Rabbit-Foot Theology

Dale Ralph Davis, commenting on 1 Samuel 4, where the Israelites try to use the Ark of the Covenant as a lucky battle-charm, and end up losing it to the Philistines:

In spite of Israelite enthusiasm (v. 5; in Israel’s view God is always good for morale) and Philistine alarm, the scheme flopped. In view of all the hype one expects more than the laconic entry of verse 10: “So the Philistines fought and Israel was struck down, and each man fled to his tent.” Not only that, but Yahweh’s ark was captured (v11). The people who read the papers and listened to the newscasts could draw only one conclusion: Yawheh had suffered defeat; he was unable to deliver the goods for Israel. Not only Israel but Yahwah was the loser.

The text forces two important implications upon us: Yahweh will suffer shame rather than allow you to carry on a false relationship with him; and Yahweh will allow you to be disappointed with him if it will awaken you to the sort of God he really is.

Contemporary believers must beware of thinking they are immune from this rabbit-foot faith. What is behind a church’s twenty-four-hour prayer vigil? Is it a desire to be in earnest with God, to plead with him in some matter? Or is there some thinking that if we simply organize and orchestrate such coverage, God will be forced to grant whatever we are praying about? Perhaps individual Christians have observed that “things go better with prayer.” But what then is the drive behind their daily devotional exercises? Is it delight in meeting with God or with “things” going better? Whenever the church stops confessing “Thou art worthy” and begins chanting “Thou art useful” — well, then you know the ark of God has been captured again.

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29 Responses to Rabbit-Foot Theology

  1. Pooka says:

    So right! Rather there be 1 or 2 prayer-warriors in a back room on odd nights, faithfully calling to God for His grace and mercy on His people than a intercessory breakfast where all in attendance are gathered to just get things done.

    A heart of need and trust and a willingness to say “nevertheless, Thy will be done” is what we should have, eh?

  2. Rick says:

    Solid quote.

    Can you be done with bricktestament now?

  3. RubeRad says:

    You don’t like legos?

  4. Pooka says:

    Not just that, really COOL lego creations!

  5. Rick says:

    Q. Can we not use legos as books for the unlearned?

    A. We will not be taught by dumb toys that cannot even speak, but by the lively preaching of the word of God.

    I guess they’re cute.

  6. RubeRad says:

    So in your kids’ bible story-books, did you put stickers over Moses’ face as well as Jesus’?

  7. Rick says:



    But I was really surprised to find that the Children’s Story Bible written by Catherine Vos, wife of Geerhardus, is the biggest offender on the whole Jesus image thing.

    I don’t let the kids look at the pictures, I just read the stories to them. Not really.

  8. cath says:

    Re the Children’s Story Bible, who published yours? When I were a lass, it had occasional gaudy incomprehensible full colour plates interspersed at intervals not connected to the surrounding text, but no pictures of Jesus.

    Re prayer – v helpful quote. A long list of petitions doesn’t make a prayer, and neither the number of people involved or the length of time spent is any measure of prayerfulness (or likelihood of the request being granted). Post here includes as one of its bullet points a tragedy in my own congregation, and the past few weeks have made me increasingly frustrated about the glibness of some people’s “Praying for u!!” assurances, when a cynic might say the response is more to the human drama of the situation than submission to the divine providence and supplication of the divine mercies, more enchanted with “things” than showing “delight in meeting with God.” (Or is that too mean…)

  9. Rick says:

    I should check that. I may be thinking of the wrong one. But I know for sure the cover has an image, THIS is the one I have. And it didn’t occur to me that later editions may have had different illustrators who had nothing to do with Vos.

  10. RubeRad says:

    Yes, that’s the one I have too, and I have heard (I think from OHS Hyde) that that is indeed a newer printing, probably from a publisher completely out of touch with the ideals of the author’s environment. Another irony, there’s a big ol’ bearded guy on the cover of this book. Surely, that deserves the death penalty, no?

  11. cath says:

    Oh horrors. No way. Ours was this: http://pics.librarything.com/picsizes/aa/7d/aa7dc01fd5c2af159366b475067434d414f4541.jpg (just plonking in the link to avoid further formatting disasters) – one of three volumes, but not sure who published it. Banner of Truth? The pictures made no sense to us as kids but at least they weren’t of the cringeable ‘meek and mild’ genre.

