ok, I watched it

The wedding, obv. It was a surprise to myself. Much more gripping viewing than I’d have expected. The dress: perfect. The service: mercifully traditional. The couple: relaxed, and apparently genuinely happy. Nae bad.

what’s next

I assume everyone here is cool with John Murray. I mean, he’s not the type anyone could accuse of sentimentalism, liturgical carelessness, lack of sound doctrine, or taking every possible chance to emote.

So here’s what he says about doctrine, piety, and worship.

“…there is a direct connection between the most sacred truths of our faith and the most elementary duties of our Christian calling. The great truth of the atonement, than which nothing is more central, is the incentive to humble, devoted, self-sacrificing service in the kingdom of God. These texts [Mark 10, 2 Cor 8, Phil 2, 1 Pet 2] are sufficient to show that doctrine and practice are integrally related, and that practice exemplifying our faith is drawn from the spring of doctrine. … there is a straight line of connection between the death of Christ and elementary virtues of the Christian life. … The recognition of that truth, of that relationship to the death of Christ, is necessary to the proper effect in our lives.”
“We must now pass on to other aspects of doctrine. The Christian life is one of godliness; it is a living godly in Christ Jesus. It is a life conducted in the fear of God, and fear understood in the sense of reverential awe. What is the practical effect? It is the sense of God’s all-pervasive presence and of our dependence on him.”
(Collected Writings, Vol I, chapter 23, p170-171)

“What is piety? It is godliness. Godliness is God-consciousness, an all-pervasive sense of God’s presence. It will mean that never do we think, or speak, or act, without the undergirding sense of God’s presence, of his judgment, of our relation to him and his relation to us, of our responsibility to him and dependence upon him. This God-consciousness is spoken of as the fear of God, the profound reverence for his majesty and the dread of his judgments. The fear of God is not something abstract – it is filial reverence springing from a relation that has been constituted by redemption in Christ, justification and forgiveness by his grace, adoption in his love. There is faith, love, gratitude, confidence. In a word, this God-consciousness is conditioned by all the provisions of saving grace as brought to bear upon us in Christ Jesus, and by the distinct relations that we sustain by God’s grace to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
(Collected Writings, Vol I, chapter 25, p183)

“God alone is to be worshipped. … When we come together it is to worship God. Everything else really rests upon this. Whatever we may do, in worship, if it is not directed to the worship of God, no matter how decorous and embellished our exercises may be, then it is not worship. If we go to the house of God simply because it is custom or to fill up a quota of exercises, then we are not worshipping God. There are numberless ways in which in the exercise of instituted worship we may desecrate worship. All exercises must be directed by, and contribute to, the worship of God.”
(Collected Writings, Vol I, chapter 22, p166)

Thoughts
1) When doctrine is assimilated, it has effects – internal as well as external – and the connection between doctrine believed and internal effects is so strong that you can’t really call it belief unless these effects attend it. The best doctrinalists are simultaneously the deepest experientialists.

2) Although godliness has external implications, it is itself something internal. In fact, it’s internal and it absorbs the whole soul in dedication and devotion to the Saviour. Godliness is not synonymous with using the means of grace. A godly person uses the means of grace, but nobody can use the means rightly until they are godly, and their use of the means of grace is only as good as their godliness.

3) Being committed to having and using the right forms of worship includes the concern that we have more than the forms (just as being committed to true doctrine includes a concern that faith involves personal trust as well as mental assent). A worshipping heart is under obligation to express its worship in the right forms, but using the right forms is no guarantee of, and no substitute for, a worshipping heart. The best liturgicalists are simultaneously the deepest experientialists.

4) Even if you avoid unseemly displays of personal experience, there is still plenty to be said, consistent with scripture and the confessions, on the matter of piety, godliness, practical religion, and heart worship.

Aye, John Murray. Our loss was WTS’s gain.

RMK: mains

DG Hart’s Recovering Mother Kirk has many good things to recommend it. It provides a much needed critique of, and a sparkling case against, the kind of sloppy, soppy innovations which burden the contemporary church, plagued as it is with that general sort of sentimental undoctrinal religiosity, and casual pragmatism in respect of evangelistic and discipleship techniques. So its affirmations of the need for both confessing a concrete biblical creed, and worshipping with all and only the right external forms, are very welcome.

