Saturday, September 29, 2007

Interview with John Stott

A few years ago I interviewed John R. Stott for an article in my seminary newspaper (Gordon-Conwell in Massachuesetts). Very few saw that original article, so I thought I would reprint it here. At the time, I was wrestling through a few theological questions and thought I'd ask Dr. Stott to weigh in. For those of you who don't know, Dr. Stott is an evangelical Anglican who was recently described in the New York Times by, I believe, David Cromartie, who said, "If Evangellicals could elect a pope, it would be John Stott."

Brian Kay: In your ministry you have emphasized what you term BBC, or Balanced Biblical Christianity. What areas of potential imbalance do you see as temptations for those preparing for ministry in evangelical churches?

Stott: Frankly there are so many examples of evangelical imbalance that it would be difficult to know which to select, but I would like to begin with a question that I was asked just now which relates to the case of devotional life in theological studies. I quoted to that person something which is attributed to Bishop Moule. He said that we must be aware equally of an undevotional theology and of an untheological devotion, and that is a good example of balance. Now there are plenty of men and women who go to seminary and gain their academic excellence, which is fine, but their spiritual life suffers. They leave an academic success and a spiritual failure. And then of course, there are the people who go the other way; they are such men and women of God that they don’t care about academic excellence. But I believe that we need in the ordained pastoral ministry today people who combine academic excellence with personal godliness. The two are more or less equally important.

Kay: In order to insure proper balance in our Christian intellectual life, you have spoken of biblical agnosticism, that we should avoid forming doctrinal beliefs in areas where the Bible does not speak clearly. Which such areas do you believe evangelicals have shown unwarranted dogmatism?

Stott: I think my phrase was not areas in which the Bible does not speak but areas in which the Bible does not speak with absolute clarity. When the Reformers talked about the perspicuity of scripture, they were not referring to the whole of the Bible but to the central message of salvation—in Christ, by grace, through faith—and that is as plain as day. Evangelical people who take the Scripture as their authority are 95 percent agreed on these central doctrines of the faith—but then there were these areas in which the Scripture is not so clear which the Reformers referred to as the adiaphora, the matters indifferent, in which scripture is not equally plain. These would include questions concerning baptism, such as the particular volume of water that is necessary to validate a baptism or whether you should only baptize adult believers or the children of adult believers as well. It would include our particular understanding of the ministry, I think. It would include prophetic questions, of course, the millennium and the interpretation of biblical prophecy. These are some of the areas, although there are a great many more, in which Christians ought to give one another liberty. I’m sure you know the phrase which is attributed to Rupert Muldinious. Nobody knows quite who he was (some think he was a pseudonym for Richard Baxter, round about the Puritan period). He said that in essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty and in all things charity. We’re talking about the second—nonessentials. How do we know that they are nonessentials or that they are adiaphora? Because Scripture isn’t so clear or because equally biblical Christians, equally anxious to be submissive to the Scripture, come to different conclusions. These then seem to me to deserve to be called adiaphora.

Kay: For Protestantism, documents like the Westminster Confession or the 39 Articles have been historic standards of belief and practice. However, the length of these confessions seem to dwarf many of the short statements of faith that our churches use today. Should we view this trend as a sign of properly applied biblical agnosticism or as a watering down of historic doctrine?

Stott: I think we need to realize that churches that have produced confessions have tended to produce two, one a baptismal confession for members and the other a much fuller confession for teachers of the faith. The Apostles’ Creed is regarded as the baptismal faith of Christians, at least in the Church of England of which I am. Candidates of baptism either have to recite the Apostles’ Creed, which is a basic statement of Trinitarian faith, or they are asked whether they believe it as it is recited for them. The Creed is a pretty elementalist statement focusing on Jesus (though actually Trinitarian) which we believe to be so basic that people shouldn’t be baptized if they don’t believe it. In our Anglican situation, it was the 39 Articles, of course, which were the fuller statement. It was never intended that members should subscribe to the 39 Articles at baptism, but it was intended from the beginning that clergy should subscribe. Indeed, when I was ordained it was still the rule in the Church of England that you assented to the 39 Articles before the bishop ordained you and that in each new church to which you went as a minister you had to recite all the 39 Articles. In fact, for about 20 years at All Soul’s Church I used to recite them every year and then preach on one of them.

