Well, it’s been more than a year since my last post, so it’s time to speak again to all my blog followers. How are the two of you, by the way?
The long-anticipated book by Keith Sewell, The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity, has now been published. It’s just out, so I haven’t read it and can’t comment on the specifics, but Keith and I have spoken many times about this project and he’s written some articles here and there (mostly in Pro Rege) that have hinted at what he might have to say in this volume. I highly recommend it.
Here’s a nice video done of Keith at his retirement from Dordt College several years ago.
Just a quick note to observe that N.T. Wright acknowledges the influence of Herman Dooyeweerd and Reformational thinking on his theology.
See An Accidental Blog (D appears pleased by the fact.)
I have many friends, some reformed and some evangelical, who espouse the teachings of Oswald Chambers and make heavy use of them in their daily meditations. In fact, my father introduced me to his classic work during family devotions when I was an adolescent. Those lessons never sat quite right with me, and as an adult I have never understood how my reformed friends, especially those inhabiting the cultural engagement strand of Calvinism, found correspondence between Chambers’ perspective and their own.
There are at least two ways that Oswald Chambers’ vision is at odds with reformed thinking. The first is theological. Christian Reformed minister Johan D. Tangelder, who offers a fine, introductory biography to Oswald Chambers here, and who recognizes Chambers’ devout Christianity and appreciation of the basic need of humankind for God’s salvific intervention in our lives, nevertheless makes clear that My Utmost for His Highest is not suitable for the reformed community. According to Tangelder, Chambers’ theology sees the Christian as an individual and misses the covenantal aspect of reformed theology:
The Christian faith he taught is privatized and individualistic. The golden thread of the covenant woven in the Old and New Testament is missing.
Furthermore, it embraces a holiness or complete sanctification model:
My Utmost for His Highest communicates a fairly radical version of the Keswick’s movement’s stress on self-denial. It lacks joy and some even term it ‘morbid.’
In fact, Chambers is downright mystical in his emphases:
Its key phrases are ‘are you prepared to let God take you into union with Himself . . . are you prepared to abandon entirely and let go?’ ‘yielding to Jesus will break every form of slavery in any human life,’ and ‘God makes us broken bread and poured-wine to please Himself.’
This theological critique is important, but there are also philosophical problems with Chambers’ outlook. His attention to the individual spiritual life and spiritual communion with God assumes an other-worldly perspective where the ideal of the Christian life is to be closer to God. But what does this mean, really? When Christians talk about being more Christ-like, or drawing closer to God, or developing the Christian life, or any number of other vague formulations of Christian spirituality, they are reflecting, or falling into, a kind of spiritualism that ignores the all-encompassing love of God for His created order.
Consider, for example, this sampling of quotations from Chambers’ writings:
There is only one relationship that really matters, and that is your personal relationship to your personal Redeemer and Lord. If you maintain that at all costs, letting everything else go, God will fulfill His purpose through your life.
If you are properly devoted to the Lord Jesus, you have reached the lofty height where no one would ever notice you personally. All that is noticed is the power of God coming through you all the time.
What hinders me from hearing is that I am taking up with other things. It is not that I will not hear God, but I am not devoted in the right place.
Sometimes there is nothing to obey, the only thing to do is to maintain a vital connection with Jesus Christ, to see that nothing interferes with that. Only occasionally do we have to obey.
Never consider whether you are of use; but ever consider that you are not your own but His.
Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.
For reformed folks who take seriously the idea that God’s sovereignty extends over the whole of creation, such formulations of Christian spirituality work at cross purposes to their perspective. The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks “What is the chief end of man?” and answers “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” A reformational understanding of this teaching would argue that one cannot enjoy God without enjoying his creation. This understanding would object to “spirituality” lessons that emphasize loving God at the expense of enjoying (and working in) His creation. God’s purpose in creating the cosmos and placing His image bearers in it is to bring glory to Himself through their work in it, not their abandoning of it to spend more time thinking about God. This principle, at the root of Kuyperian thinking, emphasizes exploration and development of the creation order, the building of institutions, and bringing glory to God through the activities of humankind done in service to Him and for Him.
But Chambers’ teachings usually run counter to this perspective. Sometimes his philosophic challenge to the Kuyperian outlook is blatant:
One student a year who hears God’s call would be sufficient for God to have called the Bible College into existence. This college has no value as an organization, not even academically. Its sole value for existence is for God to help Himself to lives. Will we allow Him to help Himself to us, or are we more concerned with our own ideas of what we are going to be?
