Archive for the ‘Church History’ Category

Invitation to the (Devotional) Classics – De Contemptu Mundi

June 21, 2013

The first duty of man ordained and brought forth into this world for that end, — my most dear Valerian! — is to know his Creator, and being known, to confess Him, and to resign or give up his life — which is the wonderful and peculiar gift of God, — to the service and worship of the Giver.

Eucherius was bishop of Lyons from around 434 till his death in 449. His most famous work, De Contemptu Mundi (On Contempt for the World) has enough nuggets for the devotional prospector.

Eucherius advocated the ascetic lifestyle of the Egyptian hermits, but remained connected to a life of learning and active service. On Contempt For the World has much more to say on loving God than it does on bodily mortification. The theme of this epistle to Valerian is essentially 1 John 2:15 – to love not this world.

For Eucherius, that meant a two-pronged approach: seeing the pain and inferiority of a life lived for this world alone, and meditating on the far greater reward that is God Himself and Heaven.

“And indeed I know not which should soonest or most effectually incite us to a pious care of life eternal, either the blessings which are promised us in that state of glory, or the miseries which we feel in this present life. Those from above most lovingly invite and call upon us; these below most rudely and importunately would expell hence.”

While exhorting Valerius to do so, Eucherius wrote words of admiration and praise for God that will make the heart of any worshipper rejoice:

“But if pleasure and love delight us, and provoke our senses, there is in Christian religion, a love of infinite comfort, and such delights as are not nauseous and offensive after fruition. There is in it, that which not only admits of a most vehement and overflowing love, but ought also to be so beloved; namely, God, blessed for evermore, the only beautiful, delightful, immortal and supreme good, Whom you may boldly and intimately love as well as piously; if in the room of your former earthly affections you entertain heavenly and holy desires. If you were ever taken with the magnificence and dignity of another person, there is nothing more magnificent than God. If with anything that might conduce to your honour and glory, there is nothing more glorious then Him. If with the splendour and excellency of pompous shows, there is nothing more bright, nothing more excellent. If with fairness and pleasing objects, there is nothing more beautiful. If with verity and righteousness, there is nothing more just, nothing more true. If with liberality, there is nothing more bountiful. If with incorruption and simplicity, there is nothing more sincere, nothing more pure than that supreme goodness.”

Of course, we wish that Eucherius had seen the manifold ways in which we can worship God and glorify Him in this world and in this life. But we don’t read Eucherius for earthy, everyday piety. We read Eucherius to remind us that this world, as good as it is, is not our home. We read this short, dense work (less than 11 000 words) to be reminded that the Christian faith is not merely a means to earthly ends. Instead, God Himself is the quest of the human soul.

“Take up your eyes from the Earth and look about you, my most dear Valerian; spread forth your sails, and hasten from this stormy sea of secular negotiations, into the calm and secure harbour of Christian religion. This is the only haven into which which we all drive from the raging surges of this malicious world. This is our shelter from the loud and persecuting whirlwinds of Time. Here is our sure station and certain rest; here a large and silent recesse, secluded from the world, opens and offers itself unto us. Here a pleasant, serene tranquility shines upon us. Hither, when you are come, your weather-beaten vessel — after all your fruitless toils — shall at last find rest, and securely ride at anchor of the Cross.”

Why We Need The Worship Wars

April 26, 2013

Unless you believe in orthopathy as essential to Christianity, the worship wars are much ado about nothing. They represent the dying thrashes of hide-bound traditionalists, raging against the waning popularity of those songs most familiar to them. They represent the immature clamour of people who do not understand the Romans 14 principle, and want to elevate their preferences to the level of orthodoxy.

If you believe, as I do,  in the very notion of orthopathy, then the worship wars are a natural, and indeed, essential part of church life. While no Spirit-filled Christian delights in conflict, no Spirit-filled Christian doubts that some conflict is inevitable and necessary. Consider how important doctrinal conflict has been.

