Prayer and the Communion of Saints

For every believer, prayer is an essential element of a life wholly devoted to God. There was a time when I thought of prayer as occurring at two levels: the public prayers of the gathered faithful and the private prayers of the individual believer. More recently, however, I have begun to think more in terms of the big picture.

Prayer is an act of worship, and worship is, or at least ought to be, the perpetual posture of every believer. Worship is the act through which the church comes to understand itself as a covenant community in a living relationship with the living God. Whether gathered together on the Lord’s Day or dispersed into the world during the other six days of the week, members of a faithful congregation will never lose their vital connection with God and with one another if they cultivate a constant posture of worship and a consistent life of prayer.

The church is, first, a community, one body in Christ. That body consists of many individual members, to each of whom “is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). Individuals do not receive gifts of the Spirit to serve their own purposes but, rather, to serve God’s purposes in building up the whole Body in love and maintaining its unity through the bond of peace.

As one body, chosen by the Father before the foundation of the world; brought into being by the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ; and empowered by the blessed, life-giving Holy Spirit, the church experiences communion with God, with one another, and with the whole company of the redeemed who rest in heavenly peace. The communion of the saints has become, in most Protestant circles, a doctrine so egregiously neglected as to hinder a deeper understanding of the nature of worship, of prayer, and even of God himself as the blessed Holy Trinity; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One might think a private prayer to God is just that, a private conversation between the person praying and God. However, a prayer offered by the worshiping community on earth is not only heard, but also echoed, by the saints in heaven as it rises up to the throne of God. Just as, in the Eucharist, the saints on earth join with the angels, archangels, saints, martyrs, and the whole company of heaven in singing, “Holy, holy, holy,” so the prayers of the faithful on earth are joined by the faithful who have gone before them into glory.

To enter into prayer is to enter into the realm of eternity, because to pray is to commune with the eternal Triune God. Hence, no prayer is ultimately a “private” matter because every prayer is offered within the context of the divine community. It ought to bring comfort to all believers to know that we are never alone in our prayers. We are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, prompted by the Holy Spirit, and beckoned by Jesus himself as we approach the Father’s throne.

Devoted to destruction: An early exercise in hermeneutical gymnastics and creative (dis)obedience

Samuel_rebuke_Saul_H-roll-58 (1)The fall from favor of Saul, the first king of Israel, is a vivid illustration of the consequences of rebellion and a typical human attempt to rationalize disobedience into obedience. In 1 Samuel 15, Samuel instructs Saul on behalf of the Lord, “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (v. 3).

The instructions are clear. But Saul engages in one of the earliest recorded examples of hermeneutical gymnastics. “But Saul and the people spared Agag [king of Amalek] and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them. All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction” (v. 9).

When confronted by Samuel about his failure to obey the Lord’s command, Saul denies that he has been disobedient. He says, “I have obeyed the voice of the LORD. I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal” (vv. 20-21).

Needless to say, neither Samuel nor the Lord is impressed with Saul’s creative interpretation of obedience. Even “the best of the things devoted to destruction” are still “devoted to destruction” and are, therefore, wholly unacceptable as a sacrifice to the Lord. What Saul and “the people” (upon whom he would apparently lay all blame for any deviation from the original plan while exonerating himself) would offer as a sacrifice is an utter abomination. That which is “devoted to destruction” is unholy and cannot be offered as a sacrifice to a holy God.

Whether it’s sheep and oxen under the Old Covenant or the living sacrifice of our very selves under the New Covenant, nothing unholy can be brought into the presence of God. That which is “devoted to destruction,” that is, the sin which enslaves us in rebellion and idolatry, must be utterly destroyed. To claim certain sinful inclinations are “gifts” to be celebrated within the worshiping community is a most abominable form of blasphemy, borne of a most arrogant presumption that rebellion against God can be rationalized into obedience by offenders who always seem to find clever ways of avoiding personal responsibility for their sinful actions.

Brethren of the Free Spirit: Kissing cousins with Word of Faith?

