Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Dr. Luther, Rapmeister

Last week the e-newsletter from ChurchLaughs.com brought me a chuckle.

The lead cartoon featured a pastor talking to his worship leader. “Okay,” says the pastor to the guitar-clutching musician. “We’ll do the rock service, but forget about rapping the Nicene Creed.” (Oh, the challenges of "blended worship"!)

As soon as I had chuckled at the cartoon, I realized there was a historical precedent. Others had already had set the creed to rhyming, rhythmic verse, hoping to make it memorable for worshipers. Tobias Clausnitzer (1668) and Cyril V. Taylor (1941) are among the lesser known writers to attempt this. The most famous was clearly Martin Luther (“We All Believe in One True God,” 1524).

* * *

Now Martin Luther didn’t write rap. Rap is not just rhyme and meter. Rap is also improvisation (and therefore a vehicle for personal statement and an opportunity to show off just a bit).Yet Luther, like rappers, placed a premium on the words over the music. Among his many hymns were didactic songs that helped the people learn their faith.

Luther’s Shorter Catechism is well known as a brief and digestible guide to the faith. It was organized around what he considered the basics: The Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Confession, and the Sacrament of the Altar. If one understood these things, one could be an informed believer. One would be equipped to understand the gospel and to resist superstition.

It isn’t surprising then that Luther would also write a hymn to convey each of these truths. The American Edition of Luther’s Works comments on his Ten Commandments hymn (“These Are the Holy Ten Commands”):

We have become so accustomed to think of poetry as an expression of the personal feelings and emotions of the writer that we cannot conceive of a merely “utilitarian” use of poetry. Hymnody in our own age has been defined as “lyrical religion.” We find it difficult to think of a merely didactic hymn without sentimental overtones.

But Luther proceeded from different premises. Very soberly he thought of the hymn as a means of instilling the Word of God in the people. While some of his hymns were born out of his most personal experience and reflected the struggles and victories of his own faith, others were mere versifications of the Catechism.

His setting of the Creed seems a little less didactic than the Ten Commandments hymn, because it is the bold declaration of a common faith.

We all believe in one true God,
Maker of the earth and heaven,
The Father who to us the power
To become his sons hath given.

But the didactic purpose is still blended with the joyous celebration of truth.

Luther relied on an earlier medieval attempt to versify the Creed, but that poem tried to cover the creed in a single stanza. Luther expanded the structure to three stanzas to reflect the three parts of the Creed, one for each person of the Trinity. That larger structure required more material, and so he infused the hymn with additional truth (as in the brief excerpt above, where he inserted the idea from John 1:12 that we have been given the power to become children of God).

Luther wasn’t just interested in teaching the faith; he was interested in teaching the young. He was worried about the things that seduce young people away from the faith. And so he explained in a preface to a 1524 hymnal:

These songs were arranged in four parts to give the young—who should at any rate be trained in music and other fine arts—something to wean them away from love ballads and carnal songs and teach them something of value in their place.

That makes him sound like one of the architects of Youth for Christ in the 1950s!

Hats off to the Reformer dude, Rapmeister Martin.

* * *

P.S. So what do I think about rapping the Creed? Well, the main thing I have against it is that rap isn’t a communal form of expression, while the Creed is the statement of a community of belief. But if we all had a good enough sense of rhythm, we might be able to rap it together.

* * *

Concordia Publishing has published a 4-CD set of Luther's Hymns, Ballads, and Chants. You can here a short bit of "We All Believe in One True God" here and another excerpt of "These Are the Holy Ten Commands" here.

Read more!

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Church Next to the Godiva Chocolate Shop

At lunch today, my wife and I were discussing ecclesiology. (Does that happen only in our family?)

The subject came up because we had both read an op/ed by Kyle Wingfield, an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe.

Wingfield lives in Brussels, and he wants us to know that, for many of the Europeans he has met there, “it's not God who is dead to them as much as it is The Church—the official, often state-supported church, be it Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran.” He then shares his personal experience with a nontraditional church called The Well.

The Well, with its rock-oriented music, would in some ways feel familiar to many American evangelicals. But here’s what wouldn’t feel familiar: it doesn’t meet in its own building, but it uses several decentralized meeting places—including a restaurant called Jesus Paradise and a tavern called La Chaloupe D’Or, billed on the church website as “close to the Godiva chocolaterie.” (Well, count me in!)

The entire 120-member church meets together for worship only once a month. The rest of the time, they meet in these satellite sites.

