Thursday, September 6, 2007

Presbyterians & Liturgy - Part X

Continued from Part VIII

The Anti-litugical Effect of Immediacy and Individualism in Modern American Calvinistic Soteriology #2

At least one-third of Calvin’s Institutes is devoted to the doctrine of the church (Book IV). The doctrine of God, of man, of Christ, and of Salvation all culminate in the mystical body of which Christ is the Head. This “high” ecclesiastical theology can be found in all of the 16th century Reformers (see Paul D. L. Avis, The Church in the Theology of the Reformers (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981) and especially in early 16th century Reformed theology (see the wonderful exposition of this in Geddes MacGreggor, Corpus Christi: The Nature of the Church According to the Reformed Tradition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958). It is in this community of flesh and blood saints, oral speech, material rituals, and physical sacraments that we meet with God. Calvin warns:
Therefore, he who would find Christ, must first of all find the Church. How would one know where Christ and his faith were, if one did not know where His believers are? And he who would know something of Christ, must not trust himself, or build his own bridges into heaven through his own reason, but he must go to the church, visit and ask of the same. . . for outside of the church is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.
If this sounds odd or just plain wrong to us, it is because we have been infected with a gnostic mentality. The Spirit speaks through the Bride (Rev. 22:17). When Jesus calls on the seven churches to hear the Spirit, he wants them to listen to the voice of their pastor/messenger as he reads the letter addressed to them (Rev. 2-3).
Calvin’s first section in Book IV is on “the necessity of the church.” Speaking of the “visible,” very material body of believers on earth, Calvin says,
. . . because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn from the simple title ‘mother’ how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation” (Inst. 4.1.4).
We should note that Calvin is not talking about an invisible, “spiritual” church, but the very physical community of believers who gather to serve one another and be the means by which God serves by speaking, hearing, singing, and praying for and to each other. In some sense, the church is the preeminent ordinary means of grace (see Peter Leithart’s “Against ‘Christianity’: For the Church” as well as his “Sociology of Infant Baptism,” both of which are in Biblical Horizons: Christendom Essays, No. 100 [Dec. 1997]: 29-50 and 86-106).

So why are so many so afraid of this? One of the most harmful notions ever foisted upon Reformed Christianity is this idea that God normally communicates his presence immediately to the soul of man, by-passing all outward, physical means. Yes, it is true, and it is part of the genius of Reformed theology, that the Lord is free to work outside of his constituted means in extraordinary cases. But this only means that the Lord ordinarily works just as he has promised through his appointed instruments to communicate his grace, that is through the instrumentality of the audible words of his ministers, through the water of Baptism, and through the bread and wine of Communion. There are, of course, extraordinary circumstances where we will not limit the power and grace of the Lord. But why must we always do "theology by exceptions." Baptism can not be allowed to do anything because what about the thief on the cross? Or what about the baby who dies before getting to the font? Doing theology by appeals to exceptions leaves one with a very impoverished understanding of the sacraments.

We should as Reformed pastors affirm that the Lord’s ordinary, normal means of delivering his gifts is indeed through his constituted means and not beside them or around them or without them! This is God’s normal modus operandi. The Lord’s Spirit normally works through the human and physical instrumentalities that he has ordained! Otherwise, the promises that are attached to these means are misleading and even deceptive.

To understand the Holy Spirit’s promise to use the Lord’s appointed means as instruments to deliver the gifts of the kingdom is the hallmark of Calvin’s Reformed sacramental ecclesiology. Why do we not believe what God has promised? Why are we offended to think that God actually delivers on his promise in Baptism? Or in the Lord’s Supper? Or in the service of the Word through the men he has given the church in the Ministry? One of my professors at Concordia says it like this: “We modern people no longer find the Holy Spirit where he is to be sought. . . we no longer understand the promised bond of the Holy Spirit with the external means of grace and perhaps do not want to even hear it anymore” (Norman Nagel, “Externum Verbum,” Logia 6 [Trinity 1997]: 27-32). Calvin says it like this when he comments on John 20: 23 and the commissioning of the disciples as ministers of the gospel:
We now see the reason why Christ employs such magnificent terms, to commend and adorn that ministry which he bestows and enjoins on the Apostles. It is, that believers may be fully convinced, that what they hear concerning the forgiveness of sins is ratified, and may not less highly value the reconciliation which is offered by the voice of men, than if God himself stretched out his hand from heaven. And the church daily receives the most abundant benefit from this doctrine, when it perceives that her pastors are divinely ordained to be sureties for eternal salvation, and that it must not go to a distance to seek the forgiveness of sins, which is committed to their trust” (Commentary on the Gospel According to John, vol. 2, trans. by William Pringle [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981], p. 272).


Bryan Cross said...


