Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists Apart

The following is an excerpt from my contribution to On Being Reformed: Debates over a Theological Identity. Here is how Amazon dot com describes the book:

This book provides a focus for future discussion in one of the most important debates within historical theology within the protestant tradition – the debate about the definition of a category of analysis that operates over five centuries of religious faith and practice and in a globalising religion. In March 2009, TIME magazine listed ‘the new Calvinism’ as being among the ‘ten ideas shaping the world.’ In response to this revitalisation of reformation thought, R. Scott Clark and D. G. Hart have proposed a definition of ‘Reformed’ that excludes many of the theologians who have done most to promote this driver of global religious change. In this book, the Clark-Hart proposal becomes the focus of a debate. Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, and Crawford Gribben suggest a broader and (they argue) more historically responsible definition for ‘Reformed,’ as Hart and Scott respond to their arguments.

Without further delay, one of the points that came to me in the exchange:

In both the case of Clark and myself, present-day concerns about Christian fellowship and communion inform assessments of the past, not the sort of integration of faith and historical learning that usually transpires in Conference of Faith and History circles where ecclesiology and creeds become barriers to scholars hoping to find fraternity warmed by religion. Pan-denominational efforts like Banner of Truth, ACE, or TGC need a Calvinism that includes Baptists, especially after the resurgence of predestinarian theology in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant communion in the United States. If Calvinism is narrow and strictly ecclesial, these parachurch organizations lose a potentially big audience for their enterprise. At the same time, confessional historians reveal their own biases as churchmen who use denominational boundaries to inform their reading of the past. The logic is fairly simple: if the United Reformed Churches do not allow Baptist pastors into the pulpit or behind the Lord’s Table, the history of Reformed Protestantism should reflect a similar understanding. Why exclude Baptists from Reformed ministry today but include them in the history of Reformed Protestantism? A scholarly move that is at odds with ecclesiastical practice makes no sense.

Even Lumping Has Its Limits

The six-hundred-pound gorilla in the historiography of Baptists and Reformed Protestantism is Lutheranism. Here the roles reverse, with predestinarian Baptists rarely including Lutherans in their recovery of historic Protestantism and confessional Reformed historians admiring Lutherans for their self-conscious ecclesial and creedal identity. Gribben, Caughey, and Bingham do not mention Lutherans, which makes sense because seventeenth-century English Protestantism showed no signs of a Lutheran influence. Clark and I, in contrast, regard Lutherans as confessionalists who are clearly not Reformed but who take their confessions, practice, and ministry seriously enough to regard broad evangelicalism and its parachurch aspects as solvents of a Protestant communion’s integrity. Consequently, Clark and I have little trouble recognizing and are willing to live with the reality that Lutherans cannot affirm the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity. For Gribben, Caughey, and Bingham, however, Lutherans are a mystery. According to their logic, if the London Confession is down stream from Westminster, then why not also argue that Westminster is an extension of Heidelberg, which leads back to Augsburg, which leaves Baptists an extension of the same theological movement that Martin Luther started? Instead of talking about Reformed Baptists, why not Lutheran Baptists? Furthermore, if parachurch predestinarians who refuse to baptize babies can claim that John Piper can affirm ninety-five percent of the Westminster Standards, one might also wonder how much of the Augsburg Confession the Minneapolis minister would dispute. Chances are that Piper could not affirm roughly four of the twenty-eight articles (on the sacraments and holy days), which makes him by one measure eighty-six percent Lutheran. Yet, Baptists of a predestinarian bent want to be included not among the Lutherans but Reformed Protestants.

One explanation might be that Luther was too earthy. His piety is much more off-putting than the earnest, worn-on-the-sleeve pursuit of holiness that typified the Puritans. Another factor is cultural. In the English-speaking Protestant world, Baptists and Presbyterians share a common history and culture that makes similarities easier to conceive than thinking of German Protestants, who have no stake in the British monarchy, the English ecclesiastical establishment and the dissenters it created, or American independence, as fellow believers. German and English Protestants have distinct histories and that makes Lutheranism seem foreign to most Anglo-American Protestants while Calvinism feels familiar, part of the religious landscape, for English-speaking Protestants.

In the end, though, the question is not historical or cultural but one of authority, namely, who decides whether Baptists are part of Reformed Protestantism? Do historians and parachurch leaders or is the decision the task of church officers? Of course, a royal commission of federal agency charged with categorizing Protestant groups could readily solve the dispute but those days are long behind. So the duty of policing Reformed Protestantism’s boundaries has to fall to non-governmental agencies.

This has bearings on both the Theological Dark Web and the Ecclesiastical Dark Web: Luther is too dark for evangelicals and Baptists, communions are too complicated.

