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A Quote on the Areopagus

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"The gulf separating paganism and Christianity is clear even in Paul's Areopagus address. Paul appears extremely polite and appreciative in his references to Greek philosophy, but toward the end of his discourse he makes reference to 'repentance' and 'judgment,' and these two words place what he first said in a new light. Paul here issued to the proud and the wise a call to repentance. Their profound notions of the deity stand condemned, and their path leads to destruction, for the deity about whom they spoke such exalted things is not the true God who has shown his mercy in Christ Jesus, but is what Calvin referred to as the umbratile numen, the nebulous all-pervading being, fabricated by us to fill the emptiness caused by our unwillingness to recognize the true God."
-J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions

In the absence of the true God, a vacuum is created in which humanity will inevitably make something else to be god. The only question is what that god will be.  At the Areopagus, the philosophers and leaders of the people of Athens exalted gods reflecting their own image; gods emanating the wisdom and pride of the Greeks. The kingdom of humanity.  And yet, Bavinck, by way of Paul, reminds us that such fabricated gods are, instead, foolishness. Further, what they trusted to bring life and flourishing to the world was only another means of death and destruction. 

True wisdom, fullness of life, and human flourishing come through the recognition--not the rejection or fabrication--of the one true God, who, rather than reflecting our image, creates us in his own. The true God who stoops down to reveal himself, in revelation and redemption, extending his mercy and grace to us most clearly in the person and work of Christ. Through Christ, the Kingdom of God breaks into our world in a way unlike any other, renewing hearts and minds to trust and obey the all-wise King, and beginning his work of making all things new. 

Whose vision and kingdom do you carry within you? The human kingdom, whose wisdom is foolishness and whose gods are impotent to bring the flourishing and life for which we yearn (ultimately leaving us disappointed and disillusioned)? Or the Kingdom of God, whose (perceived) foolishness is true wisdom and whose God is not only capable of bringing renewal to all things and everlasting life, but is already doing so in Christ by the powerful working of the Holy Spirit.  

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A Staff, A Stick, and A Song: The Marks of the Church

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The theologian A.A. van Ruler often used three words to describe the church's confessions: a staff, a stick, and a song.[1] Using these three images, van Ruler summarized the various functions of the confessions for the life of the church--leading and guiding her, correcting and defending her, and leading her in praise and worship of the Triune God.  

A Staff,
A Stick,
A Song.

I'd like to borrow these three images to unfold the meaning of the marks of the church as articulated in the Belgic Confession.  The true church, as Belgic Confession Article 29 states, can be recognized if: 

The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults..By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church--and no one ought to be separated from it. 

We find in this definition three marks to correspond to the three images given by van Ruler: the staff of the pure preaching of the gospel; the stick of church discipline; and the song of the sacraments.

A Staff

A staff is an object that guides, and that which serves as the guide for, and foundation of, the church and its role in God's mission is the gospel of Christ and the kingdom. The question is: What is the pure preaching of this gospel that guides the true church? At the heart of the pure preaching of the gospel is the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. However, this is only the narrow lens of the good news found in Christ and the kingdom. The wider lens of this good news is that God's plan to redeem and restore all creation from the sinful rebellion of humankind and its effects has powerfully broken into the world in Christ.[2]

Practically, this mark is significant as a guide in that, in the midst of many ideas and various issues that seek to pull the church's focus elsewhere, it keep the church centered on and rooted in what is most important. The church, and the Christian religion, can be about many things, even good things, but apart from this mark, it will fail to live into God's mission and its calling to witness to Christ and the kingdom. Additionally, the inclusion of the phrase "pure preaching" is a reminder that simply having an orthodox understanding of the gospel means nothing if it is not, in fact, proclaimed.  

A Stick

A stick is an apt symbol for church discipline. A stick can be used for defense, to point something out, or to bring correction. Church discipline does all three. First, church discipline defends the truth, as well as the Lord's reputation, and his desire for holiness in the church.[3] Second, it keeps the church, and in particular its teachers and preachers, accountable by pointing out the true doctrine of God's Word in the midst of many false teachings that seek to sneak in. Third, church discipline can do just that--discipline, or correct those who willfully sin or reject the sound doctrine of the church. Central to this use is that it is always intended to be restorative, with the return of the wandering sheep or the prodigal son as the end goal. 

Contemporarily, it seems appropriate to emphasize church discipline, as the practice seems to have gone out of vogue--whether from its misuse, abuse, or the generally negative perception of the word in today's culture--and numerous teachings that contradict the Word and the confession have led people astray, causing division in the church. In the end, the church needs discipline, for the glory of God, the good of the church, and its gospel witness in the world. 

A Song

This leads to the third mark: the pure administration of the sacraments. The confession identifies two sacraments--baptism and the Lord's Supper--as instituted by Christ in Scripture. As with discipline and the preaching of the gospel, the focus of the sacraments is on the plain and authoritative teaching of God's Word. 

