Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Evangelicalism and the love of novelty

The love of novelty is being taken up with whatever is new, simply because it is new. We ought to recognise that it is part of our corrupted nature to have this obsession.
As the puritan Thomas Manton put it: 'There is an itch of novelty; naturally we adore things that are new; they flocked about Paul because they supposed him a setter forth of new gods, Acts 17. Seneca observeth right...'men admire a glaring meteor and comet more than they do the glorious sun'.

Obsession with whatever is new has been the spirit of the modernism of secularist society. Novelty is the preeminent virtue. The term 'modern' is not so much about history or time so much as quality - everything must be 'new', and simply because it is new it is immediately original and different and transcends all that was previous. Modernity tears itself from tradition and history and so is forever engaged in repeating itself. The cult of the modern produces a society of the spectacle because the craving for endless novelty is the same as the craving for the spectacular.

One of the greatest fallacies of our day is the appeal to novelty, what logicians call argumentum ad novitatem. People assume and argue that because something is new, it is therefore correct or better. The latest and newest implies the most correct and best. This is the basic assumption of most commercial advertising.

Samuel Rutherford shows how natural an assumption this is with us and how easily it can slip into religious matters. 'Novelty can go for conscience, our nature is quickly taken with novelty, even as a new friend, a new field, a new house, a new garden, a new garment, so a new Christ, a new faith, delights us' (Free Disputation against pretended Liberty of Conscience).

In an article, 'The Future of Evangelical Theology,' Thomas Oden laments the invasion of novelty into evangelicalism: 'The Babylonian captivity to novelty is the temptation of all modern reflection. It is invading evangelical leadership at an alarming rate in ways disturbing to evangelicals in the mainline who have suffered from its bewitchments for two centuries.'(Christianity Today, Feb. 9, 1998, p.46). The problem with novelty is that it is soon tired of as the novelty wears of and so there must be yet more novelties. As Calvin puts it in his commentary on Joel: 'When any thing new happens, it may be, that we are at first moved with some wonder; but our feeling soon vanishes with the novelty, and we disregard what at first caused great astonishment'. Within evangelicalism endless constantly changing variety has become the order of the day. As a result an ahistorical myopia prevails that is bent upon removing the ancient landmarks and everything that does not have the appearance of appeal of novelty in it. The Word of God wisely counsels: 'meddle not with them that are given to change' (Prov 24:21)

Yet as John Calvin argued so clearly: 'In the matter of religion, all novelty should not only be rejected but also detested': (Calvin's preface to La Bible, qui est toute la saincte escriture du vieil & du Nouveau Testament (Geneva, 1588), iir. The Lord Jesus Christ was conscious of the spirit of novelty in his own days amongst the hearers of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:7- 9).

Novelty in worship
Novelty in worship is one of the most obvious areas where the cult of the new influences evangelicalism. Many churches are at the mercy of the latest ideas of a local worship leader and the latest fads of the professional worship leader-cum-pop-musician. Choruses must ever be the latest - those from 15-20 years ago have become tired, word and stale. There is a certain delight and temporary emotional satisfaction from this no doubt. Such delight is not necessarily, however, a spiritual emotion or an indication of what it is acceptable to God. As the puritan Stephen Charnock argues, however, we cannot make 'every delight an argument of a spiritual service. All the requisites to worship must be taken in. A man may invent a worship, and delight in it, as Micah in the adoration of his idol, when he was glad he had got both an ephod and a Levite, Judges 17. As a man may have a contentment in sin, so he may have a contentment in worship ; not because it is a worship of God, but the worship of his own invention, agreeable to his own humour and design, as Isaiah 58:2, it is said, they delighted in approaching to God,' but it was for carnal ends. Novelty engenders complacency ; but it must be a worship wherein God will delight, and that must be a worship according to his own rule and infinite wisdom, and not our shallow fancies'.

Once innovations have been made they become dear to people through long familiar association and they are lothe to part with them because of this. It can then become an appeal to age, tradition and preference. We can think of the hymns that were introduced, first at the communion, then once a service at the end and which then finally pushed out metrical psalms altogether. Although there was no biblical warrant for composing such non-inspired materials of praise, the impulse to innovation and novelty soon established the practice.

