Dr. Raymond A. (Randy) Blacketer

Reformation Historian, Historical Theologian

Author: Raymond Blacketer Page 1 of 5

The Mystery of the Golden Mouth, or, The Case of the Dubious Reference

Sherlock Holmes making deductions in his mind palace about John Chrystostom

Historical research is punctuated by mysteries great and small. I solved a micro-mystery today.  It was The Case of the Dubious Reference, or The Mystery of the Golden Mouth. “Golden Mouth” (Chrysostomos, Greek: ὁ Χρυσόστομος) was a title given to the preacher and Bishop by the name of John (St. John Chrysostom, c. 349-407) who preached in Antioch and was consecrated Archbishop of Constantinople. He was called “the golden mouth” because of his gift for preaching. Centuries earlier, a Greek philosopher and orator had also been honored with that title, Dio Chrysostom.

John Calvin often cites John Chrysostom, both positively and negatively. When it came to biblical interpretation, Chrysostom was one of his favorites, because his exegesis tended to be more literal than some other church fathers who preferred to find allegories all through the biblical text. But Calvin was rather unhappy with Chrysostom’s theology of grace and human free will. Chrysostom frequently emphasizes human efforts and virtue in salvation and asserts that grace has to be merited, and that salvation is a cooperative effort between God and sinners. This was not uncommon in the early church, before the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius. By contrast, Calvin was quite critical of Augustine’s exegesis, because he was quite prone to this kind of spiritual interpretation, which Calvin found fanciful and speculative, particularly because medieval Roman Catholic theology used this kind of spiritual exegesis to justify doctrines that the Reformers rejected. But Augustine was Calvin’s favorite when it came to the doctrines of grace, the bondage of the will to sin, and a divine predestination not based on foreseen merit.

Now for the mystery. Calvin cites Chrysostom several times in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.2.4, when he is talking about the capacities of the human will after humanity’s fall into sin. These references originated in the second Latin revision of the Institutes from 1539. This is a topic on which he thinks Chrysostom is quite wrong, and it’s not just because he doesn’t understand Chrysostom’s homiletical context.1 Calvin cites three statements from Chrysostom’s Homiliae in Genesim (Homilies in Genesis) and gives references for the first and third of these citations.2 Footnoting was random and capricious in those wicked and dark days of the sixteenth century. The editors of the Opera Selecta (Karl Barth’s brother Peter and two other Barthian scholars, Wilhelm Niesel and Dora Scheuner) identify the second reference as In Gen. hom. 25.7. This is wrong.

The first clue that this is a mistake is that Calvin introduces the next citation with the words “Dixerat autem prius,” “He had previously said”–Autem here is basically a comma; ignore it–and then Calvin cites a passage from In Gen. hom. 53.2. So one would expect that the previous citation would occur after that sentence in homily 53.2. I don’t blame the editors; it can be exceptionally hard to figure out Calvin’s references, and he is prone to mistakes in citations, particularly biblical citations. But still, I am surprised that they did not look for something that occurs after the third citation.

One of the difficulties is that there are a number of Latin translations of Chrysostom that are and were available. Calvin’s Latin does not appear verbatim in the Latin translation that was included in the 19th-century edition thrown together by J-P Migne, the Patrologia Graeca. But Calvin can also paraphrase a passage or alter it to fit the grammar and syntax of his writing. Calvin’s citation or paraphrase reads:  Item, Sicut nisi gratia Dei adiuti, nihil unquam possumus recte agere: ita nisi quod nostrum est attulerimus, non poterimus supernum acquirere favorem. (“Further, he says that, just as we cannot ever do anything correctly apart from the grace of God, in the same way, unless we bring what is our own, we will not be able to obtain favor from above.”) You will not find those exact words in the Patrologia Graeca. 

Nevertheless, I persisted.

Because you have to be somewhat obsessive in this field. Just enough to enable you to make discoveries, but just short of needing to be institutionalized.

I searched Chrysostom’s homilies on Genesis for something that sounded similar, and which occurred after homily 53, section 2. Fortunately, I found something rather similar at the very end of homily 58, except that it refers to obtaining God’s help rather than his favor.3 This could be a simple matter of a different translation, however.

Greek text in de Montfaucon’s edition

I checked the passage in the 19th-century edition of Calvin’s works that the Opera Selecta editors used, edited by Bernard de Montfaucon (1655-1741) who invented the science of paleography. in the process I learned that the Latin translation in de Montfaucon’s edition is the one “borrowed” by the prolific plagiarist Jacques-Paul Migne’s Patrologia Graeca.4

But there was more. During my investigations, I ran across some fascinating recent work by Drs. Jeannette Kreijkes on Calvin’s use of Chrysostom. She is writing a dissertation on this topic at the University of Groningen. She has refuted the common assumption that Calvin only used one edition of Chrysostom’s works, the Latin translation published in Paris in 1536 by Claude Chevallon, which does not include Chrysostom’s Greek.5 I had a very good conversation with her as well, and I learned from her something about the various editions that were available during Calvin’s day. She also has access to the 1536 Chevallon edition, which is nowhere online and quite hard to find. How does Chevallon’s translation of the passage read?

Eureka!

Chevallon’s edition is much closer to Calvin’s citation, and in fact, the latter part is identical.6 Does this prove that Calvin was using the Chevallon edition? Not at all.

Johannes Oecolampadius and his rather square beard.

Some scholars tend to assume that Calvin used the Chevallon edition throughout his career. When I first found that the Chevallon edition corresponded to Calvin’s citation, that was my first thought as well. But the Chevallon edition is identical in this passage to the translations found in editions prepared by Oecolampadius 7 in 1523 and Erasmus8 in 1530.

But I think it was Oecolampadius. Why? Because immediately afterward, Calvin cites Chrystostom’s Genesis homilies again, this time In Gen. hom. 53.2. 9 Except that Calvin’s marginal reference does not indicate homily 53, but homily 52. And the homily that the other editions number as 53, Oecolampadius numbers as 52, because, for some reason, he omits the first homily that the others include and enumerate as homily 1. But that’s a mystery for another day. It is possible that there was another edition that numbered the homilies the same way that I have not found, or that Calvin simply made an error, but my detective instincts do not lean that way. For now, I think Oecolampadius is the prime suspect, and at the very least he should be handcuffed, read his rights, and hauled down to the station for further questioning.

Solving these little micro-mysteries is very satisfying; who doesn’t enjoy a good mystery? (My favorite mystery writer is Lyndsay Faye, whose mysteries are set in the 19th century). And along the way, I met a fellow historical detective, Jeannette Kreijkes, who is a formidable Calvin scholar, to whom I owe much of what I found and learned on this case.

On Nike© Outrage

The latest expression of white populist outrage has been directed at Nike, after the corporation launched a campaign that features NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s face, along with the words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Of course, the Nike motto, “Just do it” and the iconic swoosh logo appear at the bottom of the image. Corporations generally make decisions based on what they think is good for business, and not usually for purely altruistic reasons, and by not usually I mean practically never. So, Nike executives must think that this is a good move for their brand, at least in the long run. In the short term, their stock dropped three percent, but that could be temporary and due to other factors. Meanwhile, the President’s divisive and racially-charged rhetoric has inflamed the issue. In a move that will surprise exactly zero persons, he has condemned Nike’s move in an interview with the far-right, white-supremacist-tainted Daily Caller, while reluctantly conceding that they have a right to make their own business decisions. Tucker Carlson cast aside all restraint and reached for the most extreme rhetoric available in Fox News’s pantry. He claimed that Nike’s ad was “an attack on America.”

 

Now, as far as I know, Colin K. has not hijacked any airliners for the purpose of flying them into skyscrapers or launched an aerial bombing raid on battleships anchored at Pearl Habor. Those things are attacks on America. But maybe Tucker means an attack on American principles. In that case, I would suggest that trying to silence persons, dismissing the voice of a minority, and white people telling minorities how they are allowed to express themselves—those things are an attack on American principles. But they are not coming from Kaepernick; they are coming from his detractors, from the President himself down to all of his outraged (and overwhelmingly white) supporters, who have taken the tack of cutting the iconic Nike swooshes out of socks they have already paid for, burning their athletic shoes, and calling for a boycott of Nike.

