Kevin DeYoung on fads in the church

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This is a very encouraging perspective from Kevin DeYoung. Although, of course, he is speaking about the church in America, most of what he says here also applies to our own situation in South Africa. My friends and I have often bewailed the state of the church (in general) in South Africa, and I would’ve sometimes found myself on the brink of despair if it wasn’t for the knowledge and firm conviction that God has always preserved his church even in the worst of times. Even a brief glance at church history confirms this (one of the many reasons why a good grasp of church history is extremely important). Due to globalization and the import of trends from America, we face much of the same challenges the church in America faces. This is from DeYoung’s book Why We Love the Church, p. 217-219:

“One of my criticisms of the evangelical church is that every decade or so a new round of voices emerge to tell us that the church is about to implode and there will be no Christian presence left for our children unless we change everything, like, right now. I’m not old enough to recall many of the fads that have come and gone. But I do remember when seeker-sensitive churches were all the rage and a contemporary worship style would supposedly solve everything. So we plugged in the guitars, turned up the lights, and made the sermons more practical. Trinity Church became Apple Blossom Community Church, and First Lutheran became Celebration of Life Church. Today, missional is all the rage and we’re told that a little more attention to Starbucks culture will supposedly fix what ails the church. We’ve plugged into liturgy, turned down the lights, and made the sermons more dialogical. Christ Church has become The Journey and First Baptist now holds a 10:03 Fusion gathering. This too shall pass.

According to George Barna, ‘The window of opportunity for reaching Americans with the gospel appears to be closing rapidly.’ The fascinating thing is Barna wrote this back in 1990. The window must almost be shut by now. If the Christian community was in 1990 already ‘losing the battle’ and the forecast for the decade was ‘mostly cloudy,’ surely the church must be about ready to throw in the towel on the edge of the 2010s. For Barna, the church always seems to be failing, which in turn always necessitates doing church differently, or in the case of Revolution, the latest Barna offering, not doing church at all.

But for the life of me I can’t figure out why so many evangelicals got their knickers in a twist over the latest trends. We need a little perspective. What’s hot and new now will, unless it is the rediscovery of something old and biblical, end up being embarrassingly out of date and unhelpful in just a few years. For example, in his ‘classic’ Frog in the Kettle, Barna argued that responding to ‘felt needs through highly personalized messages’ was the answer to declining attendance figures. Now hardly anyone talks of felt needs and personalized messages. This kind of preaching is seen as stale, recycled self-help psychology, and out of touch. The services in 1990 were supposed ‘to shed existing attitudes of piety and [solemnness], in favor of attitudes of anticipation, joy and fulfillment.’ Such a service would seem inauthentic by today’s standards. Now the worship service is supposed to be in touch with the raw, authentic pain of our doubting selves. Among the achievable goals for the 1990s were ‘restoring self-esteem’ and ‘championing Christian morals’ by making the legislative, judicial, and administrative ends of our government responsive to a higher order of thoughts. Today, admitting our dysfunctions is the thing to do and few things are more lampooned by the cutting-edge missional folks more than attempts on the Religious Right to legislate our morality. In 1990, Barna argued that ‘whatever barriers and difficulties may face the Church today, having enough local churches is not the issue.’ He figured (incorrectly) that there would be a net gain of fifty thousand churches in the 1990s. Today, there is hardly a church executive out there who isn’t making the case for more churches and hardly a denomination of any stripe that doesn’t consider church planting one of its top priorities.

I don’t mean to pick on Barna, but because he has often written about how the chutch needs to change, he provides a nice test case. And very often, his descriptions of the present and prescriptions for the future do not pass the test. The 1990s were supposed to be ‘a time in which the Church will either explode with new growth or quietly fade into a colorless thread in the fabric of secular culture.’ Wrong and wrong. The church did not explode in growth and it did not fade into oblivion. By conservative estimates, there were 52 million people in church on the weekends back in 1990 and there were 52 million in church each week in 2005 (see chapter 1).

