Friday, March 03, 2017

Picking and choosing our piety

I'm going to comment on two critics of the church calendar, beginning with Carl Truman:

What perplexes me is the need for people from these other groups to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent. My commitment to Christian liberty means that I certainly would not regard it as sinful in itself for them to do so; but that same commitment also means that I object most strongly to anybody trying to argue that it should be a normative practice for Christians, to impose it on their congregations, or to claim that it confers benefits unavailable elsewhere. 

I agree with him that there's nothing normative about the church calendar. 

I also fear that it speaks of a certain carnality: The desire to do something which simply looks cool and which has a certain ostentatious spirituality about it. As an act of piety, it costs nothing yet implies a deep seriousness. In fact, far from revealing deep seriousness, in an evangelical context it simply exposes the superficiality, eclectic consumerism and underlying identity confusion of the movement.

In many cases, I'm sure that's true. 

The imposition of ashes is intended as a means of reminding us that we are dust and forms part of a liturgical moment when sins are 'shriven' or forgiven. In fact, a well-constructed worship service should do that anyway. Precisely the same thing can be conveyed by the reading of God's Word.

That's reductionistic. For instance, many miracles of Christ are enacted parables. In John's Gospel, for instance, miracles function as concrete illustrations of something Jesus said. A way to convey the same message twice in two different media: both by saying and by showing. 

Or take a cinematic adaptation of a novel. Trueman's objection is like saying the movie is superfluous: just read the novel. But because novels and movies are different media, even if both have the same plot, dialogue, characters, and setting, each has a distinctive benefit, if done executed

There's more to communication than propositions. There's nonverbal communication. The Mosaic cultus was a tableau of object lessons. 

An appropriately rich Reformed sacramentalism also renders Ash Wednesday irrelevant. Infant baptism emphasizes better than anything else outside of the preached Word the priority of God's grace and the helplessness of sinful humanity in the face of God.   

Which overlooks the fact that infants are oblivious to the theological significance of their baptism.  

It's that time of year again: the ancient tradition of Lent, kick-started by Ash Wednesday. It is also the time of year when us confessional types brace ourselves for the annual onslaught of a more recent tradition: that of evangelical pundits, with no affiliation to such branches of the church, writing articles extolling Lent's virtues to their own eclectic constituency. 

When Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals start attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent, one can only conclude that they have either been poorly instructed in the theology or the history of their own traditions, or that they have no theology and history. Or maybe they are simply exhibiting the attitude of the world around: They consume the bits and pieces which catch their attention in any tradition they find appealing, while eschewing the broader structure, demands and discipline which belonging to an historically rooted confessional community requires. 

American evangelicals are past masters at appropriating anything that catches their fancy in church history and claiming it as their own, from the ancient Fathers as the first emergents to the Old School men of Old Princeton as the precursors of the Young, Restless, and Reformed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer as modern American Evangelical. Yet if your own tradition lacks the historical, liturgical and theological depth for which you are looking, it may be time to join a church which can provide the same. 

Of course, that's part and parcel of Trueman's "Confessional Calvinist" schtick. What he fails to appreciate is that tradition is, itself, eclectic. Traditional theological packages are in some measure historical accidents. Take a Presbyterian package that includes Calvinism, covenant theology, infant baptism, amil/postmil eschatology, and presbyterian polity. Compare that to a Baptist package that includes Arminianism (plus eternal security), dispensationalism, credo baptism, premil eschatology, and congregational polity. But these are packages containing disparate elements. The elements comprising each package are logically independent of each other. You could disassemble each package, and recombine some elements from each into a third package. And the third package would be no more or less eclectic than the "traditional" packages. 

It isn't a choice between "picking and choosing" your piety or not picking and choosing your piety, but who does the picking and choosing. Trueman simply delegates the picking and choosing to his adopted theological ancestors. 

Now let's turn to Nick Batzig:

As Roland Barnes notes: 

"The Liturgical Calendar can be spiritually stunting insofar as it asks believers to suspend their living in the light of the finished work of Christ as they march along from incarnation to resurrection and ascension throughout the calendar. The Reformed observance of the weekly sabbath and the regular practice of expository, Christocentric preaching emphasizes that we are now living in the full realization of the finished work of Christ. Each Lord's Day we celebrate the fact that 'He is Risen!' We live each Lord's Day in the light of the triumph of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus."2

To prove this point, I'll share a story. A number of years ago, I was rebuked by a strict proponent of the Liturgical Calendar for preaching a passage of Scripture on the birth narrative on the first Sunday of Advent. His response to hearing that I had done so was, "Not yet!"

That's a good example in which tradition becomes a straightjacket. 

Alongside this phenomenon lies the ever present willingness of many professedly Protestant churches to embrace, either in part or whole, the liturgical calendar for the structuring of their worship services. One can see the apparent appeal. After all, many have suggested that the Liturgical Calendar offers a recognition of the organic unity of Scripture centered on the redemptive-historical nature of Christ's saving work and participated in through the corporate worship of God's people. But is this actually the case? Does the Liturgical Calendar enhance or undermine the redemptive historical nature of Christ's saving work? 

Not surprisingly, many Anglicans--at one and the same time–acknowledge the lack of biblical support for a liturgical calendar while insisting upon a pragmatic adaptation of it. For instance, N.T. Wright suggests:

"There is nothing ultimately obligatory for a Christian about the keeping of holy days or seasons. Paul warns the Galatians against adopting the Jewish liturgical calendar (Gal. 4:10)...However, many churches have found that by following the liturgical year in the traditional way they have a solid framework within which to live the Gospels, the Scripture and the Christian life. The Bible offers itself to us as a great story, a sprawling and complex narrative, inviting us to come in and make it our own. The Gospels, the very heart of Scripture, likewise tell a story not merely to give us information about Jesus but in order to provide a narrative that we can inhabit, a story we must make our own. This is one way we can become the people God calls us to be."1

While adherents of the liturgical calendar frequently insist that it aids our experience of the redemptive historical nature of Christ's work, the opposite actually proves to be the case. When we subject ourselves to a temporal recapitulation of Jesus' life and labors--from incarnation to baptism to wilderness testing to death to resurrection to ascension and to Pentecost--we end up undermining the full, rich implications of the once-for-all nature of that saving work. We run the risk of bifurcating the work of Christ. 

Sorry, but I think that's silly. It's like saying you only need to read the Gospels once. After all, the earthly life of Christ is a thing of the past. That's over and done with. Never look back! Even more retrograde is reading the OT! 

If anything, I think it would be a good idea to expand the church calendar. Suppose we had a rotating, three-year church calendar based on the plots of Matthew, Luke, and John. Each week would track and highlight a significant incident in the life of Christ, in roughly chronological order. It's good for Christians to make the plot of each Gospel a part of their mental furniture. To have a mental outline of what Jesus said and did in each Gospel. By the same token, it might be good to include some highpoints of OT history. 

In doing so, we can also illegitimately make the Gospel something that we do rather than something done by Christ for us and received by faith alone. 

Maybe some high-church Christians are guilty of that, but I don't see that observing a church calendar in itself fosters that mentality. Rather, it's basically a pedagogical device to internalize the story of the Gospels. 

1 comment:

  1. "Trueman simply delegates the picking and choosing to his adopted theological ancestors."