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Engaging the World With The Creeds and Confessions

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THIS IS PART 4 IN A SERIES ON THE CREEDS AND CONFESSIONS BASED ON A PAPER PRESENTED AT THE PRODIGAL LOVE OF GOD CONFERENCE AT DORDT COLLEGE.

With the individual’s spiritual life reinvigorated, and the culture of the church rightly oriented, we can now turn to engaging the world. For while the creeds and confessions primarily serve as resources serving the church, they are also declarations of public truth. They make claims and tell a story that encompasses everyone and everything, and this has implications for the calling of the church in the world.  

As J.H. Bavinck writes in his work on mission concept and reality:

 Mission is that activity of the church throughout the whole world through which it calls the nations in their diversity to faith in and obedience to Jesus Christ, demonstrates…how the salvation of Christ encompasses all of life…and teaches them to look forward to the perfection of the Kingdom, in which God will be all in all.”[1]

This quotation powerful articulates the twofold calling of the church in the world: reaching out as witnesses to the gospel in word and deed in all of life, and inviting in all peoples to enter into the great Christian story that is aimed at the coming Kingdom of God.

The confessions situate Christ in the redemptive story as redeemer and restorer of all God’s creation. He is the one who frees his people from slavery to sin, makes them new creations, and calls them to into service to God in every sphere of life under His lordship. In this way, everyone has a role to perform in His story. The gospel injects renewed meaning and significance to work in the world, and provides the foundation and fuel for our social action and the pursuit of justice.

 Each of these have proven crucial in my own ministry at the university. The students I interact with all have a longing to find their place in the world, and struggle with the significance of their current studies and future careers. They are passionate about the flourishing of people and the environment, and hunger for beauty, truth, and goodness. But, for the most part, they have written off the church and Christianity as having anything to offer for these longings and desires. The confessions have provided a starting point for some for seeing a more robust Christianity and the far-reaching scope of the good news. I believe the church is providentially positioned to shape our culture through these powerful truths and sacrificial service in ways that reflect the gospel.

 And this leads into the second aspect of the church’s engagement with the world: the invitation to enter into the great Christian story that is aimed at that Kingdom.  

Human beings are storied creatures. That is, we seek to form our understanding of what life is and how it should be lived in the context of what philosopher David Holley calls “life-orienting stories.”[2] Like food and water, we need stories in order to live; narratives that root us and give direction to our life’s end.[3] The question, then, isn’t whether we believe in life-orienting stories, but which one we believe and take on as our own. The longer I serve on the university campus, and hear the hollow visions presented by the various stories of the world, I am convinced of the need to capture the imaginations of the next generation with an alternative, compelling story—the Christian story of redemption punctuated by the gospel of Christ, the Kingdom of God, and the renewal of all things—a story that is both personal and cosmic, a story found in the pages of the creeds and confessions.

 I believe this Christian story (as articulated in the creeds and confessions) has this sort of potential to captivate the hearts and minds of many for three reasons:

1. The Christian story counters the disheartening visions for identity presented by modernism and
postmodernism by offering people a new identity in Christ, along with giving renewed meaning and
purpose to their lives’ work (vocation);

  2. The Christian story counters loneliness and disconnection by placing people in covenant relationship
with the Triune God and imbedding them in a new community extending across all boundaries of time
and space;

  3. The Christian story counters the empty promises of other ideological stories by providing a compelling
hope for the future that sustains us regardless of our present circumstances.

Rather than being turned off by confessional forms of Christianity, there are many on our campuses—and I surmise, our communities as well—who long for a more ancient faith, a cosmic story, and a deeper, richer, more diverse community and set of practices that the confessional church can invite them to enter into.


[1] J.H. Bavinck, “Zendingsbegrip  en Zendingswerkelijkheid,” p. 3.

[2] David M. Holley, Meaning and Mystery (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 3. 

[3] James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 129-120.

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Quotable: J.H. Bavinck

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All mission work, ultimately, is nothing more than to testify in childlikeness and contrary to all rational argumentation, “Come and see. (John 1:47)”

-J.H. Bavinck, “Christ and Asian Mysticism”

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Reorienting the Church through Creeds and Confessions

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THIS IS PART 3 IN A SERIES ON THE CREEDS AND CONFESSIONS BASED ON A PAPER PRESENTED AT THE PRODIGAL LOVE OF GOD CONFERENCE AT DORDT COLLEGE.