In a tavern or restaurant, just anyone can happen by. And, Wingfield says, such serendipity is much more likely to occur in the settings chosen by The Well than if the group were to meet in a designated church building.

It's far less intimidating for newcomers to visit a public space with a dozen or so other people than a normal "church" with pews and a steeple and a hundred strange faces. In the course of our gatherings, we also meet people who were just going out for coffee and probably wouldn't have wandered into a sanctuary along the way.

That’s where my wife and I started talking about ecclesiology. “Is it church when confused people get together to discuss religion?” she asked. “Or does church require belief, commitment, and participation in worship?”

I said, the church should fundamentally be a gathering of the committed. And those who are committed should be trained to help the confused sort out their questions.

This tension between meeting the needs of the confused and the nurture of the committed is, of course, not new. It was present in the mid-1970s rise of the seeker-sensitive church, which minimized elements of traditional worship in order to appeal to the unchurched. The tension continues in mainline denominations that want to be so inclusive of everyone and so tolerant of everything that they can’t tell the difference between hospitality and inclusion. (See my review of Good Fences: The Boundaries of Hospitality and my interview with author Carolyn Westerhoff for more thoughts on this mainline Protestant trend.)

From Closed Doors to Public Square

The early church met behind closed doors. That made sense in a truly hostile culture where being a Christian could cost you your life. When it was finally able to meet in public, the church became not only a sacred institution but a civic one as well, with its meeting places prominently located on piazzas. In that new role, what the church gained in openness it lost in distinctiveness.

In a comparatively indifferent culture, some kind of alteration of the barriers makes sense. Barriers to inclusion shouldn’t be erased, of course. The Well’s website says that “at its core, church is people, coming together, becoming more like Jesus than they were before.” True, but not complete. At the heart of Christian life and Christian community, there are things that don’t make sense without study, commitment, and participation. Christian communal life cannot exist apart from common prayer, common confession, and Communion. These are things that unbelievers cannot join in. Because of the nature of the church, there will always be insiders and outsiders.

Placing key elements of church life out in public view is an important part of Christian witness in a secular and indifferent culture. A group like The Well can maintain its distinctiveness from Europe’s post-Christian culture. It can be open and welcoming at the same time. Maintaining that tension consciously and conscientiously will be an important challenge, because without the things that make Christian life distinctive it may be a great opportunity for discussion, authentic sharing, and witness. But it won’t be church.

Nevertheless, bless The Well and similar groups across Europe for engaging in this experiment.

* * *


Article 4 of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future defines some of the essentials of the church’s worship.

The Well is a project of Christian Associates International, which has church plants in 15 European countries and aims to have planted 50 “high impact churches” by 2010.

Read more!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

What J. P. Moreland Really Said

In a recent post (“Over-committed to the Bible?”, Nov. 16), I agreed with several points made by J. P. Moreland in a paper he presented at the Evangelical Theological Society.

I relied on a report by CT’s Ted Olsen, to which J. P. Moreland has now responded. He calls Olsen’s summary “generally fair,” but he says that “because it is still a summary,” it “could not provide the needed context for understanding [his] paper.”

Since the lay audience has now heard about his paper, he has made it available on his website. Read his argument and evaluate it for yourself.

The church and the Bible

In my previous comment, I said that the church was the missing element in Moreland’s picture of evangelical “over-commitment” to the Bible. Now that I’ve read his paper, I need to refine that.

J. P. is clearly calling for scholars to conduct their search for the truth (whether in biblical or extra-biblical areas of research) for the sake of the church. And when he talks about evangelicals who take the Bible as the sole authority for and source of truth, he quotes earlier authoritative evangelical statements that portray the Bible not as the sole authority but the supreme and final authority. In that context, the church and tradition are also mentioned. The church is not missing from his paper.

Moreland portrays evangelical over-commitment to Scripture as a reaction to the shift in our universities and our culture away from the search for an integrated understanding of knowledge and from a commitment to cognitive notions of truth.

By and large, Evangelicals responded during this shift by withdrawing from the broader world of ideas, developing a view of faith that was detached from knowledge and reason, and limiting truth and belief about God, theology and morality to the inerrant Word of God, the Bible. If I am right about this, then Evangelical over-commitment to the Bible is a result of the influence of secularization on the church and not of biblical and theological reflection.

But the point I made in my November 16 post, I believe, still stands. Evangelical over-commitment to the Bible (as Moreland carefully defines it) is also the result of our abandonment of our heritage of reading the Bible with the larger church.