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The More Evangelical You Become, The Less Presbyterian

On this morning’s broadcast with Angelo and company, I heard Carson Wentz describe the bond he shares with Nick Foles by virtue of a common faith.
I’m sure many evangelicals were encouraged.

But I could not help but wonder what would happen when Carson learned that his Lutheran church (I’m speculating) would not welcome Nick to preach because the Eagle’s backup QB is evangelical, not Lutheran. What happens when ecclesiastical requirements get in the way of the bond that comes from being born-again? What even happens if being Presbyterian gets in the way of participating in The Gospel Coalition? The Allies claim “We are a fellowship of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.” How can that be? How can you be evangelical and in the Reformed tradition “deeply”?

This is a fundamental tension between Protestants who trace their roots back to the Reformation (Anglican, Reformed, Lutheran) and those who only go as far as the First Pretty Good Awakening. For confessional Protestants, fellowship has standards. But for evangelicals, the bar is low.

And that is why you need to give up a lot if you are a Presbyterian to become an evangelical. If beliefs and practices about theology, worship, and church government matter to being a Christian, then the Reformation gets in the way of being evangelical. But if being born-again is what matters, then you don’t really need the Reformation.

Machen knew the score on this one (came across this after hearing Angelo and Carson):

One of the very greatest evils of present-day religious life, it seems to me, is the reception into the Church of persons who merely repeat a form of words such as “I accept Christ as my personal Saviour,” without giving the slightest evidence to show that they know what such words mean. As a consequence of this practice, hosts of persons are being received into the Church on the basis, as has been well said, of nothing more than a vague admiration for the moral character of Jesus, or else on the basis of a vague purpose of engaging in humanitarian work. One such person within the Church does more harm to the cause of Christ, I for my part believe, than ten such persons outside; and the whole practice ought to be radically changed. The truth is that the ecclesiastical currency in our day has been sadly debased; Church membership, as well as Church office, no longer means what it ought to mean. In view of such a situation, we ought, I think, to have reality at least; instead of comforting ourselves with columns of church statistics, we ought to face the facts; we ought to recall this paper currency and get back to a standard of gold.

To that end, it should, I think, be made much harder than it now is to enter the Church: the confession of faith that is required should be a credible confession; and if it becomes evident upon examination that a candidate has no notion of what he is doing, he should be advised to enter upon a course of instruction before he becomes a member of the Church. Such a course of instruction, moreover, should be conducted not by comparatively untrained laymen, but ordinarily by the ministers; the excellent institution of the catechetical class should be generally revived. Those churches, like the Lutheran bodies in America, which have maintained that institution, have profited enormously by its employment; and their example deserves to be generally followed. (What is Faith?, 156-57)

If You Can Give Up KJV English in the Bible, Why not the Confession of Faith?

The recent General Assembly of the OPC established a special committee to study the value of producing a modern English version of the Westminster Standards. Here‘s a little window into the OPC’s deliberations from the daily GA report:

As part of the work of the Committee on Christian Education, on motion, the body approved this: “That the Eighty-fifth (2018) General Assembly notify the member churches of NAPARC and other appropriate church bodies with which we have fellowship that it has erected a special committee to propose linguistic updating of the doctrinal standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and include details of the specific mandate, and that it welcomes any input that such churches might desire to give with respect to such proposed linguistic revision.”

Speeches for and against may have depended too much on how deeply commissioners had dug in their heels. For advocates, a modern version would seem to promise a millennium of broad and popular acceptance of Reformed Protestantism. I’m not so sure. For opponents, the arguments sounded a lot like reasons to retain the King James Version. I’m not so sure. If we can welcome modern English versions of the Bible, why not our Standards? One reason is that they come in English, not German, French, or Dutch. Which is to say that CRC and URC Synods have had no trouble updating English versions of the Heidelberg Catechism, for instance, because those communions are not invested in English the way Presbyterians are. If the original is in English, English-speakers tend to think the text is sacrosanct. Same goes for the Bible. If we talked about modern Hebrew versions of the OT, or modern Greek versions of the NT, after scratching their heads (what’s the point?), commissioners would likely object.

A related concern is a teaching device as opposed to a theological standard. If the Confession were like the chemist’s chart of elements, we would likely not want a modern version, better life through chemistry and all. People using the Standards as a benchmark for theological clarity don’t mind requiring users to suffer with the alien words and forms. “Eat your broccoli.” But if you have a chemistry textbook from the 18th century, revising the language for contemporary use in the classroom makes some sense. In which case, the appointed committee may propose a modern language version of the Standards that functions as a teaching device while recommending the old English version for theological exams and the Constitution. I say “may.” I have no direct access to the committee (which hasn’t even met!).

