Hymnus Deo

Friday, February 23, 2007

Lenten Observence

We have officially entered the season of the Church calendar known as Lent. Lent is the forty-day period leading up to Easter. It has historically been practiced as a period of fasting and prayer, a period of penitence and of seeking God in a fuller way than we normally seek Him the rest of the year.

I'll admit to being a bit inconsistent in my practice of Lent. I blame it on my legalistic and Fundamentalistic background (assuming "blame" is the right way to think of it here). As J. I. Packer once used the phrase in a similar context, "a burned child hates the fire," and I still have scars to show from the fire I went through. Nor do I intend to ever go through such a fire again. Fundamentalism, with its series of "handle not's, taste not's, and touch not's" (Col. 2:21), has left American Christianity in shambles. Legalism – that is, the creation and enforcing of laws not supported by God's word – stirs up a licentious and rebellious spirit, and rather than eradicating immorality, encourages it. I have tried to be aware of that tendency in my own life and to keep it under some measure of control, though I'm sure I've failed at times. Nonetheless, whenever anybody says to me, "you have to do thus and such", and they can't support it with Scripture or sound argument, my first response is to say, "Try and make me." I wouldn't purport that this is always a good way to respond. After all, we are to obey those that God has put in authority over us. When it comes, however, to areas more specifically related to the heart of the Christian life, such as one's devotional practices, a man not only shouldn't obey extra-biblical laws, he can't obey those laws, for to do so would be to call God's law insufficient. At that point, there is a clear antithesis between God's law and Man's law – one can't obey one without disobeying the other.

In the Reformed tradition historically, however, we have had a category of practices in the Christian life called "adiaphora", meaning "indifferent". In other words, there are things which the law of God doesn't directly address in such a way as to forbid or condone, and therefore they are permissible or "indifferent". I would personally regard a private observance of Lenten practices in that category, though I remain skeptical of them. The majority of the Reformed tradition, however, has disagreed with me, John Calvin not being the least of them. Calvin addresses fasting in Book 4, Chapter 12 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. And whereas he recognizes fasting as a good and important thing in its place, he still regards it as a thing indifferent, and he condemns Lent itself as an unbiblical and ungodly practice. Reading his responses to the history of Lent and the abuses that came about in relation to it, one can understand why he was so opposed to it, though I wouldn't go so far as to condemn its practices as he does.

Speaking of the errors that arose in relation to the practice of Lent in the history of the Church, Calvin says, "Worse times then followed, and to the misdirected zeal of the people was added the incompetence and lack of training of the bishops, as well as their lust for mastery and their tyrannical rigor. Wicked laws were passed which bind consciences with deadly chains. The eating of meat was forbidden, as if it would defile a man. Sacrilegious opinions were piled upon one another, until the depth of all errors was reached." (from the Battles – McNeill edition, volume 2, pg. 1247)

The most commonly known Lenten practice is that of abstaining from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. But from what I've read, no one really knows why this is traditionally a practice in the Church or where it came from. Which brings up a problem. Why bind people with laws when we don't even know what they are for? Those who approve of the practice will say, "It helps take our focus off of ourselves and those material things we rely upon, and helps us to focus upon God Who gives us all these things." Maybe it's a sign of my own lack of sanctification, but it doesn't do that for me. In case anyone wasn't paying attention, it's hard enough to live faithfully to God's word without trying to add to it. Why would anyone want to burden themselves further than what God has asked of them? I think part of the problem lies in the fact that we think way too highly of ourselves. So often we arrogantly think we're doing a really grand job in the Christian life, and in failing to see the greatness of God and the depth of our sin, we don't realize how far short we fall. If we were to gain a deeper understanding of God's word and what He really requires of us, we would spend less time trying to come up with new rules.

And one thing I've found is that people often become incredibly obsessed with what they are and aren't supposed to do in Lent. It is naturally easy for us to talk hours on end about what we should and shouldn't do. But the early Reformers saw this as the difference between Law and Gospel. They spoke of the Law coming natural to us, whereas the Gospel is only manifested in us by a supernatural work of God. It is a sign of our sinfulness that we can talk endlessly about what we are and aren't supposed to do and can't talk nearly as much about the grace manifested to us in Jesus Christ. This is true, I've seen, in Catholic circles just as it is in Fundamentalist circles. Just try getting a conversation going about the Scriptures, the history of redemption, and the person and work of Christ. I've found that generally it's like trying to pull teeth. Jesus brought this tendency in the Pharisees to light when He told them, "You search the Scriptures, because in them you think you find life. But these are they that testify of Me." Jesus Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of all God has revealed to us. If we go to any law apart from Christ, even God's Law, we are participating in idolatry.