Change in the sense of reformation will sometimes be required but only in the direction of reforming worship closer to the Word of God. This was the view of the Westminster Assembly when they would only put aside the liturgy of the Church of England upon many 'weighty considerations...not from any love to novelty' (Directory of Public Worship).

Novelty in preaching
It is possible for those who believe themselves to be conservative and reformed in their doctrine and practice to pursue novelty in preaching. There is a desire for the rhetorical display of using expressions that are new and catching but do not mean much at all and may even be misleading. JW Alexander pointed this out in his book 'The Preacher's Studies': 'The lust of novelty betrays some young preachers into a feverish thirst for new reading, in the course of which they scour the fields for every antithetic pungency, and every brilliant expression. For fear of commonplaces, they forbear to give utterance to those great, plain, simple, everlasting propositions, which after all are the main stones in the wall of truth. The preacher errs grievously, who shuns to announce obvious and familiar things, if only they be true and seasonable, and logically knit into the contexture. The most momentous sayings are simple ; or rather, as Daniel Webster once said, "All great things are simple"'.

The Apostles and their Lord were not afraid to use 'great plainness of speech'. It is possible to use academic theological words which people may not understand fully or at all but they may be taken with the novelty of it and the show of learning. Much of the controversy surrounding the Marrow of Modern Divinity in the early eighteenth century had to do with the use of apparently new or unusual terms on the part of those promoting it which made some think that it was new doctrine. As John Willison points out this was partly 'because in their sermons they disused and censured several old approven words and phrases as too legal, and affected some new modes of speaking'.

Men may be tempted to look for fresh and striking topics for sermons or bold, rhetorical and revolutionary interpretations of verses which go against received thinking and therefore make the preacher to stand out. As Richard Baxter searchingly indicates, the danger is that preachers will cause people to 'love novelty better than verity, and playing with words to please the fancy, rather than closing with Christ to save the soul'. It is possible to receive the word with a carnal joy that may be based upon the novelty of it but this seed cannot last and continue to grow.

There is nothing wrong, however, with repeating vital truths. It is eminently biblical. Paul tells the Philippians (Phil. 3:1)that to write the same things was not grievous to him, and it was safe for them. They needed to hear these things again. Peter writes similarly to say that he would not be negligent to put them always in remembrance of those things they knew (2 Pet. 1:12.)

Novelty in doctrine
The Church must constantly be watching against novelty in doctrine because this commonly means serious heresy. Again there is a need for ensuring that our doctrine is firmly founded on the Scriptures, yet the Church has witnessed many heresies down through the centuries and learned to guard against them. The desire for innovation in theology often comes from a root of pride. Calvin spoke bluntly of 'little men of superstitious minds, who are always devising some novelty as a means of gaining admiration for themselves'. Whatever the motive, however, it is pride that causes people to reject the illumination of the Holy Spirit in past generations of the Church and assume that only what they have discovered in their own originality is valid.

The Early Church Father John Chrysostom commented on the heretics such as Hymeneus and Philetus that Paul speaks of in 2 Timothy 2. 'He shows that novelty of doctrine is a disease, and worse than a disease. And here he implies that they are incorrigible, and that they erred not weakly but willfully'. Calvin preached on this chapter solemnly drawing similar conclusions:
'But it is true, our nature is such, that we take great pleasure in novelty, and in speculations which seem to be subtle. Therefore, let us beware, and think as we ought, that we may not profane God's holy Word. Let us seek that which. edifieth, and not abuse ourselves by receiving that which hath no substance in it. It is hard to withdraw men from such vanity, because they are inclined to participate in it. But St. Paul showeth that there is nothing more miserable than such vain curiosity: 'For they will increase unto more ungodliness.' As if he had said, my friends, you know not at first sight what hurt cometh by these deceivers; who go about to gain credit and estimation among you, and with pleasant toys endeavor to please you; but believe me, they are Satan's instruments and such as in no wise serve God but increase unto more wickedness; that is. if they are let alone, they will mar the Christian religion; they will not leave one jot safe and sound. Therefore, see that you flee them as plagues, although at first sight, the poison which they bring be not perceived.'

