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Archive for July, 2007

I was reading someone’s testimony of their struggle with this question and found he was asking a lot of the same questions I am. Let me post it then I’ll continue:

As an active Protestant in my mid-twenties I began to feel that I might have a vocation to become a minister. The trouble was that while I had quite definite convictions about the things that most Christians have traditionally held in common—the sort of thing C.S. Lewis termed “mere Christianity.”I had had some firsthand experience with several denominations (Presbyterian, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist) and was far from certain as to which of them (if any) had an overall advantage over the others. So I began to think, study, search, and pray. Was there a true Church? If so, how was one to decide which?

The more I studied, the more perplexed I became. At one stage my elder sister, a very committed evangelical with somewhat flexible denominational affiliations, chided me with becoming “obsessed” with trying to find a “true Church.” “Does it really matter?” she would ask. Well, yes it did. It was all very well for a lay Protestant to relegate the denominational issue to a fairly low priority amongst religious questions: lay people can go to one Protestant Church one week and another the next week and nobody really worries too much. But an ordained minister obviously cannot do that. He must make a very serious commitment to a definite Church community, and under normal circumstances that commitment will be expected to last a lifetime. So clearly that choice had to be made with a deep sense of responsibility; and the time to make it was before, not after, ordination…

…As I groped and prayed my way towards a decision, I came close to despair and agnosticism at times, as I contemplated the mountains of erudition, the vast labyrinth of conflicting interpretations of Christianity (not to mention other faiths) which lined the shelves of religious bookshops and libraries. If all the “experts” on Truth—the great theologians, historians, philosophers—disagreed interminably with each other, then how did God, if He was really there, expect me, an ordinary Joe Blow, to work out what was true?

The more I became enmeshed in specific questions of Biblical interpretation—of who had the right understanding of justification, of the Eucharist, Baptism, grace, Christology, Church government and discipline, and so on—the more I came to feel that this whole-line of approach was a hopeless quest, a blind alley. These were all questions that required a great deal of erudition, learning, competence in Biblical exegesis, patristics, history, metaphysics, ancient languages—in short, scholarly research.

But was it really credible (I began to ask myself) that God, if He were to reveal the truth about these disputed questions at all, would make this truth so inaccessible that only a small scholarly elite had even the faintest chance of reaching it? Wasn’t that a kind of gnosticism? Where did it leave the nonscholarly bulk of the human race? It didn’t seem to make sense. If, as they say, war is too important to be left to the generals, then revealed truth seemed too important to be left to the Biblical scholars. It was no use saying that perhaps God simply expected the non-scholars to trust the scholars. How were they to know which scholars to trust, given that the scholars all contradicted each other?

The bolded portion sums up my basic problem. As I survey the landscape, I see all these different takes on the various doctrines and other issues of great importance. And it seems that my own approach thus far is sort of a cafeteria-style Christianity. I’m rather Calvinist in soteriology. I lean toward a Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist (though that’s not fully developed…suffice it to say that I definitely see it as more than just a symbolic gesture.) I see baptism as an obedience issue rather than an actual part of the salvation process. I’m suspicious of grand hierarchical authority structures. I appreciate and even long for tradition and elements of liturgy, yet I’m loathe to switch from my more contemporary and relaxed worship style for fear of dead ritual and rote recitations. Bottom line: I pick and choose the various doctrines that seem right to me. I don’t do it arbitrarily. I give it a lot of thought and prayer. I go to the Scriptures. I try to examine my motives and as best I can, remove the tendency to favor one doctrine over another simply because it gives me warm fuzzies.

But this can’t be the right way to do this. There are millions of others just like me who do the same thing but come to very different conclusions. What seems as plain as the nose on my face to me confoundingly escapes others. And they are similarly baffled that I’ve come to the conclusions I have. No wonder we have thousands of Protestant denominations running around, each with some slightly different take on the sacraments, salvation, Bible interpretation and so on. And even the ones that adhere to a certain denomination’s take on all this fare no better. They line up their learned scholars to put forth the case for their view on these important matters against the learned scholars from another denomination yet no one moves an inch. They still argue over baptism as a means of grace necessary to salvation versus a mere sign and act of obedience that nonetheless is not salvific and dozens of other similar issues. What should we do, take the side with the highest cumulative IQ?

So what to do? How do you handle this? Do you just chalk it up to “we’ll never know until we all get to heaven?” Do you find this troubling at all? And how do you know this? Do you think this is how God intended His church to be or do you think we are supposed to actually know the answers to these questions here on earth? Give me your thoughts.

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Not really. Not that way anyway. Not the kind that spends half the day thinking one is the King of England and requires medicine.

