Archive for April, 2009

The Attitude of Respect for Christian Tradition – 2

April 27, 2009

When we talk about respecting Christian tradition, certain alarm bells go off in the minds of many evangelical Christians. Like sniffer dogs trained to detect an intruder, many Christians prick up their ears and get ready to oppose the idea of ‘Christian tradition’, once they hear the term. This is because for many, ‘Christian tradition’ sounds like one or many of the following: an endorsement of Roman Catholicism, an implicit denial or undermining of Sola Scriptura, and a mixing of false doctrine with the true. Christians respond this way for at least three reasons. The first is a misunderstanding of the way tradition and Christian doctrine work. The second is a misreading of church history. The third is an evolutionary (or Darwinistic) view of history.

Many Christians are fearful, if not disdainful, of Christian tradition. Misunderstanding how it works, they suppose that they are non-traditional or even anti-traditional,  not realising that every church has a tradition.  No church invents its doctrine or its worship from scratch. It receives its pre-understanding of Scripture, its hermeneutic, its particular doctrinal nuances, its hymnody, or its ministry philosophy from someone who went before: the church-planter, the missionary, the denomination, the collective Christian experience of the members that constitute it.

Doctrine, in particular, depends on tradition. No one could sit in a room alone and arrive at the whole counsel of God by himself. We come to our understanding of Scripture because we have teachers, who themselves were taught by other teachers. These teachers were taught by yet others, and so on, through twists and many turns, back to the apostles themselves. In fact, doctrinal progress only happens because the church builds on the doctrinal foundation laid by its predecessors. The church has fought battles over the Trinity, the nature of Christ, the inerrancy of Scripture, the depravity of man. The church does not have to re-invent the wheel with every generation, but can simply build on the doctrinal work of preceding generations. That is part of Christian tradition. The same is true of the way we pray, sing, worship, partake of the Lord’s Supper and disciple our own. These things are picked up from other Christians.  The issue is not if you have a tradition, it is what tradition you have.

In the case of most modern evangelicals or fundamentalists, they trace their tradition to a form of popular (or populist) religion not older than the 19th century. Since this is their tradition, they tend to regard traditions outside (and older than) their revivalist tradition as ‘Catholic’, or ‘liturgical’, or ‘without the joy of the Lord’.

The accusation that the Christian culture pre-Charles Finney is Roman Catholic  leads us to our second difficulty with tradition: a misreading or misunderstanding of church history. 

Roman Catholicism has not always been what it is today. Roman Catholicism hardened its neck against the gospel of grace after the Reformation, with the Council of Trent canonising its rejection of it. Prior to Trent, there were several evangelical strands within Roman Catholicism. The writings of Thomas a Kempis, John Tauler, and the anonymous writer of Theologica Germanica display that these strands existed within Catholicism. Indeed, we must remember that proto-evangelical groups like the Waldenses, Arnoldists, Lollards, Hussites and other protest movements began within medieval Catholicism. The Reformers themselves were all Roman Catholics to begin with. So when we include pre-Reformation works as part of true Christian tradition, we are not necessarily toying with paganism, errant doctrine or the works-salvation canonised at the Council of Trent. So too, when we appreciate the occasional post-Reformation Roman Catholic with remnants of the evangelical influence remaining, like Brother Lawrence, Francois Fenelon, or Madame Guyon.

The mistake of rejecting all things pre-Reformation because they were produced in the era of medieval Catholicism is the same mistake of rejecting Anabaptist devotional writings because a very few were anti-Trinitarian or because most were persecuted by the Reformers,  or rejecting the hymns of the German Pietists because some became too mystical, or rejecting writings from the Great Awakenings because of the excesses which occurred during that time, or rejecting the prayers of the Patristics because of some of the errors of their theology.  These would be examples of misunderstanding church history.

We are uncharitable when we fail to accept the blindness of certain eras. We are not fair when we fail to factor in the theological controversies of each era, with the nearly inevitable overreactions and overstatements. We are partial when we read our understanding of theology, based on two-thousand years of progressive and cumulative understanding [due to tradition], back into theirs, and fault them for not possessing it. We must learn to deal fairly and even-handedly with Christian history. We must learn to distinguish the true heretics from the fallible but faithful teachers of the church.

