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Posts Tagged ‘human responsibility’


In January I’ll be starting a sermon series on 1 Peter currently entitled “Living Faithfully in Babylon.” Recently Daniel Wells mentioned a book by David Fitch called Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission. It looked like something that may help me think through some things as I preach through 1 Peter. In 2010 James Davidson Hunter released a book called To Change the World, in which he talks about the church maintaining a faithful presence. Dr. Anthony Bradley, before he dropped off Facebook, was highly critical of the book. Having not actually read it, his point seemed to be a lack of missional presence by the church but rather a retreat to a ghetto. Fitch refers to Hunter’s book in the introduction:

“Hunter proposes that Christians changes their tactics for engaging culture and changing the world. He asks Christians to turn away from grabbing power in the broader culture through traditional political means. Quit trying to win the battle of ideas through political rallies, voting schemes, cultural confrontations, and campaigns of persuasion in churches and political forums. Instead let Christians commit to a “new city commons” free from the power struggles and culture wars. He calls for Christians, shaped by an alternative covenant community of the kingdom, to humbly inhabit the places where they live and work with a new on-the-ground presence that dialogues and interacts with those around us and the institutions we are a part of.” (pp. 12-13)

Fitch seeks to flesh out more of what this looks like. Anthony Bradley did a blurb for this book, so I thought I’d read it. I’ll confess I can struggle with reading more “broadly evangelical” books. They often lack a sense of history and theological depth that leads them into trendy ideas that are often gone in a few years, as well as a rather shallow understanding of things. But I don’t want to live in a Reformed echo chamber either. This was one of the times I ventured out.

I think I found some helpful ideas in the midst of the trendiness. There were some challenging thoughts in the midst of the, from my perspective, theological weaknesses and problems in the book.

David Fitch is a professor at Northern Seminary (an American Baptist Seminary) and pastor of Vine Christian Community (affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance) and Peace of Christ Church in Illinois. I did not know of his denominational affiliations until I just looked it up seconds ago. Reading the book I thought he came from a more Anabaptist or Brethren background. He frequent refers to John Howard Yoder, for instance. There is also an emergent, or whatever it is called now, influence with guys like Scott McKnight and Leonard Sweet. To make matters interesting he tosses in some Herman Ridderbos. In other words, Fitch is kinda broadly evangelical with some Anabaptist leanings.

So, where to begin?

He wants us to practice 7 disciplines, as the subtitle notes, to shape the church for mission. He looks at each of these 7 disciplines in 3 contexts. His terminology is fairly idiosyncratic at this point so I’ll use more common terminology. First is the church gathered or public worship. Second is essentially missional communities where Christians are gathered but expect to invite non-Christians to join them on “our territory” for lack of a better term. Third is outreach where we enter “their territory” in the hopes of dialoguing, discussing and building relationships that may or may not result in them eventually being part of the church gathered.

He notes that often churches can focus primarily on the church gathered and fall into maintenance ministry. In reaction to this, they can focus primarily on outreach and fall into exhaustion. Churches should be committed to all three.

The 7 disciplines are: The Lord’s Table, Reconciliation, Proclaiming the Gospel, Being with “the Least of These”, Being with Children, the Fivefold Gifting (Eph. 4) and Kingdom Prayer. Nothing terribly novel here. Sadly, many churches have lost sight of these disciplines. When we lose sight of them, our churches become unhealthy and eventually die. For instance, too few churches seem actually committed to practicing reconciliation. Members just leave in a huff or conflict spirals into church splits. It starts with the little things, and so should reconciliation. We don’t just practice it among the church gathered, but in our missional communities and relationships outside of the church with neighbors, co-workers and people who share our hobbies and interests. I agree we should value children, and avoid the lure of glitzy programs in place of actually spending time with them.

So, in terms of big picture as well as some cultural critique there are some positives here. There were some good challenges.

But I also struggled while I read this book, largely because it was “broadly evangelical.”

It was trendy, and annoyingly so. Since the book is about presence, I can understand the very frequent use of the term. “Space” on the other hand…. It was nearly as frequent as the very “to be” (yes, some hyperbole). In one paragraph it was used 5 times, and frequently used 3 or 4 in a paragraph. I started circling it. Often the sentence was quite understandable if you removed the word or the clause around it. I feel like the Knights Who Til Recently Said Ni- “Stop saying the word!” As we will see in a moment, there were also some theological concerns connected to it.

His ecclesiology and sacramental theology were problematic. He speaks as if these disciplines are a set of new post-Christian sacraments. He uses the term sacraments in connection with them. My inner Inigo Montoya kept saying “I do not think it means what you think means.” Taking the concept of the Lord’s Table to missional communities and outreach is difficult for me to process. We should take hospitality into those arenas, but not an actual sacrament. I see a similar issue with the Fivefold Gifting. Does every missional group need each of the 5 gifts to work effectively? How does this work in terms of outreach? In his stories of sitting a McDonald’s it is just him, not with 4 other people exhibiting the other gifts. So this was confusing.