No, I’m schizophrenic* because on the heels of the linked article at the Internet Monk’s blog and subsequent posts supporting the notion that a more traditional, mainline type church is what I’d love to find, I’m here to say that I’ve given it some thought and have concluded that I don’t know what I want.

I deplore simplistic, poorly-written modern praise choruses with their repetitiveness and “Jesus is my boyfriend” mushy sentiments, but I actually like a lot of modern praise songs and I enjoy being able to express my emotions toward God in a church setting.

I love beautiful, poetic, theologically rich hymns like “All Creatures Of Our God And King”, but there are a lot of hymns I detest. “Victory In Jesus”, “I’ll Fly Away” and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” come to mind. Do we have to sing those?

I love the beauty and formality of a traditional church sanctuary, complete with pews, kneelers, stained glass and altars, but I also like the lyrics to songs projected on the screen so I don’t have to keep looking down and if I want to lift my hands in praise to God, I don’t have to tuck the hymnal under my arm or set it down.

The idea of traditional liturgy – responsive readings, reciting of the creeds, beautiful spoken prayers from a prayer book, weekly Holy Communion – appeals to the part of me that longs for connection to our Christian history. But I do remember growing up in a church that did those kinds of things and the way people droned through the liturgy like a bunch of zombies. If I had to be subjected to that every week, it would break my heart and bore me to tears.

So what is it I want? What kind of church has all this stuff in just the right proportions? Is there such an animal? And am I being ridiculous?

* And yes, I realize that multiple personality disorder is the proper term. Work with me here. I’m just using the typical vernacular. Don’t get your undies in a bunch. :^)

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July 25th, 2007 by Michael Spencer

In Appreciation for Bishop William Willimon.

Mainline churches….we’re having a moment here.

Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ…do you know what I mean? We’re having a moment, and it’s slipping right by.

What moment?

We’re having a moment when thousands of evangelicals are getting a bellyful of the shallow, traditionless, grown up youth group religion that’s taken over their pastor’s head and is eating up their churches.

It’s a moment when people are asking if they want to hear praise bands when they are 70…or if they will even be allowed in the building when they are 70. It’s a moment when the avalanche of contemporary worship choruses has turned into one long indistinquishable commercial buzz. It’s a moment when K-Love is determining what we sing in church and that’s not a good thing.

It’s a moment when some people are wondering if their children will ever know the hymns they knew or will ever actually hold a Bible in their hand at church again. It’s a moment when a lot of people are pretty certain if they hear the words “new,” “purpose” or “seeker” one more time, they may appear on the evening news for an episode of “church rage.” …

To read the rest of the excellent post from The Internet Monk, click HERE.

The guy is spot on.

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One of the Big Issues that I’m grappling with as I evaluate the Catholic and Reformed views on salvation is the issue of assurance of salvation. The confidence in the mercy of God to handle human weakness and frailty as we grow in Christ during this life here on earth is a big deal and has been for many saints who’ve gone before from St. Augustine to Martin Luther to John Wesley.I’m struggling with the Catholic view on one being able to lose their salvation or “state of grace” as they tend to describe it. In a nutshell, there are two kinds of sins: venial and mortal. Protestants are generally unfamiliar with this idea, instead believing that “sin is sin” and while some may have more serious earthly consequences, all sin is equal in terms of eternal ramifications. But Catholics cite 1 John 5: 16, 17 as the Scriptural reason for the distinction they make:

16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.

In Catholic translations of the Bible, they actually use the phrase “mortal sin” to describe “sin leading to death.” This isn’t a big deal as the word “mortal” is used this way all the time (i.e. “mortal wound” for instance means “a wound that results in death.) Furthermore, to truly be a mortal sin, the action committed has to be a grave or serious matter (in other words, murder as opposed to breaking the speed limit or telling someone they’re new haircut is nice when you really think it’s not), the person committing it has to know that the Church considers that matter to be grave or serious and finally, the action has to be done with full consent. In other words, you didn’t do it rashly without thinking, or by accident, or under duress.

So while it isn’t easy to commit a mortal sin, Christians certainly do it. It doesn’t have to be the blatantly obvious things like murder. There’s lusting in one’s heart which is adultery according to Jesus. And obviously, unless someone had a gun to their head, they did it of their own volition. Now here’s the issue for me: in the Catholic view of things, mortal sins are named such because they actually remove the Christian from a state of grace. In Protestant language, the person in that moment loses their salvation. And should they die before going to confession and receiving absolution for that sin, they will be condemned to hell for all eternity.