Kay: Church discipline is usually considered appropriate not just for moral failure but for areas of doctrine as well. Should we base our discipline on the standard of a more basic document, such as the Apostles’ Creed, rather than on a longer confession?

Stott: I would. Perhaps with one exception—one of the main gaps in the Apostles’ Creed is any reference to justification by grace through faith. Salvation is mentioned in the Nicene Creed, but there is no doctrine of the cross—there is no atonement. I would say that there should be discipline, I don’t know about members but certainly for teachers, if they don’t subscribe to the really basic things. These would include the virgin birth, the atoning death and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. But then again, for BBC, the church has always oscillated between extremes of laxity and discipline, and I don’t want us to get back to a very severe discipline where you’re excommunicating people every other day. I think the New Testament indicates that it’s only for very serious offenses, either belief or practice, that excommunication should be considered, and then only as the final resort.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Let's Not Give Up on "Sin"

As a pastor, I’ve learned that one of the realities of my job is to receive unsolicited performance reviews after the Sunday service— sometimes from people I’ve barely met. Alternately, I find myself humbled, flattered, encouraged, insulted, and confused. It's a part of church work that I wouldn’t trade for anything. There is one visitor’s comment, however, that I’ve heard enough times that I’ve begun to take a little more notice. It’s usually phrased something like this: “I like it when you talked about God’s love, but did you have to keep talking about sin?”

The psychiatrist Karl Meninger wrote a book a few decades ago called Whatever Became of Sin? Meninger’s question is still worth asking. It seems that “sin,” as a serious word to describe the dark side of human motivation, has almost fallen out of use. It certainly has lost its broad appeal. When the word makes a rare appearance, it usually serves two very opposite purposes. Either it describes only the worst kind of atrocities, or it acts as comic relief—sort of a playful jab at the overly scrupulous (“Let us tempt you with our Sin-Sationally Rich Chocolate Sundae!”).

Why the recent twisting of such a long-used word? With embarrassment, Christians must admit to some (not all) of the blame. Certain periods of American Christianity have suggested that sin is coequal with drinking any amount of alcohol, playing cards, and dancing. The rest of the culture looks at the Church in such times and sighs, “Oh, brother.” I call this the silly-ification of sin, and it makes my job harder. What’s worse, when “sin” is trivialized in this way, the word loses much of its original power.

The New Testament has another view of sin altogether, one that makes the word worth keeping in our vocabulary. Sin was a deeply complex topic for Jesus and the apostles, yet one very simple term was often used to describe it: the Greek epithymia, which is best translated “over-desire.” Sin, therefore, is not simply the desire for the wrong things, but a disproportionate over-desire for anything, even good things. To appreciate a sleek car is not sin, but to over-desire it by believing that your life is somehow incomplete without it, is greed. Over-desire shows itself as the root of all kinds of sin. Having a good reputation is certainly desirable, but if you over-desire to protect your reputation, you will be tempted to lie or dodge criticism whenever you fear someone may discover your faults. The sin of bitterness has a similar cause. Because God made us, we have built-in dignity and worth. But, if we over-desire that others respect our dignity, we will succumb to bitterness or even hatred when someone doesn’t give us the respect that we demand. Have you ever surprised yourself by flaring-up at another driver who didn’t afford you the courtesy of his turn signal? The Bible says, “Don’t be so surprised,” for to be even slightly snubbed is a crisis for the one who is over-committed to getting the appreciation of others.

