Archive for the ‘Ordinate Affection’ Category

Invitation to the (Devotional) Classics – 1

May 24, 2013

Who knows how many volumes have been written by Christians through the centuries? Spurgeon’s works alone are 63 volumes, which are equivalent to the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Unlike Spurgeon’s works, not every Christian’s writings have been preserved, or been worth preserving.

Wesley said we ought to be people of one book, but students of many. With Scripture being our Book of books, we’d do well to learn from those Christian writings that have seemed to rise to the top, and withstand the winnowing of time. These ‘devotional classics’ span time, denomination or tradition, and genre, for lack of a better term. They come from Ante-Nicene, Nicene, post-Nicene periods, from the Middle Ages, and from Reformation, Enlightenment, Awakening and modern periods. They were written in Africa, Asia, Europe and America. Their authors are early bishops, martyrs, monks, scholastics, reformers, separatists, mystics, puritans, pastors, and missionaries. They are from the Eastern and Western church, reformers who were in the Roman Catholic church, reformers who came out, and reformers who remained in. They are Anglican, Congregationalist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Baptist. And they write sermons, poems, confessions, prayers, autobiographies, letters, and general treatments of the Christian life. I’d like to begin doing a brief description and review of some of these classics, with some choice excerpts from each.

What is the value of reading these dusty treasures? I can think of two reasons.

First, the value of reading some of the best devotional works is of inestimable spiritual value. A.W. Tozer wrote, “After the Bible the next most valuable book for the Christian is a good hymnal. Let any young Christian spend a year prayerfully meditating on the hymns of Watts and Wesley alone and he will become a fine theologian. Then let him read a balanced diet of the Puritans and the Christian mystics. The results will be more wonderful than he could have dreamed.”

Second, to be truly helpful to our generation, we should live with these past saints. Much of modern Christianity has made a host of the non-culture we call secularism, and to the degree that it has become identified with this non-culture, it has become a non-religion, simply an eclectic set of parochial pieties, idiosyncratic moralisms, prejudices and assumptions. Reading these classics is a way of hearing what generations other than our own have said. T.S. Eliot pointed out in Tradition and the Individual Talent that to enter into the stream of historical understanding is to begin to know more than the thoughts of your own generation. “This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.” You only understand your times, and can speak to them effectively, or dare I say it, with relevance, if you have viewed your own generation from the perspective of other generations. You will only know what is distinctive (for good or ill) about your generation if you have regularly inhabited a world that transcends your particular time and place. Failing this, you are just an echo-chamber for the thoughts of our day, and if they be in error, you are a repeater-station for widely accepted error.

Someone might be understandably skeptical about the notion of orthopathy, or right loves. But let him vigorously work his way through these classics, and he will find a similarity of sentiment across the ages that seems to fit very well with the idea of orthopathy, and in many cases, makes the pieties of our age seem foreign. Don’t take my word for it. Live with Christians from other ages, and then decide whose piety is the odd one out.

A few words about this mixed multitude. The list we’ll be working through includes people from doctrinal traditions quite different from our own. We sit at their feet not because we want to embrace all their errors, nor because we seek to re-make them in our image (or vice-versa). A bee can find nectar in the weed as well as in the flower, said the holiness preacher Joseph H. Smith.

Finally, reading these works will mean some spiritual effort, which I heartily encourage. Again, Tozer: “To enjoy a great religious work requires a degree of consecration to God and detachment from the world that few modern Christians have experienced. The early Christian Fathers, the mystics, the Puritans, are not hard to understand, but they inhabit the highlands where the air is crisp and rarefied and none but the God-enamored can come.”


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.

Mind Your Manners – 4 – Irreverent and Culpable

April 12, 2013

 Thus far in this series, we have seen several truths about manners and their relation to worship and worship forms:

  1. All cultures have manners. All cultures recognise the importance of appropriate responses.

  2. The expression of these appropriate responses differs greatly between cultures.

  3. These differences do not relativise the affections of reverence or honour. They demonstrate that meaning comes about in different ways for different cultures.

  4. The meaning on the gesture that represents the affection may have come about through use, through association, or through some stipulation by an authority. Furthermore, the culture may have the response wrong through its own idolatries.

