Who Says Marriage Is Dead?

I seriously wonder whether we Christians need to relax on this issue as it’s expressed in our depraved culture. Case in point: the work of several popular song writers. Andy Grammar has a nice little ditty called Fine By Me, the catch line of which is “It’s fine by me if you never leave.” Sounds like marriage to me! In fact, the opening line is “You’re not the type of girl to remain with the guy, with the guy too shy, too afraid to say he’ll give his heart to you forever.” Even John Mayer, in his single I Won’t Give Up, seems to extol the beauty and intimacy of lifelong relationships, declaring “I know we’re worth it!”

So gird yourself up, Christian. Even our modern pagan minstrels cannot help but extol the glories of lifelong love between one man and one woman. And if they can’t help themselves, you can be sure that your neighbors can’t either.

So the next time someone tries to shove same sex relationships down your throat, tell them to listen to Andy Grammar and call you in the morning.

Some Sabbath Reflections

If you have not read it yet, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield offers a tremendous look into the world of someone coming to faith in Jesus Christ from far outside the camp of Christian nurture. Teaching as a militant lesbian feminist at a private secular university, she came to faith through the gentle yet consistent testimony of an PRCNA minister and his wife.

I am not going to review the book here. Others have done that in a much more persuasive way than I might. But what I find so fascinating about a book like hers is that, unlike what those who have grown up in the church might write, there’s a forthrightness about the sometimes subtle but ever-present antithesis between Christianity and the world. For someone like Mrs. Butterfield, she communicates the bristling of the flesh against God’s Law in a way with which many can identify, but few are willing to admit out in the open. A wonderful example of this is found on page 40 as Mrs. Butterfield reveals her “initial inner turmoil” at the membership oaths of her denomination. The fifth concerns her observance of the Sabbath:

5. To the end that you may grow in the Christian life, do you promise that you will diligently read the Bible, engage in private prayer, keep the Lord’s Day, regularly attend the worship services, observe the appointed sacraments, and give to the Lord’s work as He shall prosper you?

How will I build my empire if I spend all of this time on God? How will I conduct my professional life without using Sunday as a workday? 

A little later, Mrs. Butterfield continues, “It took me three months after committing my life to Christ to consent to these vows because I was afraid to move too far away from my life, as I had known it. A chapter of my life had just closed, but I had no idea at the time how severely I would feel its closure. Consenting to these vows meant simply that there was no going back.”

Learning from Asbury’s Cavalry

In my leisurely slog through Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity, I found myself enthralled at his description of Methodist Episcopal Bishop Francis Asbury and the movement he spent his life’s work trying to sustain. In the late-18th and early-19th century, most Americans, particularly on the frontier, were opting for a clergy and ecclesiology in which the common man’s conscience and intellect ruled the day. Educated and trained pastor-theologians needed not apply! And yet the hierarchical Methodist Episcopals, with the tyrannical and heavy-handed Asbury as their leader, outpaced even the Baptists in terms of denominational growth. The reason for this irony, according to Hatch, related to Asbury’s methods (sorry for the pun) and motivations. 

In terms of method, Asbury insisted upon building his denomination through a small army (wait for it) of itinerant preachers who largely traveled on horseback (bingo). And this was not your grandad’s preaching circuit: such men logged thousands of miles per year. Furthermore, “these itinerants were characteristically poor, single, and self-educated” (88). And “the high rate of single preachers in America was directly related to the severe financial constraints of the office” (ibid). These men rode and preached year-round, depending for most their needs upon the hospitality of those to whom they ministered. For this reason, a third of Asbury’s Connection (name of the ME ruling body, composed of its itinerant preachers) cavalry died before the age of 30, with five years or less of service.

While Asbury’s methods were near draconian (and certainly more austere than even the apostle Paul’s lifestyle), his opposition to the ministerial habits of the day motivated him to demand this way of life from his underlings. What exactly were those habits? Hatch describes them from Asbury’s perspective in the following language: locality, gentility, and smug complacency; the prestige of urban congregations, a “high” doctrine of the pastoral office, and distancing oneself from popular enthusiasm; creating social division between themselves and the poor and radical; loss of contact with the working class of town and country; and so on.

Certainly, there is a negative lesson in Asbury’s method: ministers of the gospel should not be forced to remain single, live in poverty, and/or die early in order to carry out the functions of their office. Undue hardship should not be tolerated simply as a function of the Christian ministry. But there is also a positive lesson in Asbury’s motivation: ministers of the gospel must cultivate a reputation for feeding their sheep, not themselves.

Some Thoughts on “Redemptive-Historical Preaching”

When I first came into contact with the controversy surrounding this subject, it seemed to me that it was a lot to do about nothing. After all, who doesn’t want more christocentric sermons? That would sort of be like saying, “No more apple pie, please” or “I hate puppies and kittens.” Nobody in their right mind talks that way.