Just as the Reformation was a return to the sources, and a rediscovery of the biblical ground-motive, it seems we may be in need of such a rediscovery today. In many ways, the idolatrous and dualistic ground-motives of the world have found their ways back into the church, subverting many people’s understanding of a Christian worldview and wreaking havoc on the church’s ability to faithfully fulfill its public witness.  

In a recent article entitled, “We All Live in Marx’s World Now,” Carl Trueman provides a helpful commentary on the effects of Marx’s philosophy: We now live in a world where “the cultural imagination is gripped by the idea that everything is political.”[1] This absolutizing of the political aspect of the temporal horizon is but one expression of the contemporary idolatry to which the church has been taken captive. The same could be said about the aspects, or spheres, of biology, economics, education, or even faith.

If not rooted in the biblical ground-motive, the church can all-too-easily become complicit in the misdirected structures of creation, and led astray from the true faith and her mission in the world. In the case of politics, churches align themselves with political parties at the expense biblical fidelity. Professing Christians become functional adherents to the numerous pseudo-religious ideologies and their eschatological expectations—their blueprints for the future—which often stand in conflict with the gospel.[2] Division, suspicion, and derision crop up as opposed to unity, trust, and love, causing the church to mirror the world rather than reflecting the coming kingdom.

Similarly, it is the influence of dualistic ground-motives and their distorted views of nature and grace that have led many churches to lapse into readings of Scripture, and perspectives on gospel and mission, that skew towards individualism and an emphasis on going to heaven with no concern for the world today.

Both of these problems must be addressed within the church before we can faithfully go out into the world and seek to engage the culture in ways that seek to redirect the created structures of the world toward God’s purposes for them. Here, again, the confessions are fertile ground for reorienting our churches to the biblical ground-motive; strengthening her public witness and giving shape to her cultural engagement:

  1. They present the shape of Creation, Fall, and Redemption in their basic structures, and challenge worldly allegiances in their discussion of the lordship of Christ and the symbolic logic of the sacraments;

  2. They contain points of doctrine that explicate a properly reformed sense of the relationship between nature and grace;

  3. In their sections on the church, government, the law, prayer, and last things, they call Christians to action, shaping the cultural imagination of the church for a healthy public witness and cultural engagement.

 When it comes to application, the institutional church has the opportunity to address these issues by incorporating these documents into her two most formative activities: corporate worship and discipleship.

The regular practices of gathered worship should both stretch us backwards—to remember God’s works throughout history—as well as orient us to the future—as we look to what lies ahead: the new heavens and the new earth. As Christians, we belong to a story and people much bigger than ourselves and our contemporary situation.[3] The creeds and confessions are windows into this reality. They are vital connections to other times and places in the redemptive story; testimonies of God’s work in ages past that, when read, repeated, prayed, and sung, point us back to, and connect us with, those who wrote, read, and confessed them throughout history. Furthermore, they can provide our congregations with a shared language with which to know and speak about God and His works, for participating in His ongoing mission, and in creatively imagining the future. This unity can present a powerful witness to a world fractured and torn apart by its idolatry of the temporal aspects.

I believe there are ways we can weave the creeds and confessions into corporate worship that go beyond the evening sermon: setting them to music, using them to frame prayers, utilizing them in responsive readings and meditations, or artistic expression. When coupled with the covenant renewal rhythm of our worship, we can begin to see the biblical story formed in the hearts and on the minds of our members, and the culture of the church reoriented in a healthier direction for fulfilling its task in the world.[4]

As for the confessions and discipleship, I believe we must recover and reform the practice of catechesis. This can be a tough task in a culture driven by pragmatism, immediacy, and youth. Mastering and memorizing a body of content written hundreds of years ago can seem counterintuitive. Yet, one of the most significant ways we learn and grow in maturity is by listening closely to others within the community of faith, allowing their knowledge and experience—their authority—be a formative force in our lives. Ellen Davis puts it this way: “The experience of one person, no matter how hard-won, is never enough; it takes a tradition, the accumulated experience and insight of a people, to produce wisdom.”[5]