  5. Inhabitants of a culture are responsible to understand the meaning of the gestures, forms, metaphors, and expressions in their culture. They are responsible to do so, because they have the obligation to communicate with God and man, and must do so with the tools they have.

This brings us to our last question. If what we have said is true, there are plenty of people committing acts of profanity and irreverence in the name of God. If an act or gesture does not become reverent simply because I sincerely wish it were so, or claim it is, then plenty of people are performing acts of irreverence and disrespect towards God. However, they would deny this, so how do we account for this?

First, some are ignorant of meaning, but still culpable. With today’s public education system, it is quite possible to insult a teenager without his knowing it. The teen’s small vocabulary or ignorance of metaphors does not change the fact that he has been insulted. Furthermore, if he decides to repeat the insult to a superior, his ignorance does not make him polite. Ignorance of meaning still makes one culpable. Quite a few people were apparently ignorant of the meaning of carrying the Ark on an ox-cart as opposed to the prescribed method, but their ignorance did not absolve them. Some may be enlisting in worship those musical forms that embody irreverence and disorder, without understanding that those forms do so. They are not innocent, for if one can tell others what your CCM does not mean, surely you have to be in a position to say what it does mean.

Second, some are desensitized to meanings, but still culpable. People growing up with R-rated rap are unlikely to detect how sensual Strauss’ waltzes are. The meaning of those waltzes has not changed; but the sensitivity to perceive it has diminished with the flood of the erotic. If you are surrounded by the chaos of rock, eventually the chaos seems normal, and you detect no incongruity in using it for worship. Again, this does not reduce culpability, any more than man’s depravity makes him less culpable to believe the gospel. Perverseness does not make us more innocent, but more guilty.

Third, some are dismissive of meaning, and especially culpable. Some are not interested in even considering the meaning of their cherished idols, lest they have to surrender them. They mock attempts to parse meanings, and hide behind the words preference, style, subjective, and non-issue. Again, they pretend the meaning of their chosen expression is open and relative, except when their music is criticized, at which point they become quite dogmatic that their music does not mean that.

In summary, many are rude to God, with more or less culpability for their irreverence. They deny that they are irreverent, but they will have to give account for their posture towards God. The one who did not know his Master’s will will be beaten with less stripes. The one who did – the one who knew that his Master had called him to test all things and hold fast to what is good – but instead suppressed the truth, was willingly ignorant, and a sluggard regarding discernment, he shall be beaten with many.

Mind Your Manners – 3 – Manners and Meaning

April 5, 2013

What do widely varying manners tell us about ordinate affection? Some reason this way: since some cultures regard eye-contact as respectful, and others regard eye-contact as impudent, these opposite understandings of reverence show the relative and subjective nature of manners. These outward expressions are adiaphora – indifferent, neutral things. The morality lies in the person giving or withholding eye-contact: the person is either seeking to be respectful or not, and this is what gives morality to the action.

No argument that one’s intention to be respectful is a major part of the meaning of the manner in question. But is that all that is needed? If a young Zulu man decides that eye-contact ought to be regarded as respectfulness by his elders, should his sincerity count as reverence in a Zulu culture? However much sincerity the man may have, he still has to grapple with the meaning of eye-contact in his culture at the time.

The fact that one culture regards eye-contact with a superior as rude, and another regards a lack of eye-contact as dishonest evasiveness does not make these gestures amoral or meaningless. It simply means that the meaning of these gestures in different cultures comes about in different ways. Some of it will be stipulative: at some point a particular gesture is simply designated to have a meaning, which the members of the culture will observe. Sometimes meaning comes about through associations and through use: the obscene hand and finger signals are quite different between cultures, but they have come to have a conventional meaning in each culture. In the case of some gestures, something is intrinsic to the meaning of the motion. For example, there is no culture in which bowing or kneeling before someone is a sign of dominance, aggression or suggested superiority.

These various influences shape the meaning of manners, so that their applications can look very different, and even opposite, between cultures. What we cannot miss is what all the cultures hold in common: expressions of reverence, courtesy, and appropriate love. All cultures have manners: and the manners of some cultures have been more influenced by Christian thinking than others. Every culture has its code of gestures, tones, and responses that incarnate its idea of appropriate responses.

