Between Tim and Carl — The NAPARC Dilemma

Rod Dreher calls attention to one NAPARC pastor who is not thrilled with current ecclesiastical options and so curious about — wait for it — The Benedict Option:

Meanwhile younger evangelicals are busy recapitulating the 20th century church’s fatal embrace of theological liberalism. As long as it’s packaged in an emotionally compelling way, their elders can be induced to swallow it as well, as “The Shack” easily demonstrates.

Within the more conservative strains of Reformed and Lutheran Protestantism there are other problematic dynamics. I have many Lutheran friends, but I’ll stick to generalizing about the Reformed. There is a spectrum in the PCA, for instance. The disciples of Tim Keller are almost as ready to give away the store in the name of reaching the culture as the mainstream evangelicals are, and there is a small but significant number of these Young Turks who are busy trying to combine AngloCatholicism and hipster feminism into a small enough package to smuggle into the PCA. On the other extreme are the Confessionalist Conservatives (with whom I mostly identify, tho less and less) many of whom seem to be suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. Carl Trueman’s denomination is chock full of these. The focus here is on doctrine in an increasingly nuanced form, but it’s not particularly connected to real life most of the time. They tend to build small, unattractive churches full of Christians with advanced degrees in physics or engineering. They love doctrinal controversy, not because they love controversy, but because they love debating ideas. But regular people have no desire to follow the subtle arguments and hate the atmosphere of conflict coupled with a lack of any recognizably pleasing social interaction, so they run away pretty quickly. At my worst, I could easily fall into these pitfalls (indeed, I have) but the Lord is graciously restraining me and reshaping me, and by grace I am better than I was.

Pastor Brian, as he identifies himself in Rod’s comment boxes, should add that an important help to his dismissal of Keller’s giving away the story is the doctrinal zeal for which Carl Trueman’s Asperger Presbyterians are known.

But missing from this pastor’s dilemma is a recognition that the politics of identity (think race and gender) are leaving Tim Keller without a secure legacy in the PCA. Could it be that Keller is too white for the Leadership and Diversity Resource (talk about an Orwellian title) of the PCA?

When Wy Plummer invited one African-American seminarian to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to see a multiethnic PCA congregation, he had no idea the weekend would turn into an annual event attracting hundreds of men and women in Reformed denominations.

The event is now called Leadership and Development Resource (LDR), a weekend for African -Americans to see that they have a place in Reformed denominations. Since blacks are usually the minority in a PCA church, many feel as though they need to hide their ethnic culture in order to fit in at church, Plummer said. . . .

Now Plummer works with Tisby and Michelle Higgins to organize the annual gatherings. As LDR attracts more people, Higgins wants to equip teams to host regional LDR gatherings.

Plummer believes that LDR is playing a key role in creating diversity in the PCA. It gives Reformed African-American leaders the chance to address a national audience. For whites who attend, it is a place to learn about how African-Americans preach, pray, and worship.

If the OPC is getting too much doctrinal precision (haven’t heard that one before), has the PCA been getting too much Keller? Then again, the PCA establishment has to know that if push comes to shove and they have too choose between Tim and Kathy Keller or Jemar Tisby and Michelle Higgins, they’ll choose New York City over Chattanooga.

These days, though, you never know.

Is It the Economy or Social Media?

I (all about me) like it when discussions of spiritual matters include material causes. Calvinism isn’t just an idea (or five of them), but it is a form of western Christian that emerged at a specific time and place and its social location is part of Reformed Protestantism’s DNA (ever heard someone complain that Calvinism is too white, male, and suburban?). George Whitefield was not merely an evangelist but a person who had theatrical training and could really punch “Mesopotamia” so that the women fainted (which made the children cry).

So when Carl Trueman complained about the economic factors that contribute to the creation of an elite group of pastors and theologians who have an outsized influence in Protestant circles thanks to finances, I liked the point. If you can show that someone’s authority has at least something to do with their material standing rather than divine unction, then you have reason to follow your gut and take them with less seriousness.

