History is Not Rocket Science (but it requires some accuracy)

A piece at Reformation 21 (the publication of the Alliance before THE Alliance) on Billy Graham took me by surprise, and it wasn’t the name dropping that went with the article:

The founder of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Donald Grey Barnhouse, had a friendship with Dr. Graham. In a 1977 interview with Christianity Today, Graham said, “One of my great regrets is that I have not studied enough. I wish I had studied more and preached less. People have pressured me into speaking to groups when I should have been studying and preparing. Donald Barnhouse said that if he knew the Lord was coming in three years he would spend two of them studying and one preaching. I’m trying to make it up.”1 At another point in his ministry, Graham said of Barnhouse, “He knew the Scriptures better than any man I ever knew.”

Here’s a (not the) thing. The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals did not start until 36 years after Barnhouse’s death:

In April 1996, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals held its first major meeting of evangelical scholars. The Cambridge Declaration, first presented at this meeting, is a call to the evangelical church to turn away from the worldly methods it has come to embrace, and to recover the Biblical doctrines of the Reformation. The Cambridge Declaration explains the importance of regaining adherence to the five “solas” of the Reformation.

Maybe the explanation is this:

The Alliance’s history stretches back a half century. The Alliance began as Evangelical Ministries in 1949, which broadcasted Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse via The Bible Study Hour, and also published Eternity magazine.

But in the end, I go with Wikipedia:

The Alliance was formed in 1994 out of what was known as Evangelical Ministries when James Boice, then senior pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and teacher on The Bible Study Hour radio program, called together a group of like-minded pastors and theologians from a variety of denominations to unite in a common cause to help revive a passion “for the truth of the Gospel” within the church.

On April 17– 20, 1996, the Alliance came together in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to draw up a statement that would be called the Cambridge Declaration. Signatories included R. C. Sproul, David F. Wells, and Michael Horton.

Or is this what happens when you have four gospels?


From DGH on Can Humans Merit Before God Submitted on 2015 04 21 at 5:22 pm


For the sake of your congregation, the PCA, the Alliance — not to mention yourself — please don’t write part 2. Do you really want to position yourself as Norman Shepherd 2.0? Aside from all that you’ve already written about the parallels among Adam, Christ, and us, and how we all — without sufficient qualification — graciously obtain God’s favor through good works, you now appear to be headed to the no-man’s land of Norman Shepherdville:

In other words, in order to keep the Adam-Christ parallels, we must not actually abandon the concept of grace given to them both, but actually affirm it. It has been a peculiar oddity that some assume that the parallels between the two Adams means that Adam could not have received the grace of God because Christ did not. But this view is based on the fatal assumption that God was not gracious to Christ in any sense.

David VanDrunen, in criticizing Norman Shepherd’s rejection of merit in the Garden of Eden, makes the following claim:

“It is not difficult to see how such a view, if taken seriously, makes belief in Christ’s active, imputed obedience impossible. If image bearers do not merit anything before God, then the true image bearer, Christ, did not merit anything before God, and his perfect obedience can hardly be reckoned ours as the basis for our justification” (CJPM, 51).

This paragraph by Professor VanDrunen will give me an opportunity in the next post to examine more carefully – I trust, in an irenic tone – some of his claims from a historical and biblical perspective.

But it is interesting to me that some recent defences of justification seem to approach the topic somewhat differently than what I find in the Early Modern era when it comes to merit and the Edenic context for Adam’s obedience.

The thing is, Mark, a historian knows the difference between the present and the past. And in the present Norman Shepherd has received round rejections from the Reformed churches. Just listen to the RCUS:

The whole crux of the matter is that Shepherd robs the gospel of good news. How can a man be justified before God? The good news is that Christ’s righteousness, namely, His perfect obedience and sacrifice upon the cross for the sins of His people, is freely imputed by God to all who receive Christ by faith alone, trusting in his saving work on their behalf. By fulfilling the law and suffering its curse, Christ obtains righteousness and eternal life as a free gift for His people.

