The Perpetuation of Faith

At the risk of chasing relevancy, I wanted to leave something apropos on the stoop before the weekend holiday commences. And since Sunday will likely be another opportunity to explain why we will take a pass on family invitations to one Big Tent expression or another and instead find ourselves where the local Evangelicals deem “way too Catholic,” I thought maybe this re-post would be, ahem, relevant…

“…That the old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act of baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s Table…the system was churchly, as holding the Church in her visible character to be the medium of salvation for her baptized children in the sense of that memorable declaration of Calvin (Inst 4.1.4) where, speaking of her title, he says: ‘There is no other entrance into life, save as she may conceive in her womb, give us birth, nourish us from her breasts, and embrace us in her loving care to the end’.”

John Williamson Nevin, My Own Life, The Early Years.

In any household, there is the question of the perpetuation of that which identifies the core of the household. A family passes down its particulars to its descendants. Everything from family name to Uncle Mike’s sense of humor to particular quirks are passed down. What makes us who we are up one side and down the other is largely inherited. And whatever isn’t effortlessly inherited is deliberately engendered.

When it comes to the Christian faith, the confessional Reformed ethic, once again, differs from the Evangelical one. Where the Evangelical ethic seeks to perpetuate the faith by bringing outsiders into the fold, the confessional one emphasizes the mini-congregation within the congregation. Where the Evangelical ethic looks to seek those who are “afar off,” the confessional one looks to live births, namely the covenant family. It is not that the Evangelical has no consciousness toward his children, or that the confessionalist places no value on missions or evangelism. While how each does those respective activities differs (i.e. Reformed do evangelism differently than the Evangelical), it is also worth noting that the question of emphasis is also a distinguishing mark. In a word, where the Evangelical emphasizes “afar off” evangelism, the confessionalist practices the catechism of covenant children.

The pull for the confessionalist to “do better” in his evangelism is more a push by the Evangelical ethic upon him, wholesale. It is typical for the confessionalist to be made to feel somehow inferior, but really he should not. He is not an Evangelical. Just as it would be unrealistic for the confessionalist to expect the Evangelical to adopt his emphasis, it is equally unrealistic for the Evangelical to expect the confessionalist to turn his attention primarily outward instead of nurturing his own. Yet, it is often not the Evangelical who feels relatively ashamed of his inability to catechize his children so much as it is the Reformed confessionalist who senses the need to hand out just as many Bibles to the natives and be as obsessed with “growth” and “numbers.”

It is, after all, the Evangelical ethic that fuels much of the mega-church phenomenon being compelled to behave more like a big-tent conference center that “packs ‘em in” than a church nurturing souls. Very often, I have found, the Reformed are accused of not being particularly strong when it comes to evangelism. This is usually laid at the doorstep of our Calvinism or the very idea that “God saves sinners,” the doctrines of election or predestination, etc. This, I think, is a great miscalculation on the part of the Evangelical. Still greater, and even more pathetic I might add, is the confessional acquiescence to the idea and subsequent efforts to behave more “Evangelically.” I am not beyond admitting that Reformed confessionalism can lend itself to a less-than adequate outlook on evangelism. But, at the same time, I think that once it gets to this stage one is really beginning to deal with forms of hyper-Calvinism or other errant forms of determinism over against sound and biblical Calvinism.

No, our perceived “weakness” with regard to evangelism really comes from a skewed understanding not only of our Calvinism but also a misunderstanding of the confessional ethic of an inherited faith, a covenant theology that informs us that the faith is one handed down more than it is propagated amongst the outside world. But it is not a weakness if we truly understand this dimension of a confessional tradition, one that is increasingly eaten alive by the surrounding Evangelical ethic. That it is perceived as a weakness really is to reveal an underlying Evangelical assumption, which is itself informed by an individualism and set of assumptions about what it means to perpetuate the faith. Look around any church of any tradition, including Evangelical, and the Evangelical ethic simply falls apart. Most heads in pews are there because they have indeed inherited the faith of their forbears. Most are, in point of fact, not made up of converts from outside the group. Just as covenant theology itself acknowledges the realities of near-eastern phenomenon of treaties and applies them to the understanding of cultic truth and praxis, the confessional ethic in this way mirrors what is true in natural or cultural life: belief systems are primarily handed down from within, inherited, perpetuated by younger generations that begin by mimicking the elder and then internalizing that system through a natural human process of maturation.

The confessionalist understands this about the order of things and applies it to his system of faith. For my confessional money, I would much rather be about the business of molding young souls that are naturally designed to mimic and internalize in the privacy of my own home and church than err on the side of making myself a nuisance to those who couldn’t care any less and over whom I have absolutely no jurisdiction. Granted, it has its obstacles (does any parental duty not?), but I tend to find I have much more success six days a week with those malleable souls given to me for such a task than always looking to legitimate my secular vocations by seeing how many times I can force any given situation for an in-road toward awkward personal evangelism.

