THE BOOK I KEEP RE-READING—EVEN THOUGH IT GETS LESS FUNNY EACH TIME

 

C. S. Lewis would be disturbed to see The Screwtape Letters in a series about the benefits of reading old books. He’d say his book isn’t old enough. When he spoke of old books, he meant old books—works by Plato, Athanasius, or Aquinas. But I find that the gap between his 1940s writing and my rereading today is long enough to qualify it as “tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages” (God in the Dock).

When I first picked up The Screwtape Letters, I thought it would be funny. How could a fictional series of letters from a senior demon to a young trainee not be hilarious? (If you ever want to feel the full force of its humor, track down the audio version read by John Cleese.)

For example, who could resist laughing out loud when encountering this insight about pride:

Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, “By jove! I’m being humble,” and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear.

Or when explaining that thinking about repentance is fine, as long as the Christian doesn’t actually do it. As Screwtape counsels,

Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it; that is often an excellent way of sterilizing the seeds which the Enemy plants in a human soul.

Repentance

But I soon found the book far more probing than entertaining. Lewis shines the light of Christian reflection on sin and temptation in revealing and disturbing ways. He does cause me to chuckle—but that only makes me drop my guard long enough to feel conviction and repent. I view myself more honestly and turn from sin more decisively after eavesdropping on this diabolical dialogue.

The Screwtape Letters
C. S. LEWIS
HarperOne (2015). 209 pp. $14.99.

A milestone in the history of popular theology, The Screwtape Letters is an iconic classic on spiritual warfare and the dynamics of temptation.

This profound and striking narrative takes the form of a series of letters from Screwtape, a devil high in the Infernal Civil Service, to his nephew Wormwood, a junior colleague engaged in his first mission on earth, trying to secure the damnation of a young man who has just become a Christian. Although the young man initially looks to be a willing victim, he changes his ways and is “lost” to the young devil.

Many times I’ve marveled at how Lewis knew my darkest secrets. Apparently I’m not alone. In the preface to the paperback edition he wrote:

Some have paid me an undeserved compliment by supposing that my Letters were the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology. They forgot that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. “My heart”—I need no other’s—“showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.”

In preparation for writing this article, I thought I would skim the book one more time. I couldn’t do it. I simply can’t read The Screwtape Letters quickly. After just two letters, I needed to put it down, reflect deeply, repent thoroughly, and pray intently. Lewis might have had similar struggles in writing it. When asked by many to write a second volume of more letters, he declined: “Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment.”

More than other books I’ve read about living the Christian life, The Screwtape Letters gets beyond mere “how to” and considers the essence of things—the essence of being human, the essence of sin and temptation, and the essence of time and eternity.

Human Nature

Concerning human nature, Lewis helps me grasp what it means to live in a physical body but also have a spiritual nature. Part of that duality is experienced as undulations. Our feelings ebb and flow, and our sense of closeness to our Creator fluctuates. Both the highs and lows can be used by God for making us more like him. But those highs and lows also provide great opportunities for the Devil. Remembering this has helped me profoundly during both the highs (when tempted toward arrogance) and the lows (when spiraling toward despair).

Again and again, I’ve been strengthened by Screwtape’s lament:

Do not be deceived, Wormood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

Sin and Temptation

In regard to sin and temptation, it’s easy to treat all of it the same. But Lewis helps me recognize the distinct challenges related to specific sins. To be sure, all sin is the same when it comes to its ultimate consequence (damnation) and its only solution (the cross). Homogenizing sins, however, isn’t as helpful (or as biblical) as analyzing them individually to better resist them.

Anger, lust, gluttony, and other evils present themselves in different ways, requiring diverse strategies for resistance. Anger is triggered when I insist that time is mine (as if I produced minutes and seconds). Lust gets kicked into gear for other reasons—loneliness, hurt, or being misunderstood. Gluttony, I must remember, isn’t just overeating. It can rear its ugly head as a finicky, demanding insistence that food taste just the way I like it and be served at just the moment I—ruler of my culinary kingdom—demand.

Time and Eternity

Finally, reading The Screwtape Letters forges an eternal perspective that changes the way I view time.

More than 10 years ago, I faced the challenge of heart surgery. I needed to wait in the hospital for almost a week before various blood levels settled, to ensure a safe bypass procedure. During that waiting period, I reread The Screwtape Letters. Chapter 15 helped ward off tidal waves of fear and anxiety as I was reminded:

The humans live in time, but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. . . . He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present—either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.

Do I recommend The Screwtape Letters? Without reservation. Consider a slower pace than usual and plan on reading it more than once. But count on the laughter diminishing, and repentance growing, with each rereading.

EVANGELICALS ON THE DURHAM TRAIL by D. G. Hart

 

 

What do Billy Graham and Stanley Fish have in common? According to most assessments of the ongoing culture wars the answer would be an emphatic “not much!” With the exception of a few demographic details — both are older white men living in North Carolina — little seems to unite these two figures or the movements for which they have become figureheads. Graham is, of course, the patron saint of America evangelicalism, the one who as an object of admiration or scorn determines what it means to be an evangelical. And Fish, professor of English at Duke University of deconstructionist, post-modernist fame, has become one of the principle cheerleaders for efforts within the academy to make the literary canon specifically, and the humanities more generally, more inclusive and less oppressive. Identified in this way, the constituencies to which Graham and Fish speak would appear to be about as far apart as Newt Gingrich and Hillary Clinton.

     James Davison Hunter, for instance, argues that evangelicals are a large part of the orthodox constituency which defends the traditional family, opposes political correctness and multi-culturalism in the academy, and supports efforts to cut federal funding for objectionable art. This explains why they have lined up in bookstores across the land to buy and read to their children William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. Thus, evangelicalism, at least in the common configuration of the ongoing culture wars, is the antithesis of the cultural left.

     Why is it, then, that when evangelicals retreat from the public square into their houses of worship they manifest the same hostility to tradition, intellectual standards, and good taste they find so deplorable in their opponents in the culture wars? Anyone familiar with the so-called “Praise & Worship” phenomenon (so named, supposedly, to remind participants of what they are doing) would be hard pressed to identify these believers as the party of memory or the defenders of cultural conservatism. P&W has become the dominant mode of expression within evangelical churches, from conservative Presbyterian denominations to low church independent congregations. What characterizes this “style” of worship is the praise song (“four words, three notes and two hours”) with its mantra-like repetition of phrases from Scripture, displayed on an overhead projector or video monitors (for those churches with bigger budgets), and accompanied by the standard pieces in a rock band.

     Gone are the hymnals which keep the faithful in touch with previous generations of saints. They have been abandoned, in many cases, because they are filled with music and texts considered too boring, too doctrinal, and too restrained. What boomers and busters need instead, according to the liturgy of P&W, are a steady diet of religious ballads most of which date from the 1970s, the decade of disco, leisure suits, and long hair. Gone too are the traditional elements of Protestant worship, the invocation,confession of sins, the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the doxology, and the Gloria Patri. Again, these elements are not sufficiently celebrative or “dynamic,” the favorite word used to describe the new worship. And while P&W has retained the talking head in the sermon, probably the most boring element of Protestant worship, the substance of much preaching turns out to be more therapeutic than theological.

     Of course, evangelicals are not the only ones guilty of abandoning the treasures of historic Protestant worship. Various churches in the ELCA and Missouri Synod have begun to experiment with contemporary worship. The traditionalists in Reformed circles, if the periodical Reformed Worship, is any indication, have also begun to incorporate P&W in their services. And Roman Catholics, one of the genuine conservative constituencies throughout American history, have contributed to the mix with the now infamous guitar and polka mass. Yet, judging on the basis of worship practices, evangelicals look the most hypocritical. For six days a week they trumpet traditional values and the heritage of the West, but on Sunday they turn out to be the most novel. Indeed, the patterns of worship that prevail in most evangelical congregations suggest that these Protestants are no more interested in tradition than their arch-enemies in the academy.

     A variety of factors, many of which stem from developments in post-1960s American popular culture, unite evangelicalism and the cultural left. In both movements, we see a form of anti-elitism that questions any distinction between good and bad (or even not so good), or between what is appropriate and inappropriate. Professors of literature have long been saying that the traditional literary canon was the product, or better, the social construction of a particular period in intellectual life which preserved the hegemony of white men, but which had no intrinsic merit. In other words, because aesthetic and intellectual standards turn out to be means of sustaining power, there is no legitimate criteria for including some works and excluding others.