Martin Luther read the Bible in innovative and intensely personal ways, but he was still in dialogue with all that had come before him. Luther read the Bible in conversation with the church. Somehow over the centuries that got transformed into the idea that just any Christian, disconnected from past and present believers, could read the Bible, know precisely what it meant, and try to use it as the sole authority for truth.

If we could recover the habit of reading the Bible in conversation with past and present believers, all the while paying attention to the inner testimony of the Spirit (Calvin), it would go a long way toward curing the ills Moreland has diagnosed.

Read more!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Two Paths Through the Old Testament

Advent 2007 hovers on the horizon, and I am planning this year’s music of judgment, hope, and expectation for my congregation. This particular Advent, parishes in the Episcopal Church will be adopting the Revised Common Lectionary, instead of the more traditional lectionary found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It was voted by General Convention, and so it shall be.

At first glance, the lessons for the four Sundays in Advent don’t seem that different from what we heard before. The main difference comes during the long season that stretches from Pentecost to Advent, the beginning of the next liturgical cycle.

On these Sundays, two sets of Old Testament lessons are made available. One is traditional, with the Old Testament passage chosen to highlight some aspect of the Gospel reading for the day. The other is, well, not new-fangled, but different. It provides for a more continuous reading of the key Old Testament stories so that preachers have the opportunity to expound their way through the stories of Abraham and Joshua and David—and Deborah and Ruth, as well. The profile of the women of the Old Testament has been raised.

Some have complained about disconnecting the Old Testament reading from the Gospel reading, and their complaint has good grounds. Ever since the beginning of the Christian movement, Jesus' followers have read the Hebrew Scriptures through the window of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.

Luke 24 tells how the risen Christ explained the Scriptures to two followers who did not yet have eyes to see.

25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. 26 Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” 27 Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Compare that to John 5, where Jesus tells his contemporaries:

39 You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Early Christians adopted that filter in their reading of the Hebrew Bible, even before they had assembled the various Letters and Gospels into what would become the New Testament. Look at the preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts, and you will see that their fundamental message was based on the way Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the words of the prophets. This sometimes required them to read the Law and the Prophets and the Writings typologically, so that something that is said of Aaron or David or Melchizedek is applied to Jesus.

This was not, by the way, foreign to contemporary Jewish ways of reading the text. If something was true of the archetypal King David or Prophet Moses, how much more would it be true of Messiah, went the shape of the argument. It is this kind of reading of Scripture that Bob Webber urged us to recover in The Divine Embrace (see p. 127ff). The Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future does not address typology explicitly, but it critiques its opposite when it speaks of “modern methods” that “compartmentalize God's story by analyzing its separate parts, while ignoring God's entire redemptive work as recapitulated in Christ.”

So the traditional lectionary, which selected an Old Testament reading to match some part of the Gospel story, was following this early Christian way of seeing the Hebrew Bible.

From Typology to Warning

But the typological/messianic reading is not the complete picture of how the New Testament writers viewed the Old. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul writes that the stories of Israel’s failures were written as ethical warnings.

11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! 13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

And in the famous 2 Timothy passage on the nature and purpose of Scripture, the writer once again focuses on the ethical (on praxis, if you will).

16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Not all apostolic reflection on the Hebrew Scriptures was Christological, though Christology was the central filter through which they read the text. Their reflection was also ethical, treating the stories of vice and virtue and of God’s faithfulness in both judgment and mercy, as pointers to how we should live.

The more continuous Old Testament stories presented in the Common Lectionary will prove more preachable for this secondary purpose—as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.

Not that we need more moralizing, particularly in evangelical pulpits. But both approaches to the Old Testament are needed. Evangelicals do a better job of reading the stories as cautionary tales than we do of expounding Christ in all the Scripture.

So let me urge my fellow evangelicals to polish the lenses of our Christological spectacles and learn to look for Jesus in the book that he said “testifies” of him (John 5). The moralism doesn’t help us see the overarching narrative of God’s work in the world. The Christological vision does.

* * *

There’s still time to register for the Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future Conference. Click here for more information.

Read more!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Over-committed to the Bible?

J. P. Moreland said something provocative this week. Ted Olsen, in his “Postcard from San Diego” (where the Evangelical Theological Society has been meeting) recounts how Moreland told a packed auditorium that North American evangelicals are “over-committed” to the Bible.