With this in mind, I think we might begin to ask whether what we do to answer the questions pertaining to the perpetuation of faith seem more Evangelical (outward bound) or confessional (inward bound)? Are we as congregations assuming much too much about just how the faith is handed down while evangelistic efforts keep getting more and more ramped up? Do we intuit that the promise is less for “you and your children” and really more for those that “are far off”? We should be wary of the American impulse to say both, which can be at once an unrealistic and frenzied drive to “be all things to all people” or a lazy answer designed to merely bark out an ideal response when we all know it is impossible. Just as in most secular life issues, we must all make choices and create emphasis when we do sacred life. The Evangelical ethic places its emphasis on those that are far off and makes no apology for it; they should not be begrudged and only congratulated on being consistent.

In the same way, confessionalists should feel no shame in also taking a side and being consistent, since we have historically done just that. We should resist the push to be Evangelical in this way, seek and recover the lost art of being true confessionalists.

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25 Responses to The Perpetuation of Faith

  1. Jesus’ said to “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel…” I admire your desire to disciple your children, but we must also preach the Gospel to the lost.

  2. efwake says:

    Right on Albino; Gospel preaching, singing, witnessing, and reciting, are for all who are in the sanctuary on any given Lord’s Day morning. Consistency here will yeild much fruit in my heart, the hearts of my children, and the hearts of those whom God has called.

    This is not a contradiction to Zrim’s comments, but a close look at Church history will prove that this lack of zeal for missions placed at the doorstep of Confessional Calvinists the world over is a red herring. Much of the difference, today in particular, is that our efforts are churchly rather than through para-church organization and are based upon the preaching of the W/word, sacraments, and church discipline (or discipleship of those within the congregation by membership).

    If evangelical enthusiasm is judged based upon the number of parachurch organizations one donates money too most confessionalists will lose hands-down. If, on the other hand, it is judged based upon an effort to bring people into the Church through the normal means of grace, we’ve got it well covered.

    May the Lord continue to grow His Church from within and without.

  3. Zrim says:

    Al,

    Meaning what? I could speculate as to what may be subsuming beneath your comment, but suffice to say, perhaps, that we are in different traditions that do what they do for specific reasons…the relative disinterest to think about them in this way on the part of confessionalists and revivalists alike notwithstanding.

    Eric shows that some of us still have a measure of self-awareness though (i.e. we are churchly and not para-church). It would be nice to hear a revivalist be able to demonstrate such a meta-cognition.

  4. Echo_ohcE says:

    Albino,

    Our testimony to the world primarily takes the form of our participation in worship on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. There we are separated from the world and worship our God, and everyone knows exactly what we’re doing. The people you work with and interact with during the week – most of them know this about you.

    What ever happened to bearing witness through good deeds? I was on the train commuting into the city of Chicago once, and some girl began preaching on the train. It was a joke. Nothing could have been less appropriate. I was embarrassed for her. And yet she sure thought she was puttin’ another jewel on her crown in glory. In reality, all she was doing was turning people off to Christianity.

    If they want to hear a sermon, it’s no secret where to find us. And there, the MAN who has been trained will expound God’s word properly, and the people will give their “amen” to it. There’s testimony, there’s evangelism.

    E

  5. Echo_ohcE says:

    Zrim,

    Are you going to a PCA now?

    E

  6. Zrim says:

    Echo,

    No. We continue to endure in the CRC. Like extracting oneself from a loved but dysfunctional family, it’s very complicated.

  7. Zrim says:

    Echo,

    What do you make of VT’s street preaching?

  8. Echo_ohcE says:

    VT = Van Til?

    Anyway, he was a minister.

  9. Zrim says:

    Echo,

    Yes, Van Til.

    Why does it matter that he was a minister?

  10. sean says:

    Got liturgy this weekend. Just happy about it. Got BCP and only had to endure America the beautiful at the very end, everything else was just like a normal weekend. No service men in uniform being asked to stand and receive applause. It’s so nice to not have my patriotic loyalties capitalized upon in service. Who else can say they had a christian america free Lord’s day? Just curious.

  11. Zrim says:

    Sean,

    Me. As we were in town for the weekend we were at Redeemer PCA. The sermon was an exposition of 1 Cor 10-17 and titled “Is Christ Divided?” It was very good. We had a baptism and the Table (which is observed weekly). I forgot all about the world, up to an including the affairs of state. My in-laws went to their church up the street wrapped in the flag (literally, you know, neck ties and scarves).

    What’s “BCP”?

  12. sean says:

    “BCP”- Book of common prayer

  13. sean says:

    Good. I’m glad someone else had a good Lord’s day as well. Needed it bad this weekend and got it. Well, actually, need it desperately every week, just particularly needful sunday. Got confession, absolution, word, corporate prayer, lord’s supper. Good day.

  14. Zrim says:

    …I have so many acronymns and numbers in my puny brain it gets messed up easily…book of common prayer, of course.

  15. sean says:

    Small world, I know the Van-til’s up in Traverse city at that church. Ethan and I went to church together in San Antonio. If you see ’em or know ’em tell them I said Hi.