We should be very thankful for the heretics and their heresies. Without them, we would not know all the ways that Christian orthodoxy can be denied and twisted. Before the heretics come along, orthodoxy is assumed, without clear definition. Through the heresies of Gnosticism, Ebionism, Apollonarianism, Eutychianism, Nestorianism, Arianism, and Sabellianism, the church hammered out orthodox Christology and trinitarianism. The Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds represent responses to heresies, and defining points for orthodoxy. The creeds represent points of definition. After the definition, deviations represent heterodoxy. A certain amount of vagueness or imprecision is expected before the point of definition that becomes intolerable after the point of definition.

For that matter, we can be thankful for the heresies of transsubstantiation, indulgences, baptismal regeneration, Mary as co-redemptrix, and others, for leading to the Reformation with its five solas. In many ways, our propositional statements of faith, as ornate as they now appear, partly represent a kind of timeline of doctrinal combat.

What has been true in the area of orthodoxy, has also been true in orthopathy. The affective domain of the faith, which is not merely what we have said, but how we have felt, how we have responded to those truths, has had its heresies, and its turning points of definition. If we are orthodox in doctrine, we should expect that we will respond to the truth as other orthodox Christians in history have, not an identical reaction, but an equivalent one for our place and time. And in two thousand years of doctrinal development, there has also been two millennia of affective, aesthetic development.

Steve Miller, in his masterful misrepresentation of liturgical history in The Contemporary Christian Music Debate, enjoys surveying the worship wars of previous centuries, in hopes of persuading us that sooner or later, the critics of CCM will get with the times, as did the critics of Watts’ hymns, or the critics of the organ, or the critics of a liturgy in the vernacular. That these debates existed, we do not doubt. That the modern worship wars are simply the contemporary version of these discussions, we do not dispute. That they represent nothing more than initial alarm to what will become standard orthopathy in one generation, we vehemently dispute.

Certainly there have been overreactions and over-corrections. Certainly, novelties are often regarded with suspicion, and once they become normative, the previous objectors seem amusingly alarmist. But what we often miss is that through the debates over orthopathy such as conflict over polyphony, original (that is, non-psalmic) hymns, or the gospel song, the church was doing in the affective domain precisely what it had done in the doctrinal domain. Doctrinal controversies said, “We speak of Christ like this, and not like that.” Affective controversies said, “We respond to Christ like this, and not like that.” And before the nearly wholesale abandonment of traditional worship forms in favour of entertainment at the end of the 19th century, Christian worship represented an inheritance of hundreds of years of corrections and refinements.

We should not be surprised that there exists in our era contention over proper sensibilities toward God. The truly alarming thing would be if there were none. What is somewhat different in our era is the post-modern mood that despises debate and clear definition. This pseudo-tolerance has long ago compromised the doctrinal integrity of professing Evangelicals. The same worldly mood that abhors necessary conflict and clear definition in doctrinal matters, is even more incensed at the thought of anything similar in the more subjective realm of orthopathy. In some ways, the most problematic people are not the combatants in the worship wars, but those who insist there should be none.

Why Church Feels The Way It Does

November 25, 2011

All cultures and subcultures move through stages, and evangelicalism is, among other things, a distinct subculture of Christianity. In cultural terms, a classical period is a time when all the parts of a community’s life seem to hang together, mutually reinforce each other, and make intuitive sense. By contrast, a decadent period is marked by dissolution of all the most important unities, a sense that whatever initial force gave impetus and meaningful form to the culture has pretty much spent its power. Decadence is a falling off, a falling apart from a previous unity.