Now, Mr. Shepherd, if Christ fully satisfied the justice of God and appeased God’s wrath against my sin, then what act of obedience would you have me do, or what act of disobedience would you have me avoid, in order to escape God’s wrath? The Bible says that the only means of escape is to reach out the empty hand of faith and receive the gracious gift. Yes, Mr. Shepherd, all it takes is a simple act of faith. ‘The vilest offender who truly believes that moment from Jesus forgiveness receives.’ Yes, Mr. Shepherd, salvation and justification do in fact take place at a certain point in
time – the moment a person believes! “Verily, verily, I say to you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (John 5:24). “And the publican, … saying, God be merciful to me a
sinner! I tell you, this man went down to his house justified”! (Luke 18:13-14). “Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved”! (Acts 16:30-31). “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 9:13).
Justification does not take place at any other time than the first appearance of genuine faith in the human heart.

. . . Therefore, the question is this: Is justification by faith alone apart from obedience the one true gospel or is it not? John Murray believed that “it makes void the gospel to introduce works in connection with justification.”194 For precisely this reason, Calvin (and Luther too!) called the doctrine of justification by faith alone “the main hinge on which religion turns.”195 Turretin termed it “the principal rampart of the Christian religion. This being adulterated or subverted, it is impossible to retain purity of doctrine in other places. Hence Satan in every way has endeavored to corrupt this doctrine in all ages, as has been done especially by the papacy.”196 Take note: deny justification by faith alone, and it is impossible to retain purity of doctrine in other places! It is a downward slide.

If the RCUS is not good enough for you, how about your own organization, the Alliance, a parachurch agency that launched its existence precisely because justification by faith alone (read Norman Shepherd) was on the ropes. Thanks to the nifty new device that alliance.net has made available, I can find the Cambridge Declaration of 1996 that spawned ACE. It includes the following:

Justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. This is the article by which the church stands or falls. Today this article is often ignored, distorted or sometimes even denied by leaders, scholars and pastors who claim to be evangelical. Although fallen human nature has always recoiled from recognizing its need for Christ’s imputed righteousness, modernity greatly fuels the fires of this discontent with the biblical Gospel. We have allowed this discontent to dictate the nature of our ministry and what it is we are preaching.

Many in the church growth movement believe that sociological understanding of those in the pew is as important to the success of the gospel as is the biblical truth which is proclaimed. As a result, theological convictions are frequently divorced from the work of the ministry. The marketing orientation in many churches takes this even further, erasing the distinction between the biblical Word and the world, robbing Christ’s cross of its offense, and reducing Christian faith to the principles and methods which bring success to secular corporations.

While the theology of the cross may be believed, these movements are actually emptying it of its meaning. There is no gospel except that of Christ’s substitution in our place whereby God imputed to him our sin and imputed to us his righteousness. Because he bore our judgment, we now walk in his grace as those who are forever pardoned, accepted and adopted as God’s children. There is no basis for our acceptance before God except in Christ’s saving work, not in our patriotism, churchly devotion or moral decency. The gospel declares what God has done for us in Christ. It is not about what we can do to reach him.

Thesis Four: Sola Fide

We reaffirm that justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. In justification Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us as the only possible satisfaction of God’s perfect justice.

We deny that justification rests on any merit to be found in us, or upon the grounds of an infusion of Christ’s righteousness in us, or that an institution claiming to be a church that denies or condemns sola fide can be recognized as a legitimate church.

I wonder, the way you are headed, if you can affirm what the Alliance does. I sure hope so. But your constant toying with a doctrine that stands at the center of the gospel leads me to think the RCUS’ words to Norman Shepherd might apply to you:

Does Shepherd Jones really want to maintain that the fathers of the reformation, who together wrote the Protestant Creeds, along with all their spiritual sons, men like Turretin, Hodge, Berkhof, and John Murray, have all misread Scripture and have all misunderstood the doctrine of justification by faith alone?

Those of us who read you fear that the answer is yes.

What Hath Jerusalem (monarchy) To Do with Athens (democracy)?

Or, what hath Geneva to do with Colorado Springs?

For Whom Would You Vote? (I appreciate the avoidance of the dangling preposition) is a resource provided by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Here is the justification:

As the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals exists to foster a Reformed awakening, we want to offer a free resource to help voters to think biblically about their responsibility. In his helpful booklet, “For Whom Would You Vote?,” Dr. Roy Blackwood argues that the checkered history of both good and bad Jewish kings teaches us to be discerning of the character (the just-ness or “righteousness”) of those who rule over us.

