Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Presbyterians & Liturgy - Part IX

Continued from Part VIII

The Anti-litugical Effect of Immediacy and Individualism in Modern American Calvinistic Soteriology

Apparently, in order to safeguard the sovereignty of God’s work we often think that we must remove all external means, all mediation, indeed any human or created instrumentality and confine the work of salvation and sanctification to private, unmediated operations of the Spirit on the individual soul of man.

Conservative Reformed theologians and pastors are particularly susceptible to this error because of the undue influence of B. B. Warfield’s little book The Plan of Salvation (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1915). Before I even say anything about this book let me head off some criticism from Warfield purists. Warfield was a great biblical and systematic theologian. I don't doubt that for one minute. I've benefited enormously from his work. That's the first thing to say.

Secondly, I'm concerned not so much with Warfield's overall theology, but with what is expressed in this little book The Plan of Salvation. A lot of people have no contact with Warfield except through this book. I know that's true of many seminary students. My problem is that this little book, apart from Warfield's other work, presents a badly skewed picture of his theology and therefore of the theology of Calvinism on the sacraments, liturgy, and the church.

Without producing a shred of biblical evidence Warfield asserts that “precisely what evangelical religion means is immediate dependence of the soul on God and on God alone for salvation” (p. 66, emphasis mine). Any theology that “separates the soul from direct contact with and immediate dependence upon God the Holy Spirit” is labeled “sacerdotalism.”

This is profoundly disturbing. If this little book is taken in isolation from Warfield's larger work, then it will lead the reader to break free of the magisterial Reformation, especially the Lutheran and Calvinian insistence that God does indeed use human instrumentalities (water, bread, wine, the human voice of another, etc.) to communicate himself and his grace to his people.

Warfield’s conception of a purified Calvinism as consisting of the immediacy of the Spirit’s work on the soul of man was motivated more, I fear, from his own prejudice against the sacramental systems of Rome and Canterbury than by a careful reading of Holy Scripture. This continues to be a problem in Reformed circles.

Warfield argues that immediacy is the essence of the Reformed faith and biblical religion come to its own.

On the contrary, I would argue that the unbiblical notion of immediacy is the Achilles’ heel of American Calvinism. Why do we feel that it is unworthy of the Holy Spirit to bind himself to such unimpressive external means as the homely words of Scripture heralded by the gravelly voice of a flesh-and-blood preacher or the bread and wine of the Supper or the water of Baptism? Is it not often because of a false spiritualism, a kind of gnosticism that has crept into our thinking as Christians? An alien, unbiblical notion that the Spirit must operate immediately upon the soul of a man without external means or instruments? Where is this taught in the Bible?

The real essence of biblical religion is perhaps the hardest thing we modern spiritualistic Christians must learn again. We are so accustomed to think of body and soul, flesh and spirit, physical and spiritual as opposites that we no longer understand that the whole magnitude of God’s love lies in the astonishing fact that God’s Son came to us in the flesh and that the Holy Spirit graciously binds himself to the external means of grace. To deny this is to slip into a form of Gnosticism.

Philip Lee argues persuasively that American Protestantism in particular has, perhaps unwittingly, embraced a form of Gnostic spiritualism (Against the Protestant Gnostics [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987]). I think he's right. Modern Reformed folk don't like liturgy because they think it introduces an unwelcome "intermediary" between God and the individual soul. All that stuff just complicates things. We don't need it. After all, if I have direct spiritual contact with Jesus, why do I need all this other material stuff?

(To be continued)


David A Booth said...


One of the perverse aspects of abandoning Biblically informed liturgy is that doing so produces the opposite of what it claims to be striving for. Let me explain:

1. When we maintain God's appointed means of grace as part of the church's liturgy we actually maintain the soul's direct dependence upon God. This dependence can be spoken of as both mediate and immediate because the means are those that God Himself has appointed. To depend on what God says is to depend upon God. Likewise, to depend upon the sacraments that God has given us is to depend upon God. There may be a distinction between trusting your baptism and trusting God, but there can be no separation for the Biblically faithful Christian.

2. When we abandon dependence upon God's means of grace, we inevitably introduce dependence upon something other than God as part of our religious experience (Throwing a pine cone into the fire at a camp-meeting, lifting a hand, walking an aisle, etc ...). This can even be done by changing the meaning of baptism, where God is the primary actor, into something that is focused on man's testimony (Presbyterians sometimes kid our Baptist friends by describing the dedication of their children as "dry baptisms". Yet, it is quite possible for us Presbyterians to turn baptism into "wet dedications"). Such an approach introduces not merely a distinction between the soul's mediate and immediate dependence upon God but a synergism where the soul depends upon God and our extra-Biblical response to God. The only alternative to this is to embrace "eternal justification" where the doctrine of election swallows up the rest of Biblical soteriology.