What I’m going to take issue with is therefore neither to do with the ‘high church’-ism nor the liturgicalism – consider me sold, by background and personal conviction, on both these points. Instead, my concerns are these.

1) The classification system proposed at the outset is unhelpful.

The Introduction describes different flavours of the Reformed brand, distinguishing (i) doctrinalists, like Machen, (ii) culturalists, like Kuyper, (iii) pietists, like Jonathan Edwards, and (iv) liturgicalists. Like, I suppose, Hart.

One quibble would be that selecting the representative figureheads from different time periods and different contexts makes it hard to evaluate how distinct they really are from each other. But more to the point, there seems to be a lack of recognition that the Reformed tradition is best and most typically represented when the doctrinal, “pious,” and liturgical strands combine in one and the same individual/congregation/church. Machen, for instance, undoubtedly prized true doctrine, but he also understood what doctrine ‘felt’ like – Christianity, he said in Christianity and Liberalism, “begins with the broken heart,” and includes consciousness of sin. In exclaiming, “Where shall true Christian experience be found if not in the blessed peace which comes from Calvary?” he not only references the precise orthodox teaching on the atonement achieved at Calvary, but equally clearly expects this very orthodoxy to be realised in inner personal experience.

Or think of someone like Samuel Rutherford – his devotional writings verge on the mystical, never mind the experiential, but they flowed from his theology. For orthodoxy, and indeed for high views of the Church, he cannot be faulted; see, eg, his tremendous theological output, his contributions to the Westminster Assembly, and his commitment to the spirituality and liberty of the Church (Lex, Rex, and his imprisonment). (See him also featured recently on Ref21.) Indeed if Jonathan Edwards wasn’t already blacklisted, he would be the next most obvious person to cite, so think instead of John Calvin himself. Or the C19th Hugh Martin – writer both of The Atonement and The Abiding Presence. Or John Owen, C17th writer of both The Death of Death and Christologia. Or Thomas Boston – Human Nature in its Fourfold State and, er, Human Nature in its Fourfold State. In short: in every place and time from the Reformation onwards, the best “doctrinalists” have been the deepest “experientialists.” A “doctrinalist” who is not simultaneously an “experientialist” is subverting the very doctrines he/she is ostensibly affirming.

The same, more briefly, goes for ‘liturgicalism’ too. All the doughtiest defenders of the spiritual independence of the church and the regulative principle of worship (easy examples being, well, Calvin, or Samuel Rutherford and George Gillespie, or more recently Thomas Chalmers, John Kennedy, James Begg) were the also most insistent on inward personal godliness. The sheer pointlessness of having the right forms of worship without a worshipping heart should be evident to anyone with any hope of standing in the Reformed tradition.

2) There is a certain hostility to Jonathan Edwards and his accounts of religious experience.

This remains perplexing. The objection to Edwards is apparently that he indulged sensational and revivalist excesses and somehow therefore gives license to contemporary aberrances in terms of both novel evangelistic techniques and the problematic concept of “Christian hedonism” (associated with John Piper and critiqued here by Jerrold Lewis). But not only is Edwards’ culpability on these points unsubstantiated, I’m not convinced that it’s even substantiable. It’s hardly as though Jonathan Edwards can be regarded as heterodox, and the care which he took in discriminating what was valid and what was blameworthy in the New England revivals has indeed made him a standard resource for how to critique religious excesses and extravagances, and avoid undue subjectivity. (My earliest recollection (I know, this dates me) of controversy over alleged revival was in reactions to the 1994 Toronto Blessing, where simply to mention the name of Jonathan Edwards was to explode any claims to authenticity which this phenomenon might have had.) No doubt there are people who might lay claim to Edwards’ name in order to cash in on his prestige and respectability, but Edwards himself, read in context, might not be particularly keen to acknowledge them all as his spiritual heirs.

3) The criticism of revival is unwarranted.