Aside from the anomaly of likening the voting process to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the naivete of thinking we can ever know our federal candidates’ personal qualities through the haze of sloganeering, advertisements, and photo-ops, is this really an instance of Reformed conviction and reflection? Or is it a case of Calvinistic evangelicals doing what evangelicals do, namely, bring God into the ballot box?

Protestants used to be bothered when Roman Catholics did this, and many American Christians don’t care for Muslim-Americans invoking Allah in public life. So what makes this permissible? What makes it Reformed?

Adolf, Justin, and Mark

This is a pretty amusing video, if not for the abuse of a profoundly good movie. But the juxtaposition may supply needed perspective on all the coalitions, alliances, and group hugs going on out there among celebrity pastors and their enabling bloggers.

Reservations about Evangelical Coalitions Are Not Reserved to Old Life

Carl Trueman has a very good essay about the ways in which megachurch and multi-site pastors, along with large-scale parachurch organizations are undermining small congregations and denominations. Here is an excerpt:

I noticed recently one individual marketing himself as someone who had planted numerous churches. This was clearly being presented as an unconditionally good thing. As the chap was a similar age to myself (middle aged but not enough years on the clock to have done too many things of any great importance), I was left wondering what exactly had happened to these churches, that he had apparently had to plant so many of them in such a comparatively short time. Did they fold within weeks? Or was his church planting ministry a form of ecclesiastical hit-and-run, whereby he had the fun of getting the work started and then swiftly headed out of Dodge before the bullets started flying? Either way, the claim to have successfully planted many churches, like the claim to have successfully dated many beautiful women, seems to me far too ambiguous on its own to enjoy automatic unequivocal admiration. It may be praiseworthy but then again….

Alongside this shift to the big box church is the emergence of big tent alliance movements whose stated objective is to transcend the fragmentation of denominations by providing a common front along mere gospel lines. Such parachurch groups have existed for many years and they often work well as minor adjuncts to the work of the church proper. The events of last year, however, have demonstrated that big tents with big ambitions bring with them big problems: there is an awful lot upon which one has to agree to differ in order to hold together an alliance movement which can fill a stadium to capacity; and history seems to indicate that reformations have not usually been built, and orthodoxy has rarely been preserved, by agreeing to differ on almost everything beyond the merest elements of the gospel, and that outside of a proper ecclesiastical context.

One possible objection to Trueman’s article is that he himself is writing for a parachurch organization. He appears to avoid this charge by distinguishing between parachurch alliances with big as opposed to small ambitions. I do think that the Trueman’s Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is different in scope and feel from, say, the Gospel Coalition — though quantifying or defining the difference may be in the eye of the beholder. At the same time, I wonder if Trueman would acknowledge that ACE may have unwittingly inspired the latter phenomena of the Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel. The Alliance was first a 1996 merger between the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology (Jim Boice) and Christians United For Reformation (Mike Horton). Eventually the Lutheran presence in CURE became too hot for ACE to handle, thus prefiguring the alliances between Baptists and Presbyterians at ACE and other agencies.

I am not trying to pick a fight with Trueman. I’d surely lose. But the historical background may be of interest to him and other allies.

Feed My Sheep — With Fast Food?

Over at Mere Orthodoxy a couple of posts have tried to identify two wings of the Young, Restless, and Reformed “movement” by applying the labels Old School and New School. Since many members of the PCA and OPC would even be unaware of this nineteenth-century division among American Presbyterians and what it meant, I was naturally intrigued by the diagnosis. I am also unpersuaded.

Both posts start from the premise that in an age of Facebook and blogging, social institutions and structures have become radically voluntary. I am not sure if this is true, especially when it comes to Christianity in the United States. Ever since the Constitution and ecclesiastical disestablishment, faith in America has been voluntary. Granted, the suppliers of religious services have expanded considerably and the golden age of Protestant denominationalism is no more. But even during the first half of the twentieth century, conservative Protestants were awash in a cornucopia of religious institutions, from Bible schools (as graduates of BIOLA should know, rights?) and faith missions, to independent congregations and celebrity revivalists.