Dependence upon God's appointed means of grace is dependence upon God!


Jeff Meyers said...

Sounds good to me, David.

Jeff Cagle said...

I agree with everything except this one sentence:

Likewise, to depend upon the sacraments that God has given us is to depend upon God.

Remember the bronze snake? It's possible to rely on the sacraments apart from relying on the God who ordained them.

Jeff C

David A Booth said...

Jeff C,

Yes - that is why I also wrote: "There may be a distinction between trusting your baptism and trusting God, but there can be no separation for the Biblically faithful Christian."

To trust in one's baptism without trusting God is to engage in an act of superstition.


Jeff Meyers said...

And to claim to trust God while denigrating the way he has decided to communicate himself and his grace is an empty claim.

Jeff Cagle said...

Ah. Sorry I didn't catch that the first time.

Jeff Cagle said...
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Jeff Cagle said...
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Jeff Cagle said...

Third time's a charm, right? Sorry to clutter up the blog with mistaken links.

Anyways, if you have some time, Jeff, I'd be interested in your thoughts:

A Modest Proposal

I know that you've thought a lot about paedocommunion.

Jeff C

Jeff Meyers said...

Jeff: I'm sending you something to read.

Jeff Meyers said...

Whoops. Jeff: send me your email so I can send it. Send it to Thanks.

Jeff Cagle said...

Thanks for the input. E-mail sent.

Let me be slightly presumptuous and anticipate the arguments a bit, and then explain why I make the proposal as it is.

I'm guessing that you would argue as I would that Paul speaks of "eating in an unworthy manner" to refer to the way in which the Corinthians come to the table (referred to in the surrounding context), rather than the state of their souls.

My own pastor, back when I was transitioning out of dispensationalism, made the point (that he continues to make from time to time) that it is the unworthy manner, not the unworthy person, that is in view in 1 Cor. 11.

I'm in full agreement with that exegesis, and found it very freeing. And pastorally useful; I challenged one of those under my care to NOT refrain from communion just because she felt herself unworthy, and she has since resumed taking the elements.

Further, I would argue (and perhaps you will argue) that Paul is using doubly-loaded language when he speaks of "those who do not discern the body of the Lord" -- the phrase 'body of the Lord' referring BOTH to the communion element AND to the church: that there must be a unity of intent in our partaking, so that taking of the one must be in harmony with participating in the other.

Good so far?

Here's why I make the proposal as is.

(1) Regardless of what Paul *did* mean by 'examining' in 11.28, partakers of communion need to be able to do that at some level. It is a legitimate function of the elders to ensure that that happens. Yet, it is also appropriate that we gauge the examination to the mental abilities of the partaker. The proposal tries to address both concerns.

(2)My own opinion about the outworking of 11.28, following the above exegesis, is that the examination needs to be both at the level of legitimately recognizing the grace of Christ offered in the communion (recognizing the 'body of the Lord' offered in the communion bread through the H.S.) AND ALSO at the level of legitimately recognizing the unity of the church.

But let's say I'm wrong. Say that only the first is in view in 11.28, or only the second, or something entirely different.

Regardless, we still need a church polity that does not depend on an idiosyncratic understanding of that passage. Because in the end, if we *all* have to overturn our understandings of 1 Cor 11 just to get to the "right" practice of communion, we'll never do it. It's just too hard to go to 10,000 TEs (or how many ever are in the PCA) and tell them, "You've all been reading this wrong."

If on the other hand we can leave some room for exegetical disagreement about the details of 1 Cor 11.28, yet agree on a practice that allows believing children to do what they would be able to do in a Baptist church (for crying out loud!) -- namely, take communion after having publicly expressed their faith -- then we've accomplished something.

Jeff C

Anonymous said...

I think it is helpful to distinguish regeneration of the soul (which is immediate, and although may occur during the adminstration of the means of grace, is not achieved by or through them), and our conscious reception of the gospel, living in its power and assurance (which is always in connection with preaching and the sacraments). A power of God must be exerted beyond, and along with, the means. The means of grace always give forgiveness and assurance to those who use them in faith, but they do not regenerate without an additional, immediate act of God. Jesus said, "The wind [or Spirit] blows where it wishes" (John 3:8). It is only for our seeking that, as you say, "the Holy Spirit graciously binds himself to the external means of grace."

A spirituality separated from God's appointed means certainly needs correction. But to rightly assert the immediate work of the Spirit is not Gnosticism, nor does it foster opposition to "liturgy."