As a seminarian years ago, I pastored a small congregation. I was the preacher, the janitor, and the pianist. All for $5 a week. I sent copies of my weekly homilies to my father, whose responses were always prompt, kind, and helpful.
One day I was assigned to write a paper on Supralapsarianism (the view that God planned our redemption before the fall) versus Infralapsarianism (the view that God planned our redemption after the fall). I sent a copy of my paper to my father under the pretense that it was a sermon I had preached. I waited in vain for the usual prompt reply. When it did not appear, I wrote a follow-up note. “Did you get my last sermon?” My father’s response was crisp. It said, “I hope so.” For years we laughed about his answer.
Recently I was reminded of this long-ago incident by the appearance of an excellent article in our Calvin Seminary journal, written by Richard A. Muller, professor of historical theology. His title: “The Placement of Predestination in Reformed Theology.” His subtitle: “Issue or Non-Issue?”
It was the subtitle that sent me further back in time, long before I became a seminarian. I was 12, or thereabouts. It was a time when Supra and Infra (Muller’s subjects) were hot issues in our church. The Supras and the Infras did weekly battle in the Monday-evening Men’s Society meetings.
Some of the men got a little hot under the collar. The debate spilled over into the rest of the congregation. Supras distanced themselves from Infras. Even we youngsters got into the act of choosing our fathers’ sides of the argument, though we didn’t have the foggiest notion what it was all about. I asked my Christian school teacher. He said the matter was “peripheral.”
Peripheral? I consulted my small dictionary. It said, “Not central.” Funny how you can hear a word for the first time in your life and then run into it again the next day—or frequently. With hindsight, I think about how much energy in my growing years the “growns” spent on matters not central to our faith. Peripheral!
There was the earthshaking subject of the Christmas tree. Issue or non-issue? Some maintained it was sinful to have one in church. Also in our houses. I went to a Lutheran school before our own Christian school was brought into existence. I loved the very tall Christmas tree with its many lights, standing in the Lutheran church sanctuary. The atmosphere. The candles, along with more festive decorations. The robed clergy.
Our Christmas services were bare, dull, and drab by comparison. We didn’t even sing Christmas carols, for they were not in the Psalter. I still remember the argument opposed to Christmas trees in church: “We do not worship trees.” I bought the argument. But the Christmas program in the Lutheran church had it all over our own.
Another non-issue: Should we have the common cup for communion, or change to individual cups? As children, aping our parents, we joined whatever side they were on, even though we were not invited to the Table. One of my best friends, whose parents were opposed to my parents’ views, got into a fistfight with me, each one of us battling for truth. Principial? Peripheral!
When issues become non-issues, is it because we have become more lax? Less spiritual? Or more? And how about today? Do we still regard some matters as principial rather than peripheral?
I suppose there will always be such differences, as some consider principial what others consider peripheral. My first conclusion regarding all of this is that we must, where possible, always avoid harsh judgments on those with whom we differ.
My second conclusion surprised me. I came to it by way of a minister from another denomination. Hearing me complain about peripheral differences, he said, “I envy you. I wish we had them in my church. We no longer have any peripheral debates. A periphery implies a center. We no longer have a center.”
Should I explain? He meant the gospel.