Another Difference between New and Paleo Calvinists

New Calvinists are mean but don’t know it.

Jonathan Merritt was an unlikely person to confirm a point made here before, namely, that when you define orthodoxy you also draw lines that to outsiders will look unloving and mean. (Think undergraduates at Oberlin seeking protection from disquieting perceptions.) For a while New Calvinists and their allies at the Gospel Coalition have portrayed Paleo Calvinists as mean. Now with Merritt what goes around comes around.

He observes that New Calvinists are full of criticism (and instructions on how to do it):

The website’s archives read like a how-to handbook for criticizing. TGC managing editor Matt Smethhurst tackles how to criticize fellow Christians. Blogger Jared Wilson lays out when you should criticize your pastor. Popular blogger Justin Taylor explains how to criticize your non-Christian friends and how to criticize another person’s theology and how to criticize the evangelical movement at-large.

Their rebukes are not always theoretical. TGC bloggers regularly express sharp disapproval of theologians, pastors, authors, and politicians using strong language. When writer Thabiti Anyabwile wanted to criticize homosexuality, for example, he encouraged readers to recover their “gag reflex” and focus on the “yuck factor.” Setting aside the many–and I mean many–problems with this way of thinking, Anyabwile’s approach is not exactly a silver-plated conversation starter in a non-Christian culture. You can’t transform a culture while you’re browbeating, rebuking, name-calling and gagging. That’s not a recipe for cultural engagement, but rather cultural enragement.

Then there is New Calvinists’ refusal to entertain criticisms themselves:

Most people who have been blocked by TGC say they were punished for questioning the coalition’s disastrous defense of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a prominent Calvinist ministry that was embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal. TGC personalities connected to SGM continued to express support and friendship for those involved with the scandal even as it became clear that Sovereign Grace leaders were complicit. Many who questioned TGC’s stance were blocked. Some who merely used Twitter handles such as #istandwithsurvivors were similarly punished by TGC.

TGC’s blocking spree has swept in countless pastors, seminary professors, bloggers, and others. One person told me they were blocked for challenging their comments about transgender people, while another said they were punished for questioning their stance on “biblical masculinity.” Several told me they were blocked for retweeting someone else’s critique, while others — like Northern Seminary professor Geoff Holsclaw — said they had no idea why TGC blocked them. . . .

A pattern of offering criticism while not being able to receive it, according to Dr. Leon Seltzer of Psychology Today, is a characteristic trait of narcissism. As Seltzer writes, “Deep down, clinging desperately not simply to a positive but grandiose sense of self, [narcissists are] compelled at all costs to block out any negative feedback about themselves.”

Finally, Merritt points out the problem of belonging to a club instead of a church:

TGC has established a system where in order to be a part of the network, one has to believe a set of doctrines that are more specific than some denominations. Basically, you have to be a conservative Calvinist protestant who holds particular views about gender roles, reads the Bible in a certain way, understands human sexuality like they do, etc. If you don’t agree to these positions, you’re out. And those who add their church to the directory of TGC-approved congregations are encouraged to police others. The site asks members to “report a church that doesn’t align with TGC’s Foundation Documents.”

The word “coalition” is defined as “a combination or alliance, especially a temporary one between persons, factions, states, etc.” But the structure of TGC allows for almost no diversity among its members–certainly none that would be noticeable to anyone who is not a Christian insider. So, technically-speaking, The Gospel Coalition is not a coalition at all; they are a club.

If the New Calvinists were more ecclesial and less parachurchian, they might not lose their critical side. And contrary to Merritt who thinks engaging culture is a positive, if New Calvinists were churchly they wouldn’t worry about the culture so much. Belonging to a church and working within its structures would not make them less critical, though Robert’s Rules supplies a structure for critique that takes away some of criticism’s sting. The best thing that might happen to New Calvinists if they looked to the church instead of the club, they would not be so doctrinaire about so many peripheral matters. The visible church has a way of focusing your outlook (not sure what happened to Pope Francis).

Sunday School as Open Forum?

