Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Reframing the Reformed (or, Turkeys voting for Christmas?)

This post is not for the faint hearted. But, whatever you do, log-in tomorrow for a post - Flowers, Fountains and Flatmates. It will be a little easier, and it will contain pictures from my own private collection!

Sage and onion is the classic combo for a really tasty stuffing. Nothing at all to do with The Foolish Sage, a blogger I discovered early in my blogging career. Mark was, perhaps still is, a student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. His posts are usually good quality book reviews or thoughts on all things reformed, evangelical, theological, and ecclesiological. I quickly learned loads about evangelical Presbyterianism in the US through reading Mark's posts, and following the discussions that followed.

In a recent post Foolish Sage touches on a subject that has bothered me for a long time. In fact, Mark republishes his review of Mark Strom's Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace and Community. I've not read this book. But I get the feeling I will need to look at it soon.

Apparently, Strom considers Paul the Apostle's view of church life. You can read the review for yourself (this paragraph is my paraphrase of one aspect). Strom provides a serious challenge to the Reformed view of church as a word centred environment. Currently, meeting as the church means gathering to listen to the preaching of God's word. As a consequence the church has become pastor/preacher centred. Strom thinks that this is actually the kind of thing Paul opposed, because Strom compares typical Reformed models of preaching and teaching in church with the Greek thinkers prominent in the first century. He refutes the notion that modern Reformed evangelical norms find any model in Paul's way of Christian ministry.

Nothing seriously new with these ideas. I've thought along these lines for some time, mostly because of the influence of one or two seriously on-the-ball Christian friends and ex-flatmates.

The new thing that began to bother me was the implication of this line of thinking. I did some research on Strom, and, among other things, I came across this interview with Tony Payne. It's from 2001, and it includes this quote about Strom's unease with modern theological education:

...about what's taught at Moore, or Westminster or wherever. I see a lot of good things taught in these places. The emphasis on biblical theology is a welcome shift. But I also see a social system that remains and that is at odds with that very biblical theology. It makes it even more intolerable to me. If I thought in terms of classical theology, then at least this hierarchical structure could be rationalised. But once I see church in terms of biblical theology, as the assembly of God's people which emerged through Israel's history and culminated in Christ--if we took this really seriously, none of us would end up arguing for the conventions of being an Anglican or Presbyterian or Baptist or whatever.

I'm obviously a fan of biblical theology. I wrote Days are Coming. I studied at Westminster which was largely responsible for its modern revival as a method of doing theology. But I believe the method and its practitioners never fully left the split behind. Now we see a split between redemptive history and so-called 'ordinary' history. Some of the scholars with whom I have interacted operate with two constructs in their minds; ordinary history, the sources of first century social history, which is profane, and redemptive history which is the only pure and proper history. This can only, in the end, reinforce our disengagement from the world.

Strong stuff. But if the way ahead is one without traditional forms of church, what role do pastors or seminary principals or theological teachers fulfil? Is Strom really hoping to do his students out of future employment? Turkeys for Christmas?

This all reminds me of a thought I sometimes share with people. The church as we know it in the UK is full of problems. I am preparing to become a servant of that church, a knight in shining armour to save the day, perhaps? No, just the opposite, it turns out. If Strom is right, the moment I become a minister in the CofS I will become part of the problem. So, either I should vote for Christmas, or I should start a campaign to ban it. Thing is, I really love my sage and onion stuffing...


C G said...

I'd love to hear your comments on the book. It occurs to me that preaching is never actually commanded for NT 'worship services'. Is that right?

David Shedden said...

CG, that's been my assumption for two or three years now. To my reading of the NT, there is a clear distinction between preaching (outside of the ekklesia) and teaching (within the fellowship of believers). The only challenge to this is the vision of Tim Keller, et al, based on one or two texts that speak of unbelievers coming into church meetings. But, perhaps then it is our worship and teaching that arrests and convicts?

It's good to blog, CG!

Mark Traphagen said...


It's going to be tough to put my flannel-shirted picture up against those of serious guys with bow ties and bushy beards, but here goes!

This is the Foolish Sage (aka Mark Traphagen) himself; thanks for linking to my review, and even more so for your interesting comments. Princeton is only an hour from Westminster, so I hope we can hook up once you're over here. I will indeed remain a Westminster student for at least three more years at my current pace.

First off, it might be interesting for you to know that I read Strom's book because it was recommended to me by a Westminster prof who is quite sympathetic with Strom's challenges. In fact, this prof taught Mark when he was here at WTS and continues to have a friendship with him. All that to say that there are some teachers here at WTS who struggle with these same things.

I know it's hard to face some of the challenges Strom throws up, especially if you are planning to build a "career" in the church. It's like studying years to be an accountant and then someone telling you that accounting has no place in the business world. Still, I think it is excellent for all pastors-to-be to struggle with whether what they are doing or will be doing is truly biblical, just because it is the way it's always been done.

I've had some personal correspondence with Mark Strom, and I can assure you that he does not disparage the value of a theological education. As a matter of fact, he is presently the president of a Bible college in New Zealand! What he objects to is the autocratic and authoritarian position often deeded to the preacher because he "brings the word of God." Strom believes that those with theological educations should serve as teachers to the church, but that teaching is just one among many important gifts in the body, and should not be so exalted above the others.

I urge you to read his book. Even if you end up disagreeing with some of his conclusions, it will force you to be "honest to God" in your church vocation.