With this in mind, our goal in catechesis should not be to convert our children, as Kuyper put it, into memorization machines[6], but rather to form intergenerational learning communities in our churches, in which young and old strive to learn from one another as they learn from, and are shaped by, our creeds and confessions. Catechesis is for everyone because everyone needs to be instructed in truth, trained to ask questions of, and be questioned by, both scripture and culture, and find one’s place in the community of faith and larger tradition. We will be well served by our historic creeds and confessions, but in a globalized world of declining biblical literacy, rapid cultural shifts, and ever-changing ideologies, new catechisms and confessions that reinterpret these standards in ways that tackle the cultural challenges of our age may prove equally valuable. The question is: Who will write them?[7]

[1] Carl Trueman, “We All Live in Marx’s World,” The Gospel Coalition, March 19, 2019, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/live-marxs-world-now/.

[2] Johannes Verkuyl, The Message of Liberation in Our Age, trans. Dale Cooper (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), 89-91. Dr. David Koyzis’ book, Political Visions and Illusions, is another helpful resource on critiquing political ideologies from a reformational lens.

[3] James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 159. 

[4] On the creative implementation of the confessions in corporate worship: Howard D. Vanderwell, “The Belgic Confession in Q&A Format,” Reformed Worship, Vol. 58, 36-37. 

[5] Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God (Cambridge, MA: Crowley Publications, 2001), 89.

[6] Kuyper, The Implications of Public Confession, 43. 

[7] In recent years, Sam Shammas and Tim Keller’s The New City Catechism, and the RCA’s “Great Lakes Catechism on Marriage and Sexuality,” have proven the usefulness of new teaching tools, and the CRCNA’s “Our World Belongs to God,” is an example of a document intended to reinterpret the truths of the Three Forms of Unity in order to engage and address contemporary issues facing the church.

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The Gospel and My Father's Same-Sex Attraction

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“I’ve been diagnosed with HIV, Tyler.”

The weight of my father’s words hit me like a freight train. A rush of emotions swept over my 10th grade self, and a million questions flooded my mind as he confessed his homosexuality to me, proving what others had told me about him (but I had ignored) to be true. What had been a difficult relationship between the two of us was about to become even more strained, right? No.

Though it was a difficult road, with many bumps along the way, this confession paved the way for some of the deepest, most important conversations I ever had with my father. Conversations about God, about humanity and sexuality, and about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

CREATION: "What do you believe about sexuality?”

Whereas most of my conversations during the winter break of my first year at St. Cloud State University revolved around classes, university life, and what it was like to wrestle for the Huskies, this was the question my father posed to me at Christmas.

Three years had passed since he had told me about his same-sex attraction and contraction of HIV. Though we had spent numerous times together between then and now, the topic had never been broached. Perhaps out of fear.
Shame.
Confusion.
Awkwardness.

In fact, we never talked about faith or the deep questions of life. I like to think it was God’s providence, causing the two of us to wait to begin the conversation until I was better prepared to engage in it. During the three years between his confession and that Christmas, I had spent many hours in conversations, reading Scripture, poring over theological texts, and praying about how to understand the issues of sex and sexuality generally, and how to make sense of my father’s sexuality—its implications for him, for me, and my faith—in particular.

So, during that Christmas, rather than listening to the Christmas hymns, watching the Christmas movies, or thinking about the incarnation, we discussed God’s good created purposes for sex and sexuality: for procreation in fulfilling the creation mandate; for uniting a man and woman together in a way that works for their sanctification and points to the mystical union of Christ and His church; and, when entered appropriately, for enjoyment. This was, and is, our good God’s good gift of sex and sexuality.

FALL: “I’ve been this way my whole life, Tyler. Why would God make me this way if it was wrong?”

It was the summer after my second year at university. It had been an interesting year. I was no longer wrestling for the university, but I had joined the Criminal Justice Association and I was serving as a Bible study leader within our campus ministry. I frequently met with my professors to discuss literature, philosophy, and serial killers, and I had just started dating the young woman who would eventually become my wife. This was also the summer my father posed this question to me. A question that hit at the crux of the human condition and life in a fallen world.

