The Church and Americanism

I’ve been reading some church history books recently, and one thing that has come up rather forcefully to my consciousness is the degree to which Americanism has affected the church in America. The main question is whether, in the church’s desire to communicate to culture, it has so embraced America that its message is no longer exportable to other nations, thus falling foul of those people who critique the American church of imperialism.

For instance, people who claim that Presbyterianism cannot work in a given context are obviously infected with Americanism. What else could explain how people could claim that a form of church government that has worked in every major cultural context in the world could not work in America? Usually, in the case of urban contexts, the issue is a radical individualism that makes people believe that a connectional form of government cannot work. Maybe the individualism should bow its neck to the yoke of connectionalism, and not vice versa!

A good example of a church that has resisted Americanization is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. When Carl MacIntire proposed to the OPC that it go with the temperance movement, he was offering the OPC a way of being distinctly American. When the OPC refused, MacIntire left and formed the Bible Presbyterian Church. The OPC refused to be an Americanized church. This (among other factors) has contributed to its appeal being rather limited. But what the OPC lacks in numbers it makes up for in the unity of message, and the singular power of doctrinal purity it has enjoyed over the years.

An Interesting Argument Against Immersion

Geerhardus Vos gave a lot of ground to the Baptists (some would argue too much). He insisted that “baptizo” means “immerse,” although he goes on to argue that the immersion is secondary, and that washing is primary. For Vos, the immersion is incidental to the meaning of the word. The substance of baptism can, for Vos, be accomplished in another way. But the most fascinating thing about his argument against immersion is his advocation of catholicity (Reformed Dogmatics, volume 5, p. 125):

To what, finally, can one still appeal against the Baptists? To the universal character of Christianity. Christianity is catholic, that is, intended for all times and places. That must come out in its sacraments too. Hence, the signs in these sacraments are such as are to be found everywhere: water, bread, wine-the most common products of nature that can be kept everywhere. But the same thing will also have to apply to their manner of use. Immersion is something that is sometimes feasible in Middle Eastern lands, but then again in many regions, not. If Christianity is thus bound to something like this, then in this respect it is the same as Islam, which obligates all its adherents to a pilgrimage to Mecca. But Islam is then also particularistic; Christianity is universal, catholic, intended for all times, countries, circumstances, and conditions.

I had not thought of using the catholicity of Christianity as an argument against immersion before. So I thought I would throw it out there for the readers. What do you think of this argument?

Old and New Testament Sacraments

One of the most controversial aspects of sacramental theology is the relationship between the Old Testament sacraments of Passover and circumcision (and some would even dispute that they are sacraments!) and the New Testament sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I am not going to treat this subject exhaustively at all. There are just two points that I wish to make, fueled by Vos’s discussions in volume 5 of Reformed Dogmatics, pp. 103-104.

The first point that Vos makes is that the Old Testament sacraments are types of Christ, not of the New Testament sacraments. There is, indeed, a correspondence between the two sets of sacraments. However, there is not a typological relationship between the two (p. 104).

The second issue is something that has bothered me for a while. Why is it that the recipients of the Passover have in an important way narrowed (those who can discern the Lord’s body versus all children in the Passover, thus making an age differene), while the recipients of baptism have broadened (all children and believing adults on their conversion, not just the male children)? Of course, it is merely a Baptistic assumption that the New Testament sacraments must be alike in how they work. There are several important differences between baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which we will not get into here. But why has the change to New Testament sacraments resulted in a seemingly opposite scope for circumcision giving way to baptism, and Passover giving way to the Lord’s Supper? Vos offers an explanation I have not seen elsewhere (though I would be surprised if this explanation originated with him: anyone know of sources from which this could have come?):

[I]n Israel the sacraments, besides their significance for the covenant of grace, also had a national aspect, from which a difference in practice arose between them and the New Testament sacraments on a few points. For us, one comes to the table of the Lord only after one has learned to discern the body of Christ. In Israel the children also ate the Passover. This was because the Passover together with its covenantal significance had national significance. The same is true for circumcision. Baptism in the New Testament is administered to both sexes of the children of believers. In the Old Testament, circumcision was only for infant boys. Indeed, in the national life of Israel only the men counted and represented the women, and this also had to come to light outwardly (p. 103).

There might be some fruitful ground here for answering both the Baptists and the Federal Vision folks, who both have the same error in treating the NT sacraments as working the same way. Indeed, as a friend of mine once said, the problem of the FV’ers in their sacramental theology is not that they have over-reacted to Baptistic theology in every respect, but that they have not thrown off the problems of Baptistic thinking enough. It must be born in mind that most FV’ers were Baptists before they became FV.

