Myodicy, Issue 19, September 2003

Half-Hearted Thanksgiving

by Theodore Plantinga

Do you like being interviewed? I suppose your answer would depend partly on whether you are a celebrity. If you had the press after you begging to hear all your opinions and you knew you could nicely turn aside any question you didn't care for, I suppose it could be fun. Even so, many celebrities find it tiresome after a while and complain about having to submit to interviews. But for most ordinary people, the term "interview" triggers memories of nervousness. When we apply for a job we usually get interviewed, and we're always nervous about it.

What if you were being interviewed to find out whether you are a Christian? The very thought might strike you as inappropriate. Such an interview could well involve invasive questions, and so you might reply that only the Lord looks in the heart: it says so in the Bible (see I Samuel 16:7). Interviewing someone to find out whether he's really a Christian would be a futile exercise, wouldn't it?

Not necessarily. In Christian circles we do interview people to find out whether they are Christians. I can think of four settings in which we engage in such a process. First of all, many churches interview prospective members to assess the genuineness of their commitment to Christ and to the church, and perhaps also to ascertain whether their understanding of the Bible's teaching is compatible with what the church stands for. A second occasion for this type of interview is when there is to be a marriage between a member of the local church and someone who has never been a member of any church but now proposes to join the church of the intended marriage partner. Thirdly, some churches interview people who wish to receive communion. The practice of "fencing" the Lord's table is found among certain churches that maintain that the responsibility for using the Lord's table aright rests with the elders. Well then, the elders will need to look not just into their own hearts but also into the hearts of those who propose to partake. And so interviews of one sort or another are undertaken. Fourthly, we interview people to find out whether they are Christians when they apply for jobs in the church and in Christian organizations.

I've led a sheltered life: I have not been interviewed very often. But suppose I now had to be interviewed with an eye to proving that I really am a Christian. What evidence could I present? I suppose I could point to the fact of my church membership, which is lifelong (assuming that the people interviewing me accept the notion that a child can be a non-communicant member of a church, as I was). A second type of evidence I could point to is my professional employment, namely, my professorship in a Christian college. Thirdly, I could point to my writings -- a great many articles, essays and books in which I affirm my faith and explain various aspects of Christian teaching.

For some people, evidence of this sort -- however much of it we might amass -- does not count for much. It's always possible that the person presenting such evidence is a "hypocrite" (a term sometimes used in theology when such matters are discussed). So how could I go about proving that I'm not a hypocrite?

There's a time-honored way to do this: you have to come up with a convincing "conversion narrative." In certain Christian circles, such narratives are prized and are told often. Sometimes they are featured in worship services as "testimonies." If you were a Christian of this description, you would have a conversion narrative ready for any interview you might have to undergo. Of course it would have to be convincing, for the possibility of hypocrisy must always be taken into account. But if it is indeed convincing, if it passes muster as a conversion narrative, you can talk your way into the church and be seated at the Lord's table and perhaps even get a job in a Christian organization.

My aim in this essay is to discuss the question of conversion narratives in relation to church membership. There's an old yearning among many Christians to have a pure church within the church. This church-within-the-church would be pure in that it consisted solely of genuine believers -- no hypocrites. Calvinistic theology is wary of this ideal, although it tries to accommodate it to some degree by means of the familiar distinction between the "visible church" and the "invisible church." The visible church, we are told, is made up of all those who show up on Sunday or otherwise associate themselves with the church, whereas the invisible church is restricted to those who actually believe. Sometimes the invisible church is also thought to take in those believers who have gone to glory, and perhaps even those who are yet to be born but are already elect in Christ.