Scott, Aimee and (here I tread in rake territory) Todd try to sort out the differences between Sunday school teaching and authoritative church instruction. I tend to sympathize with the point made (I hear) by Carl and Aimee that women can do whatever non-ordained men do (except of course when it comes to reproduction). And I think Scott’s points about the flimsy origins of Sunday school as a church institution should make all Christians re-think the mechanisms by which churches instruct the faithful. Need I remind folks of the fun that even H. L. Mencken had at Sunday school (even though the Christian religion didn’t really take hold):

The one thing I really remember about that Sunday-school is the agreeable heartiness of the singing. It is, of course, the thing that all children enjoy most in Sunday-schools, for there they are urged to whoop their loudest in praise of God, and that license is an immense relief from the shushing they are always hearing at home. . . .

My favorite then, as now, was “Are You Ready for the Judgment Day?” — a gay and even rollicking tune with a saving hint of brimstone in the words. . . . We grouped it, in fact, with such dolce but unexhilarating things as “In the Sweet By-and-By” and “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” – pretty stuff, to be sure, but sadly lacking in bite and zowie. The runner up for “Are You Ready?” was “I Went Down the Rock to Hide My Face,” another hymn with a very lively swing to it, and after “the Rock” come “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus,” “Throw Out the Lifeline,” “At the Cross,” “Draw Me Nearer, Nearer, Nearer, Blessed Lord,” “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Where Shall We Spend in Eternity?” . . . and “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Revive Us Again.” . . . It was not until I transferred to another Sunday-school that I came to know such lugubrious horrors as “There Is A Fountain Filled with Blood.” The Methodists avoided everything of that kind. They surely did not neglect Hell in their preaching, but when they lifted up their voices in song they liked to pretend that they were booked to escape it. (Happy Days, 178-79)

Not sure Sunday school is the best method of delivery for passing on the faith.

The problem however goes beyond the qualifications posed. What session wants to deal with questions and complaints that arise from non-ordained teachers providing instruction on subjects revealed in Holy Writ? It’s one thing for a woman or non-ordained man to teach math, plumbing, banking or baking. But what about a Christian view of math, plumbing, banking, or baking? Doesn’t the Christian character of the instruction indicate some kind of normative (hence authoritative) instruction? I mean, if I offer a Christian view of history, should Christians not feel a certain pull in the direction of considering this is THE way believers should think about history? Or are Christian views of subjects simply optional for Christians (that’s accepting the premises of w-w thinking).

How much more is instruction seemingly normative if a woman or non-ordained man is teaching the Bible or confession related material? Do such teachers come with a disclaimer — what you are about to hear is just one person’s opinion? If advertised that way, what church members would come (if not for having to find a place to wait while children are in Sunday school)? And if Sunday school is just a place for Christians to opine, is that a good way to prepare for worship (if services follow Sunday school)? Can I really get another member’s objectionable opinions out of my head simply because the pastor invokes God’s presence?

So the issue isn’t one of office, ordination, or even the history of Sunday school as an institution. The issue is the content of the instruction. If that content includes material that comes from the church’s standards — Bible and confession — then the setting involves some version of binding address. At that point, a session will likely want the teaching to reflect the norms of the communion. And at that point we are in the ballpark of having officers who have been vetted and approved for teaching up front behind the podium for — wait for it — Sunday school.

The Bible Thumper in MmmmmeeeeeeEEEE

So it turns out that Tim Keller has recommended to his pastors in the Big Apple that they use a Canadian Roman Catholic philosopher as part of their preparation for reaching Manhattanites:

Dr. Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian has built his ministry very much on confronting the challenge. His books include “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.” He periodically teaches an adult-ed class titled “Questioning Christianity” and sometimes holds question-and-answer sessions with attendees after Redeemer’s Sunday worship services.

His decision to open a branch of Redeemer on West 83rd Street in 2012 — the first new church built in the neighborhood in decades — was a brick-and-mortar way of meeting nonbelievers where they live. And he prepared his young ministers and staff members for the Upper West Side by studying together such books as the philosopher Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age.”

