Bracketology

During a recent trip to Wheaton College for a conference on evangelicals and the early church I talked to several faculty about president-elect, Phil Ryken. Everyone was favorably unanimous about his initial remarks to the faculty regarding his plans for leading the institution. Some still wondered, though, whether Ryken will escalate the Reformed influences at the school. For Wesleyans, that would not be a welcome development. Who knows where the Episcopalians at Wheaton are on Wesleyan-Reformed spectrum (they have enough trouble walking the tight-rope of via media as it is)?

I responded to many on the basis of what I have observed about Ryken. He will likely distinguish his own Reformed convictions from the centrist-evangelical identity of Wheaton. After all, he grew up in that environment, has studied Protestantism enough to recognize differences between the seventeenth century and today, and is capable of working along side Protestants from a different theological tradition (Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, for example). In other words, Ryken will bracket his Reformed convictions (whether on soteriology, ecclesiology, or worship) and work within the boundaries established by Wheaton’s statement of faith and other normative guidelines.

While this seems like a reasonable way to proceed – not to expect Wheaton to be the PCA – I wonder if the critics of two-kingdom thought would see such a distinction between the kingdom of Wheaton and the kingdom of a Presbyterian communion as either possible or laudable. After all, isn’t this bracketing of one’s ecclesial identity precisely what two-kingdom proponents advocate for the public square? We don’t expect public life to be the Orthodox Presbyterian Church but bracket the church’s norms when engaging social and political matters.

The point is that the sort of bracketing I imagine Phil Ryken will do at Wheaton is no different from the distinguishing of kingdoms performed by two-kingdom believers.

A couple of side issues do arise with this analogy. One complication is that Reformed believers who do work in environments like Wheaton’s may come to think that the interdenominational fellowship Christians enjoy at the college should really be the case in the church as well. In which case, the sort of boundaries the church draws to keep out non-Reformed teaching and practice will over time become an incumbrance or embarrassment for a Reformed Protestant. This is what happened to the New School Presbyterians.

Another complication is that critics of 2k will be tempted to think nothing wrong with the two-kingdom position imagined here. These critics might think that if only the United States were as religiously and morally plural as Wheaton College – meaning, only inhabited by evangelical Protestants – then two-kingdom theology would be acceptable. But if that’s the case, then why are two-kingdom critics willing to tolerate so much unbelief, idolatry, and immorality? Why don’t they all move to DuPage County where Republicans outnumber Democrats roughly 5.5 to 4.5?

Whatever one makes of these complicating considerations, the point stands: the sort of distinction between churchly and political identities involved in two-kingdom theology is already the experience of millions of Protestants in their vocational responsibilities here in the greatest nation on God’s green earth. It’s not radical. It is ordinary.

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28 thoughts on “Bracketology

  1. Dr. Hart,

    I am in the thick of A Secular Faith, and find the post quite interesting.

    Could a George Tiller, say, bracket his Lutheran faith, and do a procedure that is legal under the law of the land? Could he separate his religious and his secular commitments? If not, why not?

    Recall that Tiller was, until several years ago, in the LCMS, and so not just another liberal ELCA type.

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  2. Mr. Pierce, I would say yes, he could since that is the law of the land. Whether he could get away with that in his church is another matter. If the LCMS didn’t discipline him it is their jurisdiction.

    I presume you take this example as a tough one for 2k. But how is your example any different from Tommy Jones eating ice cream over at Billy Smith’s house even when he knew that his mother told him no snacks before dinner. Just because Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Smith disagree about late afternoon snacks, doesn’t mean that Tommy isn’t going to catch it from Mr. Jones when he gets home from work.

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  3. So, let me understand. He “can” do it, but he shouldn’t do it. IN short, it is morally abhorrent for him to do it, and the church should call him on it. Would that be correct?

    I don’t know if it is tough for 2K or not, simply trying to understand the position.

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  4. You mean that Ryken will be telling people that he personally prefers Reformed “distinctives,” but that really these are all non-essential and less important issues, and really non-Reformed beliefs/practices are just as Christian as his own?

    This is bad practice in any context. To me this “bracketing” sounds like simply being “Evangelical,” that is, minimizing “denominational” particulars concerning ones Christian identity. Not something Reformed Confessionalists condone.

    You seem to be saying that since a college is not a church, then the definition of Christianity changes, and Evangelicalism becomes sound? Please elaborate.

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  5. Ken, that’s my understanding. A Christian may do all sorts of things out there but get in trouble for them in here.

    Baus, so why don’t you go first? Please elaborate on why Reformed Christians should not work for institutions like Wheaton. And does that extend to the United States, which is “under God” but the Reformed understanding of God is not on our coins?