Furthermore, because we value tradition does not mean we value it for the same reasons the Roman Catholic church does. For Romanism, tradition is a form of authority on the level of revelation. Romanists believe that the traditions contained in Roman Catholic practice reflect practices begun during the era of the apostles, and thus carry inherent authority, even if there is no biblical basis for them. Conservative Christians do not regard tradition as supplying revelation and authority, but as one of the aids to interpreting it. The Reformers’ cry of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) is not endangered by conservative Christianity’s respect for tradition, for tradition does not usurp the primary place of Scriptural revelation. However, we do not interpret the Scriptures in a temporal vacuum. We stand on the shoulders of other Christians. If it becomes clear that the tradition has failed to do justice to the Scriptures, then we abandon the tradition.

The third obstacle to respecting Christian tradition is a Darwinistic view of history. Whether they realise it or not, many Christians have imbibed a view of history that resembles evolutionary thought. That is, like the belief that organisms that go from simple to complex, this sees human history as the record of man steadily advancing from savage to civilised. By the process of natural selection combined with time, man arrives at greater enlightenment, technological progress, and humanitarian achievement. In this view, the latest point in history represents the most advanced state of mankind. In other words, the church of 2009 must be the most enlightened, knowledgeable, pious and successful church of all time. Why? Because its the latest one – and therefore the most developed.

If we believe this, then we will feel very little reason to respect Christian tradition, any more than a land mammal feels nostalgic over its supposed former life in the sea. We will simply assume our current state is the best the church has enjoyed and turn our backs on the past. Needless to say, this view is wrong, blind and deeply conceited.

When we understand the nature of tradition, some basic understanding of church history, and a correct view of history, we can be freed from the ‘suspicion of tradition’. We are freed to glean from the Christian past, with the advantage of being able to examine each prayer, hymn, devotional or writing without being embedded in that era. How we are to evaluate these things from the Christian past will be the subject of the next post.


The Attitude of Respect for Christian Tradition – 1

April 20, 2009

If our affections are shaped by example and exposure, then we need to be exposed to examples of people with ordinate affection. We cannot create our affections, worship or tradition out of thin air. As we have said, the most powerful form of shaping the affections is the culture you dwell in. When a culture is stretched over a period of time, it can be called a tradition.

But what do we do if we are living in a dark time for the church, where the Christian culture is filled with inordinate affection? What do we do if the historic Christian culture and tradition was abandoned around the time of Charles Finney, and replaced with a innovated, pragmatic culture that sought to reflect the secular world back to itself? What do we do if our choices of modern examples of piety are between hysterical glandular worship on the one hand and stoic cerebral worship on the other? Where do we learn ordinate affection from if our modern examples are reflections of the sentimentalised, trivialised, and sensualised church of the 21st century?

The answer is to adopt the second kind of attitude which should characterise conservative Christians: a familiarity with and respect for historical Christian tradition and culture.

When I am in a foreign country, people ask me where I am from, because my accent is different to theirs. They do not get asked that question, unless they board a plane and travel to another country. When we leave our own culture, and dwell in another one, we notice how different we are. We see that ‘they do things differently’. We begin to notice our own customs, ways, attitudes, speech, mannerisms, saying, expectations, likes and dislikes, which formerly we took for granted. Only once you have some distance between you and your culture can you begin to understand it.

We can never properly understand the culture of modern Western Christianity from within. We are too deeply engaged. We are embedded in it, and are not be able to spot its innovations, improvisations, or impiety, except where it seems particularly outrageous to us.

But if we were to spend time with the saints of old, we would be confronted with affections quite different to many of ours. We would notice some of their prayers, hymns, attitudes, aspirations, and disciplines are quite different from ours. By ‘living’ with these dead saints through their writings, we would be exposed to examples of ordinate affection. We would be confronted with ways of thinking and feeling and acting towards God, the world and humanity which would contrast with our own.  Furthermore, we would connect with a heritage which is the church’s birthright, albeit one sold by various Esau-like leaders for their pragmatic mess of pottage.

We may make the mistake of brushing ancient Christian culture off as ‘too serious’, or ‘melancholy’, or as ‘Roman Catholic-and-therefore-irrelevant’. This would be a great error. Possibly the only way a modern Christian can be shaken out of the complacency of modern Christianity is to be exposed to the example of Christians now gone. To read Christians before Charles Finney is to enter into a Christian culture which we both like and do not like, for it elevates us and intimidates us simultaneously. Their use of language sounds strange to us. Their writings appear obscure. They do not deal with what we think is ‘relevant’. They call for disciplines that seem harsh. But to dismiss them would be to remain prisoners of our own modern Christian culture. If, in fact, our modern Christian culture is riddled with inordinate affection, to remain bound to it is a horrible fate. As the saying goes, He who knows only his own generation remains forever a child.