But here’s the thing: if you look at the finances, the influence is disproportionate. Here are some sample numbers (gleaned primarily from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability and Guidestar):

2015 Mission to the World (PCA): $65 million+ revenues; $54 million+ expenses

2014 Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: $287k+ revenues; $187k+ expenses

2015 Gospel Coalition: $2.6 million+ revenues; $2.2 million+ expenses

2015 Good News Publishing (Crossway, parent company [?] of Gospel Coalition): $17 million+ revenues; $15 million+ expenses

2014 Committee on Foreign Missions (OPC) budget: $1.6 million+

Judging by the wealth, CBMW’s influence is breathtaking (if you follow that sort of thing).

Also, judging by the numbers, the PCA’s foreign missionaries should be the topic of every other blog post by the folks who spin mortification.

I agree with Carl when he says:

My earlier questions — ‘How did these men get to such positions of far-reaching influence? Who appointed them to speak for me? How do we get rid of them if they go astray?’ – are the pertinent ones.

But since social media is cheap and the way these days to create a brand and gain a following, perhaps the better question is why Mission to the World and the OPC’s Committee on Foreign Missions aren’t creating a blog with regular contributions from their personnel.

Beaver Cleaver Was Lost in His Trespasses and Sins

Trigger warning to self: you’ve engaged Carl Trueman critically before and it did not go well. So be careful, be very careful.

The reason for bringing up Dr. Trueman again, even if ever so gingerly, has to do with his recent evaluation of Rusty Reno’s new book about prospect for a Christian society. Trueman writes:

I simply am not convinced that change can be achieved on any significant scale. The causes of the modern malaise are complicated, and their solution must be equally elaborate. For example, as George Grant and David Schindler have shown, technology brings with it a different view of reality from that of traditional Christianity. This mindset is now deeply embedded in our world. The entertainment industry mediates much of what is taken for reality and grips the moral imagination of the masses. The globalized economy has transformed communities and community expectations in ways we have yet to fathom. To borrow that hackneyed but poetic phrase from Marx, all that is solid melts into air. Zygmunt Bauman’s argument, that we live in a time when even the most longstanding and reliable social structures are in permanent flux, seems to me compelling. It must be accounted for by any hope that depends upon the solidity of concepts or institutions from the past. How does one reform or recapture or rebuild that which has been robbed of solid existence?

I generally agree.

But where I push (not shove) back is with the idea that modernity alone has these problems. Ever since the fall, it seems to me, the possibilities of pursuing lives of holiness and passing on the faith have been hard. Just remember what Paul warned Timothy about the “last days”:

understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. (2 Tim 3:1-8)

Was Paul predicting a time when Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche would dominate understandings of human nature and the created order, or was he talking about life in the Roman Empire circa 60 AD? My understanding is that he was talking about life in the Mediterranean world then.

So why do Christians believe modernity is so much worse than any other time? Well, it sure seems that Roman Catholics have a certain nostalgia for the Christian society of medieval Europe, neo-Calvinists for the Christian society of the Kuyperian era of Dutch history, evangelicals in the U.S. for the First Pretty Good Awakening that of course led up to the Christian founding of the United States. Here Protestants want to recalculate critiques of modernity since Kuyper and George Whitefield both fall on the modern side of the divide between medieval and modern periods. In other words, Protestant critiques of modernity play into the hands of certain Roman Catholic apologetics (even if nostalgia for the flourishing of the Middle Ages seldom extends to the Crusades or the Inquisition).

But surely anyone with eyes and ears has to admit that we are living in worse times than 1950s American when Ward and June Cleaver reared Wally and the Beave. I have eyes and ears. I will concede that the 2010s are worse than the 1950s, though I did live through 1968 and that was not a good time. But on a scale of fallen humanity, are modern or contemporary times really worse than what Noah lived through, or Lot, or Jeremiah, or our Lord himself? Doesn’t the fall mean we always live in desperate times?