We live in a world that has been shattered by the effects of sin. The straight line that was God’s good created intent has been, as John Calvin put, fundamentally bent by the fall and set on a trajectory that is far from what God desires and commands. And everything has been affected: humanity, institutions, and all creation.

And this goes for sexuality as well. Rather than isolating my father as the broken one, I identified with him, recognizing that we were both sexually broken, though in different ways. Through tear-filled eyes we talked about the devastating effects of sin on sex and sexuality: sex-trafficking, pornography, adultery, rape, harassment, abuse, and divorce. You see, it wasn’t that God created my father same-sex attracted but rather, that the fall had distorted his sexuality in this way, causing him incredible pain and struggle throughout his life. Pain and struggle I’ll never know, because unlike his own, my sexual distortions could only express themselves in ways that are, by and large, culturally acceptable (even, sadly, in the church).

Is it a sin to be same-sex attracted? My response is: No. What is a sin is to act on those feelings of same-sex attraction by engaging in homosexual sex. To put it another way, sin is taking the desires we have (sexual or otherwise), which have been distorted by the fall, and exercising these desires in ways that are in opposition to God’s revealed will and purpose in Scripture.

REDEMPTION: “What am I supposed to do? Where do I go for help?”

Out of our previous conversation, this was my father’s question as my time at the university was coming to a close. Having discussed God’s intent for sex and marriage, the effects of sin and the fall on all our sexuality, my father was finally to the point of asking: Where is our hope? My answer: The gospel of Jesus Christ.

“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor the idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:9-11)”

This was one of my favorite passages to read with my father, for in it we find both conviction of our sin as well as the hope of Christ. As wrongdoers—those who reject God or pervert His will and ways—we have no right to enter the kingdom. And yet, Paul makes it clear that in Christ, our sin is removed (washed), we are declared righteous and reconciled with God (justified), and renewed in the power of the Spirit to live the holy lives God desires for us as His people (sanctified). No one, and no aspect of their being and identity, is beyond the power and reach of the grace of God in Christ.

Now I watched as these words hit him like a freight train. Whereas he had only heard hate and rejection before, my father was now faced with a God of truth and love, a salvation of redemption and renewal, and a hope not merely for some heaven, but for life and its struggles now. While the way of the cross would be difficult, he now knew of a God who would lavishly pour out His love on him and forever walk with Him along the path.

CONCLUSION

That was one of the last conversations I had with my father on the subject. We spent the next several years discussing God, the church, and everyday life. We prayed and read the Bible sometimes. As his physical health deteriorated, he stopped going out, so I found a good church service for him to watch—a local Presbyterian church whose minister I knew from seminary—and as his mental health deteriorated, I dealt with more mood swings, angry outbursts, and ridicule of my faith.

My father died of a heart-attack in May of 2015. I don’t know what he believed when he died, but what I do know is that he heard the good news often. And not only that, but I will always remember this one thing he said to me in the last few months before he died: You have always been so patient and gracious with me, and that has had a huge impact on my life.

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All too often, issues surrounding sex and sexuality can drive a wedge between people and destroy relationship and lives. Yet, in His grace, God used these matters to draw my father and I closer together. I wouldn’t trade anything for the time I had with my father, as tough as it often was, and I will always have the memories of our time and conversations.

My prayer is that Christians would increasingly not only hold to faithful beliefs, but also engage in faithful, loving, and gracious conversations and relationships that further reflect the good news of Christ and the Kingdom of God.





[Adapted from a talk I gave to the Iowa State University Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Spring 2016]

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Spiritual Renewal Through the Reformed Standards

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This is Part 2 in a series on the creeds and confessions based on a paper presented at The Prodigal Love of God conference at Dordt College.

“God created hand, head, and heart…A Christianity that neglects the mystic (spiritual) element grows frigid and congeals.”[1] This quote comes from Kuyper’s famous Stone lectures on Calvinism, and shows that within his “every square inch” theology and Calvinistic life-system was a commitment to the spiritual life of the Christian. The last few years have brought forth a number of Kuyper’s devotional volumes, revealing a vibrant faith built upon the living Word, Jesus Christ, and nurtured by the inscripturated Word: a faith that does not merely touch the mind, but also the heart and soul. 