When Reformed churches use the terminology of visible church and invisible church, then, they are admitting that the church in the everyday sense, that is to say, the assembly of the believers who gather for worship on Sunday and perhaps also partake of communion, may well include some "hypocrites." Anabaptists are uneasy with this admission. Willem Balke, writing about the original Anabaptists, tells us:

The Anabaptists were not pleased with the distinction that the reformers made between a visible church, which is earthly and imperfect, and an invisible church, which is heavenly and pure. They wanted to restore the pure New Testament church; they insisted that the church is a holy people under Christ's dominion, without spot or wrinkle. They equated the church of the elect with the empirical congregation gathered at the Lord's Supper. [NOTE 1]

In distinguishing between the church as visible and as invisible, early Calvinists were trying to steer a path in between two other conceptions of the church. One is the notion of the national church, in which all the people within a given territory (usually under the rule of a single government) are considered to be members of the church. We often associate such thinking with Anglicanism, but it was also held widely in Lutheran circles, and even in Reformed and Presbyterian circles if you go far enough back in history. During the Reformation era, however, there was already an opposite impulse: there were Christians who wanted to have the church made up of pure believers only -- the Anabaptist ideal. And so it made sense to argue that baptism should not be administered until such point as the person to be baptized could testify to his own faith. Infant baptism was an invitation to hypocrites to take up a place in the church and was thus rejected. The Anabaptists often re-baptized (hence their name). A baptism that had been performed in one's infancy was not considered adequate or valid.

The Anabaptist ideal also spoke deeply to people in other traditions, who likewise yearned for a pure church in which there would be no need for a distinction between the visible church and the invisible church. The church would simply be church -- a company of sincere believers, each of whom could each give you a convincing conversion narrative. Or at the very least, any member could tell you at what point in life he had decided to become part of the church of Christ by being baptized.

The Calvinistic churches have had a hard time maintaining their position in between these two conceptions. In an illuminating book first published in 1940 and now reissued, Lewis Bevens Schenck explores some of these issues. His book is entitled The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant: An Historical Study of the Significance of Infant Baptism in the Presbyterian Church. It has recently been republished by Presbyterian and Reformed, after initially being published by Yale University Press in 1940. And while Schenck writes mainly about Presbyterians in the USA, certain developments on the fringes of Presbyterianism play a role in the theological development he explores. It is clear from the ground he covers in the book that what happened in and to the Congregational churches is in effect part of the Presbyterian story. The influence of the Puritans, not all of whom were Presbyterians, was a significant factor in Presbyterian history.

But the difficulties with which the Presbyterians wrestled were not just theological; they were also spiritual. Perhaps we could speak of the Elijah syndrome. At a certain point in his career as prophet, Elijah became very discouraged and had to be told by the Lord that he was not the only one left who had not bowed the knee to Baal (see I Kings 19:18). Indeed, there were some 7000 to whom that description applied.

Every organization tends to run out of steam after a while; it slowly loses sight of its original objective. So it is with the church of Jesus Christ. Elijah would have understood the problem: in the period Schenck deals with in his book, half-hearted thanksgiving was arising from the throats of many Calvinist believers in the United States. What was to be done? When Presbyterians looked at the other churches, it occurred to them that the path of revival was a possibility to consider. Perhaps one could make it a condition for church membership that one would have to present a convincing conversion narrative to be accepted into membership. If such a requirement were strictly enforced, only true believers would be occupying the pew, and there would be no reason to worry about half-hearted thanksgiving.

It was in the Congregational churches -- more than the Presbyterian churches -- that the problem was faced directly. An interesting solution was finally proposed: the famous "halfway covenant." Schenck make some illuminating comments on the halfway covenant. Another book stemming from the same time, written by P.Y. De Jong, gives more extensive treatment to the halfway covenant: The Covenant Idea in New England Theology, 1620-1847 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1945).

This halfway covenant, which was adopted by a synod of the Congregational churches in 1662, was intended to solve a practical problem that presented itself in connection with infant baptism. It seems that there were a number of people attending services who were trying to lead a Christian life but had no conscious conversion experience to report and thus did not seem to live up to what was becoming the demand, the norm. If such people were not able to testify of themselves that they were Christians by appealing to the widely accepted criterion, should they be permitted to partake of the sacraments? And if they were barred from the sacraments, what would become of their children? It seemed to many church leaders that their children ought to be baptized, but under what rationale, or on what basis? It couldn't be the usual basis of a public profession of faith made by the parents: no such profession had taken place or was likely in the near future. The halfway covenant was intended as the solution to this problem. It allowed for the children to be baptized even though their parents could produce no conscious conversion narrative but could only articulate their willingness to live by Christian doctrine. Schenck explains:

The first settlers became concerned that their grandchildren could not be baptized, since the parents of these children found themselves unable to give an account of their own regeneration which would meet the rigid requirements of the Puritans. The Half-Way Covenant was a method devised to remedy this difficulty. It permitted parents who acknowledged the claims of God in their lives and promised submission to the church's discipline -- though not professing conversion -- to have their children baptized. Thomas Shepard clearly states that many were admitted to the church who were not regarded as regenerated. [NOTE 2]

The halfway covenant was not a success -- far from it. It did not have the desired effect but only served as a further step in the continuing decline of the churches in question. And I would be surprised if anyone would propose returning to it today. Nevertheless, it is instructive to reflect on the halfway covenant and what was wrong with it.

