You don’t need to hear the whole sermon each week

Over on Facebook, John Barach says that people need to stop worrying about their children distracting them from hearing the whole sermon in a church service:

I sometimes tell parents, “If God had intended you to hear a whole sermon every Sunday, he wouldn’t have given you children.”

And after all, the sermon isn’t the main thing on Sunday, with some extras before and after. The service is a whole. Even if you’re in and out with the kiddos or distracted by caring for them during the sermon so that you can’t remember anything the pastor was saying, you’re still likely going to be able to participate in much of the rest of the service.

That is, you’re going to enter God’s courts with thanksgiving and songs of praise, kneel and confess your sins, be raised up and forgiven by God through the minister’s declaration, sing (at least some of) the songs, hear (at least some of) the passages of Scripture read, pray (at least some of) the prayers, present your offerings to God, feast at the Lord’s Table, and receive his blessing.

Sure, it would be nice on top of all that to be able to hear more than a few minutes of the sermon without distraction. But even if you don’t, you – and your children – are worshiping God. He didn’t call you to sit through a talk, take notes, track with everything that’s being said, and be able to narrate the whole thing back afterwards. He called you to worship.

And you did, together with your children.

Sermons are good things, and much is to be gained from hearing the exposition of Scripture each Sunday. But we have little hope of growing into disciples of Christ if our formation depends solely on an unhindered intake of intellectual content, not least because most of us do not function in that way. And that, very simply, is why the Church has a liturgy. It is no accident that throughout the ages, guided by the Spirit, the Church has given such careful attention to its liturgy and practices, because these things train us and shape us as followers of Christ. Without devaluing preaching, the wisdom of the Church down through history has been that being at church on Sunday and participating in the liturgy is just as important as hearing a sermon.

What’s more, even when it makes it harder for us to keep focused, by keeping our children in church, we are training them to be worshipers and disciples as they observe and model our enacting of the faith. And what can be more important than that?


Situating Richard Hooker

Anglicans of every variety often claim that Richard Hooker is the founder of Anglicanism. Are they justified in doing so? That is a complicated question, not least because the history of the ecclesia Anglicana stretches back much further than Hooker. However, his contribution to the reformation of the Church of England in the 16th century does make him a major figure in the shaping of modern Anglicanism.

W. Bradford Littlejohn, in his recent book, Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work,  concludes the following in a chapter that evaluates Hooker’s theology in relation to his Protestant Reformed contemporaries:

It appears very likely that Hooker understood himself, and should be understood, as following more or less within the footsteps of the leading Protestant Reformers. Not only that, but if we had to place him more precisely, he would appear on most questions to fall fairly unproblematically within the broad and varied Reformed theological family that was developing so fruitfully at this time. This does not make him an uninteresting figure, simply restating established orthodoxies in a predictable form. Far from it. Hooker always remained his own man, and demonstrates a strikingly independent theological mind on many of the points that vexed his contemporaries. But his novelty perhaps lies more in the way he reshuffled the existing deck of theological cards he had been dealt, rather than in introducing new cards into the deck. That is to say, he takes up many of the tensions that we see within the Reformed tradition, on issues such as the role of reason, the efficacy of the sacraments and role of liturgy, and the nature of predestination, and seeks to offer a creative synthesis within the general bounds of the tradition, though sometimes outside the mainstream. It is also clear that he had no interest in defining himself narrowly within a party label, but hoped to claim as much of the Christian tradition as possible – Reformed, Lutheran, the best of medieval Catholicism, and the Church Fathers. In this, perhaps more than anything else, it can fairly be said that he prefigured the spirit of Anglican theology (67-68).

So while we might not go so far as to call Hooker the founder of Anglicanism, his work plays a decidedly significant role in beginning to set Anglicanism apart as a unique theological tradition.

Meilaender on the limits of work

The idea that human work is somehow a participation in God’s work is one that is given much attention in the theology of work, often expressed in terms humans being ‘co-creators’ with God. In the introduction to his book, Working: Its Meaning and its Limits, Gilbert C. Meilaender suggests that this vision of work is found appealing by many ‘because it responds to a desire…people have for work that is meaningful and productive’ (5). Meilaender notes that this idea finds clear expression in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Laborem Exercens:

The Church finds in the very first pages of the Book of Genesis the source of her conviction that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth… These truths are decisive for man from the very beginning, and at the same time they trace out the main lines of his earthly existence, both in the state of original justice and also after the breaking, caused by sin, of the creator’s original covenant with creation in man… Man is the image of God partly through the mandate received from his creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth. In carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the creator of the universe.

