“The teacher must stoop in order to teach. She has to step into the language known by the students in order to expand the power and extent of that language . . . Nothing is accomplished if big words whistle over the children’s heads” (The Case for Classical and Christian Education, p. 192).
“Since modernity is practically defined by its reluctance to recognize the degree to which we humans are imitative, Girard’s insistence on the central role of mimesis in human affairs goes against the grain of much of today’s popular cultural discourse” (Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, p. 51).
Many political commentators and observers have often commented on what they call American exceptionalism. This is not political exhortation at all—I simply want to use this as a potent illustration. I am aware that we are a presbytery that crosses national borders here—we have churches and men assembled here from Poland, and Russia, and Canada, and Japan, and Tasmania, and Texas.
My point is to highlight a principle that the Lord Jesus taught us—the first will be last, and the last first. The humble will lead, and the proud are sent empty away. Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, and He will lift you up. The current chatter about American exceptionalism gives us a solemn object lesson in this regard.
There was a time, in the founding era, when an observation about this exceptionalism would have been true. It is not true any longer, because we have grown wealthy, and sleek, with our eyes fat like grease, and we have forgotten our God. Like Jeshurun, we have waxed fat and kicked. We have gone the way of all flesh.
But when this nation was first being established, under the blessing of God, the founders knew that they were just like other men, that this nation was going to be subject to all the temptations of men, that we had to guard ourselves and walk carefully. We knew that we were not exceptional—and that was exceptional.
The apostle John tells us that the glory of young men is their strength. Old men have their wisdom, but young men want a mountain to climb, or an army to conquer. They want to put their glory to the test. The same kind of thing is true of churches, movements, denominations, or currents within the church. When something is new or young, there is an overwhelming temptation to think that it is something different in kind. But a young man and an old man are not different in kind. Young men can be wise and prudent, or not. Old men can be wise and prudent, or not.
When God works in the broader Church, and raises up a movement, or school of thought, or a new monastery, the easiest thing in the world to do is confound the strength that youth always has with the wisdom that youth might or might not have. True reformation in the Church will not be accomplished if our attitude is the same as a young man stuck in traffic behind some geezer driving slowly.
The CREC is a young church. That youth brings with it some natural strengths, and the flesh wants to contrast our natural strengths with other churches’ natural weakness. But we ought not to be thinking about nature here at all. We should want to cultivate our graces. And if we are thinking of graces, we will not compare our graces with the graces of others. What do we have that we did not receive as a gift? And if as a gift, then why do we boast as though it were not a gift?
The central grace in this situation is the realization that we are just men, that many others have had the same kind of opportunities that we have, and have foolishly thrown them all away. The central grace is the realization that we are nothing special. That is special. We are just like the others, which means that we are not . . . because we are. And as soon as we realize that we are not, and take special note of it, we have stumbled and fallen. If you humble yourself, God lifts you up. If you lift yourself up, God smacks you down.
As a young and growing denomination, as a vibrant movement for renewal within the Reformed world, we have to realize that we’re no great shakes. And if we do recognize this, if we accept it, if we pattern our behavior accordingly . . . now that’s exceptional.
Welcome to this assembly of the Anselm Presbytery. You men are leaders among the churches of God, and you have been selected by your respective churches to gather together like this to consider matters of common concern, and to do so in accordance with the customs we have established.
Some of these customs are just that, customs. Others of them have more force because we have bound ourselves to them constitutionally and covenantally. This means that we have obligated ourselves beforehand to function in a particular way. This is all good, and we believe that God has called us to it. But with this in mind, and all these things as given, I want to take just a few moments to exhort you.
In the Church of God, the more responsibility you have, the more necessary it becomes to put on tender mercies. We sometimes are tempted to think that the more responsibility we are given, whether in the local assembly or here, or at Council, the less realistic it is to expect that tender mercies can cover all that we do. It is quite true that the more pressures and responsibilities there are, the more we are tempted to feel this. But tender mercies are not an extra burden, on top of everything else. They are the strength given by the Spirit; they are not extra weight for the flesh to carry. Tender mercies are the demeanor of a Christian man, whatever his level of responsibility. They are the true uniform of the true Calvinist, the one who knows that all things are from God. If that is the case, we can afford to trust Him, and can afford deal with our responsibilities the way He said to do.
We meet as fallible men. When we are preaching from the Scriptures, the infallible Word of God, we are doing so as fallible men, but at least we have the traction of an absolute Word to push against. We come up against passages of Scripture that are apparent discrepancies, and yet we know that there is a godly harmonization of these apparently discrepant elements, and we know this because God’s Word is sure. But then we sometimes come to our own documents, whether the Book of Procedures or the Constitution, with this same assumption, which can lead to problems. This is because there could easily be genuine contradictions or tensions in the documents that we wrote. And if we encounter a brother who is reading the other half of the contradiction, we can regard him as committing the same error that is committed by the Pelagian. But this is not necessarily the case at all, and we need to return to the first point—and in our debates, put on tender mercies.