Schenck has a theological agenda when he reviews this history. He is an advocate of the traditional Reformed rationale for baptizing infants, which he associates with the notion of the covenant: "For the promise is to you and your children ...." [Acts 2:39] The idea is that infants are not only baptized but are included in the covenant and are considered members of the church by virtue of their parents' faith. The promise is also for them. They are included in the fellowship of believers even though they have no conversion narrative to offer.

But there is a cost associated with following this Reformed path, namely, that it becomes necessary to set aside the ideal of a pure church made up only of "experiential believers" who can give you a convincing "conversion narrative." Schenck maintains that the big Presbyterian Church in the USA drifted so far from its covenantal moorings that it never managed to find its way back. (The problem occurred prior to the split into the Northern and Southern churches.) He does not survey the Dutch Reformed churches, although he does quote some theologians from Dutch Reformed circles who have dealt with similar issues.

I also have a theological agenda in discussing all of this: I propose to criticize the black-and-white thinking that underlies the notion that every Christian must be able to offer a conscious conversion narrative. I, too, am convinced that one can grow up in the church and be a genuine believer without being able to specify the exact time and circumstances of one's conversion. And so I defend the Dutch Reformed understanding of these things and affirm the validity of infant baptism.

But I would go further and also criticize the preoccupation with "hypocrisy." The fear that there are hypocrites in the church -- and that you yourself might even be among them -- is a factor in the spirituality of many Reformed people. How is such hypocrisy -- or the fear thereof -- to be dealt with?

As a philosopher, I cannot help but be reminded of the systematic and radical doubt which was implanted in our culture by the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) a number of centuries ago. In his effort to doubt everything that could possibly be called into question before rebuilding our body of knowledge on a secure foundation, Descartes taught our culture how to be skeptical. Among those who learned the lesson were various believers who wound up skeptical of the grace of God. In some cases it might be more accurate to say that their skepticism was directed toward their personal response to God's grace -- or perhaps it was both. And so it became possible to say to oneself: "I have been sitting here in this church for many years listening to the preaching, but I don't see any definite proof in my personal experience that the preaching has borne fruit within me. Therefore I should not go to the Lord's table, lest I wind up eating and drinking judgment unto myself" (see I Corinthians 11:27-29).

When people raise such doubts, they are actually wondering whether they love the Lord. In similar fashion, a married man might wonder whether he truly loves his wife. In a dark moment, it is entirely possible to accuse yourself of hypocrisy on this score. I believe the best way out of this dark alley is to undertake an honest and objective examination of how you treat your wife. If there are genuine feelings of love in your heart, they will issue in loving conduct. Likewise, if you regularly engage in loving conduct toward your wife, you are entitled to conclude that you actually do love her. And so it is with the Lord.

But there's still the question whether you love your wife -- or the Lord -- as fully as you should. Could it be that you sit in church and sing about "whole-hearted thanksgiving," using the words of Psalm 9, even though you are painfully aware that the spirit of gratitude within you is not all that it should be? Perhaps you admit to yourself that "half-hearted thanksgiving" is about as far as you get. Perhaps you realize that it's hard for you to give thanks: intellectually, you recognize that there is much to be grateful for, but you still have difficulty actually doing it. "I would like to thank the Lord for thus and such ...." Someone might then ask you: "Your intentions are good, but have you gotten around to doing it yet? Have you thanked him?"

And so it may also be with your love for your wife. That you love her may be beyond dispute, but do you love her as fully as you should? Do you treat her as a beloved wife deserves to be treated? I have not met many husbands who claim perfection on this score.