  16. Zrim says:

    Sean,

    You’re kidding me, that’s funny. I’ll try to remember that next time.

  17. I admire your desire to disciple your children. I think that is admirable. But on this blog, I detect disdain for those who reach outside the walls of their church to share the Gospel with the lost, and, let’s face it, most of them aren’t going to walk into your church on Sunday.

    Can’t you do both?

  18. Zrim says:

    Al,

    Well, I think so. I mean, I think the best of the confessional Reformed tradition lets us have our cake and eat it, too.

    I think if you read the post closely enough there is nothing but agreement that you can do both:

    “It is not that the Evangelical has no consciousness toward his children, or that the confessionalist places no value on missions or evangelism.”

    But there is more to it than that:

    “While how each does those respective activities differs (i.e. Reformed do evangelism differently than the Evangelical), it is also worth noting that the question of emphasis is also a distinguishing mark. In a word, where the Evangelical emphasizes ‘afar off’ evangelism, the confessionalist practices the catechism of covenant children.”

    It’s not that reaching out is somehow bad, Al, that would be absurd, I quite agree. But the real questions are how and why. And, again, I think it would be much easier if everyone understood themselves to be in a particular tradition that answers these questions differently. When we don’t do that, I think, we often end up with the sort of nastiness I observe when certain FLiPs enagage certain PREFs, which always seem a sustained effort at one blaming the other for not being what he isn’t…which is like blaming a cat for being unable to bark.

  19. ef says:

    I didn’t have to sing America the Beautiful or anything, either. Having grown up in a fundy congregation I forget sometimes what a blessing that is.

    Someday I’ll be able to join the saints in TC and see Pastor Millward in that freakin’ robe of his. I love that man and his robe.

    I’m taking my boys (3 & 5) canoeing/hiking/fishing in TC next weekend w/ our shepherding elder from our former congregation and his boys. Unfortunately Millward is going to be out of town and I’m not sure if we’re staying through the Lord’s Day or returning Saturday.

    Sean, where did you worship in San Antonio?

  20. ef says:

    Al,

    The reformed tradition does both very nicely.

    The gent by the name of Van Til mentioned above was a brilliant theologian best known for his work in apologetics. J. Gresham Machen, a professor at Princeton Seminary and founder of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) was a leader in what became known as the fundamentalist movement because of concern for “missions” work around the world that had nothing to do with preaching the Gospel.

    Again, I think that there is a disconnect here that is less than obvious but informs presumptions on the part of those outside our tradition. Ours is a churchly tradition. Do we seek to bring those afar off into the meeting place? Certainly.

    I think that the caricature of fundy/Evangelical “sharing the Gospel with the lost” that is disdained here is something that I experienced as a youngster. Zrim and I have bemoaned it in our personal conversations, recognizing that while it is a caricature it betrays a fundamental difference between the individualistic, public view of salvation held by many American Evangelicals and the collective, private view held by many confessionally reformed folk.

    We won’t typically ask nearly total strangers “are you born again?” Nor will we use “god talk” as “code” (the Evangelical version of gaydar) for our identity as Christians. We’re not flamboyant about our salvific standing, although we’re hopefully joyful and willing to answer questions or engage a friend in need. I’ll invite a friend to church but you won’t hear me lead them in the sinner’s prayer. I don’t have a bumper sticker that says, “In case of rapture this car will not have a driver” or “my boss is a jewish carpenter,” both of which seem to come off as “missions” to many in the Church today.

    I have a trout unlimited sticker, and a Ron Paul sticker. Other than my copy of the Westminster Standards and CRC Psalter/Hymanal (likely buried under a turkey vest, dirty hunting socks, and a hen decoy named “henrietta”) you could look in my car and never know I’m a Christian. Some might say that said liturature would suggest I’m not a Christian, but that part of my family is in Colorado and I’m in Michigan and that distance lubricates what is passed off as familial bliss for us.

    Sit around the dinner table with me, or hear me interact with my co-workers, one of whom has a mother-in-law who is dying, and you’ll hear a guy who cares deeply about them and their struggles and will offer to bring them into the gathering of the Lord’s people this coming Sunday if they’re interested.

    All I can do is point them to the means of grace… and hopefully, on my best days anyway, point them to their efficacy.

  21. Anonymous says:

    ef,

    This past sunday? CEC (Christ Episcopal Church). When I knew Ethan it was, Faith (PCA).

  22. Anonymous says:

    Guess new computer means new avatar.

  23. ef says:

    No I was asking about your time in San Antonio. I was down there this past February and on my way to the airport noticed an OPC congregation that meets close to the E-way. Wondered if that was your place of worship back then.

    The Hill Country is a beautiful area!

  24. sean says:

    ef,

    I’ve gone to worship services there before, but I was never a member. My membership was in the PCA.

    The hill country is nice but you wimped out by coming in Feb. You need to experience our summers.

  25. Renderer says:

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Renderer.

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