“The sacrament of being with children is a social sacrament that brings together the community in its withness with the child.” (pp. 139)

He repeatedly talked about miracles happening. Here comes Inigo again. As a seminary professor I expect him to use this loaded term technically, not simply for unexpected and extraordinary events that took place. In Scripture it is used to refer to healing of prolonged and disabling medical conditions without ordinary means (medicine), raising the dead, walking on water etc. It is not used of reconciling long-broken relationships or a homeless guy getting a job.

His view of God’s sovereignty is problematic. He says, in one place, that God is sovereign over all. But he sounds very much like an Arminian throughout the book. Often he notes God does not coerce or force his way. He may be arguing against a Calvinist strawman here since the Westminster Confession (and London Baptist Confession) affirm that while God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, he also does “no violence to the will of the creature.” Fitch does more than maintain human responsibility. He frequently speaks of “creating space” for God to work. That sounds like more than human responsibility to me, but that we really control whether God is at work or not. There is no sense of Him working with, without, above or against means. There is no sense of God initiating all this as the One who “works in us so we will and work according to His good purpose” (Phil. 2:11).

“He is still ultimately sovereign and in control of the world. But as for actually using his power and authority, he will not oppose our grabbing and pushing for control. He refuses to steamroll our wills in order to dictate his will in our lives and in the world. … God’s power can only work through us as we submit to him, let him work, open up space for him.” (pp. 168)

A text from Proverbs comes to mind, one that is quoted by both James and Peter in the context of our grabbing and pushing for control: God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. God does use his power and authority to actively oppose the proud. Yes, He is love and is patient but He’s also righteous and wise.

His polity is rather vague. He is clearly against hierarchy. This is good to a degree. But his ideas of mutual submission, particularly in the discipline of the Fivefold ministry, is quite unclear. Here is where Presbyterianism is a really good thing. We don’t believe in pastor as “pope” or bishop. We believe in the plurality of elders leading together in submission to Christ through His Word, and summarized in our Confession, in mutual submission to other churches in our presbytery. While not perfectly lived out (we are sinners!) is seems to be a good and biblical model based not just on an isolated proof-text but the whole of Scripture.

“For Jesus, authority in the kingdom would be exercised in no other way. There would be no hierarchy, no coercive power, no one person ruling over and above another person. His model, as we will discover, is mutual, shared leadership under one Lord.” (pp. 152)

Jesus’ point is not simply hierarchy, but motive. Church leaders are to be about Christ’s kingdom, not their own. Yes, there power is limited and there authority is to be exercised in love. But we see hierarchy in Heb. 13, 1 Peter 5, 1 Tim. 3, Titus 1 and Acts 15 among other places. Christians are told to obey their church leaders. Church leaders are overseers. It is how they fulfill this that is the issue.

As a result, this really is a book for mature leaders who can pick through the book, tossing out the suspect theology and trends while retrieving the good ideas that are present (and they are there). We should consciously work to maintain not only the church gathered, but missional communities of some sort and recall God’s presence with us even as we are present to the world in outreach. We should be committed to the Lord’s Table and hospitality, prayer, biblical leadership with stewardship, children (not just children’s programs that entertain), relationships beyond our socio-economic class, reconciliation, and gospel proclamation. When we do we are engaging the world, and engaging it positively, not just as a critic.

I will add that reviews say something not just about the book, but also the reviewer. While I can learn from broader evangelicalism (some Reformed people fall into the stereotypical arrogance and think they have nothing to learn from other parts of the church), I do evaluate it from my theological heritage rather than just accept whatever is said. I hope I am being fair in my criticisms.

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Here are some more of the ‘controversial’ doctrines as I go through the Westminster Confession of Faith for licensure to preach.  Remember, no arguments- but if you think I misunderstood the Confession, let me know.

Chapter IX: Of Free Will

102. How is man’s will free, and not free? Can a sinner do anything good?   All we do, we do freely- without coercion- in accordance with our nature.  As those who have a corrupt nature, we are unable to do anything good.  We hate God, freely, and freely choose sin.  Even when we choose the right course of action, we do it for sinful reasons.

103.Why is man responsible for his actions if he is not morally free?  Though not morally free, we are volitionally free.  We love our sin and choose it freely.  We hate righteousness and avoid it freely.

104. When will a man be made perfectly free to do good?  Only at our glorification will we be perfectly and immutably free to good alone.

105.What do we mean when we way that a Christian is freed from sin? We are freed from the penalty and power of sin, but not its presence until glorification.

