“Barth thought that they should sit round in a semi-circle, and ‘that the ideal solution to the problem of forming a central focus was to erect a striking wooden table, which should be easy to put up, but clearly different from an ‘altar’. It should be provided with a movable desk, since it would have to serve both as a pulpit and a table for the Lord’s Supper and in place of a font… Pictorial and symbolic representations are out of place in the Protestant Church. (The reality of the person and work of Jesus Christ can only be represented by the activity of the community in worship in the narrower sense of the term, and then above all in life: no pictures and no symbols.). The organ should be replaced by four wind instruments to support the singing of the congregation – it seems to me out of place in the context of Christian worship, and belongs in the concert hall rather than the church”. (Karl Barth by Eberhard Busch).
Architecture and floor plan in church buildings is a theologically instructive study. For most of christian history, formal ecclesiastical buildings were designed to express Christian belief, The seating arrangement, the position of the pulpit or lectern, the place of the Communion Table, baptismal font etc were very often theological statements and changes were seen as heretical. I think it is important that we think about this issue again, and intentionally construct a Christian layout to our worship venues that is theologically orthodox. Before I tell you what I think this should look like, consider the changes that have happened over time:
Early Church: there was no real pulpit or religious furniture since they met in homes. Yet the Word and the Lord's Meal were vital and shaped their meetings.
Medieval Church: with increasing sacramental theology, the altar became the centre piece of the service and thus the focus of building and floor plan. The lectern or pulpit was placed to the side.
Protestant Church: with the Reformation, the altar was exchanged for the Pulpit and the Lord's Table was placed under the Word. (Lutheran and Anglican churches kept an 'altar'). In many Reformed churches, such as the Zurich churches under the reformer Zwingli, the table was a place where the worshipers came up to and sat to eat of the Lord's Supper. It was not a symbolic table but a functional one.
Modern Church: the stage and music team is the centre piece, with the pulpit exchanged for the music stand.
Thus the progression (or regression) has been: Word & Meal > Altar > Pulpit & Table > Stage & Music Stand > ?
I think it is time to signify who we are and what we are doing in our meetings by placing the Pulpit & the Table back to centre stage. The Table is a symbol of Communion with Christ, the Head of the Church and His people present. This communion should be the goal and intent of our gatherings. The 'Table' expresses peaceful fellowship vertically and horizontally, for us made possible through his shed blood. The Pulpit is also central, for we are a people created by the Word of the Gospel. It is the divinely ordained means to what should happen at the Table. Much more can be said, but I trust you will think about the importance of having a Pulpit and a Table restored to their rightful places in Christ's church. The Lord speed the day when the Pulpit and Table are fulfilled among us.
Like it or not, John Calvin is here to say. He is one of those few persons who have left their own stamp on history. Books, seminaries, churches, sons’ names, comic strips, conferences, class room debates and denominational magazines continue to carry Calvin into 2010 and beyond. In 2009 people celebrated 150 years since Charles Darwin’s birth, and 500 years since Calvin’s. Both these men propagated systems of thought that have profoundly influenced Western civilization. The mere mention of the name ‘Calvin’ and ‘Darwin’, will provoke either love or hated, words of infamy or eulogy, but never neutral indifference. We might say (with much oversimplification) that each man went in mutually opposite directions with incredible zeal and fruition. Whilst Darwin penetrated the world of man and of nature, Calvin scrutinized God and His Word.
John Calvin was born in France in 1509. Providence enabled him to start his studies from an early age. Being by temperament driven and decisive, he excelled in his classical, theological and legal fields of study. Then at age 23, whilst in Paris, he experienced a conversion and joined the Protestant cause. “God” he later said, “by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame”. From then on Calvin was mastered by a sense of the Majesty of God and His Word, inspiring an unreserved surrender of himself in every way. In a unique way providence, natural temperament, intellectual rigour and spiritual devotion converged and were thenceforth directed to the rebuilding of the Church on its true biblical foundation. As someone has said, he was able to take the Protestant mob, and turn it into an army.
My first impression of Calvin was of a man who limited God’s love to a few, who ruled Geneva with the iron fist of a dictator, being of a stern, cold and marble-like demeanour. However, though I could justify leaving John Calvin on the shelf of history, I could not do that with Romans chapter 9. After a while I came ‘kicking and screaming’ to the conclusion that the only faithful reading of that chapter was the traditional ‘Calvinistic’ one. Since then, I began a personal reassessment of the famous Genevan Reformer. I realized that prejudice, caricature and second hand opinions have prevented many from appreciating his huge contribution to both theology and the church. This does not mean that we must slavishly follow the reformer in every way as some seem to do. Rather, we should critically appreciate his significance as one whose writings so closely approximated the body of truth given for us in the Scriptures.