Inhabitants of a decadent culture feel themselves to be living among the scraps and fragments of something that must have made sense to a previous generation but which now seem more like a pile of unrelated items. Decadent cultures feel unable to articulate the reasons for connecting things to each other. They spend a lot of time staring at isolated fragments, unable to combine them into meaningful wholes. They start all their important speeches by quoting Yeats’s overused line, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Decadents either fetishize their tribal and party distinctions or mix absolutely everything together in one sloppy combination. Not everybody in a decadent culture even feels a need to work toward articulating unities, but those who do make the attempt face a baffling challenge. At best, the experience is somewhat like working a jigsaw puzzle without the guidance of the finished image from the box top; at worst, it is like undertaking that task while fighting back the slow horror of realization that what you have in front of you are pieces that come from several different puzzles, none of them complete or related. Evangelicalism in our lifetime seems to be in a decadent period. In some sectors of the evangelical subculture, there is not even a living cultural memory of a classical period or golden age; what we experience is decadence all the way back.

Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 109.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 31 – Fostering a Love for Tradition

November 4, 2011

Fostering a right view towards the Christian tradition is part of true Christianity. Conservative pastors will do their best to see the Christian tradition rightly viewed and used in their local churches. Living in an age which assumes that the latest point in church history is the most advanced point, a respect for tradition may not come naturally to our people. Several practical suggestions for achieving this follow.

First, our sermons can arouse interest in the Christian past when we quote from, or refer to the lives of Christians from the past. I have often seen how one quotation or illustration has resulted in some Christians tracking down a biography or the devotional work in question.

Second, we can teach church-level courses in church history. Some kind of broad overview of the major movements, developments, and personalities within broad Christendom is hugely beneficial to most Christians. Simultaneously, we might teach some points from historical theology, emphasizing the flow of Christian thought through the ages. This helps Christians to see the jagged line that was providentially used by God to bring them the gospel and the Word of God.

Third, we can teach the occasional biographical study of someone from church history. This might not be Sunday morning fare, but there can be a place for an interesting study of the life of a well-known Christian. In line with this, we can stock our church libraries with biographies and more popular-level church history books. Recommendations from the pulpit will also help. We should not forget to find biographies or historical works written for younger readers, to foster their appetite for historical Christianity.

Fourth, we can conduct a study of some of the better known creeds, confessions or catechisms. Not only would such a study increase the doctrinal literacy with the church, it is also enormously helpful in connecting Christians with their doctrinal heritage. The use of creeds in corporate worship may not be acceptable to everyone, but this practice certainly underlines the Christian doctrinal tradition.

Fifth, we can teach on the history of hymnody, and the history of liturgies. This will afford us the opportunity to study some of these liturgies and hymns, and allow our people to see the craftsmanship that went into much of Christian worship before the slap-dash era. Helpful books on the nature and history of hymnody can be placed in our church libraries or turned into a mini-study.

Sixth, and mentioned before, recommending the devotional classics of the church is helpful. Including some of them them in your church library is important. Perhaps even a study through one of them might be effective for discipleship purposes.

These suggestions are aimed at doing more than giving the occasional nod to church history. They are ways to create a climate in which historical Christianity is part of the air that the church-members breathe. Everywhere they turn, there can be some reminder of what Christians in history have thought, sung, prayed, believed, taught and died for. An atmosphere like this fulfills the eighth mark of a conservative Christian church: a love for and right view of the Christian tradition.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 30 – Rightly Evaluating Tradition

October 28, 2011

If we are to grow a right view of the Christian tradition within our churches, we will have to overcome the ‘suspicion of tradition’ that pervades many evangelical churches. One way to do this is to teach Christians how to evaluate writings, hymns, prayers, and liturgies from the Christian past. When Christians have a set of tools to judge the value of tradition, they are less jittery about reading it. I suggest three important considerations that pastors can communicate to their people for the evaluation of the Christian tradition.

First, any ostensibly Christian writing must be judged for its allegiance to the biblical gospel. Just as we would not recognise a contemporary writing as Christian if the author denied the gospel, so we cannot recognise writings from the past as Christian if they do the same. That is not to say that such writings become useless to us. It simply means we would not accord them status as genuine parts of the Christian tradition. We would read them with the same interest we might read the modern commentaries by critical or liberal scholars. Of course, in judging the ancients according to this test, we will not expect them to articulate the gospel precisely as contemporary evangelicals do. (Perhaps that is a good thing.) Instead, we will look for confession of the fundamentals of the faith: the triune God, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, the death and resurrection of Christ for sinners, His ascension and return, the need for salvation by grace through faith, the existence of the church, the reality of judgement and resurrection after death. These essential doctrines were defended in the earliest creeds, and orthodox Christianity has always affirmed them.

