19 July 2009

An Exilic Presbyterian's Manifesto, part 2

In his first chapter, Stellman simply carries on his thesis and argues for the distinctiveness of Christian worship (again, as opposed to Christian life) by promoting, and this will come as no surprise to Reformed readers, the ordinary—otherwise known as Word and sacrament. In short, the “faithful attendance on the simple means of grace that Christ has instituted for His people’s growth” (5).

Naturally, then, some time is spent taking aim at new and improved programs at the expense of sticking to what God himself has prescribed: “a simple, straightforward, and easy-to-follow program for the growth of the church and the edification of believers: the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper” (ibid.). The rest of the chapter essentially defends this ‘boring’ program in the face of the many temptations to make appealing, even “sexy” (3), the worship of Christ’s church.

Chapter two calls into question the modern church’s quest for relevance and subsequently compares such a pursuit to grits (as a Yankee, this is particularly endearing to me)—because grits, you see, “takes on the flavor of anything that is added to it, [whereas] salt imparts its own distinct taste to the food to which it is added” (17–18). It comes as no surprise which one Stellman desires the church to emulate, and he thus contends that Christians are to be most distinct from the world when they are gathered for worship. He rests on 1 Peter 2:4–17 to make his case. Does the church need to mirror popular culture in order to seek and save the lost? That is, does it need to “offer baptized versions of every worldly form of program, event, and small group under the sun” (20)? In a word, no, Stellman says (26). 

Objectors will have undoubtedly cried foul already. All this distinguishing, worship from life, sacred from secular, must lead to a kind of carnal Christianity that hypocritically puts on the fa├žade each Sunday only to remove it every Monday. Stellman rightly anticipates this and (finally) sticks his finger in the dike: “Certainly not. As much of the New Testament’s practical instruction clearly demonstrates, a Christian husband, wife, employer, or employee will discharge his or her duties in a manner distinct from the way an unbeliever will (and for very different reasons)” (22). It might’ve been more in keeping with his central thesis to say that Christians will often not discharge their duties in any manner distinct from others, but the reasons behind such diligence to said duties are very different. Still, the fact remains: many of our actions in the secular realm will indeed be distinct from those of non-Christians. “But this requirement for distinctive behavior does not change the fact that believers are citizens of two kingdoms, the eternal kingdom of Christ and the temporal kingdom of culture” (ibid.). 

So, in the end, the cry for relevance is, indeed, most irrelevant, for the call is to holiness, not relevance (25). Even further, “when the faithfully preached gospel of our dying and rising God seems irrelevant to modern man, it is man, and not God, who is irrelevant” (27; again, emphases original throughout). 

The third chapter continues the same trajectory, using the same text (1 Peter 2:4–17) as the springboard, but now expands the discussion to include not just the distinctiveness of Christian worship but of the church’s citizenship (as pilgrims sojourning toward their true home); language (as persons who share the same peculiar and tribal lexicon as Jesus and his friends); and history (caught up as it is in the story of Christianity from the first Adam to the last and in that our ties to the communion of saints—past and present—transcend all others). 

Here’s the money quote that sums it all up: “The insistence that our religion is valuable only insofar as it makes an easily discernible difference in the affairs of everyday life is false. Demands for ‘Christian’ art, music, or dentistry are both an elevation of those legitimate pursuits above their proper station and a debasing of the label Christian by apply­ing it to areas concerning which it has little or nothing to say. Hence, culture is sacralized and cult is trivialized, all in the name of a notion of relevance that God has nowhere promised to bestow” (32). 

The next chapter, in essence, pushes the old amillennial line: “the victory for which the church longs is largely a future promise, with the present being characterized by struggle, temptation, and a status of underdogs” (42). This is good and right, Stellman argues, not just because it’s biblical but because it keeps in check “the lust for victory in the here and now…[which] has the ugly effect of (mis)shaping [the church’s] corporate and personal piety into something as inconsistent with the New Testament as faith is with sight and as the cross is with glory” (ibid.). 

To be sure, the Western church, and particularly American evangelicals, resists such theologia crucis notions of destiny. But this is to resist the very message of Jesus and his apostles (Stellman directs us to Matt. 24:37–39, 42, as an example of future suffering). The arguably better exegesis that sees this particular Matthean pericope pointing to the destruction of Jerusalem notwithstanding, Stellman’s point holds up. “The spirit of triumphalism that characterizes so much of the evangelical church regards such a message as anathema” (47). Who, after all, would rather bear the reproach of Christ than surpassing wealth and power? 

But instead of merely arguing that God has determined his church to be the underdogs in this age (an argument that he of course could make, though not, I believe, without criticism), he does the reader a better service by showing how such a minority position is actually the church’s vocation, which has been described powerfully in John Howard Yoder’s words some years ago: “The believer’s cross is, like that of Jesus, the price of social non-conformity” (The Politics of Jesus). Stellman thus challenges the church to live up to its calling, which is, ironically if not uncomfortably, embracing its underdog status encapsulated in the foolishness of the cross. 

