Reformed Churchmen

We are Confessional Calvinists and a Prayer Book Church-people. In 2012, we remembered the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; also, we remembered the 450th anniversary of John Jewel's sober, scholarly, and Reformed "An Apology of the Church of England." In 2013, we remembered the publication of the "Heidelberg Catechism" and the influence of Reformed theologians in England, including Heinrich Bullinger's Decades. For 2014: Tyndale's NT translation. For 2015, John Roger, Rowland Taylor and Bishop John Hooper's martyrdom, burned at the stakes. Books of the month. December 2014: Alan Jacob's "Book of Common Prayer" at: January 2015: A.F. Pollard's "Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation: 1489-1556" at: February 2015: Jaspar Ridley's "Thomas Cranmer" at:

Friday, May 27, 2011



By Rich Lusk

(Version 1.7)

Copyright © 2002

This paper is something of a follow-up to my earlier study, “Baptismal Efficacy and the Reformed Tradition: Past, Present, and Future.” One of the more controversial aspects of that paper was my claim that Calvin held to a very high view of baptismal efficacy. Indeed, he was a baptismal regenerationist, of sorts. This supplemental postscript will not resolve once and for all the question of Calvin’s views on baptismal efficacy, but I do hope it will further the discussion and make my claims in the earlier paper more plausible. I also take some sideways glances at Luther to show how close his views were to those of Calvin.


Calvin was a highly nuanced theologian. Sometimes, though, these nuances have been lost on his theological descendants. For example, Calvin’s discussion of predestination includes numerous careful qualifications that are intended to short cut philosophical speculation and prevent the doctrine from appearing arbitrary or tyrannical. But many modern followers of Calvin, especially his numerous popularizers, often truncate, and therefore distort, his pastoral, Christ-centered view of election, turning Calvinism into a caricature of its real self. Nowhere is the loss of nuance more evident than in contemporary views of Calvin’s teaching on the sacraments.

Two strands continually emerge in Calvin’s sacramental theology. On the one hand, Calvin views the sacraments as signs of assurance that serve to confirm and strengthen our faith. Through the sacraments, God grants certainty to believers. On the other hand, Calvin speaks of the sacraments as genuine instruments of salvation. As means of grace, the sacraments are said to effect what they represent and perform what they picture [1]. In the sacraments, God creates, as well as nourishes, faith. While latter day Calvinists have often felt the need to choose one of these two strands at the expense of the other (and have all too often chosen the first), Calvin himself felt no tension. The two strands were not in a tug-of-war, pulling against each other, but woven together into a beautiful sacramental tapestry [2].

How are these two strands harmonized in Calvin’s mind? Certainly Calvin’s systematic intellect would not allow his sacramental theology to contain a blatant contradiction on so crucial an issue. One possible approach to relating the two strands would be to offer a diachronic analysis of Calvin’s sacramental theology. At different points in his career, he emphasized different aspects of the sacraments’ usefulness. Often Calvin seemed to modify his sacramental theology, or at least its emphases, depending on his opponents at the time, his desire for a Reformed ecumenism, his pastoral concerns, and so forth, all the while attempting to build a Protestant consensus. He had quite a gauntlet to run, as he sought to avoid the errors of the Romanists, Zwinglians, Anabaptists, and so forth. For example, during his time in Strassbourg, he worked closely alongside Martin Bucer. No doubt, Bucer’s own high view of sacramental instrumentality and his ambitious ecumenical projects exercised decisive influence on Calvin. After Calvin returned to Geneva, his attempts to build a coalition with Ulrich Zwingli’s successor Heinrich Bullinger led him to tone down, or at least de-emphasize, sacramental efficacy. The result was the less than satisfactory Consensus Tigurerinus of 1549. Towards the end of his career, debates with pesky Lutherans such as Joachim Westphal led Calvin to re-emphasize God’s powerful, saving action in the sacraments. Because the Institutes went through several drafts, it is to be expected that bits and pieces reflect the various emphases of the various phases of Calvin’s turbulent career. But this in itself cannot account completely for the nuance found in the final 1559 version of the Institutes. There is no question Calvin himself considered the final product to be a coherent, consistent manual of theology.

Another method of resolution is to take into account Calvin’s definition of faith. In Book three, he writes, “Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” In other words, faith = assurance. We can then bridge the gap between sacraments as assuring pledges that fortify pre-existing faith and sacraments as salvific, faith-giving instruments by simply pointing out that faith and assurance are two sides of a single coin. To say the sacraments give assurance is to say they give saving faith, and vice versa [3].

I think the most satisfactory answer is simply to leave the strands side by side. Calvin does not seem to think they need harmonizing, so why should we? The salvific and assuring functions of the sacraments can simply be combined into an organic whole. Calvin himself does this repeatedly and effortlessly in his baptismal theology, as a brief examination of Book 4, chapter 15 in the Institutes shows.

For Calvin, baptism has a God-manward meaning and a man-Godward meaning. Of course, God’s action towards man has primacy: “Now baptism was given to us by God for these ends (which I have taught to be common to all sacraments): first to serve our faith before him; secondly, to serve our confession before men…Accordingly, they [e.g., the Zwinglians and Anabaptists] who regarded baptism as nothing but a token and mark by which we confess our religion before men, as soldiers bear the insignia of their commander as a mark of their profession, have not weighed what was the chief point of baptism” [4]. Baptism, in reality, is God’s work: “For inasmuch as [baptism] is given for the arousing, nourishing, and confirming of our faith, it is to be received as from the hand of the Author himself. We ought to deem it certain and proved that it is he who speaks to us through the sign; that it is he who purifies and washes away sins, and wipes out the remembrance of them; that it is he who make us sharers in his death, who deprives Satan of his rule, who weakens the power of our lust; indeed, that it is he who comes into a unity with us so that, having put on Christ, we may be acknowledged God’s children. These things, I say, he performs for our soul within as truly and surely as we see our body outwardly cleansed, submerged, and surrounded with water [5]…And he does not feed our eyes with a mere appearance only, but leads us to the present reality and effectively performs what he symbolizes” [6].

The God-towards-man action of baptism is then unpacked in three dimensions [7]. “The first thing that the Lord sets out for us is that baptism should be a token and proof of our cleansing; or (the better to explain what I mean) it is like a sealed document to confirm to us that all our sins are so abolished, remitted, and effaced that they can never come to his sight, be recalled, or charged against us.” Calvin begins (in a very pastoral way) with baptism as an assuring pledge. All who believe may know they are washed in Christ’s blood just as surely as the waters of baptism have come upon them. As he goes on to explain, the water does not cause salvation by itself; rather “in this sacrament are received the knowledge and certainty of such gifts” [8]. However, this does make the significance of baptism merely cognitive, as the next two points demonstrate. Baptism’s assuring function does not exhaust its usefulness.

For Calvin, baptism means union with Christ: “Baptism also brings another benefit, for it shows us our mortification in Christ, and new life in him…[T]hrough baptism Christ makes us sharers in his death, that we may be engrafted in it” [9]. Calvin then turns to a brief exposition of Romans 6. It is this baptismal union with the crucified and risen Christ that gives the Christian life its basic pattern of mortification and vivification [10]. Calvin, following Paul exhorts the baptized to live out their union with Christ, dead to sin and alive to righteousness. According to Calvin, Christ himself was baptized in order to include us in his work: “For he dedicated and sanctified baptism in his own body [Mt. 3:13] in order that he might have it in common with us as the firmest bond of the union and fellowship which he has deigned to form with us…Thus we see that the fulfillment of baptism is in Christ, whom also for this reason we call the proper object of baptism…For all the gifts proffered in baptism are found in Christ alone” [11]. Our baptisms unite us to The Baptized One, Christ himself in whom all blessings are found.