Imagine how hard it would have been to plant a church in Ephesus. Imagine also if Paul had recommended Lucretius to Timothy:

Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:2-5 ESV)

As wise as 700-page tomes may be, sometimes you need to dance with the date that brought you. That goes double for Protestants who minister God’s word.

Vanilla Presbyterianism

Bryan Chapell serves a modest and healthy variety of Reformed Protestantism to Ed Stetzer:

Ed Stetzer: What are some of the distinctives that make you different than other Evangelical groups?

Bryan Chapell: The PCA affirms the inerrancy of Scripture and places a high value on biblical preaching and worship. This is because we believe the Bible is our only infallible rule of faith and practice. By the design of the Holy Spirit, all that is necessary for a life of godliness are within its pages. The Bible was never intended to address every subject or science that we may confront in our world, but it does provide the standards for truth and life that we require to honor God in every situation.

While holding its Confessional standards secondary to the authority of Scripture, the PCA seeks to maintain its peace and purity by requiring ordained pastors and officers to subscribe to the theological doctrines detailed in the Westminster Standards (i.e., the Westminster Confession of Faith with its Larger and Shorter Catechisms).

Those standards also indicate that we believe churches should be in accountability relationships with one another, just as individual church members are. So we have regional presbyteries (gatherings of pastors and elders that seek to do ministry and mission together). Local churches are governed by elders and pastors elected by the local congregation. We practice the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, as the Scriptures instruct. We believe the Scriptures teach that baptism is for adult believers and their children. We do not practice infant baptism out of tradition and sentiment, but out of the understanding that God pledges his faithfulness in covenant relationships that are consistently taught in the Bible.
The PCA affirms the inerrancy of Scripture and places a high value on biblical preaching and worship.

Our Reformation heritage is reflected in a “Reformed/Calvinistic” system of doctrine. The first thing most think of in this category is an emphasis on the sovereignty of God in salvation. We believe that a necessary implication of the Bible’s teaching about our all-knowing and all-powerful God is that he must elect and predestine those who will be saved. The Bible uses these terms and we accept them. We also affirm that God accomplishes our salvation without “doing violence” to our will. . . .

The subject of sovereignty is not exhausted in discussions about salvation processes. Our Reformed commitments teach the sovereignty of God over “the whole of life.” The Lord of all creation is not confined by the walls of the church. That means that there is no sphere of life, no occupation, no recreation, no craft or art that is beyond the bounds of his concern or without obligation for his glory. We believe that the church does not do its work on Sunday, if it is not preparing its people for Monday – and every other day. All occupations and recreations need to be considered as opportunities for glorifying God. There are no secondary callings.

The PCA has a commitment to the “regulative principle” of Christian worship (i.e., only what God instructs in his Word should be practiced in corporate worship). But, because this principle results in rather general requirements about practices related to the Word, sacraments and prayer, worship styles vary greatly between local churches.

That’s the skinny. If you want a “fatter” version of Presbyterian distinctions, see my autobiographical description in “Why I am an Evangelical and a Presbyterian,” in Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity, eds. Anthony Chute, Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013).

I guess that makes TKNY the Rocky Road and really fattening version of the PCA.

If only PCA leaders like Chapell could keep Presbyterianism that simple and that by the book. Is this a sign of an Old School Presbyterian return? Or is this how you distinguish yourself from a w-w Southern Baptist?

Can You Confess Sins To Yourself?

Rick Phillips’ post about corporate confession of sins got me thinking about the PCA’s proposed resolution on race and civil rights. That personal resolution from Ligon Duncan and Sean Lucas confesses the church’s complicity with racial injustice.

Phillips attempts to find a biblical procedure for such confession.

But if he were to use the Book of Discipline from his sister communion, the OPC, he’d find judicial processes laid out quite thoroughly.

