Posts Tagged ‘T. David Gordon’

“The greatest menace to the Christian Church to-day comes not from the enemies outside, but from the enemies within.” Those were the words of J. Gresham Machen in his famous little book entitled Christianity and Liberalism (p. 135). Today, many of us might respond to this quotation with, “Well, that was then. Now is now. And besides, liberalism isn’t quite the problem in our Evangelical churches like it was in Machen’s day.”

But can we be so sure? Is it possible that in certain Fundamentalist, Evangelical, and Reformed circles, a decidedly Christian form of conservatism has actually become the new liberalism? T. David Gordon makes this point in his outstanding little book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach. He writes,

Ironically, the very orthodox and evangelical Christians who protested against Protestant liberalism in the early twentieth century are quite likely to promote its basic emphases from the pulpit today. In orthodox Reformed pulpits, one finds a frequency of moralism that would have been quite at home in the most liberal of the Protestant liberal pulpits of nearly a century ago. Laymen, and even some officers, don’t notice this because they use the terms liberal and conservative as the network news anchors have taught them to use them. They think liberalism is a certain kind of ethics, different from conservative ethics (pp. 79-80).

Gordon continues,

Moralism occurs whenever the fundamental message of a sermon is “be good; do good” (or some specific thereof). Whenever the fundamental purpose of the sermon is to improve the behavior of others, so that Christ in his redemptive office is either denied or largely overlooked, the sermon is moralistic. Such moralism is so common in American pulpits that when in ordinary conversation one individual attempts to correct another’s behavior, it is not uncommon to hear the reply: “Oh, so you’re going to preach to me now, are you?” People have obviously come to associate preaching with moral improvement (or moral scolding); they do not associate preaching with a proclamation of the fitness of Christ’s person and the adequacy of his work to save to the uttermost those who come to God thorough him (p. 80).

Does this kind of conservative Protestantism actually resemble at all the spirit of the Protestant Reformation? Gordon doesn’t think so:

If you read Luther’s comments about his life a a monk before his conversion, you will find Luther talking about how all he ever heard from the church was “do this” and “don’t do that.” He did not hear that there was a Mediator, a Redeemer, who had rescued those who had done wrong from the coming judgment of God. Oh, it might have been mentioned as an aside from time to time, but the dominant theme that he heard again and again was “do this; don’t do that.” Then go and listen to the typical sermon in the typical evangelical or Reformed church, and ask what Luther would think if he were present. Luther would think he was still in Rome. Perhaps somewhere in the sermon is some mention of Christ; perhaps at the end is an obligatory comment, “And of course we couldn’t do this apart from the grace of God in Christ” — but such a lame comment cannot rescue an essentially moralistic sermon and make it redemptive (p. 81).

Of course, most evangelicals today still affirm the historicity of Christ, the virgin birth, and the vicarious atonement. But if popular sermons are as Gordon describes (which I believe they are), one has to wonder how important these doctrines really end up being. Are preachers and teachers actually preaching and teaching such doctrine? Is the person of Christ proclaimed from the pulpit each week? Are his redmeptive works manifested in the preaching, Lord’s Supper, and Baptism?  Do conservatives even know why they believe what they believe? Or are such heady doctrines better relegated to the “check off” box in order that we might get to more important issues like “How to Have a Better Marriage” and “Engaging Culture.”

Machen once wrote, “liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative.” With contemporary Evangelical leaders like Rick Warren championing ideas like, “deeds over creeds,” perhaps it isn’t unfair to wonder whether conservatism hasn’t indeed become a new kind of liberalism after all.

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T. David Gordon just wrote a new book entitled Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal. I read a bit of it and it looks pretty good.  We need good books on this issue.

One of his points is that we often approach the topic of corporate worship while getting off on the wrong foot. We ask the question, Is it lawful? And then if the answer is yes, we assume that it is also, therefore, beneficial. According to Paul (1 Cor. 10), we must realize this isn’t good theology or methodology.

Next, there is the concept of contemporaneity.  Gordon makes the point that all throughout church history certain scriptural, literary, and musical criteria were involved in determining whether music was to be acceptable for worship. In fact, even in Charles Wesley’s day, the criteria were so rigorous that only one half of one percent of all his songs were published in the hymnal for the Methodist Church. Unimaginable one might think! Well, I guess we just have a lot better writers today.

So what has changed? Why is contemporaneity esteemed as the end-all-be-all? Gordon asks:

Why are there not signs outside churches that read: “Theologically Significant Worship,” or “Worship Appropriate to a Meeting between God and His Assembled People,” or “Worship That Is Literarily Apt and Thoughtful”? Why do the signs say “ContemporaryWorship,” as though that criterion were itself worthy of promoting?

To be sure, some tough-hitting (but much needed) questions are to be found in this book.

One last point, however, is worth noting. Gordon says the significance this issue is compounded when we recognize the emotional intensity we can feel about the music we love, and secondly, that this emotional intensity is connected to the worship of God — something we care very much about. Bring our sinfulness into the mix and we have nearly instantaneous and unavoidable combustibility.

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