     The same sort of logic can be found across the country at week-night worship planning committee meetings. It is virtually impossible to make the case — without having your hearers go glassy-eyed — that “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is a better text and tune than “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” and, therefore, that the former is fitting for corporate worship while the latter should remain confined to Christian radio. In the case of evangelicals, the inability to make distinctions between good and bad poetry and music does not stem so much from political ideology (though it ends up abetting the cause) as from the deeply ingrained instinct that worship is simply a matter of evangelism. Thus, in order to reach the unchurched the churched have to use the former’s idiom and style. What is wrong with this picture?

     The traditionalists are of no help here. Rather than trying to hold the line on what is appropriate and good in worship, most of those who are devoted full-time to thinking about liturgy and worship, the doorkeepers of the sanctuary as it were, have generally adopted a “united-colors-of-Benetton” approach to the challenge of contemporary worship. For instance, a recent editorial in a Reformed publication says that the old ways — the patterns which used Buxtehude rather than Bill Gaither, “Immortal, Invisible” rather than “Do Lord,” a Genevan gown instead of a polo shirt — have turned out to be too restrictive. Churches need to expand their worship “repertoire.” The older predilection was “white, European, adult, classical, with a strong resonance from the traditional concert hall.” But this was merely a preference and reflection of a specific “education, socio-economic status, ethnic background, and personality.” Heaven forbid that anyone should appear to be so elitist. For the traditional “worship idiom” can become “too refined, cultured, and bloodless. . . too arrogant.” Instead, we need to encourage the rainbow coalition — “of old and young, men and women, red and yellow, black and white, classical and contemporary.” And the reason for this need of diversity? It is simply because worship is the reflection of socio-economic status and culture. Gone is any conviction that one liturgy is better than another because it conforms to revealed truth and the order of creation, or that one order of worship is more appropriate than another for the theology which a congregation or denomination confesses. Worship, like food or clothes, is merely a matter of taste. Thus the logic of multi-culturalism has infected even those concerned to preserve traditional liturgy.

     Yet when one looks for genuine diversity in worship, multi-culturalism — again, the great leveler of tradition and cultural standards — offers up a very thin band of liturgical expression. Advocates of diversity don’t seem to be very interested in the way “the people” have worshipped in the past. Is there, for instance, any real effort among the various experiments in worship to recover the psalm singing of the Puritans, the simple and spontaneous meetings of Quakers, the hymnody of German pietism, the folk traditions of the Amish, the revival songs of Ira Sankey and Dwight L. Moody, or the spirituals of African-American Protestants? The answer, of course, is no. For these expressions of Protestant piety, even though originating from some groups which would hardly qualify as elites, are no better than the liturgies from the Lutheran, Anglican and Reformed establishments. What the P&W crowd really want is a very narrow range of musical and lyrical expression, one which conforms to their admittedly limited worship “repertoire.”

     Indeed, contemporary worship — and church life for that matter — depends increasingly on the products of popular culture, from its musical mode of expression, the liturgical skits which ape TV sit-coms, and the informal style of ministers which follows the antics of late night TV talks show hosts. Thus, just as the academic left advocates including Madonna and “Leave it to Beaver” in the canon, so the evangelical champions of contemporary worship turn to popular culture — primarily contemporary music and television programming — for the content and order of worship. This is remarkable for a Christian tradition which once found its identity in avoiding all forms of worldliness and which continues to rail against the products of Hollywood and the excesses of the popular music industry. Yet, as in the case of the cultural left, we are seeing a generation which grew up on TV and top-40 radio stations now assuming positions of leadership in the churches. And what they want to surround themselves with in worship, as in the classroom, is what is familiar and easily accessible. Rather than growing up and adopting the broader range of experience which characterizes adulthood, evangelicals and the academic left want to recover and perpetuate the experiences of adolescence.

     In fact, what stands out about P&W is the aura of teenage piety. Anyone who has endured a week at one of the evangelical summer youth camps that dot the landscape will be struck by the similarity between P&W and the services in which adolescents participate while out of their parents’ hair. The parallels are so close that one is tempted to call P&W the liturgy of the youth rally. For in the meetings of Young Life, Campus Crusade for Christ, or Bible camp are all the elements of P&W: the evangelical choruses, the skit, and the long talk by the youthful speaker calling for dedication and commitment to Christ. While these youth ministries are effective in evoking the mountain-top or campfire-side experience, they rarely provide the sustenance upon which a life of sacrifice and discipline depends. Yet, P&W is attractive precisely because it appears to offer weekly the spiritual recharge which before came only once a year. Consequently, many megachurches which follow the P&W format thrive because they help many people recover or sustain the religious experience of youth.

     Some may wonder what is wrong with assisting adults to perpetuate the emotions and memories which sustain religious devotion. The problem is that such experiences and the worship from which it springs is concerned primarily with affect. One searches in vain through the praise songs, the liturgical dramas, or the sermon/inspirational talk for an adequate expression of the historic truths of the faith. It is as if the content of worship or the object which elicits the religious experience does not really matter. As long as people are lifting up and swaying their arms, tilting back their heads and closing their eyes then the Spirit must be present and the worship genuine.

     What is ironic about contemporary worship is that its form is almost always the same even while claiming that older worship is too repetitive. Another standard complaint about “traditional” worship is that it is too formal. Evangelicals believe that God is never limited by outward means. Believers who rely upon set liturgies or who repeat written prayers, some criticize, are merely “going through the motions.” Real faith and worship can not be prescribed. Yet, for all of the attempts by the practitioners of P&W to avoid routine and habit, hence boredom, contemporary worship never seems to escape its own pop culture formula. Again, the songs are basically the same in musical structure and lyrical composition, the order of the service — while much less formal — rarely changes, and the way in which people express their experience demonstrates remarkable unity (e.g., the arms, the head, the eyes). This hostility to form and the inability to think about the ways in which certain habits of expression are more or less appropriate for specific settings or purposes is what finally puts evangelicalism and the academic left on the same side in the culture war. For the idea that the autonomous individual must find his own meaning or experience of reality for himself ends up making such individuals unwilling to follow and submit to the forms, habits and standards which have guided a community or culture. Besides the fact that the radical individualism of modern culture has bred as much conformity as human history has ever known, evangelicals and the academic left continue to buck tradition in the hope of finding the true self capable of experiencing religion or life at its most genuine or authentic.

     What evangelicals who prefer P&W to older liturgies share with academics who teach Louis L’Amour instead of Shakespeare is an inability to see the value of restraint, habit, and form. Evangelicals and the academic left believe that we need to be liberated from the past, from formalism, and from existing structures in order to come into a more intimate relationship with life or the divine. This is really quite astounding in the case of evangelicals whose public reputation depends upon defending traditional morality. Yet, the effort to remove all barriers to the expression and experience of the individual self is unmistakably present in the efforts to make worship more expressive and spontaneous. This impulse in evangelical worship repudiates the wisdom of various Christian traditions which, rather than trying to liberate the self in order to experience greater intimacy with God, hold that individuals, because of a tendency to sin and commit idolatry, need to conform to revealed and ordered patterns of faith and practice. The traditions which Presbyterians follow, for instance, are not done to throttle religious experience but rather as the prescribed means of communing with God and his people. These means were not arbitrarily chosen by John Calvin and John Knox. Rather Presbyterians have conducted public and family worship in specific ways because they believe worship should conform to God’s revealed truth. But just as the academic left has abandoned the great works of Western civilization because of a desire for relevance in higher education, so evangelicals have rejected the various elements and forms which have historically informed Protestant worship, again, because they are boring to today’s youth.