Ted opines that “to accuse evangelicals of over-commitment to the Bible at ETS would be like accusing environmentalists of talking too much about climate change at a Sierra Club meeting.” But there it is.

This primo evangelical apologist, J. P. Moreland from Talbot School of Theology, told the Evangelical Theology Society, “In the actual practices of the Evangelical community in North America, there is an over-commitment to Scripture in a way that is false, irrational, and harmful to the cause of Christ. And it has produced a mean-spiritedness among the over-committed that is a grotesque and often ignorant distortion of discipleship unto the Lord Jesus.”

I too have observed the irrationality, the mean-spiritedness, and the distortions of discipleship of which Moreland spoke. I can relate.

Moreland’s complaint, according to Olsen, is “the idea that the Bible is the sole source of knowledge of God, morality, and a host of related important items.”

Those with a little historical knowledge know that when the 16th-century reformers raised the cry, Sola scriptura, they never meant that Scripture stood alone, only that it was the norm by which all other religious authorities were to be judged.

In Olsen’s “postcard,” Moreland says Scripture has crowded out three other good things. It has suppressed (1) an eagerness to learn from investigating the phenomenal world for what it can teach us; (2) an openness to following the leading of the Spirit; and (3) a willingness to appeal to natural theology and moral law in political and cultural discussions.

The Missing Factor

All of these things are important. All of these have their appropriate use. But what is missing from this picture?

The church. A distorted evangelical use of Scripture has resulted from tearing the Bible away from the fabric of the church.

Bob Webber wrote succinctly about the place of the Scripture in the fabric of the church’s life and faith in the Appendix to Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World.

Scripture is the church’s tradition, the possession of the church, and as such, the church is responsible to guard it, preserve it, pass it down, and interpret it. ... It is not the Bible standing alone, but Scripture as the product of apostolic interpretation handed down in the church for generations.

Others have noted the importance of reading the Bible “with” the church. Jim Packer, for example, addressed this in the New Dictionary of Theology in his typically understated way: “Nor is the helpfulness of the church’s heritage of interpretation always recognized.” And Chris Hall’s Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers is a successful experiment in trying to put the Bible back where it belongs—in the bosom of the church. This restoration of the tie between Bible and the church is also the point of the first article of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future, on which Bob Webber labored so diligently before he passed away.

So when we read the Bible “with” the church (with the historic church, with the global church, and with the ancient consensual church), do some of the problems Moreland mentioned solve themselves?

Surely a historically and globally informed reading of Scripture will get us listening to the Spirit and learning from his leadings. And it will also help us to recognize and discipline excess without withdrawing into an anti-Spirit rationalism. And if we read the Scripture with the church, we’ll learn how the church was able to use natural law arguments alongside Scripture, but in subordination to Scripture.

Whenever an issue arises, evangelicals’ impulse is to ask, What does the Bible say? But an informed evangelical perspective realizes that there is usually no straight line between the biblical text and the contemporary problem. Negotiating that path requires contemporary social or scientific analysis, prayer for wisdom and guidance, and drawing on the experience of Christians. For the mature Christian, Scripture is supreme, but never truly alone.

* * *

Update: I've now been able to read Moreland's paper. Read my further comments on this subject.

The primacy of the biblical narrative is the topic of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future Conference this month. There’s still time to register.

J. P. Moreland's most recent book is Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit's Power.

Read more!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Your Atonement Is Too Small

Scot McKnight wants you to have your golf bag fully equipped—theologically speaking. That’s the controlling metaphor of McKnight’s new study of soteriology, A Community Called Atonement (released in August by Abindgon).

Here’s the way the metaphor works. Each “theory” of the atonement is, like a particular golf club, better suited to some situations than others. Ministering the gospel is like a round of golf. The way we proclaim, teach, or share the good news in any given situation should be adapted to the situation, just as a golfer knows when to use a driver, a wedge, or a putter. You can, theoretically, still hit the ball out of a sand trap with a driver, but why would you if you had a wedge available?

Here’s the strength of the golf-bag metaphor: It asks us to stop being partisans for one particular theory of the atonement or another and actually to do ministry with the best tools at hand. McKnight is a peacemaker and a bridge builder, and that makes his book very welcome.

Plenty of discussion recently (some of it acrimonious) sounds very much like people saying that all the other clubs are better than your putter—and indeed that your putter is inherently defective. Meanwhile, others respond by defending the putter as the only club you need, since each round ends on the green. (“Drive for show, putt for dough.”)

Check out this recent news item from Christianity Today and you’ll see why McKnight’s book is a breath of fresh air.