It relies on a conflation of revival and revivalism, and either a failure or a refusal to distinguish reformation from revival. Ie:

  • reformation involves the setting right of doctrine and/or external forms in church life. Coming to a clearer understanding of the truth, or moving from a prelatical to a presbyterian form of government, or singing psalms instead of hymns in corporate worship, would be instances of reformation
  • revival involves the striking increase of grace in an already reformed context. The many revivals in Scotland until the mid-19th century were of this nature; see for instance the communion services at Shotts in 1630
  • revivalism involves using illegitimate means to induce religious excitement in the absence (denial or minimising) of orthodox doctrine.

It is possible for reformation and revival to coincide, as in the 16th century Reformation, and less spectacularly any time when a local congregation recovers a more biblical set of practices and experiences encouragement in the form of conversions and the edification of existing believers. It is also possible for revivals to be tainted with revivalistic illegitimacies, and indeed it seems that much of Hart’s criticism of “revival” seems to hinge on the view that it is indistinguishable from illegitimate doctrines/methods, a view which fails to take into consideration all the available historical data. In the context of orthodox doctrine and the due use of the ordained means of grace, when there are unexpected conversions (numbers-wise or person-wise) and/or an unexpected increase in believers’ sanctification, if we’re going to talk about such events, the most conventional way of labelling them is to call them revivals.

4) Finally, RMK stops short of describing what happens once the case for liturgy in the Reformed tradition is accepted.

In a context where a high view of the spirituality of the church and a habitual due use of the corporate means of grace have been attained, what next? Even allowing for the fact that the intended audience is presumably those whose view of the church and of worship stands most in need of reforming, there is still a danger of giving the impression that, once we all confess accurate scriptural doctrine and regulate worship scripturally, nothing more remains to be said.

This would be a mistake. (i) Because Scripture is clear that religion must be heart-deep. ‘With their mouth they show much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness,’ was the charge against people who came to hear gospel preaching from a divinely commissioned prophet, sitting and listening and looking for all the world as if they were God’s people. ‘This people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but [they] have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men.’ The message which Christ brought to those within the church who knew the scriptures from a lifetime’s immersion and observed all the ceremonies was, ‘Ye must be born again.’

But also (ii) because our confessions of faith insist that religion must be heart-deep. The work of salvation in a sinner’s experience means the Spirit “enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh, renewing their wills, … and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ,” WCF 10.1. And, “they who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally,” WCF 13.1.

There is, in other words, a marked incongruity between arguing for a clear articulation and practicing of the truths which the Holy Spirit has revealed in his scriptures, and failing to insist on the need for the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the souls of those who congregate around these scriptures. This is, alternatively, the incongruity of confessing faith in such a great and glorious God and his great and glorious work of salvation, while remaining cool and apathetic about the degree to which the entire soul requires to be engaged and devoted to his worship and minute-by-minute obedience in everyday life. This does not require gushing about how nice the gospel is and how spiritual you are, but simply a recognition that it is the believer’s business to give the Lord all their heart and soul and mind and strength, and, as an outcome of being ‘in Christ’, increasingly to press towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God.

I don’t say that RMK fails in an absolute sense to make this kind of point, but, as a matter of priority or emphasis, there is a certain feeling that punches are being pulled and calls muted on this the most striking implication of the position so persuasively argued for. Maybe, now that we’ve had Recovering the Reformed Confession and Recovering Mother Kirk, it’s time for someone to release Recovering Confessional Piety.

__________________
Go here for starters.
DG Hart blogs provocatively at Old Life.

RMK: starters

Liturgy is a term to strike terror into the heart of honest presbyterians. When Charles I tried to impose ‘Laud’s Liturgy’ on the Scottish church in the 1630s, there were protests all over Scotland, the swearing of solemn oaths, and even possibly the hurling of a stool in St Giles. Those who signed National Covenant of 1638 swore to defend the doctrine, faith, religion, discipline, and sacraments of “this true reformed kirk,” no matter how severe the civil penalties might be.