The sacraments serve as a song in that they declare and celebrate the work of God in the gospel, and praise his name for his promises, provision, and presence given to us in such visible ways. There is a doxological character to the sacraments, as we receive them from God and, in response, worship him for these gifts of grace that nourish and sustain our faith. Yet, the pure administration of the sacraments are not simply about praise, but also the means of grace necessary for those who are a part of the church to faithfully live as citizens and ambassadors of the kingdom. 

Conclusion

These three marks--the pure preaching of the gospel, the practice of church discipline, and the pure administration of the sacraments--are doctrinal products of their time, but also very practical for our day. They are a staff, a stick, and a song for the church as she seeks to fulfill the mission given her by Christ in the unfolding of God's redemptive plan; for his glory and the good of God's people. 

 

[1] Allan J. Janssen, Confessing the Faith Today: A Fresh Look at the Belgic Confession (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016), 5-6.
[2] Michael Goheen, Introducing Christian Mission Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 39.
[3] Daniel Hyde, With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession (Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, Inc., 2008), 398. 

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Some Tips: Doctrine, Discipleship, and Bible Reading

Below are two helpful videos from Dr. Michael Horton (J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California) discussing the significance of knowing what you believe and why you believe it, as well as how to read the Bible.

Areopagus, in all our programming and events, seeks to take a similar path, believing that orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) yields doxological living (life of praise/worship). And, in particular, we arrange our Bible studies so that they will encourage students to explore and understand the original meaning of the text before considering its application to their lives and our engagement with the culture. In doing so, we can further insure that we provide an accurate, intelligent, and joyful witness to the gospel of Christ and Kingdom to the world around us. 

Let us know what you thought of the videos (and how they may be helpful for you in your own discipleship) in the comment section below. 

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With Eyes That See, and Hearts of Love: Wisdom on Sharing the Gospel from J.H. Bavinck

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"A congregation is indeed gathered out of the nations, but it is obligated by God to send forth the gospel message to the nations."
-J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions

As a campus minister, I yearn to see students, faculty, and staff come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I desire to see them discover the wonders of God's grace, generally, in the world--from blooming flowers and athletic prowess to exquisite artwork and the intricacies of engineering--and, particularly, in the redemptive work of Christ--His life, death, resurrection and ascension.  I want them to know that the Kingdom of God has broken into this world, and, as a result, they are witnesses and ambassadors of its King, the Lord Jesus Christ, in their given vocations; in all that they say and do--wherever God leads them. 

This is, by no means, a unique desire.  In fact, it is one shared by many ministries on the university campus. While we may approach the kerygmatic task in different ways, we all desire to see the gospel go forth, and disciples made. And beyond the campus, this should be the heart of those who make up our churches. If a passion for proclaiming the gospel--the good news concerning Christ and the Kingdom--in both word and deed is lacking in the local church, serious questions must be asked. As J.H. Bavinck points out in his classic book, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, as a people graciously gathered out of the world by the Triune God, we are obligated to take this message forth to the nations. 

And while churches may do this differently, and (campus) ministries use various approaches[1], there are certain rules that Bavinck identifies that transcend all these differences; rules that we should take heed of today, all these years later, as we continue to walk in obedience to the calling given us by our God and King.

1. We must try to see the person with whom we are dealing. 
Bavinck's first point is that we cannot simply get caught up with the surface details of the person with whom we are dealing; their name, position, and arguments.  We need to remember that the person before us is not simply a man or woman (a family member, foreigner, neighbor, co-worker, friend, etc.), but is also a worshipping being and a bearer of culture[2], which is to say, their life is religiously oriented (it is just a matter of what it is oriented around). Beneath the surface are a complex network of fears, desires, hopes, dreams, worries, and, as Augustine so famously stated, a restlessness that only finds its rest in a right relationship with God. With this in mind, Bavinck reminds us: "Behind all such arguments and deliberations there lies hidden a personal meeting with God. [3]" 

2. The approach must be a meeting filled with love.
Oftentimes, we are guilty of approaching people as projects; simply identifying others as the lostblind, and/or foolish. As a result, our engagement with people regarding the good news of the Christ can be far from caring and compassionate, filled with loving patience and grace. I can recount numerous stories from non-Christians who, having not converted in a short period of time, watched their Christian "friends" disappear (presumably to find the sheep God was calling back to the fold).  Bavinck explains:  

Not until I see all things such as stupidity, primitiveness, and deceit as the elements constituting the structures of their flight from God and responsibility, can I begin to have room for love. For then I realize that apart from God's grace, this same flight from God is also the deepest motive of my own life. I try to flee in an infinitely more subtle manner, but I nevertheless flee, until Christ draws me out of my darkness and opens my eyes. [4]