I would recommend to the committee and everyone else, though, a podcast I heard this week. It is an exchange between linguist, John McWhorter and Mark Ward, a Bible software engineer for Logos, on King James English. Ward is also the author of a book on the KJV which goes through fifty examples of how modern readers, even ones who are well educated, don’t understand the Bible (if only because the only way to discern seventeenth-century meanings is by consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, an expensive addition to any family or church library).

The podcast is a bit of a love fest because McWhorter’s arguments for updating Shakespeare convinced Ward to revise his arguments about the KJV. Here‘s part of McWhorter’s argument (beware the Jesuits):

Most educated people are uncomfortable admitting that Shakespeare’s language often feels more medicinal than enlightening. We have been told since childhood that Shakespeare’s words are “elevated” and that our job is to reach up to them, or that his language is “poetic,” or that it takes British actors to get his meaning across.

But none of these rationalizations holds up. Much of Shakespeare goes over our heads because, even though we recognize the words, their meaning often has changed significantly over the past four centuries. . . .

It is true that translated Shakespeare is no longer Shakespeare in the strictest sense. But are we satisfied with Shakespeare’s being genuinely meaningful only to an elite few unless edited to death or carefully excerpted, with most of the rest of us genuflecting in the name of “culture” and keeping our confusion to ourselves? Should we have to pore laboriously over Shakespeare on the page before seeing his work performed?

At the same time, the exchange has the advantage of listening to a sophisticated New Yorker, professor at an Ivy League university, who seems to have no religious preferences, talking respectfully, even warmly, to an avowed evangelical with a terminal degree from Bob Jones University. You almost think you’ve gone back to the 1950s.

One Take Away from Royal Wedding

Baptism matters.

The bride, Meghan Markle, we learned, grew up in a Christian home but was never baptized. For shame. What kinds of churches don’t sweat the Great Commission, as in “baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost”?

Q. 94. What is baptism?
A. Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.

Q. 95. To whom is baptism to be administered?
A. Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him; but the infants of such as are members of the visible church are to be baptized. (Shorter Catechism)

So, a little less than three months ago, in order to belong to the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury baptized Ms. Markle:

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, confirmed that he baptized the former “Suits” actress into the Church of England last week. Though he admitted he can’t reveal much about the actual ceremony, which took place at St. James’s Palace in London, he described it as “very special.”

“It was beautiful, sincere and very moving,” Welby told ITV News in a report published Friday. “It was a great privilege.”

Of course, baptism in a state church context means that the sacrament carries more baggage than it should:

Meghan Markle’s baptism, by Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, is a necessary precondition for her marriage to HRH Prince Harry, younger son of the Prince of Wales and currently fourth in line to the throne of the United Kingdom. Her May marriage will bring her into the Royal Family, and attendance at Church of England services from time to time will be part of her public life — from Christmas Day in a village church in Norfolk to formal gatherings marking national events in Westminster Abbey. Hence the baptism.

But the point stands. To belong to the church means receiving the mark of the church. And access to the Lord’s Supper requires (along with true faith and belonging to a faithful church) being baptized. Heck, even to marry another church member (of a faithful — or gospelly — communion) means needing to be a Christian, which means needing to be baptized.

So none of this Jesus in my heart, be a part of the fellowship, feel the buzz of the Spirit without the rites and ceremonies of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the word preached and read. The Church of England may gum up the ecclesiastical works by tying matters of state to church forms. But they followed the right pattern in this case by requiring baptism for church membership.

How Orthodox Presbyterians became PCA

Another way to supplement Chris Gordon’s post about the demise of confessionalism in the CRC and lessons for the PCA is to consider what happened to the OPC after the failure of union between the CRC and the OPC.

The merger that the OPC and CRC contemplated between 1956 and 1972 never took place but at roughly the same time that those negotiations died, the PCA was born and for the next twenty years became the chief player in ecclesiastical mergers-and-acquisitions. First the PCA acquired in 1982 the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (an earlier merger of revival-friendly Covenanters and dissident – read agreeable – Bible Presbyterians of the McIntire variety) and then the PCA almost in 1986 absorbed the OPC (a majority of Orthodox Presbyterians voted in favor but not by the two-thirds majority required for sending the plan to presbyteries for ratification). In the aftermath of that failed plan for Joining & Receiving, congregations in the OPC and PCA had the liberty to re-align if they chose. This was opening for a number of New Life churches (among them the Glenside congregation where Tim Keller learned the ways of New Life Presbyterianism) to join the PCA during the late 1980s.