Then comes the application of Old and New School categories by Kevin White to the Young, Restless, and Reformed:

The “Parachurch” or “New School” prefer more informal church networks and more emphasize the big conferences as the anchor points for the movement. They are more likely to identify as missional and to be part of independent churches or newer church connections. (e.g., Sovereign Grace Ministries, Acts 29, Mohlerite Southern Baptists) The parts of Reformed Theology that they emphasize are sovereignty and the doctrines of grace. You might call them the “Evangelical Reformed.”

The “Church” or “Old School” have a stronger emphasis on confessionalism and formal church polity. They more emphasize the visible church as a covenant community. The conventions are more of a supplementary fellowship opportunity. Like the 19th century Old School Presbyterians, they think revivalist, pietistic evangelicalism is a good thing, that can go hand-in-hand with the best of Protestant scholastic theology. They are more likely to emphasize Reformed ecclesiology as the context for the doctrines of grace and election. You might call them “Reformed Evangelicals.”

I sure would have thought that Acts 29 or Sovereign Grace were about as churched as the Young, Restless, and Reformed get. Those are communions of some kind. Together for the Gospel or The Gospel Coalition would appear more New School than Old School compared to the networks of congregations headed by Driscoll or Mahaney. In other words, I’m puzzled by this notion that an Old School element exists among the Young, Restless, and Reformed. Neither post mentions any examples of such an Old School contingent, a figure, or set of churches. I even wonder if the authors know about the communions that comprise the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Churches.

Mind you, the hope for a well grounded account of the church to counteract voluntarism is a welcome sign. White writes, for instance:

Once entered, membership and fellowship become a holy obligation and a familial bond, not to be broken lightly. The visible fellowship of the church is made (ideally) a living critique of unstable, self-defined voluntary culture.

Matthew Lee Anderson adds:

. . . voluntary associations of an arbitrary sort simply do not provide the stability and depth that we need for human flourishing. For that, we must look elsewhere, to God Himself, which is the first movement of the church and the fountainhead of virtue.

But when Anderson talks about the dangers of localism as a kind of nostalgia, I am not sure he understands the nature of the church. He says:

It would be easy to dismiss voluntarity and pine for a return of immobility and a small patch of land with a picket fence. But the promise of localism needs to be tempered by the perils as well. The soil is just as fallen as the pavement, and electing to reject the easy, voluntary associations of our late modern world for the involuntary ones of the local community may offer just as false a hope as the social networks did.

Well, actually, when it comes to food production, a patch of land is much better than pavement, superior in every respect. And spiritual food is best produced locally rather than corporately. It is easy to sound elitist when promoting the values of slow food over McDonald’s, and the work of a pastor is much closer to that of a slow food chef than a teenager flipping burgers at the local store of an international company. But closer to the truth is the similarity between a local pastor’s work and a mother’s. These officers prepare food (whether spiritual or physical) with a sense of what is good for the eaters. They use good ingredients and do so with a sense of what the sheep or children need nutritionally.

In which case, when Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, our lord likely did not have in mind Peter going to the spiritual equivalent of McDonald’s to purchase burgers for the flock. Care, discernment, and preparation were as important to the feeding as the actual cooking. That leaves the megaconferences like TGC or T4G or even the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology much more in the position of providing fast food than a home cooked meal since the cooks are not dining with the eaters, or spending time in between meals to see how the digestion is going or if the diet needs to be modified.

I an very glad to know that some Young, Restless, and Reformed are aware of Old School Presbyterianism. But I’d sure like to know which cooks they have in mind and what authorities are overseeing the kitchens.

Alliances, Ecumencity, and Being Reformed

The OPC’s 75th anniversary also coincided with the regular meeting of General Assembly. My pastor, whose energy consumes more calories in a day than I devour in the course of a week, wrote the daily report and perusing his summary reminds me of an important point about communions like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The pastor’s notes on Friday’s sessions included the report from the OPC’s Committee on Ecumenicity and Inter-Church Relations (CEIR), with a list of the various denominations with which the OPC has a relationship.