Thus, it is surely a travesty that Reformed Christians are often referred to as “the frozen chosen,” and that neocalvinists in particular, are known more for their intellectualism and zeal for cultural renewal than for their personal godliness and a vibrant spirituality—a living, breathing relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.[2] As much as anything else, it would seem that for our public witness and cultural engagement to be effective, we must reinvigorate the spiritual lives of those in our churches. 

Here, the creeds and confessions offer us a rich resource. They invite us, both intellectually and experientially, into the redemptive story unfolding in the pages of Scripture. The Belgic Confession poetically lays out the story of the Bible—of God, His creation, its fall, and redemption in Christ—as well the story of the church; a story oriented by Word, the Spirit, and sacrament. With its personal approach and warm tone, the Heidelberg catechism presents us with an invitation to deeper communion with Christ and fellowship with God through the Spirit by means of faithful obedience and prayer. And in the Canons of Dort, the lavish grace of God is poured out, assuring us of our salvation and swelling us with confidence that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ because of His call on our lives. 

In my work at the university, engaging students and faculty from a variety of Christian and non-Christian backgrounds, I often utilize the creeds and confessions: in prayer, as study materials, for responsive readings in small groups, and as resources for students to read in their devotional life. I do so because I believe them to be helpful in bringing clarity to many of their biblical-theological questions and concerns. But I also do so because of the ways I have seen this practice bring revitalization to their spiritual lives, propelling them to prayer and a greater affection for God, His Word, and His work in the world. 

Cultural engagement flows out from, and builds upon, knowing and experiencing the God who creates, redeems, and directs us in the ways we should go. With their wealth of biblical references, rich theology, and varied formats, as well as their testimony to the ongoing nature of the redemptive story, the confessions are prime candidates for reinvigorating the frigid and congealing spiritual life of many weary saints, and providing that all-important spiritual milk for new believers. 

Next week, we will move from individual spiritual revitalization to church reorientation around the Christian ground-motive of Creation, Fall, and Redemption.

[1] Abraham Kuyper, Calvinism: Six Stone-lectures (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1931), 282.  
[2] Al Wolters, “What is to Be Done Toward a Neocalvinist Agenda,” Comment, December 1, 2005.  

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Are Creeds and Confessions Still Relevant?

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Last month, I had the privilege of presenting a paper at the Prodigal Love of God Conference hosted at Dordt College commemorating the 400 anniversary of the Synod of Dort. Looking to the future, my paper entitled, “Reformed, Reforming, and Reformational: Creeds and Confessions as Tools in the Neocalvinist Toolbox”, examined what role the creeds and confessions could play in Christians lives and in the life of the Church.

Despite criticism from various Christian circles, and a general decline in their use today, I believe the creeds and confessions have much to offer to the ongoing mission of the Church and the faith aspect of life. Approaching the topic from a particularly neocalvinist perspective, and drawing on my experiences in the university context, I examined the ways creeds and confessions can serve as resources for the church, and for engaging the world by leaning into the ways they present, and invite us into, the unfolding redemptive drama of God. Below is the introduction to that paper (with subsequent posts containing the rest of the paper to be released each week):

In the short book, The Implications of Public Confession, Abraham Kuyper expounds a sacramental story; a story bracketed by baptism and the Lord’s Supper, climaxing in public confession. It is a story into which each member of Christ’s church has entered; a story passed down from one generation to the next. Thus, Kuyper writes:

The present generation must reaffirm the confession which the previous generation received from its fathers. Nothing could be more erroneously conceived than to suppose that each new generation should make a new, that is, a different confession. The children must reaffirm the confession of their fathers. True education is just that: a reinterpretation and a reaffirmation.[1]

Kuyper’s work was intended to be something of a training manual for catechumens preparing to make public confession. However, it also served as a polemic against those who would disparage the creeds and confessions, and their role in the ongoing life of the church

Fast forward over one-hundred years and we’ve entered an age in which some see the confessions (and perhaps the creeds) dying a slow death of neglect[2]. All too often, the creeds and confessions are the victims' of churches’ efforts to become contemporary and relevant, imitating the broader world of evangelicalism, on the one hand, or Protestant liberalism on the other[3]. Both of which have, in my view, hindered the church’s public witness and cultural engagement.