The Theologia Germanica was an anonymous theological treatise written around 1350. It has become associated with Martin Luther, who said of it, “Next to the Bible and St. Augustine, no other book has come to my attention from which I have learned –and desired to learn–more concerning God, Christ, man, and what all things are.”

Chapter 27 is an interesting polemic against a popular medieval heresy propagated by the antinomian Brethren of the Free Spirit. It is notable how similar this aberration sounds to the present-day “Word of Faith” heresy, whose purveyors are the constant foil of Luther’s devoted disciple, Chris Rosebrough.

germanicaOne hears people assert that man can and should become free from suffering during his earthly life in all respects as Christ was after His Resurrection.

They try to prove and establish this by citing Christ: “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee, there you will see Me.” This statement by Christ is also quoted: “A spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

These utterances are then interpreted as follows: “As you have seen Me and followed Me as I was in a mortal body and life, so you should also see Me as I go ahead of you and you follow Me into Galilee; that is to say, you will follow Me into a state where pain has gone and serenity reigns; you will taste it, live in it, remain in it before you have gone through and suffered death of the body. As you see Me appear in a body of flesh and bones, yet beyond suffering, in a similar manner you will also, before your bodily death, become free from suffering and soar beyond pain in your mortal humanity.”

I would like to counter these assertions. First, Christ did not mean that man can and should attain that stage unless it were preceded by all the suffering that He, Christ, went through and endured.

Now, Christ did not attain this stage before He had passed through and suffered the death of His body and the experiences that came with it. Thus no man can or should attain that perfect peace and spiritual serenity while mortal and subject to suffering.

For if this state is the noblest and best and if it were possible and spiritually commendable to attain it within our earthly life, then, as pointed out, it would also have occurred in the life of Christ.

For Christ’s life was and is the noblest, the best, most pleasing to God, the loveliest of all lives that were lived and ever will be lived.

Yet, since this serene freedom from earthly woe was not permitted and intended to occur in Christ, it will never appear in any human being, for this would mean that a human life would in fact be the best and the noblest.

You are of course free to fancy such a thing and you can, of course, talk about it. But fancy and words do not that freedom make.

You are what you worship

I have long believed the adage, “You are what you worship.” Whatever you establish in your life as your god, you will eventually become like it. When the Israelites grew weary of waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain they rebelled against God and created for themselves a golden calf to worship. When Moses finally did come down, the Israelites were behaving like the animal they were worshiping. The same is true whenever people turn from the worship of the living God and turn instead to the worship of created things.

Psalm 135.15-18 confirms this:

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
they have eyes, but do not see;
they have ears, but do not hear,
nor is there any breath in their mouths.
Those who make them become like them,
so do all who trust in them!

It is sheer folly on the part of fallen human beings to think we can create a god in our own image. The end result is not a living god who frees us to become all we were intended to be, but a mute, blind, deaf idol who enslaves us to our basest instincts and vilest passions. The god we thought we had created in our image conforms us, instead, to its image: mute, blind, deaf, and dead!

Conversely, when we turn from false idols to the true and living God, worshiping him in spirit and in truth, loving him with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, we become like him: holy, righteous, loving, and truly alive!

Indeed, we are what we worship. Whether or not we worship the Creator or the creature, we cannot ultimately escape the reality that we are created beings who bear the image of Whoever or whatever we place at the center of our lives.

Those pugnacious “super apostles”

paulAmong the most pugnacious and disagreeable of Paul’s opponents were the so-called “super apostles,” those who claimed a superior knowledge of the mysteries of God and derided Paul as a novice. Two of the worst offenders were Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Timothy 2:14-26) who were propagating the outlandish claim “that the resurrection has already happened.” Paul disowned these men and their claims, noting that “They are upsetting the faith of some.”

The claim by Hymenaeus and Philetus “that the resurrection has already happened” was “upsetting” to some because it was self-serving and self-glorifying. It set these “super apostles” above those, like Paul, who humbly and freely admitted that “the resurrection from the dead” was a goal which they had “not yet attained” (Philippians 3:12-16).