The OPC reserves the category of ecclesiastical fellowship for fifteen different churches, which include:

The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC)
The Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRef)
The Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (CRCN)
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales (EPCEW)
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ireland (EPCI)
The Free Church of Scotland (FCS)
The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)
The Presbyterian Church in Korea (Kosin) (PCKK)
The Reformed Church in Japan (RCJ)
The Reformed Church of Quebec (ERQ)
The Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS)
The Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ)
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland (RPCI)
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA)
The United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA)

According to the OPC’s rules for ecclesiastical relationships:

Ecclesiastical Fellowship is a relationship in which the churches involved are Reformed in their confessional standards, church order and life though there may be such differences between them that union is not possible at this time and there might be considerable need for mutual concern and admonition. It is to be implemented where possible and desirable by:

Exchange of fraternal delegates at major assemblies
Occasional pulpit fellowship (by local option)
Intercommunion, including ready reception of each other’s members at the Lord’s Supper but not excluding suitable inquiries upon requested transfer of membership, as regulated by each session (consistory)
Joint action in areas of common responsibility
Consultation on issues of joint concern, particularly before instituting changes in polity, doctrine, or practice that might alter the basis of the fellowship
The exercise of mutual concern and admonition with a view to promoting Christian unity
Agreement to respect the procedures of discipline and pastoral concern of one another
Exchange of Minutes (Acts) of the major assemblies
Exchange of denominational church directories (yearbooks)
Exchange of the most recently published edition of the confessional standards
Exchange of the most recently published edition of the (Book or Manual of) Church Order
Exchange of the most recent denominationally published edition of hymnals or Psalters

Runner up to ecclesiastical fellowship is a corresponding relationship, an OPC category into which eleven churches fall:

The Africa Evangelical Presbyterian Church
Free Church of Scotland Continuing
The Free Reformed Churches of North America
The Heritage Reformed Congregations
Independent Reformed Church in Korea
The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated)
The Presbyterian Church of Brazil
The Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia
The Presbyterian Church in Japan
The Bible Presbyterian Church
The Reformed Churches of South Africa

According to the rule book, a corresponding relationship is one in which:

. . . mutual contact with another church is undertaken to become better acquainted with one another with a view towards entering into Ecclesiastical Fellowship at some time in the not-too-distant future. It shall be implemented where possible and desirable by:

Exchange of official representatives at major assemblies
Joint action in areas of common responsibility
Consultation on issues of joint concern, particularly before instituting changes in polity, doctrine, or practice that might alter the basis of the relation
Exchange of Minutes (Acts) of the broadest assemblies
Exchange of denominational church directories (yearbooks)
Exchange of the most recently published edition of the confessional standards
Exchange of the most recently published edition of the (Book or Manual of) Church Order
Exchange of the most recent denominationally published edition of hymnals or Psalters

Finally, the last level of relationship is ecumenical contact and the OPC puts ten churches into this category:

Confessing Reformed Church in Congo
Presbyterian Free Church of India
Free Church in Southern Africa
Free Reformed Churches in South Africa
Gereja-Gereja Reformasi Calvinis
Gereja-Gereja Reformasi di Indonesia
Reformed Churches of Brazil
Reformed Churches of Spain
Reformed Presbyterian Church of India
Reformed Presbyterian Church North-East India

An ecumenical contact is a status reserved or denominations that belong to the International Council of Reformed Churches and .reflects an effort to follow the ICRC’s stated d purpose, “to encourage the fullest ecclesiastical fellowship among the member churches.”

It shall be implemented, as appropriate, by:

Meetings, both formal and informal, of delegates to the quadrennial meeting of the Conference
Welcome of official observers at the broadest assemblies
Communication on issues of joint concern
Mutual labors as members of the Conference in discharge of the purposes of the Conference

A couple of matters are worth highlighting about these lists and terms: 1) The OPC is often characterized as narrow and idiosyncratic but her ecclesiastical relationships extend well beyond the United States and (even) North America to places which U.S. parachurch agencies and alliances have no presence. 2) The list and definitions extend not to celebrity pastors but to actual churches.

All the more reason to associate the word, “reformed,” with another word, “church.” Without church, reformed makes no sense.