One statement I heard made recently by an Anglican priest shows the problem in bold relief. This priest made the statement, "The Rule of St. Benedict says that our lives ought to be a continuous Lent." He was applying it to all Christian people. I found this rather curious, and had to look it up for myself. The actual statement is from chapter 49 of the Rule, and it says, " The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent." This is the super-spirituality that the Reformers decried so vociferously. First we begin by setting up a false standard of holiness by denying an enjoyment of the good gifts that God has given so freely for our enjoyment. We set those who pursue this ideal most vigorously apart as a holier class than the rest of professing Christendom. Then we push it further by setting it up as a standard for all people. But Scripture nowhere supports this. In fact, God in His Word invites us over and over again to feasting before Him with joy and gladness, that is, with grateful hearts. This is not to say that there can't be times of fasting – there should be. But this shouldn't be the norm. The normal Christian life isn't one of constant self-deprivation, but of rejoicing over the blessings that God has given us and of sharing freely with others.

This brings up one more point I'd like to mention before I close, and that is the tendency towards selfishness in the Christian life. There can be so much talk about "what I'm giving up for Lent," and the subject of other people and my relationships with them never enters the picture. This is an example of how self-centered we can be in our conception of sanctification. Self-deprivation never has selfish gain as its end in the Biblical doctrine of sanctification. How many people who give meat up on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent then in turn have a neighbor or someone from church over for a hamburger on one of the other days of the week? If that actually happens (and maybe it does somewhere), I've never heard the suggestion made nor have I ever heard of it being done in those circles that practice Lent.

Having said all these things, I wouldn't seek to condemn Lent wholesale. I think it is good for the church to set aside a time of reflection, a time of mourning over our sins, a time of retracing our steps, a time of recovering what we have lost in failing to follow Christ as we ought, and a time of reflecting on Christ's work on our behalf. And that is how I intend to observe Lent. But I will remain stubborn in my insistence that God's Word is sufficient and Christ's work is complete. Every rule I need is found in the Scriptures, and everything I need to please God is found through my union with His Son. I need nothing else, and that's good, because I have nothing else.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A sonnet for Ash Wednesday

A sonnet by John Donne, for Ash Wednesday.

Thou hast made me, And shall thy worke decay?
Repaire me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I runne to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
I dare not move my dimme eyes any way,
Despaire behind, and death before doth cast
Such terrour, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sinne in it, which it t'wards hell doth weigh;
Onely thou art above, and when towards thee
By thy leave I can looke, I rise againe;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one houre my selfe I can sustaine;
Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art,
And thou like Adamant draw mine iron heart.

Light in the Shadowlands

I have been gradually working my way through the C. S. Lewis corpus one book at a time over the past few years. Whereas some people will find an author they like and plow through all their works in a short span, I prefer to take my time and jump from author to author. While I think the other approach has its benefits, I find this way suits me. I gain a sense of balance by constantly feeding on various writers and sources that I wouldn't have by only picking one author. Also, I tend to approach some books in a research-minded way – that is, gathering information. So I'll come up with an issue I want to know more about, and then I'll gather all my books on that issue in a pile. I don't usually work through the pile, but I get at least a start on learning more about that issue. One can't always approach books this way, however, as it can have it's own defeciencies, especially in dealing with certain types of literature, and therefore can be a hinderance to the reader.

Part of the experience in reading Lewis has been trying to just enjoy a book rather than racing to the index to find that piece of information I'm looking for. Lewis's Narnia books are especially good for working against that tendency. They are fiction, and as they were written for children, they are not especially complicated. Nonetheless, they are spiritually and intellectually rich and, as I have found most every time I read one of them, convicting of soul. Because I find them so enjoyable compared to little else, I have taken my time working through the series. I think of them as an especially thick steak or a rich chocolate dessert. Whenever I find myself in a reading rut, I can always go to the next Narnia book and it will get me reading again.

I just started The Voyage of the Dawn Treader last weekend and am halfway through. At the same time I am listening to The Screwtape Letters on audio. Until recently, however, I hadn't picked up any Lewis in awhile, mainly due to studies in other authors.

About three weeks ago I started reading a book not by Lewis, but about Lewis. It is called Light in the Shadowlands: Protecting the Real C. S. Lewis, and was written by Kathryn Lindskoog. A friend had told me about it a couple of years ago, and I picked it up not long after that, though I just read it for the first time. It is an interesting read for anyone desiring to know more about Lewis's legacy. Lindskoog (who died a couple of years ago) was a Lewis scholar and had met Lewis as well as corresponded with him several times. The concern of the book has to do with what has happened to Lewis's estate since the time of his death. In a strange turn of events, the Lewis estate fell into the hands of one Walter Hooper, who, it seems, didn't know Lewis nearly as well as he has portrayed. Since Lewis's death, many writings have come out bearing his name which Lindskoog questions for their authenticity. She questions the integrity of Mr. Hooper (who, sadly, is from nearby Reidsville here in North Carolina) as well as many involved with him and otherwise in Lewis scholarship. She talks about Lewis's various romantic interests through his life and how the circumstances around them are generally portrayed (she would say, inaccurately). She discusses the strange events that took place regarding the Kilns, Lewis's house and property, which he shared with his brother Warnie, after his death. She addresses issues surrounding the production and release of the movie Shadowlands, which chronicled the portion of Lewis's life involving wife Joy Davidman. She even argues against the notion that Lewis was progressing on his way to joining the Roman Catholic Church, an event which many Roman-leaning individuals seem to think would have been inevitable had Lewis not died before it happened.