There is something quite conceited and egocentric about members of a 2000-year old institution who have no interest in its past, and a near-obsession with its present. To listen only to contemporary Christian leaders, to read only contemporary Christian authors, to sing only “contemporary Christian music”, to follow only contemporary models of ministry is a kind of narcissism. We are so in love with our generation, so convinced that we are the furthest point on the scale of Christian piety, so enamoured with novelty, so impressed with ‘progress’, and so convinced of the inherent merit of contemporaneity, that we dismiss a study of the church triumphant as merely the ‘subject’ of Church History. We are convinced that our piety is ordinate, our prayers are humble, our worship is reverent, our liturgies are pleasing to God. How do we know? Because the big churches we admire all do it that way. And so the dog chases its tail.

To embrace the attitude of respect for historic Christian culture, we will have to do several things.

First, we will have to deal with the ‘suspicion of tradition’, so prevalent in many evangelical and fundamentalist churches. We will have to have the right approach to evaluating Christian tradition, neither giving it blanket approval, nor ignoring it altogether.

Second, we will have to set ourselves the goal of deliberately exposing ourselves to the Christian church of the past, parsing it for meaning and evaluating it carefully. This will not be a book here or there, but a deep saturation with the writings of saints now gone.

Third, we will have compare our current Christian culture with the ancient one we absorb through immersing ourselves in it. From there, we can make better (ordinate) judgements about our worship, liturgy, piety and general Christianity.

Conserving Ordinate Affection – 5

April 12, 2009

To conserve ordinate affection, we must understand how the affections are shaped. The affections are not under our direct control. We cannot will to be happy, as much as some songs and preachers tell us we can. We cannot switch reverence on and off with an internal switch. However, we can attend to the circumstances which encourage the growth of one affection and not the other. We might not be able to cause a plant to grow ourselves, but we can water it and give it sunlight. We can work on the circumstances that shape our affections. Three of these circumstances deserve special attention: example, exposure, and imagination.

Our affections are shaped by example. To a large degree, we learn to love what we love and hate what we hate from our parents. We follow our elders in the formation of our loves. Children may learn the multiplication table from a discursive lesson, but they learn matters of judgement, taste and manners by example. Children learn how to address their elders, sit at table, use courteous speech, host people graciously, eat politely, dress modestly, enjoy certain music, disdain certain foods, or desire certain modes of life by observing the behaviour of their parents.

The affections are so fundamental to us, that before one can explain them, they must be learned in the milieu of life. One could say that the affections are caught, more than taught.

This also places a huge weight of responsibility on church leaders. The gathered church of God is the primary place where the affections appropriate for worshipping God are taught. People may claim to have learned their doctrine privately, but the truth is, they learn their piety from the believers they associate with. It is with other believers that people learn whether prayer should be casual or serious, whether music in worship should be rowdy or reverent, and whether preaching should be amusing or weighty. You do not learn piety in a vacuum. You learn things like humility, reverence, awe, gratitude, sobriety, joy, contrition, and reflection from other Christians. We learn these affections by example.

Herein lies the unacknowledged (by Christians, at least) power of culture. Culture is the very mental and affective atmosphere that shapes the affections of the big and (especially) small humans in it. You learn what to love and how to love it from dinnertime conversations, from playing with your friends in the sandpit, from watching ads, from sitting in the waiting room, from watching your father address your mother, from hearing a symphony, from seeing a mall, from going to a sports game, from hearing pop music, from going to a braai, from spending hours in front of the idiot box. Culture is determinative; culture is instructive; culture is formative.

Churches have cultures. The cultures of churches can variously produce legalists, amusement-mad narcissists, consumerists, sentimentalists, dramatists, enthusiasts, zealots, academics, pharisees, or worshippers.

What do we do if our current Christian culture is bankrupt, facile and unhelpful to true Christian affections? We then have to connect to a Christian culture previous to ours, the doing of which will be the subject of the next series of posts.

Second, we shape the affections by exposure. We speak frequently of ‘acquired tastes’. We do so because of a common experience: not all loves are love at first sight, sound, taste, touch, or scent. Think of the foods and drinks you could not stand at first – coffee, certain fish, horse-radish, certain chillies and peppers. You came to enjoy these things only because you gradually got used to them, and found a liking for them growing. The same can be said for certain music, books, poems, scenery or even company.