The Etiquette and Manners of Worship

Bill Evans, one of the new bloggers on the block at Baptists and Presbyterians Together (also known as the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals), seems to have an issue with a point I made some time ago when I contrasted the arguments of John Frame and Hughes Oliphant Old on worship. Here is how Evans describes my point:

Hart in essence asked the question of why some Reformed theological “conservatives” can be so “liberal” on worship while those further to the left theologically are often so “conservative” on matters liturgical. His test case is a comparison of PCA teaching elder John Frame’s Worship in Spirit and Truth (P&R, 1996) and PCUSA worship scholar Hughes Oliphant Old’s Worship That Is Reformed according to Scripture (John Knox, 1984). As Hart puts it, “In the ‘liberal’ PCUSA, if Old’s book is any indication, the traditional elements and rites of historic Reformed liturgy are firmly in place. But in the ‘conservative’ PCA, using Frame as a guide, the conventional pieces of Reformed worship are in flux.” A bit later, Hart contends, “If sideline Presbyterian denominations such as the PCA and the OPC were as conservative about the Reformed tradition as they regard themselves, then we would expect Old’s book to have come from a PCA or an OPC minister and to have been published by a conservative Presbyterian press. Moreover, if the mainline Presbyterian denomination was as liberal as its conservative detractors insist, then it would make more sense for Frame’s book to have come from a PCUSA officer and publishing house. Yet the opposite is the case. The conservatives have turned modernist, if by modernism we mean the self-conscious adaptation of the faith to modern times. Just as unlikely, the modernists have become the chief defenders of the historic Reformed faith, at least in its liturgical aspects, against efforts to preserve the kernel while refashioning a modern husk.”

Evans explanation for the difference between the “conservative” Frame and the “liberal” Old differs from mine. I had written that evangelical Presbyterians like Frame, motivated by evangelism and biblicism, could turn a blind eye to formal considerations in worship, such as the fitting modes of expressing praise, gratitude, Christian truth, etc. Evans counters that a better account may be aesthetics – in mainline churches where upper-class Protestants worship, choirs and organs are more acceptable than in evangelical churches. But because evangelicals hold on to the importance of evangelism and the authority of Scripture, Evans is willing to put up with the tackiness that sometimes comes with evangelical worship.

In short, is the real problem for some conservative Reformed champions of “traditional worship” that a lot of evangelical worship is, by upper-middle-class standards, a bit tacky? Given an unhappy choice between holding on to the gospel and the authority of Scripture on the one hand and aesthetically pleasing traditional Reformed worship on the other, the issue for me is clear. Why strain a liturgical gnat and swallow a theological camel? Fortunately, that is a false dichotomy, a choice that need not be made.

I don’t know if Evans thinks I favor traditional worship because it is not tacky. Since he uses me to make his point he may think so. So let me be clear. Organs are no more acceptable in worship than guitars. Worship should not follow the ethos of the concert hall any more than it should conform to the feel of a rock concert or television show. In fact, Reformed worship of the Genevan and Scottish kind, when the only music was unaccompanied psalm-singing, avoided the elite idiom of chamber music and would have no trouble rejecting the I-love-Jesus ballads of P&W. Reformed worship actually attempted a cultural idiom that was unique to the task of worshiping God. It was a form of expression set apart for the people of God. This worship could still be beautiful even if austerely simple. According to Evelyn Underhill, for Calvin the abiding reality of worship was “God’s unspeakable Majesty and Otherness, and the nothingness and simplicity of man.” For this reason, “No ceremonial acts or gestures were permitted. No hymns were sung but those derived from a Biblical source. The bleak stripped interior of the real Calvinist church is itself sacramental; a witness to the inadequacy of the human over against the divine.”

The theological rationale for this simplicity came at least with the reasoning of the Westminster Divines when they wrote:

Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations. (7.6)

In which case, pipe organs are no more beautiful than guitars, and upper-, middle-, and lower-class aesthetics have no standing in “traditional” Reformed worship. The reason has everything to do with the theology of the Lord’s Day, when Christians assemble with all the angels and heavenly hosts at Mount Zion in the presence of Christ and offer up their petitions and praise and hear their Lord speak in the word read and preached. Worship is not about earthly but heavenly aesthetics.