Bavinck's words are oriented toward native peoples in foreign lands, but the same principle can be applied to our own context. We must remind ourselves that this person is a fellow image-bearer of God--one made in His image--and recognize, via our common guilt before God and equal need for His grace, ourselves in those with whom we engage. Meetings and relationships covered in love, care, and compassion are a crucial supplement to words we speak. Again, Bavinck writes:

Our meeting with others must be marked by a certain calm and patience, if we are to understand a person's manner of life, his basic presuppositions, and his secret defenses. In many instances we will have to take a person seriously, even though we sometimes have a mind to strike him abruptly with the sword of God's Word...Our own desire ought never to hinder our proceeding with caution and concern. [5]

3. It must bear the character of an encounter. 
This is defined by Bavinck as "[Moments that take place] if two people permit the light of God's word to shine over their life." It is a moment of two people standing together before God. To put it another way, this rule pertains to the moment in which a person is ready and willing to hear, and we are faithful and prepared, to share the Word of God concerning Christ and His Kingdom. Such moments can arise in corporate settings, such as a church service or campus meeting, but most often occur in the intimate setting of a one-on-one conversation. And they can occur when we least expect them. I would argue this, of the three rules, is the trickiest to identify, and, at times, can even take place without our knowing it, as God works in and through us, the meeting, or the growing relationship. 

So take these three rules to heart as you engage in the task given us by our Lord Jesus Christ to make known the good news. See the person with whom you are meeting; fill that meeting with love; and submit yourself, the relationship, and your discussion, before the Lord God according to His Word. And may He bless us with an abundance of fruit, joy, and thanksgiving. 

 

[1] Bavinck, drawing on Kraemer, broadly identifies two approaches: the spontaneous and the cautious. The spontaneous would encompass what many campus ministries and church evangelistic programs do, in directly calling people to "give themselves to Christ." The cautious, on the other hand, is a longer, prolonged effort of addressing an individual's questions, defenses, and arguments, culminating with the final step: a call to repentance and faith.

[2] Bavinck, J.H., Introduction to the Science of Missions (Philadelphia, PA: P&R Publishing Co., 1960), 122.
[3] Bavinck126. 
[4] Bavinck, 127.
[5] Bavinck, 128.

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The Sermon on the Mount: The Culture of God's Kingdom

"If culture is the public expression of a worship of a people, and the gospel restores us to true worship, then the gospel restores us to true culture, which is the Kingdom of God."
-Joseph Boot

In his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck articulated a way of understanding God's redemptive work as "grace restoring nature." This includes the restoration of humanity, but more broadly refers to the whole of creation as all things are brought under the reign of God in Christ. Through the grace of the gospel, nature is raised to its highest fulfillment, toward its eschatological goal.  Put another way, in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God breaks into the world.  

Going up on the mountain, Jesus began to teach...

In a recapitulation of Moses' receiving of the Law at Sinai, Jesus goes up and delivers the law of the Kingdom to the disciples and those who crowd around below to hear.  Just as God, through his chosen instrument, Moses, delivered His people out of slavery in Egypt and gave them His Law for the ordering of a (re)newed culture, Jesus knows He will deliver His people--from every tribe, tongue, and nation--out of slavery (to sin, death, and the devil) and, in the Sermon on the Mount, reveals the culture of the Kingdom.  

The good news is not only that we have been redeemed from sin and death and reconciled to God, but also that we have been restored to true worship. As we express this worship in our lives, as we fervently seek to witness to the Kingdom of God in word and deed, we enter into God's redemptive drama--His work of restoring nature by grace and guiding it toward its eschatological goal--and live into the true culture for which He created us. And as we live into this true culture--the culture of God's Kingdom--light comes to bear on the darkness and transformation of individuals, families, communities, and the world follows as God's will unfolds. 

I hope you will consider joining us this Fall (Thursdays at 6:00PM) as we study what the culture of the Kingdom looks like by reading and discussing Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount. Words that were significant in shaping the culture of the early church. Words that are crucial for shaping a culture today that, rather than merely capitulating to the world, provides a compelling alternative to it. Words that provoke us, here in Ames, at Iowa State University, to live differently. For the glory of God, the flourishing of the world, and our ultimate good and joy. 