The book comes with endorsements from many well known authors and scholars, such as Sheldon Vanauken, Ursula K. Le Guin, Martin E. Marty, Tim Powers, Russell Kirk, Richard Wilbur, Gilbert Meilaender, Robery Siegel, Frederick Buechner, Philip Yancey, and Walter Wangerin. I cannot say for sure that her accusations are completely accurate. To do so, I would have to have done all the research she had done for myself. But I can say that I find her case(s) overwhelmingly compelling, and therefore I find myself fully convinced. If nothing else, the list of endorsements should make one stand up and take notice. Sadly, Lindskoog's charges have never, to my knowledge, been answered, a matter she addresses in the book as well.

There is an updated version of this book, called Sleuthing C. S. Lewis: More Light in the Shadowlands, which you can get here. Since this was the last edition published by Lindskoog, I suspect this is the one a person would want to get. I was not aware of its existence until after I read the earlier version.

It isn't an especially enjoyable read in one sense. It is tragic to think of what has been done in Lewis's name since his death. It is an easy read, however, and an indispensable one for anyone seeking to gain a complete understanding of Lewis's works. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Federal Vision

For those who visit this blog, and who are familiar with the sorts of controversy that have been going on in Reformed and Presbyterian circles over the past few years, they will immediately know where I stand on some of these issues, based on the links to other websites that I provide here. The particular controversy I have in mind is what is called the “Federal Vision Controversy” or, by some, the “Auburn Avenue Controversy”. I have resisted commenting on this controversy thus far, and for the most part will continue on that track.

The reason I haven’t blogged about it is manifold. For one, I think there has been enough talk about it elsewhere on the web without my getting into it here. Those who want to learn more about it, or even want to debate about it, will do better going somewhere else. Also, when the issue has been discussed, what I have often found on the part of those opposed to the Federal Vision is profound and inexcusable ignorance. There are those who simply don’t have the opportunity to read up on the controversy, and so they can’t be blamed for what they don’t have time to learn (let me add that those people should then remain quiet on the issue). But there are those that I’ve encountered who spend enough time in theological studies that they should know better. And unfortunately, whether in conversation or on the internet, lots of misunderstandings have been propagated. Some people who should know better go so far as to write books, which are then bought by people seeking to know more, and who trust those writers on the basis of their Reformed credentials.

Often what I find on the part of anti-Federal Vision people is an unwillingness to read books or listen to lectures by those of the Federal Vision position. But this baffles me. Let me offer one very important suggestion. Whenever you are seeking to learn a person’s position on something, no matter what the topic (religious or non-religious, orthodox or heretical), the FIRST place you go is to the person you are critiquing. As soon as you go and read the writing of someone critiquing the same person you are seeking to critique, you open the situation up to misunderstanding. This is especially important when the person being critiqued is a brother and a minister. The accusation of heresy is very, very serious – far more serious than we often regard it as being. And yet that is the accusation often being cast at the Federal Vision advocates.

One critic that has had a book published is Guy Waters. Now I haven’t read Waters’s book, so I’m not able to engage it. But some Federal Visionists have. Doug Wilson has answered it on his blog, as has Peter Leithart. All one has to do is go to these men’s weblogs and do a search under “Guy Waters”. But how many people who will buy Waters’s book will also read the responses to it?

Doug Wilson, in response to Waters, stated the following:

To summarize this series of posts, I would conclude by urging the anti-FV forces to reconsider their choice of a champion. Guy Waters is clearly more than capable of reading mountains of material. He can assemble evidence in print that he has read it by using the usual scholarly apparatus. As I have shown repeatedly in this series of posts, what he cannot do is represent that material fairly, or refute it with theological integrity.

But see, all a person has to do to be trusted is to get a book published by P& R. Folks, that doesn’t make the book a sure bet.

For those seeking to hear some of Doug Wilson’s responses to questions and misunderstandings regarding the Federal Vision, I would highly recommend the interview he recently did (free streaming online here) for Covenant Radio. (It was listening to this interview today that pushed me to post this.) In the interview, he states that he has found that the critics don’t understand what he’s been saying, and Waters in particular is singled out.

Let me jump up and down on the point one more time, and then leave it for now. If you want to know what the Federal Visionists are saying, you need to listen to them first and foremost, not their critics. The issue is too important to falsely accuse someone.