And last, we are heirs of many of our fathers who have gone before us. We are also the men who will bequeath something to those who come after us. We sometimes think of this reality in terms of the writing on paper—what we do with the Constitution, and so on. But always remember that there is a always a deeper right than being right. Put another way, being right always brings terrible temptations with it. There can be something profoundly wrong about how we are right. And if we get the right thing down on paper, but we do it with bad attitudes, or pride, or vainglory, we must not make the mistake of thinking that all we are bequeathing to subsequent generations of the CREC is the “substance” of our amendments and motions, and not the substance of our hearts. For example, John Frame has rightly warned the Reformed world of the legacy of Machen’s warrior children. But this very real problem in our midst is a cultural problem—a heart problem. It was never moved, seconded, and entered into the minutes of any Reformed body that I know that we will be consistently cantankerous. This has been a cultural, attitudinal legacy. All this is to say that how we do our business here will contribute as much to our future identity as the CREC as what we do. And this too brings us back to the first point. Therefore, as the elect of God, put on tender mercies.
The 2006 meeting of Anselm Presbytery, CREC, concluded yesterday. I am serving as the current moderator, and was extremely grateful for how things are going. The presbytery meeting was covered in grace, even though there were some difficult issues for us to deal with. It is a tremendous privilege to work with men of this caliber.
The CREC divided into two presbyteries last year. This year Anselm added six new member churches, bringing our presbytery to 23 churches. Two of our new churches were from Russia, and two from Poland. We already have one church in Japan. We also had a group of interested visitors from Tasmania. Augustine Presbytery in the east is just shy of the same number of churches. Two years ago, at the beginning of our only presbytery, we had 22 churches in the entire CREC. What this means is that we have basically doubled in size in the last two years. Judging from the number of candidate churches and mission churches, it looks quite possible that we will double again in the next two years.
Now of course, morning glory grows too. So does cancer. So do cults. Growth is not the one pragmatic measuring rod for blessing. But growth is something that other blessings — covenant renewal worship, liturgical reform, the teaching of solid doctrine, faithfulness in families — ought to do. And all the indicators are that this is what is happening. But of course, let him who boasts boast in the Lord. What do we have in all this that we did not receive as a gift? Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude.
Debating on the Internet
Two victim cards, neither of which worked.
The Dove campaign on beauty has something really interesting here. But when they observe, “no wonder our concept of beauty is distorted,” I think they are missing something important. We have to be careful not to let egalitarianism creep in here. There is a difference between feminine beauty as a product designed for mass consumption, which they illustrate, and feminine beauty as a cultural discipline, which every daughter needs to be taught. The legitimate point is that daughters ought not to competing with photoshop.
Posting might be a little bit thin for a few days. We just finished our ministerial conference in Moscow yesterday, and are now in Bellevue for the 2006 meeting of Anselm Presbytery. Augustine Presbytery met on the East Coast last week, and, from what we hear, they had a glorious time. At any rate, things are hopping but should be back to normal by Monday. I also wanted to mention that one of our speakers at the ministerial conference this year was Ken Myers, who did a first rate job. The speakers this year were Peter Leithart, Ken Myers, Doug Jones, Nate Wilson, and me. The topic was pop culture (and, in the course of advertising the conference, we had a real live skirmish with the legal department of Coca Cola, which I will tell you about sometime). The tapes will be well worth listening to, and you can get them from Canon Press. And Ken’s work can be pursued further here.
You are accustomed to hear two words paired, and those words are Word and sacrament. The two do go together, and are not in the slightest degree at odds with one another. But in the minds of some, they are at odds, and sides are chosen.
Some choose a rationalistic service, where the Word is never done, never eaten, and this is why such congregations deceive themselves. To hear the Word without doing, James tells us, is to be self-deceived. But those who do without hearing are no better. The services they devise are a fool’s errand, running off to obey the master without hearing what He has said to do.
When these two things, Word and sacrament, Word and divinely appointed ritual, are set at odds with one another, one must give way before the other. And then the one which has “conquered” promptly ceases to become itself.
In the waters of baptism, and in the bread and wine of the Supper, God has given us a divinely appointed image. But this image only remains such when it is married to the Word. Severed from the Word, image always becomes spectacle, ritual turns into gross spectacle. This is what we see in both pop evangelical worship and certain forms of high liturgical worship—we see spectacle, the natural idiom of paganism.
But severed from image, the Word becomes an arid set of propositions, and however much time it occupies, it can only do so by becoming thinner and thinner. At the end of the day, we have something which pretends to infinite richness through this process of homeopathic dilution, but which is nevertheless mostly water.
Test your souls. The more You hear the Word, the more you should hunger for the bread of life. The more you eat the bread of life, the more you should want to hear the Word preached and declared.