The Evanjellyfish Anti-Systematic System

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.

“Perhaps.”

“Inerrant?”

“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…”

Huh?

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.

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9 Responses to The Evanjellyfish Anti-Systematic System

  1. Rick says:

    Good Post Eric. You have a way with words. Thanks for bringing your knowledge to the Outhouse. But tell me, will your family be invited to read this blog?

    Can someone tell me where wreath-lighting came from? Is that RC? What about prayer labyrinths?

  2. Zrim says:

    It is always ironic how those who would eschew system always end up with system—the system of non-system is, believe it or not, a system.

    Tell a non-denominational pastor that you are looking for a church, and that you are expecting your first child soon, that you look forward to meeting him at the font in a few weeks. Likely you’ll be told “we don’t do that here.” It is problematic enough that in light of the non-denominational effort to maximize the number under the Big Tent those who practice what the Church has historically practiced get shut out. But more to the point, isn’t “we don’t do that here” an admission of system?

    And speaking of marriage, try suggesting to an Evangelical that her potential marriage to a Reformed Christian should result in the contemplation of discipline of the latter and hold your hat. The screed is usually due to a system that emphasizes the invisible church over the visible. Never mind all that spitting and cursing she does about her cousin having married a Roman Catholic—it’s based upon mostly a system of religious bigotry, which is dependant upon that same system emphasizing the invisible church where the litmus test is mere tribalism.

  3. Echo_ohcE says:

    John 15:3 “Already you are clean because of the Word I have spoken to you.”

    To undermine any part of the Scriptures is to undermine the authority of the one speaking therein. To do that is to destroy our salvation.

    To be sure, there are textual critical issues, with manuscripts and what not, that make for some difficult questions in establishing the text.

    But if you only had one text, could you say it was the right one? What if we only had one ancient copy of the Bible? How would we know it was right?

    But what we actually have are thousands of texts. Far, far more than any other ancient text by a long shot.

    And there are variants of them, some saying this, some saying that. None of them are really a big deal at the end of the day. However, these variants actually serve to make us MORE sure that we have the right text, because there is a (I admit it, it’s complicated) science to figuring out what the text should say. There are very few places of the text where there is any doubt AT ALL. Very few. And in those cases, the orthodox speak with one voice on the matter. The only people who claim the other opinion are those who are actively trying to undermine our confidence in the text.

    So having studied these things, do I have any doubt at all that we have the right text? Nope.

    The kinds of stuff they debate is things like punctuation. And of course, the original didn’t have punctuation, so it’s an interpretive question.

    Sometimes there are other questions, but in the end, there’s rarely any doubt at all. It’s not that hard to figure out. We are truly blessed to have so many manuscripts, making us even more confident in the text.

  4. efwake says:

    Echo:

    Your points are spot-on and agree with each one, however I fear that you may have missed the forest for the trees. Those assertions you make concerning the reliability of Scripture are made from a certain perspective.

    “Perspicuity” is, or at least has become, a rather parochial term in its use, owned by the Reformed tribe. This is unfortunate, but it is as a result of a system… the Standards and Forms to which we subscribe. I was pointing to the irony of the great Evangelical conundrum; that as their fundamentalist forebears attempted to defend the bunker of Scripture by throwing out confessions and creeds, they undermined what they’d set out to do.

    Why do you suppose it is that Presbyterians have been the ones at the forefront of all of the major battles with higher criticism rather than Fundamentalists and Evangelicals? Our creeds… the ones we have stopped teaching our kids (well actually, I’ve only begun to teach mine) point us systematically to the centrality of the W/word.

    Your system teaches you the importance of the reliability of the recieved text of Holy Writ. Theirs tells them to do what feels good. Guess whose will lead to faithful defense of THE faith rather than faith in faith?

  5. efwake says:

    Rick-

    not inviting that side of the family to read this stuff. They just wouldn’t get it.

  6. Echo_ohcE says:

    ef,

    Fundamentalists and Evangelicals aren’t in the higher critical debates because it’s over their heads. They simply don’t have the scholarship. The scholars are all either the 5 or 6 reformed guys or the higher critical liberals. Evangelicals and Fundamentalists have been to Bible college and can’t interact intelligently with the original languages, and frankly I doubt they’d see the value in it anyway.

    There are, of course, exceptions.

  7. efwake says:

    Echo-

    Here, here.

    One of the reasons I’ve loved the OPC is that those to whom they appeal as fathers… Hodge, Warfield, and Machen, among others, not only interacted with the higher critics but learned from and with them in their institutions.

    You’re spot on. Fundamentalists and Evangelicals have consistently downgraded historical standards of scholarship within the Church through their seminaries while at the same time shifting the lion share of “ministry” from seminary educated and ordained ministers to laypersons.

    How can we be surprised when doctrine slips into moralism? Have we not learned from the Cumberland Presbyterian Church?

  8. Echo_ohcE says:

    Well, there’s another factor as well, that I was alluding to when I mentioned that they wouldn’t see the value in it, and that’s this: fundmentalists and many Evangelicals are irrational in response to error.

    So for example, some guy comes along and interacts with the text, and concludes that half the gospel of Mark shouldn’t be there, or something like that. How would the Fundamentalist or Evangelical react to something like that?

    The same way they react to anyone who disagrees with them. Irrationally. They would talk about how the person is wicked and from the devil, and leave it at that. They would make no argument. Or maybe they’d mock the person, saying, “The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me…” But there would be no argument.

    There are some few exceptions I suppose, but for the most part, these people CANNOT see that disproving these kinds of scholars can have value. They can’t see that because they don’t want to see it. They don’t care. It’s quickly becoming a more and more anti-intellectual church out there. Error is not seen as a helpful gift from God to help refine the church’s views, because the church must respond to the error and so grow in understanding of the truth.

    How does the church advance in its understanding of theology? Error. Heresy.

    How did the Church come to make a declaration about the canon of Scripture? Because of the gnostics doing higher criticism, saying that only certain books were authentic.

    How did the church come to figure out that Christ had two natures, human and divine, that cannot be confused nor separated, but that he is FULLY human and FULLY divine? Because of various heresies that pushed them to study the Scriptures and figure it out.

    How did the church figure out that justification was by faith alone in the Reformation? Because Martin Luther was a monk who was trained to believe that you had to earn your salvation, and he actually believed it, and figured out that he couldn’t do it. He had been raised on lies, and they were eventually revealed to him.

    Errors and heresies can help us tremendously to refine our position. If you have read the OPC’s report on justification, you’ll see what I mean because there it’s obvious. The errors in our circles about justification have forced people to think about things and to grow in their own understanding.

    A Fundamentalist would probably say that I’m not a Christian in response to this post. I think most evangelicals would be uncomfortable with it.

    But I say that GOD is the one who uses these errors to sharpen his church. We fail in our duties if we don’t avail ourselves of such opportunities. I hear guys in seminary, usually first year students, talk about how there needs to be more solidly reformed and scholarly commentaries. Maybe. But I get just as much value from reading a Roman Catholic who’s arguing about how to interpret the grammar of a passage. Because I see his conclusions, recognize they’re wrong, and am forced to argue against it. In so doing, I learn a lot of Greek, and my understanding of the passage is sharpened. Now I don’t need a reformed commentary on the passage, because in wrestling with the text itself, I’ve learned what it is saying.

    E

  9. efwake says:

    You got it.

    “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

    I call it bumper sticker theology.

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