The resurrection is the outcome of a life lived in obedience to Christ. Paul was correct in his attitude of humility, knowing that the closer he got to the goal, the less he should think of himself. Union with Christ was, for Paul, a lifelong journey which required dying to self in order to be fully realized. This side of eternity, he knew that he could never confidently claim to have reached this ultimate outcome without calling attention to himself instead of Christ.

The resurrection, after all, is all about Christ. Inasmuch as we experience Christ working in our lives to transform us out of a life of sin and into a life of obedience, we can experience something of the benefits of the resurrection now. But the full implications of the resurrection will not be realized until the final consummation at the last day. In Christ, the last day is brought into the present from the future. But by claiming “that the resurrection has already happened,” Hymenaeus and Philetus were projecting themselves from the present into the future, thus “upsetting the faith of some” by setting themselves above all accountability and discipline. They were free to “live and let live,” indulge every carnal passion, and look down upon those pitiful souls who had not yet realized such “freedom.”

Paul warns Timothy to avoid such persons and to go about his work faithfully, not quarreling about words but “rightly handling the word of truth.” For the truth, spoken humbly yet unashamedly, will expose every lie for what it is.

Apostasy, resurrection, and a little common sense

In preparing them for his ordeal of suffering and death, Jesus told his disciples they would “all fall away” in fulfillment of the prophecy, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (Mark 14:27). There is an element of commons sense here which is often overlooked. In Greek, the words for “apostasy” and “resurrection” are antonyms. There is the sense that one must “fall away” before one can “stand up again.” In other words, the familiar teaching in Christian eschatology that there must first be a “falling away” before the consummation of all things, that is, before the resurrection, is rooted in this very basic premise.

Jesus cast the ordeal of his suffering, death, and resurrection against the grand backdrop of God’s plan for the redemption of his creation. In the midst of his ordeal, his disciples would “fall away.” The intensity of the conflict would be such that they would abandon the faith and look instead toward self-preservation. Peter would embody this “falling away” with his three denials “before the rooster crows twice” (Mark 14:30).

Things would be quite different following the resurrection, however. Jesus assured his disciples that “after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14:28). Rising from the dead, Jesus would restore the faith of those who had fallen away. The meaning and purpose of the resurrection is intensified by the fact that it would be preceded by the apostasy. Had there been no apostasy, there would have been no need for the resurrection; but because there was an apostasy, the power of the resurrection to restore all things is all the more glorious.

In order to appreciate fully what Jesus accomplished in rising from the dead, it is first necessary to realize how far we human beings have fallen from our original state of righteousness. We are children of Adam and Eve and, therefore, heirs of the great apostasy by which we lost our standing in right relationship with God. Only the cross can atone for our sin. Only the resurrection can restore our standing with God.

Horace Bushnell: A misguided herald sounding an uncertain trumpet

Naturalistic theology (often referred to as theological liberalism) did not appear as a challenge to orthodoxy overnight. Its precursors constituted the panoply of heresies repudiated by the Ancient Church and, as the preacher of Ecclesiastes long ago observed, there is nothing new under the sun. The rise of naturalistic theology first in Europe and then in America was, in large part, merely a repackaging of old lies in newer, more sophisticated, wrapping.

In his encyclopedic history of homiletics, The Company of Preachers (Kregel, 1998), David L. Larsen notes the rise of “New England theology” in the early nineteenth century and the negative influence it had on the preachers of the day. Like most expressions of naturalism, this was a theology of denial, not affirmation. New England theology denied the orthodox doctrines of sin, depravity, and imputation, paving the way for even more radical departures from the faith as the century progressed.

The person at the center of the transition from doctrinal purity to theological liberalism, was Horace Bushnell (1802-1876), a gifted preacher with a penchant for pushing the doctrinal envelope well beyond acceptable limits.