  12. RubeRad says:

    (No worries cath, I fixed your earlier mishap)

    And look what wordpress automagically did to my attempted link! (messed up a bit though)

    For my money, you can’t get a better bible story book than this one — but it’s got (cartoon) pictures of Jesus in it, which caused some people angst, and kicked off my whole foray into the doctrine of Images of Christ (outside of worship)

  13. RubeRad says:

    And look, the Deluxe Edition of the Jesus Storybook Bible includes the complete book on Audio CD! That way, even Reformed Christians with scruples about images can just toss the book, and enjoy the Redemptive-Historical, Christocentric bible stories!

    Every story whispers his name…

  14. RubeRad says:

    Back to the content of the post…

    (Or is that too mean…)

    I don’t think so. I really like the children’s (shorter than shorter) catechism: What is prayer? Prayer is asking for things which God has promised to give. What things has God promised to give? I also think a proper attitude towards prayer is that it’s much more about changing us than about changing God.

  15. cath says:

    Thanks for fixing the brackets! On the pictures of Jesus thing, looks like a pile of Brits were independently having the same argument at the same time as yours! http://ninetysixandten.wordpress.com/2008/03/05/the-problem-with-pictures/ Firmly in the ‘avert eyes’ camp here.

  16. cath says:

    Yes. Take with you words, and turn to the Lord, and say to him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously… Don’t be like the heathen, for your heavenly Father knows what things you have need of, before you ask him. Should spend more energy on, eg, checking that your will is aligned with his, and drawing comfort from knowing that your Mediator is actually the one who is presenting the case in heaven, than listing the things which seem to be desirable according to your restricted understanding of things.

    What does it actually mean, to “meet with God” in prayer?

  17. RubeRad says:

    I think it means “To bypass corporate worship in favor of a personal, unmediated experience of God”

  18. cath says:

    What does it mean, to “meet with God” in corporate prayer? 🙂

  19. RubeRad says:

    I think it means “to induce a form of mass euphoria through common action”. This same effect can be seen by lighting bics at rock concerts, singing national anthems (especially at military funerals), or listening to great pep talks, like (Shakespeare’s) Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech before the battle of Agincourt.

    I.e. it means that it was exciting, it felt good.

  20. cath says:

    Hmm. Is there any affective or emotional component to religion at all, in your view? I understand the criticism that it’s illegitimate for people to look for emotional highs *apart from* the means of grace, but does this also extend to effects on emotions (etc) *through* the means of grace, whether personal or corporate?

  21. RubeRad says:

    Maybe that was a little too strong. Just because it was exciting or felt good, doesn’t mean it was bad. But there’s a line that is all too-easily crossed between valid excitement about the good news of the gospel, and excitement intentionally manufactured for the sake of catharsis.

    But when people say “met with God”, usually they mean “did something that felt pious” rather than “engaged with dialogic worship where God met us through Word in Sacrament”

    I.e. “met with God” is usually not thinking of Ordinary Means.

  22. cath says:

    Fair enough! It would be a mistake to react so fiercely against manufactured kinds of feelings as to rule out a place for feeling altogether. Ie stripping faith down to mere assent and the Christian life down to mere external participation in the means of grace. But you snatch yourselves from the jaws of Sandemanianism in the nick of time every time! Peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, a sense of God’s love – all these belong to believers, as part of the benefits of redemption. Not that they are to be sought apart from the means of grace, and not that they are to be sought for their own sake even in the means of grace, but the Christian life is lacking, where they are not experienced at all.

  23. Zrim says:

    Ie stripping faith down to mere assent and the Christian life down to mere external participation in the means of grace. But you snatch yourselves from the jaws of Sandemanianism in the nick of time every time!

    Cath, it’s interesting. When Reformed confessionalists demur on the high estimation of philosophy the Reformed logicians suspect an abiding anti-intellectualism. When they demur on the high estimation of affectation (i.e. experientalism or emotionalism) the Reformed experimentalists suspect an abiding Sandemanianism. But we like logic and experience, we just want them in their rightful place.

    As an example, I like to tell my pietsists I don’t have a personal testimony, I have a personal history (and I’d be more than glad to discuss it). The difference seems to be between interpreting what it means to be human spiritually or creationally; and since we are first created, then redeemed, doesn’t it make more sense to have a history?