And so as I began to give an ear to the controversy, it became apparent that, according to the disputants, there were some people who thought application was inappropriate in preaching, i.e. preachers should only preach Christ. No morals please. And there were others who wanted to preach morality only, i.e. hold the crucified-and-risen Christ. But as I’ve listened to the conversation, there’s just one problem: in my experience, I have never encountered these people. Sure, a preacher might leave out some moral application or overemphasize the duties that faith requires by not talking enough about the object of our faith, i.e. Jesus. But in my judgment these are practical missteps, not a lack of commitment to a common core of biblical preaching fundamentals. So to date, I haven’t met anyone who only preaches Christ or who only moralizes. Perhaps it’s worth considering the possibility that we’re chasing a phantom.

Moreover, I also wonder how many of the disputers really understand from where the construct of  “redemptive-historical preaching” (hereafter RHP) comes. Recently on Facebook, I asked my very erudite friends (all of my friends are such!) what the history of the movement was. Like Plato, I assumed I was the dumbest guy in the room. After getting the smart aleck “Paul” and “Acts 2″ answers out of the way, it became quite clear that no one really knew. In my own hour or so of subsequent internet “research,” it seemed to me that the moorings of RHP were a complex connection between the biblical theological movement as practiced by Vos combined with the histories of Westminster Theological Seminary and Westminster Seminary California. But this is all conjecture as of now. Someone please write the PhD thesis so I can find out!

The one hard piece of evidence that I had in my office was a copy of Edmund Clowney’s Preaching Christ in All of ScriptureOther than the first two chapters, the book is basically a collection of his own sermons. So with only 58 pages to conquer, I went for it. And I was surprised at what I found. First, Clowney had some amazing exegetical insights! Or at least he knew how to find amazing exegetical insights in commentaries. If you’re ever going to preach through the Pentateuch, particularly Exodus, read the first two chapters of Clowney’s book! But second, I found Clowney’s argumentation for RHP rather weak. Not all of the writing was very good (some of it was downright meandering). But more importantly, he presented many serious exegetical, historical, and theological issues rather glibly. For example, he insists that the second person of the Trinity is explicitly in view throughout the OT (esp. with respect to the Angel of the Lord). And yet he acknowledges on page 14 that, “Orthodox trinitarian theology took centuries seeking to unpack the distinction of persons and the unity of being (or “substance”) that are implied in the way Paul worshiped the one God of his fathers in the full revelation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” In support of this, he enlists Paul’s typology of Christ in 1 Cor. 10, yet without acknowledging that the chapter ends with moral injunctions. He attempts (along with Griedanus) a taxonomy of typology with no interaction with WCF 7.5. He connects RHP’s concern with the history of redemption with Vosian biblical theology, but never mentions Jonathan Edwards’ A History of the Work of Redemption? Lastly, he has written a book on preaching that contains (as far as I could tell) only his own sermons! Is there nothing to be learned by interacting with the tradition of Reformed preaching? So it appears then that it was with Clowney as it is with us: the man knows how to preach, and he thinks there’s a problem (not enough RHP), but insofar as his solution goes, it’s not clear that he knows what it is or how exactly it got here .

Perhaps the takeaway then is that, when it comes to preaching Christ throughout the history of redemption, we should take a bit of advice from Nike and just do it. We should preach holiness when appropriate, but Christ always. Or as one of my FB friends testified, “I just preach the text.” I think that’s sound advice.

D.W. Flips…and So Do We

There is a problem, I believe, with how some in Reformed Christianity handle Doug Wilson. And I want to make my case plain here.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me begin by acknowledging that the guy drives me nuts. But that’s my problem, not his. I find it intensely irritating that a man who has never formally studied theology in less than a generation has found himself as one of the leaders of a theological movement. So there you go.

The line I have encountered with many good Reformed brothers has been that when Doug is good, he is good. And when he is bad, he is terrible. And so there is this ambivalence about him. “Eat the meat, spit out the bones” as it were. And at some level, I can accept this. We should give credit where credit is due. We should be truth-tellers. The ninth commandment applies, even in Doug Wilson’s case (by the way, I’m not picking on just Doug…he represents, for me, the FV more generally…he’s merely a high-profile example).

But I have two problems with this typical assessment.

First, it ignores the severe harm that this man has caused to churches and Christians in the Reformed tradition. Whole congregations have been rent asunder. I cannot conceive of how taking Federal Husband seriously results in anything remotely approaching the mutual submission of Galatians 5. And yet whole families have left NAPARC churches in favor of the teaching and practice of CREC or CREC-like congregations.

