Posts Tagged ‘New Word Alive’

More Justification – all the best tunes

April 11, 2009

Something else Mike Reeves highlighted in his talks on Justification at New Word Alive was the difference the Reformation understanding of justification made to the whole Christian experience. He illustrated this by comparing some of the music to come out of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation – the same piece (Hosanna) set to very different tunes by Palestrina and J.S. Bach. While I’m sure you can read too much into any such comparison, there is a pronounced difference in feel of the pieces – the staunchly Lutheran Bach’s music just seems to have a joy, a boldness, and a vitality in it that the beautiful but detached Mass by Palestrina lacks. “Bold I approach” indeed. If a nonmusician like myself may be allowed to wade into such discussions, the kind of music someone produces does tell us something about their theology. Indeed, talking of Bach, I came across this anecdote in The Times:

I once asked a famous conductor if he believed in God. “Only when I’m performing Bach,” he replied. “Then I start to think that if Christianity is capable of inspiring a human being to produce music of this sublime perfection, there must be something in it.”
… what Bach, Handel, Bruckner, Palestrina and the other giants of sacred music do is transport us – aurally, spiritually and intellectually – to a realm that is so adjacent to religious faith as to be inseparable from it. Music goes beyond words.

I wonder if this is something that is lost a little in the “worship wars” and debates over what kind of music we should play in churches. If the difference between Palestrina and Bach’s performances of the Hosanna (same words in both) reflects fundamentally different theologies of justification, then it does matter how we set the words of our hymns and songs. We shouldn’t let a good tune excuse bad or heretical lyrics; but equally we shouldn’t settle for poor, dreary or unhelpful music just because we’ve got the words right.

Justification – right with God

April 9, 2009

One of the tracks I went to at New Word Alive was called “Right With God” – a tour through the doctrine of justification by Mike Reeves, who works for UCCF. We started off in the second century AD and went through to modern-day debates over the doctrine raised by the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision. I’m hoping the talks will be downloadable from the New Word Alive site or Theology Network soon – they are extremelyworthwhile. (This is also worth listening to – a chat with John Piper on the subject of Justification and the NPP) In the meantime, I thought I would blog some of the more interesting things I learnt!

Often we assume some kind of simplistic view of church history – something like  ‘the early church fathers corrupted the message of the apostles until it was rediscovered in the Reformation’ (not a real quote!) but things aren’t so simple. Even by the second century there was a diversity in views of justification in the church – ranging from the sublime to the heretical. Reeves pointed out particularly the works-righteousness in Mandate 6 of the Shepherd of Hermas, (the two angels thing seems to have made it directly into the Qur’an – 50:17) which is even more pronounced in Mandate 7 – “Every creature feareth the Lord, but not every one keepeth His commandments. Those then that fear Him and keep His commandments, they have life unto God; but they that keep not His commandments have no life in them” which couldn’t be further from the joyful theology of the New Testament.

But often too, Protestants can think of Augustine as being a Protestant because of his emphasis on original sin and his battle against Pelagianism. Yet he also provides the basis for the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification based upon the “infused righteousness of God” by putting primacy on Romans 5:5 in defining justification (understanding the “love of God” poured into our hearts as promoting righteousness within us, thus making us just). This is the root of the Reformation debate – is justification to be understood as the process of becoming more and more just, or is it a (forensic) pronouncement?

For Luther, justification was a declaritive act of God, and obtained not by penitence but by faith in the promises of God. Reeves did a great job of showing how Luther’s thought developed – he didn’t wake up one morning and decide to found a church, and the 95 Theses where it all began are not so much Protestant as a strand of Catholicism opposed to the abuse of indulgences. Luther considered what was actually going on during confession with a priest – the priest would offer the promise of God’s forgiveness, and the hope of forgiveness is not found introspectively through feelings of repentance, but in God’s promises. Contrary to what some have claimed, Luther was not the victim of an introspective conscience, at least, not when he was a Protestant – but instead placed all of his confidence of acceptance by God external to himself – in God’s promises of righteousness through faith in Christ. If any view is to be accused of promoting introspection, it should be Medieval Catholicism.