The third benefit received in baptism is adoption: “Lastly, our faith receives from baptism the advantage of its sure testimony to us that we are not only engrafted into the death and life of Christ, but so united to Christ himself that we become sharers in all his blessings…Hence, Paul proves that we are children of God from the fact that we are put on Christ in baptism [Gal. 3:26-27].” Baptism is not only a kind of marriage, uniting us to Christ, but also an adoption ceremony, placing us in God’s family. As adopted sons, we are co-heirs of God together with Christ.

As Calvin expounds this threefold grace of baptism, he continually mixes in the two strands: baptism as assuring pledge and baptism as efficacious instrument. Sometimes these two angles on baptism appear side by side on the same page! Consider his words on 1304-5: “For Paul [in Eph. 5:26 and Tit. 3:5] did not mean to signify that our cleansing and salvation are accomplished by water, or that water contains in itself the power to cleanse, regenerate, and renew; nor that here is the cause of salvation, but only that in this sacrament are received the knowledge and certainty of such gifts…[The water of baptism] attests with certainty that Christ’s blood is our only laver.” It seems Calvin has limited baptism to giving assurance, taking away any salvific efficacy. However in the very next section, he states, “But we must realize that at whatever time we are baptized, we are once for all washed and purged for our whole life” [12]. Thus, the salvific, instrumental power of baptism is preserved.

The same combination shows up on 1315. In expounding Acts 22:16, Calvin focuses on the assuring function of baptism: “Ananias meant only this: ‘To be assured, Paul, that your sins are forgiven, be baptized. For the Lord promises forgiveness of sins in baptism: receive it and be secure.” However, Calvin immediately corrects the impression of those who would view the sacraments as merely assuring seals: “Yet it is not my intention to weaken the force of baptism by not joining reality and truth to the sign, in so far as God works through outward means.”

For more, see:
Theologia » Calvin on Baptism, Penance, & Absolution

Memorial Day 2011: A Salute to the Fallen and Those Living Thereafter with War Scars of Body and Mind

Semper Fi and a salute to the fallen and those with war scars thereafter.

Many sad families this weekend, as the tributes accumulate. Another rendition. Many families locally at Camp Lejeune, NC, without the "son, brother, father, or husband at the dinner table."

Update: Benny Hinn Divorce (Superior Court of Orange County, CA) and Civil Suit on Breach of Contract (Seminole County Circuit Court, FL)

Update: Benny Hinn Divorce (Superior Court of Orange County, CA) and Civil Suit on Breach of Contract (Seminole County Circuit Court, FL)

First things first. Is Hinn divorced? Yes, Hinn is definitely divorced. From the Court, to wit:

"The Petition was filed on 02/01/2010. There is no future hearing date scheduled. Although you are divorced you may have additional issues to be addressed by the court. If so, you need to request a hearing by filing an At Issue Memorandum form."

Despite the fait accompli of the official divorce and despite the failures and poor example, Benny continues his programming. Where's the mighty miracle and where's the inspiration, Mr. Hinn? I suppose the TBNers are still covering, using, and extending Hinn's alleged "ministry," better defined as "sinistry." Where's the healing ministry, Mr. Hinn? What example are you? What are the take-away lessons for youths? Where's the press? Another few take-aways on Hinn. Where is the "name-it-claim-it" crowd? Why hasn't Ken Copeland laid some action on the Hinn-crackup? Where is Creflo Dollar, Fred Price, Paula White, and Paul Crouch? What was the ultimate "distribution of marital assets" and how was Hinn's personal wealth separated from his sinistry assets?

Here is a quote from the TBN site about this theological loser. This is posted at
"'This Is Your Day' with Pastor Benny Hinn takes you to major crusade across America and around the world. You’ll experience the presence of the Holy Spirit through anointed worship, witness the miracle-working power of God through exciting testimonies of physical and emotional healing, and be thrilled as thousands come forward in every service to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. In addition, Benny Hinn often teaches from the Word of God on subjects that will strengthen your walk with the Lord, and conducts selected interviews designed to change your life spiritually, physically, financially, emotionally and in your family. You and your loved ones can experience significant change through the presence and power of God, because `This Is Your Day"'for a miracle!"

Aside from Benny Hinn's divorce, he also faces civil action for contractual breaches.
Strang Communications Co. v. Benny Hinn is 2011CA000575. This was filed 15 Feb 2011.
Related questions: (1) Has the TBN leadership taken action? (2) Where's the press? (3) Is Benny still out there in his crusade non-ministry? Is Suzanne Hinn out there doing her independent crusade work? 

Strang Communications which owns the Pentecostalist-charismatic magazine, Charisma, filed in a state court, Seminole Count, FL. Strang Comms located is St. Mary, FL (where Ligonier Ministries is close). It's a contractual dispute based on a "morality clause" breach by Hinn. Strang fronted Hinn $300K. We suspect that "diminished book sales" might be involved.

Civil docket found at. So, it's has not ripened yet.

The Seminole County Circuit Court, FLA observes that the case was filed. No further updates or actions other than the filing.

Case Number: 2011CA000575 Judge: ALAN A. DICKEY
Date Filed: 02/15/2011 Case Type: CONTRACT/INDEBTEDNESS
Plantiffs: Defendants:


A few news items on this contractual dispute.

Re: the divorce, the URL is the official website for the state court, the Superior Court of Orange County, CA.

Update on the Benny Hinn divorce from the Superior Court of Orange County, CA.

Case Summary
Case NumberTitleFiling DateCategoryType
Check Marital Status This Case Assigned To The Honorable: MICHAEL MCCARTIN

NoNameTypeAssocStart Date
No Records Found

Register of Actions
Docket CodeFiling DateFiling Party

Two Anabaptist,Non-Confessionalists, Not Liturgicals Talk Theology: Piper and Warren

A hat tip to another Anabaptist site on this index below:

Topic index of the interview:
0:00 Introduction
3:29 The glory of God.
7:16 David Wells and the weight of God’s reality.
9:00 Would you write the book the same today?
12:00 The sovereignty of God.
18:47 How do you speak of God’s sovereignty in the presence of tragedy?
22:01 How do all things work for bad for those who reject Christ?
24:14 Do you hedge on Larry King?
27:00 Unconditional election.
30:18 The importance of eternity.
34:42 How do you conceive of eternity: in heaven, on earth?
38:53 What is the Gospel?
42:00 What did Jesus achieve on the cross?
43:40 Repentance.
50:50 Why don’t you call yourself a Calvinist?
53:09 Propitiation.
54:39 Prevenient grace.
1:00:01 Total depravity.
1:03:00 Hell.
1:09:10 Eternal destiny of those who never heard.
1:12:40 The extent of the atonement.
1:17:00 Do unbelievers always do the devil’s bidding?
1:18:40 Your view of the Bible.
1:22:40 Expository preaching and doctrinal depth.
1:28:10 Rick Warren’s sacred trust

David Virtue carries this at:

John Piper Interviews Rick Warren About Doctrine
May 27 2011

In an interview conducted earlier this month, John Piper asked Rick Warren to address the concerns some critics have for The Purpose Driven Life. John based the interview on 20 pages of notes, asking in-depth questions related to specific statements from the book. Why is The Purpose Driven Life more theocentric than Christocentric? What role does the Holy Spirit have in our transformation? Does Rick's view of God's sovereignty embrace the doctrine of unconditional election?

