Kneeling at the Threshold of Unspeakable Mystery

“Normalizing the language of the marketplace within the academy and the church confuses and ultimately subverts our deepest purposes: in the one case, to promote critical thought and exchange of ideas free from coercion by those in positions of political or economic power, and in the other, to call people to something so radically different from the terms and paradigms of this world that it can be spoken of only in the variegated, complex, much-translated, much-pondered, prayerfully interpreted language of texts that have kept generations of people of faith kneeling at the threshold of unspeakable mystery and love beyond telling.”

-Marilyn Chandler McEntyre in Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans, 2009), p. 16


Prohibition & Temperance: Grape Juice in Communion Since the 1800s

I happen to disagree with Keith Mathison on one point in the quotation below. The Grand Failed Experiment called Prohibition does not have only one lasting “success,” it has two. The first is described below. The second is that Pennsylvania still has antiquated and ridiculous laws related to state-run stores, liquor licenses, and a monopoly held by distributors and their unions. Besides this minor disagreement, I think Mathison lays out irrefutable arguments for using wine in the Lord’s Supper in his book Given for You.

“The history of the temperance movement and Prohibition is fascinating, but it is beyond the scope of this work to trace it in any detail. Suffice it to say that the temperance movement was a moral, political, and cultural failure. The movement failed culturally because it shared one of the flawed presuppositions of Christian liberalism. It placed the responsibility for sin in an external object rather than in the human heart. Getting rid of alcohol did not and could not get rid of sin and evil in the heart of man. The movement failed morally because it allowed itself to be deceived into setting up a higher standard of righteousness than the word of God. By prohibiting what God allowed, the movement fell into self-righteous legalism. The movement’s only lasting ‘success’ is found in those churches that used its logic as the basis for replacing wine with grape juice in the Lord’s Supper.”

 -Keith Mathison in Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper (P&R, 2002), p. 305

Remembering and the Lord’s Supper

Keith Mathison’s Given for You is an excellent, careful treatment of the true Calvinistic/Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, which has fallen into a Zwinglian memorialist view among the Reformed for the last couple centuries. Mathison shows how Calvin’s complex, beautiful, scriptural view of the Lord’s Supper fell on hard times among the Reformed starting with the Puritans and continuing through the Princeton giants. He is painstakingly thorough and historical, though unfortunately this makes it read more like a long seminary paper than a mainstream book. His treatment of Calvin, Scripture, and Passover in the context of refuting the memorialist view is particularly helpful, with a page quoted at length here:

“Just as some have taken the words ‘This is my body’ to an ill-conceived extreme, others have taken the words ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ to the opposite extreme. Both extremes are erroneous. The words ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ do not refer to a purely subjective mental recollection. Understood within the Passover context, this phrase points to the idea that the congregation becomes contemporary with Christ’s act of redemption. As Thiselton explains, ‘If we press the analogy with the ‘remembrance’ of the Passover in the Haggadah, making contemporary is achieved primarily by projecting the reality of the ‘world’ of the Passover and drawing participants of later generations into it.’ The fact that ‘remembrance’ is not merely mental recollection is clearly demonstrated by comparing the use of the word in other contexts.

“‘To remember God’s mighty acts’  or ‘to remember the poor’ is not simply to call them to mind but to assign to them an active role within one’s ‘world.’ ‘To remember’ God is to engage in worship, trust, and obedience, just as ‘to forget’ God is to turn one’s back on him. Failure to remember is not absent-mindedness but unfaithfulness to the covenant and disobedience. ‘Remembering’ the gospel tradition or ‘remembering’ Christian leaders transforms attitude and action. To ‘remember’ the poor is to relieve their needs.”

Those who reduce the Lord’s Supper to an act of mental recollection are imposing modern modes of thought on the text of Scripture. Those who reduce the Supper to an act of subjective mental recollection do so with no exegetical warrant. By doing this, they divest the sacrament of most of its true value, importance, and meaning, thereby leaving little more than an empty shell.”

-Keith Mathison in Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper (P&R, 2002), p. 232 [Mathison quoting Thiselton in the middle]

Knowing Jesus through Scripture and bread

“Strikingly, Jesus’ presence and the teaching of the Word are not enough. Jesus walks with the disciples [on the road to Emmaus, specifically], He teaches them everything concerning Himself from all the Scriptures, and still their eyes are closed. Still they are abandoning the mission that Jesus started, the mission to proclaim the gospel to the poor. Their eyes are opened only later, after Jesus sits to break bread with them. The Word without the bread is not enough to open our eyes to the living, risen Jesus. The Word without bread is detached from real life; the bread without the Word turns into a magic act. But when the Scriptures are taught and the bread is broken, then Jesus can be known.”

-Peter Leithart in The Four: A Survey of the Gospels, (Canon Press, 2010), p. 205

Bringing children in backhandedly

I’ve appreciated much of D.G. Hart’s diverse writing over the years, and I found myself having similar reactions as him to Justin Taylor’s interview with a credo-baptist. However, I don’t have the expert familiarity of the Westminster Confession that Hart does. That’s why I appreciated his brief reaction to the covenantal aspect of baptism in his post “Young, Restless, and Dunked.” Taylor’s interviewee accuses paedobaptists of flattening the covenants, whereas Hart (rightly) points out that Baptists are actually the ones doing the flattening. His conclusions echo my view on Reformed Baptists – that that title is something of an oxymoron.

“Baptists like John Piper who defend male headship in the home should not have trouble with such a view of familial solidarity. But in point of fact Baptists do struggle with the covenantal objection to individualism and ironically embrace the modern view of human beings as isolated and autonomous selves. Of course, they can’t go all the way with such a chilling view of babies and their relationship to the household of God and so devise dedication as a way to bring children in by the back door. But one cannot begin to count the ways that dedication is a man-made contrivance, one of those examples of what Calvin called the idol-assembly line that exists in every person’s soul.