This book is not meant to be an apology for nothing but more of the same; rather, it’s a plea for realism. Things are not the worst they’ve ever been. The end of the church in America is not nigh upon us. There are grave failings in the church, in the evangelical church as much as anywhere. We need better preaching, better theology, more love for Jesus, more involvement in our neighborhoods, more evangelism, more crosscultural missions, more generosity, more biblical literacy, less worldliness, less trend-tracing, and better discipleship. The church in this country will always have something-many things-to work on. But in the midst of our struggles, we need to guard against wild hyperbole. We need to exercise more caution before we pronounce the end of the church as we know it. We need a little more humility before we announce everything must change. And we need a little more wisdom before we reinvent the church for yet another time-let alone before we pitch her to the curb altogether.”

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Carl Trueman on pornography, sitcoms, and prime-time network entertainment

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“Christians have, on the whole, been pretty sharp at spotting the evils of pornography, simply considered. After all, porn is morally lethal in the way that having one’s brains beaten out with a baseball bat is physically lethal: both the medium and its effects are crude, obvious, and actually relatively easy to avoid if you see the bat coming at your head and manage to duck in time. But sitcoms and prime-time network entertainment are deadly in a different way. As carbon monoxide creeps through a house and is undetectable until the effects are irreversible and necessarily lethal, so the drip-drip-drip of prime time slowly but surely dulls the moral brain cells of those who uncritically absorb its messages and its projected lifestyle with no awareness of how they are being transformed, even manipulated, by the propagandistic virtual reality to which they are exposed.”

– Carl Trueman, Minority Report, p. 133

Carl Trueman on the result of not elaborating on our doctrinal assertions

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“Belief in divine sovereignty that is not susceptible to elaboration in terms of other issues (providence, predestination, grace, etc) becomes less a declaration about who God is in relation to his creation and more the objectification of that warm, fuzzy, and ultimately nebulous, feeling that somehow, in some way, God is in control and everything will be OK in the end—though one cannot then put any flesh on the bones by probing what ‘in control’ might actually mean. And a declaration of belief in the supreme authority of Scripture becomes little more than a psychological commitment to the idea that Scripture is really rather more important than any other writing, though exactly how and why this should be the case cannot be stated with any clarity.”

– Carl Trueman, Minority Report, p. 129

John Calvin (1509-1564): We are cleansed by his blood

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“When we say, that grace was obtained for us by the merit of Christ, our meaning is, that we were cleansed by his blood, that his death was an expiation for sin, ‘His blood cleanses us from all sin.’ ‘This is my blood, which is shed for the remission of sins,’ (1 John 1:7; Luke 22:20). If the effect of his shed blood is, that our sins are not imputed to us, it follows, that by that price the justice of God was satisfied. To the same effect are the Baptist’s words, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,’ (John 1:29). For he contrasts Christ with all the sacrifices of the Law, showing that in him alone was fulfilled what these figures typified. But we know the common expression in Moses—Iniquity shall be expiated, sin shall be wiped away and forgiven. In short, we are admirably taught by the ancient figures what power and efficacy there is in Christ’s death. And the Apostle, skilfully proceeding from this principle, explains the whole matter in the Epistle to the Hebrews, showing that without shedding of blood there is no remission (Heb. 9:22). From this he infers, that Christ appeared once for all to take away sin by the sacrifice of himself. Again, that he was offered to bear the sins of many (Heb. 9:12). He had previously said, that not by the blood of goats or of heifers, but by his own blood, he had once entered into the holy of holies, having obtained eternal redemption for us. Now, when he reasons thus, ‘If the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself to God, purge your consciences from dead works to serve the living God?’ (Heb. 9:13, 14), it is obvious that too little effect is given to the grace of Christ, unless we concede to his sacrifice the power of expiating, appeasing, and satisfying: as he shortly after adds, ‘For this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of his death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance,’ (Heb. 9:15). But it is especially necessary to attend to the analogy which is drawn by Paul as to his having been made a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). It had been superfluous and therefore absurd, that Christ should have been burdened with a curse, had it not been in order that, by paying what others owed, he might acquire righteousness for them. There is no ambiguity in Isaiah’s testimony, ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was laid upon him; and with his stripes we are healed,’ (Is. 53:5). For had not Christ satisfied for our sins, he could not be said to have appeased God by taking upon himself the penalty which we had incurred. To this corresponds what follows in the same place, ‘for the transgression of my people was he stricken,’ (Is. 53:8). We may add the interpretation of Peter, who unequivocally declares, that he ‘bare our sins in his own body on the tree,’ (1 Pet. 2:24), that the whole burden of condemnation, of which we were relieved, was laid upon him.”