Will John Calvin always be a part of Christian theology? I believe he will be. The comprehensive and biblical nature of his writings is unique. His sense of the Majesty and Glory of God in all things remains catalytic for spiritual reformation. His self-immolation for the cause of the Lord and His church is heroic. His stand point is so clearly opposed to the humanizing tendency of the world and human nature. His zeal to purge the church of foreign elements and to establish her strictly upon the foundation of biblical revelation will always be an ongoing principle in the Body of Christ. So, I challenge you to get beyond the accretions of historical prejudice. Separate the 16th century form of his writings and appreciate the quality of his content. Disagree with him, agree with him. Go to the primary sources of his writings. Read his Institutes of the Christian Religion and his Commentaries. Then I’m sure you will understand why 500 years later we are still talking about John Calvin.
“Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue, but of the life; is not apprehended by the intellect and memory alone… but is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds its seat in the innermost recesses of the heart” (from The Institutes: Book 3:Chapter 6)
"According to the unanimous testimony of the New Testament, in the man Jesus of Nazareth...we have to do with the One who is qualitatively different, transcendent and uplifted in relation to all other men and the whole cosmos....The Almighty exists and acts and speaks here in the form of One who is weak and impotent, the Eternal as One who is temporal and perishing, the Most High in the deepest humility. The Holy One stands in the place and under the accusation of a sinner with other sinners. The glorious One is covered with shame. The One who lives forever has fallen prey to death. The Creator is subjected to and overcome by the onslaught of that which is not. In short, the Lord is a servant, a slave" (Church Dogmatics IV:I, pg 176)
'About 100 years ago an unknown German pastor of a Reformed church in the German town Safenwil decided to write a commentary on the book of Romans. He was experiencing a theological catastrophe similar to the Great War that was then destroying Europe. Yet he needed to write a commentary different from the conventional genre of commentary. He wanted to echo the unnerving thunderclap of the Word of God that he was hearing in Paul's words and not just analyse the syntax or literary medium of the apostle. As a pastor he used his commentary to preach the Word of in Romans to his shell-shocked congregation, alerting them to the 'strange new world within the Bible', the world of God's sheer mercy and grace in Jesus Christ. He also indirectly wanted to show that the German theological heritage that he had been schooled in and which had recently rationalized the Great War stood explicitly under God's 'NO!' of judgment. Such theology was mere anthropology. The result of all this was Barth's Commentary of Romans (1st edition 1918). It landed 'like a bombshell in the playground of the theologians' and elevated young Karl onto the platform of the world's greatest theologians. If you take the time to read his book and enter into his thought you will see that this is no academic product but the gushing overflow of a man with a penetrating mind who has been undone by the Word of God. Our engagement with Barth needs to be critical (as he would affirm) but though there will be places in his commentary where we would write NO!, there will be more places where we will underline with a joyous YES! He remains an important Christian theologian and has an unerring ability to direct his readers to the most important issue in life: GOD alone and GOD himself. In order to appreciate Barth, a good place to begin is here., you will be glad you did.
Words, said Samuel Johnson, are the clothes of thoughts. That said, there are two very important words help us take up and live in the world and the Word more faithfully and thus Christianly. The words are 'inductive imagination'. Here is my story....
It was about 4 years ago that whilst swimming in the local gym pool that I had my epiphany of inductive imagination. I realized that I was doing this length to clock up my 20 lengths to then change, go home, get my afternoon tasks done to finish the day to begin the next day finish that then finish the week get to Sunday and so begin on Monday again. I was not attentive or enjoying my length in the pool because i was 'using' it to clock up a total to then get on with the next thing. I was living in terms of quantity of time and not quality. Why did I have to define or interpret the present moment in terms of other things rather than just do the present on its own terms? (later, Eugene Peterson would borrow a phrase from a poem to describe how I was not living - 'every step an arrival'). I then got out of the pool and in the change rooms decided to stop and just look around and where I was an appreciate it and pay it the necessary attention, as apparently insignificant as my surroundings where. Well, that time at the gym initiated (or maybe established) me into a more self-conscious way of living, the way of 'inductive imagination'.
