Tough Words from Owen

Early on in my summer break I’ve been enjoying the writings of John Owen (a man of impeccable fashion sense).  Chapter XXV of “The Greater Catechism” in volume one of his published works asks, “What is the communion of saints?”  The prescribed response:

An holy conjunction between all God’s people, wrought by their participation in the same Spirit, whereby we are all made members of that one body whereof Christ is the head.

Interestingly, in a footnote attached to “conjunction,” Owen comments, “By virtue of this, we partake in all the good and evil of the people of God throughout the world.”

The statement is, I think, a compelling warning against distancing ourselves from the church in moments when we wish only to criticize it.  For those of us immersed in the study of theology, it implies, among other things, that we’re not free to berate a perceived theological stupor in the church without acknowledging that we ourselves live and move in the sphere of God’s people.  The real question, then, concerns how to help in the pursuit of theological maturity with and among the people to whom we are stubbornly (and blessedly!) linked.

The Goal of Baptismal Instruction (or, Why new Christians need theology)

Let him, therefore, who is to be taught the truth in regard to piety be instructed before his baptism in the knowledge of the Unbegotten God, in the understanding of His Only-begotten Son, in the assured acknowledgment of the Holy Spirit. Let him learn the order of the several parts of the creation, the series of providential acts, the different workings of God’s laws.

Let him be instructed about why the world was made, and why man was appointed to be a citizen in it; let him also know about his own human nature, of what sort of creature he is; let him be taught how God punished the wicked with water and fire, and glorified the saints in every generation, . . . and how God did not reject mankind, but called them from their error and vanity to acknowledge the truth in various stages of history, leading them from bondage and impiety to liberty and piety, from injustice to justice, from death eternal to everlasting life (Apostolic Constitutions, 7.39.1-4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 7:475-76, quoted by D.H. Williams in Tradition, Scripture, and Interpretation [Baker, 2006], p. 82).

These 4th century instructions for how the church should prepare and instruct those seeking baptism in the basics of the Christian faith—that God is Triune, that he alone made the world, etc.—should challenge or at least cause some pause for churches who send people very quickly from profession of faith into baptism.

Has there been such an underestimation of the radical reversal that attends Christian conversion that we suppose new believers need no instruction or mentoring in their new identity prior to their public declaration of faith? Even with all the evidence to the contrary, do we assume that the average person in the post-Christendom West would have a basic understanding of the Christian faith and would not require instruction? Or, have we too often proclaimed a Gospel of easy-believism that bears little resemblance to the New Testament Gospel—a gospel that inverts my allegiances, re-orients my priorities, and re-narrates my life?

Or (less insidiously and maybe more likely), Continue reading

The creeds in public worship: a call to populist evangelicalism

I have posted comments on the conference in Wheaton I attended last week, and I would like to post one last time specifically on the public use of creeds in noncreedal, evangelical churches. This was a common refrain throughout the conference, and Scot McKnight’s paper made a specific proposal we might consider.

In McKnight’s paper he referred to noncreedal, evangelical churches as “populist evangelicalism,” and most, if not all, evangelical, nondenominational churches would fall within the same category (this is my opinion, not McKnight”s).

He summarized the theological, ecclesiastic function of the earliest Christian creeds as articulations of the gospel (what it is and does) that served to connect newly baptized and mature Christians alike to the gospel and to the church; the creeds were ways of providing “clarity, heritage, depth, width, and memory.” For the forms of evangelicalism McKnight has in mind, the absence of any public reading of the creeds “deprives” them of the very same clarity, heritage, depth, width, and memory and leads to a “theological superficiality” few of us familiar with populist evangelicalism would deny (I grew up in a noncreedal church and served on the pastoral staffs of several nondenominational churches).

So consider McKnight’s proposal, and let me know whether you think it hits the mark. I will put my cards on the table upfront: I think it does.