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  6. dgh – So how far can this bracketing go in the religious arena before you have shrunk the Reformed bracket down to being something of no consequence. I think some aspects of an Evangelical institution like Wheaton must full into the religious bracket. For instance, can a Reformed man pray at an evangelical meeting? If so, how? Can/should he preach at a chapel service? More than that, can/should he even participate in prayer at a faculty meeting. What are the criteria used in bracketing?

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  7. Paroikia, if working at Wheaton is at odds with your conscience, if you think Reformed identity holds that kind of significance that it cannot abide working along side Wesleyans, Anabaptists, Baptists, and Lutherans, then you don’t take the job. If you want to pray at a prayer meeting and the rules are such you can’t invoke the sovereignty of God, then you can’t pray. So I think the criteria is first and foremost one’s conscience and this pertains especially to worship like aspects of the evangelical parachurch. But when it comes to math, science, English, or political theory, do we really have to have a Reformed identity?

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  8. DGH, I agree with your analysis. Isn’t the dispositive fact here that a college is not a church? How in principle is working for Wheaton as president different than working for ABC Co. as president? If a Reformed person can work for ABC Co., why can’t he work for Wheaton? As you say, the bracketing that Dr. Ryken will do at Wheaton is no different from the distinguishing of kingdoms performed by two-kingdom believers in other areas of life outside the church.

    Since I have great respect for Dr. Ryken, if anyone can survive and thrive in the belly of evangelicalism without losing his own convictions, he can. I pray for his success there. But quite honestly, I have doubts about how this will work out for him and for Wheaton in the long term. I assume he’s not content to let the college status quo remain or why would he take the job? Therefore, he must have an agenda to nudge the college more in a Reformational direction. No matter how irenic he is — and he is — this an invitation for head butting. I hope he has a lawyer who negotiated a strong contract!

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  9. Information about George Tiller’s churchly history is here: http://steadfastlutherans.org/?p=5385. “His former congregation, Holy Cross of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, excommunicated him as an unrepentant sinner. But the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, which belongs to the ELCA, communes him.”

    Though the word “fellowship” is so elastic today as to be practically useless, you see that Tiller’s murders precluded him from the fellowship of the Body and Blood of Christ (koinonia) at Holy Cross. If a church sincerely believes that something an individual or another church teaches or practices is contrary to God’s Word, I can’t see how fellowship can be maintained.

    To bring that down to Earth, the question to ask Paroikia before he enters the prayer meeting at Wheaton is, “What are you planning to do here?” If he’s seeking to turn all the Arminians into TULIP lovers, he’s not breaking fellowship with his own congregation, but if he wants to do some kind of barebones Christian “fellowshiping” with folks whom he actually believes teach falsely, why call it “fellowship”? Why not just have a debate or a discussion about something rather than pray for conversions, e.g., when one bunch believes that men have free will to convert themselves and another bunch manifestly believes the opposite?

    Therefore I would distinguish between the bracketing that a carpenter has to do, wherein he doesn’t need to be talking about the Heidelberg Catechism while pounding nails, and the “bracketing” that the president of a confessional (they’ve got a “Statement of Faith”) college has to do, when he doesn’t share the confession of many attending or employed by that college. Wheaton is an ecclesiastical body in a way that a construction company isn’t, since the construction company has no statement of faith, catechisms, whether formally or informally.

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  10. Wheaton is an ecclesiastical body in a way that a construction company isn’t, since the construction company has no statement of faith, catechisms, whether formally or informally.

    But, Adam, I think CVD is exactly right to point out that Wheaton is actually an academic body and not an ecclesiastical one. I think that’s the hinge here. From a Reformed point of view, the marks of a true ecclesiastical body are a particular construal of the gospel, the sacraments and discipline—not that a body has a statement of faith (which rules out everything from parachurch bodies to academic ones, no matter how Reformed in character). The state may reckon them in some sense “ecclesiastical,” at which point they are together different from ABC Inc., but the state also reckons the Holy Temple of Divine Lettuce “ecclesiastical.” And the Church of Latter Day Saints.

    So I think it may be more accurate to say that Wheaton is creational body in a way that a construction company also is, and neither are redemptive the way the church is. Which is what makes it possible for Reformed believers to participate in both at any level (and with whatever tensions are involved), but mandatory to cleave only to Reformed churches (with whatever tensions are involved).

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  11. Adam, I think we can depend on Dr. Ryken to know where the lines are and to comport himself with integrity. But I suspect most of the work of college administration (even Christian college) is business rather than prayer, so the lines of intersection between faith and business will probably be few and short. I would agree with you, however, that where they interesect, it will be awkward and challenging for a confessionally Reformed man. Dr. Ryken is a remarkably patient, irenic man, who communicates without rough edges — so he could pull it off if anyone can.