But Meilaender sees a number of problems with this vision of work. In the first place, it locates the inherent worth of work in the work itself, and thus would require that ‘no one should have to do work that cannot be done as humanly fulfilling activity’. This, he says, is simply not possible in a fallen world, especially in a capitalistic economy where ‘the person’s work becomes a commodity to be bought and sold’ (9). Secondly, when linked with the concept of vocation, which casts a ‘vision of work as a calling from God’, we see ‘an enhanced religious aura to the world of work – reinforcing and perhaps in part giving rise to the modern idea that work is integral to human identity and flourishing’ (12-13).

Important for Meilaender is that we do not allow the way we speak of work to ‘lead us to ignore the empirical realities of the work many people do’. Further, language such as ‘co-creation’ can lead us to ‘easily forget some of the ways in which work has and ought to have only limited significance’, and ‘may challenge us to devote the whole of our powers to work that lies before us’ (13, 18). In the end, ‘we live in relation to God…[and] our work…[cannot] divulge the ultimate significance of a human life’ (19).

As helpful as Meilaender’s word of caution on this particular paradigm of work is, I’m not entirely persuaded by his critique. Certainly his concern that our identity not be wholly wrapped up in our work is something that needs to be said loudly and clearly. But the fact that work is difficult and that many struggle to find meaning in it does not negate its original purpose and worth; it is simply a testament to the distorting effects of sin. Most proponents of the co-creation paradigm readily acknowledge these difficulties, moving beyond romantic notions of work. Yet Meilaender does not give adequate attention to this; he instead seeks a theology of work that begins with the reality of work as we know it. In the end, this seems to leave him unable to make space for any sort of transformation or redemption of work, and we are left with little more than an attempt to cope with the struggles of modern work.

Doing theology starts with the assumption that the Church is right

As it would be the height of folly, on one’s first arrival in Switzerland, to make it appear that he is the first to investigate the Berner Oberland, since common sense compels him on the contrary to begin his journey by making inquiry among the guides of the country, the same is true here. In its rich and many-sided life, extending across so many ages, the Church tells you at once what fallible interpretations you need no longer try, and what interpretation on the other hand offers you the best chances for success. On this ground the claim must be put, that the investigator of the Holy Scriptures shall take account of what history and the life of the Church teaches concerning the general points of view, from which to start his investigation, and which paths it is useless to further reconnoitre.

…The investigator does not stand outside of the Church, but is himself a member of it. Hence into his own consciousness there is interwoven the historic consciousness of his Church. In this historic consciousness of his Church he finds not merely the tradition of theologians and the data by which to form an estimate of the results of their studies, but also the confessional utterances of the Church. And this implies more. These utterances of his Church do not consist of the interpretation of one or another theologian, but of the ripest fruit of a spiritual and dogmatic strife, battled through by a whole circle of confessors in violent combat, which enlightened their spiritual sense, sharpened their judgment, and stimulated their perception of the truth; which fruit, moreover, has been handed down to him by the Church through its divinely appointed organs. It will not do, therefore, to place these dogmatic utterances on the same plane with the opinions of individual theologians. In a much deeper sense, they provide a guarantee for freedom from error, and he who belongs to such a Church has himself been moulded in part by them. This gives rise to the demand, that every theologian shall, in his investigations, reckon with all those things that are taught him by the history of the churches concerning well and badly chosen paths in this territory to be investigated; and, also, in the second place, that he shall take the dogmas of his Church as his guide, and that he shall not diverge from them until he is compelled to do this by the Word of God. Hence, one should not begin by doubting everything, and by experimenting to see whether on the ground of his own investigation he arrives at the same point where the confession of his Church stands; but, on the contrary, he should start out from the assumption that his Church is right, while at the same time he should investigate it, and only oppose it when he finds himself compelled to do so by the Word of God.

– Abraham Kuyper, Sacred Theology, 252-253.

Bavinck on Jesus and politics

One of the factors that shapes how you understand Jesus’ words in the Gospels is recognising when he is speaking to his disciples, and when he is not. This is particularly significant for how Jesus’ words are employed in the service of politics and economics.

