In one of his writings on the doctrine of the church in relation to ecclesial life in seventeenth-century England, John Owen makes what I think are a number of incisive and helpful comments on schism and unity. As a Congregationalist, Owen was susceptible to accusations of schism and divisiveness, but he suggests that a poor conception of church unity and a misguided zeal for that conception underlie the charges against the Nonconformists.
For Owen, the unity of the church is fundamentally spiritual, a function of believers being joined to Christ their head by faith. However, Owen argues, in his day many conceived of unity in terms of (humanly devised) external uniformity of order and liturgy and then sought to impose that uniformity on all churches in the land. This misconception generated charges of schism against Owen and his Puritan comrades and, intriguingly, was the principal cause of ecclesial disunity. Externalize unity and impose that external unity on others and those of a different ecclesiological persuasion will (justifiably) resist this. Hence those who are overzealous for unity are also the chief culprits in schism. Though Owen has in mind especially the Anglican leaders of the time, he mentions Rome as an egregious example of supplanting spiritual unity with an external unity ‘of their own invention’ (Works of Owen, 15:111-12):
For John Owen (who is perhaps the most famous of all my friends on Facebook, though I know not who runs his Facebook page), ‘the first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word’ (The True Nature of a Gospel Church, in The Works of John Owen, 16:74). Throughout The True Nature of a Gospel Church Owen insists that pastoral work is so taxing that God appointed elders who primarily rule in the church in order to enable elders who focus especially on the ministry of the word to keep doing just that. Owen enumerates five non-negotiables that render someone fit to stand in the pulpit.
First, the preacher needs to have ‘spiritual wisdom and understanding in the mysteries of the gospel’. In fact, says Owen, it is vital that the preacher should have ‘some degree of eminency therein’, lest they be unhelpful to those who are already fairly mature in the faith (16:76). Second, the preacher should have an ‘experience of the power of the truth which they preach in and upon their own souls’. Put forcefully,
[A] man that preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us….The want of this experience of the power of gospel truth on their own souls is that which gives us so many lifeless, sapless orations, quaint in words and dead as to power, instead of preaching the gospel in the demonstration of the Spirit (ibid.).
I’ll extend the Calvin kick for another post, one that centers on his view of the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day in the Institutes, one stemming partially from the tension I might experience on Sunday as I both engage in spiritual and ecclesial activities and also head out to the pub to take in a Liverpool match.
For Calvin, the fourth commandment has three main functions: 1) to foreshadow and to promise to Israel spiritual rest which God will bring as the sanctifier of his people; 2) to provide a day for the assembled worship of God’s people; 3) to prevent oppression and overexertion of laborers (2.8.28-9). In the old dispensation the Sabbath promoted meditation on the forthcoming ‘perpetual repose from our labors’. However, its figurative and ceremonial aspect is no longer in force after Christ’s resurrection (Col. 2:16-17). By participating in Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 6:1-14) we begin to participate in that promised rest and ‘[t]his is not confined to a single day but extends throughout the whole course of our life, until, completely dead to ourselves, we are filled with the life of God. Christians ought therefore to shun completely the superstitious observance of days’ (2.8.31). In this connection, Calvin also reasons that meditation on that transformation work spills over into the other days of the week (2.8.34).
In his theology of worship, Calvin was quite keen on simplifying the church’s weekly services and judged that Roman Catholicism’s elaborate ceremonies were a throwback to the old covenant era, a continuation of things now out of place in the worship of God’s people on this side of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. With an eye to helping those less acquainted with spiritual matters, he writes,
As a child (says Paul) is guided by his tutor according to the capacity of his age, and is restrained under his tutelage, so the Jews were under the custody of the law (Gal. 4:1-3). But we are like adults, who, freed of tutelage and custody, have no need of childish rudiments….Therefore, if we wish to benefit the untutored [in this era of redemptive history], raising up a Judaism that has been abrogated by Christ is a stupid way to do it. Christ also marked this dissimilarity between the old and new people in his own words when he said to the Samaritan woman that the time had come ‘when the true worshipers would worship God in spirit and in truth’ (Jn. 4:23). Indeed, this had always been done. But the new worshipers differ from the old in that under Moses the spiritual worship of God was figured and, so to speak, enwrapped in many ceremonies; but now that these are abolished, he is worshiped more simply. Accordingly, he who confuses this difference is overturning an order instituted and sanctioned by Christ (Institutes, 4.10.14).