The refreshing thing about the interview is that John addresses specific doctrinal concerns, and he allows Rick to respond to them directly, offering any clarification. It is the kind of biblical integrity we've all come to expect from John Piper but it is also noteworthy because Rick is rarely asked such direct and honest questions about his doctrinal beliefs.

Here is the interview, courtesy of John Piper's ministry - VIEW IT NOW: or here:

Reformation Anglicanism felt it was "quite rich" when Anabaptist Piper led Warren in a prayer "to avoid" temptation "to pride," a moment of supremacism.  Hubristic. In fact, a moment of laughter.  A genuine leader would have said "We have erred."  What we heard was unctuous Anabaptistic and enthusiastic pietism. Typical for America.  Piper, the Prayer Book illiterate that he is, would be well advised to memorize and use this old BCP prayer:

ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"Celebs" at Ligonier Ministries and Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Baptyerian Affairs

Rev. Peter Ratcliff has initiated a provocative and necessary discussion, to wit, fellowship-matters, the "celeb culture" of Americana, and related matters.  This has implications for the "Celebs" at Ligonier Ministries and Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, both which host non-confessionalist and non-liturgical re-baptizers.  Is it about numbers, money, business and promotionals?  What about the Reformed Confessions?  What about the historic liturgy, e.g. the English 1662 BCP or the 1873 REC BCP?  There are many, many more questions here far beyond Dr. Beeke.

Beware of Conference Credentials or is Dr Beeke Right?

We are blessed in the UK with many excellent reformed extra-church meetings and conferences. Nevertheless, as well as threats of error from within our borders, we are also connected to the USA ‘conference circuit’ which is developing ever more unhelpful and indeed dangerous characteristics through ungodly compromise. It is our prayer that the following will serve as a warning to both conference organisers and attendees, to both clergy and laity (ministers and church members).

The Local Church Priority

While we have been blessed in the UK with some excellent conference and ‘school’ teaching it is vital to remember that our allegiance and responsibility must be primarily to our local church. In the local church people are gathered together to know and love God, each other and their neighbours in an accountable and meaningful way. Dear reader, yes there will of necessity be rare exceptions, but you will not be fed by conference speakers however eloquent they may be, you will not be fed by reading this newspaper, you will not be fed by internet sermons alone but you will starve if you do not take a committed part in a local biblical congregation.

Conferences for Conferring

Strictly speaking a conference is a meeting at which people meet and ‘confer’. In the fullest sense this is with the purpose of not merely bouncing ideas around but of actually making important decisions. How the church today could do with a conference to iron out some problems.

Historically conferences have been very important in the life of the church. Church history tells us of many Christian conferences including the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) which decided the vital matter of how to welcome Gentiles into the church, the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) which condemned deadly heresy, the Hampton Court Conference (1604) which led to the production of a universal English Bible, the Authorised Version, and the Westminster Assembly (1643-1652) which attempted to define the Reformed faith more exactly.

These councils and conferences were ‘one-offs’ called for important reasons, with clear aims and objectives and reached specific conclusions that determined the future course of the Church.

Need for Conferences Today

So what of Church conferences today? Clearly there is much about the church that could do with being sorted out. Indeed, many old heresies are being promoted today just as vigorously as they were long ago. In addition many people have strong divergent views about what the church is and should believe and do. There is a tremendous lack of uniformity today. Some of this is inevitable ‘nonconformity’ and yet many only see their own style of church as the biblical one. Should there not be a conference to resolve these and many other questions?

Sadly such efforts are usually ineffective because of the serious problem of false ecumenism where churches have joined together to talk in this way but without accepting a biblical basis of faith. Examples of this include the General Synod of the Church of England and the World Council of Churches (WCC).

Modern Examples

On a smaller scale the Evangelical Alliance and London School of Theology (nee London Bible College) hosted an Atonement Symposium in 2005. This was to discuss the strange theology of men like Steve Chalke who do not believe that Jesus’ death was the bearing of God’s wrath. The conference conclusion was very open ended, stating a traditional position but, presumably not wanting to offend, also agreeing to differ in a very non judgmental way with the strange teachings. This is disturbing to find when decisive judgement is the one purpose for which conferences are called.

Other smaller organisations hold their own private meetings to decide on their exact doctrinal and practical teachings. Affinity (nee British Evangelical Council) even organised a conference with the traditional purpose of ‘conferring’ with papers made available in advance. To date such conferences are limited as they have no authority and are not very successful except in persuading attendees to hold more tightly to previously held views.

When the End is Decided Beforehand

At the other end is extreme separation where churches stick on points to the permanent exclusion of further discussion. Along this line are many today who agree on the conclusion before the conference starts! Speakers are invited to give papers on certain subjects with pre agreed views. While there is a lack of doctrinal clarity in Christendom at large, many such ‘conferences’ are a valuable way of disseminating correct views and doctrines. Even if just a few ‘outsiders’ will attend they may receive guidance to reestablish their Christian life in a new and more God honouring and useful direction. Young men in particular may be positively influenced by reformed conferences and even go on to become pastors of reformed churches.

The Conference Circuit

There has inevitably developed a ‘conference circuit’ and predictably certain ministers have become ‘famous’ as ‘conference speakers’. This is not necessarily as detrimental to their home churches as might be expected. The leading 20th century minister Dr DM Lloyd-Jones was almost always ‘preaching away’ midweek as well as during long summer ‘holidays’ which were often largely filled with preaching tours.

It should briefly but carefully be noted that while Lloyd-Jones ‘conferred’ with the WCC in genuine discussion it resulted in his rejection of the WCC. Furthermore Lloyd-Jones was careful not to share a platform with either the confusingly ecumenical Billy Graham or with the misleading Keswick ‘holiness’ teachers.

Generally as the conference circuit expands so ministers rub shoulders with men with views outside of the ‘orthodoxy’ of their own denominations or alliances. Out of this grows an informal alliance of ‘conference speakers’. Christian charity is rightly exercised between ministers. Some will accept an invitation without a list of all who are scheduled to speak, after all they rightly come to trust those who organise these conferences. However, unless one is to be the only speaker, it is impossible to know who else will speak as not all ministers will be alive and well by the time the conference date arrives and so substitutes may have to be brought in. Other times a minister may have agreed to speak at a conference but then in the meantime one of the other speakers becomes heretical or ecumenical. It is considered rude to cancel an engagement, either by the organiser or the speaker, so they are usually stuck with an ecumenical speaker and what should be an embarrassment all round. Regrettably the embarrassment is usually extinguished by keeping quiet or dissimulation (a great word used in the Book of Common Prayer to describe the lengths to which man will go to pretend he is not a sinner!) or by offering smooth sounding excuses. Such an untruthful practice is highly detrimental to the cause of the Gospel. A ministry outside of the formal structures of a disciplined church finds itself highly compromised and rather than being the ‘handmaiden’ of the churches, becomes a trap and a snare and the blind lead the blind into the ditch.

Separation Exemption?

What is the cure for this ecumenical mess? According to one leading American conference speaker, Dr Joel Beeke, the doctrine of biblical separation cannot be applied to conferences. Dr Beeke therefore feels at liberty to preach at conferences with John Piper who holds hands with new-Calvinists. Dr Beeke also speaks at National Center For Family-Integrated Churches conferences (see NCFIC says it is based on the sufficiency of Scripture but its doctrinal statement is woefully inadequate as its only doctrine is about families.

Is Dr Beeke right? If the conferences at which he speaks really are ‘conferences’ in the historical sense of which we have spoken then of course one would not expect to share the same views as all present. The very point of such conferences was for people of different views to get together and to hammer out their differences by seeking the truth.

However when one agrees to be a speaker at a conference where the doctrinal position is already given and the speaker is set to speak in a certain way on a certain subject, then it is not really a conference at all. There is no place to disagree with other speakers. It is more like a ‘school’, a word which some rightly use instead of conference. At a ‘school’ there is a school ethos and all the ‘teachers’ are expected to hold to that ethos. They are all essentially part of teaching one message. Under such circumstances conference speakers are accountable for the whole conference. Are they giving credence to false teachers?


In summary it is necessary to distinguish between traditional conferences and what should be more correctly termed schools. There is a place for conferences to seek to come to decisions about doctrine and actions. Such conferences depend on a will to reach an agreement and are impossible when there is not already agreement on non-negotiable fundamentals.

Conferences that are more rightly ‘schools’ teach a clear pre-agreed message and are not conferences at all in the proper sense. Schools depend upon a high degree of agreement between speakers who work together for the school. Under such circumstances biblical separation from heretics and false teachers is imperative.

Rev Ivan Foster Comments

We conclude with some extracts from a letter we received from a retired Free Presbyterian of Ulster minister, Rev Ivan Foster:

Since reading the main article on Mark Driscoll in EC7817, my soul has been vexed, not just at what I read of this man Driscoll but by the contacts by which good men have stupidly linked themselves to this devilishness.

Here is a link which indicates that John Piper did not take the same view of Driscoll's comments as did John MacArthur.
Now MacArthur and Piper did not differ sufficiently to part company. They remain "buddies". How anyone who professes allegiance to Christ and His Truth can keep fellowship with someone who defends Driscoll and says that he is "rock solid" doctrinally I cannot understand.

MacArthur and Piper are still friends and have shared "rock concert" type so-called evangelical gatherings.

What is more serious is the fact that Joel Beeke has shared a platform with Piper and others of his ilk and has defended his doing so within the last month or so and says that he would do it again.

A man who became contaminated by touching that which was unclean was refused a place at the ordinances in the Old Testament. Any priest who came in contact with such a man would be deemed unclean himself and unfit for service.

It is wrong, I believe, of Joel Beeke to fellowship with Piper and, in turn, wrong for any to fellowship with Beeke until he acknowledges his wrong-doing and ceases to have fellowship with the likes of Piper.

My old granny used to say: “Show me your company and I will tell you who you are!” That is an entirely scriptural philosophy.

I fear that a love of the "conference" bonhomie is such that it becomes more important to these "circuit riders" than faithfulness to Christ.

It is the rock upon which many are going to make shipwreck of their ministries and effective witness for Christ in these last days.

There is a network of conferences, associations, alliances etc., etc., formed today and it is through this maze and network that the virus of compromise and rebellion is spreading and contaminating many stalwarts and organisations which have served the Lord Christ so effectively. But even a David or a Solomon ceases their usefulness when they forget the commands set forth in Scriptures such as : “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you,” 2 Corinthians 6:17,. (Numbers 16:26)

Paul said: “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way,” 2 Thessalonians 2:7,

I have no doubt that what is happening in the world of academic Christendom is evidence of the working of that spirit of iniquity.

Lusk, Some Thoughtful Rebuttals of Anti-liturgists

We are not sure about Rich Lusk.  Is he a Federal Visionista?  That to the side, there are thoughtful rebuttals of the "I hate Prayer Book" enthusiasts.

Dabney Center

Spring 2003

Course: Liturgy

Teacher: Rich Lusk

Session #3

Objections to Liturgy/Ritual

“Liturgical” worship is highly “ritualized.” But since the Reformation, many

Protestants have viewed ritual and ceremony with suspicion. Several

arguments against ritualized, liturgical worship are offered:

1. “Old Covenant worship was full of rituals and ceremonies, but Christ’s

coming abolished the ceremonial law. We are free from such strictures in our

worship. Our worship in the New Covenant is ‘spiritual’ – spontaneous,

inward, and simple.”

Christ did not actually abolish the ceremonial system; he fulfilled it (Mt.

5:17ff), and in doing so transformed it. Thus, the categories of temple and

sacrifice are still used to describe New Covenant worship in the NT. Jesus

and the apostles established new rituals and ceremonies (baptism, the Lord’s

Supper, new prayer forms, new songs, etc.) for the new epoch. The NT is not

opposed to ritual per se, but to doing the wrong rituals, either because (a) they

belong to the old age (e.g., circumcision), or (b) they are human inventions

inconsistent with biblical principles (e.g., some Jewish oral law washings).

2. “Ritual leads to dead orthodoxy and dead formalism. It kills the freshness

of New Covenant worship and quenches the Spirit. If we do the same things

routinely, we’ll just go through the motions.”

This is a false dichotomy. Often, churches which favor “spontaneity” and

“freedom” become stale and dead themselves, as many ex-charismatics attest.

While dead formalism is a problem we must guard against, ritual per se is not

the real danger. If ritual is so dangerous, why did God give an entire

ritualized system to Israel that allowed virtually no variation? Surely God

would not tempt his people this way!

Rather, the real issue here is the heart of the worshippers. If we really love

God, the “liturgical routine” should never be dull.

God’s own life is one of tireless repetition. God is a ritualized being. He

moves through his divine life in an orderly, habitual way. The creation

account, with its repeated patterns, is very telling: Even when God is at his

most original, he acts habitually. We are made in his image, and so we are

“creatures of habit.”

3. “Liturgical worship is ‘high church.’ It is elitist and snobbish. It leaves

out the common man.”

Snobbery is a problem, but not unique to those who worship liturgically.

Extreme RPW minimalists and free wheeling charismatics can also take undue

pride in their worship.

Actually liturgical worship is the most “common” style of all, in the sense of

being accessible to anyone. (It was called the Book of Common Prayer after


The vast majority of Christian worshippers the last 2000 years (just like the

Israelites before them) have been mostly common folk and yet they’ve learned

to recite creeds and prayers, chant psalms, kneel and stand at appropriate

times, and so forth. The irony in the above mentioned objection is that until

rather recently in history (with the invention of printing and the rise in literacy

rates), worship had to be highly ritualized (and therefore memorized) for the

people to participate at all!

Ritualized liturgy is actually far friendlier to children, the elderly, immigrants,

etc. than other forms. For example, many traditional Presbyterian and Puritan

forms of worship are really only accessible to college educated, middle class

“thinkers.” As a result these kinds of churches end up with a very unbalanced

membership and become distorted, disfigured manifestations of the body of


Jordan is entirely correct that worship should be “childish.”

4. “Liturgical rituals, ancient prayer and hymn forms, etc. simply aren’t

intelligible in our modern culture. We need more contemporary styles and

forms to reach people today.”

This objection smuggles in several false assumptions. For example, Frame

argues for “intelligibility” from 1 Cor. 14, but he badly misreads the text.

The way this objection is sometimes stated, it presupposes confusion between

liturgy and evangelism. In evangelism, intelligibility is critical. In worship,

other concerns come to the fore. Worship is only indirectly evangelistic; the

primary audience is God himself.

This objection also assumes that worship should come easy. We have to teach

kids how to tie their shoes and ride a bike, but supposedly worship should

come “naturally.” Surely the King of the universe is worth more effort!

Worshipping well is a skill that has to be acquired (cf. references to musical

skill in the psalter). This skill is learned over the course of a lifetime through

practice and repetition.

This objection assumes the symbolic character of ritualized worship forms is

unintelligible to moderns. But surely this is false, even if moderns are

symbolically impoverished compared to their ancestors. Consider recent

examples: flag burning in the U.S.; tearing up billboard pictures of Saddam in

Iraq. Symbolic actions are still intelligible!

The real reason many American Christians object to liturgical worship is

laziness! We don’t want to have to learn the “grammar” or “language” of

historic, biblical worship forms. We put our personal convenience and

pleasure above honoring God. This is idolatry.

Given the broad scale idolatry of American culture, the church simply must

stake out her ground as a counter-culture. This means liturgical worship! So

what if it’s weird?

5. “Liturgy and ritual lead to Rome.”

Two can play at this game. Rejection of ritual leads to Pennsylvania . . . and

Amish country!

The fact that Rome does something is not, in itself, an adequate argument

against it. After all, Rome believes the Trinity, incarnation, etc.

This objection forgets that the Reformers themselves wrote liturgies that were

to be viewed as “fixed forms.” In fact, prayer books were a Protestant

invention, basically! Among the Puritans, liturgy was generally accepted

early on in the movement, but when worship forms got entangled in churchstate

issues with the British crown and persecution began, there was a

backlash against anything that smacked of Anglicanism or Romanism. There

is no reason to follow the Puritans in this area today since our cultural

situation is substantially different. The strict RPW which came out of the

Puritan interaction with the crown was an innovation, as Packer has pointed


The irony is that the Roman Catholic counter-reformation has implemented

more of the liturgical reforms that Calvin desired than Presbyterians have!

The early Reformers wanted weekly communion in both kinds for the

congregation, a lot of corporate participation rather than “spectator worship,”

etc. The Reformers were actually more medieval than modern.

Arguments in Favor of Ritualized, Liturgical Worship Forms

The traditional Christian liturgy balances form and freedom. It features both

ordinaries and propers – elements that remain fixed and elements that vary.

Life as whole is this way. In fact, biblically sound rituals will encapsulate


A good prima facie case can be made for liturgy from several places in

Scripture. We could argue covenantally that if Old Covenant worship was

ritualized, New Covenant worship will be as well, albeit with new forms. We

could point to the worship of the synagogue, with its regular structures and

patterns. Jesus participated in this worship, even reading the scheduled

lectionary passage from the scroll rather than “following the lead of the Spirit”

(Lk. 4). Paul clearly desired orderly, regimented worship (cf. Acts 20:7ff; 1

Cor. 14; Col. 2:5).

Perhaps the best argument for liturgical worship comes from the book of

Revelation. The entire book is an unveiling of the heavenly liturgy and

follows the same basic pattern as temple worship in the Old Covenant. John,

as a representative of the church is in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day and enters

into heaven to witness and participate in this worship service. If there is

“Spirit-led” worship anywhere, surely it’s in heaven! What do we see?

We can’t survey the entire book, but consider a few details from Rev. 4-5.

• The worship is corporate, as the actions of the worshippers are clearly

coordinated together. There is no individualistic spontaneity.

• The worship is scripted, and apparently memorized. It is orderly and

routine. The angels do not tire of singing the Sanctus; it never

becomes “vain repetition.”

• It is bodily. There is physical movement, to show reverence and


• It is symbolic, e.g., the worshippers wear special clothing. It is not


Towards a Biblical-Theology of Ritual

1. We should not think of rituals as specialized ceremonies tacked on to ordinary life.

Ritual – and therefore symbolic action -- is pervasive. Intensified forms of ritual –

“ceremonies” – give shape to life as a whole. Ritual is inescapable in God’s world,

though rituals are never neutral.

Our entire lives have a ritualized flow to them, as image bearers of the Ritual God.

Sometimes, we highlight the ritualized dimensions of behavior more than at other times,

e.g., weddings. But without an overall ritual character, our lives would be chaotic and

meaningless. Sin wrecked human life, taking it out of its God ordained rhythm; God uses

ritual to re-establish his pattern for human life. These rituals are microchronic

encapsulations of what human life should be.

Ritual in everyday life is simply a matter of habit. We have various ritual systems, or

“mini-liturgies,” we employ all the time, e.g., greeting protocols, manners, etc. These

become “second nature” and virtually invisible to us (analogous to “dead metaphors”).

Society cannot run smoothly without these ritualized patterns of action.

We move through day-to-day life ritually; we also surround important events, such as

birth, marriage, and death with more specialized rituals. Interestingly, most people know

better than to trust their spontaneity and intuitions on such momentous occasions.

2. Ritual both expresses and stimulates emotion.

Contrary to the claims of some, ritual does not kill feeling or emotional freedom. Rather,

it shapes and guides our emotions in proper ways.

Of course, sometimes, we go through the rituals of daily life without much feeling. This

is precisely why ritual (or habit) is so important. If we only showed signs of love,

friendliness, manners, etc., when we felt warm and fuzzy, we’d be very unloving!

Faithfulness to “the routine” is actually a demonstration of love. Proper everyday rituals

structure life in such a way that I show love towards my neighbor whether I feel like it or

not. It’s the same with weekly worship. You cannot experience a “revival” 52 Sundays a

year. Nor can you, Quaker-style, wait on God to move you inwardly before you obey.

Do the rituals; feeling will follow in due time. Bodily actions can shape the heart

outside-in. Performing rituals inscribes character and inculcates virtue. Proper rituals

generate appropriate theological concepts (Kerr, Edwards, church fathers, Calvin).

3. Ritualized worship provides the best possible cradle-to-grave pastoral care for the

covenant community.

Liturgy forms personal and corporate identity. It gives us a sense of who we are. It gives

us a sense of belonging. It creates and sustains bonds of covenant life and communion.

Rituals gel us into a body.

Liturgical rituals engrave certain habits into our hearts and minds, forming our character

in a virtuous fashion. Ritual begets character.

The liturgy gives us a world-view and world-praxis, a certain way of viewing the world

and being in the world. It gives us our symbolic matrix or grid, through which we

interpret reality and in terms of which we take action.

Liturgy and ritual disciple us as a distinct people, or counter-culture, in the world. These

patterns form us into “God’s army.”

Liturgy gives us a way of celebrating and coping – it enables us to express joy in

constructive ways, it enables to channel grief appropriately, and it allows us to die well.

4. Rituals transform human consciousness. They are performative.

5. Rituals can serve as microchronic enactments of all of history and life.

6. Proper rituals are necessary to generate and sustain Christian culture.

7. A proper ritual theology holds together the equal ultimacy of mind and body, doctrine

and praxis, the individual and community.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Nevin and American Evangelicals

Professor John Williamson Nevin, an edgy and Confessionalist Presbyterian

J. W. Nevin on the Sectarian Mind

Lessons from Mercersburg for Modern Evangelicals
by S. M. Hutchens

Mercersburg is still there, but there is little about it to show its importance in the theological history of America. It is a town of sixteen hundred or so about ten miles southeast of McConnellsburg and twenty miles southwest of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. The seminary of the German Reformed church it once contained has long since moved and merged with the one in Lancaster now belonging to the United Church of Christ. Given the character of that denomination, one would expect the Mercersburg of the mid-nineteenth century to hold little more than antiquarian interest for its institutional heirs, and not even much of that. It is no surprise that the six projected volumes of the Lancaster Series on the Mercersburg Theology to have been published by the United Church Press was begun more than twenty-five years ago but has never been finished.

Despite this, no student of American church history has ever treated Mercersburg lightly, for in the 1840s and 1850s this little seminary housed two of the most powerful and provocative minds in America. Marching against the broad stream of revivalism and "puritan" theology that held sway in the majority of American churches, they held up a catholic standard for the reformation of a Protestantism that had lost touch with history and forgotten the Church. John Williamson Nevin summarized this standard in three precepts:

(1) Jesus Christ, in his person, is the Principle of Christianity.

(2) The Creed is the regula fidei of the Christian world.

(3) The Church as the Body of Christ in the world is objective and historical.1

As unremarkable as these may sound to the catholic ear—or, may I say, to Protestants who have profited from the work of Karl Barth—American Protestantism of the mid-nineteenth century found them profoundly unsettling, especially when advanced by men with the depth and breadth of Mercersburg’s principal teachers, J. W. Nevin and Philip Schaff. From rural Pennsylvania Nevin and Schaff addressed the American churches with a message that has not and should not be forgotten.

I have found that the attempt to assert these principles among modern Evangelicals meets with the same resistance that Nevin and Schaff encountered from their nineteenth-century forebears. This is evidence that many of the changes in American Evangelical Protestantism in the last century and a half have not touched its deeper structure. While busy building the righteous kingdom, evangelizing, and resisting the grosser heresies, it has shown great reluctance to consider a more catholic form of Christianity such as that embodied in the three Mercersburg principles. Perhaps this is because the movement senses its debt to its distinctive eccentricities. Where would it be without revivalism and rationalistic biblicism? One need not deny reason or the experience of grace in conversion to insist, as did the Mercersburg theologians, that Christianity rests upon the person of Christ, the Church as the pillar and foundation of his truth, and the Creed as the universal symbol of the Church’s faith. Christian theology and practice call for a consuming interest in these things, merely for the truth’s sake. Where the message of Mercersburg is resisted it bears repeating until it is finally heard.


When Nevin said that Jesus Christ, in his person, is the principle of Christianity, he was pointing to a distinctly sacramental idea that he knew had been lost to most of his American Protestant contemporaries. It had become foreign to revivalism because the coming of Christ in the experience of salvation was almost entirely equated with evangelical conversion, and to the Scholastics because personal categories were perceived as less decisive and satisfactory than the logical and propositional. The preaching of the revivalists and the theology of the Scholastics complemented each other nicely. Both had a strong tendency to subjectivize Christian experience, to make the sinner the principal actor in the drama of salvation—the visceral man in the case of the revivalists, the intellectual in the case of the theologians. These two men combined to make the "puritan"—surprisingly enough, a distinctively modern man—who had forgotten too much, a man who, in a sense similar to that of which C. S. Lewis spoke in The Abolition of Man, has a large belly and brain, but nothing between them. Christ, to be sure, was professed to be the founder, object, and content of faith. But the faith itself, perceived subjectively as possession of a set of experiences and beliefs, was being identified as the goal and meaning of Christian life rather than phenomena that arise from the life of Christ within and among us—who is in his person the goal and meaning of life.

The temptation to reduce Christ to dogma and experience is understandable and common to all Christians, for his presence to us is invariably a mediated presence, and it is perilously easy to mistake the medium for the message. (As Calvin noted, the heart is a veritable factory of idols.) Early nineteenth-century American Protestantism had its own peculiar tendency to mistake the gift for the Giver, the creation for its Creator. This is the problem to which Nevin was attempting to point his fellow Protestants by saying that Jesus Christ is in his person the Principle of Christianity.

How does one receive Jesus Christ? This is where the reference to Jesus Christ in his person took on sacramental overtones, for it is the whole Christ who was to be received by the whole man, not simply Christ as apprehended by the cognitive and aesthetic2 faculties. Nevin and Schaff did not identify the conversion experience as invariably bogus, but pointed to the real presence of Christ in the sacraments as the principal means of grace—not simply because that is what the Church had always taught, but because these were providentially given signs involving the whole Christ and the whole sinner. Nevin’s demonstration that Luther and Calvin had not departed from the catholic understanding of the sacraments was one of the most difficult things for his Protestant contemporaries to digest. Baptism and the Eucharist as given by the Lord were endangered in a religious atmosphere where the products of the regenerative act of God were supplanting institutions the Bible explicitly identifies as means of grace among those who believe.

The understanding of the Mercersburg theologians that the Creed is the regula fidei of the Christian world was an uncomfortable reminder to many, for its use in Protestant services had in many places ceased. The problem was not disbelief in the Creed—that was the case only for a minority—Unitarians, freethinkers, cultists, and the like. Rather, the problem was that the proliferation of confession and counter-confession among the churches and the partisan vigor with which they were wielded had rendered "credalism" dark and divisive. "No Creed but the Bible" seemed to solve that. But of course, far from settling, it exacerbated the problem. Nevin saw this clearly, and insisted the Creed of the undivided Church is precisely the confessional glue that holds Christians together when their clashing and sometimes idiotic interpretations of Scripture drive them apart. This misconceived precept, he noted, lends itself to exploitation by power adepts: Every time you hear it, be prepared to step right up for the pitch of an ecclesiastical mountebank whose interpretive scheme is de facto the final authority in the sect he has founded on the principle of the Bible alone and no creed but the Bible.

Sola scriptura is not correct as a final principle of authority anyway, Nevin said, because the Church as the body of Christ in the world is objective and historical. I do not see the problem here as excessive "spiritualization" of the Church as much as ignorance that the Spirit is incarnate in the Communion of Saints and speaks authoritatively through it to every generation. This was as problematic for the preacher who had little grasp of history as the confessionalist professor who regarded his denomination’s theological constitution as the summa of all prior orthodoxy and through which he read the history of dogma. It was not the idea of the Church as "invisible," that is, as a manifestation of the life of the Spirit whose boundaries are beyond our sight, against which Nevin and Schaff saw themselves struggling. Rather, it was a pervasive agnosticism about the relevance of the work of the Spirit among all believers of every time—about the one, holy, and catholic wisdom of the whole and living Church. The Reformation principle of sola scriptura was increasingly being used as if it meant the Spirit had confined himself in Scripture and could escape only when the hermeneutical door was opened by a reliably in-house exegete who knew nothing of and cared little for what he had said to faithful men of years past.

At this point one can see not only how the principles of the Mercersburg theology fit together, but why they made and continue to make Evangelicals uncomfortable. Evangelicalism (in the sense the term is most commonly used in North America) can be pretty well defined in terms of its negation of the Mercersburg principles—as that aggregate of Protestant religious movements that, while generally orthodox because of their high regard for Scripture, radically subordinate Church, sacrament, and Creed as expressions of the life of the living Christ to emphasis on his appropriation by the rational and aesthetic faculties of individuals.

I would hesitate to accuse Evangelicalism in either its revivalist or scholastic aspects of denying that the person of Jesus Christ is the principle of Christianity, but I do think that wherever the faith becomes perceived primarily in these terms there is a great temptation to reduce the Lord to only part of his epiphanic reality, a reality represented in the traditional sacraments more perfectly than it can be within the revivalism or rationalism of the Evangelical movement. Not that individual reason or conversion should be held suspect, mind you—just that they should be regarded as parts of a larger, more objective whole, and not as the substance of the Faith. Numerous writers both within and outside of the movement (James Barr, John Jefferson Davis, Thomas Howard, and Robert Webber, for example) accuse Evangelicalism of culpable ignorance of the Christian past—no surprise, perhaps, when a fair-minded study of this past would place it where Evangelicals would not like to see themselves: in a sectarian backwater, far from the catholic mainstream, far even from the churchly, sacramentarian Reformers whose spiritual heirs they imagine themselves to be. The inherited mistrust of the Creed is a product of the intuition that credal authority rests on that of a Church it neither recognizes nor appreciates. All of these traits—anti-sacramentalism, anti-credalism, and the inability to recognize the Church and its authority—were, to the Mercersburg theologians, unmistakable traits of the sectarian mind.


Although the eminent Swiss-American church historian Philip Schaff is of equal importance for the history of the Mercersburg movement, our main interest here is in John Williamson Nevin and his message to Evangelicals of his century and our own. Space does not permit treatment of all the major areas of Nevin’s interest—his sacramental theology, his work on the Creed, liturgics, and the history of the early church. Rather, I would like to concentrate here on his thinking about the sectarian mind and the sectarian church it engenders by looking at his best-known writing, "The Sect System," which appeared in the first issues of the Mercersburg Review in 1849.

Nevin was a Presbyterian who grew up in farm country in southeastern Pennsylvania around Sharpsburg, was born on the centennial of John Wesley’s birth (1803) and died the year Karl Barth was born (1886). His father was a college graduate, but remained a farmer all his life. Nevin attended Union College in Schenectady, New York, and entered Princeton Seminary in 1823 at the age of twenty. There he studied under Archibald Alexander and the young Charles Hodge, who remembered him as one of his most able students. Nevin excelled in Hebrew, taught it at Princeton during Hodge’s sabbatical in Germany, and thereafter moved to the new Western Theological Seminary near Pittsburgh where he taught for ten years, developing a reputation for learning and high pedagogical competence. In 1840 he accepted a call to the struggling young seminary of the German Reformed church at Mercersburg.

Although Nevin described himself at his arrival at Mercersburg as "a conservative Irish evangelical, molded by Princeton scholasticism, strong for private-judgment biblicism," the increasing difficulty he was having with the "new measures" brought in by revivalism were turning his mind toward the views of Church, sacrament, and Creed that characterized his mature thought. With characteristic breadth of vision and emotional discipline he resisted the temptation of stigmatizing the revivals as in and of themselves impostures on Scripture and tradition. What he opposed was the mechanical way in which they were pursued, the Pelagian theology which undergirt them, their emotionalism, anti-intellectualism, and the personal and pastoral unworthiness of many of the revivalists. He gladly granted that God did work in and through them, as he worked through any number of other defective Christian institutions. In short, he thought the revivals as they were actually pursued were dishonoring to a God who was humble enough to use them anyway.

About 1825 a pioneering spirit named John Winebrenner shook the dust of the German Reformed Church off his feet and started a denomination that he modestly named the Church of God. The Church of God, General Conference, concentrated mostly in Pennsylvania and Ohio, is still with us, and much good can be said of it. Nevin discovered in its founder, however, a nearly perfect example of the sectarian mind and used a review of Winebrenner’s A History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States as a jumping off point for his critique of the sect system that he regarded as a predominating feature of American religious life.

When Nevin first heard of the book he thought it sounded useless. He had no interest in a collection of glowing accounts of the various American sects solicited from their leaders. Nevin was a scholar and wanted something more objective. But he was collared by an extremely persistent itinerant book salesman who would not let him go until he bought it for the rather substantial price of $2.50. He read through it, and, by the time he was ready to write a review he found it so heartily entertaining that he was unwilling to part with it for any price. One of the selling points of this book was its high-quality engravings of "fifty-three eminent authors belonging to the respective denominations," including Winebrenner himself. Nevin was greatly amused by the fact that this caption about the book’s "eminent authors" was obviously written by Winebrenner, who included himself among the eminences. The initials V. D. M. which he had appended to his name on the title page seemed to imply some kind of doctorate, but in fact stood simply for Verbum Dei Minister. The book was a treasure-trove of information on the sectarian mind, a mind unblushingly regarded by its contributors as that of normal Christianity. What, for example, could be more solidly Christian than their uniformly held claim that the Bible was their only rule of faith? Nevin noted,

However [the sects] may differ among themselves in regard to what [they teach], sects all agree in proclaiming the Bible as the only guide of their faith; and the more sectarian they are, as a general thing, the more loud and strong do they show themselves in reiterating this profession.3

The sectarian leader, Nevin noted, recognizing Christendom’s universal veneration for the Scriptures, emphatically proclaims their indefectible authority. But lo, before long a wondrous thing has happened. He no longer simply declares for Scripture, but without any indication of having changed gears, he is saying things like (to use Winebrenner as an example) "there are three ordinances left to the church by our Lord: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and . . . feet-washing."

The power of this sort of maneuver on the untrained and uncritical should not be underestimated. Few have the resources to examine the assertion, to contemplate the implications of the fact that the washing of feet, while certainly an ordinance left to us by the Lord, has rarely if ever been regarded as belonging in the same category as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. When the rapt, insistent, and authoritative preacher makes his point, there are no other points to be placed beside it. The critical movement comes with the seamless transition from a declaration of the Bible’s authority and of generally accepted truths to the exotic and very singular sectarian interpretation. The sincerity of the preacher is not being questioned here, for the chances that he is indeed sincere are very high. He really believes he is preaching what the Bible teaches and, using Nevin’s example, "that [his sect] makes more of this blessed volume than any other . . . that it was never much understood until Mr. Winebrenner was raised up at Harrisburg."4 Nevin is at pains to remind his readers that one should not be too impressed at loud and earnest asseverations that the Bible is the very Word of God and the only rule this group follows until one has a look at exactly what is meant by all this—a point well worth taking in any day and age.

Appended to this invariable profession of allegiance to the Bible as its sole authority is the exaltation of the right and necessity of private judgment in interpretation.

This principle of private judgment, the hobby of all sects, places all plainly on the same level, and unless men chose to play fast and loose with their own word, opens the door indefinitely for the lawful introduction of as many more, as religious ingenuity or stupidity may have power to invent. The principle, in truth, is absurd and impracticable, and such as always necessarily overthrows itself.5

Naturally, something must be put in place to govern the tendency of private judgment to range unchecked. Controls must be instituted against the untrammeled exercise of private judgment by the unqualified, so some individual or governing council must as a matter of fact rule the sect and be the actual arbiter of all questions of faith and practice.

Every sect is ready to magnify the freedom of the individual judgment and the right of all men to read and interpret the Bible for themselves; and yet there is not one among them that allows in reality anything of the sort. It is amusing to glance through the pages of this autobiography of religious denominations and notice the easy simplicity with which so many of them lay down the broad maxim of liberty and toleration to start with, and then at once go on to limit and circumscribe it by the rule of their own narrow horizon, proving themselves generally to be at once unfree and illiberal in proportion precisely to the noise they make about their freedom.

The "Church of God," according to her V.D.M. at Harrisburg, has no constitution, ritual creed, catechism, book of discipline, or church standard, but the Bible. . . . "Nevertheless, it may not be inexpedient," we are told, "pro bono publico, to exhibit a short manifesto, or declaration, showing her views, as to what may be called leading matters of faith, experience, and practice." And so we have a regular confession of 27 Articles, all ostensibly supported by proof from the Bible as understood by Mr. Winebrenner, fencing in thus her "scriptural and apostolical" communion, and of course fencing out all who, in the exercise of their private judgment, may be so unfortunate as not to see things in precisely the same way. . . .

[The common watchword of the sect] is The Bible and Private Judgment! But in no case do they show themselves true to its demands. It is always, on their lips, an outrageous lie, of which all good men should feel ashamed. . . . The liberty of the sect consists at last in thinking its particular notions, shouting its shibboleths and passwords, dancing its religious hornpipes, and reading the Bible through its theological goggles. These restrictions, at the same time, are so many wires that lead back at last into the hands of a few leading spirits, enabling them to wield a true hierarchical despotism over all who are thus brought within their power.6

Before we abandon this matter of private judgment as one of the most problematic features of sectarianism we should recognize what truth is in it. At times the mind of the Church has been preserved and expressed only by a minority, sometimes a very small minority indeed—Athanasius contra mundum! Temptation to defend a right of private judgment may arise from a collective memory of the rightness of individual judgments. But this Nevin would not dispute. What he says is that the sectarian mind struggles against the legitimate authority of Church and Creed.

The Church is declared in the Creed to be an object of faith, a necessary part of Christianity. As such it is a divine, supernatural fact, a concrete reality, an actual objective power in the world, which men have no ability whatsoever to make or unmake at their own pleasure. . . . Only where such a sense of the Church prevails can the danger and guilt of schism be felt at all, or any hindrance raised at all to the easy multiplication of sects. In its very constitution, accordingly, the sect spirit is an unchurchly spirit. . . . Sect Christianity is not the Christianity of the Creed, or at best it is this Christianity under a most mutilated form. Of this proof enough is found in the fact that wherever the sect spirit prevails the Creed falls into disuse.7

Touching briefly on the points Nevin makes in the second of the two-part article on the sect system: The sect is irrational, for, unlike the responsible Reformers, it has no ground motive in the idea of Christianity itself, but tends to view its mere being as justification for existence. The sect system is drawn to tyranny. Claiming to release its adherents for freedom of individual conscience, it insists on their absolute allegiance to its own beliefs and traditions. The sect is ultimately unfriendly to the real cultivation of theology, for the very notion of theology presumes the idea of Christianity as a whole. The sect cannot work out its own cure, for being its own final and absolute authority, it cannot look beyond itself for aid. The sect system is deeply marked by a rationalistic tendency. "A rationalism that denies the supernatural altogether and a supernaturalism that will not allow it to come into any concrete union with the natural are at bottom much of the same nature."8

Despite all this the sect is forced against its will to bear testimony to the oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the Church, for it, in claiming these attributes for itself, must tacitly allow for their existence.

Nevin’s closing remarks are worth repeating at length:

For one who has come to make earnest with the church question, and who has courage to face things as they are in the way of steady, firm thought, the whole present state of sect Christianity is full of difficulty and discouragement. [Emphasis Nevin’s.] In the first place, it is not possible for him to identify any one sect with the idea of the whole Church. Whether he be a Methodist, or a Presbyterian, or a Lutheran, or of any other denomination, he sees clearly that it is a desperate business to think of making out a full agreement with primitive Christianity in favor of his own body. He owns too, at any rate, that other bodies are included in the Church as it now stands. Of course, his own is but a part of the Church, not numerically only, but also constitutionally. . . . It becomes impossible, of course, to acquiesce in the denominational position as final and conclusive. . . . The whole sect system then is interimistic, and can be rightly endured only as it is regarded in this light. And yet the system itself is opposed to every such thought. It cannot will its own destruction. Every sect demands of its members a faith and trust . . . which imply that it is to be taken as absolute and perpetual. It plays, in its place, the part of Christ’s one universal Church. To cleave to the sect as an ultimate interest, in the way it requires, is to be divorced in spirit necessarily . . . from the true idea of Christ’s kingdom, whose perfect coming cannot possibly be in such form. To become catholic, on the other hand, is necessarily to rise above the standpoint of the mere sect, and to lose the power thus of that devotion to its interests, separately considered, which it can never fail to exact notwithstanding, as the test and measure . . . of universal Christianity itself. How much of embarrassment and confusion is involved in all this, the more especially as the sect system has no tendency whatever to surmount its own contradiction, but carries in itself the principle only of endless disintegration, many are made to feel at this time beyond what they are well able to express.9


Post-fundamentalist American Evangelicalism as I have known it is heavily imbued with the sectarian spirit of which Nevin speaks. The upheavals to which it has been subject are the inevitable fruit of the mind thus inspired. To be sure, it is a much smoother, well-spoken, and better-educated sectarianism than Winebrenner’s frontier variety, for, ashamed of its fundamentalist rusticity, it has put itself through finishing school in the last forty years or so. But this has only served to mask its basic problem, which has remained essentially unchanged since Nevin’s day.

Its difficulties in formulating a viable and reasonably unanimous doctrine of revelation stem directly from the old habit of basing its system of authority on the Bible alone. Its churches and denominations, like Winebrenner’s, rarely if ever repeat the Creed, nor does it have any importance in their liturgical, catechetical, or theological lives. Instead, they manufacture their own statements of faith and practice, in which elements of speculation, local economy, and special denominational conviction are placed alongside the doctrines of the Trinity, and the theanthropy, death, and resurrection of the Lord. There is one true sacrament—the conversion experience; baptism and the Lord’s Supper are only "ordinances." Church history and theology are studied in the seminaries for largely apologetic purposes—for the defense of Evangelical distinctives rather than in an attempt to discover the faith of the Church and integrate itself more devoutly into its life.

To the extent that a body of Christians departs from the sectarianism Nevin describes in favor of Church, Creed, and Sacrament, it stands outside the phenomenon as he defines it. One might think here of Presbyterians and Lutherans who hold to the Westminster or Augsburg Confession, recite the Creed, believe, with Calvin and Luther, on the real presence of Christ in the sacraments, and are not mystified when one speaks of the authority of the historical Church. Despite convergence on basic doctrines (which we must not forget), there is a significant difference between the mind of the more consistent children of the magisterial Reformation and that of the hybrid produced by the marriage of Calvinist rationalism to the New World revivals.


I believe the beginning of Evangelicalism’s cure can and must be sought within the existing wisdom of the movement itself. Failing to build on the very substantial gifts the Holy Spirit has already bestowed upon it would be a grave error. I do not recommend a panicked flight to Rome, Athos, or Canterbury unless it is done with strong conviction and eyes wide-open, for the catholic churches have problems of their own, and there are things preserved in Evangelicalism, and indeed, in Fundamentalism, that all three of these great churches need. What is certainly needed is intensified contemplation of insights already in firm possession—most particularly of a Bible reckoned to be the Word of God, but alas, no longer any sharper or more piercing among them than its "traditional Evangelical interpretation."

For Bible-believing Christians, trust in the message of Scripture comes first. The book must be opened once again, and the passages that make Evangelicals uncomfortable—there are many of them—must be prayerfully examined, not with the intention of bringing them into line with Evangelicalism, but of discovering the truth. This is a hard and necessary task for all Christians, not just Evangelicals, and none who have the courage to do it will escape unchanged.

1. J. W. Nevin, "The Theology of the New Liturgy" Mercersburg Review XIV (1867), 28–44; cited in James H. Nichols, ed., The Mercersburg Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 14–16.

2. From Greek, aisthesis: experience, feeling.

3. J. W. Nevin, "The Sect System" Mercersburg Review I, nos. 1 & 2 (1849), in Charles Yrigoyen, Jr., and G. H. Bricker, eds., Catholic and Reformed: Selected Writings of John Williamson Nevin (Pittsburgh: The Pickwick Press, 1978), 137.

4. Ibid., 135.
5. Ibid., 140.

6. Ibid., 140–144.

7. Ibid., 146–147.

8. Ibid., 162.

9. Ibid., 171–173.

S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.