Archive for September, 2009

Translating vs. Transforming

September 23, 2009

Millard Erickson, in his Christian Theology, speaks of two different approaches to contemporising the message of Christianity. One is to translate the message, and the other is to transform it.

Translators try to keep the integrity of the Christian message intact, but seek to translate it as far as possible to the culture, separated from the Bible not only by distance and language, but also by centuries of cultural change.

Transformers, on the other hand, believe that the message itself must be changed to be applicable to the culture at hand. They believe that the message was so attached to the ancient culture in which it was given, that to merely translate it is to distort it. They believe the message must be ‘re-imagined’, re-invented and essentially re-written.

Of course, conservatives are translators. To be a conservative is to believe in timeless, transcendant, permanent things that exist in spite of any particular culture’s understanding of them. Conservatives believe that some cultures have had a better grasp of the permanent things than others. Therefore, conservatives believe that the very things we want to conserve are permanent things: the gospel, Christian doctrine, New Testament worship, appropriate affections for God and helpful expressions of these permanent things in the Christian tradition.

We do not believe we have the right to transform these things, because we believe that is an arrogant position to take. To completely re-write the Christian message, worship or tradition is to set ourselves up as authorities, and to demote to uselessness the things handed to us.

However, the more distant a culture is from the permanent things of biblical Christianity, the greater the work of translation. As our culture descends deeper into relativism, pragmatism, nihilism, hedonism, intellectual apathy and aesthetic decay, the very things people need are the things becoming more and more incomprehensible to them.

The response of many Christians is to resort to transformation. Since the gap between Christian affections and modern sensibilities seems like an unbridgeable chasm, they transform Christian worship into entertainment, use kitsch instead of beauty, turn Christian fellowship into yuppie-gatherings, replace slowly-learned Christian affections with immediate sentimental ones and end up with something resembling modern pagan culture with a lot of Jesus-talk.

But the conservative’s approach has its own problems. The problem is especially acute in Western countries, where a transformed Christianity competes alongside with conservative Christianity. In the effort to conserve biblical worship, Christian affections, and Christian doctrine, we find we are often speaking a different language to the average Christian who walks through the church doors.  For many of us, the temptation is to just sing solid hymns, tout examples of the best music, art, literature, poetry and preach our meatiest sermons, ignoring the puzzled expressions of our hearers.

What we soon find, is that there are many who are trying to get on the conservative horse, but it is simply too high. The ambient culture has made us all midgets next to the stallion of the permanent things.

What is needed is translation, and a lot more of it. Before people are shaped to love what God loves, they have to understand it. The answer is not to dumb down the message, warp the affections or find short-cuts to popular comprehension. The answer is to slowly, steadily, patiently explain the meaning of the hymns we sing, the meaning of music, the meaning of culture, the meaning of biblical doctrine, the meaning of the affections, the meaning of helpful Christian poetry, theology, music, art or works of devotion. The answer is to take a very long view. Not months, but years. Not even the years of one pastor, but perhaps two or three generations. 

If we do not translate true Christianity, we may as well be singing in Latin to peasants in 13th century England. The beauty might be faintly recognised, but it will not be appropriated and reproduced.

I think we are only beginning to understand the scope of the translation project. We may need to sing less and explain more. We may need to do a lot of pointing, a lot more explaining, mixed in with a lot of patience.

Transforming is quick and brings immediate results, but what you have may not be Christianity anymore. Translating is time-consuming, pain-staking work. However, for the conservative Christian – the steward of the faith once delivered to the saints –  there really isn’t a choice between the two.


Cry “Elitism!,” And Let Slip the Dogs of War

September 10, 2009

T.S. Eliot wrote a book called Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. He wrote this book because he believed (correctly, I think) that the meaning of the word culture was being lost through careless use. Eliot’s primary thesis was that culture is the incarnation of a religion.

“We may go further and ask whether what we call the culture, and what we call the religion, of a people are not essentially aspects of the same thing: the culture being, essentially, the incarnation (so to speak) of the religion of a people. ” (p27)

“The conception of culture and religion as being, when each term is taken in the right context, different aspects of the same thing, is one which requires a good deal of explanation. But I should like to suggest first, that it provides us with the means of combating two complementary errors. The one more widely held is that culture can be preserved, extended and developed in the absence of religion. This error may be held by the Christian in common with the infidel, and its proper refutation would require an historical analysis of considerable refinement, because the truth is not immediately apparent, and may be contradicted by appearances: a culture may linger on, and indeed produce some of its most brilliant artistic and other successes after the religious faith has fallen into decay. The other error is the belief that the preservation and maintenance of religion need not reckon with the preservation and maintenance of culture: a belief which may even lead to the rejection of the products of culture as frivolous obstructions to the spiritual life. To be in a position to reject this error, as with the other, requires us to take a distant view; to refuse to accept the conclusion, when the culture that we see is a culture in decline, that culture is something to which we can afford to remain indifferent.  And I must add that to see the unity of culture and religion in this way neither implies that all the products of art can be accepted uncritically, nor provides a criterion by which everybody can immediately distinguish between them. Esthetic sensibility must be extended into spiritual perception, and spiritual perception must be extended in esthetic sensibility and disciplined taste before we are qualified to pass judgment upon decadence or diabolism or nihilism in art. To judge a work of art by artistic or by religious standards, to judge a religion by religious or artistic standards should come in the end to the same thing: though it is an end at which no individual can arrive (pp 27-28, emphasis mine).

Expository Preaching is Not Enough

September 4, 2009

Having just returned from a pastors’ conference, I was struck again by the way expository preaching is viewed by some Christian leaders. According to them, expository preaching is the main ingredient for healthy Christianity, and the lack thereof is the reason for its sickness. If only, they say, all pastors were committed to expository preaching, the church would be reformed and revived.

