The wedding of Christians is always a deeply encouraging and meaningful event. Make that a family member who has thoughtfully arranged his ceremony to reflect the central role that Christ has played in redemption, God’s holy otherness and sovereign plan in bringing the bride and groom together, and their expectation of those witnessing the event to guide them in godly wisdom as they live together, and you have an amazingly joyful experience.
My wife’s cousin and I have been friends for quite some time, sharing a deep love of Christ and His Scriptures, and of the “reformed incense”. Having grown up in the ‘80s and ‘90s he is deeply suspicious of the Church Growth Movement and its entertainment focus and witnessed the devolution of the fundie/Baptist congregation in which he was raised as it became less and less particular and more and more blandly Evangelical. Announcing to me his engagement and that they’d be looking for a congregation in which they’d both feel comfortable with, he told me that the only requirement he would not budge on was that he, “needed liturgy”.
Throughout his time as an Old Testament student in seminary he has more and more passionately rejected dispensationalism, and it showed by his sprinkling of a healthy amount of covenantal language throughout his wedding ceremony.
Given all of these considerations, one might assume that the man is on the road back from Colorado Springs to Geneva after a soured introduction to American Evangelicalism. Unfortunately, there are light years between what appears to be moves toward High Church Presbyterianism through covenantal affinities and an appreciation for the communicative forms of classically Christian liturgy and where many in my cousin’s generation seem to be landing. While he and I may share a love for the Scriptures the ways in which he speaks of that canon which he has devoted his academic career to studying falls far short of those classic formulations articulated and defended so brilliantly by Edward J. Young in Thy Word Is Truth (Eerdmans, 1957).
“Infallible?” I ask him.
“Hardly; have you not seen the all-out assault our semantically obsessed culture has mounted against all forms of objective truth in linguistics? Do you know how many hands those manuscripts have passed through before they get into those of the modern translators?”
“How about ‘The only rule of faith and practice?’”
“Absolutely,” he’d say, following it with several qualifications pertaining to “…the necessity of pliability for the sake of the cultures in which the Christian faith is practiced and the fact that the Apostle Paul’s teachings on the role of women must be viewed as out dated.
Which begs the question: what makes a set of errant writings infallible? Equally important, how can one discern true doctrine from false if their source, Scripture, is errant? If God’s revelation to us in Scripture is subject to the human errors of its authors and their “hobby horse” topics as it has supposedly been shown to be in the teaching of the Apostle Paul on the role of women in the Church, how can we rest in it as “my guide to life,” or know that “me and my Bible can tackle anything,” or perhaps that “Jesus is the answer”?
Herein lies the ironic conclusion of Evangelicalism’s incessant questioning of the dogmatic legacy of our Holy Religion: on the one hand there is a hope that one may do away with the idea of a dogmatic system, even as one constructs an alternative for himself. Those in the various “movements” we see about us today (like the Federal Vision and Emergent Church) seem to have missed the critical point that the reformers, who they claim to represent, understood far too well; that individuals are not autonomous, but will inevitably think and act within a system. Indeed, these systems cannot and have not come about through the creative thinking of individuals with Bibles, but through the approval and development of doctrines down through the ages of the Church. As confessionalists we subscribe to a documented system which holds us accountable to certain standards. And that is exactly what the Westminster Standards are; they are a set of Standards which the Church officers of subscribing Presbyterian bodies vow on oath before God to maintain as they direct the Lord’s Church.
Another thing that seems to escape many in the Church today is that systems of doctrine are necessary for a vibrant understanding not only of what we are to believe concerning God, but also how we are to be subjectively moved to show our gratitude and live a life of faith as a result of those beliefs. I always hear the loud cry, “but correct theology must produce X” or “but the right preaching of the Word, administration of the sacraments and discipline must cause congregants to do Y” and, depending upon what one inserts as X and Y, there can be no doubt that a system of doctrine that is faithful to the Scriptures will produce holiness. Or to put it more simply, the system of doctrine that many would like to ignore guides our understanding of the application of Scripture to our lives as individuals as well as our collective life in the covenant community (or for those uninitiated into the Reformed dialect, the Church).
Evangelicals everywhere: You can choose a documented and approved system, or you can just make one up as you go along, but you can’t escape having a system.
Acknowledging the holiness of the vows taken by the singing of “Holy Holy Holy,” and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer are appropriate acts for worship. Directing the thoughts of those present to the covenant community’s role in sustaining and nurturing the family from birth to death by admonishing the audience throughout the matrimonial ceremony are good things to observe during a wedding. Doing all of the above in the chapel of a Bible college, presided over by a minister who has been given his authority not by the Church but “by (his interpretation of) the word of God” (that one which is errant, by the way), thereby confusing the whole thing with that worship which will take place in the visible Church on the Lord’s Day makes for a skating party on thin ice. Differentiation or lack thereof between those covenantal ceremonies we participate in and observe 6 days a week and that great covenant renewal service which God calls once every 7 days are made from within a certain system of doctrine.
And what of the lyrics of “Holy Holy Holy” and “In Christ Alone,” the words of the Lord’s Prayer, the meaning of the word “covenant” as it pertains to the assembled witnesses and to the covenantal ceremony being observed in a wedding? These are also loaded terms and ideas, all of which may be interpreted in a variety of ways by dealing with them through the lens of different systems. I do not say this to suggest a relativistic view of those concepts and doctrines myself, but simply to point out the tendency of many in Evangelicalism today to treat the many different historic expressions of Christianity and their attending forms like one big liturgical cafeteria:
“I’ll take a little of the wreath-lighting here, the stations of the cross there, some of that labyrinth walking, a dash of incense burning, liturgical dance to include those nice little junior high students over here, and have the wonderbread hand-dipped into the grape juice and tossed into my mouth by my college pastor over there…”
We can haggle all we want over which systematic expression of the Christian religion stands up to scrutiny until we’re purple in the face and you won’t hear complaints from me. These discussions of the historic and biblical nature of various confessions of the visible Church are right for us to have, in spite of what Brian MacClarren (I probably misspelled his name, but don’t really care) and others might say concerning dogmatic assertions concerning the assembly. Just don’t call me overly dogmatic when your accusation therein betrays a dogmatism of your own; one that you’re making up for yourself as you go along, and which you seem completely oblivious to.
It seems to me that many Evangelicals have painted themselves into a corner, and the question the anti-dogmatists must answer is how one can set out to systematically deconstruct historic Christianity while dogmatically constructing an anti-systematic system of their own.