If we neutralize such thoughts and motivations by simply calling them “defense mechanisms” or even “personality flaws,” we underestimate their damaging effects. In fact, the greatest underlying human problem, which really defines all sin, is that we desire other things more than we desire God. We regularly seek our ultimate pleasure in things that were never designed to bear that responsibility—they just aren’t weighty enough. Ironically, even those who set out for a great career, a loving family, a good reputation, and then attain their goals, often report a nagging restlessness that something is still missing (and so we divorce, change careers, etc.).

Jesus taught that there is only one thing that can’t be over-desired, one thing that is substantial enough to be the anchor for our souls: himself. Jesus said that knowing and serving him actually brings about the satisfaction that we failingly (and sinfully) seek in so many other places. Blaise Pascal said it this way: “Inside every man’s heart is a God-shaped vacuum.” That is, though we try to fill ourselves with meaning by any number of people, possessions, and good causes, only God is shaped to fit. So, in the end, sins are not the arbitrary no-no’s of a Heavenly Kill-Joy, but the dangerous pursuits that prevent us from gaining the great Joy-Giver himself. Keeping a rough word like “sin” in our vocabulary reminds us that displacing God is not just a lifestyle choice, but is tragedy in the truest sense.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Late Night Thoughts on Arcade Fire and Prayer

Briefly: there is a fine line between desperate, honest, yet reverent prayer to God, and the overt disbelief and God-condemning renuncation of God, to his face. In a way, one might say "fine line? what could be more disparate than a hurting soul crying out to God for relief versus a soul that renunces God?" Ah, but Psalm 88 proves the line really is fine - this psalm would be almost unsingable in churches today, even though it was once sung by the ancient faithful without sense of contradiction. If you haven't read Psalm 88, you might have an overly pretty-ified view of prayer. Now, Arcade Fire is a band that a lot of Christians are excited about (as well as a lot of non-Christians -- seriously, U2 and David Bowie both have taken the stage with these guys - the latter whose recent album is entitled "Heathen" while the former's lead singer has declared his Christian faith in increasingly overt ways lately). My question: is Arcade Fire singing Ps. 88's or are they shrugging off Christianity itself in their lyrics? Which side of the line are they on? Maybe others have settled this question, and I see no evidence that Arcade Fire's talented artists make any public Christian claims (which is fine in itself, even if any of them are Christians). Maybe the answer doesn't matter -- speaking as a true believer, these songs make sense, even if I'm wrongly interpreting them from my side of the line. Their album "Funeral" is jaw-dropping, and, as one post-er said, "if you dont' cry at this, you are dead inside." Overstated? A little, but not by much (though if you're over the age of fifty, I'll let you off the hook for reasons of changing generational aesthetics).

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Micah and Justice

Well, I've been a fairly unfaithful blogger lately, I'm sorry to say! Let's start things up again with a short and painless entry. What follows is a pre-press reflection on Micah 6:6-8 that Fuller Theological Seminary asked me to write for their Southern California newsletter. Faithful Enormous Hippo readers like you will get it first.

"Doing Liturgy, Doing Love"

The prophetic injunction in Micah 6:6-8 is exactly the kind of warning one would expect a highly ordered (scripturally ordered, no less) worshipping community like Israel might need to hear fairly often. It is as if Micah said, “never let this good, divinely-inspired liturgy (burnt offerings, calves, rams, oil) replace love (doing “justice” and “mercy”). Christians should not over-read this text as if it were privileging acts of mercy over acts of worship, as if the two were somehow in essential contradiction. We can imagine some choice words that Micah might have had for an Aaronic priest who heard Micah 6:6-8 and then declared, “Yes, mercy is what matters, not worship! Until we achieve social justice in Israel, we’re calling off the morning and evening sacrifices, as well as Passover and Pentecost.” As long as God remains the loving Redeemer of his people, the corporate worship of the people is the obvious, proper, and instinctive response of the redeemed.