In his essay, ‘Christian Principles and Social Relationships’, in Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, the Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, notes quite simply that Jesus doesn’t do politics. He ‘leaves all political and social circumstances and relationships for what they are; he never intervenes in any of this, either by word or action’ (130). Despite what many anticipated the Messiah to be and do, Jesus has no revolutionary inclination, instead demonstrating an acceptance of the established order. Rather, Bavinck writes, Jesus’ purpose was to come ‘into the world to save his people from their sins, to serve and to give his soul as a ransom for many’ (131). This has a significant bearing on how we understand Jesus’ teaching:

In teaching his disciples, Jesus wants to raise their standard of judgement to this level. To understand his teaching, we must note before all else that Jesus never developed a political or social agenda…it is not a lesson in politics or economy, no agenda of principles or of action. Christ’s teaching is totally of a religious-moral nature; it is not intended for the state, for society, but is directed to his disciples and indicates how they are to conduct themselves in their private lives (131-132).

As a case in point, Bavinck points to the Sermon on the Mount, which is regularly employed by those who wish to co-opt Jesus for political causes. Jesus here does not address social concerns; his teaching instead is ‘dominated completely by the contrast between the righteousness that God requires and that which the Pharisees in Jesus’ day demanded’ (132). This is why it is so important to recognise when Jesus’ is specifically teaching his disciples, because he never gives them a ‘direct command to become involved socially or politically’. Rather, in his instruction of his disciples, ‘the so-called passive virtues of self-denial and long-suffering, of humility and love are so prominent’ (132).  And that is because ‘the true following of Christ…is found in the inner conversion of the heart’ (131). Jesus doesn’t teach his disciples how to be better citizens in this world. He teaches them how to live the new life that he brings.

Bavinck’s concern is to avoid conflating any sort of political or societal order with the kingdom of God. This is a temptation when the imposition of a new order is seen as an outworking of the gospel and the teaching and work of Christ. But Jesus is perfectly clear: ‘The only way to enter the kingdom of heaven, which is available to all, is by way of regeneration, an inner change, faith, conversion. No nationality, no gender, no social standing, no class, no wealth or poverty, no freedom or slavery has any preferences here’ (140).

That said, ‘it is a different question…whether one can learn something from [Jesus’] teaching for the organisation of state and society’ (131). And while that is not the concern of his essay, Bavinck is clear that there are certainly things Jesus taught that can be brought to bear on the structures of society. But the point is that the gospel does not give us a new political order; instead, it effects change in a different way:

Although the gospel left everything unchanged in the natural relationships, it nevertheless preached a principle so deep and rich and extraordinarily powerful that is was bound to exert a reforming influence on all earthly circumstances. [But] the gospel has to be understood clearly. It must be accepted the way it presents itself without turning it into a political or social system, and then it will reveal its permeating power (140).

Bavinck certainly expects that the gospel will have an influence on society (that, incidentally, is the focus of a recent book by Nick Spencer, of Theos Think Tank), and the fact that he was a key part of institutions like universities, an academy of arts and sciences, and a member of the Dutch parliament testifies to this. But he is clear that the gospel itself is not about implementing tax laws that favour the poor or creating welfare states or raising standards of living or, indeed, any sort of political revolution. Rather,

The gospel is exclusively directed to the redemption from sin…the gospel shuns every revolution… The gospel, on the other hand, always works reformationally. It creates the greatest reformation by setting people free from guilt, renewing the heart, and thus in principle restoring the right relationship of man to God. And so from this centre it influences all earthly relationships in a reforming and renewing way… Precisely because the gospel only opposes sin, it opposes it always and everywhere in the heart and the head, in the eye and in the hand, in family and society, in science and art, in government and subjects, in rich and poor, for all sin is unrighteousness, trespassing of God’s law, and corruption of nature. But by liberating all social circumstances and relationships from sin, the gospel tries to restore them all according to the will of God and make them fulfil their own nature (142-143).

There is much more to say here, not least about the concept of sphere sovereignty, of which Bavinck is a major proponent. But for now, it is important to note that Bavinck is not advocating the idea that a reformation of society is simply about converting people, as some evangelicals are wont to suggest, in reaction to those who make Jesus to identify with a modern political system. Rather, this is simply about recognising the distinction between the content of the gospel, and the implications of the gospel.