The point here is not that people who believe in original sin should be relativists when it comes to assessing the way humans live together or proposing ways that are better for a common life together and for the proclamation of the gospel. But I think it is a mistake to cultivate the notion that human flourishing is possible whether by putting in place the right policies or institutions, or by thinking about the past a certain way. I know Dr. Trueman knows this. But it sounds like he thinks we are living through one of the worst times in human existence. No matter how pleasant and reassuring Beaver Cleaver’s America was, it was not the new heavens and new earth. When sin abounds, it’s not a good time. The Cleavers were certainly flourishing as we now count such living, but they were also drowning in sin (and never in church). Shouldn’t that perspective inform the way we view the West post-Foucault?

We’re Supposed to Believe Evangelicals Care about Nicea?

While evangelical leaders and some of their critics debate the complexities of Trintarian theology (thanks, mind you, to prior considerations of the relations between the sexes – ahem), please keep in mind two points.

First, evangelical Protestants never — NEH VEH — cared about Nicea. If they knew about Nicea, they certainly didn’t know the Council of Constantinople of 381 (wasn’t that a Muslim city?). Just look at some evangelical statements on the Trinity:

God has revealed himself to be the living and true God, perfect in love and righteous in all his ways, one in essence, existing eternally in the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (Fuller Seminary, flagship seminary of the neo-evangelical movement)

We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (National Association of Evangelicals)

By way of comparison:

In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. (OPC Confession of Faith 2.3)

Our Churches, with common consent, do teach that the decree of the Council of Nicaea concerning the Unity of the Divine Essence and concerning the Three Persons, is true and to be believed without any doubting; that is to say, there is one Divine Essence which is called and which is God: eternal, without body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the Maker and Preserver of all things, visible and invisible; and yet there are three Persons, of the same essence and power, who also are coeternal, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And the term “person” they use as the Fathers have used it, to signify, not a part or quality in another, but that which subsists of itself. (Augsburg Confession)

So when Carl Trueman writes:

In light of the last few weeks, the American conservative evangelical movement as a whole has been exposed as theologically thin in its doctrine and historically eccentric in its priorities. As the war of words dies down, the subsequent peace must bring with it ecumenical consequences. It cannot simply involve papering over the obvious cracks in order to return to gospel business as usual.

Does he really mean to say “the last few weeks”? What about the last century does he not appreciate?

The second point to consider is how parachurch this entire debate is. As Jake Meador observes, evangelicals don’t debate well:

And so we continue to go around the maddening how-evangelicals-debate cul de sac: Dr. Trueman has long complained that evangelicalism is driven more by cultural concerns, like complementarianism, and a celebrity pastor complex than by sincere concern with faithful preaching and ministry. In the way he makes these critiques, he has sometimes been excessively aggressive, thereby making it far less likely that people will hear his real concerns or weigh whether or not there is any truth in them at all. He is, instead, easily dismissed as a crank.

One reason is that the means for conducting debate are parachurch institutions, not church assemblies, committees, reports, and debates.

So while evangelicals debate the Trinity — THE TRINITY!! — Orthodox Presbyterians were discussing the doctrine of republication.

Evangelicals really should join a confessional church. The water is warm.

What’s To Prevent the Nationality of the Church?

I have already wondered where the PCA’s corporate confession of the sin of racism will lead. Sean Lucas’ article on the spirituality of the church in the freshly e-minted theological journal, Reformed Faith and Practice, makes me wonder more.

One of the takeaways of Lucas’ article is the fair point that Southern Presbyterian ministers and assemblies used the spirituality of the church to avoid speaking out about Jim Crow or even to defend white supremacy. Lucas makes that point stick when he observes the way that Presbyterians ignored the spirituality of the church when it came to alcohol or evolution:

And southern Presbyterians had a difficult time knowing where the line was between spiritual and secular realms. One example of this was the church’s long-standing support and advocacy of abstinence from alcohol. From 1862 on, the southern Presbyterian General Assembly repeatedly advocated teetotalism, reprobated the sale of beverage alcohol, and urged people to “use all legitimate means for its banishment from the land.” Finally, in 1914, as the political process began that would produce the Volstead Act, the General Assembly declared, “We are in hearty favor of National Constitutional Prohibition, and will do all properly within our power to secure the adoption of an amendment to the Constitution forever prohibiting the sale, manufacture for sale, transportation for sale, importation for sale, and exportation for sale of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes in the United States.” Notably, there was no hue and cry in the Presbyterian papers by conservatives about this action as a violation of the spiritual mission of the church.[11]