Following on Kent’s reflections about how to approach Barth’s work, I’ve found myself interested to post on something from Barth’s treatment of divine omnipresence. The discussion of omnipresence in Church Dogmatics is intriguing in its own right (even where one disagrees with Barth) and exhibits the dialectical tack with which, as Kent mentioned, Barth often operates. However, it’s the way in which Barth’s notion of Christ as the focal point, or ‘basis and constituent centre’, of God’s ‘special presence’ might meet current talk of an ‘incarnational’ view of the church and its mission that has caught my eye.
In Barth’s discussion of the difference between God’s presence in Christ and God’s presence among his people, Barth remarks that, since in the Son God personally takes upon himself the human nature of Christ, this union is qualitatively different from our adoption.
But God is himself this man Jesus Christ, very God and very man, both of them unconfused and unmixed, but also unseparated and undivided, in the one person of this Messiah and Saviour. This is what cannot be said about any other creature, even any prophet of apostle. Jesus Christ alone is very God and very man. And it is on the basis of this unio, but clearly differentiated from it, that there is an adoptio (CD II/1, p. 486).
I’ve been reflecting quite a bit lately on different features of the doctrine of the church and would like to hear some thoughts on Bavinck’s ten propositions concerning ‘the validity of infant baptism’. As someone reared in a Roman Catholic family but converted in a Baptist setting, I’ve been intrigued for some time by the paedobaptist teaching of the Reformed, whose tradition I find salutary with regard to so many areas of theological enquiry. Here are Bavinck’s big ten in summary (see Reformed Dogmatics 4:525-32):
1) At the inception of the church it was natural for baptism to concern primarily adult converts and this is what we see in the New Testament. However, because valid inferences as well as explicit statements of biblical teaching are binding for the church, the legitimacy of infant baptism doesn’t depend on it being explicitly narrated or commanded in the NT.
2) Baptism is the new covenant counterpart to circumcision, which was, of course, granted to the infants of Abraham’s family in the Old Testament. Baptism and circumcision are of the same essence, but the former exceeds the latter in grace, not least because it is given to both male and female.
3) Covenant and election are two distinct categories and the former (in which sphere the sacraments are administered) concerns persons in their historical existence in communion with one another. In the OT, children are ‘regarded in connection with [parents]’ and God ‘established a communion of parents and children in grace and blessing’. ‘While grace is not automatically inherited, as a rule it is bestowed along the line of generations.’
4) In the NT, children are still regarded as participants in the covenant and this is evidenced as Jews in the Gospels reject Jesus and in response Jesus calls into question their status as God’s people but still in kindness regards Jewish children as ‘children of the covenant’.
5) The apostolic ministry proceeds along the same lines, with the church taking the place of Israel and households as organic wholes in the book of Acts converting to Christ and sharing in common blessing (cf. 1 Cor. 7:14). ‘Scripture knows nothing of a neutral upbringing that seeks to have the children make a completely free and independent choice at a more advanced age.’
In People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology, the final book of his four-volume series with Westminster John Knox Press, Michael Horton deals with the concept of catholicity in a particularly poignant manner. In his mind, the most urgent threat to the catholicity of the church presently is the mindset of consumerism that has pervaded even the gathering of God’s people and given rise to ‘rival catholicities’:
The current phase of ecclesial division is actually welcomed in the name of mission. It is not the catholicity of ethnic bonds or race. Though closely related to socioeconomic status, it is not exactly the same. Rather, it is the catholicity of the market. Not only separate churches, but also separate ‘churches-within-churches’ are proliferating, each targeting its unique market (p. 206).
Put more sharply, ‘Ecclesial apartheid is expanding, as each generation and demographic market is treated to its own study Bibles and devotional materials, small groups, and ‘worship experiences’ (p. 205). For Horton, the carving up of the church according to individuals’ cultural preferences, far from affirming diversity, ends up undermining the properly multigenerational and multiethnic character of the church and turning out discrete, homogeneous clusters of persons who operate in their own niches. Recalling Paul’s condemnation of the Corinthians’ factious approach to the Lord’s Supper (‘For do you not have homes for eating and drinking? Or do you despise the church of God?’), Horton discerns a parallel in our market-driven strategies: ‘Do we not have our own homes and social networks for pursuing our tastes in music, style, politics, fashion, and hobbies’ (p. 208)? He is critical of the contemporary ‘incarnational’ ministerial impetus and advocates a recognition of the local church as a ‘strange assembly of spiritual relatives we may never have known, much less chosen, in our ordinary course of life’ (p. 212).
Do you think Horton is on target here? If so, what are some of your thoughts on moving forward?