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  12. Mr. Koontz spoke to the heart of my question, which was how does bracketing apply when the boundaries between what things are religious and what are not is not always clear. True, Wheaton is an academic institution, but it claims to be a religious one.

    In the OPC or the PCA context, is individual conscience the arbiter of bracketing or is the Church, by its authoritative proclamation of the Word, the arbiter?

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  13. Paroikia, in my understanding of the two kingdoms, the issue is not what matters can fairly be called “religious” and “non-religious,” but whether the instituion is a church or not. It’s pretty clear cut, I believe. (Admittedly, some 2K advocates, e.g., Dr. Robert Godfrey, would not lump everything neatly into one bucket or the other.) Wheaton does not claim to be a church. It is a common grace instituion belonging to the civil sphere, and its intention to be a self-styled Christian college does not change that. Westminster Seminary is not a church either, though it has a mission to prepare men for ministry in the churches. But it is run by a board of directors, not a consistory or session. The bracketing that DGH speaks of is intended to distinguish the ecclesiastical from the civil, common gracve sphere. Therefore, the kinds of rules/restrictions that govern members and officers of churches do not apply to common grace institutions like Wheaton.

    With that said, the session of the church in which Dr. Ryken may beomce a member, and the PCA presbytery in which is ministerial credentials are situated, may still exercise oversight over his person and life in the same way that any session has responsibility over its members, and any presbytery over its teaching elders who are ministering out of bounds. But the session and presbytery would have no obligation or power to interfere in his work as president of the institution (e.g., ordering him to make the official confessional position of Wheaton the Westminster standards).

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  14. dgh, you ask: “Please elaborate on why Reformed Christians should not work for institutions like Wheaton. And does that extend to the United States, which is “under God” but the Reformed understanding of God is not on our coins?

    It is not my opinion that Reformed Christians necessarily shouldn’t work for Wheaton or institutions like it. I simply don’t think a Reformed Christian ever has to “bracket” their Reformed convictions to do so. I don’t think such bracketing of Reformed conviction, and thereby taking the stance of an Evangelical, is ever appropriate.

    I also don’t see that this bracketing is required by your type neo-twokingdom’ism. It seems to me that in your view a secular activity (that is any activity outside ecclesial office, the Lordsday, or faith and worship) does not require “bracketing”. Rather, in your view such secular activities lack a necessity (and/or possibility) for Christianity to come into it.

    If these things are secular (non-Christiain) as you hold, why the need for bracketing of certain Christian convictions? You wouldn’t need to bracket something that categorically has no involvement in the first place, right?

    In my (neocalvinist) view one wouldn’t need to bracket one’s Reformed convictions because “religion” isn’t in tension/conflict with the nature of legitimate non-ecclesial activities.

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  15. Baus, I think the “bracketing” come in in a number of ways when working alongside non-Reformed Christians. One area is toleration of differences in order to achieve shared objectives.
    For example, Gordon Conwell seminary. A Reformed professor would work side by side with non-Reformed professors, attend faculty meetings together, develop curriculum together, pray together, and approve the graduation of students who wouldn’t subscribe to Reformed confessional standards. The Reformed prof may be asked to abide the teaching by other profs of classes that teach non-Reformed theology. The Reformed prof obviously can’t himself teach contrary to his convictions, or pray in a way that would violate conscience, but I don’t see a problem with a Reformed prof voting to approve a class teaching systematics by a non-Reformed prof as long as the Reformed prof can himself teach his Reformed convictions, or voting to approve expenditures on classes that teach contrary to the Reformed faith, or voting to graduate students who couldn’t pass an ordination exam in a Reformed church, or voting to approve the hiring of a woman professor even though she couldn’t be ordained in his church. I would say that is “bracketing” his Reformed convictions because Gordon Conwell isn’t a church.

    Another example: Dr. Ryken is on the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, composed of confessional Lutherans, Calvinistic Baptists, Presbyterians, Reformed, and Episcopalians. When the Council comes together, they work on areas of agreement without demanding that each other agree with their distinctives. For exaple, they may author a joint statement on the Solas, as to which all can agree even though not all agree on every other theological point. Or they may agree that the Alliance will sponsor conferences where other council members will speak on broadly Reformation themes. The Council jointly approves the conference even though not every Reformed member would agree with 100% of every member’s theology. But they agree with enough that they see value in the conference promoting broadly Reformational themes even though not every Reformed distinctive is stressed. And the Council may publish pamphlets, and not every word in every pamphlet would pass the confessionally Reformed test. The Reformed Council members have to “bracket” their Reformed confessions to work together alongside non-Reformed members for the promotion of Reformation themes.

    In the same way, I can see Dr. Ryken working side by side non-Refomred men and women in many the same ways at Wheaton. He may work with women clergy as profs whom he wouldn’t ordain in the PCA. He has to “bracket” his Reformed convictions because Wheaton isn’t a church.

