Just a little SAT prep for you. That little word analogy is something that I’ve been pondering. This article captures something that I think is true, but I’m not sure I’m as sanguine about it.

A parish is a geographical area. Instead of counties the state of LA, French Catholic in origin, has parishes. The catholic church has parishes. My moniker here is Parson Brown. Besides recalling the Christmas song and a cagy mystery solver, the parson is the parish minister. The church in America, even without an established religion, has always acted like a parish. The assumption was that everyone was a member by reason of living in the geography. Some were closer to ideal and some further, but members. Hence at baptism, marriages and funerals, it didn’t matter, the church was sought out. And the church, unless you were a sect, performed the function. A parish fulfills a cultural spot. It might and in most cases is built around a “cult” which I’m defining as a set of shared beliefs, but the secret of the “cult” is that it is never actually questioned. The culture is that which goes without questioning or justification.

A congregation is a gathering of believers. A congregation gathers around a confession – “we believe, teach and confess…” The joke Q: How do you get rid of the bats in the steeple A: You confirm them, is a confessional joke. The confessional can’t understand why you would confirm something and then be completely absent. To the cultural, it is just something you do as a shared experience. To the confessional, life is a reflection on and a spring welling up from a set of shared beliefs. We believe is God the Father Almighty…We believe in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord…We believe in the Holy Spirit. Those beliefs are the the foundation you build on and the target you shoot for. Jesus is a the alpha and the omega. And the confessional is driven to those end-poles.

A confessional grouping can’t help but create its own culture through the shaping of beliefs. And sometimes, if it gets big enough, that culture drifts and forgets its end-point moorings. We just do this, well, why do we do this? No, that can’t be why? Sometimes it can be called back. Sometimes not.

What that article is very sanguine about is saying that now is a time that it can’t. The drift has been too long, too far and too sustained. In fact, like most confessionals, the article might be positively giddy thinking about the “vibrant congregations in an increasing secular environment. That’s the future.” Oh, I can see that. I can understand that. But I also wonder, as “Christians continue to lose what some have called a home-field advantage” what things we don’t think about now come into question. Do you really think that the charitable contribution tax break withstands the budget pressures? What does that do to congregations? How many congregational members are up to making a positive confession by which I mean that making the confession will cost them something. The biblical examples of that are not encouraging (John 6:60-66, Mark 14:32-50).

The clock is swinging toward the confessional and the congregational. That is a good thing. But I wouldn’t seek to hasten the swing. Everything in its season. Making clear confessions, necessary. Forcing confessional confrontations with “those who are not against us” (Luke 9:50) is probably avoidable.

For Clear Statements

Politicians in general want to smooth over differences and round off corners. National ones are trying to assemble 50% of a nation of 300 million people. I think that is why the modern gaffe is any comment that actually says something. Saying something kicks people out of your tent. The problem with that is there is no mandate or consensus for anything other than – “your guy sucks and our guy is great”.

There is an analogy in religion. Why is modern worship so insipid? Most of it says nothing. Either it is all head in which case the faith has been reduced to a law – believe these five things and you will be ok. Or it is all heart which makes the faith into a Lladro figurine – ever so precious and lightweight it just floats away. Why does it say nothing? Because we’ve sold our birthright of the Word of God for a mess of things to keep people entertained. When you don’t have THE WORD, you better tap dance well enough to keep a crowd week after week. Hence you give’em what they want, the worship equivalent of a souffle or a pound cake.

Ross Douthat is for clear statements.

It may seem strange that anyone could look around the pornography-saturated, fertility-challenged, family-breakdown-plagued West and see a society menaced by a repressive puritanism. But it’s clear that this perspective is widely and sincerely held.

It would be refreshing, though, if it were expressed honestly, without the “of course we respect religious freedom” facade.

If you want to fine Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching, or prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, or ban Chick-fil-A in Boston, then don’t tell religious people that you respect our freedoms. Say what you really think: that the exercise of our religion threatens all that’s good and decent, and that you’re going to use the levers of power to bend us to your will.

There, didn’t that feel better? Now we can get on with the fight.

Want to know who else was for clear statements? The Reformers, especially the writers of the Formula of Concord. The ringing phrase is “we believe, teach and confess…” We believe it intellectually. We teach it as truth. And we confess it – we order our hearts and lives around it. We are for clear statements.

Rock-a-bye baby: Some Preliminary Thoughts – Post #2

I want to pick back up the subject from yesterday. And I want to do it in a very specific way. We can trace a bunch of the problems within the denomination or you could say within the 1st world western church back to the 1960’s. Historically they go back farther, but that is when they erupted. I’ve got a book sitting on my shelf that is one “go-to” historical reference for a prior time of eruption – the reformation. That book is Ozment’s – The Age of Reform. The subtitle is 1250 – 1550. Think about that for a second. When we talk about the reformation we usually think 1517 (Luther’s 95 Theses) and forward through maybe 1648 and the Treaty of Westphalia where the Reformed (i.e. Calvin) received official sanction. In Ozment’s construction Luther was the eruption at the end that brought a bunch of streams together. The Council of Trent put a capstone on that age. Everything after that was learning to live with the separate theological peaces negotiated. From a Lutheran perspective our theological peace is expressed in the Book of Concord. The two biggies there are the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord. The formula closed up Pandora doctrinal box for Lutherans just like Trent did it for Catholics. The Reformed would have a more difficult time. There are a bunch of reformed confessions that closed the box for many different groups, but that stream liked opening the box much more. They were “reformed and always reforming”.