     Anti-formalism also explains the stress upon novelty and freshness so often found in P&W. The leader of worship planning at one of the dominant megachurches says, for instance, on a video documenting a P&W service, that she is always looking for new ways to order the mid-week believer’s service so that church members won’t fall into a rut. She goes on to say that people are often tired, having worked all day (an argument for worshipping on Sunday) and need something which will arrest their attention and put them in a proper frame of mind. This perspective, however, fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between form and worship. C. S. Lewis had it right when he said that a worship service “‘works’ best when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it.” “The perfect church service,” he added, “would be the one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping. . . . ‘Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.’ A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant.” But this is precisely what has happened in P&W where the service and elements are designed to attract attention themselves rather than functioning as vehicles for expressing adoration to God. Lewis knew that repetition and habit were better guides to the character of worship than novelty and manipulation. In fact, one doesn’t need to be a professor of liturgics to sense that the idiom of Valley Girls is far less fitting for a believer to express love for God than the language of the Book of Common Prayer. Such an instinct only confirms the wise comment of the Reformed theologian, Cornelius VanTil, who while preferring Presbyterian liturgy, still remarked that “at least in an Episcopalian service no one says anything silly.”

     But even to criticize contemporary worship, to accuse it of bad taste or triviality is almost as wicked as smoking in public. Arguments against P&W are usually taken personally, becoming an affront to the feelings of contemporary worshippers. Which is to say that the triumph of P&W, like the ascendancy of the cultural left in the academy, is firmly rooted in our therapeutic culture. The most widely used reason for contemporary worship is that it is what the people want and what makes them feel good. Again, just as there are no intellectual standards for expanding the literary canon to include romance novels, so there are no theological criteria for practicing P&W. But there are plenty of reasons which say that if we give people what they are familiar with, whether sitcoms in the classroom or soft rock in church, they will feel comfortable and come back for more. As David Rieff has noted, the connections between the therapeutic and the market are formidable. So if we can expand our worship or academic repertoire to include the diversity of the culture we will no doubt increase our audience.

     This is why P&W services are also called “seeker-sensitive.” They are part of a self-conscious effort to attract a larger market for the church. Yet, while evangelicalism may have a large market share, its consumer satisfaction may also be low, especially if it deceives people into thinking they have really worshipped God when they have actually been worshipping their emotions. Thus, once again, evangelical worship turns out to be as deceptive as the academic left which tells students that the study of Batman comics is just as valuable as the study of Henry James.

     Of course, anyone who knows the history of American evangelicalism should not be surprised by P&W. In fact, Billy Graham’s recent inclusion of Christian Hip Hop and Rap bands in his crusades is of a piece with evangelical history more generally. (It also differs little from his efforts in the 1970s, seldom remembered, to appeal to the Jesus People. With lengthy locks, an inch over the shirt collar, and long sideburns, Graham said, playing off Timothy Leary’s famous psychedelic slogan, “Tune in to God, then turn on. . . drop out — of the materialistic world. The experience of Jesus Christ is the greatest trip you can take.”) As R. Laurence Moore argues in Selling God, since the arrival of Boy George in the American colonies, George Whitefield that is, evangelicals have been unusually adept at packaging and marketing Christianity in the forms of popular culture. The intention of Protestant revivalism was “to save souls, but in a brassy way that threw religion into a free-for-all competition for people’s attention.” Revivalism, in fact, according to Moore, “shoved American religion into the marketplace of culture” and became “entangled in controversies over commercial entertainments which they both imitated and influenced.”

     Seldom have evangelicals recognized that this commitment to making the gospel accessible deforms and trivializes Christianity, making it no better than any other commodity exchanged on the market. As H. L. Mencken perceptively pointed out about Billy Sunday, evangelicalism “quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of the barroom.” Mencken went on to remark that evangelicalism is marked “by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying” and reduces “all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and (to the ingenious) self-evident propositions,” making of religion “a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern.” Thus, the pattern of evangelical practice shows a long history of being hostile to the more profound liturgies, prayers and hymns which God’s people have expressed throughout the ages.

     The reason for this hostility, of course, is that these traditional forms of expressing devotion to God are not sufficiently intelligible to outsiders. But in an effort to reach the unchurched, just as the university has abandoned its mission in order to reach the uneducated, evangelicals have reversed the relationship between the church and the world. Rather than educating outsiders or seekers so they may join God’s people in worship, or rather than educating the illiterate so may join the conversation of the West, we now have the church and the academy employing as its language the idiom of the unchurched and undereducated. In effect, through P&W the church is becoming dumber at the same time that multi-culturalism is dumbing down the university. In the case of P&W the church, by embracing the elements and logic of contemporary worship, has abandoned its task of catechesis. Rather than converting and discipling the seeker, the church now uses the very language and methods of the world. So rather than educating the unbaptized in the language of the household of faith, the church now teaches communicants the language of the world.

     Hugh Oliphant Old in his fine study of worship concludes with a reflection about mainline Presbyterian worship that applies well to what has transpired in contemporary evangelical churches. “In our evangelistic zeal,” he writes, “we are looking for programs that will attract people. We think we have to put honey on the lip of the bitter cup of salvation. It is the story of the wedding of Cana all over again but with this difference. At the crucial moment when the wine failed, we took matters into our own hands and used those five stone jars to mix up a batch of Kool-Aid instead.” Such is the state of affairs in contemporary evangelical worship. The thin and artificial juice of popular culture has replaced the finely aged and well-crafted drink of the church through the ages. Aside from the merits of the instant drink, it is hardly what you would expect defenders of tradition and the family to choose to serve at a wedding, or at the banquet supper of our Lord. And yet, just as evangelicals in the nineteenth century substituted Welches for red wine, so a century later they have exchanged the superficial and trivial for the rich forms and elements of historic Protestant worship.


Author

Darryl Hart is Librarian and Associate Professor of Church History and Theological Bibliography at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He has recently authored books on J. Gresham Machen and a Short History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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Copyright © Calvin Theological Journal, Nov. 1995, vol. 30, no. 2. Used with permission by PREMISE magazine Volume III, Number 1 / January 31, 1996

 

CHRISTIANITY AND CULTURE by J. Gresham Machen

One of the greatest of the problems that have agitated the Church is the problem of the relation between knowledge and piety, between culture and Christianity. This problem has appeared first of all in the presence of two tendencies in the Church — the scientific or academic tendency, and what may be called the practical tendency. Some men have devoted themselves chiefly to the task of forming right conceptions as to Christianity and its foundations. To them no fact, however trivial, has appeared worthy of neglect; by them truth has been cherished for its own sake, without immediate reference to practical consequences. Some, on the other hand, have emphasized the essential simplicity of the gospel. The world is lying in misery, we ourselves are sinners, men are perishing in sin every day. The gospel is the sole means of escape; let us preach it to the world while yet we may. So desperate is the need that we have no time to engage in vain babblings or old wives’ fables. While we are discussing the exact location of the churches of Galatia, men are perishing under the curse of the law; while we are settling the date of Jesus’ birth, the world is doing without its Christmas message.

The representatives of both of these tendencies regard themselves as Christians, but too often there is little brotherly feeling between them. The Christian of academic tastes accuses his brother of undue emotional­ism, of shallow argumentation, of cheap methods of work. On the other hand, your practical man is ever loud in his denunciation of academic indifference to the dire needs of humanity. The scholar is represented either as a dangerous disseminator of doubt, or else as a man whose faith is a faith without works. A man who investigates human sin and the grace of God by the aid of dusty volumes, carefully secluded in a warm and comfortable study, without a thought of the men who are perishing in misery every day!

But if the problem appears thus in the presence of different tendencies in the Church, it becomes yet far more insistent within the consciousness of the individual! If we are thoughtful, we must see that the desire to know and the desire to be saved are widely different. The scholar must apparently assume the attitude of an impartial observer — an attitude which seems absolutely impossible to the pious Christian laying hold upon Jesus as the only Saviour from the load of sin. If these two activities — on the one hand the acquisition of knowledge, and on the other the exercise and inculcation of simple faith — are both to be given a place in our lives, the question of their proper relationship cannot be ignored.

The problem is made for us the more difficult of solution because we are unprepared for it. Our whole system of school and college education is so constituted as to keep religion and culture as far apart as possible and ignore the question of the relationship between them. On five or six days in the week, we were engaged in the acquisition of knowledge. From this activity the study of religion was banished. We studied natural science without considering its bearing or lack of bearing upon natural theology or upon revelation. We studied Greek without opening the New Testament. We studied history with careful avoidance of that greatest of historical movements which was ushered in by the preaching of Jesus. In philosophy, the vital importance of the study of religion could not entirely be con­cealed, but it was kept as far as possible in the background. On Sundays, on the other hand, we had religious instruction that called for little exercise of the intellect. Careful preparation for Sunday-school lessons as for lessons in mathematics or Latin was unknown. Religion seemed to be something that had to do only with the emotions and the will, leaving the intellect to secular studies. What wonder that after such training we came to regard religion and culture as belonging to two entirely separate com­partments of the soul, and their union as involving the destruction of both?