ROOM SCHEDULE:

September 7 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 3558
September 14 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 2213
September 21 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 3540
September 28 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 2213

October 5 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 3558
October 12 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 2213
October 19 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 3558
October 26 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 2213

November 2 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 3558
November 9 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 2213
November 16 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 3540
November 30 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 3540

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Reformed and Always Reforming, But Into What? (Pt. 6)

Over the last month or so, we have wrestled with what it looks like for the church to continue to be reformed, and always reforming.  Looking to Scripture--that which our ongoing reformation must be according to, and directed by--we have examined four areas in which we can continue to seek to be reformed: 

1. A renewed emphasis on the covenantal community
2. The gracious use of church discipline
3. An evangelistic confessionalism
4. Tempered cultural engagement

So what now? How, then, shall we answer the possibilities of reformation and renewal in these areas?  And what is the outcome?  My hope is that as we continue to pursue faithful reform we may be able to declare, with the editor of TableTalk Magazine Burk Parson:

We are Reformed. We are not ashamed of being distinctively Reformed in all that we do. We are Reformed because we believe that to be Reformed is to be biblical. To be Reformed is not only to stand firmly on the same doctrine as our faithful Reformation forefathers, it is to stand firmly on the Word of God. To be Reformed is not only to believe that God is sovereign over salvation, but to believe that He is sovereign over everything. To be Reformed isn't simply to accept the doctrines of grace, but to take great comfort in them, to teach them graciously, and to defend them courageously. To be Reformed is to believe that God has one glorious covenantal plan of redemption, and that He is carrying out that plan. To be Reformed is not to give mere lip service to the historic Reformed confessional standards, but to affirm them heartily and study them diligently. To be Reformed means not only that we are professing members of a local Reformed church but that we are regular, active worshipers and participants in the life, community, and mission of our local churches as we take the gospel to the ends of the earth. To be Reformed is not to be a complacent, smug, arrogant, or apathetic people, but to be a gracious, dependent, humble, prayerful, evangelistic, joyful, loving people who believe that God not only ordains the end of all things but that He ordains the means of all ends in us and through us by the powerful ministry of the Holy Spirit for His glory alone. [1]

May these articles stir you to deeper consideration of what reformation looks like in your life, and in your church, as we seek to glorify God and see the fragrance of the aroma of our Lord Jesus Christ spread over all the earth.  

[Let me know your thoughts below on the series, or other places you desire to see reformation according to Scripture in the church today.]

 

 

[1] Burk Parsons, "We Are Reformed," TableTalk (May 2017), 2. 

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Reformed and Always Reforming, But Into What? (Pt. 5)

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[I must apologize for the delay, but we have finally arrived at the fifth and final post in our series]

Internal renewal leads to external engagement.  Beginning with internal renewal—a re-emphasis on our identity as a covenant community and the gracious use of church discipline—we turn to external engagement.  This began in the last post, as we examined what it means to be confessional, and imagined what could come from the intentional use of the confessions in reaching out to both Christians and non-Christians.  And now, we turn to cultural engagement. 

What does it look like to bring reformation to our cultural engagement?  The answer is a return to the foundations guiding such engagement: a commitment to a Christian worldview firmly rooted in, and authorized by, Scripture, and a renewed emphasis upon the good news of the Kingdom of God.

CHRISTIAN WORLDVIEW

From political ideologies to national or ethnic identities, youth-driven movements to (pop)cultural trends, any number of issues and/or ideas can reshape our worldview, mutating it into something that vaguely resembles Christianity, but is fundamentally warped.  As Abraham Kuyper so winsomely wrote, our worldview is only Christian in so far as it views and engages the world in “the light that the Holy Spirit kindles on the candelabra of Scripture.”[1]

As Christians, we recognize that with the fall, all spheres of life and every facet of human nature has been marred by our sinful rebellion. Scripture is that which allows us to see ourselves, and the world, aright; a light that leads us out of darkness into light, and a lens that brings clarity to the blurriness.  Apart from this light, and this lens, we are apt to be led down dangerous paths with serious implications (mission creep, compromise) for our witness and engagement.  With its all-encompassing scope, Scripture provides the foundation for approaching all of life with a consistent system, as well as an authoritative guide for living in grateful obedience to God for his glory and our neighbor’s good.

THE KINGDOM OF GOD

If Scripture is, in one sense, the beginning, the kingdom of God is the end, or that toward which our cultural engagement is oriented.  We must draw on all of Scripture to see the full beauty, truth, and goodness of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God for fueling our work in the world.  And this good news, explains Andrew Sandlin, is that:

The gospel is calculated to redeem not just individuals but all human life and culture and creation…In Jesus Christ [God] has dealt and is dealing decisively with the problem of sin and gradually reinstalling His righteousness in the earth. The gospel is that everything wrong in this world, God is setting right.[2]

God in Christ not only redeems us, forgiving us of our sin and restoring us to a right relationship with him, but also, by the Spirit, renews us in our ability to fulfill our calling to serve God, unfolding the latent potential of creation (culture-making) for his glory and proper human flourishing.  Therefore, every fiber of our being and sphere of life—church, state, family, vocation, education, etc.—must be reoriented towards the kingdom of God; the righteous reign of Christ over all things. 

Such an understanding of the gospel guards against the danger of evangelicalism, which tends to narrowly focus on individual salvation and “going to heaven,” ignoring the cosmic scope of God’s purpose in redemption—to lead all of creation to its climax in the new heaven and new earth—and our work within it.[3] As a result, evangelicalism wrongly creates distinctions between the sacred and the secular, stunting cultural transformation and flourishing.