Apparently John Rich, a country music star from a while back and a former contestant on Donald Trump’s The Apprentice, is still angry about an incident in which Kaepernick wore socks depicting police officers as pigs.  I agree that this was a significant misstep on the quarterback’s part, because it painted with an overly-broad brush, and sent only served to give ammunition to a segment of the country that wants to frame the issue as in terms of bad people and criminals hating all police in general. But John Rich should know that it’s not about the pig socks; it’s about regular, systematic police discrimination against African Americans.

Now, when I first noticed the Nike ad,  I was struck by a sense that it was risky, even if a business calculation ultimately lay behind it. I am not a huge football fan, and I would not have written about this, except that I noticed white Christians posting anti-Nike memes in my social media feeds, expressing their outrage at this black man for daring to kneel during the national anthem, and at Nike for taking up his cause.

The most notable anti-Nike meme features NFL player Pat Tillman, who volunteered for military service in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and who died in a friendly fire incident. He is called a #RealHero. Ironically, the military initially lied about and covered up the incident; they spun a false narrative about Tillman to use him as a propaganda tool, prompting several investigations, justified outrage from the Tillman family, and an apology from the Pentagon. It turns out Tillman came to openly oppose the war and was preparing to give an interview to noted scholar Noam Chomsky before he was killed by members of his unit, who then tried to cover up the real cause of his death. Whether it was an accident or murder is still an open question. But back to the meme and its message.

The meme exalts military service, and particularly dying in military service, as the ultimate form of sacrifice, and perhaps the only one that counts as heroic. At the same time, it mocks and denigrates any sacrifice that Colin Kaepernick may have made in carrying out his kneeling protest during the national anthem. But another message that it more subtly communicates is that a real American hero is white and wears a military uniform. A #realhero looks like Pat Tillman, not that black guy. So it is both militaristic in a quasi-religious sense, and thus, for Christians, a form of idolatry, and it is not so subtly promoting a white “hero” over a black one.

What message are white Christians sending when they post this meme? Many, but I will just note a few.

First, it telegraphs that white Christians either do not understand why some NFL players are kneeling or that do not believe the kneeling players when they explain why they are kneeling. According to their own statements, these athletes are not protesting the national anthem. They are not protesting the military. They are not protesting the flag. They are protesting the killing of unarmed black men by police in cities across the United States. Kaepernick explained that he was kneeling because, in important ways, the country was not living up to what the flag represents: Freedom for all. Justice for all.

Second, it sends a clear message that white, American Christians refuse to listen to, or believe, the lament of fellow citizens, and even fellow Christians. Those who post this meme seem to think that black football players are protesting something that is not really a problem. “All lives matter,” they say. “Blue lives matter.” Those statements about what lives matter are true, of course, but also completely irrelevant. They are slogans intended to make us ignore the unequal treatment of inner-city minorities. There are outrageous extremists in the Black Lives Matter movement, so we can totally ignore the laments emerging from the cities, and paint every protestor with the same extremist colors. The message this meme sends is: Black people, just shut up and don’t force me to think about the conditions of the inner city, or the terrible suffering and discrimination and struggles that millions in this country endure. I don’t want to hear about it, and I don’t want to be reminded of it. I really don’t care.

Third, it sends the message that patriotism is about flag-waving and adulation bordering on idolatrous worship for the military and the flag. But forced patriotism is no patriotism at all, and if the flag means anything, it means equal justice for all. It means the right to protest, “in order to form a more perfect union,” as someone wrote in some forgotten document. All the talk about disrespecting veterans is nonsense. Veterans served to protect the country, but also the ideals of the country, which we are far from perfectly embodying, especially when it comes to the Constitution’s stated purpose to establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility. Many veterans get this.

So, when we post the Tillman / Nike meme, we’re saying, “We don’t care that you get called a nigger. Don’t kneel at the sacred, holy event of a football game. Don’t defile our secular liturgy. Behave like we white people want you to behave. Stop making us uncomfortable. Stop making us face ugly claims about who we are as a nation, as individuals.” The fact that American evangelicals habitually combine their exaltation of American nationalism with their faith is also a serious problem, but political idolatry is a subject for another post or twelve.

Fourth, it sends the message that we really think black men should know their place. Very wealthy people own the NFL teams (they also happen to be overwhelmingly white, and none are black). But much of the angry rhetoric conveys the idea that the black players should be grateful for the (overwhelmingly white) owners’ generosity. They pay your very high salaries. You should be grateful for how lucky you are to be given this opportunity by others. This is utterly ignorant and profoundly racist, of course, since no NFL player was handed their position. Every player earned it, in a highly competitive arena, often overcoming tremendous obstacles along the way. But we still view black people as second-class citizens and their laments as an irritating inconvenience, or even an attack on our sense of self-righteousness.

Even the NFL issued a statement of support for Kaepernick’s cause, albeit one that some consider weak and tepid. NFL Executive Vice President Jocelyn Moore issued the statement:

“The National Football League believes in dialogue, understanding and unity. We embrace the role and responsibility of everyone involved with this game to promote meaningful, positive change in our communities. The social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action.”

But do white Christians really care about black communities? Do we have any understanding of the discrimination and inequitable treatment that black persons face in this country every single day? When we post the Tillman meme, we are saying: We don’t understand. We don’t want to understand. We will not make an effort to understand. And we don’t care.

The fact that white Christians are posting this meme is a symptom of the failure of American Evangelicalism to put the gospel of Jesus Christ into practical action. It even fails to accurately represent its quasi-religious faith in Americanism, given that it fails to represent the principles of the Preamble. American evangelicalism has, in large measure and particularly among its white majority, created a gospel of middle class, politically conservative, flag-waving comfort. We don’t like it when someone barges in and ruins the picture we have painted of our nation and ourselves. We hate it when someone suggests that racism is a problem, or that we are part of the problem.

But take a clue from Christ himself. He actively sought out the poor, the despised, persons in the minority, like Samaritans. He took the time to listen to these people, to hear their stories, to treat them as image-bearers of God. Before you post that angry meme, do a little research. Talk to, or at least read an article by, an actual black person—and I don’t mean those few obsequious outliers who seem to embrace our current outburst of angry racism in exchange for Twitter followers. You don’t have any black friends or aquaintances? Well, then don’t you dare post memes about NFL players. And what does that fact tell you about yourself? Take some time to listen to a story very different from your own. Just do it.™

 

Calvin, Tertullian, and the Species of the Divine Persons

In 1557, the Italian antitrinitarian Giovanni Valentino Gentile took refuge in Geneva with other Italian exiles, some of whom held antitrinitarian views. Gentile and fellow Italian exile Nicola Gallo were charged with heresy in 1558. Gentile would eventually be executed, under Bern’s authority, for his antitrinitarian views in 1566. In the final 1559/60 edition of his Institutes, Calvin takes up Gentile’s antitrinitarian argument; Gentile had cited a number of church fathers to defend his views, including Tertullian. Calvin writes in Institutes 1.13.28:

They are no more honest when they claim Tertullian as their patron, for, despite his occasionally harsh and prickly rhetorical style, he still unequivocally teaches the substance of the doctrine we are defending, namely, that, while there is one God, nonetheless by dispensation or economy there is his Word;that God is one through the unity of substance, and nevertheless that unity is disposed into a trinity by the mystery of dispensation; that there are three, not in status, but in rank;[1] not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in order.

Except that is not what Tertullian says.

Tertullian says that there are three, not in status, but in rank, not in substance, but in form, not in power, but in species. “Tres autem non statu, sed gradu; nec substantia, sed forma; nec potestate, sed specie…” (Adv. Prax. 2; Migne PL 2: 157). Calvin’s Latin reads nec potestate, sed serie, to which the 1560 French corresponds (non pas en puissance, mais en ordre). Battles, following the Opera Selecta (3: 149 note a) presumes this is just a simple error; and Opera Selecta corrects Calvin’s serie to specie. 

