Friday, 4 January 2013

Reports from the Fringe

Well, I spent enjoyable days at home, and now I have returned to the Tiltenberg to study for my exams. My first exam is Ecclesiology, on the 11th.

While at home, I attended one Reformed church service to witness the baptism of my cousin’s son. There were good things about it, such as my cousin and her husband (especially), the faithful attendance, the psalm-singing, and even the traditional Reformed formula read in the baptismal liturgy, which speaks of Baptism as God’s pledge that He makes an eternal covenant of grace with us. (Although the words ‘of grace’ were tacitly omitted by the minister.) Apparently the older Reformed tradition had a more robust view on Baptism.

And the Baptism itself, of course, you say! I think so, but I will come back to that.

Mostly, however, the service was rather disappointing. The minister introduced the sacrament by saying that we should look carefully, for God had given as this sign as a ‘visible sermon’, and therefore he would scoop his hand full of water, not just a few droplets. This sermon would remind us of our own Baptism (so far so good), a sign that we all stand in need of washing because we are all filthy. (St. Paul writes: ‘Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.’)

The minister did scoop his hand full of water, but let it fall before it reached the baby’s head, then applying what moisture remained. Visible sermon indeed: God has much power to purify, but it is so cautiously applied that no impurity is taken away… But that is a low-blow polemic worthy of the sixteenth century. More fundamental are the implications for the validity of the sacrament: can we speak of a true Baptism when the water does not flow over the person, when he is neither immersed, nor partly immersed, nor sprinkled with water? According to the Encyclopedia, such a Baptism is at least doubtful.

The sermon (and I speak what I remember, with apology for inaccuracy) was about Zechariah and Elizabeth naming their child John. It was a kind of Reformed midrash, a colouring of the outlines of the Biblical story (with some details added), an exposition on the spiritual attitude of the characters. This is intended to reveal what the story leaves unspoken, but usually reveals something about the interpreter as well.

Zechariah, for one, was painted as a man who had laboured for nine months in the throes of conscience, after he had failed to believe the angel’s word. Deaf and mute, he had been locked in a small world of his own, to learn how to listen to God. The possibility that he might have been glad of the word’s fulfilment, of his fatherhood even in old age, was briefly mentioned, but called a bright spot against the dark background of his unbelief. When the time came for Zechariah to confirm the name that his wife had given to the child, he bent very low over his writing tablet and slowly spelled out the name John.

The minister spoke words in this vein: ‘Perhaps you will say: but how do you know that he bent very low over his writing tablet? Scripture does not say that, does it? But his spirit was moved!’

Then once the name has been written, the bonds of his spirit are loosed and he writes the name fast, looking up to God in joy because His word has come true. The name of the child is John, not Zechariah like his father’s, because ‘everything of Zechariah has to disappear’.

The people of Hebron – the neighbours – were present as well. They had been chatting amongst themselves and had already decided that the child’s name was to be Zechariah. When lonely Elizabeth lifted up her voice and declared the child to be John, she felt all their ‘piercing stares’ on her. Thus the world ever looks at the handmaid of the Lord, I suppose: with hostile incomprehension.

After the child had been named, the neighbours talked much about what had happened. Although they saw the strangeness and divine origin of these events, apparently their reflections did not reach their hearts, for ‘six months later, none of the people of Hebron were at the manger in Bethlehem’.

In the flow of his sermon, the minister also mentioned that no one was worth anything, and that there could not be grace without prior guilt. When I left the building, I felt that in the experiential-Reformed picture, God’s dealings with men are almost restricted to an endless cycle of forgiveness, the merely human dimension of life (like becoming a father!) is inconsequential, and true joy is incommunicable. This is seen as religious earnestness; a more positive valuation of the common activities of the nature God deigned to adopt is quickly discarded as spiritual immaturity.

Thus far the first report. Second report: Rev. Kort from the Old Reformed Congregations in the Netherlands, formerly from the Dutch Reformed Church (before it merged into the Protestant Church in the Netherlands), has stridden to a theological border, seeking a skirmish. His beef is with what he calls the ‘embryo theology’, according to which sinners can be regenerate without conscious faith in Christ (i.e. the belief that Christ has forgiven their sins), merely yearning after God, mourning over sin and hungering for salvation. Against this he argues that a personal knowledge of Christ as Mediator is indispensable.

The ‘embryo theology’, popularised by the 18th-century minister Alexander Comrie, makes unscriptural, Aristotelian-Scholastic distinctions between the ‘act’ of faith and the ‘habit’ of faith, which could be given by God before the act of conscious faith is exercised. According to Rev. Kort and his supporters, this leaves people satisfied with an apparent, probable, untrue and presumed rebirth, rather than a true conversion and union with Christ.

As I was checking my sources, I came across a rather acerbic publication in support of Rev. Kort, which exclaims:

...many professors [of faith] and leaders engage in hostile outbursts against the separating, liberating doctrine of the Gospel of the Cross, because they, through the teaching of Christ and the experience of faith that necessarily goes with it, see their imagined conversion go up in smoke! Christian persecution within the Refo-ranks has thus been in full swing for many years and I would like to say to Rev. Kort: welcome to the battle!

Meanwhile I, in my hammock (so to speak), have been reading Verbum Caro by the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. It contains interesting ideas, like the following (p. 66, translation mine):

And so, the fruitfulness of [Mary’s] faith unites itself with the fruitfulness of her womb and her entire human nature. At this place, Luther’s interpretation of the act of faith has undergone a certain narrowing in respect to the old Germanic-Christian interpretation, in which the moment of surrender, of the faithfulness of the follower, thus of the human, was much more prominent than in the Reformed sin-grace dialectic. Where that human dimension does not appear to be implied in the Church’s holiness, the chargedness of a ‘naked’ soteriological dialectic all too easily changes into professorial abstractions.

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