“As an aside, Taylor’s post should put to rest the claim by the Young and Restless crowd that they are Reformed. Their position on the sacrament of baptism differs little from Anabaptist teaching. In fact, the Baptist requirement that paedo-baptists be rebaptized (hence ana-baptist) puts the teaching and practice of contemporary Baptists and Anabaptists into remarkable alignment. Does this mean that the Young and Restless or other Baptists are bad people? Of course, not. Does it mean they aren’t Christian? No. Does it mean that they should not claim to be Reformed? Well, duh!”

Regardless of one’s position, one has to acknowledge that it’s an important (albeit touchy) issue, evidenced by the bevy of comments on both of the linked postings.

Moralistic, therapeutic, narcissistic deism

“I have tried to articulate some of the contours and reasons for the dominance of ‘moralistic, therapeutic deism.’ We come to the Great Commission with our questions. As Paul reminded Timothy, the last days are marked by narcissism, greed, disloyalty, and selfishness. It follows that we gradually transform the Commission’s message into something about us rather than something about God and his saving purposes, work, and destiny for us in Jesus Christ. Consistent with this new message, we transform the Commission’s mission into a kingdom that we are building rather than receiving, and we exchange its methods of delivering Christ through preaching and sacrament for our own clever programs, techniques, and principles for effecting real transformation of ourselves and the world.

“However, the result has been not only an increasing failure to reach the lost but a growing tendency to lose the reached. We place our hope in laws, principles, programs: things that we do to ascend to pull God down to us, instead of a gospel that is brought to us by a herald as completely counterintuitive Good News.”

-Michael Horton in The Gospel Commission (2011), p. 298

From nursery to the golden oldies

An issue that has been on our minds lately is that of family inclusive, or integrated, church and worship. We are grateful that our church is mindful of the importance of the family in the covenant community, especially in matters of catechesis, worship, and activities. While there are many ways family inclusivity can manifest itself, we are especially thinking through matters of church education (i.e. Sunday School and catechesis), worship (e.g. nursery and children’s church), and programs (like youth group). We Pearces recently watched the hour-long documentary Divided, produced in large part to be a film promoting the organization Family Integrated Church (FIC).

Uber blogger Tim Challies (and author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment) ironically posted an uncharitable and one-sided review of the film. Though I am in agreement with Challies that the film is one-sided and heavy on the FIC propaganda, I think it is worth viewing for the purpose of stirring up thought on the subject. It is helpful to hear mainstream FIC proponents like Voddie Bachman explain the presuppositions of the FIC movement. Namely, why are youth and young adults abandoning the church in such huge numbers? Does the youth ghetto so prevalent in America’s churches have something to do with it? What should the role of the father (or single mother) be? It is especially helpful for those of us who are wrestling with family inclusivity over against the status quo. That is, why are we segregating ages for education, worship, and activities? What are the foundational assumptions made when doing so? Are we segregating age groups because that’s the way we’ve always done it, or because that’s how all churches do it? What does the fact that age segregation stems from a modern education paradigm mean for the church? What are the benefits? At what cost to us and our children? Are there any repercussions of segregating age groups?

Where I think the film is lacking (and where Challies’ review also lacks) is not necessarily in giving voice to the opposition (it is a documentary with an agenda, after all), but in its foundations for integrating family into the church life. The film and its FIC proponents do base their arguments on Scripture (as well as reactions against Plato, Dewey, and evolutionary thinking), but the film turns almost exclusively to the imperative commands (read: law) of Scripture for integrating the family. A more helpful approach, and one that has more Scriptural and historical staying power, is to make gospel, rather than law, the foundation of the rationale for family inclusivity. More specifically, the gospel as it is embodied in baptism and the covenant, and the covenantal community of grace that springs up organically from the gospel (see what I did there?).

Michael Horton, in his recent The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples, discusses the integration of families and youth in the life of the church, but from a different foundation than the Divided filmmakers. He grounds his reasoning in God’s gospel-bathed methods for making disciples: namely the worship of the church, baptism, union with Christ, and the covenant community. He is worth quoting at length:

“One may go from the nursery to children’s church to the youth group to the college campus ministry to small groups to the empty nesters to the golden oldies and never really have been incorporated into the communion of saints. Is it any wonder that those who have never regularly attended the public service of Word and sacrament never join a church in college, although they may be active in a campus ministry? If they do join a church after college, it’s often a new experience.

“A youth pastor in a Reformed church challenged me a bit. Youth ministries are so important, he said, because they relate to kids on their own level, ‘where they are.’ That’s just it, isn’t it? I asked. Where are they? Presumably, their location is ‘in Christ.’ They are baptized and are therefore members of the visible body of Christ, his covenant community. That’s their primary location. Just as they grow up as members of their natural families, with all of the privileges and responsibilities of that home, they grow up in Christ’s body…If [a youth] has grown up in the covenant community, he will realize that he needs the covenant community over the long haul. In addition, he needs to be reminded that his primary location is ‘in Christ,’ not his various social demographics…If they are raised with the contrast between a personal relationship with Jesus and belonging to the church – and their experience living on the margins of the covenant assembly confirms this – it is little wonder that they fail to join a church or embrace their covenant responsibilities as young adults.” (p. 174-175)

Granted, the blind spot of Divided filmmakers and even critics like Challies might stem from their anti-paedobaptism stances, in which a well worked out and established concept of the tie between baptism and covenant community is foreign. Many FIC churches might also be struggling with such issues because many of them are Calvinistic Baptist. But beyond the issue of baptizing babies or not, churches would do well to ask Why? and To what purpose? when it comes to issues of age segregating in church worship, education, and programs.