I imagine the General Assembly of the PCA would come as its own accuser:

When a person comes before a judicatory as his own accuser, the judicatory may proceed to judgment without full process, determining first, what offense, if any has been committed, and, if a serious offense (cf. Chapter III, Section 7.b [6]) has been committed, what censure shall be pronounced. (5.1)

Next comes the the work of the trial judicatory in establishing the seriousness of the sin and determining the level of censure:

In judicial discipline there are five degrees of censure: admonition, rebuke, suspension, deposition, and excommunication. Censures shall be pronounced in the name and by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, as an act of the whole church, by the moderator on behalf of the trial judicatory. (6.A.1)

This raises a real problem since everyone in this scenario would be guilty of the sin and so finding someone to serve on the trial judicatory could be difficult if not impossible. Everyone is guilty. Can the sinner determine his own form of censure? Would he not have mixed motives?

And then there is the question of the sin’s seriousness. What kind of censure will the PCA General Assembly apply to itself?

1. Admonition

Admonition consists in tenderly and solemnly confronting the offender with his sin, warning him of his danger, and exhorting him to repentance and to greater fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ.

2. Rebuke

Rebuke is a form of censure more severe than admonition. It consists in setting forth the serious character of the offense, reproving the offender, and exhorting him to repentance and to more perfect fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ.

3. Suspension

a. Suspension is a form of censure by which one is deprived of the privileges of membership in the church, of office, or of both. It may be for a definite or an indefinite time. Suspension of an officer from the privileges of membership shall always be accompanied by suspension from office, but the latter does not necessarily involve the former.

b. An officer or other member of the church, while under suspension, shall be the object of deep solicitude and earnest dealing to the end that he may be restored. When the trial judicatory which pronounced the censure is satisfied of the penitence of the offender, or when the time of suspension has expired, the censure shall be removed and the offender shall be restored. This restoration shall be accompanied by a solemn admonition. Restoration to the privileges of membership may take place without restoration to those of office.

c. When a minister has been indefinitely suspended, the judicatory shall immediately notify all the presbyteries of the church.

4. Deposition

a. Deposition is a form of censure more severe than suspension. It consists in a solemn declaration by the trial judicatory that the offender is no longer an officer in the church.

b. When a minister is deposed from his office, the presbytery shall erase his name from the roll of the ministerial members of the presbytery and dismiss him to a particular church or enroll him as a member of the regional church without membership in a particular church.

c. Deposition of a pastor or his suspension for an indefinite time involves the dissolution of the pastoral tie. The sentence of deposition or suspension shall be read before the congregation, and the pulpit shall be declared vacant. In case of suspension for a definite period the presbytery, after giving the session an opportunity to be heard, shall decide whether the pastoral relation shall be dissolved.

d. When a minister has been deposed, the judicatory shall immediately notify all the presbyteries of the church.

5. Excommunication

Excommunication is the most severe form of censure and is resorted to only in cases of offenses aggravated by persistent impenitence. It consists in a solemn declaration by an ecclesiastical judicatory that the offender is no longer considered a member of the body of Christ. (6.B)

Depending on to whom you listen, racism is pretty grievous sin. But if it were sufficiently serious that the PCA General Assembly pronounced a censure of Deposition on itself, the recent graduates of Reformed seminaries might be grateful for the new calls available, but is the Assembly really prepared to wipe out its entire set of elders and deacons? Depose Tim Keller?

But if the Assembly only rebukes itself, would those most offended by racism be satisfied?

I wonder if those who support this corporate confession of sin understand how complicated it might be.

You Can't Spell Presbyterian with "Me"

My personal advice to any American Protestant is never to interrupt a debate between two English dissenting Protestants about celebrity pastors, but when one of them, Paul Helm, calls the other, Carl Trueman, a Presbyterian perfectionist, afflicted with “Bannerman’s Disease,” and “the zeal of a convert,” I can’t resist.

There are books of Church Order to be read, the contents of which are mastered by the lawyer-types of the church, and I confess that I do not find these a very satisfying genre. But besides this, I know without looking, that presbyterianism, like any such human system, leaks all the way. It leaks through nods and winks, through unattributable comments, through what is said and what is not said. Human society cannot be otherwise. We all know of poor people who have to protest their innocence all the way up, in courts of law and in Christian denominations, and that have been ruined by the attendant exposure, quite apart from the weeks and months of strain while documents are prepared and friendly counsel advised and the day of judgement awaited…. I say, in such circumstances thank God for religious consumerism. At least the aggrieved party can walk away, find another place of worship, and still earn a living.