This all puts the lie to the idea that in the current melting pot of cultures, any and all responses to God count as reverent, so long as the worshiper feels it is so. Though we are confronted with differing cultures and their manners like never before, these each have meaning. The challenge (and it is a large one) is to understand the meaning of certain tones, gestures, terms of address, surroundings, technologies, musical forms in the culture you worship in. What is their meaning? The meaning may well be in dispute, which should come as no surprise in a world which uses meaninglessness as a cover for its sin. This does not absolve us from the responsibility to find out. If something has obtained a meaning through association or use, what is that meaning? If the meaning is shifting, how is it changing and in what direction? Is it consonant with reverence and respect? If the meaning has come about through its created form, what is that meaning? Among those who believe in meaning, what is the consensus regarding its meaning?

Certainly, the post-mods will want to assign meaning arbitrarily: it means what I want it to mean. But if the Zulu father will not accept the young man’s revision of eye-contact merely because of his sincerity, is it altogether implausible that God may not regard certain actions as reverent, however much we may wish it to be so? Certainly God is omniscient, and not confined to the meaning found in one culture only. He understands and knows the meaning of all things, whether that meaning has come about by use, association or naturally. He knows how meanings change in a given culture. He knows if that meaning is understood by all, most, some, or hardly any in a culture. He understands how sincere a person’s heart is, and He understands how diligent a person has been to understand the meaning of his offered worship. Which brings us to our last question: if a person does not understand the meaning of what he is doing, is he culpable for that action? If he sincerely means something one way, but it means another, which meaning prevails, in God’s eyes? Or to summarise: is it possible to be unintentionally irreverent towards God?

Mind Your Manners – 2 – The Strange Silence Around the Third Commandment

March 22, 2013

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”

This command is universally understood to mean that God’s name is not to be used as a curse-word, or as a mere exclamation. And who would deny that? To use the very name of God to express irritation or surprise, to add verbal oomph to a promise, or to simply use His name as a joke would surely violate this command.

How do we know that? Is there anywhere in the rest of the Law of Moses that explains and applies the Third Commandment? Not explicitly, anyway. Apparently, this command supplies a principle, to which believers were, and are, supposed to supply applications.

What is the principle? Since one’s name represents one’s person and character, the name of God represents more than simply the verbal pronouncement or written letters of God’s names or titles. The name of God represents God’s person. To take His name in vain, is to take His person, character and reputation in vain. “To take in vain” is to treat as light, empty, or worthless. It is to misuse something in a fashion that trivialises its dignity, devalues its import, or profanes its uniqueness. The timeless principle of the Third Commandment seems to be: do not treat God in any way that trivialises, devalues, or profanes Him. Positively: fear God, and give Him the glory due His name (Ps 29:2).

One can easily see how using God’s actual name as a swear-word would profane God. But are there not other lawful applications of this command? What about treating His Supper as common? What about treating His Day like any other day? What about making light of God’s Word in a sermon? What of Sunday School songs that make God into something comical or amusing? What about methods of evangelism that ‘theme’ the gospel after some form of entertainment or leisure? What about worshipping God with forms used for revelry, narcissism and entertainment? Are there forms of speech, song, poetry, prayer, dress that would portray God as lightweight, inconsequential or unimportant? Could a certain kind of behaviour drag God’s reputation through the mud, particularly by those who name Him?

We’re probably only getting started with possible applications. The point is, the Third Commandment, like most of them, gives a command which is timeless, and therefore generalised. “Treat God’s Person With Respect”, might be a paraphrase. This broad principle then needs to be worked into differing ages, cultures, and situations. God gives us the etiquette – treat Me with reverence – and expects us to apply it.

And there’s the rub. We can take God’s relative silence about how to flesh out the Third Commandment two ways. We can assume that the only moral aspect of the Commandment is the timeless principle, while the applications, because they may differ from culture to culture, are amoral. What becomes moral, in this way of thinking, is the desire, or the sincerity with which a person wishes to reverence God. The actual forms, habits, speech, dress and musical forms contain no meaning except insofar as they give a moral agent an opportunity to express his sincere desire to revere God.

The other approach is to see morality extending from the timeless commandment through to the applications, even when these applications are not spelt out by Scripture. The applications are moral insofar as they carry meanings. These meanings can communicate, in a given culture, reverence for God or its opposite. This meaning comes about in several ways, but since it is present in every culture, what is needed to keep the Third Commandment is more than sincerity, but discernment. Every moral agent needs to grow in knowledge, to judge the meaning, in his culture, of his acts, habits, gestures and responses to God. I’d like to defend this second approach in the next posts.