Very often the spiritual problem is that we become half-hearted and offer the Lord half-hearted thanksgiving. Kierkegaard understood the problem. We may sing with the congregation "Whole-hearted thanksgiving to Thee I will bring, / In praise of Thy marvelous deeds I will sing," but even as the words come out of our mouth we realize that we don't really mean it. Often the words in the psalms and hymns run a bit ahead of what lives in our hearts. As we sing, we become aware that our faith is faltering.

There are indications in the Bible that half-heartedness is an apt term for one of the spiritual problems in the Christian life. We, too, often prove to be "men of little faith" (see Matthew 6:30). Like the two men walking to Emmaus on the Sunday of Christ's resurrection, we may be "slow of heart to believe" (see Luke 24:13-32). We may need to cry out to God: "Lord, I believe -- help thou my unbelief" (see Mark 9:24). Very often the spiritual problem is not that we have no faith whatsoever but that our faith is not as strong as it should be. If we had enough faith, we could move mountains (see Matthew 17:20).

This realization, this theme in the Bible, is what makes me uneasy about the use of the term "hypocrite" in this discussion. I don't mean to suggest that there's no such thing as a hypocrite seated in a comfortable pew in the church of Christ. But if we are to use such a term, we must be careful to distinguish between its stronger and weaker senses. A hypocrite in the strong sense -- the kind of person from whom we shrink back -- is one who is consciously pretending, in other words, trying to deceive. He pretends to believe and to practice this and that, while in his heart he despises it. But the hypocrite of which some Calvinist theologians speak (using the weak sense of the term) is the person who sits in church thinking he is a believer when actually he has never been regenerated and never will be and is not destined for salvation. The possibility that you yourself might be a hypocrite in the second sense is what has pitched so many Reformed church members into a state of doubt and despair. This type of hypocrisy is dangerous and has been addressed by Herman Bavinck in his fine book The Certainty of Faith. [NOTE 3]

Bavinck has a keen sense of the extent of the problem of uncertainty. He observes: "Doubt has now become the sickness of our century, bringing with it a string of moral problems and plagues." [NOTE 4]

Doubt also assailed people in the time of Descartes and even in the century before, which was the great age of the Reformation. Bavinck assures us that the Reformers knew from within what the problem was:

[The Reformers] all passed through periods of fearful anxiety and deep discouragement. Notwithstanding his great faith, Luther often had terrible struggles with the devil and with reason. Frequently he had doubts about the rightness and blessedness of his reforming labors. Philipp Melanchthon ... was often oppressed in spirit. John Calvin ... testifies, no doubt from his own experience, that a believer can harbor many doubts and cares. But the difference between the Reformers and their later disciples was that they did not foster or feed such a condition. They saw no good in it and were not content to remain in doubt. They struggled to come out of doubt and they begged to be freed from it. The Reformers rose above it by the power of faith. Not doubt and fear, but steadfastness and certainty was the normal condition of their spiritual lives. [NOTE 5]

Some are inclined to think suppose that doubting one's salvation is part of our Reformation heritage, but Bavinck shakes his head:

The assurance of salvation is not something you can inherit; no one is born with it. Neither is it the fruit of human effort nor a reward for duties conscientiously performed. We seek it in vain in the treasures of this earth, in life's joys, in the praise of the masses, in the fame of scholarship, in the acclaim of the arts, or anything here below. In order to live comforted and die happily, we need certainty about the invisible and eternal things above. We must know what we are and where we are going. We must know that our personhood is more than a ripple in the ocean, that the moral battle stands far above the natural order, and that the highest and purest ideals of the soul are not illusions but reality. We must know how we can be liberated from the accusations of our conscience and from the weight of sin. We must know that God is and that He is our God. We must be sure we are reconciled to Him and can therefore approach death and judgment without terror. In all this, our greatest need is for certainty. It is the deepest, although often unconscious, need of the human soul. [NOTE 6]

Is there a solution to the problem of doubt and uncertainty? Bavinck would not have us go out looking, for we already possess just what we need. Bavinck draws our attention to the faith God has given us. In pastoral terms he assures us: "Whoever is stricken by guilt and crushed and honestly seeks refuge in Christ is already a believer." [NOTE 7] And so the certainty we need to keep our feet is ready to hand, so to speak. Bavinck explains: "... certainty flows to us immediately and directly out of faith itself. Certainty is an essential characteristic of faith; it is inseparable from it and belongs to its nature." [NOTE 8]