But was it just a simple error? Tertullian’s original phrasing is problematic in terms of later Trinitarian orthodoxy. In fact, English theologian Herbert Thorndike (1598-1672) observed that both Robert Bellarmine and his fellow Jesuit Gregory de Valentia read this phrase from Tertullian in the works of Bullinger, who did not clearly attribute it to Tertullian, and promptly accused him of Arianism. See The Theological works of Herbert Thorndike, 6 vols. in 10 (Oxford: J.H. Parker, 1844-1856), 3: 294-295. The work in question is Bullinger’s Ad Ioannes Cochlei de canonicae scripturae et Catholicae ecclesiae authoritate libellum, appended to an edition of his De scripturae sanctae authoritate, certitudine, firmitate et absoluta perfectione, etc. (Zurich: Froschauer, 1544), fol. 16v.  

It is possible that Calvin, more or less consciously, corrected Tertullian’s orthodoxy at this point, since the term species often refers to a visible or sensible form or manifestation, which is problematic in describing the Trinity, which is spiritual and invisible. In addition, an understanding that relates essence and persons as genus and species would also be problematic in the context of later, more developed Trinitarian orthodoxy. Calvin had earlier criticized Servetus’s opinion that the persons were only external manifestations (species) of ideas, in 1.13.22. So, Calvin was already on guard against seeing the persons as species.

In any case, this section of the Institutes was based on documents from the controversy and trial. Calvin later published the materials related to the controversy and trial: Impietas Valentini Gentilis detecta, et palam traducta, qui Christum non sine sacrilega blasphemia Deum essentiatum esse fingit, etc. ([Geneva,] 1561), CO 9: 361-420. In this document, Tertullian’s words are correctly reproduced.

So we are left with a few mysteries. Why did Calvin replace specie with serie in the quotation from Tertullian? And how exactly would Calvin have interpreted Tertullian’s problematic phrasing? And, going back further, what did Tertullian himself mean when he applied the term species to the distinction of Trinitarian persons? I am not sure that any of these can be answered with any certainty.

 

Calvin and the Etymology of “Religion”

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.12.1, Calvin discusses the meaning and derivation of the term religion–a word that was not then the object of opprobrium that it is today, particularly by the religious. He writes:

Although Cicero correctly and ingeniously derives the word religion from relego, “to retrace” or “to re-read,” the explanation he provides for it, namely that worshippers with integrity often recollect, and diligently reconsider what is true, is forced and far-fetched.[1] My assessment is rather that the word stands in contrast to a wavering, unrestrained license, because the greater part of the world thoughtlessly clutches whatever they encounter, and also jumps from one thing to another. Piety,[2] however, relegates[3] or confines itself to its proper limits in order to set itself on a firm footing. In the same way, the word superstition also seems to me to mean that, being discontent with the prescribed boundary and order, it accumulates a superfluous mass of pointless things.[4]

Calvin’s etymology here is…interesting.

The editors of the Opera Selecta, 3: 105 n. 5, indicate that one should compare Calvin with Lactantius’ explanation of the derivation and meaning of religio in the Divine Institutes 4.28.[5]  But while Lactantius also criticizes Cicero’s distinction between religion and superstition, he does not share Calvin’s understanding of the derivation of the term (contra McNeill-Battles, ad loc., vol. 1, p.  117, n. 3) Lactantius, unlike Calvin, rejects Cicero’s derivation of religio from relegendo as absurd (inepta), and instead identifies its source in the term religare (to tie, bind, fasten). Lactantius explains:

“We are obligated and tied (religati) by this bond of piety, from which religion itself received its name… We have said that term religion is derived from the bond of piety (vinculo pietatis), because God has tied (religaverit) a person to himself and has bound that person by piety…”[6]

Calvin’s own account of the origin of the term appears both confused and confusing. He commends Cicero’s derivation of religio from relegendo, which is a form of the verb relegere (to review, reread, gather again, etc.), but he then proceeds to explain the meaning of the term as if it were derived from yet another verb, relegare (to banish, to relegate), that is, in terms of keeping piety restrained within its proper bounds, which is, of course, a very common theme in Calvin. Relegare (first conjugation) and relegere (third conjugation) share their first principle part (relego), but they are distinct verbs, with distinct meanings.

I find this interesting because I do not expect to find in Calvin this kind of error, which pertains to the Latin language. Calvin used this language daily; he wrote in Latin effortlessly. It makes me wonder if I am missing something. If Calvin makes a mistake about medieval theology, that is not surprising at all to me, since he was never formally trained in theology, and he does, in fact, make mistakes. But to make a mistake about Cicero, and the Latin language? This is curious.

Augustine also wavers on the issue. In De vera religione (111) he assumes that religio comes from religare, to bind. He writes: “The good angels and all the holy ministers of God are like these, only more holy and pure. We need not fear lest we offend any of them if we avoid superstition, and with their help tend towards God alone, and bind [religare] our souls to him alone without superstition. Hence, it is believed, religion derives its name.”[7] Later, in The City of God (10.3.2, PL 41: 280), Augustine seems to connect the term to a strange (perhaps novel) word, religere, “to choose again” (re + eligo), which he identifies as synonymous with relegere, which can also mean to select. Finally, in his Retractationes (13.9, PL 32: 605) Augustine confirms the latter interpretation.

[1] Cicero, De natura Deorum, 2.28.72, Loeb Classical Library ed. vol. 268: 192-193.

[2] French: la vraye pieté, “true piety.”

[3] relegit.

[4] Here Calvin relates the meaning of the term superstitio, a combination of the Latin words super (over, above) and stare (to stand) to that of the term supervacuus (superfluous, unnecessary), which is a combination of super and vacuus (empty). Calvin’s explanation differs from both Cicero and Lactantius. Cicero (Nat. D., 2.28.72, Loeb 268: 192-193) speculated that superstition derived from the practice of parents praying that their children would survive them (from superstes, outliving, surviving), while Lactantius simply says that religio refers to the worship of the true God, and superstitio to the worship of false gods (Div. inst., 4.28, Migne, PL 6: 538).

[5] Migne, PL 6: 535-538, cf. Ante-Nicene Fathers 7: 131–132.

[6] Migne, PL 6: 536, 537.

[7] Augustine: Earlier Writings, tr. John H.S. Burleigh (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953), 281-282.

Leaving Pastoral Ministry

Now that I have my own internet domain (blacketer.org) I should update my three (maybe four) readers on what is going on in my professional life.

I parted ways with my congregation at the end of November 2016. It was a rocky pastorate of four years, one in which we simply were not compatible. We had divergent expectations, conflicting visions, incompatible principles, irreconcilable leadership styles. A very different pastor may have done just fine there, but I could not lead that congregation, or even pursue my ministerial vocation there with any kind of peace. The result is that I do not expect to return to pastoral ministry. The experience inflicted profound and permanent damage on me personally and professionally, and not only on me, but on my family as well.

One of the issues that came up was a culture in which the gospel was identified with right-wing politics and the Republican party, and in which the pinnacle of Christian action in society was anti-abortion activism. Anti-abortion zealotry was an idol for some, even literally so, given the cast statue and the model fetuses that greeted worshippers immediately upon entering the church building. Getting the fetus shrine moved into a less conspicuous location was a battle. Preventing every infant baptism from becoming a public service announcement for Right to Life was a battle. That is a battle that has wearied me, and one that I no longer wish to fight. For me, single-issue anti-abortion activism has discredited itself; it is only pro-birth, not comprehensively pro-life.

More specifically, 2016 saw the rise not only of the candidacy of Donald Trump, but also of the extreme nationalism, the populism, the economic isolationism, and the subtle racism and bigotry of Trumpism. This I could not abide, and some members could not abide my failure to either fall in line or be silent. Some members attacked me; others who had been personal friends stopped speaking to me. Most disturbing to me was the obvious hypocrisy of supporting whomever the GOP nominated, no matter how vile, how mendacious, how destructive to the reputation of Christ’s church in the long run. I was sent a racist picture of President Obama, the sender assuming that I would find it humorous. Some members posted violent, hateful, and racist memes on Facebook, directed against President Obama and candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. Disagree with them all you wish; direct vile hatred and slander against them? I think not.

