Speaking of Obscure Publishers

Next Step Resources, Inc. is the publisher of a new book on Norman Shepherd and the controversy that led to his dismissal from Westminster Theological Seminary. The author of Trust and Obey is Ian Lewiston and John Frame writes the foreword. Why a company that specializes in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School materials would publish a dissertation from an obscure academic institution (Highland Theological College) is anyone’s guess, almost as hard to fathom as Nelson Kloosterman’s endorsement of the book:

From this point forward, only the person who has read Ian Hewitson’s study deserves to speak and be heard … The Ninth Commandment requires nothing less.

But Frame’s foreword is more arresting that Kloosterman’s blurb if only because of the contrast between sympathy for a man who botched the gospel and hostility to men who don’t agree about Christ and culture. On the one hand, Frame agrees with Hewiston’s assessment of Shepherd:

[His] credentials — his moral integrity, personal courage and humility, impeccable scholarship, and commitment to the authority of Scripture — have given to the church and to the academy the pattern for Christian piety and scholarship. His commitment to, and passion for, “exploring the riches of divine revelation” coupled with his recognition that systematic theology is never a finished science, will provide a sure defense against “heterodoxy” for succeeding generations.

On the other hand, on closer inspection Sheperd’s scholarship may not be the bulwark against heterodoxy that Hewiston alleges. For when Frame comes to the specifics of Shepherd’s teaching he does an intellectual impression of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk (that’s the one where he walks backwards, right?):

I think Shepherd was right about James 2:14-26, but he should have presented it not as a new idea but as Reformed tradition: “It’s faith alone that saves, but the faith that saves is never alone.” I can’t imagine that such a way of putting it would have aroused the controversy that Shepherd’s view raised. But to some extent, he evidently wanted to create controversy, since he believed that typical evangelical, Lutheran, Baptist, and even Presbyterian preaching, for example, wrongly pitted grace and faith against gospel obedience. . . .

Further, I am not convinced of Shepherd’s view of election, or of his more recent denial of the imputation of Christ’s active righteousness. Still, even on these matters, Shepherd made serious arguments based on the Scriptures and Reformed confessional tradition, better on the whole, I believe, than those of his critics.

Frame’s mention of Shepherd’s faults may sound pretty negative but Frame bails out his former colleague by concluding that Shepherd bettered his critics. Frame fails to mention that Shepherd’s argument and scholarship did not persuade Frame. But then, no one ever pleases John Frame.

Logic aside, Frame’s foreword is striking. He is willing to add his name in support of a biased account of the Shepherd controversy. He is also willing to vouch in glowing terms for Shepherd’s scholarship even though justification has come under serious attack for the last thirty years. (He also doesn’t mind that Shepherd, one of Machen’s would-be warrior children was combative.) But when it comes to two-kingdom theology, Frame is more than willing to take off the gloves over a topic that is hardly the main hinge on which religion turns.

The reasons remain obscure.

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18 thoughts on “Speaking of Obscure Publishers

  1. Dr. Hart,

    You are on an odd track lately, seeking to disparage the quality of work done based on who is publishing it. This is as silly as when people accused David VanDrunen of Roman Catholic leanings because he published through a Roman Catholic press.

    As for Highland Theological College being an obscure academic institution; aren’t the vast majority of bible-believing Reformed schools obscure academic institutions? Does this mean that we shouldn’t take Cornelis Venema seriously because he is the President of the tiny Mid America Reformed Seminary (which is far more obscure than HTC)? On a personal note, a dozen years ago two full professors at Reformed Seminaries in North America recommended HTC to me as a better place to earn a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology than Westminster in Philadelphia. That may have been good advice. It may have been bad advice. But at least it shows that, in the mind of some senior Reformed theologians, HTC is every bit as academically reputable as Westminster Theological Seminary.

    Finally, it would be harder to marginalize this work if you mentioned that “Trust & Obey” was also endorsed by the distinguished theologian Donald Macleod and the highly regarded churchman G.I. Williamson.

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  2. David, I disagree about judging books by the quality and scope of publishers. I take a book from Harvard or Oxford UP more seriously as a piece of scholarship that something published by Greenwood. But aside from the matter of scholarly quality, which Shepherd’s defenders raise, something needs to be said for those authors who publish with presses that are not “in-house” or that have a wider audience than conservative Presbyterianism (or conservative evangelicalism – whatever that is). The editors at Zondervan and Eerdmans are not cheerleaders for 2k and somehow those editors believe that 2k arguments are sufficiently responsible to receive their imprimatur. The way anti-2k folks portray the situation — and most of them are publishing “in-house” aside from Peter Leithart who has yet to shop his anti-2k wares at First Things, for instance — is that 2k is an obscure phenomenon, sectarian, without any support in the wider reading or Reformed publics. Actually, the reverse is true when it comes to the Kerux crowd, Federal Vision, the unionists, and now Shepherd’s defenders. Even the other Donald Macleod, whose biography of Stanford Reid takes a decidedly different view of the Shepherd controversy, published with a Canadian university press.

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  3. Dr. Hart,

    You make a fair point: I confess that I also naturally grant greater academic respectability to books published by Oxford and Yale University Presses. Yet, if I ever decide to read “Trust & Obey” I will be glad that it was published through a more obscure publisher. I know that academics love to have their dissertations published by Brill or OUP – but then pastors like me can’t afford to buy them (this is particularly the case with Brill)!