Mind Your Manners: Rude to God

March 15, 2013

Manners are strange and wonderful things. Every culture has them, and yet they often vary widely between cultures. In Western culture, ‘ladies first’ is a way of expressing deference and honour to women, while in some black cultures in South Africa, a man is to enter every space first to demonstrate his protection of those who follow him. Ladies first would be considered cowardice. “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” often rings out in many a home in English-speaking countries, but in several African cultures, eye contact with a superior is considered effrontery and rude. Honour is shown by keeping one’s gaze down. When I lived in Taiwan, I found all my table manners were backwards. Absolutely nothing should be touched with the hands, but loud slurping, chewing and other sounds of mastication and digestion are considered normal and complimentary. Chopsticks alone must be used to pick up food, but a stray ant or bug walking across the table didn’t cause so much as a double-take. In the Afrikaans language, one speaks respectfully by avoiding direct pronouns ‘you’ and your’, so a respectful person will say something like, “Father, will Father be taking Father’s car to the shops, or may I offer Father a lift?” Funerals in the West are observed with silence and dark colours; funerals in Africa have wailers, singing, and a feast. Every culture has its manners, and as far as we can tell, no culture has been without manners. Manners were clearly present in Hebrew culture:

Leviticus 19:32 Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD.

Deuteronomy 28:49-50  “The LORD will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flies, a nation whose language you will not understand,  “a nation of fierce countenance, which does not respect the elderly nor show favor to the young.

Proverbs 30:17 The eye that mocks his father, And scorns obedience to his mother, The ravens of the valley will pick it out, And the young eagles will eat it.

What are these strange things we call manners? To explain them is like explaining a joke. You either get them or you don’t. But on close inspection, they provide much drapery and clothing to our imaginative lives. They distinguish us from mere animals, they demonstrate the transcendence of our lives. Manners turn meals into something more than sustenance, sex into more than mating, clothing into something more than covering, speech into more than sharing information. Through manners we order and arrange our lives, recognising distinctions in age, sex, office, and station in life. Not only do manners provide life with the delight of respect for person, property and occasion, manners actually shape our understanding of oughtness. Certain people ought to be treated in a particular way. Certain occasions ought to be conducted with a kind of decorum. Manners are an elaborate system of value judgements.  “Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.”(1 Peter 2:17) Man judges the meaning and therefore the value of people, things, and events by clothing them with manners. He will invest life with ceremony, from eating, to queuing, to speaking, to attracting the opposite sex, to passing laws, to holding meetings, and until recently, to waging war.

Why should he do this if he is merely advanced protoplasm? Though many today argue for life without manners, man keeps defaulting back to them. Man believes there is a transcendent order, which filters down into a scale of values: some things or people deserve a certain kind of treatment. Some people and things ought to be respected. Some gestures or habits are offensive. Some things are obscene.

Yet, for all this universality of manners, manners are slippery things. Their differing, and sometimes opposite applications in cultures lead people to regard them as arbitrary. No rule-book, not even Emily Post, can finally define manners. But human life would not be human without them.

Since manners reflect a transcendent order, we would do well to ask, are there manners for dealing with God? Can one be rude to God, indecorous in His presence, disrespectful, or unmannered?
The Bible suggests it is possible to be rude to God. Several Scriptures enjoin ‘manners’ before God, and rebuke the lack thereof:

Malachi 1:6 ” A son honors his father, And a servant his master. If then I am the Father, Where is My honor? And if I am a Master, Where is My reverence? Says the LORD of hosts To you priests who despise My name. Yet you say, ‘In what way have we despised Your name?’

Exodus 20:7 ” You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.

Psalm 114:7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, At the presence of the God of Jacob,

Hebrews 12:28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.

Ezekiel 23:39 39 “For after they had slain their children for their idols, on the same day they came into My sanctuary to profane it; and indeed thus they have done in the midst of My house.

If there are manners before God, how would we know what they are? Are the applications for these manners spelt out in Scripture? What are we to make of this? Do manners in God’s presence differ from culture to culture? How does this relate to the current worship wars? How do we learn manners before God? How should Christians teach younger Christians their manners before God? We’ll attempt some answers to these questions in this series.