Another example of blurring the lines between the so-called spiritual and secular realms occurred in the 1920s over the teaching of evolution in the public schools. In North Carolina, the key leaders who opposed evolution both in the public schools and at the University of North Carolina were Presbyterian ministers, Albert Sidney Johnson and William P. McCorkle. In 1925, the Synod of North Carolina adopted resolutions that called for “a closer supervision to prevent teaching anything [in the public schools]…[that contradicted] Christian truths as revealed in the Word of God.” They also “demanded the removal of teachers found guilty of teaching evolution ‘as a fact.’” Again, beyond the rightness or wrongness of the action, the main point here is that the spirituality of the church doctrine did not prevent these Presbyterians from intermeddling in civil affairs outside the “spiritual” realm of the church.[12]

But does inconsistency really invalidate the principle? Political conservatives argue for U.S. independence in foreign affairs and then turn around and support a big military and wars of intervention in the Middle East. So we forget the policy and just send more troops to Syria? Or do you perhaps think about reaffirming the wisdom of the policy in the face of the inconsistency and ask for practice to reflect doctrine?

The problem is that Lucas is not merely calling for the PCA to be consistent. He wants the church to bring transformational grace to the world:

. . . the way forward for all of us will be our common commitment to what the church as church should be and should be doing. Central to that life together will be the ministry of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and prayer. And as we use these effectual means of our salvation, what we will find is that the grace that comes to us through them will transform us. It will drive us out into our world to share the Good News of Jesus, but also to live that transforming Gospel in tangible ways, as we love justice and mercy, as we extend ourselves in risky ways into the lives of our neighbors. This Gospel will not leave us alone and cannot leave us the same. After all, King Jesus is making his world new now through you and me—his grace transforms everything.

That sounds pretty good, as if the world will be better when we stop erecting boundaries that cut “off the ‘spiritual’ from the rest of life.” But surely, Lucas recognizes the value of making distinctions between the civil and ecclesiastical realms. I mean, would he want the PCA to affirm a motion that called for the United States to make Christianity the official religion? Or would he want the PCA to endorse a roster of political candidates — Clinton over Trump? Or how about the PCA being salt and light with the State Department and opening diplomatic talks with North Korea? Does the ministry of the word, administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or church discipline give the PCA leverage to apply its spiritual insights to the secular and temporal affairs of U.S. politics? Why stop with national borders? Why not Europe? Why not the world? I can’t believe Lucas favors that kind of mission creep. But from the Baylys in the Rust Belt to Tim Keller in NYC, many in the PCA want the communion to be transformational. Is race really the way to do this?

This is an odd development since the point of the spirituality of the church seems evident to many who are not even Machen groupies. Paul Helm once again contrasts favorably two-kingdom theology to the medieval one-kingdom approach among those nostalgic for Christendom:

The current focus on the Two Kingdoms has been on secular society and the fact that it is distinct from the church. That’s freedom, we rightly think, to be free from such things as the obligation to transform culture in the name of Christ. But actually it is only one side of freedom. Christian freedom has not only to do what we are commanded to do or to abstain from doing by the government of the day, but also from what some church or sect, or social group or cultural mood, may try to require of us, or do require of us, that would be sinful. Not permitted by the Word of God, but forbidden by it.

Meanwhile, Carl Trueman comes out for the Benedict Option precisely because of the inherent problems of ecclesiastical overreach:

Maybe the Benedict Option and my own proposed Calvary Option are really two ways of saying the same thing—that the church needs to be the church and Christians need first and foremost to be Christians before they engage the civic sphere. Maybe our current problem is therefore not that society is secularizing but rather the opposite—that the American church is finally being forced to desecularize. This will be painful. It will involve hard choices. It will involve increasingly obvious differences between the church and the world.