Upon entering the Seminary, we are suddenly introduced to an entirely different procedure. Religion is suddenly removed from its seclusion; the same methods of study are applied to it as were formerly reserved for natural science and for history. We study the Bible no longer solely with the desire of moral and spiritual improvement, but also in order to know. Perhaps the first impression is one of infinite loss. The scientific spirit seems to be replacing simple faith, the mere apprehension of dead facts to be replacing the practice of principles. The difficulty is perhaps not so much that we are brought face to face with new doubts as to the truth of Christianity. Rather is it the conflict of method, of spirit that troubles us. The scientific spirit seems to be incompatible with the old spirit of simple faith. In short, almost entirely unprepared, we are brought face to face with the problem of the relationship between knowledge and piety, or, otherwise expressed, between culture and Christianity.

This problem may be settled in one of three ways. In the first place, Christianity may be subordinated to culture. That solution really, though to some extent unconsciously, is being favoured by a very large and in­fluential portion of the Church today. For the elimination of the supernatural in Christianity — so tremendously common today — really makes Christianity merely natural. Christianity becomes a human product, a mere part of human culture. But as such it is something entirely different from the old Christianity that was based upon a direct revelation from God. Deprived thus of its note of authority, the gospel is no gospel any longer; it is a cheque for untold millions — but without the signature at the bottom. So in subordinating Christianity to culture we have really destroyed Christianity, and what continues to bear the old name is a counterfeit.

The second solution goes to the opposite extreme. In its effort to give religion a clear field, it seeks to destroy culture. This solution is better than the first. Instead of indulging in a shallow optimism or deification of humanity, it recognizes the profound evil of the world, and does not shrink from the most heroic remedy. The world is so evil that it cannot possibly produce the means for its own salvation. Salvation must be the gift of an entirely new life, coming directly from God. Therefore, it is argued, the culture of this world must be a matter at least of indifference to the Christian. Now in its extreme form this solution hardly requires refutation. If Christianity is really found to contradict that reason which is our only means of apprehending truth, then of course we must either modify or abandon Christianity. We cannot therefore be entirely independent of the achievements of the intellect. Furthermore, we cannot without inconsistency employ the printing-press, the railroad, the telegraph in the propagation of our gospel, and at the same time denounce as evil those activities of the human mind that produced these things. And in the production of these things not merely practical inventive genius had a part, but also, back of that, the investigations of pure science animated simply by the desire to know. In its extreme form, therefore, involving the abandonment of all intellectual activity, this second solution would be adopted by none of us. But very many pious men in the Church today are adopting this solution in essence and in spirit. They admit that the Christian must have a part in human culture. But they regard such activity as a necessary evil — a dangerous and unworthy task necessary to be gone through with under a stern sense of duty in order that thereby the higher ends of the gospel may be attained. Such men can never engage in the arts and sciences with anything like enthusiasm — such enthusiasm they would regard as disloyalty to the gospel. Such a position is really both illogical and unbiblical. God has given us certain powers of mind, and has implanted within us the ineradicable conviction that these powers were intended to be exercised. The Bible, too, contains poetry that exhibits no lack of enthusiasm, no lack of a keen appreciation of beauty. With this second solution of the problem we cannot rest content. Despite all we can do, the desire to know and the love of beauty cannot be entirely stifled, and we cannot permanently regard these desires as evil.

Are then Christianity and culture in a conflict that is to be settled only by the destruction of one or the other of the contending forces? A third solution fortunately, is possible – namely consecration. Instead of destroying the arts and sciences or being indifferent to them, let us cultivate them with all the enthusiasm of the veriest humanist, but at the same time consecrate them to the service of our God. Instead of stifling the pleasures afforded by the acquisition of knowledge or by the appreciation of what is beautiful, let us accept these pleasures as the gifts of a heavenly Father. Instead of obliterating the distinction between the Kingdom and the world, or on the other hand withdrawing from the world into a sort of modernized intellectual monasticism, let us go forth joyfully, enthusiastically to make the world subject to God.

Certain obvious advantages are connected with such a solution of the problem. In the first place, a logical advantage. A man can believe only what he holds to be true. We are Christians because we hold Christianity to be true. But other men hold Christianity to be false. Who is right? That question can be settled only by an examination and comparison of the reasons adduced on both sides. It is true, one of the grounds for our belief is an inward experience that we cannot share — the great experience begun by conviction of sin and conversion and continued by communion with God — an experience which other men do not possess, and upon which, therefore, we cannot directly base an argument. But if our position is correct, we ought at least to be able to show the other man that his reasons may be inconclusive. And that involves careful study of both sides of the question. Furthermore, the field of Christianity is the world. The Christian cannot be satisfied so long as any human activity is either opposed to Christianity or out of all connection with Christianity. Christianity must pervade not merely all nations, but also all of human thought. The Christ­ian, therefore, cannot be indifferent to any branch of earnest human endeavour. It must all be brought into some relation to the gospel. It must be studied either in order to be demonstrated as false, or else in order to be made useful in advancing the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom must be advanced not merely extensively, but also intensively. The Church must seek to conquer not merely every man for Christ, but also the whole of man. We are accustomed to encourage ourselves in our discouragements by the thought of the time when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. No less inspiring is the other aspect of that same great consummation. That will also be a time when doubts have disappeared, when every contradiction has been removed, when all of science converges to one great conviction, when all of art is devoted to one great end, when all of human thinking is permeated by the refining, ennobling influence of Jesus, when every thought has been brought into subjection to the obedience of Christ.

If to some of our practical men, these advantages of our solution of the problem seem to be intangible, we can point to the merely numerical advantage of intellectual and artistic activity within the Church. We are all agreed that at least one great function of the Church is the conversion of individual men. The missionary movement is the great religious movement of our day. Now it is perfectly true that men must be brought to Christ one by one. There are no labour-saving devices in evangelism. It is all hand-work. And yet it would be a great mistake to suppose that all men are equally well prepared to receive the gospel. It is true that the decisive thing is the regenerative power of God. That can overcome all lack of preparation, and the absence of that makes even the best preparation useless. But as a matter of fact God usually exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favourable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervour of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root. Many would have the seminaries combat error by attacking it as it is taught by its popular exponents. Instead of that they confuse their students with a lot of German names unknown outside the walls of the universities. That method of procedure is based simply upon a profound belief in the pervasiveness of ideas. What is today matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combated; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassionate debate. So as Christians we should try to mould the thought of the world in such a way as to make the acceptance of Christianity something more than a logical absurdity. Thoughtful men are wondering why the students of our great Eastern universities no longer enter the ministry or display any very vital interest in Christianity. Various totally inadequate explanations are proposed, such as the increasing attractiveness of other professions — an absurd explanation, by the way, since other professions are becoming so over-crowded that a man can barely make a living in them. The real difficulty amounts to this — that the thought of the day, as it makes itself most strongly felt in the universities, but from them spreads inevitably to the masses of the people, is profoundly opposed to Christianity, or at least — what is nearly as bad — it is out of all connection with Christianity. The Church is unable either to combat it or to assimilate it, because the Church simply does not understand it. Under such circumstances, what more pressing duty than for those who have received the mighty experience of regeneration, who, therefore, do not, like the world, neglect that the whole series of vitally relevant facts which is embraced in Christian experience — what more pressing duty than for these men to make themselves masters of the thought of the world in order to make it an instrument of truth instead of error? The Church has no right to be so absorbed in helping the individual that she forgets the world.