Now to be sure, Catholics aren’t the only Christian group that believes one can lose salvation once obtained. Almost all Pentecostal denominations, Methodists and a host of other denominations believe that a Christian can choose to reject the faith and turn their back on God, resulting in them losing their salvation and going to hell when they die. But if you ask them how a Christian would lose salvation, you would rarely if ever get an answer that intimated that one could bounce back and forth, in and out of “being saved” with the commission of a single sin except in the most extreme circumstances. Most would describe it more as a process where the believer sins and doesn’t repent and over time, his or her heart is hardened by their sinful actions and lack of remorse and repentance to where they essentially leave the faith. On rare occasions, they may be so bold as to directly state “I renounce my faith”, but saying the words would not be a prerequisite…their heart is what is the determining factor.

If losing one’s salvation is this easy, how does one who believes this way not live in constant fear? What if our earthly fathers did this? There would be several million more teenagers out there living on the streets if they kicked their rebellious teen out the the family and out of the house everytime they willfully disobeyed their parents on matters the father considers serious. But of course, our earthly fathers (which are meant to be a representation to us of our Heavenly Father) don’t do that. We may be disciplined and it may be severe. But it would take a consistent and deliberate and unremorseful pattern of rank disobedience and defiance for most parents to even consider “the nuclear option” and kick them out or disown them. And it would probably involve things like drugs or heavy drinking, endangering the family in some way, bringing lovers over to have sex in the house and so on.

So how is it that our Heavenly Father would condemn someone to hell, whose life pattern was one of striving to grow in Christ and live a faithful life, for committing one serious sin then dying before repenting of it? And for Catholics, the list doesn’t have to be the biggies like murder, adultery or homosexual sex for instance. It could be deliberately missing Sunday Mass or some other Holy Day of Obligation (like Ash Wednesday) without a good reason such as being too sick to attend. It could be using a condom when having sex with one’s wife. It could be lusting after an immodestly dressed woman (or man). Heaven forbid that someone could have otherwise been a faithful Christian but make a poor choice in a moment of weakness then die in a car accident before the conviction of the Holy Spirit set in and they repented or made it to confession.

Now some would say that God doesn’t “kick us out,” rather, we walk out on our own. I have a hard time believing this is what’s happening. Again going back to the example above…when you disobeyed your parents on some serious matter, were you honestly leaving your family and disowning them? I’m not trying to minimize the wrongness of what you were doing, but did your parents, even when they were mad and decided to implement some seriously tough love in the form of discipline, ever take it as a decision to turn your back on the family and remove yourself from it entirely? Or did they take it as an occasion of momentary, episodic rebellion or disobedience that required correction, not abject condemnation?

Coming from more of a Lutheran or Calvinist view of salvation, I do believe in eternal security, but even if I simply held the view of more Arminian Protestants, there is still some assurance that God doesn’t kick you to the curb right away. Sin breaks fellowship with God and there are certainly possible consequences to that…missing out on provision or blessings, living with guilt and the accompanying spiritual turmoil, God handing out some kind of direct discipline and chastisement or even a desensitizing to sin that makes it easier to give in the next time and take you further down that path toward rejecting Him altogether. But I wouldn’t live in mortal fear that I had immediately lost my salvation. I would trust that God would be convicting me of sin and working to restore full fellowship with me, not that I would cease to be one of His children any longer.

How do Catholics deal with this?

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This won’t be a terribly long entry, but I just wanted to comment on an interesting exchange I had on a message board with someone of a more Reformed background. As I’m working through all this stuff in my head, I’m engaging Catholics and Protestants in some debate over various differences in doctrine between the camps, playing a little Devil’s Advocate to see if I can dig deeper than the stock apologetic responses each side tends to give.

So at one point in the discussion I ask how Reformed Guy knows that his interpretation of a particular passage is the correct one. His response was basically that the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses ask the same question and accuses me of saying that we can’t know anything that Scripture says since almost every passage in the Bible has more than one interpretation. This is an obvious red herring because I’m not talking about cults that come up with novel interpretations of Scripture or completely new doctrines that can’t be found in any writing of the earliest Christians. I’m talking about a passage that, for instance, Catholics take literally and Protestants interpret figuratively or vice versa. How do we know who is right?

Here’s the ironic part. He goes on to criticize my appeal to early Christian writings as a typical Roman Catholic apologetic tactic then tosses out this little barb at the end:

“It is clear that the Catholic church says they do not teach or practice idolatry, but it is equally clear that they do in fact teach and practice idolatry. Of course in the post-evangelical mindset, we forget history and adopt a post-modern approach to defining what it means to be a Christian.”

So help me out here: when interpreting Scripture we shouldn’t appeal to the writings of the earliest Christians, many of whom were contemporaries or direct disciples of the Apostles to help us understand how to interpret difficult passages because “that’s what Roman Catholics do”, but at the same time our problem in not interpreting Scripture correctly and understading what it means to be a Christian stems from forgetting history? Which is it? Do I look to Christian history as a guide and context for understanding the Bible or not? Or is it that only history before 90 A.D. and after 1517 is legitimate to appeal to as a guide for interpretation?

