Doug Wilson has aptly pointed out that one of the failures of Reformed Protestantism is not reading our histories and biographies. Outside of a few of us nerds old books are not read. More disturbingly it appears that many of our pastors can not be bothered to even read any books, instead relying on services like Docent to read, research, and recommend theological positions and sermon outlines to them. These things contribute to the anemic church we see in the west today. One of the interesting ways that this plays out is in the feeling many young adults have of being untethered. Recently Trevin Wax has written on how Young Restless and Reformed grew out of this and how a father void is partly filled with the rough manly feel of staunch reformed writers. Or how men like Mark Driscoll capitalized on this, but things ultimately collapsed, due to the lack of underlying holiness of character*. A feeling of disconnection from the larger, deeper church can drive many to explore the Doctrines of Grace, and recent years have been an embarrassment of riches in good, free theology at our fingertips. I would suggest though that many of these young listeners never develop the personal piety necessary to truly be reformed. They only ever get to the equivalent of smelling the cigar as opposed to smoking the whole Cohiba. In a sense they are non-smokers standing at a distance refusing to join us in the lounge. Not that this is a new problem. in 1542 Juan de Yepes y Alvarez (known popularly as John of the Cross) commented in refreshingly modern terms about this issue in his day:
“Many of these beginners have also at times great spiritual avarice. They will be found to be discontented with the spirituality which God gives them; and they are very disconsolate and querulous because they find not in spiritual things the consolation that they would desire. Many can never have enough of listening to counsels and learning spiritual precepts, and of possessing and reading many books which treat of this matter, and they spend their time on all these things rather than on works of mortification and the perfecting of the inward poverty of spirit which should be theirs.” – John, Dark Night of the Soul
But Wait there’s More!
If John had stopped there it would have been damning enough. Yet he was not done. He also shows the path many take in their search for depth in the church while actively avoiding the actual work of being themselves deep. After tasting Reformed theology they sample from Catholicism or some form of Eastern Orthodoxy, usually ending in atheism.
“Furthermore they burden themselves with images and rosaries which are very curious; now they put down one, now take up another; now they change about, now they change back again; now they want this kind of thing, now that preferring one kind of cross to another, because it is more curious. And others you will see adorned with agnusdeis and relics and tokens. Like children with trinkets. Here I condemn the attachment of the heart, and the affection which they have for the nature, multitude and curiosity of these things, inasmuch as it is quite contrary to poverty of spirit, which considers only the substance alone of what is represented by spiritual things; all the rest is affection and attachment proceeding from imperfection; and in order that one may pass to any kind of perfection it is necessary for such desires to be killed.” – John, Dark Night of the Soul
There is no depth to the Catholic church that can not be found in historic Reformed Protestantism. We are just as connected to the early church as they. But we begrudgingly admit that connection has not been taught clearly or compellingly. The root of the issue is that the person in question is themselves rootless. A young man or woman who moves from a large multiplex of a church, to a reformed congregation, then to an Episcopal, followed by a Catholic, and rounding third heading for home with some faction within, pops out the other end a sound atheist; was never really looking for truth in the first place. Their idol is themselves, and it is evidenced by the smugness displayed along the way, and connection to those they have left behind.
“Can you not persuade him that “his religious phase” is just going to die away like all his previous phases? Of course there is no conceivable way of getting by reason from the proposition “I am losing interest in this” to the proposition “This is false”. But, as I said before, it is jargon, not reason, you must rely on. The mere word phase will very likely do the trick. I assume that the creature has been through several of them before—they all have—and that he always feels superior and patronizing to the ones he has emerged from, not because he has really criticized them but simply because they are in the past. (You keep him well fed on hazy ideas of Progress and Development and the Historical Point of View, I trust, and give him lots of modern Biographies to read? The people in them are always emerging from Phases, aren’t they?)