I agree with much of what you say here in parts 9 and 10 of "Presbyterians & Liturgy". I agree with this quotation from Calvin:

Therefore, he who would find Christ, must first of all find the Church. How would one know where Christ and his faith were, if one did not know where His believers are? And he who would know something of Christ, must not trust himself, or build his own bridges into heaven through his own reason, but he must go to the church, visit and ask of the same. . . for outside of the church is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.

But I do not see how one avoids the individualism of the "gnostic mentality" if one "finds the Church" simply by finding those who agree with one's own interpretation of Scripture.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jeff Cagle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff Cagle said...

I didn't like the tone of my first post (it was somewhat presumptuous), and I apologize if anyone read it.

Anyways, here's what I wanted to say:

Gnostic thinking placed experience and philosophical speculation over the revealed word of God. This was Irenaeus' point in "Against Heresies":

When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce: wherefore also Paul declared, “But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world.” And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing, forsooth; so that, according to their idea, the truth properly resides at one time in Valentinus, at another in Marcion, at another in Cerinthus, then afterwards in Basilides, or has even been indifferently in any other opponent, who could speak nothing pertaining to salvation. For every one of these men, being altogether of a perverse disposition, depraving the system of truth, is not ashamed to preach himself.

2. But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For [they maintain] that the apostles intermingled the things of the law with the words of the Saviour; and that not the apostles alone, but even the Lord Himself, spoke as at one time from the Demiurge, at another from the intermediate place, and yet again from the Pleroma, but that they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery: this is, indeed, to blaspheme their Creator after a most impudent manner! It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition.
Adv. Her. 3.II.1,2

Regardless of whatever individualism may exist in the hermeneutical methods of Presbyterians, those methods do not involve outright, self-conscious rejection of the Scripture in favor of the opinions of men. Rather, our argument with Rome is about the proper relation between Scriptures and traditions.

And second, Gnosticism was a wholesale, willful rejection of the authority structure of the church in favor of individual attachment to preachers (as fancifully illustrated in The Matrix). Presbyterians may not conceive of church authority in a way that pleases you, but you must admit that they have some kind of adherence to the authority of the church.

So "Gnostic mentality" is entirely out of place as a description of Presbyterians. Whatever faults we may have, Gnosticism isn't one.

For my part, I endorse the conclusions of Keith Matthison's The Shape of Sola Scriptura.

You have implied in your questions that we must either submit to the authority of Christ's Vicar or else be our own authorities. I believe this claim is confused. It fails to distinguish properly between the role of the interpreter (turning text into meaning) and the role of the authority (providing propositions that are morally obligatory to believe). These two roles *do* inter-relate, but they are not identical. As far as I can tell, there is no contradiction to be found in saying "Scripture is my authority" and "I do not believe that Rome's interpretations are correct." If you do believe that such a contradiction exists, it would be helpful for you to distinguish the roles of interpreter and authority so that one might see your point more clearly.

I've created a place for you to respond over on my blog if you wish; I get the sense that Jeff doesn't want his own cluttered up with discussions of magisterial authority.

Grace and peace,
Jeff Cagle

Bryan Cross said...

Jeff C.,

I appreciate the time and effort in your reply. But I do not see in your reply an explanation of how one avoids the individualism of the "gnostic mentality" [Jeff M.'s term] if one "finds the Church" [Calvin's phrase] simply by finding those who agree with one's own interpretation of Scripture. If one "finds the Church" simply by finding those who agree with one's own interpretation of Scripture, that seems to undermine everything Calvin is trying to say in that first quotation cited above.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jeff Meyers said...

Com'on. Please, let's not make every blog post an opportunity for Catholic apologetics. It's getting old. And deciding not to engage you is not the same thing as giving up the argument to you. I'm just not interested in arguing this in my blog comments section. It's not worth my time. No hard feelings and no insult intended.

Bryan Cross said...

Hello Jeff,

My aim in posting my observation above was not "Catholic apologetics", but truth. Lee simply does not address this question in his otherwise very helpful book. But it is a question that (in my mind) cries out for an answer.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Eduardo H. Chagas said...

Rev. Meyers,

I am a long standing fan of your writings, especially those on liturgy and worship theology. As a choirmaster and first officer of the Liturgy Department in my local church (Brazilian Presbyterian), I have found them very enlightening!

I've recently written you an e-mail (though I don't know if it made through any spam filters), asking for permission to translate this series on Presbyterians & Liturgy to Portuguese, and publish it at my blog, Sociedade pela Liturgia Reformada ("Reformed Liturgy Society"), which is aimed at Brazilian Presbyterian and Reformed audiences. Full thanks, credits and links to the original posts would be given, of course.

It would be great hearing from you!