Bushnell has been called the father of liberalism, and indeed in moving beyond New England theology he lurched very close to Unitarianism. Certainly in God in Christ he lapsed into Unitarian thinking, espousing a modal view of the Trinity. In his Vicarious Sacrifice and Forgiveness and Law, Bushnell jettisoned transactual and propitiatory aspects of the atonement. In a reaction against revivalism, he opted for gradualism rather than conversion in his book Christian Nurture. Neither did he believe a child to be depraved. He believed the child was to grow up never knowing that he or she is other than a Christian.

Charles Hodge spoke of his views as “less than Christian.” For Bushnell the Bible was essentially figurative. In 1866 he indicated his leaning toward understanding the fall in Eden as a myth. Jesus was teacher rather than the crucified and suffering God. His were “orthodox memories, Unitarian hopes.” The old wine had not survived being transferred to new bottles. He scoffed at the idea of the Second Coming. He was very theological but he did not preach sound doctrine.

What Bushnell lacked in doctrinal substance, he made up for in homiletical style. This was not enough, however, to spare him criticism for going off the theological and exegetical reservation.

Yet Bushnell was a preacher’s preacher. There was a virility in his style and a fire inside him, but the common people were not drawn to his variety of naturalism. Early on, he gained a reputation as a public speaker of note, and his ability to title sermons is dramatic. Little wonder he was offered the presidency of the College of California (later the University of California at Berkeley), which he turned down.

Bushnell’s celebrated sermon on “Unconscious Influence” is based on John 20:8, “Then went in also that other disciple.” But for Bushnell this had nothing to do with the resurrection or Jesus Christ. He did not do exegesis, and even Brastow speaks of his interpretations as often “fanciful” and lacking “the support of recognized exegetical canons.”

[Larsen, p. 528]

In the end, Bushnell must be characterized, in Larsen’s words, “as a tragic figure in American pulpit annals” whose “influence upon successive generations has been unfortunate.” For all his intellect and homiletical ingenuity, he was a misguided herald sounding an uncertain trumpet.

Two bitter fruits from the same poisonous tree? (Revisited)

The emergence of theological liberalism in the nineteenth century had a devastating effect on the American pulpit. Preachers like Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) and Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) were at the forefront of the transition from strict doctrinal precision to broad doctrinal license. Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) was a twentieth century man, building his reputation through adept use of the mass media of book publishing and radio (the weekly “National Vespers” on the NBC network). However, he was every bit a product of the nineteenth century liberalism in which he was immersed.

Paul Scott Wilson, in A Concise History of Preaching, describes how Fosdick came to develop “a new, alternative method of preaching.”

fosdick_he_2In journal articles in the 1920’s, 1930’s 1950’s, and in his autobiography, Fosdick discussed his “project method” of homiletics. It was in contrast to topical preaching, which he felt was a “Sir Oracle” lecture on a theme, and expository preaching, in which preachers “assumed that folk come to church desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites.” He outlined the contemporary expository preaching of which he was critical: “First, elucidation of a Scriptural text, its historical occasion, its logical meaning in the context, its setting in the theology and ethic of the ancient writer; second, application to the auditors of the truth involved; third, exhortation to decide about the truth and act on it.”After floundering for his first years as a preacher, he devised a homiletic based in pastoral counseling that made preaching an adventure for him. Every sermon was to start with the “real problems of people” and was to “meet their difficulties, answer their questions, confirm their noblest faiths and interpret their experiences in sympathetic, wise and understanding co-operation.” He looked for the way even larger issues of the day, national and international, affected the lives of ordinary people. He wanted sermons to be conversational, “a co-operative dialogue in which the congregation’s objections, questions, doubts and confirmations are fairly stated and dealt with.” The preacher’s business is “to persuade people to repent . . . to produce Christian faith [and] to send people out from their worship on Sunday with victory in their possession.” To this end, “A preacher’s task is to create in his congregation the thing he is talking about.” A sermon on joy is to explore wrong ideas about it, false attempts at it, problems in getting it, and then move to create it.