Yet the core of the objection to Laud’s liturgy was not so much that it was a liturgy, but that it was an “Anglo-Popish” one. The Scottish church has always had a liturgy, even when not called by that name. There has been, especially, the Directory for Public Worship, usually published in the same volume as the Confession of Faith and Catechisms. Where practice has diverged from the DPW, it has historically been a consistent and stable divergence – for instance in uniformly beginning the Lord’s Day services by singing a psalm instead of with prayer.

Scottish theologians have also devoted a great deal of serious thought to the doctrine of the Church. The spiritual independence of the Church was firmly defended not only against the impositions of Charles I but also against the encroachments of the benevolent and increasingly bossy Victorian-era state. A civil court meddling in ecclesiastical matters such as the ordaining and inducting of ministers was simply outrageous: to the Church belongs real (sole) authority in ecclesiastical matters. Ordained ministers, further, were ordained to preach the Word and administer the sacraments. Those who heard the Word preached were supposed to receive it “as the Word of God,” according to the Larger Catechism (160) and the ‘power of the keys’ was a real power.

The Reformation centrality of the preaching of the gospel in the work of the Church was similarly maintained until really very recently. Whatever social reforms the Church made a contribution to historically (and there were many), these were self-consciously not the main function of the Church, because the Church’s role was spiritual and ecclesiastical – to preach the Word, administer the sacraments, and exercise discipline. Because of the priority of preaching, virtually the only evangelism which the Church did was to preach sermons. The unchurched, or whatever they were called back then, were brought to church, to hear the gospel preached – special ‘evangelistic’ programmes and rallies being on that account quite redundant and until recently distinctly under-utilised.

~

With all that by way of background, let me turn to Recovering Mother Kirk, by DG Hart (2003). This is an extremely stimulating book, written with vigour and verve, and in many, many ways an excellent corrective to the misunderstandings and misbehaviour of the contemporary Protestant world. The critique of ‘contemporary’ worship is simply devastating, and the high view propounded of the spirituality of the Church and the authority of the ordained ministry is extremely welcome. Or consider this, from p117.

“How would you rate the work of your church? A ministry scorecard might include the following: If your church has a children’s ministry, give it 2 points; a welcome team ministry, 1 point; a tape ministry, 1 point (but if a tape and book ministry, 2 points). A couple’s ministry should be worth 2 points as should an international student ministry, a mothers’ ministry, and a newlywed ministry; but subtract a point if it is a newlywed mothers’ ministry. A women’s ministry should also receive 2 points, and in the spirit of equity, a men’s ministry should receive the same. … An AIDS ministry, a ministry to the homeless, and a low-income housing ministry all receive 3 points, a score befitting a big church with many resources and talented members. Throw in 1 point each for a weekly Bible study, foreign missions, and the sacraments (2 points for the latter if your church allows the laity to set up the Lord’s Supper). Finally, add 1 point for a Sunday morning service, 2 points if you have both a contemporary and a traditional service.
How did your church do? Be careful though. Before you delight in a double-digit number, you should know that this game is like golf – the higher the score, the worse the performance. The reason, of course, for this inverse method of scoring comes from our Lord himself. … In the Great Commission, Christ told the apostles to teach and baptise. In other words, he defined the ministry of the church as encompassing two tasks only: Word and sacrament.”

How brilliant is that? Something just as good pops up in every chapter.

The best thing about it is that many of the biggest “ta-da!” moments in the book, just like this, relate to things which all but one, or all but two, of the Scottish denominations have in fact doggedly clung to all down through the generations. Yet attaining greater clarity and conviction on these points is always necessary. One of the main reasons therefore for recommending this book far and wide is because of how it puts a point and a polish on many things which may well remain embedded in our collective life, but, perhaps, gently rusting away there, more than they should be.

Being ‘conservative’ isn’t enough is, in other words, a refrain which we very much need to hear. And ‘the Bible doesn’t say so’ can only take you so far, before you need to start affirming what the Bible does say. Youth camps aren’t a means of grace – nor interdenominational conferences, nor giving a public testimony nor post-church tea and biscuits – well, so far so good. But then what are the means of grace, and how far do we really respect them? How far, in other words, are we positively comfortable and confident about using these and only these means just because these are what the Holy Spirit has promised to bless.