Second, we must understand doctrinal turning points. In the progress of Christian thought, there is often a point at which controversy causes a particular doctrine to be carefully defined by Christians. Chalcedon was a turning point for Christology. The Athanasian Creed was a turning point for Trinitarianism. Luther was a turning point for justification by faith. Calvin was a turning point for the atonement of Christ. These turning points mark off important distinctions we must make in evaluating tradition. The writings on a particular theme or doctrine before the turning point must be judged differently from those written after it. Often, before the turning point, a doctrine is assumed, or it has not been come under the careful scrutiny it will in later times. After the turning point, dissident views are self-consciously so. When Irenaeus offers us the recapitulation view of the atonement, or when Anselm offers his satisfaction view, these are not necessarily denials of orthodox Christianity. There is truth in them, though penal substitutionary atonement is at the very heart of the doctrine of atonement. When Calvin articulates penal substitution, we have reached a turning point. Writings after the sixteenth century that attempt to use other theories of the atonement to deny penal substitution are now in a very different category to the writings of the early church Fathers that emphasise other aspects of the atonement. The Council of Trent is a denial; Origen not necessarily so.

In teaching how to evaluate tradition, we must teach that a fair judgement of tradition must consider these turning points. Critics of inerrancy who claim such a concept is absent from church history misunderstand that the doctrinal turning point for inerrancy was the 19th century, perhaps captured in the Chicago Statement a century later. Similar situations prevail for many other doctrines. We often fail to grant the necessary charity to writers before the turning point (or perhaps, the necessary severity to writers after it).

Third, we must look for catholicity and enduring value. If a particular hymn, prayer, treatise or book has tended to find favour with Christians across the ages, it probably represents something permanent and enduring. It will more than likely continue to speak to Christians today. Ironically, these are probably easier to spot in today’s Christianity than ever before. Given the modern intoxication with novelty, works which still remain on the fringes of Christian consciousness are likely those with just such enduring value. To keep its head above the deluge of contemporary Christian writing, a work needs the buoyancy of its catholicity and timelessness.

In the next post, I would like to suggest several ways that a right appreciation for and interest in the Christian tradition can be fostered in the local church.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 29 – Rightly Viewing Tradition

October 21, 2011

The religious scene of South Africa is populated by mainline Protestant churches, some of whom place great emphasis on tradition. However, in many of these churches, the gospel itself is all but invisible, an assumed but unseen foundation of the house. The problem is, most of those in the house have never clearly heard or understood the gospel, and the same might be said for many of the religious professionals who teach there.

Once a person comes under the sound of the true gospel and believes it, he is struck by the sad irony of having attended a church for decades in which the gospel itself was never proclaimed. Inevitably, this new-found knowledge of biblical truth tends to produce a desire to distance himself from anything and everything connected with the former church, including any allegiance to tradition. Since such churches often rely on and turn to their traditions, the new Christian concludes that tradition must be part of the problem that caused the gospel itself to go into eclipse in such churches.

The truth is, tradition is indeed a double-edged sword. When tradition preserves the truth, it is a reliable record that comes to a newer generation without that generation having to re-invent the wheel. When tradition preserves untruths, it becomes the guardian of a lie that will not die. It is an accomplice to deception, using its antiquity to give credibility to its spurious beliefs and practices.

In reaction to gospel-eviscerated traditionalism, it is possible to make tradition itself the problem. This would be a mistake. If a museum keeps something worthless, this does not invalidate the value of museums. Clearly, what matters is what tradition preserves. A gospel-eviscerated tradition is a bad one. A gospel-centred tradition is a good one.