Tozer on Worship Music -12

September 21, 2012

(From the Introduction to The Christian Book of Mystical Verse)

This is a book for the worshiper rather than for the student. It has been carefully and lovingly prepared for those God-enamored persons who, while they feel as deeply as the enraptured poet, yet lack the gift that would enable them to express their feelings adequately. Such will sense a kinship with the gifted souls they find on the pages of this book and will join them as they mount on high to pour out their hymns at heaven’s gate.

In making these selections I have largely followed my own bent, though I have been guided somewhat by a few simple rules. First, all sentimental verse was excluded, along with everything homey and maudlin. The only healthy emotions are those aroused by great ideas, and even these must be restrained and purified by the Spirit of God or they will spend themselves in weak and sterile rhymes. Of such there is enough in the religious world; I think none will be found in this book.

Second, while the compiler is not unfamiliar with the judgment of hymnologists and literary critics on the larger body of English religious verse, that judgment has been set aside and another adopted for this book. For this reason some of the standard classics have been omitted because I felt they would not contribute to my purpose. Conversely, certain poems of admittedly inferior literary rank have been included because I felt that they would.

Third, everything selected for inclusion in this work had to be judged theologically sound. While considerable latitude was allowed, even welcomed, in doctrinal outlook and emphasis, to be accepted every hymn and poem had to meet the test of faithfulness to the Christian Scriptures. Though almost everything here is pure lyric poetry and may easily be sung, yet this book is not intended for use in the public assembly. Had I meant it to be so used a wholly different kind of verse would have been chosen for it and the book would have been another sort of book altogether. Everything here is for use in private devotion. I have had in mind not a congregation but the lone individual. For this reason I would respectfully urge the one who may come into possession of this book not to “read” it as he would read another book. Let him try rather to enter into its mood, to capture and be captured by its spirit. How many pages he gets through in a day is of no importance; what one poem or even one single stanza does to him and for him and in him: that is everything.

Admittedly much pure gold has been left out of this treasury. The chief reason is lack of space. I have tried to keep the book small enough to be portable, that its possessor may carry it with him and so turn any bus or train or airplane into a sanctuary. Certainly not all the gold in the world is in this one volume, but what is here is, I believe, true gold of Ophir. I hope many of my fellow Christians will find it to be so.

—The Christian Book of Mystical Verse

You Say Non-Essentials, I Say Truncated

March 15, 2011

Conservative Christianity is concerned with conserving all it means to be Christian. Broadly speaking, all Christians want to see Christianity conserved; our disagreement consists in what we think must be conserved to achieve that.

Generally, evangelicals and fundamentalists think that the preservation of Christianity consists in the conservation of the gospel itself, along with a strong commitment to biblical doctrine. If I read them right, methods which preserve and propagate the gospel and sound teaching are the means to conserve Christianity. Therefore, a large amount of hope is being placed in expository preaching, church membership, church discipline, biblical discipleship, spiritual leadership, theological literacy, clear evangelism and robust missions. Certainly, the revival of emphasis on these aspects of Christianity is to be applauded and welcomed.

While I agree with the commitment to the gospel and biblical doctrine, I don’t think these alone are enough to conserve and propagate biblical Christianity. I think several other things are essential to Christianity and need to be conserved. I believe Christianity is a life of love; therefore, Christians have to be very concerned with the matter of the affections: what we are to love, to what degree, and in what way. We further have to be concerned with what shapes those loves, what affects and moulds our imaginations. To navigate these issues, we have to be concerned with meaning, discovering what various objects, things, gestures, practices or other cultural artifacts mean, since we end up using them in life or worship. Therefore, I urge the study and understanding of such things, not because I want some complex form of Christianity, but because I think these things are essential to Christianity.

I think that Christianity lacking these distinctives is, in fact, a truncated Christianity. That is, instead of being a sleek, supple, essentials-only Christianity, I see it as ultimately incapable of sustaining the life of faith. I think that the removal of a right understanding of the affections, a neglect of what shapes the imagination, an incorrect understanding of how we know, and a failure to relate the centrality of the affections to the doctrine of sanctification will result in a severely under-developed spiritual life. The resulting Christianity walks into the gale-force winds of modern unbelief with something barely more than a mental and volitional commitment to certain biblical facts. In the face of such a storm, quite literally the majority of those who have grown up with such a minimalist Christianity are blown off into apostasy or a secularized form of religion. A small minority of people barely hang on to their creed by the tips of their fingernails. Sadly, this massive fall-off is considered normal, and is proof-texted with the parable of the soils.