Here we see the amorphous spirituality of God “help[ing] Himself to lives,” but more importantly we see an outright anti-institutionalism: “This college has no value as an organization,” opines Chambers, “not even academically.” To the Calvinist, who sees institutions, whether the church, or marriage, or political orders, or colleges as providentially ordained, and who appreciates the scores of generations of faithful Christians who have established educational institutions, in particular, this kind of thinking should at least be disturbing, and even alarming.
To be fair, there are times when Chambers’ meditations can faithfully serve reformed believers. Consider his comments on the importance of being properly oriented in our thinking:
The first thing that happens after we have realized our election to God in Christ Jesus is the destruction of our prejudices and our parochial notions and our patriotisms; we are turned into servants of God’s own purpose. The whole human race was created to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Sin has switched the human race on to another tack, but it has not altered God’s purpose in the tiniest degree; and when we are born again we are brought into the realization of God’s great purpose for the human race, viz., I am created for God, He made me. This realization of the election of God is the most joyful realization on earth, and we have to learn to rely on the tremendous creative purpose of God. The first thing God will do with us is to “force through the channels of a single heart” the interests of the whole world. The love of God, the very nature of God, is introduced into us, and the nature of Almighty God is focused in John 3:16 – “God so loved the world. . .“
All good Kuyperians would recognize the vital importance of God’s grace in reorienting the thinking of believers and directing the work of their hands to honor God rather than to serve idols. But Chambers rarely gets more specific than this, and for Christians who already tend towards the individualistic and otherworldly, they’ll tend to read such words in the other-worldly way Oswald intended them, which becomes more clear in the rest of the meditation:
We have to maintain our soul open to the fact of God’s creative purpose, and not muddle it with our own intentions. If we do, God will have to crush our intentions on one side however much it may hurt. The purpose for which the missionary is created is that he may be God’s servant, one in whom God is glorified. When once we realize that through the salvation of Jesus Christ we are made perfectly fit for God, we shall understand why Jesus Christ is so ruthless in His demands. He demands absolute rectitude from His servants, because He has put into them the very nature of God.
So when Chambers concludes by saying, “Beware lest you forget God’s purpose for your life,” he understands God’s purpose as making us more holy, but never has the context of the creational order in mind to make this anything more than preparing us for some kind of eternal, ethereal communion with God that has nothing to do with us being active workers in God’s good creation. For believers who put faith in a sovereign God whose rule extends over the whole cosmos, who believe that God expects devotion from Christians in their hearts, souls, minds, and all their strength, and who recognize that their calling as God’s image bearers is to serve Him here and now in vocations that develop God’s good creation and not abandon it for heavenly rapture, then Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest just isn’t good enough.
Songs like Burl Ives’s Holly, Jolly Christmas used to trouble me greatly. I was profoundly concerned with the de-sacralization of Christmas. Consumerism was the biggest affront, but so too was the decreasing focus on the “religious” elements of Christmas.
My concern was inpsired and fueled, in part, by other Christians who seemed thoughtful and level-headed and who asked probing questions about how we celebrate Christmas. I remember, for example, a high school friend’s father who argued, somewhat facetiously, that the Bible spoke out against Christmas trees, citing Jeremiah 10:3-4: “For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.” Clearly a reference to the making of idols, but a good reminder to Christians not to make an idol of their Christmas trees or holiday celebrations. In fact, I remember making this point in a Sunday school class nearly twenty years ago and a couple took to heart the message and chose that afternoon NOT to go Christmas tree shopping, as they had planned, nor to buy a tree at all that year, in an effort to reorient their thinking about Christmas.
I applauded their decision then, and I applaud it now. But I do wonder if my concern about making an idol of our Christmas celebrations has blinded me to making an idol of Christmas. Christmas celebrations by Christians have not always been a given, Puritans, for example, did not recognize Christmas at all, and I have good friends today who do not exchange gifts on Christmas if it falls on a Sunday in order to respect the sabbath as they believe the Bible calls them to do. Certainly neither the Puritans nor my friends are at risk of idolizing Christmas.