When we ponder Bavinck's advice, it is important to realize that faith does not stand alone, as though it were a poor cousin of knowledge, hoping to share in the latter's glory. No, faith is anchored in revelation and needs no support from science or "pure reason." Writes Bavinck: "Just as faith cannot be undermined by scientific argument, it cannot be convincingly established by it. It always rests on revelation, authority, a divine word, whether true or presumed, and is therefore always only a fruit of faith, a faith that -- for whatever reason -- recognizes this authority and bows before it in obedience." [NOTE 9]

And so I suggest that we need to overcome our modern preoccupation with doubt and uncertainty. If we did so, we could at the same time get away from our love of black-and-white thinking. I am convinced that the demand for a conversion narrative is an example of such thinking. Either you have such a narrative to offer, in which case you're a genuine Christian, or you don't, in which case you're not a Christian at all.

Rather than being so preoccupied with conversion, we might try thinking in terms of revival. Many people link these two concepts: whether you find it appropriate to link them or to allow them to overlap will depend on your theological orientation. If you are an Arminian in your theology, you can be converted many times. If you are a Calvinist you can be converted but once. Even so, a Calvinist's faith can falter: you could become a man of "little faith," finding yourself in sore need of revival. It is worth noting that the great revivals we have known, especially in American history, have involved some sternly Calvinistic preachers.

I mentioned earlier that in job interviews for positions in the Christian community, we sometimes try to find out whether the person being interviewed really is a Christian. I have suggested in this essay that such probing is inappropriate. When I am called up to participate in such a process, I am not trying to make an ultimate judgment as to whether there is any genuine faith in the heart of the person being interviewed. No, I'm concerned primarily with the person's ability to embody and express his faith within the context of the work to be performed. Will the interviewee become a productive member of the staff or faculty? Some people are not very effective when it comes to embodying their faith. They may be very deep believers, but they would not be good at communicating what they believe in such a way as to influence others for the good.

And so it's not for me to judge whether they are believers -- I need to take their word for it. But in the course of such interviews, we do try to judge whether a person's faith at the time of the interview process is fairly strong and vibrant. A person undergoing a very deep faith crisis, who perhaps comes across as a man of "little faith," is probably not a first-rate candidate for a position in a Christian organization, especially one that involves a fair amount of communication having to do with faith issues. And so we are also probing whether the person being interviewed is in what we might call a "warm" phase of his spiritual pilgrimage, as opposed to a "cooling off" phase.

In all such matters, of course, time brings about changes. No one stays forever on top. And so a person who is appointed after a good interview could well go into a "cooling off" phase after a while. There is no way to guarantee that this will not happen. Especially for those who serve as ministers of the Word, times of "cooling off" can become an occupational problem. If a vacation does not suffice to rekindle one's former spiritual fervor, it may become necessary to take leave of the ministry, either temporarily or permanently.

And so we're left with a practical spiritual problem: what does it take to keep your spiritual enthusiasm and fervor alive? I don't propose to answer this question in "how-to" fashion. Instead I will report simply that part of what keeps me warmed up, spiritually speaking, is what happens in church. I recommend church attendance: it works for me. I can think back to many occasions in my own life when I really didn't feel like going to church because of difficulties I was facing (including illness). I made myself go anyway -- I have always been disciplined in this regard -- and later found that being in church had somehow picked me up.

If that psalm about "whole-hearted thanksgiving" is sung early in the service, I might think to myself that it doesn't exactly describe my feelings, and I might be reluctant to sing along. But if the song were to come at the end of the service, it might strike just the note I need to articulate what I am feeling. And so I repeat: it works -- for me. [END]


Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals, trans. William Heynen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), pp. 155-156]

Schenck, pp. 54-55.

Translated by Harry der Nederlanden and published by Paideia Press of St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1981. Original Dutch title: De zekerheid des geloofs.

Bavinck, p. 8.

Bavinck, pp. 38-39.

Bavinck, pp. 12-13.

Bavinck, p. 85.

Bavinck, p. 86.

Bavinck, p. 24.

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