In other words, my commitment to conservative Christianity is not due to cultural imperialism, or an obsession with particular applications of the Bible to behavioral standards. I embrace conservative Christianity because I think it is a full-orbed Christianity, and the only kind that will ultimately survive. I think that it is the kind of Christianity that had always existed in various shapes and forms before its secularization in the 19th century.

So here is the irony and the misunderstanding. As I look at Christianity, I think that the conservative take on it is not baroque and ornate; it is simply what is required to sustain healthy Christianity. I look at those who disagree with me and I see  a reduced, skeletal Christianity that can barely keep its own head above water, let alone seriously defend or propagate the faith in the challenging years ahead. I see the current state of evangelicalism and fundamentalism as emaciated and spiritually anaemic, scarcely holding on to life. Worse, it regards its weak pulse and laboured breathing as evidence of its healthy commitment to ‘core essentials’, and thanks God that it is not as other men are: legalists, cultural snobs, elitists, or even as this tax collector.

On the other hand, those I’m looking at see my take on Christianity as a massive confusion of non-essentials with essentials, of turning applications into doctrines, and of seeing inferences and non-biblical knowledge as authoritative. I’m the guy wearing four woolen jerseys on a summer’s day, unnecessarily laden-down with joy-killing extras. As far as they are concerned, they have streamlined, flexible, gospel-centred Christianity, free from cultural imperialism and fundamentalist taboos, brimming with nothing but Scripture and Scripture alone.  Conversely, I think this Christianity is not supple, slick and Scripture-centred; I think it is abbreviated, inconsistent and intentionally agnostic where it needn’t be.

I know God can do anything, and that God’s ultimate purposes will prevail. I know that God continues to use all kinds of means and imperfect men and methods. However, a steward does not have the right to be careless and sloppy because his Master is sovereign. I urge the ideas of conservative Christianity because I love Christ and His church, and want to see Him honoured and His church conserved and propagated.

In the Dark Age we’re in, we can’t afford to defend anything but the essentials. I’m convinced that’s what I and others who share these convictions are doing.

Worth Reprinting

September 12, 2010

Kevin Bauder, on the difference between revivalism and biblical approaches to Christian growth:

[Revivalism is:]