The fifth chapter moves to connect the essential distinctiveness of the Christian ‘cult’ to its worship on a particular day of the week, namely, the first. As is often the case (which makes this a fun read, incidentally), Stellman approaches this issue from a fresh angle, starting with a brief discussion on how the various shades of sabbatarianism in America often stemmed from a “transformational impulse—a desire to capture or recover the glory that once characterized America” (52). In so doing, he sets up a good foil to juxtapose with proper worship observance on the first day of the week. 

Stellman thus wants to maintain the continuation of the fourth commandment in the new covenant, but without resorting to the old, Americanized rationale. Instead, he offers (no surprise) a two-kingdoms rationale, one that maintains the distinction between cult and culture, sacred and secular. 

In brief, Stellman rightly notes that under the old covenant Israel was enjoined to strict and proper Sabbath observance (he also adopts the common Reformed premise that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance, applicable to all humankind before its particular embodiment in the Mosaic covenant). Stellman adds to his case by walking us through Kline’s views on the subject of new covenant Sabbath observance. In short, Kline restricts the Sabbath’s application to the covenant community (not to non-believers). Nor does its application extend beyond that of the covenant community’s assembly. With the two-kingdoms doctrine as his paradigm, Kline believes that “to apply the Sabbath’s restrictions to activities in the cultural realm would be to stamp the profane with God’s holy imprint, thereby conflating the two kingdoms” (57). 

Stellman, however, and many Reformed readers will be happy to know this, does not desire to follow Kline all the way down this path: “I would argue that [Kline’s] limitation of [the Sabbath’s] application to the worship service alone is insensitive to the eschatological character of man’s existence from creation onward. In fact, the very two-kingdoms paradigm that Kline propounds urges withdrawal from cultural activity on the Lord’s Day” (ibid.). 

This not being primarily an exegetical argument, Stellman’s urgings for cultural withdrawal throughout the entirety of the first day of the week are in the end practical: “it…serves to challenge and subvert the assumptions of this fleeting age” (58). I’m all for such pragmatic responses to this hedonistic world. But of course our pragmatic reasons cannot and should not be elevated to normative status—unless we’re commanded to by God himself (granted, sabbatarians think precisely this). No doubt Stellman is convinced exegetically of the Westminsterian Sabbath view, but he didn’t need to use the particular (and debatable) sabbatarian language of this chapter to make his point. I’ve also always had the sneaking suspicion that cultural withdrawal throughout the entirety of the first day of the week is only a viable option post Constantine. It wasn’t until Christianity became a religio licita that anything like a non-workday during the week began to take shape (Jewish and pagan festivals already enjoyed for some time work-free days). In other words, only those of us with the luxury of a “weekend” can spend time arguing about what the entirety of our day of worship is supposed to look like. 

Despite this reviewer’s disagreement with the underlying exegetical presuppositions of this chapter, it’s sufficient to say that one needn’t be a sabbatarian to refrain from treating Sunday like “Saturday, Part Two” (51), nor is the principle of Stellman’s exhortation to be overlooked: “A ‘subversive Sabbatarianism,’ therefore, does not affirm the world but condemns it, employing God’s divinely ordained tool to challenge the culture and its ‘idols of leisure and consumption’” (61). 

* Look for part 3 of this review on Monday of next week.


John Yeazel said...


Yes, that was the name of the book. The book hit home with me because many of the Calvin econ. professors who I had taken classes from were mentioned in the book as an alternative to the "Christian right" which was heavily influencing many Christians thinking on the topics of political and economic ideology during that time.

Just want to make clear that I did not make that deleted remark in the previous blog. It looks as though I might of.

John Schaefer said...

"Stellman’s urgings for cultural withdrawal throughout the entirety of the first day of the week are in the end practical":

OK, I will (try to) dump my prior definitions for the word "cultural" (which of course would include such things as speaking) and try to understand what cultural withdrawal would look like. Would someone who was practicing cultural withdrawal avoid cooking meals? Is this is a return to the Jewish proscription against any form of work? Are we at the level of subsistence activities?

Something tells me going to a Jayhawks show or seeing the latest Harry Potter film is intended, but as a rebel and transgressor, I have to know where precisely the boundary is so I can get much closer to it.

Chris Donato said...

That's exactly right, John. And, in my opinion, that's another point where sabbatarianism in the new covenant breaks down. All too easily the boundaries become arbitrary—based almost exclusively on a particular group's (historically-situated) set of mores.

John Schaefer said...

Chris, I'm interested here to learn more about how Stellman distinguishes cult from culture, practically. I have no problem with historically situated mores, by the way--we are all particular and historical, and God deals with us (and deals us grace) within our own particular histories.

Chris Donato said...

Well said, John. Thank you also for your gentle rebuke.

As a springboard into what might help elucidate the distinction between cult and culture (practically speaking), what did you think of the synopsis of chap. 3, which speaks of the "church’s citizenship (as pilgrims sojourning toward their true home); language (as persons who share the same peculiar and tribal lexicon as Jesus and his friends); and history (caught up as it is in the story of Christianity from the first Adam to the last and in that our ties to the communion of saints—past and present—transcend all others)" ?

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