You see the idea? Keep his mind off the plain antithesis between True and False. Nice shadowy expressions—“It was a phase”—“I’ve been through all that”—and don’t forget the blessed word “Adolescent.” – Screwtape, Letter IX
Known By their Fruit
It would be far too on the nose to say of the religious seeker that the fault is not in their stars but in themselves. It is not fate that dooms men, but instead their own failings. It has been contended numerous times on this blog that many who profess Christ will say on the last day “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name?” and will hear back, “Depart form me you worker of inequity, I never knew you.” The sins of the recent fathers is to keep their children from the righteousness of the early and the Reformation Fathers. Instead they plied their therapeutic doctrines in order to draw crowds of peers, drawing in the mothers through the children who where just entertained, then were shocked and appalled that those only ever fed on milk, from the nursery up through the youth ministry were still drinking milk and hungering for more. But moving from milk to solid food is no overnight undertaking. The command to raise children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord is a long term undertaking. It should not be expected that one who has been on a skim liquid diet can jump to prime rib and not vomit it back up. Before this blog has pointed out that there is only a centuries worth of time between incense and candles to fog machines and lasers. Both the seeker sensitive and the Papist/EO are performance heavy. One just has had more time to spiritualize why they pageant in the way that they do.
Reformed theology isn’t easy. It humbles man to glorify God. It places the potter and the clay in their correct places. The shift from milk, to steak, to chocolate milk is not too much of a surprise. Men love their laziness, they love their pride, they love their spectacle. And apart from the sovereign intervention of God they will pursue these idols to their destruction. Reformed theology is the path to working out salvation with fear and trembling, there are no self affirming therapists to let you down gently, and no mediators to shield you from the awesome glory and power of the eternal and almighty God.
The answer, hit on so well by John in Dark Night and later expounded by John Owen is Mortification of Sin. You must loose your life to save it, not satisfy it with the right religious feelings and therapeutic TED Talks sprinkled with the odd reference to a nebulous “gospel.” Calvin reminds us that our hearts are idol factories, they must be shut down. Keller continues this though with his comment that we do not so much remove idols as replace them. This is why,
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” – Luther, 95 Theses
The ongoing mortification of sin can not be neglected, nor supplemented by finding other traditions (which often substitute the hard work of mortification for the different burden of works salvation penance). Mortification of sin is the natural response to the gospel. It is unavoidable, a person who neglects this, is simply not a Christian, there is no evidence for it.
The clearness of this doctrine is what drives others to ad hominem attacks, easier to shoot the messenger than to listen to the hard message. Therefore the rise of the therapeutic seeker sensitive church, the natural on-ramp to catholicism. Both obscure the gospel, one in old tried and true ways the other in newer innovative ways. It is often that those who pitched a tent briefly in the Reformed camp have criticisms after their desertion. Our formations are too rigid, our battle lines too firm, and our sergeants too harsh. They left “traumatized.”**
“Nowadays, of course, our ears are made so sensitive by the mad multitude of flatterers that as soon as we find we are not praised in all things, we cry out that people are vicious; and when we cannot ward off the truth under any guise, we escape from it under the pretext of the snappishness, impatience, and immoderateness of its defenders.” Martin Luther, What Luther Says
As Dark Night of the Soul shows this is not a new problem. Man left in his sin is fickle and selfish. For some reason this seems to have made Reformed pastors skittish. They are quick to load the young men passing through up with good books and it seems that the hope is that by osmosis the gospel will be noticed. Again this is like serving up a properly rare ribeye to an infant, granted one who can shave. A priest can just as easily load the young man up with icons and rosaries, and he will at least give instruction for use. And that young man will trip along on his merry way to hell.
I began with Doug Wilson and I will close with him. While these young men are on their spiritual journey lets no longer waste their time trying to appease them with meeting their felt needs. Instead serve up as Wilson would describe a hot gospel, the kind that melts ice and hardens clay. And since we are Reformed, the chips will fall sovereignly where they will.
*In the Driscoll case there were many examples of that lack on both sides to varying degrees. Wax misses the distinction between the excellence of character of, say John Piper, over and against a church boy who reads Piper books but lacks the kind of inescapable holiness Piper exudes. The ability to look spiritual while parroting theology does not equal piety.
**”Beelzebub what a useful word” – Screwtape, Screwtape Proposes a Toast