Whereas lectures had “a subject to be elucidated,” preaching had an “object to be achieved.” Determining this “object” or problem to be solved was the first step in preparation. This was followed by “free association of ideas,” perhaps for several hours, followed in turn by exploration of literature, cases from counseling, the Bible, and personal experience. His structure, commonly three points, for which one must listen carefully to discern, often emerged in the writing of his sermons. Someone said his “sermons begin by describing a human need, next illustrate that need from literature, from contemporary events and personal experiences, and then turn to the Bible for those principles which could meet that need.” His critics caricatured his preaching as “undogmatic Christianity” and “problem-solving.”

Fosdick was also criticized, rightly according to Wilson, “for taking his message to the biblical text and for using the text to illustrate his predetermined point.” He was not the first, and certainly not the last, preacher to commit this error. His methodology, the mistakes inherent in it, and the paucity of its doctrinal and theological underpinnings represented the coming of age of the liberalism birthed in the preaching of Bushnell and Beecher and brought to its tragic conclusion in the incoherent psychobabble of John Shelby Spong and Katharine Jefferts Schori. Less obvious, at least on first glance, is the sowing of the seeds of the equally innocuous false gospel of “positive thinking” first popularized by Norman Vincent Peale, advanced through mass media by Robert Schuller, and now embodied in all its garish glory by the insufferable Joel Osteen and various peddlers of the health and wealth “prosperity gospel” that has now stretched beyond the shores of America to threaten the already vulnerable churches in Africa.

Except for students of homiletics and church history, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s sermons and writings are largely forgotten. To the person in the pew, he is best remembered for the stirring hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory.” In recalling the era in which he was at the height of his influence, however, we can see two bitter fruits produced from the same poisonous tree of the liberalism which shaped his methodology and his ministry.

Ember Wednesday Food for Thought: Bring back ordination in chains (Peter Leithart)

Peter J. Leithart (Against Christianity, pp. 117-118) longs for the days when pastoral candidates were not so enthusiastic about jumping into the fray.

Historically, a pastoral candidate’s desires often had little to do with the Church’s call to serve in pastoral office. Far from seeking out positions of leadership, the greatest of the church fathers resisted with all their strength. Augustine had to be dragged into the cathedral for his ordination to the bishopric of Hippo. When he was a deacon, John Chrysostom made a pact with a friend that they would enter the priesthood together, but when the friend went forward John was nowhere to be found. Martin of Tours was carried from his cell and conducted to his ordination under guard. Gregory the Great, so we are told by his earliest biographer, fled from Rome to hide in the woods when rumors began to circulate that he was being considered for bishop. A humble anchorite saw in a vision where Gregory was hiding, and the Romans trooped out to bring him back for ordination. Calvin was persuaded to remain in Geneva only because Farel’s warnings made leaving even more terrifying than staying. So common was such resistance to ordination that as late as the nineteenth century the patriarchs-elect of Alexandria were led to their ordination wearing shackles.collar

In the modern church, calling has been reduced to little more that a strong desire to hold a position of ecclesiastical leadership. The terror of responsibility for the Church described by many of the leading pastoral writers of the earlier centuries is seldom expressed during ordination exams. Candidates with even slight reservations about entering the ministry are treated with more than a little suspicion.
This dramatic shift in the Church’s understanding of calling is part and parcel of what David F. Wells had identified as the professionalization of the clergy, the reduction of ministry to technical and managerial competence. Pastoral ministry, Wells charges, has been detached from its theological moorings, and has become another career option for the upwardly mobile “helping professional.” One might well recoil from a duty imposed by divine vocation; but one aggressively markets oneself for a career. It is no accident that so many pastors disdain the clerical collar, which is, after all, the collar of the slave.

The Church will find herself in a healthier, if more intense and serious, condition when pastoral candidates begin again to appear for their ordination exams wearing chains.

The Nixonization of Tom Kirkman


Designated Survivor was never quality television. It was interesting only for its highly unlikely, but still remotely possible, premise of a low level cabinet officer being elevated to the nation’s highest office after a terrorist bomb wipes out the entire federal government during the State of the Union address. Once Housing and Urban Development Secretary Tom Kirkman takes the Oath of Office moments into the first episode, the utter fiction of the world created by the show begins to become painfully apparent. Week after week, President Kirkman faces crisis after crisis, domestic and international, resolving them with simplistic solutions that often materialize out of thin air. Along the way, he survives an assassination attempt, discovers his vice president was in on the plot to wipe out the government, takes out the mastermind of that plot with a drone strike, and loses his wife in a tragic car accident.

