An Evangelical Pope

As the returns come in, the difference between Rusty Reno at First Things and Michael Gerson at the Washington Post reinforce the notion that the more you want Christianity not to be bound by rules, institutions, or forms — which is to say, you’re an evangelical — the more you like Francis. And the more you want Christianity to provide rules, stability, and patterns for belief and practice — which is to say, you’re an institutional conservative (e.g. ecclesial or confessional Christian) — the more you wonder about Francis.

First the evangelical Gerson:

Rather than surrendering the moral distinctiveness of the Catholic Church, he is prioritizing its mission. In the America interview, he vividly compared the church to “a field hospital after battle.” When someone injured arrives, you don’t treat his high cholesterol. “You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” The outreach of the church, in other words, does not start with ethical or political lectures. “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.”

There is a good Catholic theological term for this: the “hierarchy of truths.” Not every true thing has equal weight or urgency.

But this does not adequately capture Francis’s deeper insight: the priority of the person. This personalism is among the most radical implications of Christian faith. In every way that matters to God, human beings are completely equal and completely loved. They can’t be reduced to ethical object lessons. Their dignity runs deeper than their failures. They matter more than any cause; they are the cause.

So Francis observed: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.”

This teaching — to always consider the person — was disorienting from the beginning. The outsiders get invited to the party. The prodigal is given the place of honor. The pious complain about their shocking treatment. The gatekeepers find the gate shut to them. It is subversive to all respectable religious order, which is precisely the point. With Francis, the argument gains a new hearing.

Then the Episcopalian-turned-Roman Catholic Reno:

Such comments by Francis do not challenge but instead reinforce America’s dominant ideological frame. It’s one in which Catholics loyal to the magisterium are “juridical” and “small-minded.” They fear change, lacking the courage to live “on the margins.” I heard these and other dismissive characterizations again and again during my twenty years teaching at a Jesuit university. One of my colleagues insisted again and again that the greatest challenge we face in the classroom is “Catholic fundamentalism,” when in fact very few students today even know the Church’s teachings, much less hold them with an undue ardency.

It’s in this context that Pope Francis makes extended observations about the profound pastoral challenge of ministering to gay people today, to which he adds the personal statement that he cannot judge a homosexual person who “is of good will and is in search of God.” He also speaks of other pastoral challenges: a divorced woman who has also had an abortion. These are subtle remarks, and necessary ones.

He sums up this section with statements about the witness of the Church today. They are the ones most often quoted: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” “It is not necessary to talk about these issue all the time.”

In themselves these statements are obvious and non-controversial. Since my entry in the Catholic Church in 2004, I have heard some homilies on abortion, gay marriage, and even one on contraception. But these are infrequent. For the most part priests expound the mystery of Christ, which, as Pope Francis emphasizes, is the source and foundation of our faith. Without Christ at the center, the Church’s moral teachings can quickly become mere moralism.

But Pope Francis has been undisciplined in his rhetoric, casually using standard modern formulations, ones that are used to beat up on faithful Catholics—“audacity and courage” means those who question Church teachings, the juxtaposition of the “small-minded” traditionalists to the brave and open liberals who are “in dialogue”, and so forth. This gives everything he says progressive connotations. As a consequence, American readers, and perhaps European ones as well, intuitively read a progressivism into Pope Francis’ statements about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Thus the headlines.

This is not helpful, at least not in the field hospital of the American Church. We face a secular culture that has a doctrine of Unconditional Surrender. It will not accept “talking less” about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. The only acceptable outcome is agreement—or silence. Dialogue? Catholic higher education has been doing that for fifty years, and the result has been the secularization of the vast majority of colleges and universities. Today at Fordham or Georgetown, the only people talking about contraception, gay rights, or gay marriage are the advocates.

Francis is certainly giving new meaning to papal audacity and Roman Catholic conservatism.

The Pietist Pope

I was at first dismissive of the lead singer of Jason and the Callers’ invocation of categories I developed in Lost Soul of American Protestantism to explain the current statements from Pope Francis. Not to say I wasn’t flattered or surprised that an arch-Roman Catholic would lean on Protestant categories to defend an institution and person who is so superior to Protestantism. But after reading Francis’ interview, I believe Jason is more astute than he realizes (but not so much here). (He should also realize that he belongs to a flock of interpreters, the members of which seem to have forgotten that it was the papacy itself that was supposed to end the Protestant craze of various interpretations.)