  24. RubeRad says:

    Peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, a sense of God’s love

    You cite SC36, but how many of those experiental feelings are of the “mountain-top” variety? They seem, I dunno, the only word that comes to mind is “steadfast”. The kind of thing that is useful for a lifetime, not a weekend.

  25. cath says:

    I suppose I don’t really see how you can be a Reformed confessionalist without being a Reformed experimentalist – I mean there are certainly questions of philosophy, metaphysics, politics, etc, where there’s endless scope for discussion, but they’re not necessarily ‘bread and butter’ things that every Christian needs to know and care about. By contrast it seems imbalanced in a more immediate, everyday, run-of-the-mill way to give the impression that religious experience is automatically suspect. Ie, if the truths of our confessional statements are truly believed by us, then it cannot but be that we know what conviction of sin feels like, or what love for the Saviour feels like, or what peace of conscience feels like. If someone honestly confesses that “the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer,” then how can they not also know from experience what it means to be convinced of their sin and misery, enlightened in their mind in the knowledge of Christ, renewed in their will, and so on.

    (Which does not mean ‘personal testimonies’!) (Distinctly alien to the, how to describe it, confessional-experiential heritage of the Scottish Reformed church!)

    Feeling is for life, not just for Quiet Time? Fair enough, although presumably these things must vary from time to time – David at one point giving thanks at the remembrance of God’s holiness, and another time mourning all the day long, etc. It can’t be just that, now that I know, assent, and trust the promises, all that matters is to be present at corporate worship and never make any response beyond Amen at the end of the service. ‘Genuine religious experience is nothing but the impression of divine truth on the mind, by the energy of the Holy Spirit,’ (Archibald Alexander) – saving faith both trembles at the threatenings and embraces the promises – not seeking dramatic experiences for their own sake, but recognising them as the natural outcome of the right responses to different aspects of revealed truth.

    (Over and out till Monday now)

  26. Zrim says:

    Cath, it’s a fairly common way to distinguish Reformed from one another: the doctrinalists, the culturalists and the pietists. Some have suggested a fourth category, the liturgicals or confessionalists. I’d suggest even a fifth, the philosophical.

    But it isn’t that the confessionalist doesn’t know the experience of those things. It’s just that s/he interprets that experience differently. And contra the pietist and philosophical, experience isn’t considered to norm faith anymore than logic justifies it.

  27. cath says:

    This is more confusing. In my head, there’s something awry with someone’s claim to be Reformed if they are not ‘confessional’ in your sense, so making ‘confessionalist’ a sub-category of The Reformed rather than a distinguishing feature doesn’t seem quite right.

    As for experience norming faith – again, that’s really not what I understand ‘experiential’ religion to involve. Ie, again, if someone claims to be Reformed while also claiming either that experience norms faith or that logic justifies faith, it doesn’t sound very Reformed any more.

    Might you explain how, in your view, the confessionalist does interpret experience?

  28. Zrim says:

    Cath, those who employ the description of “confessionalist” or “liturgical” mean that they identify with a more ecclesiastical way of expressing faith and religious devotion.

    In my (ahem) experience nobody ever really says “experience norms the Christian life” nor that “logic justifies faith,” but that sure seems to be the clear implication of the pietists and the logicians.

    In terms of how the confessionalist so defined might be distinguished from the experimentalist/pietsist you could try this. But picking up Hart’s “Recovering Mother Kirk” is a must.

  29. cath says:

    So what specifically is this ecclesiastical way of expressing faith and religious devotion? I hear you (plural) saying this but not yet clear what it means in practice.

    From your link –
    “the icons of experimental Calvinism, such as Owen or Goodwin, also “majored” … in public worship, the word read and preached, the sacraments, pastoral care, and church discipline. If all experimental Calvinists were that way I could more than live with them.”
    (D G Hart on January 28, 2009, at 8:11 am … why can’t I link to the comment directly, and is his book truly worth ÂŁ74 new? I’ve added it to my wishlist but that’s apparently $120!)

    I have to say the likes of Owen and Goodwin in England, and Samuel Rutherford and Thomas Boston in Scotland, are exactly who I think of as “experiential” to just the same extent as they were “confessionalist”.

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