However, for healthy cultural engagement, we must also remember, as Craig Bartholomew points out:

The kingdom is exciting because of the King, and without a living relationship with the King religion will be about many things but will lack that missional vision of the kingdom, passionately concerned with spreading the fragrance of the King throughout the creation that is rightly his.[4]

The kingdom of God has broken into our world in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and begins its expansion through the regenerating work of the Spirit in bringing men and women of all peoples to faith and obedience under his reign.  Our work toward seeing the lordship of Christ extended over all areas of life must begin with being in living relationship with the King.

This, then, guards from the other danger (most often associated with Protestant liberalism) which overemphasizes cultural engagement, forgetting that it is citizens of the kingdom—those who have been born again, and trust and obey the Lord Jesus Christ according to the Word and Spirit—who need to be culturally engaged.[5] Additionally, anchoring ourselves in Christ serves to prevent us from straying into false teaching and theology that may hinder our witness (i.e. liberation theology, dominionism, social gospel, etc.).

CONCLUSION

Finally, we should remember the sure hope accompanying our mission (outlined by the Cultural Mandate and Great Commission).  We can engage joyfully and confidently, knowing that our Lord and Savior is with us, the Spirit renews and empowers us for the task at hand, and the work will one day be completed.  As J.H. Bavinck declares in his book, From the Beginning to the End:

We ruptured the kingdom and have brought dissonance into the world order…[Yet] God will not surrender this terrible world to the powers of decay at work in it, but that great day in which he himself will gather up his world into a harmonious symphony of adoration has begun.[6]

When it comes down to it, bringing reformation to our cultural engagement rests in returning to two foundational aspects of our faith: a Christian worldview rooted in Scripture and a robust gospel of the kingdom emphasizing the cosmic scope of God’s redemptive, restorative work in Christ.  If we ground ourselves here, we may faithfully, fruitfully, and joyfully engage in witnessing to, and working for, the advancement of the kingdom of God in all the earth.

 

[1]Abraham Kuyper, “The Blurring of the Boundaries,” in Abraham Kuyper, A Centennial Reader ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998), 400.  
[2]P. Andrew Sandlin, “Reclaiming Culture is Gospel Ministry,” in Jubilee 15 (Fall 2015), 4. 
[3]Craig Bartholomew, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 32.
[4]Ibid, 32.
[5]Ibid, 33.
[6]J.H. Bavinck, Between the Beginning and the End (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 45-46.

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Reformed and Always Reforming, But Into What? (Pt. 4)

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We continue our series, this week examining what it means to express an evangelistic confessionalism

 e·van·ge·lis·tic (iˌvanjəˈlistik/)--adjective referring to one who zealously advocates a particular cause or belief.

con·fes·sion (kənˈfeSHən/)--statement setting out essential religious doctrine (or, as Carl Trueman writes, "a public statement of what a particular church or denomination believes that Scripture teaches in a synthetic form. [1]")

As a member of Trinity Christian Reformed Church, I belong to a denomination that declares itself to be confessional. By this, I mean, churches in the Christian Reformed Church (CRCNA) point to three documents as witnesses to the gospel and summarize the teachings of Scripture: The Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort.  Yet, I cannot help but notice that many within our denominational house (and some of those in our neighborhood) seem to be confessionally confused.

 In an article entitled, Buried Treasures: On the Riches of the Reformed Tradition, James K.A. Smith uses an architectural allegory to make this same point.  He describes a person who is invited to a friend's house. But this is no ordinary house, it is a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Smith articulates the excitement of anticipation one experiences at the prospect of visiting this house and witnessing its incredible craftsmanship, quality, and design.  "Imagine your surprise when, entering the house, you find something starkly different", writes Smith. He continues: 

A garish linoleum covers the precious tile that you just know is under the entryway. Dropped ceilings have shut down the transcendent space of what would have been 10-foot ceilings. At some point in the '70s someone decided that orange Astroturf was better than classic hardwood. Then at some pint in the '80s someone must have surmised that tacky mirrors were more contemporary than stained glass. And as you make your way into the kitchen, you notice that someone in the '60s, armed with pea-green plastic, thought they could improve upon the ancient craftsmanship of the house you just know is dying to breath underneath all this renovation.[2]

This is (generally) the vibe I get around our churches. Too often we have been swept up by contemporary fads or cultural pressures, changing and "reforming" according to these rather than our doctrinal standards (summarizing the authoritative teaching of Scripture).  The truth is, the Three Forms of Unity are not simply pieces of paper or written accounts of personal belief; they are corporate expressions of the faith, once for all delivered to the saints and pointing to those doctrines we've held as dear (and orthodox) for generations. Rather than papering over these wonderful truths, we should embrace and devote ourselves to more deeply understanding what they communicate about God, His ways and His work in history.