There are two objections to our solution of the problem. If you bring culture and Christianity thus into close union — in the first place, will not Christianity destroy culture? Must not art and science be independent in order to flourish? We answer that it all depends upon the nature of their dependence. Subjection to any external authority or even to any human authority would be fatal to art and science. But subjection to God is entirely different. Dedication of human powers to God is found, as a matter of fact, not to destroy but to heighten them. God gave those powers. He understands them well enough not bunglingly to destroy his own gifts. In the second place, will not culture destroy Christianity? Is it not far easier to be an earnest Christian if you confine your attention to the Bible and do not risk being led astray by the thought of the world? We answer, of course it is easier. Shut yourself up in an intellectual monastery, do not disturb yourself with the thoughts of unregenerate men, and of course you will find it easier to be a Christian, just as it is easier to be a good soldier in comfortable winter quarters than it is on the field of battle. You save your own soul — but the Lord’s enemies remain in possession of the field.

But by whom is this task of transforming the unwieldy, resisting mass of human thought until it becomes subservient to the gospel — by whom is this task to be accomplished? To some extent, no doubt, by professors in theological seminaries and universities. But the ordinary minister of the gospel cannot shirk his responsibility. It is a great mistake to suppose that investigation can successfully be carried on by a few specialists whose work is of interest to nobody but themselves. Many men of many minds are needed. What we need first of all, especially in our American churches, is a more general interest in the problems of theological science. Without that, the specialist is without the stimulating atmosphere which nerves him to do his work.

But no matter what his station in life, the scholar must be a regenerated man he must yield to no one in the intensity and depth of his religious experience. We are well supplied in the world with excellent scholars who are without that qualification. They are doing useful work in detail, in Biblical philology, in exegesis, in Biblical theology, and in other branches of study. But they are not accomplishing the great task, they are not assimilating modern thought to Christianity, because they are without that experience of God’s power in the soul which is of the essence of Christianity. They have only one side for the comparison. Modern thought they know, but Christianity is really foreign to them. It is just that great inward experience which it is the function of the true Christian scholar to bring into some sort of connection with the thought of the world.

During the last thirty years there has been a tremendous defection from the Christian Church. It is evidenced even by things that lie on the surface. For example, by the decline in church attendance and in Sabbath observance and in the number of candidates for the ministry. Special explanations, it is true, are sometimes given for these discouraging tendencies. But why should we deceive ourselves, why comfort ourselves by palliative explanations? Let us face the facts. The falling off in church attendance, the neglect of Sabbath observance — these things are simply surface indications of a decline in the power of Christianity. Christianity is exerting a far less powerful direct influence in the civilized world today than it was exerting thirty years ago.

What is the cause of this tremendous defection? For my part, I have little hesitation in saying that it lies chiefly in the intellectual sphere. Men do not accept Christianity because they can no longer be convinced that Christianity is true. It may be useful, but is it true? Other explanations, of course, are given. The modern defection from the Church is explained by the practical materialism of the age. Men are so much engrossed in making money that they have no time for spiritual things. That explana­tion has a certain range of validity. But its range is limited. It applies perhaps to the boom towns of the West, where men are intoxicated by sudden possibilities of boundless wealth. But the defection from Christian­ity is far broader than that. It is felt in the settled countries of Europe even more strongly than in America. It is felt among the poor just as strongly as among the rich. Finally, it is felt most strongly of all in the universities, and that is only one indication more that the true cause of the defection is intellectual. To a very large extent, the students of our great Eastern universities — and still more the universities of Europe — are not Christians. And they are not Christians often just because they are students. The thought of the day, as it makes itself most strongly felt in the universities, is profoundly opposed to Christianity, or at least it is out of connection with Christianity. The chief obstacle to the Christian religion today lies in the sphere of the intellect.

That assertion must be guarded against two misconceptions. In the first place, I do not mean that most men reject Christianity consciously on account of intellectual difficulties. On the contrary, rejection of Christianity is due in the vast majority of cases simply to indifference. Only a few men have given the subject real attention. The vast majority of those who reject the gospel do so simply because they know nothing about it. But whence comes this indifference? It is due to the intellectual atmosphere in which men are living. The modern world is dominated by ideas which ignore the gospel. Modern culture is not altogether opposed to the gospel. But it is out of all connection with it. It not only prevents the acceptance of Christianity. It prevents Christianity even from getting a hearing.

In the second place, I do not mean that the removal of intellectual objections will make a man a Christian. No conversion was ever wrought simply by argument. A change of heart is also necessary. And that can be wrought only by the immediate exercise of the power of God. But because intellectual labour is insufficient it does not follow, as is so often assumed, that it is unnecessary. God may, it is true, overcome all intellectual obstacles by an immediate exercise of his regenerative power. Sometimes he does. But he does so very seldom. Usually he exerts his power in connection with certain conditions of the human mind. Usually he does not bring into the Kingdom, entirely without preparation, those whose mind and fancy are completely dominated by ideas which make the acceptance of the gospel logically impossible.

Modern culture is a tremendous force. It affects all classes of society.

It affects the ignorant as well as the learned. What is to be done about it? In the first place the Church may simply withdraw from the conflict. She may simply allow the mighty stream of modern thought to flow by un­heeded and do her work merely in the back-eddies of the current. There are still some men in the world who have been unaffected by modern culture. They may still be won for Christ without intellectual labour. And they must be won. It is useful, it is necessary work. If the Church is satisfied with that alone, let her give up the scientific education of her ministry. Let her assume the truth of her message and learn simply how it may be applied in detail to modern industrial and social conditions. Let her give up the laborious study of Greek and Hebrew. Let her abandon the scientific study of history to the men of the world. In a day of increased scientific interest, let the Church go on becoming less scientific. In a day of increased specialization, of renewed interest in philology and in history, of more rigorous scientific method, let the Church go on abandoning her Bible to her enemies. They will study it scientifically, rest assured, if the Church does not. Let her substitute sociology altogether for Hebrew, practical expertness for the proof of her gospel. Let her shorten the preparation of her ministry, let her permit it to be interrupted yet more and more by premature practical activity. By doing so she will win a straggler here and there. But her winnings will be but temporary. The great current of modern culture will sooner or later engulf her puny eddy. God will save her somehow — out of the depths. But the labour of centuries will have been swept away.

God grant that the Church may not resign herself to that. God grant she may face her problem squarely and bravely. That problem is not easy. It involves the very basis of her faith. Christianity is the proclamation of an historical fact — that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Modern thought has no place for that proclamation. It prevents men even from listening to the message. Yet the culture of today cannot simply be rejected as a whole. It is not like the pagan culture of the first century. It is not wholly non-Christian. Much of it has been derived directly from the Bible. There are significant movements in it, going to waste, which might well be used for the defence of the gospel. The situation is complex. Easy wholesale measures are not in place. Discrimination, investigation is necessary. Some of modern thought must be refuted. The rest must be made subservient. But nothing in it can be ignored. He that is not with us is against us. Modern culture is a mighty force. It is either subservient to the gospel or else it is the deadliest enemy of the gospel. For making it subservient, religious emotion is not enough, intellectual labour is also necessary. And that labour is being neglected. The Church has turned to easier tasks. And now she is reaping the fruits of her indolence. Now she must battle for her life.

The situation is desperate. It might discourage us. But not if we are truly Christians. Not if we are living in vital communion with the risen Lord. If we are really convinced of the truth of our message, then we can proclaim it before a world of enemies, then the very difficulty of our task, the very scarcity of our allies becomes an inspiration, then we can even rejoice that God did not place us in an easy age, but in a time of doubt and perplexity and battle. Then, too, we shall not be afraid to call forth other soldiers into the conflict. Instead of making our theological seminaries merely centres of religious emotion, we shall make them battlegrounds of the faith, where, helped a little by the experience of Christian teachers, men are taught to fight their own battle, where they come to appreciate the real strength of the adversary and in the hard school of intellectual struggle learn to substitute for the unthinking faith of childhood the profound convictions of full-grown men. Let us not fear in this a loss of spiritual power. The Church is perishing today through the lack of thinking, not through an excess of it. She is winning victories in the sphere of material betterment. Such victories are glorious. God save us from the heartless crime of disparaging them. They are relieving the misery of men. But if they stand alone, I fear they are but temporary. The things which are seen are temporal; the things with are not seen are eternal. What will become of philanthropy if God be lost? Beneath the surface of life lies a world of spirit. Philosophers have attempted to explore it. Christianity has revealed its wonders to the simple soul. There lie the springs of the Church’s power. But that spiritual realm cannot be entered without controversy. And now the Church is shrinking from the conflict. Driven from the spiritual realm by the current of modern thought, she is consoling herself with things about which there is no dispute. If she favours better housing for the poor, she need fear no contradiction. She will need all her courage, she will have enemies enough, God knows. But they will not fight her with argument. The twentieth century, in theory, is agreed on social betterment. But sin, and death, and salvation, and life, and God about these things there is debate. You can avoid the debate if you choose. You need only drift with the current. Preach every Sunday during your Seminary course, devote the fag ends of your time to study and to thought, study about as you studied in college — and these questions will probably never trouble you. The great questions may easily be avoided. Many preachers are avoiding them. And many preachers are preaching to the air. The Church is waiting for men of another type. Men to fight her battles and solve her problems. The hope of finding them is the one great inspiration of a Seminary’s life. They need not all be men of conspicuous attainments. But they must all be men of thought. They must fight hard against spiritual and intellectual indolence. Their thinking may be confined to narrow limits. But it must be their own. To them theology must be something more than a task. It must be a matter of inquiry. It must lead not to successful memorizing, but to genuine convictions.