Some things are not easily grasped. They are not easily accessible. Very often, this is true of the things most beneficial to us. Some tastes are subtle, some music is intricate and ornate, some poetry is wordy and obscure, some hymnody is weighty and profound, some architecture is elevated and symbolic, some paintings are analogical and metaphorical, some literature is dauntingly complex. There is difficulty in ‘getting them’. But how do we ever come to appreciate them, and thereby develop ordinate affections? Our only hope is exposure to things we may not understand fully or enjoy as much as others.

Is the answer here to discipline ourselves to experience what we don’t like? Not really. Forced exposure to things we currently dislike or have no interest in can create hatred for those things. Nevertheless, a kind of balance between discipline and desire must happen here. We must try to cultivate the good desires and discourage the bad ones, insofar as we know which ones are good and bad. We cannot really grow our desires faster than they naturally do, nor can we expect our desires to have grown beyond where they are. We must rather try to strengthen what we know to be good, and push out from there, not so far that it becomes unpleasant, but not so near that no growth is occurring. If we keep pushing outward from where our affections currently are, we find our affections are broadening, maturing and learning to love what God loves in increasingly ordinate ways.

That’s one of the delights of good hymnody. A good hymn not only says things to God in a better way than you ever could, it also introduces you to ways of feeling about God you did not know existed. By exposure to people more advanced in piety than you are, you are awakened to affections you were wholly ignorant of until then.

Finally, the affections are shaped by imagination. Our moral imaginations are our mental visions of reality. It is these images of unseen realities that truly move us in our affections. Discursive, abstract statements of absolutes seldom move people to joy, horror, awe or sorrow. Mental images, analogies of the unseen through the seen are what produce these affections. Thus, to imagine God, the world and ourselves wrongly, is to be moved wrongly, which is to have inordinate affection. Nothing is more important than that our moral imaginations be shaped by Scripture and the most ennobling influences, because out of its images will flow our religious affections. We will return to the moral imagination in a future post.

The affections are shaped by example, exposure and imagination. To conserve ordinate affection, we must give attention to each one.

Conserving Ordinate Affection – 4

April 7, 2009

Expert taste-testers become that way through years of practice. Their senses become sharpened, refined and alert by deliberately giving themselves to weighing up the subtleties of everything they taste.

Becoming people of ordinate affection is something like that. Ordinate affection is not a theoretical concept to be discussed in dusty academic cellars by men who seldom see the sun. We become people of ordinate affection by actively seeking to order our affections. We become spiritual taste-testers by deliberately giving ourselves to the task of weighing, judging, reflecting and examining all things.

Our task is to examine each item, event, person, experience, or quality and then to determine what kind of affection it merits. If it deserves our joy, then what kind of joy? If it merits scorn, then what kind of scorn? If anger is appropriate, what kind of anger? If reverence is fitting, then what kind of reverence? If laughter is called for, what kind of laughter?

This is the path to ordered affections. We must firstly stop and consider the worth of the thing. Here we would ask some of the most important questions:

  • Does God love this?
  • If so, to what degree does He love it?
  • Further, what kind of love does He exhibit towards it?

Once we have answered these questions, we can answer others.

  • How should we love this thing? 
  • What degree of, and what kind of affection would be an appropriate – or truthful- response to it?

 In some cases, Scripture tells us. In many cases, it does not, expecting that we would know through belonging to a culture of pious people. What if our current church age is not one of pious people? Then once again, we must consult the writings of saints now with Christ, and consider their responses to the things under question.

To these, we might add the question,  if we love it, in what way can we love it as a means to loving God, and not as an end in itself? These are the kinds of questions that we ask if we are serious about ordering our affections.

In fact, when we stop and think about it, Scripture is filled with commands to weigh up the value of all things.

Philippians 1:9-10 And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ,

Isaiah 7:15 Curds and honey He shall eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the Child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken by both her kings.

1 Thessalonians 5:21 Test all things; hold fast what is good.

Hebrews 5:14 But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.

Ephesians 5:10 finding out what is acceptable to the Lord.

Philippians 4:8 Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy — meditate on these things.

Scripture commands these things because discernment comes ‘by reason of use’. Those who are content with an unexamined life blunt their own senses, and are content to live in the numb and foggy world of  unbelievers, where inordinate affection and its ruinous effects live unchecked.

Though our steps towards wisely ordered affections might be halting and clumsy at first, the promise of Wisdom’s outstretched arms remains: I love those that love me, and those who seek me diligently shall find me (Prov 8:17).