The confessions serve as a staff, guiding the church in all its work as it both "presents the promise of the gospel to those who may believe and proclaims God's truth to the powers that rule in government, business, education, culture, etc. [3]" To return to a robust confessionalism would bring a renewed sense of unity to the church, its mission, values and teaching, and clearly articulate to outsiders what we believe and why we believe it.  Our confessions also function as a stick, providing the means for, and clear boundaries of, church discipline (discussed in the previous installment of this series). Thus, returning to our confessional roots means enhancing (clarifying) our witness to the world of Christ, the Kingdom, and the grace of God revealed therein, as well as preventing abuses of power and self-made religion.  Finally, the confessions serve a doxological function, providing the impetus for maturity, praise, and loving action in service to God and neighbor alike.[4] A renewed confessionalism provides those in our congregations a solid doctrinal foundation and theological framework in which they can grow and flourish. Or, to put it another way, orthodoxy and orthopraxy lead to doxological living. 

However, beyond this, I believe that we should celebrate and joyfully proclaim to others the truths contained in our confessions.  We should utilize them as a formative tool given us for Lord's Day worship, use them in the discipleship of our congregations and in shaping an alternative culture to that of the world. They should be a source of encouragement, comfort, hope, and motivation as we seek to live as faithful witnesses in the world. We should have a desire to share the riches of our tradition--with its emphasis on such ideas as the sovereignty of God, authority of Scripture, covenant theology, and the Kingdom of God--with the wider body of Christ, as well as the world, rather than struggling to throw off our confessional identity, discard it in misguiding efforts to be "relevant," or hide it as we strive to imitate others.  

I think of a struggling lawyer who was greatly comforted when I shared Heidelberg Catechism Q&A#1 with him while running on treadmills at the gym; I think of the engineering student who visited our church and found the Reformed distinctives expressed in corporate worship to be refreshing to his evangelical megachurch-weary, cynical soul; I think of the joy and encouragement of an international student (from the Netherlands) in finding that there are other Christians who believe, confess, and practice the same Reformed Standards as he does; and I think of the young Christian growing into a leader in part through our studies of the catechism and its bearing on his life. 

With the amount of time and energy devoted to questions concerning the future of our denomination and, more broadly, Christianity, one may ask: What do we do? Where do we turn?  We should not capitulate to the winds of culture, jettisoning the central tenants of our faith. Neither should we seek to hide our "accent", striving to appear as those around us. We should not be concerned with the next, best thing, nor retreat into a stale traditionalism.  Rather, may we turn back to our tradition, to the confessions, mining the depths of the riches embedded in them, and push forward in affirming and acting in faithfulness to way, the truth, and life revealed within their pages.  

 

[1] Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 17.
[2} James K.A. Smith, "Buried Treasues: On the Riches of the Reformed Tradition," The Banner 146, no. 1 (January 2011), 33.
[3} Allan J. Janssen, Confessing the Faith Today: A Fresh Look at the Belgic Confession (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 5-7.
[4} Ibid. 

 

 

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Cinema Gratia: Zulu Dawn

"Have we weaknesses, Quartermaster?"

We take a break from our ongoing series for a one-off that sees the return of Cinema Gratia. This time, we look at the 1979 film, Zulu Dawn.

Recounting true events, albeit with a dramatic flair, the film tells the tale of the Battle of Isandlwana; a battle in which the British suffered one of the greatest defeats of a modern army against a technologically inferior enemy [1].  Like a black wave, the 20,000 strong Zulu army swept over the 1,700 soldiers of the 24th Regiment, NNC (Natal Native Contingent), and other volunteers. When it was all said and done, 858 men of the 24th Regiment were dead, along with nearly 500 hundred volunteers and blacks [2].  

The film is charged with social commentary, walking a tightrope between nostalgia and derision, as it takes on issues of colonialism and classism in Victorian life.  A slow burn, Zulu Dawn gradually (forebodingly) builds to the climactic final battle at Isandlwana, delivering a set-piece that helps to convey the chaos, violence, and overwhelming sense of doom experienced by the British at Isandlwana. Even more, it displays an anti-war sentiment that was prevalent in films during the 70s. It was not a threat from the Zulus, but rather, politics and greed, that fueled the British invasion. And when it's all said and done, the film leaves the viewer asking: Who really wins in war?

Yet, perhaps more than anything else, Zulu Dawn, is a cautionary tale, warning against the folly of a false sense of superiority and the blinding power of pride.