It is a 'method of life' which pays attention to the present and does not allow the forward flow of life to steal from the present. It is a way of living, loving, serving, reading, praying, and serving that loving takes up the present period and appreciates what God has done here and now. It resists the modern way of living where we are so busy getting ahead that we do not thankfully and humbly enjoy what is under our noses. It is resisting the desire to put the next tasty chip into your mouth so that you can thankfully savour the one that is already there. Have you discovered inductive imagination?
"Disabusing the Church". I think that this is what identifying with the world-wide Baptist witness is all about. "Disabusing" is a apt word, for it means "to free from undermining or inappropriate and alien elements". Consider all the movements and organizations and individuals that collect under the umbrella 'Christianity'. Baptists strive to express at a local church level what is most essential and characteristic of the universal Church of Jesus Christ. The movement believes that not every entity under that umbrella is authentically Christian or true to the type of Church that Christ desires. The Baptist churches are churches endeavoring to bear witness to a type of church which is most congruent with the nature of the Church itself, reforming itself from all cultural barnacles and traditional accretions. This 'reformist' leaven should be found in Baptist churches, and all who want to be part of a type of church that is blue-printed in the New Testament should seriously desire to join the Baptist movement.
I am currently teaching on Baptist history at the Cape Town Baptist Seminary. This task has allowed me opportunity to think over the identity of the Baptists within the world Christian movement. Together with many others in past and present history, I have been asking afresh the perennial questions: who are Baptists?, what truths do they stand for?, what should they look like today? etc. That is, what facial outlines should we construct to this 'Baptist man'. So, for the next few posts I will be looking at what being a Baptist is all about, with particular reference to some of the challenges we are facing in the Baptist Union of South Africa.
Before I end let me give you this interesting bit of SA Baptist history... Most, if not all, of the pioneer Baptists who came out to South Africa in the 1820's (Mr William Shepherd, Mr William Miller et al) came from 'Chapels' back in England. These churches did not nominate themselves 'Baptist' but rather Chapels , for e.g., 'Edward Street Chapel', 'Eagle Street Chapel', etc. For this reason the great baptist C H Spurgeon was pastor of 'New Park Street Chapel' and 'Metropolitan Tabernacle' - all without the name 'Baptist'! I thought this should be of interest in responding to the contemporary trend of some Baptist Churches to drop the name 'Baptist' from their name. More on this later. '
The following farewell words, spoken by an English pastor in Leiden to his America-bound congregation in 1620, remain crucial for any student of Scripture. Edward Winslow, who traveled on The Mayflower, remembers Pastor Robinson's parting exhortation:
We we now ere long to part asunder, and the Lord knoweth whether ever he [Robinson] should live to see our faces again. But whether the Lord had appointed it or not, he charged us before God and his blessed angels, to follow him no further than he followed Christ; and if God should reveal anything to us by any other instrument of his, to be as ready to receive it as ever we were to receive any truth by his ministry; for he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word. He took occasion also miserably to bewail the state and condition of the Reformed Churches, who were come to a period in religion, and would go no further than the instruments of their Reformation. As, for example, the Lutherans, they could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw; for whatever part of God’s will he had further imparted and revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it. And so also, saith he, you see the Calvinists, they stick where he left them; a misery much to be lamented; for though they were precious shining lights in their times, yet God had not revealed his whole will to them; and were they now living, saith he, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as that they had received.
Here also he put us in mind of our church covenant, at least that part of it whereby we promise and covenant with God and one with another, to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known to us from his written word; but withal exhorted us to take heed what we received for truth, and well to examine and compare it and weigh it with other Scriptures of truth before we received it. For, saith he, it is not possible the Christian world should come so lately out of such thick antichristian darkness, and that full perfection of knowledge should break forth at once. ’
Another thing he commended to us, was that we should use all means to avoid and shake off the name of Brownist, being a mere nickname and brand to make religion odious and the professors of it to the Christian world. And to that end, said he, I should be glad if some godly minister would go over with you before my coming; for, said he, there will be no difference between the uncomformable ministers and you, when they come to the practices of the ordinances out of the kingdom. And so advised us by all means to endeavour to closely with the godly party of the kingdom of England, and rather to study union than division, viz. how near we might possibly without sin close with them, than in the least measure to affect division or separation from them. And be not loath to take another pastor or teacher, saith he; for that flock that hath two shepherds is not endangered but secured by it.’