Every now and then I write a more extended theological essay for our church. The goal is to help people in the church think through biblical topics theologically and to see “under the hood” and how conclusions are reached. I’ll start posting them on the blog here from time to time. This is the most recent post.
How should the church think about the liturgical calendar?
As history reveals, the influence of tradition and culture establishes the necessity of discernment for Christians seeking to worship in spirit and truth. For churches in the Reformed Protestant tradition like Langhorne Presbyterian Church, the answer to that must always begin by asking first another question: What does the Bible have to say about this? What does God think about how we use our time and leverage it for worship and spirituality?
God’s Concern for Our Time
God demonstrates his concern about time from the get-go of creation. He created the sun, moon, and stars on day four of creation to rule the day and night and to be for “signs and for season, and for days and for years.” God established a natural rhythm of day and night, of the passing and return of seasons, into creation itself. The sun and moon, the rotation and orbit of the earth, are given by God for us to mark out the passing of time (signs and seasons) to commemorate and observe milestones. Things like New Year’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays at different points in the year are all gifts that God has given us flowing from day four of creation. The natural rhythm of creation is a gift to practice creativity and cultivation of the earth in our organization and practice of time. The way we practice time orients our lives and shapes the story we believe we are inhabiting. This is called the liturgy of life…
In Ordained Servant, Darryl Hart has a review up of Reformed & Evangelical Across Four Centuries: The Presbyterian Story in America. I wrote about this book back in July, and both used and anticipated Hart’s assessments brought to bear in his review.
One of Hart’s criticisms is that the authors neglect the non-liberal, non-evangelical Presbyterian tradition, with the specific example of ignoring J. Gresham Machen but focusing on Harold Ockenga. I’m sympathetic to this criticism, and count myself as descending from the legacy of Machen. But I suspect that the confessionalist, non-evangelical wing of American Presbyterianism overestimates its importance. The OPC split from the PCUSA in 1936, but by the time the PCUSA merged with the UPCNA in 1958, the mainline denomination had 2.7 million members with the UPCNA having about 257,000. The OPC had about 10,000 in 1958; it’s 32,000 today. Hart cites two other denominations, the ARP and RPCNA, as lacking consideration. The RPCNA had a membership of 6,000 in 1958 and about 7,000 today. I can’t find the 20th century numbers for the ARP, but its current membership is about 22,000.
In other words, the non-liberal, non-evangelical denominations whose story that Hart wished was being acknowledged appear insignificant to the overall history of American Presbyterianism unless you happen to already belong to them…
I previously uploaded my version of the American Presbyterian & Reformed Churches family tree, and decided to do the same for the Netherlands. I was unsatisfied with the Dutch tree I had found, and my growing interest in Dutch church history and its intersection with the American Reformed scene led me to create this (high quality link here). The tree is less busy than its American counterpart, but still interesting. One day I’ll do one for Scotland and England.
I recently became aware that J. Gresham Machen authored a counter-affirmation to the Modernist Auburn Affirmation (see Stonehouse’s biography of Machen, page 357). The second and fourth points neatly dovetail into the case I’ve been making about the EPC and confessional interpretation. While the doctrines under consideration in the EPC do not strike at Nicene Christianity, and thus the stakes are lower than in the 1920s, the contours of the debate are similar: Who should interpret the church’s doctrinal standards, and what should that interpretation be? Machen’s counter-affirmation, reprinted below, could be helpful.
A Counter-Affirmation designed to Safeguard the Corporate Witness of the Presbyterian Church to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We the undersigned, ministers of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, having been made cognizant of an Affirmation signed by one hundred and fifty ministers in protest against the action of the General Assembly of 1923, and being convinced that the Affirmation will have an effect detrimental to the unity and corporate witness of the Church, desire to make the following answer:
I. The constitution of the Church, though it does not claim infallibility for itself, clearly does claim it (in the pledge required of all officers) for the Scriptures. This fact is ignored and in effect denied in the Affirmation.
II. The right of interpretation of the Scriptures and of the system of doctrine contained in the Confession does not mean that any officer of the Church may interpret the Scriptures or the system of doctrines described in the Confession as he pleases. Every interpretation must confirm to the meaning of the Scriptures and of the system of doctrine contained in the Confession where the meaning is clear. The interpretations for which toleration is asked in section IV of the Affirmation, on the contrary, reverses the plain meaning. Thus the Affirmation really advocate the destruction of the confessional witness of the Church. To allow interpretations which reverse the meaning of a confession is exactly the same thing as to have no confession at all.
III. In section IV of the Affirmation, the five points covered in the pronouncement of the General Assembly of 1923 are declared to be “theories” which some of the signers of the Affirmation regard as satisfactory but which all the signers unite in believing not to be the only theories allowed by the Scriptures. This means that the Scriptures allow the Virgin Birth, for example, and the bodily resurrection of our Lord to be regarded both as facts and not as facts. We protest against any such opinion. The redemptive events mentioned in the pronouncement of the Assembly are not theories but facts upon which Christianity is based, and without which Christianity would fall.
IV. We believe that the unity of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America can be safeguarded, not by a liberty of interpretation on the part of the officers of the Church, which allows a complete reversal of perfectly plain documents, but only by maintenance of the corporate witness of the Church. The Church is found not upon agnosticism but upon a common adherence to the truth of the gospel as set forth in the confession of faith on the basis of the Scriptures.
Based on two different email threads, from my sent folder.
God did not suffer on the cross. A theme in Athanasius’ Oration Against the Arians is that God does not suffer. Jesus in his person suffered and according to his human nature suffered, but Jesus as the divine Word did not suffer. Khaled Anatolois in his work on Athanasius shows that the church father understood suffering in terms of passivity and activity rather than experience. Jesus in his humanity was subjected to suffering but in his divinity was the actor, not the one being acted upon (impassibility).
For example (Arians 3.56),
Wherefore of necessity when He was in a body suffering, and weeping, and toiling, these things which are proper to the flesh, are ascribed to Him together with the body. If then He wept and was troubled, it was not the Word, considered as the Word, who wept and was troubled, but it was proper to the flesh; and if too He besought that the cup might pass away, it was not the Godhead that was in terror, but this affection too was proper to the manhood. And that the words ‘Why have You forsaken Me?’ are His, according to the foregoing explanations (though He suffered nothing, for the Word was impassible), is notwithstanding declared by the Evangelists; since the Lord became man, and these things are done and said as from a man, that He might Himself lighten these very sufferings of the flesh, and free it from them. Whence neither can the Lord be forsaken by the Father, who is ever in the Father, both before He spoke, and when He uttered this cry.
Edward Shillito’s short poem “Jesus of the Scars” concludes with this stanza,
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
Jesus is God, so we can speak of God dying on the cross, having scars. This attribute to the person (Jesus is God) what is true according to one of his natures (humanity) since the divine cannot be wounded or killed.
This is what Cyril of Alexandria means when he says, “He suffered impassibly, because he did not humble himself in such a way as to be merely like us, rather, as I have said before, he reserved to his own nature its superiority over all these things.” Since Christ is a unified person we can speak of him suffering. He suffered in his humanity so according to his divinity he might elevate humanity from our suffering. John Behr’s The Nicene Faith deals with this topic in more depth in vol. 1, pages 226-232.
J. Todd Billings in his Rejoicing in Lament shows how this doctrine of impassibility (God doesn’t suffer) related to Jesus on the cross as a foundation for the Christian’s comfort amidst sorrow. Because God cannot suffer, suffering is not the final word. Suffering is not something that God must overcome for himself, but something he conquered on our behalf by virtue of his impassibility according to his divine nature in the person of Christ.