Several commentators have been concerned about the mainstream media’s highlighting the pope’s apparently lackadaisical views about homosexuality and abortion, such as:

In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

A confessionalist, that is, a churchly Christian who values ecclesial forms and ordinances (preaching, sacraments, prayer) as the means by which the Spirit works, as opposed to a pietist who generally disregards forms and elevates the Spirit over all religious externals or man-made doctrines or liturgies, might have responded to the predicament of homosexuality or abortion by pointing a person struggling with these matters to the regular ministry of the church. For someone like Francis — “is the Pope ecclesial?” could be a new taunt — you would expect him to uphold Rome’s sacramental system of Baptism, the Eucharist, and Penance. Say what you will about the flaws in those teaching and practices from a Reformed Protestant perspective, Rome’s ministry as outlined, for instance, in Trent’s Catechism is as thorough a way of addressing the plight of sinners as someone could imagine.

But instead of upholding the gracious character of the sacramental system, or the mercy that Rome shows in recommending that a person wrestling with sin seek forgiveness and repentance through the ministry of her priests, Francis went in a pietistic direction. That is, he spoke of ways to make the church seem more responsive and charitable.

How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbour. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organisational reforms are secondary­ – that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.

“Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”

I mention to Pope Francis that there are Christians who live in situations that are irregular for the church or in complex situations that represent open wounds. I mention the divorced and remarried, same-sex couples and other difficult situations. What kind of pastoral work can we do in these cases? What kinds of tools can we use?

“We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner,” the pope says, “preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.

To be sure, Francis does mention briefly the role of the confessor in the life of a woman who has had an abortion:

This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace. The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better. I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?

But the pope’s presentation of the issue is open ended. What should the confessor do? No answer. A woman with a guilty conscience? She needs to work it out with a confessor, but not in a way that would involve the pain of repentance or the acts of contrition, confession, and satisfaction. What happened to the words of Trent which defined contrition as “a sorrow and detestation for sin committed, with a purpose of sinning no more . . . joined with a confidence in the mercy of God and an earnest desire of performing whatever is necessary to the proper reception of the Sacrament”?

In other words, Francis appears to be confused like many pietists, who mistake experience for authenticity. He apparently wants to offer forgiveness to a broken world but does not value highly the very means that his own communion has (and has had for six hundred years) for reaching out to a broken world. It is as if he had read too much Gilbert Tennent and believed that new circumstances required new ministry measures. It is a Roman Catholic instance of pietism’s promotion of feelings and experience at the expense of the outward and ordinary means of grace.

By the way, it is also breathtaking since it is supposed to be either the low church Protestants or the Roman Catholic mystics who are so indifferent to sacraments and ordinances.

Postscript: in a related story, the Vatican press reported on Francis’ efforts to avoid taking a hard line with couples who are cohabiting:

The Pope told priests they should welcome couples that live together and championed the courageous and creative choices involved in going out to the “existential peripheries”, RomaSette says in its article. But the truth factor is crucial here. “The truth must always be told,” not just in the dogmatic sense of the world but in the sense of “love and God’s fullness”. The priest must “accompany” people.

Francis referred to some experience he had in Buenos Aires as examples of creativity. For example, when some churches were kept open around the clock, with confessors or “personal courses” available for couples who want to marry but can’t attend a prenuptial course because they work till late. The “existential peripheries” are the priority. These also refer to the kinds of family contexts Benedict XVI often talked about, for example second marriages. Our task is to “find another way, the just way,” Francis said. . . .

“The problem cannot be reduced to whether” these couples “are allowed to take communion or not because whoever thinks of the problem in these terms doesn’t understand the real issue at hand,” Francis said. “This is a serious problem regarding the Church’s responsibility towards families that are in this situation.” Francis reiterated what he said on the return flight from Rio to Rome after World Youth Day, saying he will be discussing the issue with the group of eight cardinals who will be meeting in the Vatican in early October. Francis added that the issue will also be discussed at the next Synod of Bishops on the Gospel’s anthropological relationship with individual people and the family, so that the whole Synod can look into this problem. “This,” Francis said “is a real existential periphery”.

Charles Finney Wasn't the Only New York Pastor to Defend Revivals

The Redeemer Report features an article by Tim Keller defending revival and conversion as biblical. Keller’s outspokenness on revivalism should not be a surprise since he was a student of Richard Lovelace (Dynamics of Spiritual Life), and since he has defended revivals on other occasions. Followers of Keller’s career and writings may be forgiven if they wonder how revival goes down with the upwardly mobile and aesthetically informed Manhattanites who gravitate to Redeemer Church. (You can take the boy out of Gordon-Conwell, but can you take Gordon-Conwell out of the boy?)