This is just how church life is in our current environment. Nothing about this congregation is particularly unusual, especially in the quite pietistic, very Americanized, rather generically evangelical churches of this area in the southwest suburbs of Grand Rapids. There are old patterns that are almost impossible to change. My ability to tolerate it, to ignore it, to not let it bother me—that is what changed. It was eating away at my soul. Other pastors can and do handle it better than I could. I did not have the capacity to ignore the bullies, the constant complainers, those who attacked my staff (even in congregational meetings), those who sent nasty emails on a Sunday night. And the cardinal sin was for the pastor to rebuke such persons in any way. It seems to me that the pastoral role of rebuke, prescribed by Paul as an essential part of the ministry, is not allowed in many West Michigan churches. This is especially true when a congregation’s culture suggests that it is exceptional, that it does not have to follow the rules set by the denomination. In my case, the retired pastor was kept on staff, despite the warnings of the denomination not to do so, and so my ministry there was undermined from day one. Unfortunately, this is also common, and not particular to any one congregation. When the Christian Reformed Church tried to make it a rule rather than a guideline that retired pastors must leave their congregations, synod voted it down. It was a foolish decision, and one that wreaks destruction on the lives of pastors.

Another major issue for me was the treatment of women, and the view of women in church leadership, and the abject fear of even discussing the issue, even as we hired women for ministry positions, while withholding the dignity and title of “pastor.” I was rebuked for posting what was to be a several part series on the biblical and orthodox case for ordaining women as elders and pastors. I never got past the first post. I could, but will not, relate many other instances of a 1950s paternalistic attitude toward women. This is also something that I can no longer tolerate. I hope to make the time to finish this series in the future.

I very likely will never return to pastoral ministry.

I am still teaching two online courses as an adjunct professor, one at Fuller Theological Seminary, and the other at Western Theological Seminary. But I have never managed to break into teaching and academia. 2018 marks the twentieth year since I earned my PhD, and I have had exactly zero job offers, despite hundreds of applications, and a few interviews. The experience has been utterly demoralizing.

So now my main occupation is translating Calvin’s Latin for a publisher. I am grateful to have this job; perhaps I will make a career of this, if I can. I plan to continue publishing academic articles and reviews when I can manage it. But this experience has challenged my faith. I can believe in the Trinity, one God eternally existing in three personal subsistences. I can believe in the incarnation, that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. But it is a huge leap of faith for me, lately, to believe that his gospel really changes people. That the Holy Spirit really indwells and animates and sanctifies the church. Or at least the church in North America. To me, it seems that the glory has departed.

Comments on An Introduction to Christian Theology, chapter 7

For my HT502 class, Fuller Theological Seminary. Click below for the document.

Comments on ICT Chapter 7

This textbook has a very nice cover, which just proves the old adage: Don’t judge a book by its cover. This tome is seriously flawed and outdated. It evidences a lack of understanding of, and sympathy with, the premodern Christian intellectual tradition. It perpetuates a number of myths, including the Hellenization thesis, and the myth that biblical anthropology is monistic. And it is plagued by dubious doctrinal choices. The central problem is that the book is primarily an apologia for Moltmannian theology, including a social trinitarianism (and a subtle undercurrent of panentheism) that functions as a controlling theme throughout the text. A pretty book, but not a good one, in my judgment, particularly when it comes to historical theology. And modern theology. And it certainly is not confessionally Reformed, despite the fact that the authors are all professors at Calvin College, and have signed the Covenant for Officebearers. Did I mention that it has a nice cover?

ict-cover

A Sermon on Church Health

This sermon was prepared as the fourth in a series about the process of the Church Renewal Lab.

Introduction: Learning to Ride a Backwards Bicycle

 Destin Sandlin is an engineer who created an educational science website called “Smarter Every Day.” His buddy is a welder in a shop where they like to pull pranks on people, and he made a bike that he bet Destin couldn’t ride. The bike was modified so that when you turn the handlebars left, the wheel goes right, and vice-versa. Destin thought he could ride it. He was wrong. He tried riding it the next day, and every day, for eight months. He still couldn’t ride it. Then one day, something in his brain clicked, and suddenly he could ride the backwards bike. But his mind had 30 years of normal bike-riding pattern burned into it. It took eight months for him to learn a new way. Then he tried it with his six year old son, on a similarly altered little boy’s bike. It took his son two weeks. Why? Because the brain of a child is much more elastic, and can learn motor skills and language much more quickly than an adult brain. (I can’t help but think that there is a spiritual parallel to this: Jesus says you have to become like a little child to learn the ways of the kingdom).

And by the way, when Destin had mastered riding that backwards bike, he found he couldn’t ride a regular bike anymore—not at first. He crashed and crashed for 20 minutes, then the old pathway in the brain kicked in again, and he was rolling again. But the point is this: when you’ve been doing things one way for many years, it takes a lot of intentional effort, and time, to unlearn those habits, and replace them with new ones.

This morning we’re looking at the fourth essential for renewal: and that’s health.

I. The Pharisee Christians

 This was a real crisis that faced the young church. There were certain Pharisee Christians, v. 5, who said that to be a follower of Jesus, you first had to become a Jew. You had to keep the Jewish ceremonies and take on the outward signs of being a Jew. The Pharisee Christians complained when people from the outside end up changing the church. Pharisee Christians looked back fondly to when the church was totally Dutch…I mean, Jewish. Did I say Dutch?

Well, Pharisee Christians can still be found today. They’re the ones who demand that the church stick to the old ways, even if those old ways never worked well in the first place. (I find it fascinating when Peter says: why should we put a burden on the Gentiles that we couldn’t even live up to? v. 10). Pharisee Christians complain when someone tries something new, rather than either just letting it go, or contributing something positive to improve the experiment. A church cannot thrive, cannot be vital, and cannot grow if it is controlled by this mentality. A healthy church is missional; that is, it exists to bring the good news to non-church people. It does not exist to try to please every demographic of the already-churched.

Health, when it comes to churches, means that a congregation is a place of grace and permission. Grace means: treating people with the same grace and forgiveness as we have received from others. And permission, particularly in the context of renewal and revitalizing our congregation, means: “Creating an environment where risk taking and change are embraced with joy and enthusiasm.” Does that mean you will like every change? No. But it does mean you get behind the goal of change, which is to make us more effective in our mission to reach the lost. It means tolerating things you don’t prefer. And this is what happened in the early church.

In the Renewal Lab, we will be learning about the habits that make a church healthy. One of the tools for fostering church health lists habits that are un-healthy. Here are two examples: unhealthy ways to deal with complaints:

  • When someone complains, we stop everything to try to figure out a way to make that person happy; therefore, anybody in the congregation has the power to stop us with a complaint.
  • People are allowed to complain anonymously in our congregation so that we often know that people are upset, but we don’t know who they are.

 These are unhealthy norms. If we don’t consciously work to change these habits, they can lead to toxic results: like burnout, and division. But sometimes these habits are as ingrained in us as riding a bike. So when we try to learn them, and practice them, we will fall down a lot, and crash occasionally. And that’s where the grace comes in.

II. No Compromise

 So how did the Apostles deal with this crisis? Well, first of all they refused to compromise, and second, they made a lot of compromises. Paul and Barnabus refused to give one inch on the gospel, what the good news about Jesus really means. The Pharisee Christians wanted “Jesus And…” Jesus Plus. But for Paul this was a deal breaker.

The leaders of the church got together to solve this problem. This meeting is considered to be the first universal church council, by the way. And I find it fascinating that Luke (author of Acts) records the opinions of two people who had a different emphasis than the apostle Paul. If you remember, Peter had assumed that you had to be a Jew, and eat kosher food, in order to be a Christian. And James, I imagine, probably had a real problem at first with Paul’s emphasis on faith, because James puts the emphasis on the good works that faith produces. So it’s no accident Peter and James speak up in defense of Paul’s teaching.

You don’t have to become a Jew to follow Jesus! What purpose does it serve to make the gentiles avoid pork? We’ve been avoiding pork for thousands of years—how well has that worked out for us? Those external things—things that God intended for our good—they now get in the way. It hasn’t made us stand out from the crowd in the way God wants, because we also didn’t stand out in terms of loving the stranger, and having compassion on the broken. So why force this “yoke”—this burden, on these new believers in Jesus? Verse 11: No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as [the gentiles] are.

Just as the apostles refused to compromise on the gospel, so there are a few things that a healthy church should never compromise. The first is: We cannot compromise on seeking to be a missional church. Worship, for example, can never be just about making me feel good. It cannot be an activity that is meant to please one group or another. True worship seeks to please one person, and that is the Lord God.