Pastors who wish to have churches in which the Christian tradition is rightly viewed and used must help their parishioners to see just this. Tradition is neither pure evil nor unmitigated good. Traditions must be judged for the truth of what they preserve. To help Christians overcome either an unhealthy antipathy towards tradition, or an unquestioning deference to tradition, I suggest pastors teach several things.

First, we must teach that tradition is biblical. One of Paul’s instructions to Timothy is to teach faithful men who will be able to teach others also. This command is nothing less than a command for a tradition. The truth is to be taught to others, who will teach that same truth to others still. Since each generation receives the truth from teachers who heard from others, this is tradition at work. Simply because each generation holds to sola Scriptura does not mean that they were not helped, influenced or enabled to understand the truth by former generations. When we train leaders, and encourage people to disciple others, and disciple their children, we are perpetuating a tradition. We want the truth passed on. We want right practices passed on. We want ordinate worship passed on. This is only right, and it is the biblical idea of tradition.

Second, we must teach that we all depend on tradition. One way of pointing this out is to ask how people came to faith. They will often mention a person who shared the gospel with them. The question then becomes, who shared the gospel with that person? And with the person before that? Soon we find a line of Christians who preserved and taught the gospel stretching back through the centuries. We would not be saved had Christians before us not preserved and passed on the gospel. This is true not only of the gospel, but of doctrine. We do well to help our people understand that we ourselves did not invent the categories of essence and persons when it comes to explaining the Trinity. Rather, we have received these categories after centuries of debate and theological refinement. Were it not for the work done at Nicea, Chalcedon, Augsburg and so on, we would be wallowing in a mass of biblical data, taking on the gargantuan task of figuring it all out on our own. Fortunately, we do not have to do the pastoral or theological equivalent of swimming the Pacific, but we can and do receive the baton of orthodox doctrinal categories from centuries of Christian work.

Third, we must deny that tradition is a straight or unbroken line. While it is tempting for some to style themselves as true heirs of an undiluted orthodoxy that never wavered from the days of the apostles, church history simply does not bear this out. Church history is a time-line of doctrinal combat, a series of reactions and overreactions to heresy and hypocrisy, with corrections, over-corrections and corrections-that-never-were. Church history is a very crooked, jagged line, with many branches veering off into denials of the faith. In order to rightly value tradition, we need not try to find ourselves with our combinations of beliefs and practices in the pages of church history for some form of self-validation. Rather, we can rejoice in the providence of God in bringing what we now have through the twists and turns of church history.

Fourth, we must teach how to evaluate the Christian tradition. Not all traditions are equally helpful. Not everything calling itself Christian today is so, and the same is true of the past. We must help our people to evaluate what they read from the Christian past to judge its worth. We will consider this next.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 28 – Conservatives and Tradition

October 14, 2011

A church that is self-consciously conservative has a relationship with both the past and the future. If we are conserving Christianity, we must be conserving the Christianity we have received – from the church of the past. If we are conserving Christianity, we must be doing so for the sake of passing it on – to the church of the future. Since conservatives are not trying to re-invent Christianity, conservative churches have a special eye towards the Christian past, for the sake of the present and future church. This is the eighth mark of a conservative Christian church: rightly viewing and using the Christian tradition.

Churches in the Reformed and more confessional wings of Protestantism do not appear to struggle with the concept of tradition as much as many in the evangelical and fundamentalist circles do. I grew up in circles which were, if not overtly, then certainly implicitly, anti-ecclesiastical, anti-traditional and anti-intellectual. Anything that was not immediately accessible to the common man was something viewed with suspicion. When I heard the word tradition, it was usually said with the curled lip of scorn or contempt, pointing out those who were not as biblical as we were, and were dependent on the fallible opinions of church history. However, I came to see that such attitudes had the childishness of an infant on his father’s shoulders, exclaiming “Look how tall I am!”