106. Describe the biblical teaching concerning total inability? Are you personally committed to the doctrine of total inability? We are unable to convert ourselves.  Faith and repentance are graces that must be given to us that we might be converted.  Yes, I am personally committed to the doctrine of total inability.

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Here are my study notes on these topics.  The same caveats apply (see Considering the Scriptures).

Chapter IV: Of Creation

50. What is God’s work of creation? God’s work of making all that exists outside of Himself in the span of 6 days ex nihilo.

51. What is meant by the creation of man in God’s image?  We were made to reflect his glory as his representatives.  We shared in his communicable attributes.

52. What was man like in his original state?  Dependent upon God, they were righteous and holy but mutable.

53. Are any of the various theories of evolution compatible with the Biblical doctrine of creation?  Small scale evolution- which occurs within a species- is compatible with the Biblical doctrine of creation.  Large scale evolution – which occurs between species- is incompatible with the Biblical doctrine of creation.

54. Do you believe in creation Ex Nihilo? Yes.

55. Do you believe in special creation of Adam & Eve?  Yes.

56. Do you believe in a historical fall?  Yes.  Paul treated it as a historical fall in Romans 5.

57. What is the purpose of God in creation? To display His glory.

58. What is your view on the nature of the six days of Genesis 1?  24-hour days.

59. Do you believe the Confession teaches a literal six 24-hour day view of creation?  Yes, it clearly does.  As a doctrinal statement it does not use figurative or metaphorical language.

60. In light of God’s wisdom, power and goodness in the original creation, how do you account for the fall?  He also wanted to reveal the glory of His mercy, compassion, justice and wisdom.

 

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I spent the last few days reading Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching by Iain Murray.  It was well worth the $4.72 I paid for this book at WTS Books.  It was yet another solid read by Iain Murray.  He’s done us a great service again, though this book is quite short (under 160 pages).

Why might someone want to read this book?  Well, for a few reasons.  One the one hand it can be used to refute Arminians who think that Calvinism itself hinders evangelism.  It shows this by putting forth Spurgeon as a very evangelistic, historical Calvinist.  It shows that Hyper-Calvinism (which does hinder evangelism) is a deviation which should not be confused with the real thing (all those people in the SBC who are afraid of Calvinism should read this).

With the resurgence of Calvinism among young church leaders, we may see a resurgence of Hyper-Calvinism as well.  It was this that led Murray to write the book in the 1990s.  I have only met a few Hyper-Calvinists by doctrine.  However, sometimes we can inadvertantly be Hyper-Calvinists in practice.  I felt that conviction as I read the book.  I have not been as zealous in pleading with people as perhaps I should have been.

Murray begins with a very brief historical sketch of Charles Haddon Spurgeon to set the stage.  He began his ministry at a time when Arminianism was beginning to spread among English Baptists, and part of the reason was that Hyper-Calvinism had infected many of the English Baptist congregations.  The two controversies of Spurgeon’s early ministry were against these to sub-biblical theologies.  By and large they attacked him, though he recognized some indiscretion on his part as he looked back in latter years.

Murray turns to the Combatants and the Cause of the Controversy.  It began in earnest when a well-meaning publisher wanted to show other Hyper-Calvinists that Spurgeon was a man whose ministry they could welcome, even if he wasn’t “fully onboard”.  This draw the ire of the leading Hyper-Calvinists who began exchanging letters to the editors and articles on the matter with some who defended Spurgeon.  Spurgeon himself never entered the fray via the periodicals.  Most of his responses were in the form of instructing his people from the pulpit.

Murray then moves into The Case Against Spurgeon.  They claimed he was touched by an Arminian spirit (attitude, not a ghost or something).  But many of their arguments had a problem- they were refuted by numerous honored Puritan pastor-theologians like Richard Sibbes, John Owen, Thomas Boston and the other Marrow Men.  They argued that non-elect people could not be told to repent and believe since they were unable to do so.  They called the practice of so doing “duty-faith”, quite derisively to make it sound like a work.  The Hyper-Calvinists fell into the same trap as the Arminians, though it took them in a different direction.  For God to command something of people implied they had the ability to fulfill the command.  Arminians accepted this, and believed all people had the ability, not just the duty, to repent and believe.  Hyper-Calvinists, believing non-elect people lacked the ability, also lacked the duty.  In this they were trying to be logically consistent.

The problem is that duty is not connected to ability.  God’s commands are reflective of His nature, not our ability.  As such they reflect our responsibility, what we are to do.  All people are commanded to obey God in all things, though only regenerate people have the ability to actually do that.

Murray turns to Spurgeon’s Fourfold Appeal to Scripture.  As noted above, most of this is culled from his sermons.

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