‘The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost,’ Jesus says (Luke 19:10). That is what the gospel is all about. But the implications of that gospel stretch much further, as renewed people set to work renewing all that has been broken by sin in the various places and institutions to which they are called.

John Webster on the Church’s relationship to the triune God

‘How do we move from the doctrine of God to the doctrine of the Church?’ John Webster asks in his book, Holiness (54). That the life of God and the life of the Church are intimately connected is without question, but Webster seeks clarity on that relationship, particularly given the way social trinitarianism has been used ‘for our understanding of human common life, both politically and in the Church’ (54). He writes,

The relatedness of Father, Son and Spirit is canvassed as the ground or model for the Church, and the Church is therefore conceived as the realisation in time of the human vocation to society, and so as the social extension of reconciliation through its gracious participation in the triune life of God (54-55).

While acknowledging there is much to say on this, Webster admits to two hesitations with social trinitarian theologies. The first is that it gives ‘insufficient attention to the free majesty of God’ and his perfection and sheer distinction from his creatures (55). But he continues:

A second, related, hesitation concerns the way in which such accounts of the Church’s relation to the triune life of God betray a drift into divine immanence. This can be seen in the way in which such ecclesiologies characteristically stress the continuity between the action of God and the action of the Church, in a manner which can easily jeopardise our sense of the freedom and perfection of God’s work. Such ecclesiologies can place excessive emphasis upon the Church as agent, and, correspondingly, underplay the passivity which is at the heart of the Church as a creature of divine grace. For if the being of the Church is a participation in the life of the triune divine society, then it is in the work of the Church that the work of the triune God finds its realisation, and, in an important sense, its continuation. In effect, this constitutes an orientation in ecclesiology that makes the work of the Church an actualisation of or sharing in the divine presence and action, rather than a testimony to that presence and action (55, emphasis mine).

The concern Webster has here in relation to his subject is that we do not lose sight of that fact that the holy life of the Church is entirely an act of grace, something which the ‘social trinitarian language of participation, [as it] emphasises the continuity, even coinherence, of divine and ecclesial action’, can obscure (56). Suggesting there is wisdom in continuing to speak of the Church’s sanctity as something ‘alien’, Webster concludes,

The Church is holy…not by virtue of some ontological participation in the divine holiness, but by virtue of its calling by God, its reception of the divine benefits, and its obedience in faith. Like its unity, its catholicity and its apostolicity, the Church’s holiness is that which it is by virtue of its sheer contingency upon the mercy of God (57).

John Webster on why God makes us holy

As I noted in a previous post, John Webster, in his book, Holiness, argues that one of the purposes of theology is to lead the Church into the praise of God. Readers will therefore find themselves deeply encouraged in many ways throughout the book by Webster’s theology. This is particularly true of his chapter on the holiness of God, where he speaks of God’s ‘undefeated determination that the creature will flourish and reach its end’ (49).

Webster notes that sin has locked us into ‘the absurd affair in which the creature seeks to be a creature in a way other than that which is purposed by God’ (49). We live in such a way that we seek to destroy ourselves. But, Webster writes, God will not stand for this. He refuses ‘to negotiate away the creature’s good by allowing the creature itself to set the terms on which it will live’ (50). God wills for us to live according to his purposes.

The language of purpose carries throughout the discussion; God is determined that we will fulfil our purpose as his creatures. And for that to happen, we must be made holy. But this is not something God does from afar, as if he just waves a magic wand and purifies us so that we can stand in his presence. Rather, God binds himself to us in covenant faithfulness. The Father wills for himself a people, and through the Son, makes it possible for us not just to come into his presence, but to share in his righteousness, to flourish in the life he always purposed for us. Webster continues:

God’s holiness destroys wickedness for the same reason that we human beings destroy disease: because it attacks the creature’s flourishing and is opposed to our well-being. And as the end of the eradication of disease is health, so the end of the eradication of unholiness is the creature’s consecration, that is, the creature’s wholesome life in righteous fellowship with God (50).

God is jealous for our fellowship with him. He does not reluctantly make us holy, but determinedly does so. The Father longs for his people to be in fellowship with him, and makes that possible through the work of the Son, the benefits of which are then applied to us by the Spirit:

The Holy Spirit…completes this work of making holy, perfecting the creature by binding the creature’s life into that of Christ and so realising in the creature what has been achieved for the creature (52).

God makes us holy because he longs for us to flourish in fellowship with him. Here is a theology that leads to praise.