Father God; Mother Church?
Daryl Hart’s provocative and penetrating collection of essays, Recovering Mother Kirk, is a profound read; it invites Christians into a way of life that at first sounds like an oxymoron (21-40) and secondly sounds like an evangelical swear word: high-church Calvinism.
Hart reaches out to evangelicals who, having grown fed up with the shallowness of evangelicalism’s individualistic revivalism and subjective idiosyncrasies, are taking the Canterbury Trail or the Roman Road in search of a more historic, objective, meaningful liturgy and Christian life. Hart’s appeal to such liturgical pilgrims is, “If anything, this book’s aim is to show that Geneva should be another option for Protestants seeking a corporate and liturgical expression of their faith.”
Hart’s call for recovering “churchly piety” is rooted in the riches of the Reformed tradition. The title and purpose of Hart’s book comes from John Calvin’s description of the nature and necessity of the church in Book Four of his Institutes (IV.1.4):
But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels (Mt. 22:30). For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for, as Isaiah and Joel testify (Isa. 37:32; Joel 2:32). To their testimony Ezekiel subscribes, when he declares, “They shall not be in the assembly of my people, neither shall they be written in the writing of the house of Israel” (Ezek. 3:9); as, on the other hand, those who turn to the cultivation of true piety are said to inscribe their names among the citizens of Jerusalem. For which reason it is said in the psalm, “Remember me, O Lord, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation; that I may see the good of thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, that I may glory with thine inheritance” (Ps. 106:4, 5). By these words the paternal favour of God and the special evidence of spiritual life are confined to his peculiar people, and hence the abandonment of the Church is always fatal.
Reformed Faith Drives Reformed Praxis
By unfolding Calvin’s implications for today’s evangelical scene, Hart seeks to call atomized, motherless Christians back to their organic “Mother Kirk.” This Geneavan/churchly way of life–and it is indeed an entire life system organized around glorifying and enjoying God according to His Word–demands recovering the connection between a theology of churchly Motherhood and her practicing of the corporate means of grace (i.e. WSC 88).
As a sort of road map to Reformed liturgical recovery, Hart skillfully weaves together key theological underpinnings that drive the praxis of Motherly piety: the spirituality of the church, spirit-filled worship according to the truth, special office, spiritual jurisdiction and discipline, liturgy and forms, Psalter singing, and denominational self-consciousness. Without these robust, scriptural truths, Reformed liturgy as a way of life cannot come into its own.
Master of Irony
Knowing full well that the churchly Christianity of which Calvin speaks is mostly alien in today’s American evangelicalism, Hart carefully uses irony to get behind evangelicalism’s presumptions, exposing the theological barrenness of Motherless Christianity. Time and again Hart points out that evangelicalism’s follies in practice arise from her foibles in theology.
Pay careful attention when you see the words “irony” or “ironically” in Harts essays, for he usually unfolds his theses close to these words.
While the book is a work of historical theology, not exegesis, Hart will challenge you to examine your own presumptions on key ecclesial texts such as:
- Jesus’ worship discourse with the woman of Samaria (John 4)
- Jesus’ institution of the Keys of the Kingdom (Matt. 16:13-20)
- Jesus’ statement, “where two or three are gathered…” (Mat. 18:20)
- Jesus’ Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20)
Humble Suggestions for Improvement
For a book so strongly advocating churchly piety as an entire way of life–and rightly so–the case for Reformed liturgy could have been strengthened even further by making more connections between Sunday life and the rest of the week. While this topic is dealt with briefly under the discussion on transformationalism (i.e. 172-175), the two cities/two-kingdoms concept is so foreign today that perhaps a couple of essays with titles such as, “What does it mean to be a ‘churchly Christian’ Monday through Saturday?,” and, “The other 6 days of the week,” could facilitate more consistent thinking about liturgical Christianity as a way of life. Along the same lines, common grace is a theological topic directly related to Hart’s two-kingdoms-type thinking, yet this topic is strangely absent in the essays.
In my mind Hart’s essays raise some good questions which they do not answer:
- How does family or individual worship relate to corporate worship?
- Are the corporate means of grace related at all to “private” means of grace?
- What does it look like to be a faithful Christian at my job?
- How do I evangelize and confess Christ before men without being a licensed minister?
- How does my purpose in life as a redeemed image of God relate to my vocation in life?
- What is the difference between “dead orthodoxy” and “churchly piety”?
Furthermore, the book does not address enough of the difficult realities of trying to live an organic/churchly/familial Christianity within a post-agrarian, industrialized, highly-mobile society. More essays need to be written both for ministers and laity on how to connect liturgical theology to life in the third millennium in concrete, rubber-meets-the-road terms (no urban or suburban puns intended!).
Two Thumbs Up
All in all Recovering Mother Kirk is an excellent, provoking, and intriguing read. Even if you don’t agree with all his points, Hart will stimulate your thinking about the the role of the church in your Christian life. I commend the book heartily, especially to Reformed church ministers and elders seeking to guide their parishioners deeper into the Reformed way of life.
- “Reviving the Liturgy,” a Relevant Magazine article by LisaMarie Goetz. While written from a broad perspective, Goetz explains that as more and more Christians become fed up with “seeker-sensitive” worship, they look to liturgy as a way to deepen their Christian experience.
- “Worship in the Church: Pastors’ Roundtable,” a Modern Reformation article: “Michael Horton talks with pastors from three denominations – Lutheran, Reformed, and Presbyterian – about what it means to give glory to God through worship in the church, and in turn receive God’s gifts of peace, righteousness, and satisfaction.”