But the sin crouching at the door is to make the zealousness or regularity of our worship acts into bankable credits that can buy us out of the harder work of loving the unlovely and resisting unjust powers. It is always easier to sing a hymn than to “do advocacy” or the even harder work of, say, spending an hour caring for an emotionally needy person. The front page of the New York Times yesterday described the resurgence of liberation theology in Brazil , on the eve of Pope Benedict’s visit – the same man who, twenty-five years ago, helped write his church’s official denunciations of the movement. But in light of Micah’s words, even Protestant/Evangelical-me must admit (with the liberationists) that some engagement with causes of justice is part of my mandate as a follower of a justice loving God, and (with the Pope) that service without a heart that delights in the God who offers a greater “inner liberty” (Ratzinger’s phrase) in Christ is just a different kind of vanity and emptiness.

In the end, the best way to pursue “justice and mercy” without eclipsing the worship of the triune God is to look at the cross. Calvary keeps us from the easy moralism of much activism because it shows us that we ourselves would have been the just target of divine retribution apart from Jesus’ advocacy for us. And deeds of mercy are now calibrated as responses to a greater cross-shaped mercy we have received, not as abstract works of obedience or mere moral duty. On the other hand, the cross moves us to worship because it shows us the willing condescension of a God who was eager to give us mercy instead of justice , welcome instead of exile. Pouring out “ten thousand rivers of oil” for such a God would be, even still, too meager an act of worship.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Augustine for 2007

It makes very little sense for a thirty-seven year old man like myself to commend to you the writings of someone like Augustine of Hippo, as if my endorsement mattered. But tonight, because I'm riding high on the Sunday-night exuberance of a day well spent, I will. Apart from Jesus, the biblical prophets and apostles, Augustine is the most influential person in the history of Christian thinking. Amazingly, such a statement would be largely undisputed, even by his critics, a full 1,500 years after his death. As all philosophy is footnote to Plato, all theology is said to be a footnote to Augustine. I just found a few new websites dedicated to Augustine's complete writings and secondary literature about him ( is one, though most of the site is in Latin or Italian). Did you know that a current biliography about this man runs to over 25,000 entries? If you've never read Augustine's Confessions, maybe this is the year to check it out. Arguably, it is the most published book in history other than the Bible, and is instantly enjoyable as an autobiography of a staggeringly smart man who encountered Christ as a great sinner, while in his friend's backyard. He was never the same after than night (nor was Western Christianity). The whole Reformation, as some have said, was nothing more than a debate in the mind of Augustine, with his view of grace triumphing over his view of the church. Grandiose statements aside, the Confessions is surpisingly intimate and warm. If you are a Christian, you will easily recognize in this book the voice of a fellow traveler, someone who may have little in common with you culturally, but many things in common spiritually. No one will blame you for skipping the last couple of chapters on the philosophy of time, etc., but the rest is gold. It you're a non-Christian, the Confessions contains an interesting account of how a man with plenty of intellectual ammunition against Christianity in the end found Christ to be more compelling than all his doubts.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Paul vs. the Gnostics: Who are the Real Environmentalists?

Here's an interesting quote I happened on in this week's issue of HopeDance, a free newspaper in San Luis Obispo County with a fairly sizable distribution. It's an excerpt from a book by John Lamb Lash called Not in His Image: Gnostic Vision, Sacred Ecology, and the Future of Belief:

If the human species is to survive in the near future, it will have to live in Gaia's way, not in the demented, self-centered willfulness to which we are accustomed. But what do we know, so far, of Gaia's way? With the eradication of the Mysteries, humanity lost the most important spiritual resources of the Western world...The process that began six thousand years ago, perhaps triggered by a vast climatic catastrophe in North Africa and the Near East, led to monotheistic religion with its suppression of the Goddess, and then, through the transference effectuated by Saint Paul, to the triumph of salvationism as the spiritual paradigm of the Western world...There is no more powerful ideology for oppression than redemptive religion.