It begs the question: What role do the creeds and confessions play in the 21st Century? Or, to put it another way, what role could they play?

I think the answer lies in returning to Abraham Kuyper’s concept of a story. In the post-Christian world in which we live, I believe the future of creeds and confessions lie in a twofold reinterpretation centered around the unfolding story of redemption; a reinterpretation that serves to reinvigorate and reorient the church, and a reinterpretation that invites others to enter into a compelling counter-story to those offered by the world. This paper will explore what this reinterpretation looks like for the individual, the church, and the world, offering practical applications born out of my experience in the university context.

[Part II on “Spiritual Revitalization in the Church” to come next week]

[1] Abraham Kuyper, The Implications of Public Confession, trans. Henry Zylstra (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1934), 36.  

[2] Paul VanderKlay, “Our Confessional Crisis,” The Network, last updated January 9, 2018, https://network.crcna.org/classis/our-confessional-crisis.  

[3] James K.A. Smith, “Buried Treasure,” The Banner, January 2011, 35.  See also David Wells book The Courage to be Protestant to understand the impact of evangelicalism’s “lowest common denominator” theology and faith practice.

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The Psalms of Praise and Contemporary Music

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In a recent reading of Walter Brueggemann’s From Whom No Secrets Are Hid, I came across the following five insights he draws from psalms of praise (for the practice of praise in worship):

  1. Praise is an act of imagination, not description
    This involves seeing the God and the world through the lens of faith in ways that inspire and evoke praise.

  2. Hymns of praise are acts of devotion with political and polemical overtones
    Such songs work to engage us in “world making,” or proclaiming and looking to an alternative world (the one of Scripture) in which the real stuff concerns fidelity, obedience, and gratitude…”

  3. The Psalms voice and are embedded in a larger narrative in which the Lord is the key character and lively agent
    These hymns and songs are rooted in the story of creator and creation, deliverance from Egypt, the giving of the law, gift of the land, and the building of a kingdom. They serve to pass on the story of God’s people to each successive generation who then take on their role in the ongoing, unfolding redemptive story.

  4. Doxology is the exuberant abandonment of self over to God
    Our songs engage both the intellect and the affections. As Brueggemann puts it: “Such praise has narrative substance but is offered in emotive exuberance without reservation.”

  5. Such hymns of praise are in contrast with what we currently call “praise songs”
    Brueggemann targets the wide number of contemporary songs that are “lacking narratives, void of political polemic or the taking of sides, and too often end in narcissistic reductionism.” Much of this problem arises out of the prominent influence of liberal individualism in our culture, which emphasizes private religious expression and a pragmatic preoccupation with oneself. *A caveat would be some of the more recent, reflective work being done in reaction to these very charges. Some notable groups or individuals include: Cardiphonia (and Hope College worship), Sandra McCracken, Sovereign Grace Music, Koine, and others.

These are interesting points drawn from extensive study of the Psalms. They challenge us to consider how and what we sing, and what formative role it plays in the faith life of the church. While not exhaustive, this list presents us with useful criteria by which to evaluate music and make sure what we sing in our churches serves to building up in faith (in covenant faithfulness to God and kingdom witness to our neighbor), rather than pander to pop culture or fixate solely on the intellect or the emotions.

I challenge you to consider the songs you sang in corporate worship last Sunday and evaluate them according to these five points. In what ways do they align with what Brueggemann identifies, and in what ways do they fail to do so. What significance might this have, and how might your heart and mind be shaped by such songs?

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Quote: Poverty, Christian Love, and the Honor of Christ

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“For deeds of love are indispensable. Obviously, the poor man cannot wait until the restoration of our social structure has been completed. Almost certainly he will not live long enough to see that happy day. Nevertheless, he still has to live, he must feed his hungry mouth, and the mouths of his hungry family. Therefore, vigorous help is necessary. However highly I am inclined to praise your willingness to make sacrifices—and this is possible through God's grace to many of you—nevertheless, the holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your savior. The fact that the government needs a safety net to catch those who would slip between the cracks of our economic system is evidence that I have failed to do God’s work. The government cannot take the place of Christian charity. A loving embrace isn’t given with food stamps. The care of a community isn’t provided with government housing. The face of our Creator can’t be seen on a welfare voucher. What the poor need is not another government program; what they need is for Christians like me to honor our savior.”
-Abraham Kuyper, The Problem of Poverty (Dordt College Press, 2011)