Another area where a congregation has to draw the line is to say no to unhealthy behavior. Now, every one of us deals with brokenness, of course. There will be times when we will say the wrong thing, or say the right thing, wrongly. Where we cannot compromise, though, is on this: We can’t let bad behavior be the norm. So if I have an issue with you, but I don’t tell you, because I hate conflict, and instead I gossip about how wrong you are to some third party, that’s unhealthy. Or someone says: I want to complain about this thing in church, but I don’t want you to say my name, that’s out of bounds. We can’t allow that.

Again, that’s hard to learn, to create a culture where we instinctively know that a certain kind of communication or criticism is unhealthy. And to practice the healthy way, until we no longer automatically react in the unhealthy way. (I’ll tell you when I get it down perfectly myself. Don’t hold your breath.) Those bad habits reach deep down into our history, our souls, maybe even our DNA. We will fall off the bike a lot as we try to learn new habits. It will take time. But it won’t happen at all unless we make a consistent and intentional effort.

III. Several Compromises

 Finally, the apostles said: No compromise!… followed by several compromises. No compromise on the essentials; compromise like crazy on the rest. They made gracious concessions. James, the brother of Jesus, and (as I said) someone who probably thought Paul didn’t mention holy living as often as he would like, stood up and said:  “… we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols…” etc.

Now, Paul could have stood up and said: We need to get rid of every Jewish ritual! But he didn’t. Notice the things listed: avoiding meat sacrificed to idols—Paul in the letter to the Romans says this meat is not really polluted, but weak Christians think so. Avoiding sexual immorality—here, specifically, James probably has in mind things like ritual prostitution—things that the Jews particularly disliked about the gentiles. And avoiding meat that was strangled or had blood in it. This was particularly difficult for Jews to swallow…so to speak. It didn’t harm the non-Jews to avoid these things, so it was a good compromise, and it held the church together, and allowed them to continue pursuing the mission Christ gave them.

A healthy compromise. A healthy church can make compromises that don’t compromise the mission. The Jerusalem Council came about because of a conflict—but the apostles led the people through this conflict, with a good result. So not all conflict is unhealthy—not even in the church. Conflict is inevitable. There’s going to be conflict, different opinions, clashing personalities. But it’s easier to learn how to ride a backwards bicycle than to learn that conflict is not always bad and doesn’t always have to end in a meltdown. It’s especially hard to learn if you grew up seeing mostly unhealthy conflict. Many of us carry those wounds—and that colors how we deal with conflict (or don’t deal with it). So if you avoid conflict, and don’t always handle it well, join the club. I’ll show you my membership card after church. Personally, I think it’s one of the hardest things to practice, and it’s one of the areas where I fail the most.

But the first apostles learned how to disagree without being disagreeable, as the old cliché goes. And there are resources available. The Mennonites have a tool they call Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love, and it’s very good and helping individuals and churches work through conflict. The first principle is to “Acknowledge together that conflict is a normal part of our life in the church.” Another is to talk to people directly about issues, rather than going behind their back. If you’re like me, you tend to take criticism personally, and if you’re like me, you might have a strong urge to counterattack. It’s hard, very hard, to find a different way. And we don’t always find that way, and sometimes we have to seek forgiveness.

Conclusion: A Healthy, Healing Meal

 When I fail big time at this, my reaction is first to be defensive, and then to feel shame. To beat myself up. Many of you know that feeling. You’ve been there. The only thing worse at that point is to be alone with your thoughts—telling yourself you’re a failure, you’re unlovable, you’re worthless. But that’s not what Jesus wants from you, or from me. Jesus wants to lift us up out of the dirt, and say: Go, and sin no more.

But Jesus, you said that last time!

And Jesus will say: Yes I did. And the time before that. And I will say it again next time when you mess up.

Until then, Jesus says, eat this bread, and drink this cup. They’re for your healing. Eating and drinking with those people who are wounded, and forgiven, just like you—that’s healing. It makes you healthy. Because when you do, I am there with you. Don’t sit alone with your thoughts about being unworthy. Sit with other unworthy people, whom I love. Whom I forgive. Whom I restore. Whom I feed with my very flesh and blood.

Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, feed us now, and make us whole, and holy again. Heal our divisions and grievances. Make us healthy, so that you can fulfill in us that Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations, in the power of the Spirit, to the glory of the Father. Amen.

From Embers to a Flame 5

Chapter 9: Revitalization Strategy 7: Staying on Mission with a Vision

mission-visionA church that needs revitalization needs a clearly defined mission and vision, argues Harry Reeder in this chapter. He makes a distinction between those two terms: “Your mission is what God has called your church to do for God’s glory, whereas vision is what he wants your church to be as the mission is fulfilled. To put it another way, mission is our purpose, and vision is our passion” (128). He illustrates with the words of Jesus in the Great Commission, which tell the disciples what to do (make disciples), and then before the ascension, he says what they will be (his witnesses).

This is a curious description of vision. And I’m not sure it’s adequate or accurate. Vision usually refers to the future; it’s an envisioning of where you want to go, who you want to be, and from there you figure out you want to get there, what strategies you will use. Fortunately, this is how Reeder actually uses the term, later.

A Mission from God

Reeder begins with Acts 13:36, where David’s mission is described. David “served God’s purpose in his own generation” before he rested with his fathers. Each church also has a purpose that is unique to their own situation, Reeder says. (This is true, but it is also true that all churches share the same basic purpose, which is to make disciples; I’m sure Reeder would agree). So, for First Cutlerville, the question is: what is our purpose here in this area, in Gaines and Byron Townships, in the neighborhoods near 68th Street between Byron Center Avenue and however far east one wants to go. What does it mean to be a church in this area?

Reeder reminds us that the questions that people ask change from generation to generation and from culture to culture. So we not only have to tell people the gospel, we also have to listen to them carefully, to get to know them, so that we can understand where they are coming from. When Reeder was in college in the 1970s, the debate was: Is Christianity true or not? Today the debate is: Is there any truth at all? And is your truth the same as my truth? Today we deal with radical subjectivism (I determine my own truth), relativism (your truth and my truth can be totally different) and skepticism (there may be no truth or no way of being sure about the truth).

State Your Mission

Here Reeder talks about creating and refining a mission statement. (This practice comes from the business world, and I wish Reeder would provide some biblical-theological justification for why we borrow this practice. He simply assumes that we should do so). In any case, Reeder says a mission statement should answer five questions:

  1. Who are we? Mission requires a clear sense of identity.
  2. What do we do? The mission statement makes your priorities clear, and helps you to evaluate new ministries that are proposed: Will this new ministry help us to fulfill these priorities? Reeder’s church prioritizes worshipping God and reaching people for Christ; any new ministry must help them accomplish those goals.
  3. Where do we do this? Our ministry starts locally, and extends globally.
  4. How do we do this? Reeder’s church specifies that they do this by equipping Christians.
  5. Why do we do this? In good Presbyterian and Reformed fashion, Reeder’s church says that their “why” is God’s glory. Or in other words, to please God.

Developing a Vision

“If mission is God’s purpose for your church in your own generation, then vision is the ability to picture that purpose implemented in your world” (134). Here Reeder offers a more conventional and, I think, more accurate understanding of what vision means. What will our church look like in the future if we fulfill our mission?

Reeder suggests the following issues to consider when developing a vision:

  1. The pastor’s strengths, weaknesses, and calling. Reeder does not think that a church’s vision is all about one person, of course, but because of the pastor’s office and training, the pastor “takes a primary role in setting the vision for the church.” Nevertheless, that vision must be shared, “given away, embraced, enhanced, and enlarged by the other leaders” in the church–here we think of our ministry staff, our office-bearers, other respected members, and our Church Renewal Lab Team. The vision has to be owned by the congregation if it is to become theirs, and if they are to invest in it. But because vision usually starts with the pastor, Reeder says (and I’m not sure if this is always true, largely because I want to be collaborative in my leadership), and because the pastor will be a key person in implementing the vision, the pastor’s passions and giftedness have to be carefully considered. The pastor should ask: Why has God called me to this congregation? What is my purpose here? In addition, the elders should play to the pastor’s strengths. Make the most of those strengths. Take the time to get to know the pastor and talk about what those strengths are.
  2. The ministries of other local churches. What are other churches doing, and how can our ministry be unique among them? Don’t duplicate what the church down the road does.
  3. The needs of the community. We have to be students of the culture around us, Reeder says (and Tim Keller often makes this same point). What are the problems and the blessings in your neighborhood? What is the ethnic mix? The difference between a “receptor church” and a “mission church” is one we can understand. In the old days, CRC churches grew when Dutch people moved into an area; that’s a receptor church. A mission church finds ways to connect with people from a different culture. Reeder does not, however, talk about how one does this.