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  16. Baus, something that is secular doesn’t mean it is neutral or irreligious. Christ is lord of the secular and the sacred in my 2k view. But the rules that apply in the church and that govern my authority in the OPC are not those that govern my life on the streets of Philadelphia. If I didn’t bracket in the city I’d need to bring up on charges a lot of folks involved with Gentlemen’s clubs and who go to the stadia on Sundays. Are you really being true to your Reformed convictions if you don’t charge all of your neighbors with violating God’s or the church’s standards?

    And do you really expect your Lutheran friends to observe Reformed rules when you are in their company? Do you live in a Reformed ghetto?

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  17. How is Ryken’s leading a prayer in chapel, under the authority of an interdenominational board, different from him leading a prayer before a football game? Which Jesus would he be referring to?

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  18. David, well, the football fans may or may not be Christian, but the students and faculty of Wheaton profess to be Christian. Why would you assume that the Wheaton students and faculty pray to a different Jesus. Why would you assume that Dr. Ryken would lead a prayer to a different Jesus?

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  19. CVanDyke, thanks for asking. If Dr. Ryken were praying under the banner of the Reformed creeds and confessions it wouldn’t matter who was in the audience. Missionaries come to mind in such circumstances were there is initially little or no faithful participation by the audience. I know that Wheaton is a very fine Christian college. But the problem is that the term ‘Christian’ today is a very broad category that embraces alot of nonsense that is anathematized by Paul as another gospel. I’m referring specifically to teachings of the modern American Arminian god who closely resembles Jesus but, sadly, is not omnipotent nor I daresay omniscient. Given the high level of thought and discourse at Wheaton, is a bare trinitarian standard adequate for invoking the Most Holy? I think Wheaton is a great place to converse and clarify, but to worship I think not.

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  20. David, I agree with your assessment that much of what flies under the label “Christian” today is problematic, and most of evangelicalism is Arminian today. I don’t know Wheaton well, but am prepraed to assume that Arminian theology is the theology of choice for most students and faculty. Correct me if I misunderstood, but it appears you would label Arminians as under Paul’s anathema because they worship “another Jesus” and have “another gospel”? If so, I think that is splitting the hair too finely. An Arminian’s profession of faith may or may not be genuine, just as a confessionally Reformed person’s profession may or may not be genuine, but I wouldn’t say that categorically Arminian theology places its adherants outside of saving faith. While an Arminian’s understanding of God’s sovereignty is flawed, that doesn’t mean that they cannot in principle exercise saving faith in Christ and his atoning work, resting upon him alone. I’d say they are confused about she mechanics and the details of how they came to place saving faith in Christ, but it’s still faith.

    So long as students and faculty at Wheaton make a profession of faith, and they do, doesn’t the judgment of charity compel us to take them at their word (unlell and until there is contrary evidence)? If we must and can accept their profession at face value, I see no problem with Dr. Ryken praying with Wheatonites.

    Finally, what does it mean to “pray under the banner of the Reformed creeds and confessions”?

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  21. CVanDyke, Thank you for taking the time to respond. By ‘under the banner’, I meant prayer in Jesus’ name well defined. I agree whole heartedly with you that we ought to assume one is orthodox until proven otherwise. I try to do that when I meet a stranger with no knowledge of him at all. But does holding to Arminian theology place one outside the faith? It depends. If one is a student, learning theology and discovering Reformed theology, then I would say no. But if one is a theology teacher and understands Calvinism and rejects it, I would have to say yes. (So maybe ‘bracketing’ is a matter of degrees, I suppose. The gamut would begin with the civil square, run through the para-church to the false church to the true church) If I saw Dr. Ryken praying at a football game I guess I would participate knowing he is in good standing at a NAPARC church. But I would also wonder, “Why is he praying at a football game?” And why worship in a theological institution that is ambivalent about Reformed theology?

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  22. David, just curious… how do you define “Jesus’ name well defined”? Can an knowledgeable Arminian pray in Jesus’ name? And would you say that trained, knowing Arminian theologians and pastors are outside the faith and damned?

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  23. CVanDyke, I think you would agree that if we heard a Mormon pray in Jesus’ name we would disregard him. Finney prayed in Jesus name but I’m not sure he even needed a savior. Billy Graham prays in Jesus’ name but I could not in good conscience say ‘Amen’ with him. He and I have different religions. I certainly don’t know if Wesley was saved, and I don’t care how pious he was but I am certain he led many sheep astray. God is no respecter of persons. James said, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Can someone knowingly reject the five doctrines of grace and be saved by ‘Christ alone?’ Does the Holy Spirit teach some men this and other men that? Think of men railing against Dort from the pulpit. Yes, I believe that a great many trained and well known Arminian pastors will simply (and fatally) not give God all the glory.

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