Again, a piece of OPC history (self-promotion alert) that fills out Gordon’s observations:

In 1988 the effects of the OPC’s change of direction were still visible but not altogether clear. Again the church experienced a growth numerically, rising to 19,422 members but it also lost two more congregations to the PCA, one (New Life) in Philadelphia and one in Southern California. Only in 1989 did the OPC’s statistician start to notice these numerical changes as part of a “step backward.” That year was the peak of membership and congregational loss. The church’s total membership decreased by 3.5 percent to 18,689. [ed. no snickering] Meanwhile, five congregations transferred to the PCA, among them New Life in Escondido, California. This was the same year that the Assembly’s decisions about Bethel church took their toll. A majority of the Wheaton congregation (162 out of 301) left the OPC to form an independent congregation, which eventually affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. In 1990 the “step backward” statistically lengthened. The OPC lost another 546 members and three congregations; among them New Life, Glenside, joined the PCA. Only by 1991 did the hemorrhaging stop and membership begin to rise again. In 1992 the OPC added 525 members and total membership increased to 18,767.

The movement of OPC congregations into the PCA was the occasion for a exchange between John M. Frame and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. in New Horizons on realignment at the same time that statistics were revealing the consequences of congregational transfers. It was a telling exchange because it revealed an important aspect of Orthodox Presbyterianism that after the semi-centennial was beginning to reassert itself within the life of the communion and causing sufficient discomfort for others to look for another denominational home. That characteristic of Orthodox Presbyterianism was the Reformed doctrine of the church in which membership in particular communion was not a supplement to Christian identity but its embodiment. As Gaffin explained in this exchange, the OPC was not merely a denomination; “it is a church, a church that exists by divine warrant.” As such, he added, “Biblical presbyterianism has no place for loyalties torn between the denomination and the local congregation, or for greater loyalty to either one.” In contrast, Frame, who was then an associate pastor of the New Life congregation in Escondido that had realigned with the PCA, explained that the reason for transferring was to partner more effectively with other church planting efforts in southern California. Denominational affiliations for him were at best accidental, at worst sinful. Either way, he hoped that denominational “barriers” would become less important and that Orthodox Presbyterians would understand that transferring to the PCA was not a sign of disloyalty or contempt. The move was simply practical.

Clearly, Frame did not see the switch to the PCA as the serious risk that Gaffin said it was. Gaffin believed such transfers were dangerous because they nurtured a mind set that increased divisions in the church, not along lines of biblical witness, but according to personal preferences or styles of ministry. As such, Gaffin was expressing a doctrine of the church that had deep roots in American Presbyterianism reaching back to Old School Presbyterianism and even to the Old Side Presbyterians of the colonial era. Frame, in contrast, was more typical of a view of the church characteristic of New School and New Side Presbyterians, where the formal work of ministry was supplemental to the religious endeavors of all believers. In other words, whether Frame or Gaffin acknowledged the history of American Presbyterianism in their reflections, they spoke volumes about Orthodox Presbyterianism and how it emerged and developed in relation to its Presbyterian past. Among the many convictions for which the OPC had stood historically, the doctrine of the church as part of biblical teaching and necessary for faithful witness was one of the hallmarks of Orthodox Presbyterianism. During the 1970s and 1980s that ecclesial conviction had begun to wane if only because it was not producing the size and influence that some Orthodox Presbyterians desired. But as the OPC began to take stock of its past, it also recovered one of its most noticeable features. Furthermore, just as that commitment to biblical Presbyterianism had been a source of frustration to Bible Presbyterians in the 1930s, neo-evangelicals in the 1940s, and more generally to Orthodox Presbyterians like Edwin H. Rian who had hoped the OPC would turn out to be a conservative version of culturally established and respectable Presbyterianism, so in the late 1980s as the OPC recovered its doctrine of the church some felt compelled to look for better, friendlier, or less restrictive expressions of American Presbyterianism than the OPC. (Between the Times, 316-18)

In other words, the consequences of Reformed ecumenism from the 1970s and 1980s were having consequences for all of the players — the CRC, OPC, and PCA. Where Presbyterians went, their forms of association, and their understand of the church were factors in the witness they embraced.

How the OPC Avoided becoming the CRC

Chris Gordon’s piece on how the CRC lost its Reformed bearings has wisdom not only for noticing similarities between the CRC and New Calvinists but also contains a warning about developments in the PCA:

NAPARC churches should not forget their older brother, the CRC. Unless these concerns are taken seriously, I foresee the PCA and other Reformed denominations following this trajectory heading for fights, splits, and empty pews. They will be on a fast track to becoming just another mainline liberal denomination scratching its head at General Assembly meetings as they desperately try to find answers. I pray that my dear brothers and sisters in NAPARC will hear this humble plea from a brother in Christ who learned how true it is that those who forget their (church) history, are most certainly doomed to repeat it.