1) A belief that crisis decisions are the normal and principal mechanism of sanctification and spiritual development, and that such decisions are typically manifested by “going to the altar” during the public invitation. “Evangelists” are thought of as preachers who have a special ability to produce these crises. Often a preacher is expected to have some special spiritual enduement or anointing to be able to perform the function of precipitating these crises.
(2) A failure to distinguish persuasion from manipulation in seeking to precipitate such crises, accompanied by an inability to distinguish legitimate appeals to the mind through the affections from appeals to the appetites. Tear-jerking stories, ranting, and demagoguery are the special province of revivalism.
(3) A suspicion or rejection of biblical exposition as the normal and principal mode of preaching, and the adoption of storytelling and “hard preaching,” which focuses on the invitation to salvation and the berating of God’s people for their failure to evangelize or to live up to the “standards.”
(4) The use of amusements and propaganda techniques in gathering and holding a crowd.
(5) The displacement of corporate worship by religious amusements and crowd evangelism in the public gatherings of the church.
(6) A reluctance to commit the decision-making process of the church into the hands of the members, resulting in a de facto pastoral dictatorship. Sometimes this form of spiritual contempt extends even to the private lives of church members, who are told that they should seek the pastor’s counsel before making any important decision. Very often, this philosophy of manifested in an attitude of suspicion or even contempt toward pastoral arrangements that involve a real sharing of authority and responsibility among multiple pastors.
(7) A belief that the spiritual effectiveness of ministers and ministries can be gauged (ceteris paribus) by the number of crisis decisions that are being made. Soul-winning covers a multitude of sins.
Now, this is a short description, and it is therefore incomplete. Still, to the degree that a ministry is characterized by the above, then it can fairly be called revivalistic. Of course, non-revivalists also favor revival (or, as we prefer to call it, “awakening”–and there is a good reason for this).
In contrast to revivalism, biblical Christianity assumes that spiritual growth is the default state for true believers. The corollaries work out as follows.
(1) A belief that spiritual decisions are being made constantly and that they are not normally crisis decisions. Over time, small decisions add up to big growth. When crisis decisions are necessary (and they sometimes are), then they should be made in the right ways and for the right reasons.
(2) Refusal to bypass the mind when appealing to the emotions, but recognition that the emotions (in the form of Christian affections) are extremely important. Loving God rightly is the most important thing that we can ever do, and this right love (orthopathy) must undergird every attempt to serve and obey Him.
(3) An insistence upon biblical exposition as the normal and vital pattern of preaching and the focal point of worship. As the Scriptures are carefully interpreted, explained, and applied, the lives of God’s people will be transformed. They will see Christ in His beauty, love Him for Himself, and live out that love increasingly in their daily conduct.
(4) The recognition that the most important presence in the assembly of the Church is God Himself, leading to the utter rejection of any attempt to convert Christianity into a system of amusement for the religiously inclined.
(5) A commitment to worship as the central activity of the assembled church, and a recognition that all other activities must be grounded in this. Evangelism (outreach) and fellowship (inreach) must both stem from a vital worship (upreach) or they will be shallow, perfunctory, and contrived. Christians have no higher duty or greater delight than to exult in the presence of the Mighty God, the merciful Savior, and the eternal Spirit. Where His holiness strikes us with awe, it also fills us with longing and joy. No church can offer any higher inducement for attendance at any meeting than the presence of God Himself.
(6) Rejoicing in the priesthood of believers and its implication that spiritual wisdom is available to all of God’s people. Baptists understand this to imply congregational polity and to permit–perhaps even encourage–shared pastoral authority. Presbyterians also affirm the vital role of the congregation in the selection of ruling elders, which elders constitute the voice of the “laity” in church decisions. Spiritual leadership is understood primarily as a matter of exposition and example rather than as the exercise of fiat authority.
(7) Radical commitment to the notion that the success of the church must be measured by the degree to which it achieves the unity of the faith and of the full knowledge of the Son of God, unto a mature man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

Prayer and the Affections

July 12, 2010

Private prayer is taught in Scripture and almost universally exhorted by the Christian world in books, sermons and even hymns. The fact that these biblical and extra-biblical exhortations exist testifies that we are prone to ‘faint’ when it comes to prayer. We are prone to ‘cease’. A kind of inertia within us creates drag and slows whatever momentum we seem to make in our private worship.

The modern exhortations seem to take two different approaches to grow and sustain prayer. To generalise and simplify, we might term these the discipline approach and the desire approach.

The discipline approach exhorts Christians to practise self-denial, rise early, keep prayer lists or journals, and otherwise plan, structure and supervise themselves in the training of prayer. There is sometimes a suspicion that people who do not pray with such precision are guilty of messy, vague and unclear prayers. Prayer is seen as obedience to the many commands to pray, and reluctance and discomfort are to be mortified as works of the flesh. Desire is often seen as a happy consequence of dying to self or gaining a good habit of prayer; its absence or presence is however regarded as fickle and unreliable as a motive or means. Sometimes, the disciplines are valued as ends in themselves.

The desire approach exhorts Christians to pray from a wholehearted, inclined and united heart, that comes to God as He is with our desires as they now are, and seeks to gain greater desire from the act of prayer. The Spirit’s filling and illumination are primary to desire, so that God is the source of our prayer, not our own willpower. Here there is usually an antipathy towards prayer fulfilled as a duty, and a suspicion that prayer which is performed as an obligation is prayer that is insincere. Discipline is not shunned, but it is seen in reverse order from the discipline advocates: desire becomes the engine for good habits. (Often, such people exhort us to ask God to change our hearts’ desires when they are cold, instead of applying more discipline. Consequently, people exposed to such ideas find their hearts’ coldness puzzling and discouraging, since they asked God for a change of heart.)

Certainly no one subscribes entirely to either one or the other, everyone recognises the need for both. However, people tend to fall on one side of the spectrum or another, placing either desire or discipline as primary to prayer.

If we believe the affections are central to the Christian life, we believe they are the driving force behind true religion. This, in turn, means that the affections must drive prayer. And viewing the affections as primary to prayer gives us a somewhat conciliatory position on the matter of desire and discipline.

