follow, but he is not committed to following himself, because he does not submit to the authority of the Bible by preaching its meaning. He does not trust the text of Scripture itself to be able to deliver what God’s people need to love Him properly, and substitutes it for unbalanced topical messages, five point ‘how-to’ messages, cleverly alliterated outlines forced into a text, allegorical ‘new interpretations’, and so on.

Interestingly enough, eisegetical sermons are often very interesting, very moving, and quite memorable. This is usually because the eisegete has no limits on his creativity and imagination (least of all the text of Scripture), and he conjures it all up into a hour’s worth of jokes that amuse, pithy sayings that cause a smile at some home-made wisdom, moving stories that stir people up to pity, maudlin tears or false optimism, or passionate cries that provoke extreme emotion. Moreover, the crowds will come for their hour of titillation.
Many an exegete looks at his small church, compares it to the mega-church built on eisegesis and wonders if he isn’t beating a dead horse.

Conservative Christians must resist the temptation to turn to such techniques, even at the risk of being ‘small’ or characterised as ‘boring’. Exegesis is hard to do. It is even harder to do well. But it is the only hope of the church knowing and preserving the whole counsel of God, which is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness.