Baptists and the Creeds

Should Baptists have “no creed but the Bible”?  Consider this answer from the General Baptists’ Orthodox Creed of 1678:

The three creeds, viz. Nicene Creed, Athanasius’s Creed, and the Apostles Creed, as they are commonly called, ought throughly to be received, and believed. For we believe, they may be proved, by most undoubted authority of holy Scripture, and are necessary to be understood of all christians; and to be instructed in the knowledge of them, by the ministers of Christ, according to the analogy of Faith, recorded in sacred Scriptures, upon which these Creeds are grounded, and catechistically opened, and expounded in all christian families, for the edification of young and old; which might be a means to prevent heresy in doctrine, and practice, these creeds containing all things in a brief manner, that are necessary to be known, fundamentally, in order to our salvation.

According to William Lumpkin, “The [Orthodox] Creed is alone among Baptist confessions in including and setting forth the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds” (296).  Other prominent Baptist confessions (the two London confessions, the New Hampshire Confession, etc.) certainly set forth the substance of the ancient creeds in terms of their Trinitarian and Christological conclusions.  But I think Thomas Monck (the principle author of the Orthodox Creed) and his General Baptist compatriots were onto something.  Inasmuch as they set forth the basic contours of the biblical God and the biblical gospel, the creeds “ought throughly to be received, and believed”–and utilized in the preaching, liturgical, and catechetical ministries of the church.

Aquinas Takes Science to School

Aquinas asks in Question I of the First Part of the Summa Theologica, “Whether Sacred Doctrine is Nobler Than Other Sciences?”

In his first objection he notes that the other sciences (e.g., in modern terms, the hard sciences) “seem to be more certain than sacred doctrine.” This is because faith, the principle of theology, can be doubted, while the principles of the other sciences are certifiable. This type of argument is alive and well today, as scientists, and indeed much of the Western world, see empiricism and rationalism as the only way to verifiable truth. Religion has its place, but it is relegated to interiority, assisting individuals in their quest to feel good about life. This is due in part to science’s claim to an omniscient metanarrative, i.e. that empirical research and presuppositionless logic alone can lead humanity to knowledge of the truth.

Aquinas takes this view to the cleaners in his response, saying,

…this science [theology] surpasses other speculative sciences: in point of greater certitude, because other sciences derive their certitude from the natural light of human reason, which can err, while this derives its certitude from the light certitude from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be deceived; in point of the higher worth of its subject matter, because this science treats chiefly those things which by their sublimity transcend human reason, while other sciences consider only those things which are within reason’s grasp.

[Nerd] Boom.

Through A Glass Darkly

I’ve recently finished the following books in my research on Baptist catholicity and liturgy:

  • Steve Harmon, Towards Baptist Catholicity
  • Barry Harvey, Can These Bones Live? A Catholic Baptist Engagement with Ecclesiology, Hermeneutics, and Social Theory
  • Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World
  • James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom

While each of these authors worship and work in different traditions (with only the first two in the Baptist tradition), and while each of them emphasize certain aspects of liturgical life in their books, what struck me in all of their writings is that worship is the means by which Christians encounter reality. In song, prayer, greeting, creedal recitation, confession, preaching, giving, and eating, Christians are participating together in the sign of the coming kingdom, and in doing so they begin to understand what the kingdom, inaugurated but not yet consummated, looks, tastes, and feels like. As Smith in particular is at pains to argue, our worship practices shape what Christians love. What is truly real, Christ’s victorious reign over all things, is encountered through the means of grace, and by encountering it repeatedly Christians are taught to love it.

But “teaching” and “love” aren’t only intellectual; they are emotional, affective, guttural. As we encounter the Kingdom and the King together we learn to long for it together. Seeing reality shows us the true nature of what we usually consider reality, the world in which we live Monday-Saturday. But singing, praying, hearing, and tasting on Sunday train our hearts and minds to know that this world is passing away, and that the world of the last days has been inaugurated at Christ’s first coming and will be immanently consummated at his return. Fellowship with the Triune God is what is to be desired, and worship trains our hearts to love him. His new creation is what is real, and our home is there, not here.

This is not to say that worship is escapism; far from it. The new creation is a renewal of the old, not an annihilation of it followed by a second creation ex nihilo. The signs that Jesus has given us to proclaim his kingdom – bread, wine (or grape juice for us Baptists), and water – are thoroughly entrenched in this creation order, and so there is no hint of a Death Star-like destruction of this world. There is, however, an eschatological upheaval, a transformative act that burns away sin and its effects from creation, and we shouldn’t forget that along with the continuity that comes through Christ’s renewal there is also a discontinuity that comes with his judgment. The liturgical life of the church encapsulates this already/not yet tension, as it uses creational signs to embody the new creation.

In worship, therefore, we are “looking through a glass darkly.” We see and act out the signs of the coming kingdom, the only true kingdom that has already been inaugurated but not yet consummated. Our hearts are trained to love this kingdom and its king instead of this world and its rulers, principalities, and authorities. Worship gives vitality to the believer’s common life; it gives both the heart and the eyes true vision, spectacles that bring the Triune God and his kingdom into focus. It turns the heart and the eyes toward what they are truly meant to love, taste, and see, and turns them away from what can never satisfy. Corporate worship thus fuels, empowers, and directs the life of the believer in their vocation, home, and recreation. The individual life of the believer thus also becomes a sign of the kingdom, as their interaction in the world is patterned after the vision of reality given in the corporate worship of the church.

This is why the liturgical life of the church is so important. Rather than being boring, repetitive mechanics, singing, greeting, reciting, giving, preaching, praying, and eating train our hearts and minds to love God and love others, to see and love reality instead of seeing and loving what is illusory and transitory.

Christ and the Biblical Storyline

It is a boon to evangelicals that we have so many great books on biblical theology these days. In the ruins of modernism’s historical-critical method (and its evangelical cousin: a narrowly conceived grammatical-historical method), we are rediscovering the power of narrative and seeing afresh the world-shaping power of the biblical plotline. I would venture to say that there is hardly a theologically-minded evangelical around today who isn’t at least vaguely familiar with the common rubric biblical theologians use to describe the biblical storyline: creation, fall, redemption, and new creation (Perhaps more well-rounded is Bartholomew and Goheen’s description of the Bible as a six-act drama: creation, fall, redemption initiatied in Israel, redemption accomplished in Christ, the church, and the final consummation).

And yet there are some limitations to the storyline approach to Scripture. I am not suggesting something less than reading the Bible along its redemptive-historical plot movements, but I am suggesting that a storyline approach isn’t a panacea. It is possible to read Scripture in terms of “redemptive history” and an overarching “storyline” and still be insufficiently Christo-centric.

It happens when Christ is conspicously absent (or at least underemphasized) in our “biblical theology of _______” treatments. We can talk about, for instance, a biblical theology of the presence of God and move from Eden to the tabernacle to the temple to the church and ultimately to the new Jerusalem and totally miss the dominant Figure at the center of the biblical narrative whose “tabernacle-ing” and “temple-ing” presence holds all of the other pieces together (John 1:14; 2:21).

It happens when Jesus becomes just another event (even if the climactic event) in a story that is really about something else: Abraham or Israel or cosmic redemption or whatever. It happens when Jesus just shows up in our biblical theologies as a means to some other end. (Don’t misunderstand; we do need to understand Abraham, Israel, and God’s purposes for the cosmos, if we are to understand Christ aright. But the reciprocity between the OT and the NT—between promise and fulfillment—is asymmetrical. Christ is the interpretive key. Everything else services him hermeneutically.)

It happens when we fail to to see how every text is already, immediately related to Christ as the Savior who is overturning our Fall and Curse at every point in the story. It is precisely this immediacy of Christ that enables the NT authors to say things about the OT that would be lampooned as fanciful allegory were they not inscripturated (think, “and the Rock was Christ,” 1 Cor. 10:4). The NT authors don’t always feel the need to travel down a long and winding, redemptive-historical road to get to Christ. No matter where we go in the biblical narrative, Christ is already present. Like Aslan, he’s already on the move, and he isn’t waiting for us to map out a biblical-theolgical plotline for him to travel along. He’s already there.

Again, I am not suggesting that we should give up reading the Bible in terms of redemptive-history and its overarching storyline. But we should remember that Christ isn’t merely the climactic event of the biblical story; he is the story.

Book Review: Essential Eschatology

John Phelan wants to convince readers of Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hope (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013) that, “Far from being at the periphery of the faith, it is no exaggeration to say that eschatology is the heart of Christianity” (11). Phelan, who serves as Senior Professor of Theological Studies at North Park Theological Seminary, believes that “. . . Christianity . . . is eschatological to its core” (17), primarily due to the fact that Israel’s future hope is consummated in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, a hope in which the church now participates. In ten chapters, Phelan seeks to convince readers that eschatology is centered on the person and work of Jesus and the subsequent kingdom-centered missional task of the church, rather than on timelines and charts of the end times. Chapter topics include the church and the kingdom (chs. 2, 5, and 7), resurrection (ch. 3), the second coming, which includes judgment (ch. 4), Jesus’ return (ch. 6), and the millennium (ch. 8), and Israel and the church (chs. 9 and 10).

Essential Eschatology succeeds time and again at demonstrating how eschatology is central to the Christian faith, namely because it shows how this often controversial doctrine is focused on Jesus’ life and work rather than on differing views of the rapture and millennium. By shifting the reader’s gaze from theories of reading Revelation onto the person and work of Jesus, Phelan breathes new life into a systematic loci that is often ignored, passed over, or summarized with a simplistic “it’ll all pan out in the end.” Too often eschatology is relegated to a last lecture in a theology class or avoided altogether in the church, on the one hand, or it is forced to focus on timelines, charts, and matching current events with texts from Daniel and Revelation on the other hand. Rather than either of these two options, according to Phelan, “Christian eschatology is a critical source of hope, not just in the future but in the present as well” (48). This is because Jesus fulfills the hope of Israel as articulated in the Old Testament, brings the end of time into the middle of time in his life, death, and resurrection, and empowers the church through his Spirit to live between the times as signs of his inaugurated kingdom. Church life is thus life in the last days, an eschatological life that both lives in the power of Christ’s inaugurated end times work and in anticipation of the consummation of it at his second coming. Additionally, Phelan correctly notes that this future hope for the church is not one of unbodily existence in an ethereal sphere, but a thoroughly physical renewal of all creation in which the church dwells with God. Phelan should be thoroughly commended for re-focusing this vitally important doctrine on Jesus and his renewal of all things rather than on charts and tables.

That being said, there are a few cautions for readers. First, Phelan appears to buy in to the typical bifurcation between Old Testament teaching and New Testament thought, namely in his assumption that the OT does not say anything definitive about hoping for the resurrection until very late (51-59) or about the afterlife. This “developmental” view of doctrine is apparent in a number of places (e.g. his discussion of the law, p. 93). In my opinion this does not do justice to the complex and often narratival way that the same doctrines we find taught in the epistolary literature of the NT are also taught conceptually in the OT. For instance, John Levinson has demonstrated that death and resurrection, specifically of the “beloved son”, is a recurring motif in the OT. While this may not be the same type of expression as, for instance, Dan. 12:2, it should not be discarded as a possible background for NT teaching on resurrection.

A second critique from my perspective is Phelan’s postmillennialism, specifically of the Wright-ian variety. Phelan is obviously indebted to N. T. Wright, and especially to Surprised by Hope, for his articulations of eschatology, so it should be no surprise to see Phelan talk about “practicing resurrection” (e.g. 33) and giving a very strong view of the church’s ability to change culture in ways that will be carried over into the new heavens and new earth. Not only do I find his postmillennial arguments unconvincing, I also think he incorrectly ties amillennialism to Constantianism. Even for those who identify with transformationalism rather than a two kingdoms approach or separatist approach, Phelan seems to me to go a bridge too far on the church’s ability to transform culture and on the biblical warrants for postmillennialism.

For these two reasons, as well as some other lingering questions, I would recommend this book, but only for situations that provided an opportunity for me to critique and correct. A college or seminary classroom, or perhaps an advanced level Sunday school class, would be ideal. Phelan is an engaging and clear writer, and corrects many of the misconceptions about this doctrine. He should be commended for showing how Jesus is central to eschatology and for demonstrating that the church’s power and hope lies in Christ’s end times inaugurating work that will be consummated at his return. I highly recommend it for this reason. Still, for the two cautions noted above, I recommend it for settings in which the teacher or professor has the opportunity to engage it critically with his or her audience.

**Thanks to Adrianna Wright and IVP Academic for providing a review copy.

Jason Hood on Michael Bird (Luke Wisley)

At the beginning of June, Jason Hood posted some reflections on what he learned from Michael Bird as his doctoral supervisor. Jason’s post really resonated with me, so I thought I would repost two of his thoughts with my own reflections.

* MASTER your content; being a GENERALIST, a category I learned about from Michael and something to which I still aspire, does not mean slagging off, nor does it mean ignoring one’s responsibility to become a specialist (a requirement for entering the guild). Michael, like Howard Marshall, put stress on “making the primary sources your mistress” (IHM’s phrase).

Besides the incredible phrase ‘make the primary sources your mistress’ this thought really hits home for me. It is incredibly important as a pastor, scholar, or layperson to really know the primary sources. From the pastoral and scholarly side, a lack of knowledge of the primary sources is reflected in preaching and research that is guided by secondary literature rather than the text. Theological education must stress mastering the text (which inevitably means being comfortable with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) and letting secondary literature expand your exegetical horizons rather than letting it be the ultimate guide.

* KNOW YOUR PERSONALITY, primarily so that you can be comfortable in your own skin with your own limits and tendencies. Not everyone will take a fancy to you, but you’ll probably enjoy life and work more.

I enjoyed this little note from Jason. It’s one that I need to learn. There is a huge temptation to allow the work you are producing to dictate your worth and value. This is followed by the endless temptation of measuring yourself against all the other research students you meet. I’ve found that giving into these temptations makes one miserable. Know yourself, your gifts, and be as faithful as you can to work hard and develop further. That’s all you can do. So I think Jason is right, if you know yourself you’ll enjoy both life and work more.

I encourage you to read the whole post.

Baptists Accessing Catholicity

As Matt mentioned the other day, the ETS Baptist Studies Group is addressing the notae ecclesiae (marks of the church) at this year’s annual meeting.  Matt and I are presenting the paper on Baptists and the catholicity of the church.  When I linked to this topic the other day on Facebook, a good friend of mine issued a fair warning about how Baptists ought to access the church’s catholicity.  He suggested that Baptists should seek their catholicity via the Reformed tradition in order to avoid repeating the errors that necessitated the Reformation in the first place and in order to avoid theological confusion (especially on the doctrine of salvation) that could complicate our evangelistic efforts.


As I said, I think this is a fair warning. That’s why I think it’s hugely important that we retrieve the 17th-century Baptist reflections on the catholicity of the church. The General and Particular Baptist confessions of faith that emerged during this period either explicitly affirmed the ecumenical creeds (e.g., the Orthodox Creed) or else included clearly creedal language in their expositions of the Trinity and the person of Christ (e.g., the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith). Seventeenth-century Baptists also tended to have a more robust understanding of the sacraments, a greater willingness to engage Patristic thought, and a greater sense of spiritual connectionalism both within their own associations and in their broader evangelical context.  Baptists trended away from these catholic emphases in the next three centuries (for a host of interesting and disputed reasons), but their 17th-century beginnings were a far cry from the no-creed-but-the-Bible naiveté that would come to characterize the Baptist movement in some quarters.

Still, retrieval is not repristination. There may be some ways in which 21st-century Baptists can foster an even more open-minded and open-hearted approach to the whole church–both historic and contemporary. But clearly any efforts toward ecumenism among evangelical Baptists would need to be tethered to our Reformational commitments.  Rediscovering our 17th-century roots would go a long way in helping us strike this balance.

Baptist Catholicity Paper at ETS

At this year’s ETS meeting the Baptist Studies session group has decided to focus on the four marks of the church articulated in the Nicene Creed – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Luke Stamps and I are grateful to the session’s organizers to have the opportunity to present on “Baptists and the Catholicity of the Church.” This couldn’t have come at a better time, given my and Luke’s desire to write and blog about this subject more in the coming months. Our abstract reads:

In recent years, several prominent Baptists in the United Kingdom as well as a cadre of moderate Baptists in the United States have been engaged in an ongoing project to re-envision Baptist identity within the context of the broader Christian tradition. But to date, these movements towards “Baptist Catholicity” have been relatively unengaged by evangelical Baptists in North America. This paper seeks to fill this lacuna by exploring some ways in which conservative, evangelical Baptists might better situate Baptist faith and practice within the historic Christian tradition. After an examination of the biblical material concerning the universal church and a brief historical survey of Baptist engagement with the church’s catholicity, the paper will suggest some ways in which contemporary Baptists might more consciously and critically engage with the broader catholic tradition, including its creedal identity, liturgical forms, sacramental theology, and spiritual practices.

And here’s the full schedule for the session:

8:30 AM—9:10 AM
Matthew Emerson
Luke Stamps
California Baptist University
Baptists and the Catholicity of the Church

9:20 AM—10:00 AM
Michael Haykin
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Baptists and the Holiness of the Church

10:10 AM—10:50 AM
Chris Morgan
California Baptist University
Baptists and the Unity of the Church

11:00 AM—11:40 AM
James Patterson
Union University
Baptists and the Apostolicity of the Church

And Systematic: The Relation between Biblical and Systematic Theology, Part 1

Since Matt and Luke were gracious enough to let me join their online musings here, we have added an important modification to the subtitle of the blog. The aim here is to offer reflections on “biblical and systematic theology according to the scriptures.” To be sure, the other contributors were already doing systematic theology before I arrived—indeed, some pretty sophisticated systematic theology—in the sense that they were applying Scripture to Christian belief and practice. So hopefully the addition of a systematician to the blog will only continue the much-needed task of understanding Scripture on its own terms and then developing faithful ways of speaking and acting in light of this biblical framework. My first couple of posts here will explore the relationship between these two theological disciplines: biblical theology (BT), on the one hand, which attends to the storyline of Scripture in all of its unity and diversity, and systematic theology (ST), on the other, which seeks to articulate Christian doctrine on the basis of this biblical narrative in changing cultural contexts. In this first post, I explore the ways in which our ST influences our BT. Don’t expect anything groundbreaking here. My dependence upon the excellent work of others on this issue will be plain. These posts are simply an attempt to summarize some the most salient points, as I see them, about the bi-directional traffic between these two theological sub-disciplines.

The relation between BT and ST is a two-way street. Our ST informs and shapes our BT, and our BT in turn corrects and reshapes our ST. The relationship between BT and ST can be conceived of in terms of what hermeneutical philosophers call the “hermeneutic circle.” When we read any text, we bring certain assumptions about the text to the task of interpretation. As we read the parts of the text, we find our assumptions of the whole being reshaped—indeed, if we are reading rightly, we will find ourselves being reshaped by our interaction with the text. So there is a dialectical relationship between the parts and the whole and between the horizon of the text and the horizon of the reader. This is not to say that readers change the meaning of the text; the text’s authorially intended meaning remains the stable variable in the hermeneutical equation. But we have no access to the author’s intention apart from our own personal and communal interaction with the text that the author has given us.

BT and ST relate in a similar fashion. Every interpreter of Scripture comes to the task of interpretation with a ST already in place. It may not be fully developed. It may not be consciously held or acknowledged. But no one comes to the text as a tabula rasa, a blank slate. Instead, we come to the text with an already-formed understanding of God, humanity, sin, salvation, and so forth. Carl Henry once quipped that there are two kinds of presuppositionalists: those who admit it and those who don’t. If this is the case, then the best course of action is to be honest about our presuppositions—to lay our theological cards on the table, so to speak—rather than accepting the modernist illusion that we can simply do exegesis in any kind of objective or neutral fashion.

This understanding of the intimate relation between BT and ST reveals the weaknesses of one common way of conceiving the two disciplines. Gerhardus Vos is well-known for his distinction between BT and ST:

There is no difference in that one [of the two disciplines] would be more closely bound to the Scriptures than the other. In this they are wholly alike. Nor does the difference lie in this that the one transforms the biblical material, whereas the other would leave it unmodified. Both equally make the truth deposited in the Bible undergo a transformation: but the difference arises from the fact that the principle by which the transformation is effected differs in each case. In biblical theology this principle is one of historical, in systematic theology it is one of logical construction. Biblical theology draws a line of development. Systematic theology draws a circle (Vos, Biblical Theology, 24-25).

In one sense, this way of distinguishing BT and ST is true enough. BT is more concerned with the plotline of Scripture and ST does ask more synthetic, topical questions. But in another sense, Vos’s taxonomy is lacking for two reasons. First, the distinction turns out to be a bit too neat. There is a sense in which BT can be topical. For example, we can consider the topic of the temple/presence of God across the storyline of Scripture. Furthermore, there is sense in which ST follows closely the storyline of Scripture. The traditional ordering of the loci of ST reveals this narrative character. We begin where Genesis does: with God. We then move to creation, humanity, the fall and its effects, the redemption accomplished by Christ and applied by the Holy Spirit, the formative role of the church, and we end where Revelation does: the consummation of all things at the end of the age. So it turns out biblical theologians can be quite adept at drawing circles and systematic theologians at drawing lines.

Second, Vos’s way of distinguishing the two disciplines fails to account for the ways in which the two relate to one another. Taken alone (in practice Vos was much better), Vos’s distinctions make it seem as if BT and ST are simply two parallel and legitimate ways of carving up the biblical text. These distinctions fail to account for how the two disciplines can talk to one another, as it were. When systematicians appeal to the Bible, they should be doing so in ways that respect the textual, redemptive-historical, and canonical contexts of the biblical texts. In other words, they should be doing biblical theology. Similarly, when biblical theologians draw theological conclusions from the text (and they should be doing so; the modern division of labor in the theological disciplines has made us too wary to cross disciplinary lines and has resulted in the atomization and fragmentation of what should be an integrated whole), they should do so respecting the complex set of historical, philosophical, cultural, and doctrinal issues that attends such a move. In other words, they should be doing systematic theology. So the two disciplines are not merely discrete ways of slicing the biblical pie. Instead, they should be seen as interdependent steps in the integrated task of doing theology as the people of God. We read Scripture according to its own redemptive-historical categories and then we apply this theological framework in the development of a theological vision of Christian faith and practice (for more in this vein, see Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology).

To return to the original point, ST influences BT in that it shapes the hermeneutical, exegetical, and theological assumptions we bring to the biblical text. This is not merely a hazard of the interpretive task, something to be acknowledged and then overcome in attempt to arrive at some kind of pristine objectivity. Theological presuppositions are not only unavoidable; they are indispensable. When they are being properly reformed according to Scripture (more on this in the next post), our theological presuppositions help guide and govern our readings of the biblical text. This truth was acknowledged early on in church history, as Christians recognized the need to read Scripture according to the regula fidei, the rule of faith. Heretics were quoting Scripture too. So there was (and is) a need to adjudicate which readings of Scripture were permissible and which were not. The rule of faith was simply a summary of the basic truths of the gospel (which were eventually summarized in the ecumenical creeds) in an attempt to regulate readings of the biblical revelation.

There is biblical precedent for such a regulated understanding of biblical interpretation. In 1 Corinthians 15:3 Paul writes, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received.” There is a hermeneutical and theological priority placed upon the good news of Christ’s saving death, burial and resurrection. Paul writes about many important things, but there is one thing that is of preeminent importance, and if we misunderstand this one thing, then we are in danger of abandoning the faith altogether (Gal. 1:6-9).

So the basic truths of the gospel shape, inform and regulate our readings of the biblical narrative. In other words, our ST rightly influences our BT. There are perhaps many other ways that we can describe the influence of ST on BT, but this evangelical (gospel-oriented) influence is preeminent.

In my next post, I will examine how we make the necessary but precarious move from BT to ST and how BT ought to shape the theological models of ST.

Cultural Liturgies and Scriptural Imagination

As I continue to work through Barry Harvey’s Can These Bones Live?, I’m consistently reminded of Jamie Smith’s “Cultural Liturgies” project. Both Harvey and Smith argue that the church’s worship practices are formative for her people, both in their growth in Christ-likeness and in their witness to and mission in the world. The liturgical life of the congregation is thus vital for the believers’ ability to live in the world while not being of the world, especially since, as Smith in particular is at pains to demonstrate, every culture has its own liturgies that compete with the church’s. In the West, and particularly in the US, consumerism, materialism, and therapeutism are drilled into our brains through the repeated patterns in advertising, television and movies, and even the shape of our cities. The pull of the immediate, the pleasurable, and the stimulating is always on a screen, whether it be an electronic billboard or a TV or a smartphone.

The church’s practice of Word and table, of proclamation and participation, smacks in the face of our Western cultural liturgy. Instead of feeding on instant gratification, celebrity culture, self esteem, and visual stimulation, we feed on the Word of God as it is read, prayed, sung, preached, and tasted. Instead of seeking a city that is already here, which we have built, we are constantly reminded of a city that is to come, whose author and builder is Yahweh. We are not the products of the moment, YOLO-ing ad nauseum, but the heirs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the new Adams and Eves bought by the second Adam, the new Israel, the new Temple of God, the bride of Christ. We stand in the long tradition of those called out by the Spirit of God, conversing with and learning from Athanasius and Augustine and Anselm and Thomas and Calvin and Wesley about how to speak about the Triune God and his work for us. As we read and pray and sing and preach the Scriptures, we are reminded of who we are in Christ, not who we are on social media. As we recite the creeds we are reminded that we are not products of the moment who finally arrive at the truth but heirs of the Great Tradition. As we partake of the Lord’s Table we are reminded that we are a purchased people who are put into fellowship together by our fellowship in Christ and who await his return in glory, not a social contract or a homogenous interest group or a political lobby with no real hope and no real foundation. And as we eat the bread and drink the cup we are reminded that our nourishment is God and God alone, not fast food or gourmet food or sex or power or self esteem. As we give, we are reminded that our money is not for own pleasure and gratification, and indeed is not even our own, but is given to us as stewards for the advancement of God’s kingdom through the proclamation of the gospel. And that task, that Great Commission, is something we are called to each week in the benediction, as we are sent out together to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with all who will listen, whether near or far, so that they too might sit with us and feast.

As both Harvey and Smith state, the effect of the church’s repeated worship practices is thus to form believers’ imaginations. How Christians perceive the world is impacted by how they worship. Further, as Harvey notes in chapter 4, as Christians hear the Word and see the Word in worship, their imaginations are formed primarily in scriptural terms. Their perception of the world is shaped by scriptural images and stories instead of by the culture’s images and stories.

A few implications come to mind as I think through both of these men’s work:

  1. Intentional, repeated worship practices are vital for the health and growth of any local church. (I’m grateful to be at a church where what we do in worship is intentional and repeated; more on how we incorporate some of these practices in a later post.)
  2. In Harvey’s explanation of shaping the Christian imagination, he says that we should look to scriptural types to understand our current situation (e.g. the African American civil rights activists looking to the Exodus narrative). He then also cautions against misappropriating types, such as Eusebius of Caesarea’s application of messianic OT language to Emperor Constantine. I’m unclear how he distinguishes a correct and incorrect application of scriptural types, so while I’m sympathetic to his discussion of shaping Christian imagination, I’m cautious about appropriating his call for a typological reading of current events in the church.
  3. I can’t help but think of the swath of mass shootings that have occurred over the last two decades, and their seemingly rapid increase in the last five, and of our culture’s attempt to explain them. In my mind part of the explanation lies in how we form and shape the next generation, and right now our culture forms people through a barrage of gratuity, whether violent or sexual, instant gratification, self worth, entitlement, consumerism, and therapeutism. That’s a bad mixture when someone with a gun isn’t feeling great about themselves or their peers.