One difference between the CRC and PCA is the former’s ethnic outsider self-identity compared to the latter’s effort to become the Presbyterian insider. In other words, the CRC wanted to leave the ghetto and enter the mainstream; one way to do that was to embrace some forms of evangelicalism. For a time the CRC even considered merging with the OPC (as explained in Between the Times — self-promotion alert!):

Decreasing familiarity with the OPC was one of the factors to which Henry Zwaanstra pointed in this study of the CRC’s ecumenical relations. In fact, his narrative highlights developments in 1967 as decisive for sinking the project. The previous year, according to Zwaanstra, the OPC’s committee was requesting “their general assembly to declare that the joint committee should work toward the definite goal of organic union.” But the following year, the OPC’s Assembly “retired its representatives from the joint committee and appointed new members.” The reason for the new appointments, according to Zwaanstra, was “mandate to investigate trends toward Liberalism in the CRC.” . . .

Indeed, the overwhelming factor that prompted the OPC to worry about liberal theological trends in the CRC was a re-ignition of anti-liberal polemics during the mid-1960s over the PCUSA’s adoption of The Confession of 1967. During the 1960s leadership within the OPC spent considerable time disputing the mainline Presbyterian Church’s revision of its confessional standards and faulting the denomination for embracing a Barthian doctrine of the Word of God. This view, exhibited in the Confession of 1967, distinguished in effect between the sort of encounter with divine revelation that came through Scripture rather than regarding Scripture itself, its words, paragraphs, and books, as the Word of God. One Orthodox Presbyterian who was particularly vocal in defending the Reformed doctrine of Scripture and in criticizing was E. J. Young, newly appointed to the OPC’s committee to confer with the CRC. The Old Testament professor was by no means insensitive to the assistance the CRC had given to the OPC since Young had served with the likes of Van Til, Stonehouse, and Kuiper, and as a renowned scholar had trafficked in Christian Reformed circles at conferences and lectures. And yet, Young was adamant in his diagnosis of Barthian developments in the PCUSA and was likely sensitive to similar trends in the CRC even if evident in much less noticeable ways.

Thanks to arguments by Young and Van Til, for instance, by the second half of the 1960s the OPC’s sensitivity to defective expressions of the doctrine of Scripture was at an all time high and undoubtedly many pastors and teachers detected echoes of a Barthian view in Dutch Calvinist circles. Whether members of the CRC themselves actually resembled Barth or were simply guilty of not condemning Barth’s influence upon the GKN is a debatable point. Either way, the controverted status of Barthianism for Orthodox Presbyterians was certainly a factor in the growing distance between the OPC and the CRC. (161-62)

The OPC did not have a front-row seat to changes in the CRC, but it had more familiarity than most Presbyterian churches. In which case, reading about OPC-CRC relations between 1956 and 1970 is a supplement to Gordon’s post (read: buy the book).

Imagine if the PCA were Big Enough

Then you wouldn’t need the Gospel Coalition.

So why don’t the leaders of neo-neo-evangelicalism acknowledge that a parachurch organization with a public profile generated largely by the world-wide interweb used by celebrity pastors who sometimes go to conferences and meet with ordinary neo-neo-evangelicals is a capitulation to contemporary culture? Where is all the discernment that comes from reading sociology, history, and cultural and art criticism?

What if limiting your ministry to the confines of a communion is counter-cultural? Is being counter-cultural simply a pose or does it also require subtraction — rejecting (at least some aspects of) culture?

Then, these reflections might lose some of their pietistic earnestness (sorry for the redundancy):

“If they are not controlled by Scripture and confessionalism, then of course [evangelicals] are going to fit into the grid of the broader and more secular culture,” Carson said. “By and large, these cultural evangelicals work out their cultural bondage in more conservative ways than their agnostic counterparts, but it is difficult to believe that racism is less evil than sexual promiscuity.”

Exactly. And if pastors let confessions and church polity control their ministry, they might put their own communion, the one in which they vowed to minister God’s word and the holy sacraments, ahead of all other extra-denominational activities. In other words, can you really act like you are being counter cultural when the rest of the culture is turning from denominational Christianity to none (denominational) Christianity?

“I see TGC as occupying the same space that evangelicalism’s founding fathers—like Carl Henry, Harold Ockenga, John Stott, J. I. Packer, and Billy Graham—occupied,” Keller said. They wanted to be evangelicals, not fundamentalists; to engage with non believers and with society, and not just to withdraw, Keller said.