– John Calvin (1509-1564), Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.xvii.4.

William Willimon: Seminary too hard?

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“In calling us into gospel service, God promises us that nothing worse shall happen to us than happened to Jesus. Therefore, we do well to reflect upon the practice of ministry, to work diligently to acquire the skills necessary to be faithful to this high vocation. The virtues required to be a good pastor – wisdom, truth telling, courage, compassion, study – do not come naturally to most of us. So our first duty is to work. Our second duty is to pray daily that God will give us what we need to fulfill the vocation to which God has called us. Work and pray. Labor et Orans. We work under the prayerful conviction that God is able to provide what God demands.

Sometimes seminarians complain that the seminary’s expectations of them are too demanding, that the course is too difficult, or that it is placing academic burdens upon them that they cannot bear. Perhaps they feel that their sincerity and their sense of vocation are enough to sustain them in their ministry. They are wrong.

I remind them that I did not call them into the ministry. I am sorry if they have been misled, but the pastoral ministry is a very difficult way to earn a living, and our Master can be very demanding, despite his reassurance of a light burden and an easy yoke.”

– William Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, p. 24-25

Francis Schaeffer (1912–1984) on observable love between true Christians as the “final apologetic”

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“Yet, without true Christians loving one another, Christ says the world cannot be expected to listen, even when we give proper answers. Let us be careful, indeed, to spend a lifetime studying to give honest answers. For years the orthodox,evangelical church has done this very poorly. So it is well to spend time learning to answer the questions of men who are about us. But after we have done our best to communicate to a lost world, still we must never forget that the final apologetic which Jesus gives is the observable love of true Christians for true Christians.”

– Francis Schaeffer (1912–1984), The Great Evangelical Disaster, p. 164-165

Schaeffer was careful to acknowledge in the pages before this quote the necessity of examining the profession people make for Christ which is why he added the adjective “true” in front of the noun “Christian”. And he was just as careful to guard against the tendency to encourage a non-thinking form of apologetic in the church, the sort that would only support a naive form of observable love as the final apologetic.

What he is making much of here is the type of observable love that can only be done in the presence of true Christians who know their differences but are able because of Christ’ own pattern to consider others better than themselves and to serve them and sacrifice for them out of love.

I believe that this final apologetic is often an absent apologetic. People typically describe apologetics as something the church does outwardly for the sake of truth and polemics as something the church does inwardly for the sake of truth, but I think Schaeffer ingeniously explores their overlap here. Our defense before the world is dependent of how we function on a communal level inwardly.

Happiness as the end of man: Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and the Beatific vision

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1. Why Are We Here?

This life often does not make sense to us. It can seem like a wildly fun ride one moment, and a terrifying roller coaster the next. Undeserving people often seem to have it easy, while “the really good ones” can get thrown to the ground over and over again.

So what gives? I think that a lot of our issues derive from misguided expectations. We (rightly) desire happiness, and it seems like life is kind of pointless if we can’t get it. It’s easy enough for a Christian to say, “Oh but we have heaven to look forward to!”, but in the face of real suffering, especially when it seems pointless, that can ring rather hollow. As has often been pointed out, suffering can prepare us for something better.

But what is this “something better”?

For the answer to this question, we can learn from Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), whose answer was (ultimate) happiness.