This leads me to my second objection (and this is what really burns my biscuits): Mr. Wilson has been on a quarter-century project of co-opting the Reformed tradition. Does anything communicate the point more clearly than the title of his remarkably irresponsible book ‘Reformed’ Is Not Enough. The implication is clear: he is really Reformed, but we merely call ourselves such a name. Historically, such a claim is balderdash, but he seems at ease with making it.

I heard a man preach the sermon at an ordination and installation this morning, and one of his texts was from Acts 20:29-30, which read, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.”

The quality of D.W.’s writing might vary, but when our ambivalence overlooks the gauntlet thrown down by Scripture, I’m not sure that we fare much better.

Doug Dawkins in “Birds of a Feather”

On the White Horse Inn blog, Michael Horton has an excellent piece on the criticism of The New Atheists from within. One of their own, Terry Eagleton, wrote a book in 2009 criticizing The New Atheists’ approach to combating the Christian tradition. As I read the post, the New Atheists’–especially Richard Dawkins’–problems are twofold: ignorance and arrogance. Or as Horton more nicely puts it, they get Christianity wrong, and their smug rationalism allows them to ignore the realities that otherwise militate against their position.

As I was reading this post on Ron Paul, I couldn’t help but think the same thing about the Federal Visionaries, particularly Doug Wilson. In this note, Wilson takes Paul to task on an abortion question. Here’s what he writes:

In response to this question, Ron Paul said that a woman who is raped should go to an emergency room immediately, and get a shot of estrogen, which would prevent the implantation of a conceived child in the uterine wall. Further, he said that he would administer that shot of estrogen. Piers Morgan, astonished, said that he thought Ron Paul believed life begins at conception. Ron Paul said that he did, but that we don’t know at that point whether the woman is pregnant.

This, in effect, was saying that if we don’t know if someone is living in a room then it must be okay to fill it up with poison gas.

Wow. I can’t say that I would defend Ron Paul’s comments in this interview (especially since the context is missing), but is this what Paul is really advocating? Is there really a direct, iron-clad moral equivalency between filling a hopefully empty room with poison gas and what Paul is suggesting here (again, we are without context)? There may well be a moral equivalency, but I assure you that it is not as iron clad nor direct as Wilson would have us believe. What if the question to Ron Paul asked for his advice to pro-choice women theoretically living in a state that outlaws abortion? In such a context, the estrogen shot might exploit a loophole available to pro-choice women who had been victims of rape. In such a case, would one woman’s actions, especially as it represents all the babies not aborted in that state, really be a moral defeat for the pro-life cause? How would such advice compare to the use of regular birth control shots or pills? Don’t they work essentially the same way? And what about the burden of the woman in terms of the pregnancy itself? Wilson is totally mute on that point, even though I’m sure he’d affirm the reality of the curse made against Eve in Genesis 3. There may very well be answers to all of these questions. But skipping them only exacerbates the problem. It doesn’t solve it.

And yet that’s exactly what Wilson would have us do. In reminiscing on a recent speaking engagement, he writes,

When I was in Minneapolis last week, we had a number of really edifying conversations in the context of the speakers’ dinners. One of the most edifying was the last one, where John Piper and I spent a lot of time exulting in (get this) the law of identity. A is A. A is A means that A is not something else, like B, for instance. And those who want it to be something else, or a little bit fuzzier for them, are trying to escape accountability. They don’t want to be held to the terms of the argument — whether we are talking about their own argument or someone else’s.

This pro-life issue is one of the reasons I know that God expects us to grow up into the maturity of logical precision.

I’m glad (not really) that everything is so black-and-white for Wilson. And that he has firsthand knowledge of God’s expectations for our capacities for logic (pass the prooftexts, please). But for the rest of us mere humans, we rarely have the luxury of being so glib about the moral-spiritual dilemmas of life. At worst, we might have to counsel a woman who has been raped. At the very least, I will likely have to preach a sermon series one day on the life of David or Moses or Jacob. Talk about moral ambiguity! And for the record, my elders will be there to keep me accountable.

In my mind, this rationalistic approach to straw men and inconvenience characterizes well the Federal Vision approach to theology and the church. They argue all baptized people, even libertines living in open sin, are Christians. After all, aren’t married men who cheat on their wives still married? Sure. But you can only draw that line if you ignore the fact that unfaithful-yet-baptized Christians usually have never taken vows, and yet married men have. They argue that Adam, even prior to his fall, lived by faith in the covenant promises of God, i.e. not by works. After all, isn’t God the same yesterday, today, and forever? Sure. But what about the fact that the voice of God walked in the garden in the cool of the day, looking for Adam and Eve, especially in light of the definition of faith in Heb. 11:1? What about the fact that the covenant of works in Reformed orthodoxy technically includes both grace (in its establishment) and works (in its conditions)? Sadly, none of Wilson’s literature addresses these problems, and yet it goes on to make it’s Visionary claims all the same, stealing the name “Reformed” along the way.

Richard Dawkins would be proud.