I fancy that Carl goes on about this because he suffers from a sort of presbyterian perfectionism. Call it Bannerman’s Disease. A cynic might say that he has the zeal of a convert. When he bids us all to think with him of the church of Christ as a remnant, as living its life as if in exile, I’m with him all the way. And as I said in the post, I agree with critiques of the Big Men such as his. But not with the cure-all of Presbyterianism. The Black Book does not solve the bugbear of accountability. And the point is, if there’s nothing better in the Church of Christ that presbyterianism, let’s at least acknowledge its flaws. Carl recognizes the imperfections of the human natures of those that thumb the Black Book, and this is welcome. And this was my point. A perfect system administered by those with imperfections is de facto imperfect. Spurgeon famously said (from memory) ‘For me “lead me not into temptation” means “keep me off the committee”’.

Helm is right in a general Protestant church-is-imperfect sort of way that Presbyterianism leaks. But the system of church government that Calvin developed has real assets that Helm too readily ignores. Imagine, for instance, a faculty meeting where provost, department head, senior professor, and lecturer are all equal and you have some sense of the dynamics of session or presbytery. Or imagine a meeting of politicians where queen, prime minister, and back benchers are all equal, with the same authority, same access to debate, the same number of votes — 1. Presbyterianism is the great leveler and is no respecter of celebrity, age, fame, or Facebook friends. And because the meetings of elders are regular and absences must be excused by the wider body, to be Presbyterian is to be involved in a regular pattern of attendance where you are just one more member with no more rank or privilege than the guy sitting next to you. You have 12 books. He doesn’t have a Masters degree. You have journalists from national publications seeking an interview. The guy next to you fixes leaking toilets. In Presbyterianism, if you both are ordained you are both equal.

For the sake of the temptations that had to accompany his fame, Spurgeon should have said, “committees, put me on more of them.”

And even in those odd circumstances where a single officer has broad power thanks to the consolidation of finances and administration — say in a denominational committee — in Presbyterianism that rule of one becomes a secretary of a committee. The head of the foreign missions committee, does he have powers of the purse and can he influence votes? Maybe. But he’s merely a “general secretary” in Presbyterian church government. That means he is doing the bidding of the committee on foreign missions, which is a sub-committee of the whole assembly.

You want to knock the pride out of celebrity pastors? Make them Presbyterian.

If Presbyterianism checks the sort of privilege to which bishops are prone, it also beats congregationalism. To be sure, the democratic nature of congregational polity could also restrain the kind of egotism that afflicts celebrity pastors. But more often than not, the politics of local congregations witness large clans or members with large wallets having more sway than other members or families. And pastors of independent churches often resemble bishops since they function in a capacity above the rest of the church and have no formal peers in ministry.

What Helm fails to see is that Presbyterianism, if all officers go to meetings and submit to their fellow presbyters (if they don’t, they’re not Presbyterian), by its very nature humbles the proud. And face it, famous preachers are prone to pride as much as any other celebrity. But among those churches where Presbyterian government is most evident and Roberts Rules most consulted, celebrity is hardest to discern in the deliberations of assemblies.

Presbyterianism is not a perfect solution to either the parachurch (Gospel Coalition) or helicopter church (Rome), but it has its moments.

How Scotland May Feel the South's Pain (or not)

Turns out that getting out of a united and centralized nation may have been easier if you fought your way out (or, count the ways I was wrong):

The SNP has no idea what it is doing, or the risks it is running. Worse, nor does it seem to care.

During a debate in the referendum campaign last fall, then-SNP leader Alex Salmond was asked simply what currency an independent Scotland would have. That would be no problem, he said. We would carry on using the pound, together with the rest of the United Kingdom, and we would share control of a central bank. Absolutely not, said his unionist opponent. Every British political party has made it starkly clear that they would never accept such an outcome. By the way, that was last year, when the rest of Britain was feeling much less aggrieved than it is now by the SNP’s general demagoguery and hate campaigns.