    It is also worth noting that there is nothing magic about the editorial decisions at Eerdmans, Zondervan, etc … They are made by people who are professionals who take many things into consideration. For example, Zondervan publishes the important theologian Tim Tebow along with the “Made to Crave Devotional” to help people lose weight. Hey, guess what? Zondervan is a for profit company that wants to sell books. Zondervan doesn’t publish Rick Warren simply because they think he is the sharpest knife in the drawer. You know enough about the publishing world to realize that a large enough natural market virtually guarantees that some established publisher will publish that author’s book no matter how bad it might be (e.g. Benny Hinn w/ Thomas Nelson).

    There is no particularly good reason to trust the editorial team at a publishing house more than the well known theologians and ministers who are willing to endorse a book (particularly when this isn’t an in-house endorsing business where a publishing house like Zondervan has its authors endorse each others books). You may not think much of John Frame, Tremper Longman, and Donald Macleod, but they are significant endorsers for an unknown author’s dissertation.

    Best wishes,

    David

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  4. Dr. Hart,

    Please let me add: I don’t think that 2K is some odd sectarian movement. I am on the board of the Granite State School of Theology and Missions that invited you to speak in NH a few years ago and that has David VanDrunen speaking this Spring.

    Your brother,

    David

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  5. David, why do you think endorsers’ decisions are any less prone to market (or friend or former student) forces than editorial decisions? If Longman, Macleod, and Frame are serious about Hewitson’s account of the Shepherd controversy, then their judgments should be questioned more generally. (Not like Longman and Frame are Reformed stalwarts — I’m still trying to discern the fault lines of the Free Church in Macleod’s case. All may have personal as opposed to theological reasons for plugging Hewitson’s book.)

    The point stands — Frame does not give any credit to former students. It is unseemly the difference between his fawning over Shepherd and his trashing of Horton.

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  6. Dr. Hart,

    I haven’t read Hewitson’s account of the Shepherd controversy, so I have no judgment on whether the Frame, Longman, and Macleod should come under greater scrutiny for endorsing it. Assuming that you’ve read “Trust and Obey”, I continue to think you would do more good by interacting with its contents than dismissing its publishing house.

    Let me end on a note of at least partial agreement: I think the trashing of Prof. Horton is worse than unseemly. Regretfully, the over-the-top language is not limited to John Frame. The latest New Horizons contains a letter to the editor (“Militant Reformed Orthodoxy” on p. 21) by Bill Dennison which includes a paragraph that begins, “In spite of Horton’s capitulation to Catholic thought on this point, …” Capitulation?Really? Was it helpful to be that rhetorically provocative (to say nothing of the fact that the 2k tradition that has existed in both Reformed and Lutheran circles for centuries)? Nevertheless, I suspect my agreement with you is only partial – because I also find it unseemly how WSC faculty (my favorite seminary!) seem to go out of their way to snipe at Frame as well.

    Wishing the Reformed world a saner New Year.

    David

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  7. David,

    I told you it was a reflex reaction and that I might be wrong. It is hard for me to stomach the new perspective on Paul, Norman Shephard, Federal Vision, theonomists and some neo-Cal types who make obedience a condition for staying in the covenant. Or, those who don’t see the difference between the covenant with Moses (Law) and the covenant with Abraham (Gospel). It seems to me that they have to be living in some kind of cloistered world in order to believe that they are actually “trusting and obeying” in the way that Moses commanded in the Torah. Hence, they need to join the plight of the rest of humanity and communicate to those who are outside the covenant made with Abraham that they are sinners too in need of the work of Christ. Or, the way Luther put it to the pious Melanchthon: “Go out and sin boldly and then come back and boldly confess your sin to God, the Gospel is entirely outside of you.”

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  8. Wow! I didn’t know that anybody in the EFCA [parent of Next Step] had ever heard of Shepherd.

    In a related note, do you think John Piper might give Shepherd absolution similar to the one he gave Doug Wilson (you know, that’s just the way those Presbyterians are…)?

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  9. I thought it was funny that DGM folks felt the need to edit out some of John Piper’s defense of the Federal Vision from the “Why invited them” video for Doug Wilson in 2009.
    Not that Piper changed his mind on Doug Wilson, Wilson is a keynote speaker at his 2012 Pastors Conference.

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  10. Thanks Daryl. I love conspiracy theories…especially against those compromising exegetical theologians who aren’t really reformed.

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  11. Another addition: History proved that Melanchthon was a great sinner- pietistic, subjective and transformational Christianity has probably done more harm to the Church than those who get condemned by the pietists and transformationalists for their obvious sins.

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  12. Doug Wilson is paedobaptist and also paedo-Lord’s Supper. Of course Wilson gets there by a slightly different way than other “Reformed” versions of Zwingli’s argument from circumcision. In his booklet Thousand Generations, Wilson argues from the CONTINUING “sacramental” significance of circumcision (and passover) after the resurrection of Christ.

    As a credobaptist who is really glad to NOT be “really Reformed”, I think traditional practices become more significant than the pluralism of exegetical arguments that justify those practices. “That which has come about with the passing of time” is more important than the divergent ideologies behind the praxis.

    John Piper wants to start accepting paedobaptism as baptism, but so far his board has not approved the move….

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