On the one hand, the affections are, in one sense, the desires of the heart. They are the inclinations, the dispositions, the tastes, the sensibilities of the heart. They are what (and how) the person loves and values things and people. In this vein, we would say that desire is primary to prayer. Furthermore, we’d agree that the affections are not driven by an act of will. In fact, the reverse is true. We agree that the inclinations of our hearts are things which cannot be changed by direct control. Prayer which ignores the current disposition of the heart, and seeks to overcome it with sheer willpower, may fall into the trap of Colossians 2:23.

On the other hand, we assert that there are ways of shaping and driving the affections. (We disagree that it comes by merely pleading with God to give you more desire.) We have discussed previously how the affections are shaped by imagination, example and exposure. And this is where discipline takes its place. Only by disciplining ourselves to engage in the act of prayer, can we be shaped by it. Only by structuring circumstances to make prayer more likely, or more lively, or more specific, can our hearts gain a taste for it. And here is where I’d part company with die-hards in both groups.

I suggest in the matter of exposure, we ought to discipline ourselves to experience prayer more and more intensely than we do. (Prayer-lists, alarm-clocks, and journals may be helpful to these ends.) However, not to the point where prayer has become a bitter experience, for then we must overcome even more mountainous opposition to it the next time we attempt it. Self-denial is one thing; putting a hedge of thorns in your own way is another. Rather, we should coax ourselves out, aiming for a few minutes earlier, a few minutes longer, or a focus that is more intense than previously. We must realise that a taste for prayer must be nursed, not force-fed. Deny the flesh mercilessly, yes; but give your heart time to grow.

In terms of example, we can do no better than to be frequently reminded of Christ’s prayer life. The prayers of Paul give us insights into God’s priorities. For that matter, there is a place to be exposed to the prayers of others, seeing by example how other believers have addressed God. Reading books on prayer and accounts of the prayer and piety of past saints can shape us to desire prayer more. However, let us beware that we do not parrot one man’s discipline, hoping it will produce in us overnight what took many years to shape in him. Rightly used, example will shape our affections towards prayer. Discipline will make sure that we are not far from the examples of godly pray-ers and prayers.

Finally, what of the religious imagination in prayer? It would seem to me that when David prays, as recorded in the Psalms, he more often than not addresses God through metaphor (“my Rock”, “my Shield” “my Shepherd”). He is concerned to get his heart to apprehend what God is like, before his understanding makes requests of God. I would suggest this is right. We are not to ‘visualise’ God. However, we are to seek to apprehend who He is, by what He is like. When our hearts are gripped by who He is, they gain spiritual momentum to maintain the act of praying, and they pray aright. Here discipline would insist that our wandering thoughts focus on biblical metaphors, and maintain a steady focus on them. Once again, not until it is painful and plainly distasteful, but longer than our Google-scan minds are used to.

A.W. Tozer said, “The presence of God is not imaginary, neither is prayer the indulgence of a delightful fancy. The objects that engage the praying man’s attention, while not material, are nevertheless completely real; more certainly real, it will at last be admitted, than any earthly object. The value of the cleansed imagination in the sphere of religion lies in its power to perceive in natural things shadows of things spiritual…I long to see the imagination released from its prison and given to its proper place among the sons of the new creation. What I am trying to describe here is the sacred gift of seeing, the ability to peer beyond the veil and gaze with astonished wonder upon the beauties and mysteries of things holy and eternal. The stodgy pedestrian mind does no credit to Christianity. Let it dominate the church long enough and it will force her to take one of two directions: either toward liberalism, where she will find relief in a false freedom, or toward the world, where she will find an enjoyable but fatal pleasure.”

Our failures are usually twofold: we either attempt too much, and failing, we withdraw for days or weeks, or we do not pray because our desires are not present, and we think it more sincere to not pray. Either one is a failure to see desire and discipline correctly. You cannot overcome your heart’s tastes by ‘cramming’ prayer. You cannot wait for your heart to love prayer on its own.

For our affections to be ordinate in the matter of prayer, discipline has its place to expose us to more and better prayer, to study examples of prayer, and to meditate carefully and seriously on God as revealed in Scripture. When discipline attends to these circumstances, desire may slowly and steadily grow.