* * *

The main target of criticism has been “penal substitution,” a 16th-century Reformation development of Anselm’s 11th-century “satisfaction” theory of the atonement. In penal substitution, God the Son bears the penalty for our sins on the cross. The Son having paid our debt, God now views us as righteous because we belong to the Son.

Sometimes people stretch this language too far, and they divide the members of the Trinity, setting them against each other—as when they talk of the Son as the object of the Father’s wrath on the Cross.

Sometimes they talk about the paid penalty almost exclusively in individual terms. When John Wesley had his heart strangely warmed while listening to Luther’s preface to his commentary on the Romans, he grasped something important. “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” But my salvation is not the full picture, and speaking only in individualistic terms can lead to a weak doctrine of the church and even an anemic doctrine of the atonement.

Some critics stretch the concept to charge that penal substitution language amounts to nothing other than “divine child abuse”—an angry cosmic Father beating up his meek and helpless Son, an image which subtly leads us to tolerate the evils of domestic violence.

But McKnight recognizes that while the Scriptures do talk about Jesus bearing the penalty for our sins, they never divide the members of the Trinity at the Cross or bifurcate the God of love from the God of wrath. Whatever took place at the Cross and however we are to understand it, it is a unitary act of the whole Trinity. Thus John Stott could devote a chapter of his magnum opus, The Cross of Christ, to “The Self-Substitution of God.” And the Apostle Paul could write about God setting forth his own hilasterion. (This is a rare Greek word that literally means a thing that makes someone happy, but that is used as a technical term for the place on the Ark of the Covenant where on the Day of Atonement Israel’s chief priest sprinkled the sacrificial blood.) Paul clearly stresses that any appeasement is God’s self-appeasement. What is that? Self-appeasement? It is ironic even to use such language, but Paul wants to get at something bigger and ultimately more mysterious than the picture often portrayed by those who preach penal substitution.

In this tense context, McKnight recognizes that the best defenders of penal substitution do not fall into these traps.

* * *

But A Community Called Atonement is not just a bridge-building book. It is an expand-your-vision book. To parody J. B. Phillips’s famous title, this book could have been called Your Atonement Is Too Small.

Classic evangelical writers tend to use the word atonement fairly narrowly to refer to what Christ Jesus accomplished in his death on the Cross. When most evangelical expositors wanted to talk about the bigger picture, they would use a phrase like “the plan of salvation.”

Unfortunately, when you use the word atonement that narrowly, you can end up not thinking about the broad reach of God’s atoning activity. God was in Christ reconciling you and me to himself. But that’s not all. Paul says that God was in Christ reconciling the entire world to himself.

Decades ago when Bob Webber stepped out of line and shocked the evangelical ranks by emphasizing the early church’s understanding of Christ’s activity as victory over the devil, death, and sin, he was asking his students to grasp this bigger picture.

Scot McKnight does something similar in A Community Called Atonement. He reviews the various metaphors, pictures, and theories of atonement implicit in Scripture and looks for the big picture. Like Webber, he finds it in the witness of the early church. Taking the themes expounded by the earliest fathers together—victory, ransom, recapitulation—he wraps them into one package called “identification for incorporation.” In Christ, God identified with the descendants of Adam to the point of experiencing an ignominious death and was raised to new life so that he, as the new Adam, might incorporate the fallen race into a new humanity. He became what we were that we might become what he is. That’s the summary notion that Athanasius used to express this view most succinctly.

This is the creator God re-creating, but doing it in such a way that he does not leave the old creation to languish in its sin and brokenness.

* * *

This broader approach to atonement requires a corporate understanding. And that is the point of McKnight’s title: A Community Called Atonement. It also requires a missional understanding.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes that the result of God’s reconciling the world to himself is that he gives to us, the members of his church, a ministry of reconciliation. God’s reconciling action and our ambassadorial role are bound tightly together in Paul’s thought. God does not simply reconcile us to himself. He does this with the purpose of making us his agents of reconciliation. And McKnight’s call to see atonement in a bigger context is nothing other than a call to mission, mission that copies God.

* * *

This post is already too long. Part II will come along in a few days. In that context I hope to connect McKnight’s golf-bag metaphor with a couple of my own images—J. K. Rowling's Dobby the self-flagellating house elf and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

While you’re waiting for Part II, consider coming to the Ancient Evangelical Future Conference to hear and interact with Scot McKnight in person. Click here for information.

Read more!