Others, however, including myself, who have sought to RE-sacralize Christmas, may be going too far, trying to create meaning or give significance to a day that needs no extra help. In the first place, whether Christians celebrate Christmas as a religious celebration or not is a foregone conclusion of one’s theology. But even if we are among those saints who choose to celebrate Christmas, I wonder if we worry too much about getting it right, or making sure we’re approaching it with the right degree of spirituality. I think for most Christians, we really do recognize what “the reason for the season” is, and even if we choose to follow many practices that are not overtly tied to the commemoration of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, our engagement in those practices doesn’t obliterate in our minds or hearts the locus of the holiday. No doubt we should guard our hearts against consumerism, gluttony, and any number of other traditional or modern sins that might occur during the Christmas season, but we don’t need Christmas to give attention to our piety. Furthermore, we should be equally cautious about embracing an idea that if we don’t practice Christmas the right way, or if we don’t give sufficient attention to the incarnation, or if we don’t achieve a particular degree of spiritual experience, than we have sinned or not given sufficient meaning to Christmas. If we lean towards such ideas, I believe we risk making an idol of Christmas itself.
But in addition to that, we need to remember that the world is created with many different dimensions and that all of these are, or should be, spiritually infused. One of our favorite holiday books is Peter Spier’s Christmas, pictures of which appear here. I don’t know about the rest of the family, but I love the romanticized, but also realistically drawn, elements of the story. It captures a sense of time gone by, of family togetherness, of annual traditions, of the joy of social gatherings, of the solemnity of Christian worship, of the satisfaction parents feel at providing for their children. It hints, too, at the darker side of the holidays–of consumerism, material excess, exhausting labor at hosting family gatherings. But what I like the most about, or what I infer from, Spier’s record or recollection of a Christmas celebration, is that the holidays are multi-faceted like the world God created. There is meaning in the traditions of Christmas decorations and decorating. There is significance in the marriage bond that is more than just a husband and wife, or a pair of parents, but a two-become-one who form a marriage, provide the basis for a family, and become the sustaining core of the larger extended family (grandma and grandpa have their part in Spier’s narrative, too).
These things are not special because everything they do reminds us of the incarnation, nor because they have somehow sanctified their holidays by providing for the homebound (as one set of images protrays). All of what goes on in this book, it seems to me, reflects the multi-dimensional flourshing that God wants for his image bearers–the joy of celebration; the fun of decorating, giving and receiving gifts, and playing games; the pleasure of one another’s company; the coziness of good food, warm spaces, and comfortable clothes; the fondness with which we remember the past, engage in traditional rites and activities, and create new traditions; and the recognition of God’s great gift to us–his son Christ Jesus.
But when we try to find meaning in Christmas by adding meaning to our holiday activities, that is, by downplaying the “secular” or sanctifying it with additions to the spiritual side of things, then I think we miss that all these dimensions of our experience are God-given aspects of his creation that are already imbued with meaning, a meaning rooted in our God-imaged-ness and our inbred nature to explore, expand upon, and develop all these dimensions. If we try to turn Christmas into a celebration that denies all of the aspects of what it means to be human than we miss the point of why Christ became incarnate in the first place. He came to dwell among us so that we could be reoriented within the creation order, not away from it. He came to live, die, and live again, so that we could love, and flourish in, the creation as he called us to do when he created us.
Have a holly, jolly Christmas!
Was privileged this morning to have coffee with Sidney DeWaal, founder of The King’s University College in Edmonton, Alberta.
During the course of our conversation, he said “the world of thought permeates a world of action.” I was struck by this way of putting it and, as I heard it, considered how words, too, are permeated by a world of thought. What we think shapes how we act and what we say.
Oh, I suppose that sounds a little trite to this audience, but it strikes me that worldviews and presuppositions are rather complex things and we might actually do little more than give lip service to certain ideas because those ideas are not as deeply or thoroughly vested in our psyche as other ideas. If we find that our words or actions are not consistent with what we profess to believe, perhaps we don’t exclusively believe what we think we do.
That’s excepting, of course, the slipperiness of language, limited vocabulary, and failures of articulation. Still, it’s a good rule of thumb.
So, if we can’t find words to express what we think we do, we should push ourselves to find ways to express it–such an effort will clarify (and, you might say, purify) our thinking and improve our ability to articulate what we believe.
Also, it’s not a one-way street. Our actions and words shape our thoughts. What we believe to be our worldview might change over time depending upon the language we use to describe it and the actions we follow each day. James K.A. Smith makes a similar point in Desiring the Kingdom.