No one epitomizes this in the film more than Lord Chelmsford. Peter O'Toole portrays him as the arrogant aristocrat who underestimates his enemy's military capabilities, and rejects the wisdom and insight of his allies due to rivalry and his own inflated sense of military prowess. At one point, Chelmsford compares the Zulus to children in need of the kindness of their chastisement, and in another scene, explains to a newspaper reporter that his only fear is that the Zulus may refuse to engage in open battle. Later, when challenged to reconsider his treacherous plan to split his force in two by Colonel Durnford, Chelmsford scoffs, posing the question: "Are you dictating the strategy of this war, sir?"

Throughout the proceedings, and the gleeful, adventurous way most of the British go about the invasion, the words of Proverbs 16:18 reverberate in the mind:

Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.

These words prove true, as Col. Pulleine (left in charge of the column at Isandlwana) fails to prepare adequate defenses, and, trusting in the technological advantages of his men, establishes too long and thin of a line to face the advancing Zulus. Due to the smoke, ammunition shortages, and the calculated strategy of the Zulus, the line proves unable to hold the hoards of warriors at bay.  Only hours later does he realize his mistakes, and, resigning himself to death, writes a final letter home before being stabbed by one of the Zulu warriors.  

Isandlwana.jpg

The quartermaster, in a conversation with one of his men (Pullen) puts it best:

Zulu may not wear shoes or trousers and the like but it don't mean to say they got no brains. They'll watch us and wait and find our weaknesses.

Pullen replies with a question that goes unanswered: Have we weaknesses, Quartermaster? Yes, but not what you might think.  The Zulus had only to watch and wait for their weaknesses--not guns or courage, but rather pride and superiority--to show themselves in order to create the right moment to attack.  

Zulu Dawn has criticized for not giving equal time to both the British and Zulus, but I think this was intentional.  The film beckons us to identify with the British, but not in a heroic, honorable way. Rather, we're to consider how we reflect the same pride as Chelmsford, blindly trusting in our own strength and knowledge. We should see the ways we are more than capable of channeling the same sort of demeaning attitude (as the colonials did) towards those different than us, assuming that we are superior--be it socially, morally, or otherwise. And we should recognize the ways we can all too easily be motivated to sin and injustice by greed, power, and glory.  As a result, we're often led to our own destruction, bringing harm on those around us in the process. Have we weaknesses? Yes, we are flawed men and women in need of God's grace and renewing power.   

In the end, Zulu Dawn is not a great film. There is so much more that could have been explained, characters who could have been fleshed out, and plot-lines that are never resolved. Yet, one of the things I enjoy most about a historical film like this is seeing how contemporary filmmakers look back on past events.  Additionally, I enjoy knowing that history need not repeat itself if (by the Spirit of God) we will humble ourselves and seek the way of wisdom, truth, and grace. So take heed of the warning of Zulu Dawn, or you may find yourself faced with impending doom, death, and destruction.  

 

[1] Tony Pollard, "The Mountain is their Monument: An archeological Approach to the Lanscapes of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879," in Fields of Battle eds. Peter Doyle and Matthew R. Bennett (Dordtrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), 118.  
[2] Ian Knight, Brave Men's Blood (London: Greenhill Books, 1996), 68. 

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Reformed and Always Reforming, But into What? (Pt. 3)

"According to the command of Christ:
     Those who, though called Christians, profess unchristian teachings or live unchristian lives, and who after repeated personal and loving admonitions,
     refuse to abandon their errors and evil ways, and who after being reported to the church, that is, to those ordained by the church for that purpose, fail to
     respond also to the church's admonitions--such persons the church excludes from the Christian community by withholding the sacraments from them, and
     God also excludes them from the kingdom of Christ. Such persons, when promising and demonstrating genuine reform, are received again as members
     of Christ and of his church."
     
-Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 85

We continue our series on reforming the church, this week addressing a subject that is the elephant in the ecclesiastical room: church discipline.  Once considered one of the marks of the true church, discipline has, in many churches, fallen to the wayside.  Though there are a number of contributing issues--including the misuse and abuse of church discipline--two stand out: the rejection of authority and a deficient understanding of the purpose of church discipline.  By resolving these issues, and renewing the gracious practice of church discipline, the church can better serve its members as well as strengthen its witness to the good, gracious, and holy Triune God at work in the world. 

Authority

At its heart, the issue of church discipline is one of authority. We live in a society that, generally speaking, despises authority and exalts individualism and self-determination.  As John Stuart Mill wrote in, On Liberty, "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. [1]"  No external authority--be it the government, religion, work or family--has the power or right to tell us what to think or how to behave; it is up us, as individuals, to come to our own conclusions. And unfortunately, this same perspective has crept into the church as well, contributing to the degradation of the church's health, and bringing in a host of false teachings.*  