For the great bulk of this book, therefore, reading brings a great feeling of relief. Someone else out there really gets it.

But! He doesn’t get everything, may I make so bold as to say. Yet since even I’m dimly aware that there’s such a thing as a Too Long blog post, I’m going to break the habit of a lifetime and do a two-part series…

You may now bate your breath.

four weeks to go

Till the Holyrood election and the referendum on AV.

I’m keeping my polling card pinned to the fridge in full view, otherwise I might forget all about it. Is it just me, or is the goal of each new election campaign to out-do the invisibility of the last one?

Thanks to Google, then, I have learned the following.

The Scottish Parliament election involves:
1) a constituency vote, on lilac paper
2) a regional vote, on peach paper
(according to the Herald).

The AV referendum question is:
“Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘alternative vote’ system instead of the current ‘first past the post’ system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?”
(according to the BBC).

For extra fun, each ballot paper requires a different voting system.
1) Holyrood constituency – first past the post
2) Holyrood regional list – Alternative Member
3) AV referendum – Yes/No

If this sounds like all the makings of a fiasco (and that’s not deja-vu, we have been here before), worry not. The ballots are all going to be counted by hand this time. What could possibly go wrong.

~

Referendum-wise, I’m voting no to AV. I know, controversial, eh. Nothing quite like a technical dispute over voting systems to rouse the masses.

Holyrood-wise, I have no idea. Well, the Catholic Teuchter had a fairly insightful article here some time ago – his conclusions are worth pondering. Apart from that, the only thing I know is that the Scottish Christian Party remains as unattractive as ever. Indeed I couldn’t find their manifesto anywhere on their website, or even a list of their candidates. Thus it is left to the Grauniad to supply the information that they have four regional candidates [edited to add: in my constituency], although what policies they’re offering remains a mystery.

wrong wrong wrong

I wasn’t going to say anything about this, because I can’t quite explain why I remain on the mailing list of an organisation that is so wrong about such a fundamental point, but every few weeks, a leaflet arrives on my doormat containing this kind of thing:

“the elect children of believing parents ordinarily are regenerated and saved, and thus become members of the covenant, in infancy or even at conception. They have been saved by the time they are baptized.”

That’s what it says in this month’s offering, and it simply is not true. It is not what scripture leads us to expect, and it is not the ordinary experience of children born to believing parents.

The children of believing parents are as ungodly and ineligible for salvation as any ignorant heathen adult out there. The work of regeneration in the case of a child born into the church is every bit as miraculous and unexpected as it is in the case of the greatest possible injurious persecuting blasphemer that ever lived.

The children of believing parents are (by virtue of being born to believing parents) members of the visible church. They are on that account to be baptised. Their baptism is a sign and seal not of their salvation but of the merely external, formal, connection they have to the Church Visible through their parents. The baptism of infants says nothing about whether or not they have any inner, vital, saving union with Christ. It is a sign and seal of the union with Christ which is available to them in the gospel, and offered to them in the preached Word which they hear in the bosom of the Visible Church to which they belong, and modelled for them by their parents and the Christians in their parents’ congregation. It makes absolutely no guarantee that they themselves enjoy that union at or by the time of their baptism, or that they will enjoy it at any future time in their lives.

The experience of children born to believing parents bears this out. Your parents subscribe the Westminster Confession, they’re members in good standing, they teach you to memorise Psalm 23 before you can barely walk, you learn the Shorter Catechism inside out and back to front by the time you know your times tables, you grow up to spot a heresy at twenty paces, you never do anything spectacularly rebellious in all your life, you regularly attend all the Lord’s Day services, the weekly prayer meeting and all the extra communion services, for they are many, and you can defend the truth so well that even Hari Krishnas get fed up and walk off on you — and inside, you remain an utter stranger to grace and to God.

It’s called original sin, and that, you see, is why it is not actually remotely oxymoronic to say that “a child of the covenant, not in open rebellion, but attending the means of grace and trying to trust the Lord in family devotions and private prayer, and still submitting to godly parents, needs to convert.”

_____________
PS – how do you like the new font?