The Church is puzzled by the world’s indifference. She is trying to overcome it by adapting her message to the fashions of the day. But if, instead, before the conflict, she would descend into the secret place of meditation, if by the clear light of the gospel she would seek an answer not merely to the question of the hour but, first of all, to the eternal problems of the spiritual world, then perhaps, by God’s grace, through his good Spirit, in his good time, she might issue forth once more with power, and an age of doubt might be followed by the dawn of an era of faith.


This article was first published in the June 1969 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.

WHY CHURCH HISTORY ? by Stephen Nichols

 Jul 12, 2019

The bombing of Britain during World War II leveled most of the area known as “Elephant & Castle” in the city of London. A row of pillars stood defiantly among the piles of rubble. These pillars belonged to the Metropolitan Tabernacle, the church that housed the larger-than-life preacher of the nineteenth century, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Those pillars well represent Spurgeon. He was solid. He stood tall in his own day, and like the pillars, his legacy still stands.

Spurgeon has friends across many pews. Baptists like Spurgeon because he was a Baptist. Presbyterians like Spurgeon because he was so Reformed. Even Lutherans like Spurgeon because he was very nearly a nineteenth-century version of Martin Luther.

While Spurgeon held forth at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Londoners would flock to hear him preach. In fact, people even traveled the Atlantic to hear him preach. He wrote many sermons, of course, while he was at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. And Spurgeon also wrote many books.

In one of his many books, Spurgeon made a comment well worth hearing. It comes from the preface to his book on commentaries. He had written this book to convince pastors of the need to use commentaries and to engage in deep study for their sermon preparation. Spurgeon well knew the value of reading for preaching. He had a personal library of around twenty-five thousand books. And this was in the 1800s. What’s more, he actually read most of them.

In the preface to this book, he speaks to an objection to using commentaries. The objection goes something like this: As a Christian, I have the Holy Spirit. I have the Spirit’s wonderful work of illumination. I don’t need commentaries; I don’t need to rely on the thoughts of others. I can go right to the source.

To that objection, Spurgeon replied, “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”

Spurgeon reminds us that the Holy Spirit is not an individual gift. The Holy Spirit is a corporate gift to the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit has taught others, and the Spirit uses others to teach us. Spurgeon’s argument reaches the conclusion that preachers should use commentaries. Don’t be arrogant, and don’t think you have a corner on the market of the Holy Spirit, because you don’t.

But what if we were to expand Spurgeon’s argument in order to apply it to the relationship of today’s church to church history? Here’s my paraphrase of Spurgeon’s argument: “I find it odd that the church of the 21st century thinks so highly of what the Holy Spirit has taught it today that it thinks so little of what the Holy Spirit taught the church in the first century, the second, the third, the fourth, and so on, and so on.”

The Holy Spirit is not unique to our age. The Holy Spirit has been at work in the church for the past twenty centuries. We could put the matter this way—it is rather prideful to think that we have nothing to learn from the past. And remember, pride is a sin. And also remember, as Scripture says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). We need a little humility. Enough humility to say we may not have all the answers in the present. Enough humility to say we need the past, and enough humility to visit it from time to time.

As Deuteronomy 6:10–11 vividly portrays for us, we drink at wells we did not dig, we eat from vineyards we did not plant, and we live in cities we did not build. We need that dose of humility that reminds us how dependent we are on the past and how thankful we need to be for those who have gone before us and dug the wells, planted the vineyards, and built the cities.

The past enriches our lives in surprising ways. In our past, our family history, we see examples of faithful disciples. We can be encouraged and even inspired by their faithfulness. But, far more, we see examples of God’s faithfulness to His people. How does Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 1:10? He declares: “He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.”

The centuries of church history give us a litany of God’s deliverances. God has done it before, many times and in many ways, and He can do it again. He will do it again. And in that, we find courage for today and for tomorrow.

In church history, we see men and women facing challenges not unlike the challenges before us today. We look back and we learn. We also learn from the mistakes and missteps of the past. And, though it is a cliché, learning can be fun. Family stories of the exploits of crazy uncles inform; they also entertain. It is the same with our history, our family story.

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This excerpt is adapted from 5 Minutes in Church History by Stephen Nichols.

THEY LAID LOVE ON THE ALTAR

My Mother’s Letters to Jim Elliot

I have long listened to Dr. John Piper, but it wasn’t until recently that I found myself laughing aloud as he said something like this: “You don’t have to read all of my books. Just read one of them because they all say the same thing: ‘Live for God’s glory!’”

I immediately recalled a similar conversation with my mother, known by everyone else as Elisabeth Elliot, whom I was apologizing to for not having read every one of her books. She said, “They all say the same thing, Val, so it’s not necessary for you to read them all. Besides, you don’t have time!”

I was busy with my brood of eight, and she knew how my time was consumed. A few years later, she gave me a package of letters from my father, Jim Elliot, to her from 1948–1953, and said, “You don’t have to read them now, but someday you’ll have the time when the children are gone.”

An Unexpected Discovery

My delight in reading them started in 2011, after my last child left for college. Then, about ten months after my mother died in 2015, I found what I was truly not expecting. I discovered, tucked away in the attic, what I was sure were lost: my mother’s letters to my father. These letters had traveled with him throughout his time in Ecuador, and yet there they were, beautifully preserved.

Within these letters, the commitment of my parents is clear. They were focused on finding God’s will for their lives, pursuing it through prayer and devotion to the Scriptures. Both thought they were to be single missionaries and were completely content to find all their love and security in God alone. Their hearts brimmed with devotion to God and obedience to his command to go and preach the gospel to all nations.

After meeting in the foreign mission society at Wheaton College, my parents found each other to be a distraction from the Greek they were studying. As their attraction began to blossom, they were made to deal with this “expulsive power of a new attraction (or affection)” about which Thomas Chalmers wrote. This new attraction was a deep and turbulent heart issue interfering with their studies. As they pondered their own love for him and for each other, they thought their feelings had to die, and should be sublimated to the authority of their Lord.

Yet their letters began and continued from September 1948 to 1952, and through part of 1953, when both were in Ecuador, serving on opposite sides of the country. Over the following five years, my parents saw each other just five times, but they wrote beautifully (and sometimes turbulently) every two weeks to each other, always praying for the other, seeking to completely give him or her up to God.

Love, a Devoted Thing

In the Old Testament, a “devoted thing” (Leviticus 27:28) meant something given up as a sacrifice, and this is exactly what Jim Elliot and Betty Howard did with each other. They were devoted to God first, and his glory, so their letters reflected their primary purpose. Verses that spoke to them about trusting and waiting were frequently studied and meditated upon, as well as written about.

One particular letter from my father to my mother says this:

You are his particular treasure, Betty, something he paid for at a terrific cost to his own person. . . . He is bound to display you to principalities and powers as a trophy of his searching. . . . Meanwhile he keeps you for himself, hidden away, forming you in secret ways that you don’t understand. Much the same as I keep your letters . . . so he keeps the pious for himself.

Here’s a quote from my mother’s diary as she ponders what had happened between them.