So, given that the shared pound is not a starter, asked his critics, what was Salmond’s Plan B? Repeated questioning failed to shift Salmond at this point, demonstrating to all but his most unyielding supporters that there was no Plan B, and that the SNP had never even thought through the currency issue. That might have been the single moment at which the referendum campaign was lost. Salmond resigned as SNP leader after that debacle, but he has been very visible in recent days, repeating the familiar claims and boasts.

Fortunately, Scotland never had to confront the consequences of this insanity, but let us assume that, after the recent elections, they do become independent. What about the currency?

In the referendum debates, Salmond’s next option was a threat, something at which the SNP is expert. If the United Kingdom refused to share the pound, he said, then the new Scotland would refuse to pay its share of the national debt. The problem there is that an independent Scotland would begin its career as a nation in default, unable to raise credit even for its existing commitments, never mind covering the expense of the ever-expanding welfare state promised by Salmond’s party. The likely consequence would be social collapse and mass unemployment. Presumably English and European aid would prevent actual food riots.

Meanwhile, the moderator of the Free Church of Scotland still wants to turn the world upside down:

The Marxist historian, Christopher Hill, wrote a magnificent book about the 17th Century English Civil War, which he entitled The World Turned Upside Down. In it he examined the radical ideas of the English revolutionaries. Those who are familiar with the King James English version of the Bible will know that he lifted the phrase from Acts 17:6. I liked the idea so much that when I first became a theological student and had to travel the country preaching, one of the verses I often preached on was that one. And then I discovered the more modern NIV translation “These men who have caused trouble all over the world, have now come here”. Did I want to be known as a troublemaker? Do we? It seems to me that in modern Scotland those of us who want to hold to the biblical position are in danger of being regarded as, if not enemies of the State, at least troublesome undesirables from a past era. Is it not the default position of much of modern European Christianity, that though we talk about being radical, we prefer comfortable conservatism, the kind that never changes anything?

Except, that is, in the presence of royalty (or its aura):

then came the evening ‘Lord High Commissioners’ reception at Holyrood Palace. From the beginning it was just such a different world. The palace itself is beautiful, the ceremonies quaint and the people ‘different class’….mostly aristocracy and high clergy. There was so much that fascinated and amused me. Walking into one room and seeing the portrait of Charles the First (perhaps I shouldn’t have commented ‘off with his head!”); thinking that black tie meant a black tie – not realising that it meant black dickie bow, tails and more formal dress….so there was I standing in my brown suit (and black funeral tie) whilst the other ‘high heid un’ clerlgy were in dog collars, purple robes and the various regalia. Still at least it made people ask ‘what do you do?”.

Sitting at the massive table in the dining room – with 80 others – was also an experience. The Lady beside me asked ‘what do you think of gay marriage’ as her opening gambit. Then I spoke to the Lady on my right – who was a judge and indeed had judged the FCC v’s Free Church case. She was absolutely wonderful. She is an intelligent, thoughtful and open minded atheist/agnostic. She is my new ‘bestie’! Suffice it to say I had the most stimulating two hour conversation (Annabel was sitting further down the table) on the law, the bible and the gospel. I feel that I now have a calling to ministry amongst the aristocracy!

Although I am a bit of a pleb. I was horrified when we were asked to raise a glass to the Queen, as I had already drunk my wine. And I was even more horrified to discover that my part of the beautiful white linen cloth was the only one stained by gravy. I wasn’t the only pleb there though! Annabel was talking to a woman who said that she helped with the Queens flowers. To which Annabel replied ‘Are you a florist?”! Not sure that Lady X was all that enamoured.

Postscript: if you want to know the biggest difference between Old and New World Presbyterianism, it is this. In Ireland and Scotland moderators of assemblies still report to and hob nob with the monarchy and its minions. In the United States (can’t speak for Canada), you are lucky if the White House chief of staff knows the URL for your communion.