Just for a second I want to scan the contents of that last eruption: Original Sin, Free Will, Righteousness of Faith, Good Works, Law & Gospel, Third Use of the Law, Holy Supper, Person of Christ, Descent of Christ into Hell, Church Practices, Election, Other factions and Sects. There are some weighty topics there, but today I can believe in original sin in the form of total depravity and my Catholic neighbor can believe in original sin but expressed more as an inheritance from Adam of an inclination to sin and neither of us will decide that “I need to get a sword and chop off his heretical head”. Not that these things aren’t important, they are, what we think on these things effects how we live even if we don’t know it, but they are settled things. Of those things the reformation peace on the Lord’s Supper is probably the widest. As a Lutheran I might believe, teach and confess that transubstantiation is a little too specific, but the body and blood are truly present , and I think that is the best way to talk about it, but can I really say that Roman Catholics are out of Christ or Zwinglians are heading to hell? The writers of the Concord would probably have said yes. But 430 years later that is a very tough statement. Especially given that all three groups are still around. Unlike the resolution of the early Trinitarian doctrines in the creeds, and especially the Athanasian Creed which states that “whoever wishes to be saved must hold the catholic faith…and the catholic faith is this…” we just don’t put that forward with confessions. Some do, but I think you could get a good consensus around something like: Creeds – definitive doctrine, Confessions – internally consistent ways of living the one Catholic faith.

Now we come to the modern troubles. If I were trying to sit down and write a modern confession that would close Pandora’s doctrinal box I think here are the headings I would start with: science, medical technology, man and woman in Christ. Under science I think you would address things like evolution and modern philosophy. Under medical technology you would address end of life issues and the death penalty but also early life issues such as IVF, birth control and abortion. Then under man and woman in Christ you would discuss such things as divorce, sexual mores, the ministry, and what might be termed gender roles.
What I want to do is flesh some of the controversies and stumble toward some possible confessional statements. Now some of these are what we might think of as “no brainers”. Some, like sexual mores, have very strong and core biblical statements. Others like who is in the ministry are much more muddy than the sides in the controversy would think. And still others are pure extrapolation from biblical principles such as IVF.

Again, this is me thinking out loud. I’m trying to separate true theological thinking from simple justification of “that is the way we always lived, so the modern world must be wrong”. The next time I’m going to start with the easy things – sexual mores. Then I’m going to extend that to IVF & Birth control.

Is Hell endothermic or exothermic?

Full Text

If you are an engineering student you’ve heard the joke that goes with that question. I like that joke. I think that joke captures a whole bunch of folk wisdom beyond just being funny.

I probably should just post this and not say much. But I’m dumb that way.

To me, what the Rob Bell Hellgate speaks to is probably less about Hell and more about how we internalize faith, or make faith our own. It is one thing to say scripture alone, but as soon as you say that, you start to realize that the scriptures are not a logical systematic textbook. They are a narrative written over millenia in different cultures and languages. And that narrative is messy. Almost every group of Christians has developed a second book to help in that interpretation. The Book of Concord is the Lutheran one. Lutherans like to use Latin. We call scripture the norma normans which means the norming norm, and the Book of Concord the norma normata which means the normed norm. Irenaeus would talk of the regula fidei (more latin) which means rule of faith. The scriptures were read with the rule of faith which we today call the Nicene Creed. A Reformed Christian would read the bible with the Westminster Catechism. A Roman Catholic Christian reads the Bible with the Papal encyclicals and canon law. I like to think of those books as guideposts. They are watersheds of wisdom that capture what a large group of Christians at a given time heard in the Biblical story. It can be real dangerous to faith to go outside of them. In the case of the Creed I’d go farther. (But even there there are two splits – the Coptic/Syrian church doesn’t accept it, the Greek church doesn’t accept the procession of the Spirit from the Son, and then there is the western church in all its forms.) Ultimately these are normed norms. Occasionally you need to test them. Occasionally the church needs to remind itself that we follow the living Christ and not a new law in whatever its form. God is his own interpreter as the Hymnwriter Cowper would put it.

What Rob Bell is doing is questioning some of the planks of those secondary books. Many would, but I don’t think he’s gone outside of the Nicene Creed. But to be honest, I’m biased. What he’s prodded at in my mind is the Reformation consensus – in something minor to a Lutheran and in something core to a Reformed Christian. He’s said the story of a forever hell doesn’t make sense with the Biblical picture of God. When the culture is cohering, nobody questions the culture’s interpretation key. It is only when things get scary, when the culture is breaking apart, that the interpretation key get looked at. And that just makes things scarier. But we shouldn’t be scared. Because we are in the Father’s hands. Compared to the Reformation itself – these are very minor questions.