Yet, as the church, we confess with the Heidelberg Catechism that, "I am not my own, but belong--body and soul, in life and in death--to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.[2]" Unlike human institutions--man-made organization and social clubs--the church is a people called, gathered, established, and sustained by the Triune God, and subject to His authority.  Rather than striving to live according to the norms and customs of the culture of our age, we must pursue obedience to the Lord, His Word and His ways.[3] This means submitting ourselves to His Word and Spirit, as well as those who have been ordained by God to serve as leaders in the church under Christ; shepherds, appointed by the great shepherd, to watch over, and care for, the flock. Thus, the confession, in laying out the obligations of church members, declares:

But all people are obliged to join and unite with it [the church], keeping the unity of the church by submitting to its instruction and discipline...[4]

Church Discipline

This leads us to the subject of discipline.  Broadly understood, discipline is the training, or formation, of the church so that as a community--and the individuals therein--she may faithfully fulfill her purpose in God's redemptive plan, and display the good news of Christ and the Kingdom of God to the world. More narrowly, church discipline is a restorative and (re)formative practice that rebukes sin and corrects false teaching.  The practice of church discipline is a sure sign of Christian love, helping fallen sinners back to their feet, and guiding those who have wandered into false teaching back to the way of truth and life found in obedience to the Word and Spirit.[5]  Herman Bavinck presents a vivid description of both the wide and narrow scopes of church discipline in his Reformed Dogmatics:

[The church of Christ] experiences conflict from within and without, is prey to all sorts of attacks by sin and deception, and at all times runs the danger of straying to the left or to the right. The church is a field that needs to be constantly weeded, a tree that must be pruned at the proper time, a flock that must also be led and pastured, a house that requires constant renovation, a bride who must be prepared to be presented as a pure virgin to her husband. There are the sick, the dying, the tested, the grieving; those who are under attack, conflicted, in doubt, fallen, imprisoned, and so forth, who need teaching and instruction, admonition and consolation.[6]

And though it can be viewed in a negative light, the goal of church discipline is always redemptive; the bringing of the wayward sheep back to the fold.  "The focus must always be on restoring the fallen member to a right relationship within the church," writes Ray Penning.  He goes on to say:

Church leaders come alongside the wayward member, teaching, encouraging, helping, and, when necessary, providing discipline. Their intention must always be to restore the relationship. This approach is different than in every other human institution. Other institutions kick members out in order to protect the institution, but the church relies on higher powers to protect her, and protecting her "brand" should never be the first motive. The salvation of the lost is the overriding focus...as the forms in Protestant traditions almost universally speak of the intention that the offending brother "be brought to repentance and recovered to the will of the Lord.[7]

The practice of church discipline is a gift of God's grace for the good of the church, the sanctifying of its members, and the glory of God. Not only does the practice guard against sin and evil that seek to tarnish the church's witness and destroy those who belong to her, but it also helps to train God's people to live as obedient citizens of the Kingdom of God in a world that rejects Him and His authority.  

So where do we go from here?  We must reform our understanding of authority, recognize the loving, gracious nature of discipline, and seek to practice it both personally and communally.**  Practicing church discipline can be difficult, messy, and painful, yet, it is vital for guarding the flock and to seeing renewal in the church in the 21st Century.   

 

 

 

*Not only does it lead to apathy towards holy living and the introduction of false teaching into the church, but, when combined with the consumer mentality, this leads to people leaving and hopping churches at the first sign of disagreement and/or discipline.  

** One of the questions that may arise is what warrants church discipline? Bavinck goes into detail on this in the seven features he identifies in the Reformed church's practice of church discipline, explaining that "the reason for discipline is not an assortment of weakness to which believers fall, nor the appalling sins that a Christian government punishes (though the church then follows, its discipline being necessary as well), but the sins that cause offense among the members of the congregation and are not, or only very mildly, punished by the government.[8]" This gives definition without being too specific as to what warrants discipline.  Furthermore, Andrew Kuyvenhoven makes an insightful comment in his Banner article, stating, "These writings [of the catechism] seem to visualize a sinner as one who espouses an unbiblical teaching or lives an immoral life. Occasionally today's elders still have to deal with such a sinner. But most candidates for disciplinary action are the lax and the indifferent.[9]" 

 

[1] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ed. Elizabeth Rapaport (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1979), 9.
[2] Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1
[3] Alan J. Janssen, Confessing the Faith Today (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 108. 
[4} Belgic Confession, Article 28
[5] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 422.
[6] Andrew Kuyvenhoven, "The Teaching of Comfort (87)," The Banner 121.43 (December 1, 1986), 14. 
[7] Ray Penning, "Church Practices and Public Life: The Public Implications of Church Discipline," Comment, August 13, 2012, accessed May 9, 2017 at https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/3402/church-practices-and-public-life-the-public-implications-of-church-discipline/. 
[8] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 425.
[9] Kuyvenhoven, "The Teaching of Comfort (87)." 

*Photo Credit: Craig Rogers, "10 Things I've Learned From Lambs," Modern Farmer, December 9, 2013, http://modernfarmer.com/2013/12/10-things-learned-lambs/.  

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