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Phos Hilaron

For those curious about Phos Hilaron, click here

The translation I’m most familiar with is by John Keble. You may be familiar with the song by Chris Tomlin called “Hail Gladdening Light” which uses this translation in the lyrics:

Hail, gladdening Light, of His pure glory poured
Who is th’immortal Father, heavenly, blest,
Holiest of Holies–Jesus Christ our Lord!

Now we are come to the sun’s hour of rest;
The lights of evening round us shine;
We hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit divine!

Worthiest art thou at all times to be sung
With undefiled tongue,
Son of our God, giver of life, alone:
Therefore in all the world thy glories, Lord, thy own. Amen.

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First, a little background since none of you know me from Adam. You can decide later if you care.

I’m an evangelical Protestant. I’ve been a Christian since shortly before my 17th birthday and am coming up on the 20-year anniversary of the day I came to Christ. I grew up in the Methodist church but when my parents divorced around age 14, I started attending an Assemblies of God church. It was here that I first encountered people who seemed to have a real and personal relationship with Christ and enjoyed coming to church on Sundays. Unfortunately, the Methodist church I attended was dead and stale and most of the people seemed to be just punching a time card because going to church is What You’re Supposed To Do.

So anyway, it’s in this Pentecostal environment that I came to know Christ. After I graduated college and moved to another city, I attended other kinds of churches: a non-denominational charismatic church (which interestingly was Calvinist in its soteriology), a Presbyterian (PCA) church and finally settled upon a non-denominational Evangelical church that was basically Calvinist in and believed in expository preaching, yet was contemporary and informal in style. I loved the place and still do.

But I’m at a crossroads.

I’ve moved back to my hometown to get closer to family (so my children can see their grandparents more) and take a job that pays better and has better future prospects. We’re attending a good church now, but I’m less than satisfied if I’m being honest. I’m longing for something but I’m not sure what. I’m dismayed by the continuing drift and divisions in Protestant churches. A good friend of mine who also attended the AG church I came to Christ in recently converted to Catholicism. And this is someone I deeply respect. He’s got a good head on his shoulders. He deeply loves God and wants to follow His commands. He doesn’t make rash decisions or jump from fad to fad. In fact, he grew up in the AG denomination and remained there until converting, so he’s way less of a religious mutt than I am. Yet he read the writings of the early church fathers extensively and prayed for several months and decided that the Catholic Church was what it claimed to be and joined it.

Well, that got me curious. First of all, I wanted to be able to converse knowledgeably with him. I love discussing theology and wanted to know where he was coming from. But second, I realized that his conversion, coupled with my interactions with a couple of wonderful Catholic friends online was really making me want to know more about my faith from a historical perspective. Even as I’ve enjoyed things like modern praise music (done well) and more informal worship services, I’ve quietly lamented the lack of connection to our history as Christians not only on an individual level, but in our corporate expressions of worship as well. Over the last year or so, I’ve found myself drawn more to old hymns, even if redone with more modern arrangements because of the poetic lyrics and deep theological truths they expressed. I loved it when our church would recite the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed or Phos Hilaron (as translated by John Keble) as I felt such a deep connection to generations of Christians centuries before me in reciting the same words they said, but those occasions were all too rare (though more than most contemporary-style churches I’ve known). I wondered why in all the striving for cultural relevance, we’d seemingly lost the sense of awe and mystery in Holy Communion (did we ever have it?), and why we don’t partake of it more often.

I wondered why as Protestants, we more or less trace our Christian history back to the 1500s and Martin Luther, then leap back 15 centuries to the approximate date the Apostle John died. We never talk about it. Did the church cease to exist for 1500 of the last 2000 years? Did pagan influences and corrupt theology and doctrine come barging in immediately after the Apostles died? There are probably different answers to that question that would attribute varying degrees of apostasy and theological error to the Apostles successors, but the point is, we almost act like those 1500 years never existed. Or if they did, nothing between about A.D. 90 and 1517 has, nor should it have, any bearing on our understanding of the Bible and our Christian faith. I don’t know how to answer that but it seems preposterous on its face. So, all of this has brought me to something of a crisis of faith. Not between having faith in God or not having faith in God or debating his existence. It’s more of a crisis over what the Christian faith is. Being raised a Protestant and becoming something of a Calvinist in soteriology about 10 years ago, I thought I was done figuring out the big stuff. But the more I read of the writings of the early church…men who risked all they had and often paid with their very lives…the more I found that they believed an awful lot of stuff we Protestants eschewed long ago in our quest to get back to the primacy of Scripture and dispense with unnecessary man-made traditions. My head is spinning and I’m not sure where it’s going to go from here. Maybe this blog will help me sort it all out.

I just want the truth, no matter where it leads.

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