This view of Justification is a tremendously liberating truth – as shown in Richard Sibbes’ Bruised Reed, which was very much recommended by Reeves. It also affects the rest of our theology – it provides a way of seeing God as loving rather than exclusively as a cosmic judge; it changes our understanding of what sin is and exposes self-righteousness and refusal to rely on God as the terrible acts of rebellion they are; it even changes our understanding of what ‘faith’ is. Faith is not a surrogate work or something we need to work hard at to “do”. If it were an inner resource then it would be sin, according to Luther, so “have I got enough faith?” is precisely the wrong question for the Christian to ask herself. Faith is a passive thing on this understanding – it is receiving the promises of God; taking God seriously in what he says. For Protestants, it is God’s Word which saves, not the strength of our faith. I wonder whether we do a good job of communicating this when we talk about “faith alone”? The faith-as-a-surrogate-work misunderstanding is one I’ve come across from a lot of people, including people who otherwise know their Bibles and Church History as well as anyone.

New Word Alive 2009

April 8, 2009

Last week I was part of the first week of the New Word Alive conference in Pwllheli – only my second time at a Christian conference like this. First off, I had a really great time, thought the student price of £89 was a bargain, and was even pleasantly surprised by the sunny weather in the Lleyn Peninsula!

There was a good range of different seminar tracks to attend, and I had trouble choosing which one I wanted to go to the most, though fortunately we were encouraged to all attend the morning Bible readings led by Vaughan Roberts, who was giving an overview of 1 Corinthians 1-7 in his sermons. 1 Corinthians is great, and a lot of the points Roberts made felt very timely for me, and for the evangelical community in Britain at the moment. He chose to focus on “True Spirituality” as a uniting theme – authentic Christianity which looks to God’s revelation, not to human wisdom, focussing on Christ’s cross. Coming up to Easter it is good to be pointed back to the cross and to be made to think about how it forms the centre of the Christian gospel, but also informs the mode of Christian living and discipleship. I’m currently studying Mark for an essay and was surprised to see how many of the themes Mark draws out are there in 1 Corinthians – the scandal of the crucified Messiah, the need for a cross-shaped life for his followers, the emphasis on service and the way in which the first become last and the last become first in Christ. A big challenge for me was how much I can value things in secular terms – things being wise on a purely human level, or impressive, or powerful, or persuasive. This is a big temptation in studying Theology – but also in being part of a church and in Christian gospel outreach. It’s a huge issue and I’d like to work out what some of the implications are for evangelism – I think what Paul is suggesting in 1 Corinthians 1:18ff. does imply that the cross needs to inform not only the content, but also the mode of our gospel proclamation.

One of the things that made the conference great was the genuine Christian unity going on across many church boundaries – I met students from a number of different CUs and church backgrounds, and there was a welcome diversity in the official speakers while retaining a real heart-felt commitment to the gospel and the evangelical convictions of the sponsoring organisations. I helped organise the group from NUCU and was glad to see it wasn’t just people who had been last year who came, or people from one church only. I had worried at one point that New Word Alive could just end up being the “conservative” conference while Charismatics felt excluded and went elsewhere, but this didn’t appear to be the case. Don Carson, in his Q&A session during the week (standing room only!) alluded to the growing number of Christians who fall into both the “conservative evangelical” and “charismatic evangelical” camps like C.J. Mahaney (or, in the UK, Michael Green) – he called them “Reformed Charismatics” –  and it was good to meet a number of students who fell into this category during the week too. Carson seemed to be optimistic about the chances of inter-church cooperation in mission and service between “Reformed Charismatic” churches and the more traditionally conservative ones, which would be a welcome development. It’d be a shame if these churches were only meeting together for a week a year and not enjoying fellowship in the sense of working together for the gospel the rest of the time. Likewise for students, it’d be a shame to see interdenominational groups like the Christian Union be replaced or sidelined by competing denominational groups when there is a chance for real partnership based around unity on the essentials.