These have not been days of barrenness. But they are utterly inexpressible. God has taken me apart, wholly unto himself. He has let me see his face. No word can be written of it. I stand silent, and wondering. O blessed Lord “that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in Thee.”

And then in closing this entry she wrote, “keep him thus, too, Lord Jesus.”

On Bended Knee

Waiting, trusting, praying, and waiting again. How deep our prayer life grows, when we take God at his word, and meditate on words like these of Isaiah:

From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways. (Isaiah 64:4–5)

And another of my favorites is Isaiah 30:15, 18:

“In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But you were unwilling. . . . Therefore the Lord waitsto be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.

My parents’ devotion to him played out in separate places as they wrote and begged God to send them to the mission field, and to show them clearly what they were to do with their love. Were they to lay it on the altar? Were they to wait?

Five years passed before my father knew whether he was to marry my mother. After a time full of discipline, agony, and tears, both preparing to be missionaries and serving among two different people groups, a catastrophe hit my father, and he realized his need for a wife. He asked her to marry him.

We Have Waited for Him

They chose Isaiah 25:9 KJV as their answer from him:

Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

I want others to hear the love story I found in their letters, a story of my mother and father dying to self in order to bow to the authority of their Father — asking, seeking, knocking, and trusting God and his timing. I pray their unusual love, for the Lord and each other, will inspire and shape many.

What is godly devotion? It is the dying of self in order for the authority of a Person (God) to be followed and obeyed. Whatever (and whomever) God has called you to, be devoted first and foremost to him, and he will reveal himself to you while you seek and wait on him.

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was only ten months old in January, 1956, when her father, Jim Elliot, was killed. She then spent her childhood, through age 8, in Ecuador alongside her mother. A graduate of Wheaton College, Valerie and her husband, Walt, are the parents of eight. She is also the author of a children’s book, Pilipinto’s Happiness, containing memories of her Amazon upbringing.

WHY LUTHER ? by Gene Edward Veith

History is the account of vast social movements and cultural changes. To be sure, individuals play their part. But they are usually understood to be products of their times. The Reformation, though, whose five-hundredth anniversary we observe this year and whose impact on not only the church but the world has been monumental, was largely precipitated by one man: Martin Luther.

Yes, vast social movements and cultural changes were at work in sixteenth-century Europe. But Luther caused many of them, such as the educational explosion that would lead to universal literacy, the rise of the middle class, and eventually democratic self-government. All of these and more were direct consequences of Luther’s insistence that all Christians should be taught to read the Bible.

Rarely has a single individual had the historical impact that Luther did. But why Luther? What was it about this particular monk, university professor, and struggling Christian that made him such a spiritual and cultural catalyst?

The University of Wittenberg, where Luther taught, featured the new Renaissance curriculum alongside remnants of the old scholasticism. Its faculty boasted one of the greatest Renaissance scholars in Philip Melanchthon and a key figure in the history of science, Georg Joachim Rheticus, who popularized Copernicus’ theory that the earth is not the center of the universe. The Renaissance version of classical education emphasized the Greek language and returning to original sources. In theology, this meant returning to the Bible.

But the greatest Renaissance scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, who performed the crucial work of editing and publishing the Greek New Testament, remained in the Roman Catholic fold. And with his humanist insistence on the freedom of the will, he became the nemesis of Luther, who effectively took him on as a fellow classical scholar in The Bondage of the Will.

So, yes, the intellectual climate was changing. But that was not enough to start the Reformation. So, why Luther?

Yes, the political scene with the rise of the nation-state was ripe for the Reformation. Luther’s patron, Frederick the Wise, Duke of Saxony, was no provincial ruler. The highest position in the medieval governmental hierarchy was the Holy Roman emperor. This was an elected office, but only seven people could vote, one of whom was the Duke of Saxony. As Sam Wellman’s recent biography shows, Duke Frederick was a major player in European politics, notable as a good, effective, and just ruler. As an example of his integrity, the Duke had assembled one of the largest collections of indulgence-granting relics in the world, and yet he protected his subject Luther, even though his teachings were making his collection worthless.

But the monarch of England, King Henry VIII, was a much more forceful advocate of the nation-state, starting a reformation of his own by breaking away from the pope and establishing his own state church. But King Henry hated Luther, who wrote against his multiple marriages. The king banned his books on pain of death, conspired to get the Wittenberg-trained William Tyndale executed for translating the Bible into English, and burned the Lutheran Robert Barnes at the stake.

So, the European political landscape was a factor in the Reformation, but the independence-seeking princes did not particularly need Luther and his teachings. So, again, why Luther?

The new technology of the era, which created the first information media revolution with the printing press, played an important role in the Reformation. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were printed and reprinted, so that, within weeks, his critique of indulgences was being read throughout Europe. The printing press also mass-produced and disseminated Luther’s later theological writings and, most importantly, his translation of the Bible.

A generation earlier in nearby Mainz, Johannes Gutenberg’s first printing press published a Bible. But it also printed thousands of copies of indulgences to be sold by the church. The indulgence peddler Johann Tetzel also made use of the printing press, and Luther’s opponents used the press to answer his writings pamphlet by pamphlet. But there was something in Luther’s publications that resonated in a way that those written by the apologists of Rome did not.

Luther was not the first critic of indulgences and the moral and theological corruption of the medieval church. Jan Hus was burned as a heretic for teaching ideas that would later be staples of the Reformation, but John Wycliffe, who went so far as to translate the Bible into English, escaped martyrdom (though he was burned as a heretic posthumously). Neither had the effect Luther did.

Dante excoriated the evils of the church of Rome and consigned monks, bishops, and even popes to his Inferno not only for their moral faults but for attempting to sell the holy by charging money for church offices and spiritual benefits. Geoffrey Chaucer satirized corrupt clergy in his Canterbury Tales, most notably with the Pardoner, who, in addition to his trade in fake relics, sold indulgences.

Luther, too, was a great writer, which may account for at least part of his effectiveness. A superb stylist in both German and Latin, Luther wrote with wit, passion, and a personal voice. His writings are notable for their penetrating insights, their vivid explanations, and their honest portrayals of his experiences and struggles. And they can sometimes make a reader, even today, laugh out loud. To be sure, Luther’s writings are often tainted by his vulgar invectives, which were a staple of the discourse of his time, though still a fault. But Luther also wrote with a pastoral heart, offering struggling Christians the comfort of the gospel and giving his readers a sense of illumination through his perceptive readings of Scripture.

Luther’s efforts to reform the Christian spirituality of his day had such force in part because he had lived out that spirituality so thoroughly as to experience its contradictions.

Here is what it was like to be a believing Christian five hundred years ago. The church did teach that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, bore the punishment for our sins and died for the forgiveness of our sins. It taught that the redemption that Christ won had to be dispensed by the church.

What this meant in practice was that Christ’s death, applied through baptism, was thought to free us from original sin. Sins committed after baptism had to be dealt with in a different manner. The Roman Catholic Church still teaches that Christians can be damned if they commit mortal sins. But these can be forgiven if the sinner feels contrition, confesses them to a priest, performs an act of penance, and receives absolution. Thus, the sins are forgiven, in the sense that they no longer will incur eternal punishment. But they will still incur temporal punishment.

This happens in purgatory. After death, Christians must be punished for the sins they committed on earth. This is necessary before the Christian may enter heaven. Purgatory was thought of not as Dante’s seven-story mountain, much less as C.S. Lewis’ shower to wash off the grime. Purgatory was a realm of fire. Sinners burn in purgatory, much as they would in hell, though these pains are only temporary. But suffering the fires of purgatory might last thousands of years.

This is what believing Christians have to endure, for sins for which they have repented and found forgiveness, that the church admits were atoned for by Christ, and that were confessed and absolved.

But God, by His grace, can reduce this time, the Roman Catholic Church says. This is why we must pray for the dead, that God would remit their penalty.1 Also, the church can reduce this time by means of the “treasury of merit.” The saints—defined as someone found to be already in heaven, their time shortened by God’s special grace and the holiness of their lives—have more merit than they need to enter heaven. So the church can transfer that extra merit to living Christians or to the dead already in purgatory. These are indulgences.

The church granted—and still grants—indulgences for various acts of devotion, such as venerating relics or going on a pilgrimage. And then, at the start of the Reformation, the pope was selling them.