And that has a lot to do with why Oliphant is a better guide to Reformed worship than Frame. If worship is a meeting between the king of the universe and his subjects, then would that encounter be reverent and serious or would it be casual and folksy – even humorous? That seems like a perfectly obvious question. But because the Bible does not apparently address questions of style, but is only concerned about the content of worship, for evangelicals as long as a service has correct doctrine its tone can assume a variety of cultural idioms, hip-hop, exclusive psalmody, 1950s, or P&W – they are all the same. (Which is a pretty remarkable argument coming from some who think the Bible teaches how we are going to transform the secular culture. We can be certain of cultural standards for pagans and Christians in New York City but be cultural relativists for Presbyterians and Baptists in worship? Oy vey!)

Forms matter. Forms should, as Paul taught in Titus 2, fit sound doctrine. How informality, breeziness, or vulgarity befit sound doctrine, I’ll never know. But if someone has a clue about civility and manners, and why talking on a cell phone loudly in a public place is inappropriate (but maybe not a sin), he or she may have a pretty good sense why worship that does not reinforce the holiness and transcendence and authority of the God they serve is not becoming to Reformed Protestantism.

Wheaton Is Calling (and I Wish They'd Stop)

Within roughly two years, Philadelphia has lost two good Presbyterian pastors to the evangelical capitol of Wheaton. The first to go was Craig Troxel, who left Calvary OPC in the city’s suburb of Glenside to take a call to Bethel OPC in Wheaton. And now comes word of Phil Ryken, senior pastor at Tenth Presbyterian Church (PCA) taking the reins as president of Wheaton College. Perhaps because Phil’s departure brings back difficult memories of losing my wife’s and my dominie, Troxel, the news of Ryken’s imminent departure from the capitol city of American Presbyterianism rocks my Old Life world more than I would have expected. (I confess to having bad dreams Saturday night over the news.) Having recently relocated to center city, only a few blocks away from Tenth Church, Phil’s presence was more reassuring than I likely realized when we decided to move (even though we continue as members at Calvary). Phil strikes me a honorable fellow, good scholar, capable preacher, and all round mensch. I am deeply saddened that I will not be running into him as a fellow resident of William Penn’s original city plan.

What Ryken’s departure means for Tenth will not be evident for some time, not simply until they call a successor but also because historical developments don’t make sense for a good twenty years. Tenth’s bones are as good as they can be for a church that I wish were more Old School Presbyterian than its practices allow. The church’s history is almost two centuries long, and its identity is not bound up with the recent past of its denomination, the PCA. This means that Tenth will likely not be caught up in PCA efforts to be hip, relevant, or influential. Tenth has been a church in the city for a much longer time than the sirens of urban ministry have been calling the PCA to transform the culture through its metropolitan centers. In other words, Tenth is comfortable being urban – it doesn’t have to try. Also, Tenth’s tradition of sacred music, though not necessarily following Reformed strictures about special music and organs, has prevented praise bands from cluttering the front of the church with the permanent apparatus of drums, music stands, and microphones. The church will likely continue to be what it is – an evangelical church with solid Reformed commitments even if not allowing those convictions to dislocate Tenth’s older patterns of worship (which is sensible, restrained and respectful), or its use of parachurch ministries for missions and other forms of devotion.

The meaning of Ryken’s appointment for the College is also not clear, though again history is a useful guide. Ryken himself embodies different strands of Presbyterian identity that have not always found an outlet at Wheaton or the town’s many evangelical institutions. Phil himself grew up at Bethel OPC, a congregation that split soon after he graduated from Wheaton and started at Westminster (Philadelphia). Part of the congregation remained in the OPC where Troxel is now pastor. The other part left to affiliate eventually with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Meanwhile, Phil, who worshiped in the OPC while at Westminster, transferred his membership to the PCA when he took the call at Tenth as an associate pastor under James Montgomery Boice. (To be clear, Tenth was in the PCUSA up until 1981 when the congregation aligned with the RPCES, and then with the PCA which in 1983 absorbed the RP’s through Joining and Receiving. The OPC missed the opportunity to join the emerging sideline Presbyterian enterprise in 1986 when an insufficient majority of commissioners voted to become part of the PCA.)

In earlier years of OPC history, Wheaton College produced a number of students for Westminster who eventually became ministers within the denomination. Through the presidency of J. Oliver Buswell and the teaching of Gordon Clark in the philosophy department, until the 1940s Wheaton was a welcome option for OP parents looking for a Christian college for their children. But after Buswell and Clark left Wheaton (partly owing to the trustees’ discomfort with Calvinism), the college of choice for OP parents became Calvin. More recently since the 1970s, Covenant College has filled the niche for many OP’s who are looking for a Reformed liberal arts institution.