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Recognizing and Combatting the Religious Nature of Ideologies

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“The Christian church must learn to detect the presence of ideologies in their various states and societies…[we] live among semi-fascist, liberal-capitalist, and neo-socialist and communist ideologies of every sort…”
-Johannes Verkuyl, The Message of Liberation in our Age

Serving on a university campus, I cannot help but notice the ways in which such ideologies tear at the fabric of our community, ripping it into ragged blocks with unrealized hopes and dreams for the future of our state, nation, and world. Ideologies clothe human wisdom with absolute authority, and exalt their progenitors with savior-like fervor.

Perhaps, even more worryingly, like the leaven of the Pharisees, these ideologies all too easily infect and spread throughout the church, tearing her apart as well. And as I look around the university campus, as well as the rural communities, and urban centers, I cannot help but see the ways in which these ideologies are seeking to choke out the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So what are we to do? How does the church respond? Verkuyl gives basic, but crucial, advice for anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear:

  1. Recognize ideologies for the pseudo-religions that they are

    Verkuyl lays out six traits of ideologies that are all-too-evident in our world today:

    1. Their totalitarian claims that formulate some sort of eschatological expectations—blue prints for the future—that seek to reshape the whole of life and society.

    2. They are full of half-truths masquerading as the whole truth, catching the eye with clever slogans and, in our day, retweetable lines.

    3. Pseudo-religious ideologies merely serve as means to maintain or establish a position of power and the ability to strike down “the enemy.”

    4. They feed on hate towards any and all who disagree—lacking in love, tolerance, or understanding—utilizing this hate to keep the wheels of progress turning.

    5. Every pseudo-religious ideology is at odds with faith, “demanding of people and societies a loyalty which only the living God deserves. (91)”

    6. They are inclined to denigrate one another with labels and lies, and make an effort to snuff out ideas at odds with their given position.

  2. Detect which one(s) are present in your community, as well as in the church

    However, it’s not enough to simply recognize the traits of ideologies in general. In much the same way as we contextualize the biblical text to resonate with our congregations, we must also detect the contextualized ideological forms at work in our midsts. We will fail in our efforts to expose these divisive ideologies in the light of the gospel for the “weak, fallible, human attempts at solving our structural problems, (93)” that they are if we are blind to the specific forms effecting our communities and influencing our neighbors, friends, and fellow believers.

  3. Critically test and evaluate ideologies in the light of God’s law and gospel?

    Bringing ideologies into the light of God’s law and gospel helps to clear away all that obscures the reality and truth claims they make. In the light of God’s Word, Verkuyl instructs the church this way: “The Christian church is to ask questions such as:

    What are ideologies?
    How do they arise?
    Who sent them?
    Where to they come from?
    Whom do they serve?
    What do they aim at with respect to God and man?
    On what kind of future do they set their sights?
    (93)

  4. Openly combat these ideologies by professing and enacting the powerful freedom found in the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.

    Far from the coercive, restrictive, and silencing nature of ideologies, the Christian church has the liberating, freeing message of the Gospel. Whereas ideologies pressure people to either align with them, or identify with the “enemy,” the church freely offers the message of Christ and the Kingdom, lovingly presenting it in word and deed to a weary, hurting, and hope-starved world. Rather than following in the footsteps of ideologies that divide and pit people against one another, the church can witness to the unifying power of the gospel bringing men and women of all colors, nations, social classes, education levels, and backgrounds together in worship of the true God. Rather than utilizing persecution, job deprivation, social ostracism, political discrimination, or imprisonment to effect our vision, Christians can present to the world a tolerance unlike anything any ideology professes to offer because of our confidence in the sure working of God to effect his redemptive plan in his timing through his instruments in his ways.

All text citations from Johannes Verkuyl, The Message of Liberation in our Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970).