I am committed to expository preaching. I believe expository preaching grows out of a conservative view of Scripture. If you believe that God has inspired Scripture, making it the rule for all Christian life and practice, it follows that you submit to its meaning. Therefore, you desire to understand what has already been revealed, submit to it yourself, and make it plain to others. Expository preaching usually goes hand-in-glove with inerrancy, for when you believe the Bible has been given without error, you are fastidious in your approach to understand the very words of Scripture, not just the themes. Expository preaching also reveals a desire to preach the whole counsel of God, not our pet themes or popular topics. For these reasons, I believe in expository preaching. I am furthering my studies through a seminary committed to expository preaching. I prefer to make the mainstay of my preaching expository series of books of the Bible. (I think you can preach biblical topical sermons by treating several texts in an expository fashion, though it is probably harder than simply expouding one passage of Scripture). We teach students in our church how to do expository preaching.

But having said all that, I think many Christian leaders have a faith in expository preaching which is overblown and looks to expository preaching to do what it cannot accomplish by itself.

It is a tempting position to hold. After all, the Bible teaches us about worship. Surely if we preach expositionally, biblical worship will take place, right? The Bible speaks about what affections we should have for God. If we preach the whole counsel of God, won’t it automatically lead to ordinate affection?

Look around for the answer. You have any number of Reformed or conservative evangelicals who are committed to expository preaching, but who come out on almost opposite ends of the worship and affection spectrum. Compare Mark Driscoll’s church to Ligon Duncan’s. Compare Phil Ryken’s church to the Resolved conferences. Compare John Piper’s church to Mark Minnick’s.  All of these men preach expositionally. Apparently, they aren’t coming to the same answers.

This camel-in-the-room fact leads many to relativise the affections. If such good preachers who are so committed to biblical authority come out at completely different answers as to what it means to worship, it must be because we’re just talking about ‘styles’ and various ways of ‘contextualising’ the gospel. So as not to shake anyone’s faith in expository preaching as the be-all and end-all, the quite obvious disparity in worship and affections by those committed to expository preaching is played down in favour of a shared commitment to Reformed doctrine.

I think ignoring this disparity is part of the problem. It’s my contention that expository preaching is not a magic bullet, but it must be accompanied by something to have its desired effect.  

The fact is, preaching occurs in a context. It ought to occur in the context of a local church. Within that local church, much of the meaning of expository preaching is fleshed out, specifically our worship-responses to God. In other words, the propositional truth of expository preaching must be modelled and incarnated in a church culture. You can hope that expository preaching will produce piety, devotion, and ordinate affection, but the truth is, propositional truth must be complemented by affective truth. Propositional truth tells us who God is; affective truth tells us what He deserves. Propositional truth tells us how Christians should respond to God; affective truth tells us what that looks like. Propositional truth gives it to us in black-and-white; affective truth colours it in for us.

In other words, you can preach a sound and good sermon on Hebrews 12:25-29, but if you do not complement that exegesis with church worship that models reverence and awe, your expository preaching has not succeeded. If your church culture capitulates to a postmodern view of the affections, if it endorses a warped understanding of reverence and awe, you have done the truth equivalent of drawing a nice black and white outline of a sunset, and then colouring it in with green and brown.  

We would like to think that expository preaching will produce biblical worship and ordinate affection, but it will not do so by itself for a simple reason: Scriptural truth is properly learned in the context of a right Christian tradition. Just as no one comes to the doctrine of the Trinity without inheriting that understanding from the church triumphant, so no one will understand ‘reverence and awe’ without inheriting that understanding from the worship of the church triumphant. No one ‘thinks up’ the hypostatic union by just doing sentence diagrams of John 1:1, and no one comes to a right understanding of ‘rejoice in the Lord’ without seeing ordinate joy modelled by other believers. A right Christology is built on the shoulders of the church triumphant, and a right joy in Christ is built on the shoulders of the church triumphant.  To argue that expository preaching is antecedent to right application is to ignore the relationship that Christian doctrine has always had with Christian tradition. Right doctrine modifies and corrects the tradition. Tradition gives balance, context and correction to the doctrine. The two are simultaneous tools for Christian living.

Tradition is not authoritative, Scripture is. But Scripture is interpreted with the help of the Spirit’s work in past believers as well as present ones. Whether we are talking about a right understanding of salvation by grace, or what it means to be of a contrite heart, we do not ignore what the church has said, sung or prayed when we examine the Scriptures for ourselves. What is being done today to the tradition of worship in the West is the equivalent of rejecting all the work done in Nicea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, Augsburg, Westminster and New Hampshire, and re-formulating the doctrine of the Trinity from scratch, just to ‘contextualise it for moderns’. In fact, that’s exactly what some emergents do. Sadly, many conservative evangelicals are guilty of the same deconstructionism in the area of worship.

All the more reason for Christian leaders to connect with our Christian heritage pre-Finney. If we do not understand what the church has meant by loving God, we will probably complement that propositional truth with an affective idea that is a sentimental, or brutal, or sensual. Which will be idolatry. And worse, our people will be certain that their idolatry is pleasing to God, since it is done in a church committed to expository preaching.

Expositional preaching requires a living context to be understood. While the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to make the right applications to a completely blinded heart, He usually uses the natural means of family, church and human culture to give a context to truth. Barring common grace, much in modern culture is useless for teaching the right application of Scripture. That leaves redeemed families and gospel churches to put flesh on the bones of expository sermons. If we make the wrong applications in our own worship services, our devotion to expository preaching is a wasted hope, and a clanging gong.