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2. Thomas Aquinas: “Treatise on Happiness”

Thomas’ magnum opus, Summa Theologica, has three major sections: (1) God and his Creatures, (2) Man’s Happiness in General and Particular Virtues & Vices, and (3) Jesus Christ (who can account for 1 and 2). Sections I-II, q. 1-5 are known collectively as The Treatise on Happiness. Here Thomas deals with the subject of what mankind is “here for.” After this, Thomas considers things in which man’s happiness consists. This will be briefly summarized below.

2.1. Acting Toward “Ends”

“Now the end is the principle in human operations, as the Philosopher states. Therefore it belongs to man to do everything for an end.”  Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)

 

All people are moved by their will toward some goal. If this were not true, then we would not do one thing rather than another. We could not make choices if we had no means of doing so, nor any standard by which to know which choices to make.

Our wills have an “appetite” for goodness. Whenever we choose to do something, we are always doing so for some good that our mind apprehends. Even if what we do is a bad thing, we still do it for some good that we wish to obtain (e.g. stealing to obtain money). That’s just how the will is, I don’t think any elaboration is necessary here.

“According as their end is worthy of blame or praise so are our deeds worthy of blame or praise.” – Augustine (354–430), De Mor. Eccl. et Manich. ii, 13

 

Our acts are considered human acts (not just acts of humans – like sleeping or breathing), when they proceed from a deliberate will. The principle of human acts is the end. This is to say that human acts are judged according to their goals. For example, if I drown trying to save a drowning child it is not considered suicide and punished, but rather heroic and rewarded. Thus, whenever we do something we:

  1. have a reason for doing so
  2. that reason is for some good (N.B. – not necessarily a moral good)
  3. our acts are judged based on the reason for doing them (their end)

2.2. An Ultimate “End”

If we try to trace out the good our wills seek, we must realize that it is not possible to proceed indefinitely in the matter of ends. If there were no last end (intent), nothing would be desired, nor would any action have its goal, nor would we ever come to see an act as truly finished.

This is exemplified well when toddlers keep asking why something is the case. At some point you just have to say “because.” It cannot go on ad infinitum, or there would be no reason at all.

Further, this ultimate end must be one. The will cannot be directed to many things at the same time if all of them are ultimate. Chaos would ensue, decisions could not be made. It would be intolerable, for our will’s appetite would never really be satisfied. It may seem like this is the case anyway, but keep reading – this is actually part of the evidence for Thomas’ ultimate conclusion.

Finally, the ultimate good presupposes intermediate goods. Our wills can tend toward these as well, for we desire all under the aspect of good even if it is not the perfect good, and therefore it follows that one need not always be thinking of the last end.

2.3. Identifying the Ultimate End

“All men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness.” – Augustine (354–430), De Trin. xiii, 3

 

It might not seem like everyone could agree on an ultimate end. Different people have different desires. However, they all desire those different things for the same reason – the thing in which the last end is realized. In other words – everyone wants what they want because it is good, and possessing good things makes us happy.

Thomas notes that Aristotle (384–322 BC) says, “man’s ultimate happiness consists in his most perfect contemplation.” (Ethic. x) But above this happiness there is still another, which we look forward to in the future. This is perfect happiness, what Thomas calls Beatitude, or the Beatific vision. It is the ultimate perfection of our intellect and will – full knowledge and full goodness, leaving behind no remainder for these appetites to “hunger” for. All other things that people might consider as their ultimate end turn out to be means they use to attempt to attain this true end. Let us then look at these “other things” and finally at the Beatific vision.

External Goods

For example – what about external goods?