Evangelicalism is being assailed with a flood of novelty in doctrine at the present time. There is that from conservative evangelicals in the Federal Vision theology which distorts justification by faith alone. Some of the most alarming innovations however, come from a so-called post-conservative handling of Scripture. Post-conservative means that people no longer wish to be bound to the Scriptures as their supreme authority. A high view of Scripture and theological novelty are impossible companions. There are the Open-theists such as Clark Pinnock who gettison the orthodox doctrine of God.

Then there is the ecumenical and professedly post-evangelical, post-doctrinal and certainly postmodern Emerging Church movement. This movement has moved beyond the idea of giving the central and supreme place to Scripture. The latter is no doubt evangelicalism's love of novelty come to its fullest expression in every way. It has developed a rather Romish trend in worship by combining candles, incense, darkness, labyrinths and silence. Is it not significant that one of Brian Maclaren's books is titled 'A New Kind of Christianity'? Then there are those rejecting penal substitution - such as Steve Chalke.

The general vanguard movement within evangelicalism is sometimes expressed as being towards experience over doctrine and to be inclusivistic instead of exclusivistic. Doctrine is being shaped by the values of contemporary secular society and that which sounds acceptable within it. Chrysostom writes in his Commentary on Matthew about 'the unsettling power of novelty' and evangelicalism is certainly unsettled in the current climate. Where there is little grounding in the truth, individuals are in danger of being tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine especially by anything that has the appearance of novelty.

When the Reformation was underway the Reformers made it clear that they were countering the innovations of Rome with not only what the Scriptures taught but what the Early Church believed from which Rome had defected. As his prefatory address to the Institutes shows, Calvin roundly rejected the idea that the Reformers were introducing anything novel. He responds adamantly to those that would try to label the Reformation teaching as novel:
'First, in calling it new, they are exceedingly injurious to God, whose sacred word deserved not to be charged with novelty. To them, indeed, I very little doubt it is new, as Christ is new, and the Gospel new; but those who are acquainted with the old saying of Paul, that Christ Jesus 'died for our sins, and rose again for our justification,' (Rom. 4: 25,) will not detect any novelty in us. That it long lay buried and unknown is the guilty consequence of man's impiety; but now when, by the kindness of God, it is restored to us, it ought to resume its antiquity just as the returning citizen resumes his rights.'

Later theologians such as Francis Turretin also disclaimed novelty. 'I avoided [novelty] most diligently lest it should contain anything new, a stranger from the word of God and from the public forms received in our churches, and nothing is built up there that is not confirmed by the vote of our most proven theologians'.

One could also refer to novelty in practice which besides introducing innumerable gimmicks and paraphenalia that only serve to trivialise religion also rejects vital godliness and Christian experience as a thing of the past. John Kennedy saw this spirit very clearly in nineteenth-century Scotland: 'As the tide of declension is moving on, an impression is produced in the hearts of those who are adrift that all things which they are leaving behind them are but relics of darker times. Adherence to what is antiquated is all that is implied, they say, in the conservatism that cleaves to 'the old paths' and 'the good way' in which our father walked. It is characteristic of young men that they do not like to appear to be behind the age. They must be abreast of the intelligence of a century so enlightened as this is. They must cast away the old clothes of traditionalism, and must learn to sneer at the days and ways that are gone, that they may be like those who assume to be the leaders of thought – the advanced guard of the army of progress. They must neither think nor speak like the men of earlier, and, therefore, more benighted times!...But, my young friends, be not led away by this affectation of progress with its contempt for what is past. There never was a time when in science there was more utterly baseless speculation, and in which more structures of lies were reared within the religious sphere than now. There never was an age of more hasty thinking and of more hazy utterance than the present in all things affecting what is divine and spiritual. But God is unchanging. On that grand truth firmly plant your foot in faith. The law of God is unchanging. That truth is another strong foothold. On these be 'steadfast and unmovable' in the midst of all present unsettlement of thought and practice'. Although the desire for it may be insatiable among evangelicals, truly 'novelty is the last object which a wise inquirer will seek'. JW Alexander. What should we seek? We are not left without an answer.
'Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein. Also I set watchmen over you, saying, Hearken to the sound of the trumpet. But they said, We will not hearken.' (Jeremiah 6:16-17).