Vision at Work

Reeder describes the desire to be an “epicenter church,” just an earthquake has a starting point and radiate waves from that center. “The kinds of tremors that we want to see are evangelism, discipleship, church-planting, church revitalization, and deeds of love, mercy, and justice” (140). Reeder emphasizes the importance of communicating that vision to the congregation, because “nothing motivates people for creative, sacrificial, joyful, and continual support of a ministry more than vision” (141). Vision is even better than guilt, which is what we often use as a motivator!

Churches in need of revitalization often believe that their vision must be small, because they don’t have enough resources to go big. But Reeder argues that “resources seldom precede vision and ministry.” Don’t wait for the resources to come in before you develop goals. Instead, develop your mission and vision, and then begin to implement it; then your people will start supplying the resources you need (143).

Farsighted Vision

Vision should extend beyond the near future, beyond short-term goals. We should be thinking about the next generation, and generations to follow. In Reeder’s church, they set ten year goals, which, for example, included averaging a hundred professions of faith every quarter of every year and graduating a hundred members a year in Evangelism Explosion. Another goal was to plant a strategic network of a hundred epicenter churches. (All ten goals can be found on pp. 145-146). These goals are lofty, even for a large church. But Reeder quotes a fellow pastor, Randy Pope, who says, “We want to attempt something so great for God that it is doomed to failure if God is not in it.” A revitalized church will have a God-sized vision, not a human-sized vision.

Chapter 10: Revitalization Strategy 8: Servant Leadership Multiplication

Where are the Good Leaders?

Reeder argues that in the past, “the church defined leadership for the rest of the country and produced many of the country’s leaders,” but this is no longer the case.

What is Good Leadership?

Good leadership can be defined by three maxims:

Good leaders learn from the past, but they don’t live in it. (See chapter 3)

Good leaders live in the present, but they don’t accommodate to it. They are thermostats rather than thermometers; that is, they don’t just reflect their environment, they seek to change it.

Good leaders look to the future, but they don’t wait for it.

One can also define a leader by what a leader does: A good leader influences others to effectively achieve a defined mission together.

The Influence of Godly Leaders

This is how an effective leader in the church influences others:

  1. Education. Paul taught Timothy so that he could in turn train others to be leaders (2 Tim. 2:2). Reeder emphasizes that “good leaders in the church will always be teaching others about the ways of God” (152).
  2. Embodiment. Good leaders also embody the truths they teach, and serve as models for others.
  3. Empowerment. Good leaders, through inspiration and motivation, empower others to lead and serve. Having confidence in them is one way of doing so. (I would add that micromanaging and controlling them would do the opposite).
  4. Evaluation. Good leaders stay connected to those whom they lead, so they can affirm what has been done well and identify areas where improvement is needed.

The Effectiveness of Godly Leaders

An effective leader is one who “learns to do the right things in the right way at the right time for the right reasons” (155). First, one has to do the right things. Busyness is not an indicator of effectiveness. A good leader needs to distinguish between the apparently urgent and the genuinely important, and prioritize accordingly. Doing things in the right way doesn’t mean comparing yourself to others, but doing the best that you can do with the gifts God has given you. Doing things at the right time (and for the right reasons). Reeder actually does not discuss the “at the right time” part, which is unfortunate. But I would say that one learns, over time, that there are appropriate times in which to mention things to someone.

The Legacy of Godly Leaders

Here Reeder emphasizes the importance of working together in ministry. An effective leader is not one who does all the ministry alone, but who “attracts, develops, and deploys others” to carry out ministry with the leader. The goal is to equip the saints for works of ministry, Eph. 4:11-12. In this way, effective leaders “must be reproducing themselves in the body if the body is to remain healthy.” A good leader delegates, but a good leader can also take charge and be decisive in an emergency. Delegation, however, is the more necessary skill.

Profile of a Multiplication Leader

A multiplication leader has the following qualities:

  1. A multiplication leader is a learner.  If you quit learning, you no longer have the credibility to teach, lead, or coach others.
  2. A multiplication leader seizes on learning moments. These come more often in difficult times than when things are going smoothly.
  3. A multiplication leader is always teaching and coaching others.
  4. A multiplication leader always helps others seize their personal learning moments.
  5. A multiplication leader uses teaching maxims. That is, a leader “learns to put ideas in clear, memorable terms that people can hold on to and practice.”

A Curriculum for Leadership Development

Reeder suggests a basic outline for planning leadership training in one’s church, one that corresponds to the three parts of Hebrews 13:7 (but in reverse order): Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Reeder suggests that leaders be trained in character, content, and competency.

  1. Character. A person can have good biblical and theological knowledge, but lack character. A leader of character does not care about being upstaged by others who perform well, and is not threatened by the excellence of others. Reeder observes: “circumstances do not dictate your character, they reveal it, and they become an opportunity to refine it”(167).
  2. Content. In addition to the scriptures and the important confessions of the church, Reeder points out other things that might be neglected. First, they should have a good understanding of history (see chapter 3). Second, they need to know the Bible well and be able to find their way around the Bible. Finally, Reeder says leadership trainees should know the doctrine of providence, the teaching that God is ultimately in control. This will help them to avoid despair when things are going well. (Here Reeder, by the way, gives numerous examples of virtuous civil war generals, all but one from the Confederacy. He does this throughout the book, apparently unaware that continually finding examples of integrity and character among leaders who treated African-Americans as subhuman property, and who fought and died to maintain the inhuman practice of slavery, might be considered not so convincing to anyone who is not white, or Southern. I found this a very poor choice).
  3. Competency. Here Reeder identifies three competencies that leaders must develop in others: a) Ministry skills; b) Mentoring skills; and c) Management skills.

Reeder then compiles a list of leadership principles and practices:

  • Effective leaders take risks, but they don’t deny reality.
  • Effective leaders are innovative, but not ridiculous or novel just to get attention.
  • Effective leaders take charge, but do not oppress people.
  • Effective leaders have high expectations that stretch others and raise the bar for all, but don’t set people up for failure by demanding the impossible.
  • Effective leaders maintain a positive attitude, but stay in touch with reality.
  • Effective leaders create opportunities for success in small things that encourage others to tackle the greater challenges.
  • Effective leaders lead from the front, but stay in touch with those who are following and supporting.
  • Effective leaders give their people public credit for success, but take responsibility themselves for any failure or setback.
  • Effective leaders plan their work and work their plan, and always remember that their plan and their work are people.
  • Effective leaders establish priorities in their leadership plans, and stick with them.
  • Effective leaders establish accountability for themselves and for those who work under them.
  • Effective leaders raise the bar of performance for themselves.
  • Effective leaders avoid bitterness and animosity toward those who are in opposition.
  • Effective leaders avoid rationalizations and the public blaming of those who work under them.
  • Effective leaders clearly communicate their objectives and methods, as well as their expectations of others.
  • Effective leaders ensure agreement and support by those who work with them on matters of vision, goals, philosophy, and tactics.
  • Effective leaders are aware of the preferences, strengths, and weaknesses of those who work under them.
  • Effective leaders develop thoughtful loyalty from leader to follower, as well as from follower to leader.
  • Effective leaders are courageous, yet avoid being foolhardy in the name of bravery.
  • Effective leaders develop clear objectives and overall strategy, but maintain the ability to be flexible.

From Embers to a Flame 4

Chapter 7: Revitalization Strategy 5: The Priority of Intercessory Prayer

child-prayingHarry Reeder reminds us that prayer is the oxygen that the flame of renewal needs to ignite the flame of renewal. He notes that the church at Jerusalem, described in Acts 2, was “conceived in a prayer meeting” and “birthed in a sermon.” Chapters 7 and 8 stress the importance of prayer and the preaching of the Word.