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Dooyeweerd, Thessalonica, and Turning From Idols To The Living God

Mosaic in Berea: Paul Preaching to the Macedonians 

Mosaic in Berea: Paul Preaching to the Macedonians 

"God does not speak to theologians, philosophers and scientists, but to sinners, lost in themselves, and made into his children through the operation of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. In this central and radical sense, God's Word, penetrating to the root of our being, has to become the central motive-power of all of Christian life within the temporal order with its rich diversity of aspects, occupational spheres and tasks. As such, the central theme of creation, fall into sin and redemption, should also be the central starting point and motive power of our theological and philosophical thought."
-Herman Dooyeweerd, In The Twilight of Western Thought

The heart directs all of human life and action. Often we think it is the mind that directs us in how we live, and move, and have our being. Yet, Jesus declared that out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks, and I would argue, the hands act and the mind thinks. Created to love the Lord our God with all our being in every sphere of life and our neighbor as ourselves, the fall fundamentally corrupted the religious root of our being (the heart). As a result, humanity deluded itself, and (mis)directed this religious root towards the relative and dependent aspects of this temporal world. The Apostle Paul puts it this way: They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25).

This was the case in Thessalonica. Egyptian gods like Isis and Greek gods like Dionysus, as well as the cult of Cabirus, flourished in this influential city. The Roman Empire, with its Caesar, was honored, praised, and held absolute sway over the city and its people, promising comfort, assurance, and hope. And many found the philosophies and ideas of the teachers and orators to be utterly compelling ways of orienting themselves to the world. Having rejected the true and living Creator God, the people of Thessalonica had made relative, dependent aspects of the creation to be gods: sexuality, politics, and human knowledge. 

Not much has changed in two-thousand plus years. Sex and sexuality continue to give rise to new movements that seek to absolutize this aspect and misdirect numerous spheres of life: family, education, government, etc. Political ideologies take people captive with their promises of utopia through totalizing influence (a la communism, socialism, nationalism, etc.). And there is no end to the philosophies and world-views that exalt the self (human reason and sufficiency as de facto gods) over against silly notions of the divine. Sexuality, politics, and knowledge. 

 So what are we to do? 

Look to the Thessalonians. In his first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, Paul writes: You turned to God from idols to serve the true and living God (1:9).

They turned to God from the dualistic Greek philosophies and hedonism. They turned to God from emperor cult worship and the exaltation of the Empire. They turned to God from fertility gods and sexual religious practices. 

But it was not simply a matter of the will. A changing of the mind. No, it was a radical transformation of the being through the power of the gospel proclaimed to them by Paul. As Dooyeweerd so eloquently puts it, God in Christ penetrates to the root of the sinners' being, unmasking their idolatries and reorienting their hearts to the religious root for which they were created: to love and serve God in all aspects of life. This is the good news!

This redemption, renewal and reorientation through Christ laid full claim on not only the hearts of the Thessalonian Christians, but also their minds and lives. The working of the Word by the power of the Holy Spirit laid bare the antithesis facing the Thessalonians: serve the gods of the age as slaves in the kingdom of darkness, or serve the true God as members of his household in the kingdom of light and life. There was no middle ground for them to stake out, no compromise, because these two ways arose from two wholly different religious roots. God chose them in Christ to be a holy people witnessing in their words and deeds to the reality and power of the gospel of Christ and the Kingdom. So, Paul writes them to remind them of this calling, to give instructions on what it looks like to live as the church, and to both warn and encourage them to persevere in the face of rejection and harassment from the wider culture. 

In the same way, in Christ, our hearts have been fundamentally renewed and reoriented to the biblical root motive of creation, fall, and redemption. Once again, by the working of the Word in us, we are enabled to rightly view the world around us and see how each aspect of life finds its proper place in service to the true and living Triune God. 

But, much like Paul, Dooyeweerd leaves us with a warning. As our Christ-centric, kingdom-witnessing community (the church) grows, engages, and shapes the world around us, it will face opposition from other religious root-motives: dualistic neo-paganism and secular humanism among others. And how we respond to them and their ideas is key. Hold fast to the gospel and the divine Word (both Christ and Scripture), and do not succumb to the sinful inclinations of the human heart to weaken the integral and radical meaning of the divine Word. 

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. 
-1 Thessalonians 5:19-23

 

Join us on Tuesdays at 6PM as we begin a series exploring 1 Thessalonians. We meet in the Memorial Union in Room 3534. 

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