I realize this is a fairly standard New Age analysis of how Christianity ruined Western culture, but what I appreciate about it (believe it or not) is its attack on the actual doctrine of Paul and Christianity, rather than just a vague stab at cultural Christendom, which has always been somewhat at odds with genuine biblical Christianity. Lash says that Christianity's focus on redemption and salvation makes it a dangerous religion that will ruin the world. Here, though, is the mistake in this accusation: Paul's religion was that the kingdom of Jesus Christ would bring in the restoration of the whole cosmos, not just human souls. In other words, Paul's doctrine of redemption included the redemption of the world, the freeing of even nature from oppression. In Romans 8:19ff. Paul says, "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves..."
Notice how the inanimate creation experiences its renewal alongside of those persons who also will be renewed by Christ -- their salvation becomes the cosmos' salvation. Paul's Christianity, therefore, has an extremely exalted view of the environment and its future, and those who follow Paul will not be haphazard in causing decay in very same world that God has said he wants to one day fully restore. Christian doctrine doesn't take the Gaia route to its positive view of the environment, but it gets there nonetheless. Of course, Christendom (the society of historical Western culture that has presumably based itself on the Bible) has not always lived consistently with these biblical values. But its worst blemishes arose when it abandoned Paul and redemptive religion, not because it followed it. Neither is Paul's teaching a fully formed environmentalism in a modern sense -- but it's still fair to say that texts like Romans 8 lean in the environmentally-conscious direction rather than away from it.
And here's the real kicker: if Paul's emphases on the created world were forgotten at times by Western Christendom, it was due to the ongoing influence of Platonic and Gnostic philosophy. While Gnosticism is diverse, most versions taught that the physical world was the vile creation of the evil Demiurge who was trying to distract humanity from the real God-beyond-creation. Those under the influece of such a system of doctrine, even when otherwise informed by the Bible, were more likely describe salvation in terms of jettisoning the physical body and this worthless world, and to get on to the ethereal heavenlies. While such ideas clearly have a home in Gnosticism, they would not have occurred to Paul or the writers of the New Testament who believed that God had made human flesh and the physical universe, and would one day restore both when Christ returns. So, one of the most natural religious foundations for a positive view of the environment turns out to be Pauline Christianity -- a redemptive, salvific religion, yes, but one that can conceive of the final location of that salvation in other New Testament terms as a "New Heavens and a New Earth."

Friday, January 12, 2007

Shouting, "Amen!" with John Knox

Some of those who occasion this blog come from the Reformed tradition of Christianity, and others, like myself, find our home specifically in Presbyterianism. To those of you from these "tribes," please take a moment to gird up your loins before reading the next few sentences. Folks like us are known for doing things "decently and in order" and are sometimes chided by our Christian friends from other traditions for our stiffness in public worship. Well, it wasn't always so. Apparently, the practice of parishoners shouting, "Amen!" and other exclamations during the Sunday sermon has its historical roots, of all imaginable places, in Scottish Presbyterianism. And not in some late manifestion, but during the time of the Reformation itself. On no less an authority than Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of the magisterial and massive The Reformation, "Scotland..developed the community drama of the sermon to its height. It was preceded by the prolonged ringing of the church bells which had once rung the faithful to Mass...Once everyone was in, the doors would be locked. Scottish congregations might then be encouraged to participate in the sermon-drama, being urged to shout out responses, cries of praise or 'Amen', in the manner that has been inherited by American evangelical Protestantism" (p.586). Honestly, I really thought the "Amen!" "Praise the Lord!" business was the original property of Pentecostals and Charismatics. Didn't you? I don't know what might happen if this fact gets out, and I fully expect that a few folks from my own congregation might start pressing their historical rights the first Sunday after they read this. Well, bless them. Most Christian liturgy, ours included, is full of congregational responses -- so why not during the sermon? As somebody once said, "When the Holy Spirit falls on some people, they quiet. When he falls on others, they get loud." So, as far as I'm concerned, we Presbyterians might be currently runnng an "Amen" deficit, to the degree that might even surprise our own theological and ecclesiologial forebearers. I've always been encouraged when I hear somebody blurt one out, however timidly. Knowing we've also got John Knox nodding in approval is a welcomed twist of church history that I, honestly, never saw coming. Amen, indeed.