Posts Tagged ‘J.I. Packer’

How important, really, are Christian creeds?  How important, for that matter, is church history? J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett observe in their book, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashoned Way (see earlier post here),

It is not uncommon… to see on a church signboard a slogan something like this: “No book but the Bible; no creed but Christ; no law but love.” This captures the mindset of many in free church movements (p. 123).

These statements sound pithy (and pious), but in the end, in fact, they are actually quite self-contradicting. As the authors note: “such a pithy slogans are themselves creedal confessions and are part of significant traditions that have been handed down and embraced by others” (p. 123). So, “No Creed but Christ” is itself a creed.

All throughout history the church has always understood and taught the faith through creedal and confessional formula. Even in the epistles, Paul emphasizes doctrine and the traditions handed down by the apostles to be taught in local churches.  So the Christian faith is a faith to be believed. There’s just no getting around it. And anybody who wants to be a Christian without wanting to believe anything actually doesn’t want to be a Christian. They want to have their cake and eat it to.

“Well,” someone might object, “Won’t that make Christians overly ‘heady’ and focussed on intellectual questions? Won’t that keep them from ever getting around to ‘doing’ christianity? We got to get practical somewhere along the line right?”

Absolutely! Although, Christianity always will be lived out in loving action and obedience, it must first be believed. In other words, there’s no getting to second base while skipping first. And believe it or not, the christian church throughout history has approached that question too! (You knew I was going to go there!)

Three Facets of the Faith

Packer and Parrett describe how the church has historically related the various aspects of faith and life (belief and action). They point out a three-fold distinction they call the “Facets of the Faith.” Roughly categorized, these three facets of the faith corispond to the biblical distincitives of faith, hope, and love (p. 88).

During the Reformation, this three-fold division was taken up in various catechisms. For example, the Heidleberg Catechism articulates the faith through expositing the Apostles Creed (faith), the Lord’s Prayer (hope) and the Ten Commandments (love). Other important sections of instruction historically for the church has been the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper)(p. 121).

Other representations were found in the Latin expression, lex orandi, lex credeni, lex vivendi (as we pray, so we believe, so we do). Throughout church history, this threefold distinction has proved a common thread, structuring and defining the “facets of the faith” (p. 123-124). Not that this was a hard and fast distinction, but rather a helpful tool in ordering Christian instruction.

Now, why should we want to learn from the past? Why would it be a good idea to at least have some understanding of how the Church has taught her disciples in centuries gone by? Or do we (along with the rest of the word) merely assume that the latest is greatest, new is improved, and we can get along quite well without history (“thank you very much!”)?  After all, “history is bunk,” according to Henry Ford.

It is encouraging and helpful to read Packer and Parrett stress the great “wisdom” to be found in “historical precedent.” They write:

This argument may seem the least compelling to many evangelical believers today. We are, after all, “Bible people,” always demanding in the end, “Where stands it written?” Such concern for biblical fidelity is absolutely essential and praiseworthy. But a flippant dismissal of our own Christian history is not praiseworthy in any respect. It is rather a willful refusal to adopt a biblical sprit. The fact is that we are not the first Christians to wonder about how to make disciples for Jesus. Wisdom and humility demand that we consider what our brothers and sister through the ages have done by way of catechizing and discipling, and test the merit of these efforts by consideration of biblical data. We are most unwise to try to continually reinvent the cetechetical wheel or to assume that we are more likely that our forebears to be faithful to Scripture.

Our antipathy toward philosophies and practices that emerged throughout church history (particularly with regard to pre-Reformation history) also betrays either a willful ignorance or profound naivete about the proper role of the historic church in shaping who we are as Bible people today. Whether we are speaking of the canon of Scripture, what constitutes biblical orthodoxy, what a Judeo-Christain ethic looks like, or why we worship in the ways that we do, there is almost no aspect of what we prize as biblical Christianity that has not been deeply affected by the centuries of church history that have preceded us. Indeed it may well be argued that purposeful inattention to the history of the church makes us far more likely to become unbiblical in some significant way (122).

Powerful and probing words. [The banner above is for the Heidelberg Catechism. For more information visit here.]

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What is Catechesis, and why do we need it? That is the question.

I’ve begun reading a new book by J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett called Grounded in the Gospel: Building believers the Old-Fashioned Way. And I must say, so far it has been a very welcome and refreshing read.  Although there are some parts where I would differ with the authors, on the whole it is very much a clarion call to the Evangelical Church to reevaluate its shallowness in doctrine and return to the hard labor of catechizing disciples (young and old) in the doctrinal truths of the Christian faith.

In the introduction, Packer and Parrett (hence forth P&P [I’m just kidding]) point out two underlying “obstacles” which face catechesis in Evangelical churches today.

First, we have the affects of a historical “turn away from external authority in Western culture.” Although arising out of the French (“anti-Catholic-church”) Revolution, this movement inevitably made its way to American churches (p. 10).

Second, we have a “resistance to authoritative instruction within the Christian community” (which is a “corollary of the first” problem). They write:

In Children’s and youth work across the board, today’s agenda is learning Bible stories rather than being grounded in truths about the Triune God. In group Bible studies generally, participants are led to look directly for personal devotional applications without first contemplating the writers’ points about the greatness, goals, methods, and mystery of God. In putting together Christian books and magazines for popular reading and in composing, preaching, hearing, and thinking about sermons, the story is the same: it is assumed that our reaction to realities is more significant than any of the realities to which we react (p.11).

This is exactly right. We end up attempting to make scripture relevant to ourselves or our audiences, rather than the opposite — seeing how we fit into God’s grander story of redemption.  Why teach children the catechism (which isn’t scripture anyway) when we can alternatively dare them be a Daniel? Rather than make them learn the (“boring”) doctrine about God, we should allow students to find their own significance from the bible — what the text means to them.

Talk about theological suicide! The authors continue:

Thus we learn to cultivate a bode of piety that rests upon a smudgy, deficient, and sometimes misleading conception of who and what the God we serve really is. Brought up on this, we now reflect the subjectivist turn of the Western thought-world of more than a century ago: personal guesses and fantasies about God replace the church’s dogma as our authority, a hermeneutic of habitual distrust and suspicion of dogma establishes itself, and dogma becomes a dirty word, loaded with overtones of obscurantism, tunnel vision, unreality, superstition, and mental enslavement (p. 11).

It’s important for us to realize the historical and philosophical context upon which we presently approach issues like catechesis.  More than we realize, as Americans we are drastically influenced by our preceding philosophical presuppositions about the church and the nature of truth and how it comes to us. This has huge implications on how we practice ‘church’ as well. Our authors conclude:

It would be quite unrealistic to expect a welcome for catechesis within such a context. We must expect to have to fight for a hearing in order to say what is on our hearts. It is countercultural not only in secular terms, but in church terms also. And so we expect to have a struggle on our hands, even with some whom we might otherwise count as friends (p. 12).

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