In fact, we all stand on the shoulders of Christians that have gone before us. The Christian tradition is neither dispensable nor optional to our faith. A church that thinks it has independently arrived at the Christian orthodoxy hammered out at Nicea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, Augsburg, Schleitheim, Westminster, London or New Hampshire is similar to that child. No church approaches the raw mass of biblical data and makes sense of it without help. Like that child, it might feel as if it has attained to heights of interpretive genius on its own, but in fact, even its working definitions for theological concepts have been supplied by Christians of the past.

The Christian tradition does not only serve us in the area of orthodoxy, but in orthopraxy and orthopathy as well. The church of the past is not only a record of doctrinal statements and re-statements, it is also a testimony to how Christians have lived out their faith and testified of their devotion to Christ. It is an ongoing record of how Christians have applied the doctrine they confessed, and how they have worshipped God. For a church that tends to be enamoured with its own novelties and innovations, it is a helpful corrective to compare our piety and liturgy to that of thousands of Christians over thousands of years. While we do not expect them to be identical, we ought to expect that they will be equivalent, given our differing cultural circumstances. And when we find that our piety or liturgy has no equivalent in any of the Christian traditions since the apostles, we ought to be filled with alarm, not pride.

Exposure to the Christian tradition is rather like visiting another country. Once confronted with differences, you become aware of your own idiosyncrasies, oddities and eccentricities. When we become familiar with the Christian tradition, we can be jolted out of the complacency that assumes contemporary Christianity is a healthy and historic Christianity.

For these reasons, a conservative Christian church must learn how to rightly value and use the Christian tradition. In the next few posts, I would like to suggest some ways that pastors can encourage this approach to the Christian tradition within their churches.

There Must Needs Be Divisions

August 5, 2010

John Calvin on 1 Corinthians 11:19 (“For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you.”):

“Heresies are when the evil proceeds to such a pitch that open hostility is discovered, and persons deliberately divide themselves into opposite parties. Hence, in order that believers might not feel discouraged on seeing the Corinthians torn with divisions, the Apostle turns round this occasion of offense in an opposite direction, intimating that the Lord does rather by such trials make proof of his people’s constancy. A lovely consolation! “So far, says he, should we be from being troubled, or cast down, when we do not see complete unity in the Church, but on the contrary some threatenings of separation from want of proper agreement, that even if sects should start up, we ought to remain firm and constant. For in this way hypocrites are detected — in this way, on the other hand, the sincerity of believers is tried. For as this gives occasion for discovering the fickleness of those who were not rooted in the Lord’s Word, and the wickedness of those who had assumed the appearance of good men, so the good afford a more signal manifestation of their constancy and sincerity.” 

Of Whom the World Was Not Worthy

February 20, 2010

 

 

The Forbidden Book  by Karel Ooms portrays a Protestant man and his daughter during the time of Roman Catholic persecution. They are studying the Scriptures together, and have just heard a knock at the door.

 
 

Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. (Hebrews 11:36-38)

 

The Greatest Church Musician

February 8, 2010

Bach’s greatness is compounded of many elements. He could combine the sacred and the secular without jeopardizing the mystical wonder of the one or the dramatic intensity of the other. He could fuse in one the popular elements supplied by the chorales and the aristocratic elements represented by consummate technical skill. He could carry realism to its utmost limits, yet he never overstepped the bounds of liturgical propriety. He was at once a daring innovator and a ‘perfect formalist’ – the master of both his subject matter and his form. He showed that Palestrina’s beauty (always mystical but often vague) and Handel’s vigour (forceful but somewhat material) could be fused in an art which surpassed the farthest reach of either. He accomplished it with an authority which imparted a touch of finality to almost everything he wrote. The firm assurance is more than a product of supreme skill. Bach offers an interpretation of life which transcends the limitations to which the work of lesser men is subject. The central thread which unifies the amazing skill, subtlety, and penetrating insight of his works is the motif of faith. He was fundamentally a religious man. To compose music was an act of faith; to perform it was an act of worship.

Bach was the greatest of church musicians. In a sense he was also the last…In religious music Bach represents the summit of achievement; after him the descent was rapid.

 Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason (pp 277-278)