  • Wealth? No. Our ultimate happiness cannot consist in material wealth because money is only sought for the sake of acquiring something else,
  • Honour? No. Honour is given to a person because of some excellence that is in the person honoured. Being excellent certainly makes one happy, but if such an excellence is already possessed, honour does not add to it.
  • Fame? No. Man’s happiness cannot consist in human fame or glory because in order to attain it, others must know of that which would give one fame. Because knowledge often fails, human glory is frequently deceptive.  As Boethius (c. 480–524) puts it, “Many owe their renown to the lying reports spread among the people. Can anything be more shameful?” (De Consol, iii).
  • Power? No. It is impossible for ultimate happiness to consist in power because power can be used for both good and evil, and evil, by definition, cannot be the ultimate good.

Happiness is man’s supreme good, it is incompatible with any evil, but all the above (and others alleged ultimate goods) can be found both in good and in evil people. Further, ultimate happiness cannot lack any needful good, but after acquiring any one of the foregoing, one may still lack many goods that are necessary to him. Furthermore, one could lose wealth, honour, fame and power – which causes fear of loss. Thus none can bring ultimate happiness.

Bodily Goods

Perhaps once external goods are eliminated as being truly ultimate, personal goods such as the body itself may be considered. After all, the external goods are mostly means to attaining goods for the body, right?

No, Thomas says this will not do either!

It is impossible for man’s happiness to consist in the goods of the body, because while humans surpasses all other animals in regard to happiness, in bodily goods we are surpassed by many animals. This is not usually considered a problem, for things differ in what is good for them depending on what they are. It would not be considered a good, for example, for a human to wallow in the mud, but it is a good for a pig.

Now, humans are composed of soul and body (some would argue for a trichotomy of body, soul and spirit, which is another discussion altogether, but this dichotomy of soul and body will suffice ad hoc). While the body depends on the soul, the soul does not depend on the body. Thus, the soul has a primacy for us that it does not for animals, which cease to exist upon death. Because bodily delights require a body, and the body is not the highest principle of a human person, no goods for the body can be the human being’s ultimate good.

The Good of the Soul

It might seem like we have now reached the end of our quest for the ultimate end. If not in our own soul, then where? Thomas does not think so, though, because the soul is made for other things. We attain happiness through our souls, but not because of them (otherwise simply being a human would be perfect happiness, as being human requires having a soul). Thus Thomas concludes that, ”happiness is something belonging to the soul; but that which constitutes happiness is something outside the soul.”

Uncreated Goodness

If nothing external, nor internal, to us can be the ultimate good that will make us ultimately happy, then what is left? Those two categories cover all of creation! It must not, then, be something that is created.

Here is Thomas’ step-by-step explanation:

  1. Happiness is the perfect good, which would not be the last end, if something yet remained to be desired.
  2. Now the object of the will, i.e. of man’s appetite, is the universal good; just as the object of the intellect is the universal true.
  3. Hence it is evident that naught can satisfy man’s will, save the universal good.
  4. This is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone; because every creature has goodness by participation. God is goodness per se.
  5. Therefore, God alone can satisfy the will of man.

3. The Ultimate End: Happiness in God

God alone constitutes man’s happiness. God is the ultimate end of man and, indeed, of all other things. Eternal life is said to be the last end, as is clear from John 17:3: “This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God.”

Because humans have the two appetites of the intellect and will – truth and goodness – God, who alone is infinite truth and goodness, alone can perfectly satisfy man’s intellect and will. Therefore, if we are to attain our last end and ultimate happiness, we must know and love God, thereby satisfying both the intellect and the will.

But love is the desiring of good as well as unity with the good sought. Man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek, and while on earth we can only attain the finite goods offered to us by creation (one reason why idolatry is so tempting – cf. Romans 1:18-23). But “When He shall appear, we shall be like to Him; and we shall see Him as He is.” (1 John 3:2). Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence – which we will get in heaven. And this is the Beatific vision.

Thus can Thomas conclude:

“Consequently, for perfect happiness the intellect needs to reach the very Essence of the First Cause. And thus it will have its perfection through union with God as with that object, in which alone man’s happiness consists.” – Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)

Augustine (354–430) stated it so memorably in his Confessions, I.i:

“Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.”

And lest we forget, the answer was in the Bible all the time:

“And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” – Revelation 21:3-4