BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 197
Copyright © 2007 Biblical Horizons
We looked last time at the problem of academic theology. Systematic theology tends to become paramount, a “Greek” discipline that specializes in comparison and contrast. LECTURE NOTES: I. THE CATHOLIC ERROR; II. THE LUTHERAN ERROR; III. THE DISPENSATIONALIST ERROR; IV. THE CALVINISTIC TRUTH. When this is how theology is done, the “errors” of those in error inevitably become magnified. The result is antagonism and warfare, whether emotionally hostile or not. Calvinists cannot recognize themselves in the writings of Lutherans. Dispensationalists cannot recognizes themselves in the writings of Calvinists. And so on.
Moreover, what the academic guards is not the woman, not the Bride, but rather ideas. Loyalty to ideas, and sometimes loyalties to the men who came up with the ideas, is more important than loyalty to the Church and to the Spirit. Does N. T. Wright not say things exactly they way Geerhardus Vos did? Then we might fight him. He must be put down. A spirit of churchly catholicity, of humility before the infinity of the Word and the long future of the church ahead of us, is simply absent, or certainly seems to be.
We come full circle now, for the timelessness of systematic theology, and its accompanying arrogance, is naturally reinforced by amillennial theological perspectives. Postmillennialism should lead to humility, since we know that 10,000 years from now people will do theology better than we do. The amillennial perspective, though, since it has a blocked future, is naturally inclined to believe that pretty much all truth has been grasped and enshrined in the arcane and often unBiblical language of its confessions of faith. It is this, not the Bride of Christ, that must be guarded. Or perhaps, since we know that only a handful of people are going to be saved, guarding the Bride of Christ means condemning everyone who does not say things just the way we do.
The conflict in the churches right now is over this very issue. The Federal Vision Conversation, of which I am happily a part, is postmillennial and catholic in its orientation. We don’t think we have it all sorted out, which is why we are a Conversation. We are within historic Calvinism, but not in the amillennial and sectarian part of it. We are attacked for reading too widely. We are attacked for not saying “shibboleth” the right way. We are attacked for being way too conservative when it comes to the Bible. Those attacking us have it all sorted out. They know it all. It’s all settled. There is no future. There’s nothing to discuss. Our Conversation is a scandal to them. Clearly, with our catholic outlook, we are on the road to Rome, or somewhere bad.
(And it does not help, of course, when unstable young men, tossed about by every wind of doctrine, drift through the Federal Vision Conversation and then move on to Eastern Orthodoxy or Rome or Anglo-Catholicism. But that cannot be helped. It is the risk we take for being Biblical and open to the future.)
Now finally let us look at the church, because the Calvinistic churches have too often reinforced all the problems we are talking about.
The Calvinistic churches are little more than extensions of the academy. The black robe is the robe of the scholar, not the angelic white robe of a worship leader. The heart of the meeting is the long lecture-sermon. Candles? No! Colored paraments on table and pulpit? No! Flowers? Maybe. The darkest part of the room is the center where the dark wood table and the dark wood massive pulpit and the black-robed preacher are. It’s like looking into hell itself.
Music is pathetically dull and dead, what little there is of it. Sometimes there is no musical instrument, let alone the cymbals, trumpets, and massed strings of Biblical worship. The most pious kind of singing is without instruments, and slowly to be sure. The Supper is not a festival, is done rarely, with precious little to eat and only grape juice to drink.
And in fact, the sacraments don’t actually do anything at all. They are just aids to devotion. Eating bread is nothing; it’s meditating on Jesus that matters. Water on the head is nothing, just a symbol that some day you might come to the right ideas about Jesus and be saved. In other words, touch and physical contact are completely unimportant. It’s all ideas. If you get sick, don’t expect to be anointed with oil. You might be, but it’s pretty rare.
So, the churches are miniature academies. People are not taught the Bible, but the confession of faith, over and over. When they go Back to Basics they study the book by that name and thereby get a course in systematic theology. I should have thought that the “basics” were learning to chant all the psalms, getting a real practical knowledge of the laws of Exodus and Deuteronomy, and coming to be able to walk through every book of the Bible. But not for Calvinists.
And what does the Calvinistic seminary-academy look like? Well, this is what I was taught: We start with exegesis, the grammatical-historical method of getting the data out of the Bible. Then we build Biblical Theology on top of that, learning Biblical themes. But the acme, the highest point, is Systematic Theology. There we have it all put together. So, what are sermons like in Calvinistic churches? They consist of “points” that are somehow related to some text. They do not consist of walking through the text and bringing the people as close as possible to how God wrote the text. Something as simple as walking through the text line by line and closing with some applicatory thoughts would just not be “sermonic” enough.
Now, what does this mean? It means that Calvinistic churches exist in a state of perpetual warfare. The Greek notion of truth as comparison and contrast reigns supreme. There is continual fighting over doctrine and continual suspicion of other Christians, especially those closest to us! The transformative purpose of the Church is virtually destroyed; hence pastoral counseling for damage control becomes an overwhelmingly large part of the church’s effort.
But let us consider what a Christian view of the Church would be. It would be a place of transformation, not merely of information. Marshaling the people into an army of psalm chanters would be at the top of the list. Indeed, in seminary several psalms would be chanted every day in chapel. The music in the church would be loud, fast, vigorous, instrumental, martial. There would be real feasts. People would be taught that when God splashes water on you, He’s really doing something: He’s putting you into His rainbow.
Because the church would be a place of music, it would be a place of wooing. The arts are how boys and girls woo after they move into adolescence and have to close the gap. The environment of music (and the Spirit is the Music of God, as the Son is the Word of God) would be a healing environment (1 Samuel 16:14-23); there would be far fewer occasions for pastoral counseling. Also, because the things that God holds important (music, sacraments, Bible) would be paramount, what passes for systematic theology would be kept on the back burner where it belongs. We need it to ward off errors, but it does not cause the Church to grow. Confessions of faith are neither soil nor fertilizer nor water. Laymen probably should not know that they exist.
(Systematic Theology is actually Polemic Theology. Every chapter of Systematic Theology is an argument against errors. This is important and necessary, though it can definitely get out of hand! The kind of systematics that asks what the whole Bible says about a topic, or that provides philosophical reflection on a topic, is not really what theological Systematic Theology does.)
And a truly Christian type of church, fighting the musical war against principalities and powers, will not wind up murdering other Christians by writing up lies about them and accusing them of heresy if they don’t dot every eye and cross every tee the “right” way.
Maybe some day the churches in the Calvinistic part of Christendom will wake up and realize this, and the continual savagery over matters of systematic theology will cease. But I don’t think I shall live to see it.