I doubt either Helm or Trueman would disapprove of efforts to acknowledge the racism that sometimes lurked among the proponents of the spirituality of the church. But does that acknowledgment necessarily involve abandoning a distinction between the kingdom of grace and the civil kingdom, between grace and the world, between redemption and external justice?

Why you can’t apologize for racism (in other ways) and continue to support the spirituality of the church is beyond me.

Doom and Gloom

First the gloom:

. . . the American experiment in limited government requires that the citizenry and those who hold public office honor certain moral virtues and respect the institutions that are crucial for a society to rightly function. Yet, we now find ourselves in a situation where the three leading candidates for president show little to no respect for such institutions in their articulations of public policy.

More:

The central principle of my decision is that Donald Trump is palpably unfit for the office of the President, and unworthy of the vote of anyone who dares think that the name of Christ still must have some salience for our public and political life. Since I posted my original essay on the matter, events have done nothing to dissuade me of this stance: if anything, they have further confirmed it.

Now some doom:

From elite critical theory in the lecture theaters of the Ivy Leagues to the rampant epidemic of pornography on so many computer screens, we live in world that seeks to detach and isolate the present from any accountability to past or future. Ours is the era of the sempiternal orgiast, the true hero of our time.

Is the reason for such despair an application of end-times standards to between-the-times times. Here‘s an example applied not to politics or culture but (Christian, mind you) books:

I find it difficult to read books by authors who have disgraced and disqualified themselves. Depending on the kind of immorality he displayed, I may even get rid of his books. We of all generations are so blessed by good books that I see little reason to even consider ones written by leaders who have made a trainwreck of their ministries. I can’t think of a single category of book that needs the work of a fallen author. There are other great books on leadership, other ones on marriage, on prayer and suffering and Christian living. I do not need to rely on the books of those who have justly been removed from ministry.

Imagine what does for someone who enjoys Mencken.

Lest readers let doom and gloom pave the way for a bummer weekend, here’s a reason for keeping hope alive:

White Christian traditionalists do not see Jews and Muslims as allies, Inazu said, and non-Christians and non-whites are not engaged in the cultural conflict, even if they agree with traditional morality. But they are not aligned with the liberal/left on these issues either, Inazu claimed. To be more successful, religious liberty efforts need to be made with many groups, with sensitivity to their outlook.

If white Protestants can figure out a way to look at society as less an extension of the church than as a shared space with people who aren’t white and Protestant, they might actually find political and cultural standards to hold them over until that great day.

New Calvinist Exceptionalism

After the recent controversies surrounding Darrin Patrick, C. J. Mahaney, and James MacDonald, I was surprised to see Jeff Jue be so positive about the New Calvinism. He even appeals to the spirit of J. Gresham Machen and Westminster Seminary:

It is committed to the Reformed tradition.

The theme of this year’s T4G was “We Are Protestant: The Reformation at 500,” and the theme of TGC’s 2017 National Conference will be “No Other Gospel: Reformation 500 and Beyond” (April 3 to 5 in Indianapolis; browse list of speakers and talks, and register here). Reformed theology is at the heart of WTS, and it’s what we’ve been teaching since J. Gresham Machen founded the seminary in 1929. So it’s a great encouragement to partner with others who share our commitment to the Reformed tradition.

In 2014 John Piper gave a series of lectures at WTS on the New Calvinism. At one point he stated, “There would be no New Calvinism without Westminster Seminary.” He was referring to the numerous influential books written by WTS faculty members. Perhaps it was an overstatement, but Piper’s comment reminded me of the historical connection between WTS and the New Calvinism.

To Serve the Local Church

Just as WTS is an independant organization with a confessional identity wanting to serve the church, the same is true of sister ministries like T4G and TGC.

And while we have some differences among us, the New Calvinist movement—as represented this week by T4G—is an opportunity to share the rich truths of the Reformation with yet another generation of pastors and churches.

I would have thought that Carl Trueman’s jab on the Gospel Coalition’s “Machismozing” was more typical of that Old Westminster spirit.

But what do I know? It is the season of spin.