“We don’t want to be pietists, but we don’t want to be captive to the spirit of the age either,” Keller said. “But that is actually a hard place to be. It’s a lot easier to retreat to your fortress or to just go along with the crowd. But TGC, from the very beginning, wanted to avoid going in either direction. We wanted to be prophetic from the center, as Don [Carson] says.”

What would really be counter-cultural would be commitment to word-and-sacrament ministry when the spirit of the age, thanks to Henry, Ockenga et al, is to overlook considerations like baptism, the Lord’s supper, ordination, and the sufficiency of Scripture (which would limit pastors from dabbling in sociology and cultural criticism).

In point of fact, creating a brand though social media, the way the gospel allies do, is about as beholden to the zeitgeist as someone could imagine. When I think of being counter-cultural, I don’t think of the Gospel Coalition. I think of the Amish.

Post-script: notice that evangelicalism didn’t start with Luther, the Puritans, Edwards, or Finney. It began in the 1940s. What I’m saying.

See What Keller Did Now?

Tim Keller has made the history of Presbyterianism obsolete. Look at the way Jake Meador describes the challenges facing young pastors in the PCA:

… young Presbyterian pastors, many of whom are on university campuses with RUF or working in gentrifying urban neighborhoods, face enormous class-based pressure to conform to certain progressive cultural norms. These pressures make themselves felt in a variety of ways.

First, there is a strong and classic American pull toward being dismissive of the past, toward what is established, and to embrace what is new. This temptation exerts an even stronger pull than normal on many young PCA pastors because many younger pastors and RUF guys have strong entrepreneurial tendencies. While this is often a very good thing—indeed, it’s what makes it possible for them to succeed as church planters and RUF pastors—this same trait can make them naturally inclined to be dismissive toward established norms, policies, and beliefs, especially when they are surrounded by other young people with the same entrepreneurial sensibilities. It is probably not a coincidence, in other words, that the most famous “Kellerite” to go progressive is pastoring in San Francisco, the capital of Silicon Valley.

In addition to the disregard for things that are older, established, etc. there is also strong cultural pressure to embrace a kind of bourgeois bohemian lifestyle—buy a cute house in the gentrifying neighborhood, embrace the careerism, food and exercise regimen, lifestyle trends, and broadly progressive ethos of your neighbors. You can even say you’re just being outreach-focused as you do it. While none of these things are bad in isolation, taken together they’re all steps that involve embracing the norms of a younger bobo sub-culture. And if you’re embracing those norms out of a desire to be liked rather than a pure desire to make the Gospel sensible, it will be disastrous.

But, of course, it is all very complicated: Essentially, these are young pastors being handed different cultural scripts and asked to choose which ones to follow. But these clashing scripts cannot be simplistically labeled “good” and “bad” such that we can tell young pastors to follow the “good” script and avoid the “bad.” It is more complicated than that.

This is similar to the point that Ron Belgau made in his response to Rod Dreher earlier this week: It’s not that we have a legacy PCA script that is unambiguously good that we need to cling to. That script has problems—it’s awful on race issues, for starters. So figuring out the cultural scripts question in the PCA is challenging: The young white bobo script you’re pushed toward culturally and according to class is bad, but then you don’t necessarily have a good alternative script, particularly if you’re trying to plant a church or RUF in a more hostile environment. There simply aren’t good evangelical templates for how to do that because we have for the most part been really bad at it.

In such a situation, the draw toward Keller and the ham-handed attempts to mimic him are quite understandable. What other models do these pastors have? Driscollism? Straight-up progressive Episcopalianism?

Certainly, you can argue that there actually are other models out there—Calvin basically turned Geneva into a booming intellectual hub. Someone like Richard Sibbes was a very successful preacher in Cambridge at the university in the 17th century. Richard Baxter could be helpful in that we know more about his routines as a pastor than any other minister of his era. Bucer and his colleagues in Strasbourg did good and faithful work in a major intellectual, cultural, and scholastic hub. But these examples are all either from radically different cultural contexts, much more obscure, or both.

It isn’t unreasonable that these pastors would look to Keller and, being young and failing to understand their context, fail to mimic him well. But that isn’t Keller’s fault and it isn’t entirely the young pastor’s fault either. It’s a predictable outcome given all the factors I have mentioned already.

Whatever happened to vanilla Presbyterianism? A pastor ministers the word, administers the sacraments, catechizes the youth, shepherds the flock, and goes to presbytery. What does all this worry about culture have to do with it? Meador doesn’t think Keller is responsible for leading the PCA down a misguided path of Kellerism. That is mostly true. What happened it seems to meeeeEEEE, is that Keller fulfilled the aspirations of some PCA leaders who wanted to “engage” the culture — marriage is still up for grabs.

What is happening in the PCA is what always happens to denominations that Americanize and try to adapt to the culture. The Presbyterian version of this is not whether to be Baptist or Episcopalian — though why don’t the boho’s seem to notice that Keller’s urban ways draw him to Baptists at TGC and other urban pastors like John Piper and Mark Dever? The Presbyterian version of assimilation is New School and New Life. In the 19th century, those who wanted to Christianize the culture were the New Schoolers (Lyman Beecher and Charles Finney), and their opponents were Old School Presbyterians who tried to maintain creedal theology and presbyterian governance. In the twentieth century (let’s leave aside the modernists for now), the assimilationists were New Lifers (in the OPC mind you) who wanted Orthodox Presbyterians to join with the wider evangelical world and also reach the young people with long hair. In case no one noticed, Tim Keller’s origins are in the New Life wing of the OPC, with Harvie Conn supplying a theology of the city, and Jack Miller providing a relaxed Presbyterianism that could adjust to the culture (Miller’s tastes ran less to ballet and more to Jesus people. Keller went to New Life Glenside while he taught at WTS, if I am not mistaken.) Not to mention that the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (which goes back to the Bible Presbyterians) side of the PCA that gave it Covenant College and Covenant Seminary, is not the same slice southern Presbyterianism that produced Reformed Seminary and the original PCA.

In other words, the history is thick behind Keller and simply looking at the PCA from the perspective of Baptists and Episcopalians doesn’t take you very far into the weeds.

Yet, when you apply the categories of Baptist and Episcopalian, you wind up rendering Old School (or vanilla) Presbyterianism as a couple clicks away from strange:

During times when progressivism is ascendant, as it certainly is in our day, there is a natural temptation amongst conservatives to want to double down on their most strident rhetoric, add purity tests to protect their institutions, and to begin attacking people not only for holding wrong ideas, but for holding ideas which they suspect could lead to wrong ideas (even if they won’t inevitably lead to them).

Is this a plea for Erdmanesque tranquility so that the boat won’t rock? Ministry unites, doctrine divides?

Whether Keller is responsible or no, he has not helped to prepare the PCA for the predicament that Meador thinks the denomination faces:

You’re in this weird denomination that aspires to being the church that can reach secular bobo-types in upwardly mobile neighborhoods but that also aspires to be faithful to theological orthodoxy and even to be theologically evangelical, all the way down to not ordaining women. That is an awkward position to be in from the beginning.

If Keller had left the impression that working through presbyterian channels was not weird but normal, and had achieved his fame not as a pastor with one foot in presbyterianism and another in networked Protestantism but as a regular Presbyterian minister, he might have communicated an important lesson to young pastors, namely, that it’s okay to be simply a pastor. But that is not what he did. And his fellow Presbyterian Church in Americans are sorting out what the Age of Keller means.

My Podcast Ministry

Just when you thought you heard enough from mmmmeeeeEEEEE, along comes another interview. Adam Holland of The Daily Brew was kind enough to invite me to chat about The Lost Soul of American Protestantism under the heading of pietism and revivalism. I think I showed restraint.

The main reason for engaging in such self-promotion is that I did tell Adam I would mention the podcast here at Old Life. Not to worry, I won’t be heading down the trail of weekly lists of the ten most popular posts.

Enough.

Remember when Global Christianity was Shaming the Church in the West?

Fifteen years ago, bookies were betting on the Global South:

Today the Christian total stands at 360 million out of 784 million, or 46 percent. And that percentage is likely to continue rising, because Christian African countries have some of the world’s most dramatic rates of population growth. Meanwhile, the advanced industrial countries are experiencing a dramatic birth dearth. Within the next twenty-five years the population of the world’s Christians is expected to grow to 2.6 billion (making Christianity by far the world’s largest faith). By 2025, 50 percent of the Christian population will be in Africa and Latin America, and another 17 percent will be in Asia. Those proportions will grow steadily. By about 2050 the United States will still have the largest single contingent of Christians, but all the other leading nations will be Southern: Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. By then the proportion of non-Latino whites among the world’s Christians will have fallen to perhaps one in five.

What could go wrong? All indexes were pointing up.

But human sinfulness even among the saints has a way of defying prognosticators:

Christians in Nigeria are dancing on the brink of moral and ethical collapse. Many Christians who hold public office have become corrupt or immoral, betraying their public Christian testimony. They lack integrity and cannot present a strong moral and ethical witness. They lack the virtue of honesty in public life.

Nigeria is considered a very religious country. Christianity is not limited to churches and prayer meetings. Prayer and Bible readings are found in boardrooms and government offices. Billboards announce upcoming crusades, and exclamations like “to God be the glory” and “praise the Lord” easily fall from the lips of Nigerian Christians, even in public.