The Priority of Prayer. The early church was one that was devoted to prayer. Prayer was so important to the leaders of the church that the office of deacon was instituted so that the apostles could focus on “prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6.1-4). Reeder suggests that a lack of prayer is why many churches decline and die:

They may have charismatic leaders or slick programs, but they have become ineffective because the church has stopped praying. On the other hand, any church that commits itself to prayer, no matter how bad things may have become, can be renewed and rebuilt by the power of the Spirit (98).

Trouble in the Early Church. Reeder identifies the prayer of the believers in Acts 4:23-31 as especially applicable to revitalizing the church. The believers had gone from enjoying the favor of the people (Acts 2:47) to being persecuted. And it was in prayer that they found the energy and encouragement to continue with God’s mission, despite opposition.

The Priority of Praise. The believers’ prayer in Acts 4 does not begin with a laundry list of requests. No, it begins, as proper prayers do, by praising the Sovereign Lord. Reeder observes: “By orienting our minds to the greatness of our God, we are then better able to pray according to his will and to have the confidence that this great God can indeed grant our requests” (100). Reeder also observes that this prayer is “permeated by  scripture,” phrases drawn from the Hebrew Bible. Reeder suggests identifying specific scriptures that relate to church revitalization and employing them in prayers, both public and private.

Prayer and Predestination. Reeder, coming from the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition that we share, lingers over verses 27-28, which state that the authorities and the people who rejected and crucified Jesus were doing what God had predestined to take place. (Here the NRSV translation is clearer than the NIV). Often this precipitates the question: Why pray if God has already decided what is going to happen? But the early church found comfort in God’s sovereignty, in the fact that he is Lord, and not the authorities or even the Emperor himself. Reeder correctly observes that these first believers “knew that the same God predestines has also chosen to accomplish his sovereign will through prayer, not apart from it. Put another way, the purpose of prayer is not for us to change the plan of God, but for us to participate in that plan” (101).

Pleading and Petitions. Reeder encourages us to be specific and bold in our requests to God. He suggests that you make a list that “contains all the great things that God could do in and through your church as it is revitalized by the power of the Spirit. Begin praying diligently about every blessing that you can possibly imagine, and then watch as God does more than you can even imagine!”

Prayer Works? Reeder next makes an important point about who works in prayer. Prayer is not a technique, as in the theologically suspect Prayer of Jabez that was popular some years back. Prayer is not a way of manipulating God. Instead of saying “prayer works,” it’s better to say “God works through prayer.” The focus is not on our prayers, as if it’s all up to us, but on the power of God who answers our prayers. Reeder: “God is the change agent, and he has ordained to change things through praying people” (105).

Chapter 8: Revitalization Strategy 6: The Primacy of Preaching

The Ministry of the Word.

“The church in Jerusalem was conceived in a prayer ministry (Acts 1) and birthed in a sermon (Acts 2).” And as mentioned above, the Apostles devoted themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). The word of God in scripture was the foundation of the early church, as the first believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). Reeder points out that the latter three activities have their foundation in the ministry of the word: “The apostles’ teaching is the Word proclaimed…their fellowship was the ministry of the Word shared…the breaking of the bread was the ministry of the Word visualized, and…prayer was the ministry of the Word returned” (108). So the whole ministry was rooted in scripture.

Reeder suggests that the letter of 1 Timothy “can be considered and studied as a textbook on this topic [of church revitalization]” and thus it is important to note the Apostle’s emphasis on the ministry of the word in this letter. Reeder’s analysis of the letter is interesting, but definitely slanted toward a certain interpretation. He says that in 1:3-11 Paul instructs Timothy to oppose those who are teaching false doctrines, and that in 2:11-12 “Paul addresses the importance of women’s receiving instruction, rather than giving it to the men in the church” (108). But as I am demonstrating in another series of posts, Paul’s warning is better understood as specific instructions for the women in the Ephesian church who have fallen prey to the very false doctrine Paul mentions at the beginning of the letter and throughout his instructions to Timothy. Ensuring that only men, and not women, teach in the church is not a principle of renewal and revitalization; in fact, one could argue that interpreting I Tim. 2:11-12 as a timeless, universal principle could be a hindrance to renewal and revival. In any case, a reliance on the scriptures resounds through both of Paul’s letters to Timothy.

The Message Preached. Paul places the scripture at the center of the gospel ministry in his instructions to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:14–17, NIV)

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God  may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Reeder analyzes this text and identifies seven aspects of the biblical message that is to be preached in order to revitalize the church:

  1. We must preach a gospel message. Timothy was taught the scriptures from childhood–but this was before there was such a thing as the New Testament, so the scriptures here are the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. This means that the good news is all though the Bible, and that even when we preach from the Old Testament, we preach the good news of God’s grace, which he demonstrates in the fullness of time by sending his Son, Jesus Christ.
  2. We must preach a Christ-Centered message. (See above).
  3. We must preach a God-Given message. The message we preach should not just be our opinions; rather, we must faithfully study and wrestle with scripture in order to convey what God is saying through his word. In the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, we insist on expository preaching, that is, sticking very close to scripture, explaining it, and applying it.
  4. We must preach a profitable message. Reeder here argues that as long as one is faithfully expositing scripture, it will be profitable. He could say a lot more here. Also about the responsibilities of the listeners to profit from preaching.
  5. We must preach a life-transforming message. The scriptures are useful or profitable for “rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” In other words, preaching must apply the teachings of scripture to everyday life. The gospel is not just preaching about something God has done, but also about the “So now what?” What does this mean for me? How should I seek change in my life? How is God challenging me?
  6. We must preach an equipping message. Here Reeder makes an interesting point that is also controversial: “Our services should be primarily focused on encouraging, strengthening, and training Christians, so that they can then take the gospel to those who need to hear it” (116). The church should “gather to worship and scatter to evangelize,” Reeder says. The risk of focusing on non-believers in worship is that believers become undernourished. They are not being sufficiently discipled, nourished by the meat of the word, when only the most basic message of the gospel (what the Apostle calls “milk,” 1 Cor. 3:2) is being preached. Reeder’s experience in several different congregations led him to the conclusion that “it is not necessary to be seeker-centered to experience numerical growth.” That is different from being seeker-sensitive, that is, being considerate of the presence non-believers in the service.
  7. We must preach a sufficient message. It is the scriptures that will make Timothy “thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Not his rhetorical skill, or his knowledge of the social sciences, or anything else. The Bible is sufficient; God’s word in itself has power to change people’s hearts, when the Holy Spirit softens their hardened defenses.

The Person Preaching. Reeder then expounds on the qualities and habits of a faithful preacher.

  • The person of God lives and speaks in the presence of God. When one steps into the pulpit, one should be very aware of being in the presence of God. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons why I wear the Geneva gown in the pulpit, because it is a reminder to me that the office is a holy one, not to be taken lightly, and because it is a form of dress taken from the university, it reminds me of the Reformed emphasis on teaching the word to God’s people).
  • The person of God lives and speaks in light of the return of Christ. In other words, preachers have the task of calling people to remember that the judgment day is coming, and they will have to give account of themselves, and to whom they belong, to their Creator.
  • The person of God is diligent in preparation. In 2 Timothy 4:2 Paul says: “Preach the word; be prepared [ἐφίστημι–stand ready] in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” The preacher must spend a great deal of time, throughout one’s career and not just in seminary, in the study of the Bible, learning more and more the context of the whole Bible, so as to better bring out and apply the meaning of individual passages.
  • The person of God is determined and patient. Well, I have one of those. Reeder says “many times we have to tell people what they do not want to hear. We must commit ourselves to speaking the words of God, regardless of how we think the people might respond” (122).
  • The person of God is serious about their work. Here Reeder, in my opinion, misses the boat completely, and goes off on a tangent about avoiding too much humor. But when Paul tells Timothy to be “sober minded” (2 Tim. 4:5, ESV), he means mentally disciplined and self-controlled. This is why I don’t use the English Standard Version (ESV), by the way. Where the NIV is often too loose, the ESV too often is wooden and overly literal. This is why pastors also need to learn Greek and Hebrew continue to use those languages in their diligent study of the word.
  • The person of God is focused and purposeful in ministry. Reeder says that pastors need to be more focused on fulfilling God’s purpose in ministry than in being personally fulfilled in ministry. However, Reeder fails to emphasize how those things actually go together and contribute to each other, or how when things go badly, both can be affected.

