I almost always enjoy quotes and excerpts I read from Michael Horton and the program he hosts, The White Horse Inn. On occasion, as I did again this week, I listen to a whole episode. Every time I do I find it very disconcerting and my “this is so wrong” klaxon starts blaring in my head. For those unfamiliar with Horton, he would be properly classified as a “rationalist evangelical” on the American Christian taxonomy tree. (That is very similar to the environment in which I was raised, so this essay is not unlike the righteous indignation a smoker can produce over cigarettes.) He and his cohorts are conservative Presbyterians from the old Scottish line of hard-scrabble rationalists who love systematic theology and traditional (as in “Scottish Kirk of 200 years ago” tradition) worship with a strong bias toward sacramental theology, that is, the actual John Calvin (and, narrowly in terms of the sacraments, diametrically opposed to what we typically call “Calvinists” today).
The centerpiece of their worship is “the preaching of the Word” and the centerpiece of their piety is the study of scripture in the context of prayer. The most hard-core of this flavor of Christians sing only the psalter in their worship and devotion (which, is not a criticism, merely an observation: One can’t get much purer in song than the Psalter.) And it is precisely this characteristic that causes my “this is so wrong” klaxon to blare in my head every time I listen to an episode of The White Horse Inn.
Ah, but how can the preaching and studying of scripture be so wrong? The one sentence answer is (and I preface this by emphasizing that I am not accusing these folks of heresy — it’s merely the context of the quote), “Heresy is not wrong teaching, it is an overemphasis on one facet of correct teaching at the expense of the whole gem of truth.” (Can’t remember who said it. Ironically, it may have been Richard Niebuhr summarizing one of the fathers or councils.)
Why, exactly, is the long form Michael Horton so klaxon worthy? First, it is the fact that for the whole span of church history in the east, “the passions” (those things that distract us from God and reality and enslave us in and to our sins) can be categorized under three categories (contemporary terms, since the traditional English theological terms are no longer used in everyday speech) of Will, Reason, and Emotion. These are the three ephemera that entrap us in the power of sin and death. Protecting us against undisciplined Will, Reason, and Emotion, is the Heart, which, when it’s vivified, stands guard at the door of the true self where we commune with and enter into union with God.
This is not to say that Will, Reason, and Emotion are bad. They are created by God and thus an integral part of what makes us human. But all three are terribly excitable and exciting (!). An overemphasis on the devotional study, exegesis, and sermonizing of scripture without the full context of union with God that is achieved through — not the scriptures but — the Living Word and Spirit, tends to excite our reason with thoughts about God without actually drawing us into union and true fellowship with God. Of course, the same can be said about Emotion. (And rationalist Evangelicals often make this point.) Singing praise songs that are more akin to popular love songs on the radio, praying in such a way that we enter into a frenzy of emotion, etc., will lead us to an emotional state that make us feel good about ourselves and about God, and thus is very satisfying, but has little to do with actual union with God and may actually prevent it, because we become so emotionally attached to our current state of being which we easily confuse with being attached to God.
Consider two Schnauzers from the same litter; one is well trained and the other raised in the typical American household. Both are on leashes and being walked down the street where there are things such as a lady watering her flowers, a prowling cat, a squirrel climbing a tree, a passing car, another dog coming the other direction, etc. The well trained Schnauzer is aware of all those things and is probably very interested in them as well, but it has the discipline to stay by his master’s side expectantly but quietly walking down the street. The other Schnauzer is constantly straining at the leash this direction and that, barking at the squirrel, yipping at the lady, aching to chase the car, lunging at the cat … all at the same time.
Will, Reason, and Emotion are like Schnauzers. Without careful and constant training, they strain and bark at every passing thing. Even our reason (something Westerners, and especially Scots — take Sherlock Holmes as an example — often try to pass off as naturally cold and calculating) creates a cacophonous racket running from this idea to that, enslaving us to thoughts, thoughts, thoughts, thoughts, thoughts, thoughts, thoughts (performance note: said like a barking Schnauzer), here and there and everywhere. Such noise and ceaseless activity lead to an inner life so frenetic (ie, the passions) that there is no space for the real God.
That was the first issue. The second is Evangelicalism’s conflation of “the Word” and “scripture” (and on this point theologians of the Orthodox Church frequently say the rationalist Evangelicals come very close to heresy). What do we mean by The Word? John 1:1 (and the Gospel according to John in general) is the most prominent place in scripture to start this consideration.
“In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” As you no doubt know, the Greek term for “Word” (ho logos) is a rich term, not only meaning “word,” but also “reason” or “rationality” and “order” or “structure.” Creation has both an irreducible order (logos) and life principle (zoe) which comes from Word (logos) and Spirit (pneuma) who come forth from the Father. In Eastern Orthodox writings the Second Person of the Trinity is normally called the Word. He is certainly the Son, both ontologically and by means of the incarnation, and “Son” also emphasizes the living and relational character of the Second Person of the Trinity; but his designation as Word (ho logos) brings to light characteristics that are especially important in terms of this present discussion. In order to understand that importance, let us turn to the purpose of the Christian life.
As Christians our life goal is union with God. While this is ultimately the purpose of prayer, service (alms), and fellowship, it is most clearly experienced in the Divine Liturgy. In the liturgy, the physical becomes the means (not just a metaphor, but the actual means) of our union. Icons are not merely pictures, they are “windows to heaven” through which we participate in the communion of the saints and can greet and visit with (or “pray to,” if you will) the Church Triumphant. The Liturgy itself becomes the vehicle for our participation in the Banquet of the Lamb. The water of baptism becomes the ablutions of the Life-Giving Spirit. The Word enters into our very being and becomes us through our orifices: our ears (through the singing, reading and proclamation of the scriptures), our eyes (the icons and the motion of the liturgy), and preeminently through our mouth (through the Eucharist where we eat and drink Christ himself).
These are not individual acts. They are whole cloth, where the Church comes together and is constituted, makes the journey to heaven in the liturgy, and enters into union with God through the sacramental actions which make up all the various and sundry activities we call the Divine Liturgy. Furthermore, it is possible that they can be whole cloth precisely because Jesus Christ is the Word incarnate (joining Creator and creation) and the Spirit is the vivifying Breath. All these actions become, in a sense, the embodiment of God that we take in and incorporate into our very being. We can call scripture “the Word of God” in a subordinate sense because it points to the Living Word, and, again, through the vivifying work of the Spirit acting on created stuff (the scriptures) truly becomes the Living Word who enters in and is incorporated into our very being.
In stark contrast, Evangelicals tend to reduce “Word” to scripture. Worship tends to become preparatory activities (songs, prayers, offering, announcements, passing of the peace, etc.) followed by “the really big show” — the sermon — with Protestant communion (what one of my irreverent Reformed professors called “the toast to Jesus”) either monthly or quarterly … rarely more often lest we make it too important and integral to worship.
To use another metaphor for union with Christ that Paul calls a mystery in his letters to the Corinthians, it is the difference between an evening of love making and fellowship culminating in sexual union, on the one hand, and, on the other, lecturing one’s wife (albeit a loving lecture) from across the country for 20 to 30 minutes over the phone.
As much as I love a quote or an excerpt from Michael Horton, The White Horse Inn always leaves me feeling lectured. (I suspect a Sunday morning spent with his congregation would make me feel similar.) I believe God’s not especially interested in that and thus calls us to the all-out sensuousness of Life in Christ as envisioned in historic Christianity.