Imagine the horror of believing that after death, for all of your piety, you would experience thousands of years of penitential fire. But imagine the relief if for a week’s wages2 you could buy a plenary or complete indulgence and go straight to heaven. And if you could raise another week’s wages, you could free your dead child.

Luther, too, lived in terror of damnation and penitential fire. He became a monk in the hopes of attaining enough merit to save his soul. Then he acquired the merit of priesthood and of becoming a doctor of theology. But he was still in torment. Then, in the course of preparing an academic lecture, he read in the book of Romans that “the just shall live by faith.” He suddenly saw through the accretions that had hidden the gospel, realizing that all of Scripture taught that salvation is by God’s grace, through faith in the work of Christ, and that He bestows complete forgiveness, taking all of the punishment we deserve and imputing to us His righteousness.

In the debate that Luther initiated over indulgences, his critique was unanswerable. If God by His grace can remit the need for purgatory, why do you not believe that His grace in Christ removes that need? If the excess merits of the saints can be applied to a sinner in such a way that purgatorial punishment is remitted, why do you not believe that the infinite merits of Christ can remove the need for purgatory?

The only way to defend indulgences was to invoke the authority of the pope. Against this, Luther invoked the authority of the Bible. Thus, the Reformation moved to another level. At issue was not just a church teaching and a church practice but authority in the church.

Luther never wanted to start a new church; rather, he sought reformation of the church along biblical principles. But instead of reforming the church’s practices, or even discussing them, the pope excommunicated Luther. That was the action that split Christendom, that started a new church.

But again, why Luther?

When Luther himself was asked about this, he would say that he did nothing. God did everything. Specifically, God’s Word did everything:

I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip [Melanchthon] and [Nicolaus von] Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.3

Here we might see an allusion to one of Luther’s most significant teachings—the doctrine of vocation. Luther taught that God works through human beings to govern His world and to bestow His gifts. God gives daily bread by means of farmers and bakers, creates new immortal souls by means of fathers and mothers, protects the innocent by means of earthly authorities, and proclaims His Word by means of pastors.

God’s callings are mostly quite ordinary—everyday relationships in the family, workplace, church, and community—in which Christians live out their faith in love and service to their neighbors. But God sometimes works in extraordinary ways as well, and when He does, He works by means of vocation; that is, through human instruments.

The best answer to the question “Why Luther?” is that God called him.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on October 18, 2017.

 

  • Wealthy Christians would endow entire chapters of monks to pray and conduct Masses for their souls. In a number of cases, these have gone on for centuries, to this very day, which is appropriate since the endower is still presumably in purgatory. ↩︎
  • The artisan’s rate; there was a sliding scale according to socioeconomic status. ↩︎
  • Sermon from March 10, 1522; LW 51:77. ↩︎

 

SURPRISED BY THE PERFECT BEING

College can be one of the most pivotal moments in a young person’s life. R.C. Sproul once said that his time in college was life changing because he took a philosophy class where he had to grapple with the greatest ideas from the greatest minds ever to walk the earth.

That is true to my experience as well. College seems like it was a lifetime ago. But in those few short years, God did something radical. It all happened one sunny Southern California afternoon when I stumbled across an abandoned copy of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. In the weeks before, I started wrestling with theology, something I never had the chance to do growing up. Calvin’s name came up, especially as I tried to face off with ideas such as predestination and free will. I had heard Calvin was one of the church’s greatest theologians, so I was convinced that if Calvin couldn’t help me out, no one could. I set out, with great determination, to read through the entire Institutes.

The result was revolutionary.

WHO IS THIS GOD?

I had read my Bible as a young Christian, but after reading Calvin I realized that I had far too small a view of God. The God of the Bible proved to be a God far bigger than I ever could have imagined. I knew of God’s compassion, love, and mercy, but Calvin pointed me to places in the Bible where I was introduced to God’s holiness, power, and glory. I sat at my desk, stunned. God was far more majestic than I thought. Calvin spoke of me when he wrote, “Man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.”1

Being hit over the head with Calvin’s Institutes was a good thing, but it also made me feel dirty. I was so used to a Christian culture that domesticated God that I felt ashamed when my eyes were opened to the God of Scripture, a God who cannot be domesticated. No longer could I continue making God in my own image; this was a God in whose image I was made. I had it all backwards, but now I saw God for who He really was, and it was baffling to say the least.

THE PERFECT BEING

Not long after reading Calvin, I was also introduced to another great mind of the church: Anselm of Canterbury. Calvin had introduced me to the majesty and supremacy of God, but Anselm took me one step deeper. Like I said, I was used to hearing from popular Christian speakers about a God who is like us. Anselm came along and he, too, hit me over the head with a God who is distinct from us, above us, and a totally different being than us. He is not the finite creature; He is the infinite Creator.

If this God really is the Creator and not to be confused with the creature, Anselm explained, then He must be supreme—no greater being can be conceived.2 He must be the most perfect being conceivable. If He is the most perfect being, then there must also be perfect-making attributes or perfections that define who He is and what He does.

Now this was a completely different way of thinking about God. Instead of starting with man and projecting human attributes back onto God, Anselm started with God and His perfection, and then worked his way to man. Doing so avoids a real danger, a danger prevalent in evangelicalism today: imposing human limitations on God as if He were a creature like us, only bigger and better. Anselm warned against this tendency way back in the medieval era. God is not just a bigger, better version of human beings. No, He is a different type of being altogether.

THE INFINITE BEING

If He is a different type of being than the creature, He must be defined by attributes that are incommunicable, that is, attributes that are not true of us creatures at all. One of the first incommunicable attributes to recognize is God’s infinitude. Because God is infinite, we cannot conceive of any one greater.

Because He is the infinite Deity, any creaturely limitation must be ruled out of the question. God can do all that He wills to do, be anywhere and everywhere He wills to be, and so forth. Should He be limited in some way—by time or space, in His power or knowledge, by change, or by divisible parts—then He could no longer be infinite. Some type of limitation would be introduced into the very essence of God. No longer would He be the most perfect being. We can always conceive of someone or something greater than a limited being.

But that’s not all. To say God’s attributes are infinite does not mean He merely has our attributes but in greater measure. Instead, for God to be the most perfect being, He must be His attributes—His perfections—in infinite measure. Not only must any “quality which is inherently limiting” be “denied of God,” says philosopher Katherin Rogers, but “any perfection attributed to God” must be “attributed in an unlimited degree.”3 He is not just powerful, for example, but He is power and in infinite measure; He is omnipotent. Or consider His love. He is not merely loving; He is love and in infinite measure.

We could go on. But the lesson here is clear: whenever we talk about who God is, we must always do so knowing that His essence has no limitations. As the Creator, rather than the creature, He is immeasurable in His being. While we grow and mature, God does not; He cannot be His perfections any more than He already is eternally. God is His attributes absolutely, for He is the perfect being. Or as Anselm liked to say, God is pure being. Perhaps the Puritan Stephen Charnock summed it up best when he preached to his congregation, “No perfection is wanting to God.” A “limited” divine essence “is an imperfection,” but an “unbounded essence is a perfection.”4

THE GOD WHO WILL NOT BE DOMESTICATED

Of course, none of this is original to Charnock, Calvin, or Anselm. The idea of a perfect, infinite being goes back to Scripture itself. This is one reason I love to read the Psalms each day. For example, in Psalm 147, we read that God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (v. 3). The reason the downtrodden can know that God will bind up their wounds is because it is this God who “determines the number of the stars” and “gives to all of them their names” (v. 4). What, then, can the psalmist conclude about this Creator but this: “Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure” (v. 5)? According to the psalmist, God is so great—so perfect—because there is no limit to His power; His wisdom and knowledge have no bounds.

Can we settle for a God who is less than a perfect being? We cannot. To do so is to rob God of His infinite nature and unbounded perfection. To do so, scary as this sounds, is to create a god in our own image. Our God, by contrast, is high and lifted up (Isa. 6:1). He cannot, He will not, be domesticated.

===================

  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Lousville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 1.1.3.
  2. Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion 2, in Major Works (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1998), 87. ↩︎
  3. Katherin Rogers, Perfect Being Theology (Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 11 (cf. 13). ↩︎
  4. Stephen Charnock, Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1996), 1:383. ↩︎