I propose that we who believe in the value of creeds become active in getting our churches, especially if we are part of a church tradition that does not recite The Creed publicly, to begin a course of instruction for the elders, deacons and teachers on the history of the creeds. And I don’t mean read a book about them; I mean read them and study them together. Continue reading

“Theologians, write for the church not just the guild

The second day of the conference I attended in Wheaton featured several excellent papers, not the least of which was Scot McKnight’s. I could comment on any number of his points (and I very well might next week), but for now allow me a few remarks on his thoughts regarding the publishing habits of Christian academics and his call for theologians to write for the church and not just for the academic guild.

Most of you write things no one but specialists can understand. Most of the people in your church, and probably more than most, aren’t reading the sorts of things professors write these days. Some professors think they are writing popular theology because they don’t overload their books with footnotes. Instead, they’ve only got about 100 footnotes in a 200 page book. That’s not popular theology. […]

The need here is so great that one is tempted to call a moratorium on evangelical theologians writing for the guild, or at least reducing their guild writing and require each theologian, each biblical expert and each church historian to write one book for the church – for ordinary lay people with enough snap to it to make it genuinely readable, pleasurable and inspiring – before they can write academic pieces. […]

Now let me do some fingerpointing: Continue reading

Fundamentalism dressed up in Postmodern clothing?

We have batted around the continuities and discontinuities between contemporary evangelicalism (of the N. American and British varieties) and 20th century fundamentalism, and I am afraid we never get very far. Perhaps it’s the nature of this particular conversation, but I remain interested in the subject. Teaching in an institution of Christian higher education with historical ties to fundamentalist Christianity means the general tendencies are never far off.  So I was intrigued to see a post by Geoffrey Holsclaw on the dynamic between recent postmodern revisions to Christianity and their relationship to the very fundamentalist forms of thought and commitments they try and overcome.

Holsclaw suggests that at least three forms of thought which claim to move beyond fundamentalism under the guise of postmodern re-alignments are simply inversions of fundamentalism all over again: inerrancy to pure errancy, biblical primitivism to rabbinic primitivism, and conservative anti-intellectualism to liberal anti-intellectualism.  Read the entire post here, but let me highlight for discussion his comments on anti-intellectualism  (he has the emergent church crowd in mind):

I’ve become more and more concerned at a creeping anti-intellectualism among some of the loudest voices who rest on rhetorical questions, anecdotal evidence, and communal experiences over philosophical and theological articulation and argument.  This, I believe, follows from the previous inversions because your don’t have to really say anything or land anywhere because we are all merely in an endless conversation.  Essentially, everything is a rhetorical display without any real substance. Continue reading

United Against Theology

I’ve been puzzled a bit about Jamie Smith’s new volume (reviewed in several posts) and its popularity. In one sense, it isn’t surprising – he is a great writer, a deep thinker and he addresses concrete problems in our congregations and lives. But there is another sense where it is downright shocking that his program is so universally well-received by American evangelicals (my focus is on North American evangelicals in this post). First, his conversation partners are not the conversation partners evangelicals typically turn to (e.g., Yoder, Hauerwas and Radical Orthodox). Second, his emphasis on liturgy is not something (sadly) that evangelicals are typically excited about. Third, his exposition of practices, particularly the ex opere operato nature of liturgical practices runs directly against the sensibilities of evangelicals who fear, almost above all else, rote practices. So why such enthusiasm?

I have a theory. Evangelicals hate theology. Continue reading

Rowan Williams on the “accessibility” of the church

Rowan_Williams_1110959cThrough various blog links I stumbled upon an interesting interview with Rowan Williams. If you spend any time on TF you know I am an avid  – though novice – reader of the Archbishop. I wouldn’t call it a scholarly investment; I simply find him provoking and refreshing in equal measure. Williams helps get me excited about theology and the church again when I start losing hope in either (his sermons particularly).

The interview touches on the “accessibility” – or relevance – of the church in our contemporary setting. While there is certainly food for discussion on that topic, his comments are illuminating about the “downward spiral” of having low expectations of young people. I see this in the classroom almost every week: so little has been expected of my students in the past that I fear many of them expect little of themselves.

Ian Hislop: How do you balance that attempt to be of the age, to be accessible, and yet not be banal.

Archbishop of Canterbury: The point is often being confident enough about what you are inviting people into, which is not simply an entertainment but a journey and process of change. Continue reading