Identity Crisis

There can be no doubt that many, many people are experiencing identity crises these days. How people see themselves is usually determined by what other people think about them, or else it becomes something that they set a standard for themselves. Of course, the “high self-esteem” gurus have held the field for decades now. The problem, they say, is that people simply have too low a self-esteem, and that we need to encourage people to build up their self-esteem. Is this the answer?

While I have several important theological differences with Tim Keller, the little booklet he wrote called The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is not one of them. He starts off discussing the problem of self-esteem, and, quoting Lauren Slater’s New York Times article of 2002, notes that it is rather high self-esteem, or hubris, or pride, that seems to be the problem, whether it is that someone has an over-inflated view of themselves, or an under-inflated (implying a previously inflated) view. The imagery of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3-4 describing ego and hubris uses the amusing metaphor of bellows at a forge: empty, painful, busy, and fragile.

The biggest problems in this area are that we look for approval in the wrong places, and by the wrong people. A blogger can write just to please his readership and get that many more hits. Or, a preacher can tell a congregation what their itching ears want to hear. The problem, as Keller points out, is that looking for approval in these places is a black hole (citing the example of Madonna’s rather honest self-portraiture), a bottomless pit that can never be filled.

What matters is not how other people evaluate us, nor how we evaluate ourselves, but what God says about us. This simultaneously results in a feeling of being filled, contrary to the bottomless emptiness of what humanity can do in ascribing worth to people; and also, a justification in God’s courtroom. Keller connects true biblical self-worth to justification. We are worth what God says we are worth, and His declaration of innocence (Keller mentions the imputation of Christ’s righteousness) defines our worth. The quote of the book is on page 39:

For the Buddhist…performance leads to the verdict. If you are a Muslim, performance leads to the verdict. All this means that every day, you are in the courtroom, every day you are on trial. That is the problem. But Paul is saying that Christianity, the verdict leads to performance.

Of course, Keller is not addressing the fine-tuned discussions between Westminster East and Westminster West about the relative order and relationship of justification and sanctification. At any rate, contrary to the contemporary grace movement, Keller does not shy away from performance. One might wish that he would have included a statement to the effect that even the performance is based on the enabling grace of God. Presumably, however, he would not disagree with that. All in all, a helpful little exposition of 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7.

Do Ruling Elders Represent the Congregation?

There is a very common conception present in churches today that because ruling elders are elected by the congregation that therefore they represent the congregation, and have their authority from the congregation. This is not true. That the ruling elder’s authority comes from God via the ordination process seems clear enough (the congregation does not ordain ruling elders any more than it ordains teaching elders). Geerhardus Vos addresses this question in volume 5 of his Reformed Dogmatics.

He notes that the accountability of ruling elders is not “to their constituents but to God and His Word” (p. 57). He says flat out: “That elders are chosen by the congregation does not mean that they are representatives of the congregation…If the office of ruling elder were in its essence an office of representation of the congregation, then one must say: a ruling elder chosen by an apostle is a contradictory notion” (p. 58). He goes on to say that the method of choosing or electing ruling elders is two-fold: God can choose directly by His apostles, and He can use the election of the congregation (pp. 58-59). This position is buttressed by an even stronger argument: “It is well established that even in electing an apostle the congregation is consulted for its choice” (p. 58). One can cite the replacement of Judas as an example. Yet no one would claim that the authority of the apostle comes from the congregation, even if the church elected Matthias to replace Judas.

At the very least, these considerations prove that the election of ruling elders is a separate issue from their function, and that election of ruling elders does not prove that they represent the congregation. Unfortunately, the idea of ruling elders representing the congregation is a rather deep-seated error in congregations today.

The practical implications of this truth are rather far-reaching, though I am not going to tease them out in this post. My readers can draw conclusions for themselves regarding the mutual relationships of ruling elder to congregation, ruling elder to teaching elder, congregation to pastor, and ruling and teaching elder to presbytery.

The logical conclusion to all of this is that it is much more true to say that the ruling elders represent God to the congregation than that they represent the congregation to God, even though, of course, ruling elders should pray on behalf of the congregation to God. However, this duty of intercession is not unique to the ruling elders at all.

An Argument Against Old Earth Being a Fact

My Dad and I were talking today about a particular theory out there in science, which says that no one can prove that the universe did not come into existence 5 minutes ago. Memories of people can be implanted. Things can look old. If it cannot be proven that the universe is more than 5 minutes old, then how can it possibly be proven that the universe is billions of years old?

Now, this does not get us to creation. It doesn’t even prove a young earth. However, it is a powerful argument against the idea that an old earth has been proven to be true. An old earth is only an hypothesis. The evolutionist might respond by saying that we are only dealing in probabilities. The above argument, however, is not an argument concerning probabilities. The probability of an old or young earth would have to be argued on other grounds. However, it does seem that, considered within a very narrow parameter, the above argument should be sufficient to prove that an old age for the earth can never be proven.