The Role of Church Officers in the Ministry of the Word. Reeder here emphasizes how office-bearers, and particularly pastors, need time to devote to prayer and the diligent study of the word. Reeder here emphasizes that “elders, deacons, and other leaders in the church must step up to the plate and fulfill their ministry so that the pastor can fulfill his.” He says that most pastors “spend about fifteen hours in preparation for a good sermon, and ten more if they preach a second time that week” (125). I would say at least that much. He concludes by saying: “If you are an elder or a deacon, prayerfully consider how you and your church can make more time available for your pastor to pray and study.”

For part five click here.

From Embers to a Flame 3

Chapter 5: Revitalization Strategy 3: Gospel-Driven and Christ-Centered Ministry

The First of the First Things. Harry Reeder’s pattern for revitalization is: remember, repent, and recover the first things. And the first thing to be recovered is the gospel itself. The Church at Ephesus is an example of a congregation that needed to practice this recovery. Jesus says to them: “…You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first….” (from Revelation 2:4-5).

Back to the Basics. What the church needs, Reeder argues, is not some complex or totally new strategy, but to get back to what the church is about, the basics of making disciples.

Putting “First Things” First. The first thing that we need to recover is the gospel of grace itself. When Reeder became pastor of a dying church that was close to being shut down, he preached on the importance of personal faith. He found that many of the remaining members needed to make a public commitment to Christ, and he tells the story of two members, a deacon and an organist, who actually made a commitment to Christ, even though they were already integral members of the church.

A Closer Look at the First of the First Things. The basic gospel message must be at the center of any church renewal process. I like Reeder’s emphasis on the fact that we need to be evangelized throughout our lives. Reeder says “we can go deeper into the gospel, but we can never go beyond it.” Believing and unbelieving sinners need to hear the same gospel.

Understanding the Gospel of Grace. Reeder explains: “The gospel is sin-conquering, sin-canceling, and life-transforming.” The gospel includes these elements:

  • Salvation from the Persuasion of Sin–Effectual Calling. This refers to when you not only understand the Christian message about Jesus in your mind, but you are convicted that it applies to you personally: that Jesus died for you, that you need forgiveness, etc.
  • Salvation from the Power of Sin–Regeneration. This is when God gives us rebirth, or birth from above (John 3:3). Christianity is not a crutch to get through life, Reeder says, it is an entire life support system!
  • Salvation from the Penalty of Sin–Justification. God declares us not guilty of our sins, even though we are in fact sinners and commit sins. But because Jesus Christ has stood in our place, and because we are united with him, God credits his perfect obedience to us.
  • Salvation from the Position of Sin–Adoption. Sin separates us from God, but the good news is that God, through faith in Jesus Christ and the work of his Holy Spirit, brings us into his family, making us the children of God rather than the children of wrath, and he adopts us as his own, making us heirs of his coming Kingdom.
  • Salvation from the Practice of Sin–Sanctification. Sanctification means: the process of being made holy. In one sense we are saved when we believe; but we are also being saved throughout our lives, by the work of the Holy Spirit within us. Jesus accepts you as you are, but he loves you too much to leave you that way. This is the process of following Jesus Christ in your daily life, putting off our old self, and putting on the new self (Ephesians 4:22-24).
  • Salvation from  the Presence of Sin–Glorification. In one sense, our salvation is still future, because we struggle with sin and brokenness in this life. In the New Heaven and New Earth, there will be no more trace of sin to mar God’s good creation and his creatures.

Applying the Gospel of Grace in your Church. Reeder notes that focusing on the gospel of grace does not mean that we can only talk about “milk,” and never proceed to the “solid food” of the gospel (see Hebrews 5:12-14). And he emphasizes that “we must avoid at all costs the kind of preaching and teaching that is mere moralism.” That is, we cannot preach as if the gospel is nothing more than a list of rules and restrictions, as if it is all about one’s behavior. That is the error of the Pharisees.

Avoid Errors that Distort the Gospel. Some of the misunderstandings that warp the true meaning of the gospel are two opposite errors: one Reeder calls “passivism,” the attitude that we just have to sit back and let God work in us, without making any effort. The other is “activism” or “moralism,” namely, the idea that says that my sanctification and spiritual growth is all up to me and my efforts, and minimizes the power of the Holy Spirit. Or another set of errors: a view of the Christian life that is legalistic and all about rules, or one that says there are no rules, and ignores obedience and holiness. Reeder observes that Scripture calls us “not to work for our salvation but to work out our salvation,” because it is God who is at work within us (Philippians 2:12-13).

Focus on Jesus Christ. “A gospel-driven church is a Christ-centered church because he is the embodiment of the good news.” In the process of church renewal, we must remind ourselves and each other that it is not my church or our church; it is not the denomination’s church; it is Christ’s church. It is Christ who builds the church and he promises that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18).

Chapter 6: Revitalization Strategy 4: Personal Gospel Formation

The Discipline of Grace. The gospel of Luke tells us that the young boy Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).

  1. Wisdom–Intellectual Discipline
  2. Stature–Physical Discipline
  3. Favor with God–Spiritual Discipline
  4. Favor with Man–Social/Relational Discipline

Here again, Reeder emphasizes the importance of getting the gospel right:

“The Christian life is not lived in order to be saved; it is lived because we are saved. The Christian life is not the foundation of our salvation, but it is a necessary evidence of salvation. James does not say that you are saved by your works; he claims that saving faith works” (84-85).

Reeder talks about these four areas of discipline, but he provides barely four lines on the first, intellectual discipline. This is an unfortunate choice, especially in our Christian Reformed tradition, in which loving God with all our mind is very important (even though sometimes we have tended to make it excessively important). He spends more time on physical discipline, though the Bible speaks more about training in doctrine than training in the gym (though Paul often uses athletic imagery precisely to speak of spiritual discipline).

Reeder gets into more detail on spiritual discipline(s). He divides them into two categories:

  1. Disciplines of Denial and Abstention. He puts these disciplines in the context of putting off the old self, the sinful nature, and putting on the new self. He identifies six virtues or disciplines here:
  • Simplicity in Life. Live an uncluttered life. Very hard for hoarders.
  • Frugality in Life. “Frugality in life is living within our means while giving beyond our means.”
  • Silence in Life. Here Reeder points out that the Christian life is not only intentional but also contemplative.
  • Sacrifice in Life. Reeder could say more here.
  • Chastity in Life. And here. Especially as the church becomes more responsive to single persons and deals with radically changing views of sexuality.
  • Fasting in Life. Here Reeder argues that fasting is never about repentance but always about helping us focus. Personally, I doubt it. Fasting is very often associated with repentance in the Bible (for example, when the Ninevites hear Jonah’s call to repentance, 3:5). But despite the fact that fasting makes me think only about food, I suppose that helping one’s focus could also be a use of fasting (e.g. Jesus fasted in the desert and had no need for repentance; on the other hand, he represents Israel and so may also be embodying the True Israel who needs to repent, as he becomes sin in a sense (Romans 8:3f.) Fasting, more likely, enables us to feel in our body a hunger for God that may find a parallel in the soul.

2. Disciplines of Devotion and Development. Here Reeder lists the following:

  • The study of God’s Word.
  • Intercessory and Contemplative Prayer.
  • Meditation and Memorization.
  • Reflection.
  • Confession.
  • Consecration. (Dedicating ourselves to God’s mission).

Here I would have liked Reeder to offer some reflection on Christian virtue. In addition, he seems at times to paint these disciplines in a very individualistic and private shades. But true Christian discipline and growth almost always happens in community, in fellowship (koinonia / κοινωνία) with other believers. I would like to see more emphasis on this communal element of spiritual discipline, particularly in our self-absorbed North American context.

Disciplined Christians are Found in Discipling Churches. Reeder points to the early church (Acts 2:42) to illustrate that a vital, growing church is one that practices spiritual disciplines.

Finally, Reeder emphasizes The Necessity of Church Discipline, that is, formal church discipline. To be a disciplined and discipling church, “you will have to teach and practice church discipline.” He rightly points out that this is some of the most difficult work of the ministry, and yet it is clearly commanded by the Lord Jesus himself (Matt. 18:15-17) and the Apostle Paul (I Cor. 5:12-13).

For part four click here.

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