Despite the numerous circumstances that should make him a sympathetic figure with inexhaustible political capital, Tom Kirkman is maligned by a growing number of political enemies on both sides of the aisle while he eschews allegiance to either political party. An attempt to remove him from office via Article 25 fails after he manages to convince the majority of his cabinet that he is, after all, the same regular guy who had been unexpectedly thrust into office some two years earlier. That doesn’t stop his political opponents in Congress, however, who immediately pivot toward pushing impeachment, having fabricated a list of specious charges of malfeasance.

When season 2 on ABC  comes to a close, the impeachment threat has pretty much evaporated in the same simplistic manner as so many other crises. Kirkman shocks his staff by announcing his candidacy for re-election as an independent despite a formidable challenge from a former one term Republican president who had subsequently served as Kirkman’s secretary of state before the two had a falling out.

An ambiguous season-ending cliffhanger was made all the more frustrating by ABC’s abrupt cancellation of the program. From the standpoint of both production values and ratings, Designated Survivor did not deserve a third season but the unanswered questions left by the final episode prompted its small but devoted viewership to cry out to various subscription streaming services to revive the dead series.

To the rescue came Netflix, which announced, in a most untimely fashion, that a 10-episode third season of Designated Survivor would drop on June 7, over a year after the final ABC episode had aired.

When I “cut the cord” and converted my television to streaming services, Netflix was not a priority. Like most similar production companies, Netflix is overrun with a cadre of holier-than-thou, virtue-signaling progressive jerks, but my main reason for lack of interest in their product was that I didn’t see the need for paying a monthly fee for a service I might use once or twice every three months. I only broke down and purchased it after the third season of Designated Survivor was announced–not, mind you, because I thought it was quality television, but because I cannot stand irresolution.

The unanswered questions left by the final network episode needed to be answered, so I thought.

Well, after sitting through these 10 episodes over three days, I think otherwise.

A program produced for a subscription service, free from the constraints of network standards and practices, is expected to be edgier, pushing the boundaries of language and subject matter. Quality television can navigate these rough edges and still be quality television. But, as I have already said, Designated Survivor was never quality television. Now, unshackled from network restraints, it has become a dumpster fire of flaming excrement that leaves the viewer in need of a shower with Clorox to kill off the accumulated bacteria.

I will not go into explicit details about the glorification of gay sex, the valorization of gender dysphoria, the gratuitous insertion of f-bombs into nearly every conversation, or the pathetic caricatures of extremists on both the left and the right. Instead, I will fast forward to the tenth and final episode that, unlike the end of season 2, leaves no unanswered questions, unfortunately.

Having weathered an election season during which time he has resolved a potentially divisive illegal immigration crisis, prevented World War III (for about the dozenth time), neutralized a racist bio terrorist working for his opponent’s campaign manager, and brought down the CEO of a pharmaceutical company who was his opponent’s biggest donor, Tom Kirkman is positioned for a decisive victory on election day. But his conscience is troubled by actions he has taken, or not taken, during the final 36 hours of the campaign. He calls in the therapist he had been seeing following his wife’s death and proceeds to go on a rant about how he wasn’t really wrong to withhold evidence proving his opponent had no actual knowledge of the racist bio-terror plot hatched by his campaign staff and donors. For all his self-justifying excuses, however, Kirkman finally admits his real motivation for quashing the evidence: “I wanted to win.”

President Kirkman, of course, does win. But the man who stumbled into office as the “designated survivor” some three years earlier is not the same man who gives the cliché-ridden victory speech on election night. The dystopian world of Washington politics has finally consumed him. He knows this (as his final words spoken directly into the camera make clear in no uncertain terms) but he doesn’t care.

Tom Kirkman has become . . . Richard Nixon, and the trajectory of his political future can only spiral downward from here.