This means that Ryken goes to Wheaton at a time when the stars of the evangelical and Reformed worlds are not exactly aligned. For instance, the networks of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and Wheaton College do not overlap significantly. ACE draws heavily upon PCA ministers and Calvinistic Baptists. Neither of these groups has a big presence at Wheaton College where the church option for those with Calvinistic sensibilities is College Church, a congregation with historic and complicated ties to the Congregationalists. Another important church presence at Wheaton is Bible Church, an independent congregation that split from College Church in 1929 over fears of creeping liberalism within the Congregationalist denomination. But Wheaton has as many churches as most towns have Starbucks. The mainline congregations in town generally have an evangelical sweet spot that attracts college faculty, while sideline Protestants, including Wesleyans, Baptists, and Orthodox Presbyterians, fill in as alternatives.

Will Ryken’s presence at Wheaton bring the worlds of ACE and evangelicalism into closer proximity? Some of the most outspokenly critical Wheaton alums fear so. Indeed, the objections by the evangelical left over Ryken’s membership in the PCA and ACE is one indication of how far apart the worlds of Wheaton and conservative Presbyterianism are. (How recent posts at the Ref21 blog are helping Phil’s cause are not entirely clear either.) Ryken is hardly a flamethrower of the Totally Reformed right. He has historical interests in Puritanism, and has some loyalty to what he learned while an intern from William Still, an evangelical pastor in the Church of Scotland. But even if Phil can sup with high voltage Presbyterians, like Old Lifers, and can even appreciate their arguments, he is hardly on a crusade to make the world to conform to Richard Baxter, John Owen, or John Calvin.

All of that to say, Phil’s appointment is an encouraging sign about Wheaton College to conservative Presbyterians. But for some in the Wheaton constituency, such encouragement is part of a zero sum game where if Calvinists are happy, than evangelicals should be scared. For the moderate middle of Wheaton’s constituency, Phil’s Presbyterian credentials are likely foreign but also formidable enough to be comforting that he will give the College sound theological leadership. Not to be missed are Phil’s training and instincts as a scholar. Having graduated from Wheaton, and having kept a hand in writing and editing, Phil knows a lot about the life of the mind. As Mark Noll well cautioned in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, integrating evangelical faith and intellect is a task that may be as hard to believe as turning the bread and wine of the Mass into the body and blood of Christ. Perhaps less difficult will be integrating conservative Presbyterianism and American evangelicalism, a task that left Buswell and Clark in the 1940s looking on the outside of Wheaton’s Wesleyan leaning piety. But if anyone is up to the task, Phil is arguably the best equipped and well positioned to give it a try. We wish him God’s speed even if I also wish he were sticking around as a neighbor.

The Virus is Spreading – Spooky

virusApparently the Westminster California hermeneutic has now infected the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Ligon Duncan recently issued a statement that clarified difference among ACE members on whether or not to sign the Manhattan Declaration. (For some of the diversity among evangelicals or conservative Protestants, go here.)

Duncan wrote:

The Alliance has not historically weighed in on social ethical issues, not because they are unimportant, nor because it is inappropriate for Christians to do so, but because of the mission of the Alliance which is “to call the twenty-first century church to reformation, according to Scripture, so that it recovers clarity and conviction about the great evangelical truths of the gospel and thus proclaims these truths powerfully in our contemporary context.” Specifically, we are an alliance of confessional Protestants (and heirs of the historic Reformed Confessions) who work together to “promote the reform of the church according to Scripture, and to call the church to be faithful to the Scriptures, by embracing and practicing the teaching of Scripture concerning doctrine, life and worship.”

So if the Bible speaks to all of life, including marriage, and the sanctity of human life, and ACE is committed to reforming the church according to Scripture, then why wouldn’t the Alliance advocate the Manhattan Declaration for the church in ministering the word of God? Could it be that even when the Bible does speak to some moral matters, it does not do so in a way suitable for the larger society?

In other words, could it be that the kind of distinction between kingdoms for which Westminster California is notorious is not so radical but even appeals to the good confessing evangelicals that constitute ACE? Hmmmm.