But as the well-known and respected Catholic priest George Ehusani has noted,

Alongside religiosity, corruption in its many shapes and sizes is booming in Nigeria—from the petty bribery taken by the clerk in the office or the policeman at the checkpoint, to the grand corruption by which huge project contracts are hurriedly awarded, not for the sake of the common good, but because of the greed of the awarding official, who requires some money via contract “kickbacks.”
He also notes that activities like embezzling and cheating—ranging from school children to high-profile public figures—often go hand in hand with outward expressions of piety. Many Nigerians obtain fraudulent medical certificates, as well as fake birth and citizenship certificates, to be admitted to good schools or to get choice jobs. They evade taxes, over- and under-invoice customers, perform fake audits, and on and on. He concludes, “All these practices are so commonplace and so widespread that many young Nigerians are unable to distinguish between good and evil or between right and wrong.”

Father Ehusani is merely describing what is common knowledge to all Nigerians. These matters are more lethal to the Christian faith than any Islamization agenda.

In the 20th century, indigenously founded churches sprang up across Africa, particularly in Nigeria. After the Nigerian civil war (1967–70), Christians who saw the conflict as a sign of the end times embarked on a massive campaign to spread the Good News of Christ across Nigeria. Student associations and missionary movements sprang up. Nigerian Christians were determined to re-enact what happened in the Book of Acts: turning “the world upside down” (17:6 ESV).

Sadly, today the story has changed. Both mainline and Pentecostal Christianity in Nigeria are still committed to reaching out to the unreached, but the undue emphasis on health and wealth has permanently changed the face of Christianity in Africa and the world at large. Pastors and church members are now more interested in building beautiful and massive edifices than in reaching out to the unreached people groups of the world. Many pastors are obsessed with material possessions, sometimes owning one or more private jets! The corruption of Christian moral values has now given way to the worship of materialism and pleasure. Our real god is now mammon (Matt. 6:24). We have become devoted to what American theologian and social critic Reinhold Niebuhr called self-love, self-interest, and the will to power.

Some of us wondered way back when about the way historians and journalists were evaluating the success of the church in the Global South with Christianity in the West:

The differences between the old and new Protestantism are not simply in the realm of perception, one being invisible or hard to discern, the other being very visible because of its numbers, intensity, and dramatic displays of divine power. Perhaps a more fundamental difference is the one between the eternal and the temporal. As the Brazilian pastor quoted in Jenkins’ book put it, “Most Presbyterians have a God that’s so great, so big, that they cannot even talk with him openly, because he is far away. The Pentecostal groups have the kind of God that will solve my problems today and tomorrow. People today are looking for solutions, not for eternity.” This assertion may not be representative of most pastors ministering in the context of southern Christianity. But its bold contrast between the temporal and the eternal, between the South and the West, does help to illustrate the outlook that has dominated the analysis of global Christianity. Southern Christianity is alive and booming because it daily proves its efficacy in providing real, tangible relief for those enduring great suffering. Western Christianity, by contrast, offers theological complexity or liturgical precision but hardly has the goods to make a difference upon those people most in need.

Without wanting to diminish the difficulties that southern Christians face in their economic, political and physical conditions, is it possible to suggest that concentrating on these realities is short-sighted? What happens if another political or economic system takes better care or if another religion provides more control over the spiritual forces seemingly causing so much affliction for Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians? But this is more or less a pragmatic question. The ultimate question is the eternal one of death. Will those Christians miraculously healed or even the ones benefiting from modern medicine still face death? Or how about those believers for whom Christianity has instilled a work ethic that yields physical comfort, whether it be clothing for children or a brand new Ipod? Will these benefits make much difference when men and women, as the prophet says, fade like the grass? And what of the significant manifestations of the Spirit in the worship of Christians, whether in Lagos or Minneapolis? What will be the advantages or benefits of these spiritual gifts on judgment day? To be sure, such questions may sound sanctimonious or wrongheadely obtuse. But if Christianity is at least in part a religion that promises eternal life, that no matter how difficult the sufferings of this life may be, believers have hope for relief in the world to come, then questions of eternal significance have genuine merit in evaluating contemporary Christianity, whether in the global South or West.

No delight here in what’s happening in Nigeria. And the troubles of Christians in Africa in no way proves the health of churches in North America and Europe. It is only a way to raise questions once again about the way scholars analyze and journalists cover religion. Generally speaking, the spirituality of the church is not sexy and enthusiasm (especially among the marginal) is.

And where did academics and reporters receive their training in Christianity?