Keller’s latest column offers a succinct biblical theology of revival. What caught my eye, though, was less the theology or revival than the unspoken interlocutors behind Keller’s argument. Why all of the biblical data he assembles needs to be called a revival or a conversion is a question Keller does not answer. Revival itself is a confusing metaphor for spiritual life. It suggests someone who was alive, died, and is now brought back to life. How helpful can it be to use this image with reference to a person who is not regenerate? And just as pertinent, can it ever be used for a saint? Do saints die spiritually and then need resuscitation? If so, doesn’t revival imply that saints won’t persevere? This might explain the appeal of revival to the likes of Finney.

But back to Keller’s unidentified readers. He writes with a measure of hostility rarely seen:

As I sat looking at my computer screen at the title I’d written for this article, I was somewhat bemused by the fact that a defense of conversion and revival was even necessary. But so it is. There are quarters of the church now questioning whether or not conversion, the new birth, giving oneself to Christ, etc., are topics that should even be raised. Conversion, and its corporate expression, revival, are thought to be manifestations of Western individualistic thinking.

Keller adds, again with a surprising edge:

The point of this article is not so that you (or I) can win arguments with those of a different persuasion. Christians throwing theological brickbats at one another is only amusing the Evil One. Rather, we should move forward positively to seek revival in our own lives and churches and to joyfully share the Gospel with those who do not yet know Christ. Changed lives and changed community will both glorify God and fill us with the joy unspeakable.

Let me be clear, I am critical of revivals and revivalists not for the sake of throwing brickbats (whatever they are). I am interested in the ways in which revivals have undermined reformation. I would contend (and have) that the better word to use for improvement in the church is not revival but reform. The rise of Protestantism was not a revival. It was a reformation. Meanwhile, the interior turn that experimental Calvinism nurtured and that gave rise to revivalism, acted as a solvent on those marks of reformation by which we identified a true church — proclamation of the gospel (creeds), rightly administered sacraments (liturgy), and discipline (polity). If revivalists were not inherently anti-formalists, they might be more willing to consider the importance of these formal aspects of church life. But ever since George Whitefield, revivalists have been more concerned with “the heart” than they have with the churchly qualities that manifest the heart and unite believers to the body of Christ.

Of course, other good reasons exist for raising questions about revivals and conversion. From Charles Finney’s New Measures to Jonathan Edwards’ — another pro-revival New York pastor — gullibility over the conversion of four-year olds, revivalism has a checkered past. If Keller is such an effective apologist for revival, he needs to be as empathetic with revivalism’s critics as he is with Christianity’s unbelieving opponents who live in large metropolitan centers.

Playing with Fire

Martin Luther complained about the radicals of the Reformation who invoked the fullness of the Spirit that they had “swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all.” Justin Taylor’s recent quote from John Piper about worship makes me wonder if fire-eater would occur to Luther as the name to describe the oldest of the Young, Restless, and “Reformed.” Here’s the quote that lights Taylor’s fire:

The fuel of worship is a true vision of the greatness of God;

the fire that makes the fuel burn white hot is the quickening of the Holy Spirit;

the furnace made alive and warm by the flame of truth is our renewed spirit;

and the resulting heat of our affections is powerful worship, pushing its way out in confessions, longings, acclamations, tears, songs, shouts, bowed heads, lifted hands, and obedient lives.

Fire metaphors aside, some of what Piper writes is sensible, such as the idea that God’s greatness undergirds worship, or that true worship depends on the work of the Holy Spirit. What is troubling is the criteria Piper uses to evaluate Spirit-filled worship. Do we really want to put shouts and tears and lifted hands on a par with confessions and songs? In my-all-about-me-church the only person raising his hands is the Reformed pastor at the beginning and end of the service.

To put Piper’s spiritual arsonry in perspective, confessionalists may need a little spiritual quenching from the teaching of Reformed churches:

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. (Confession 7.6)

This is a significant difference between confessionalism and pietism. Pietists believe that for worship to become white hot, the work of the Spirit must be visible, even tangible. Confessionalists, in contrast, actually believe that the more the Spirit is at work in worship, the simpler and more invisible the Spirits work will be.

But Piper’s version of “Reformed” worship is what happens when you redact the 16th through the 18th century. Cherry picking indeed.

Cherry Picking Alert (and boy are those trunks sappy!)

The Gospel Coalition has launched a year-long series of blog posts about Princeton Theological Seminary, a school that celebrates its bicentennial this year. The first post introduces PTS by likening the institution to the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement.

Controversies swirl around celebrity pastors and their best-selling books. Evangelicals unite across denominational lines to share resources and strategize together for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. New thought emerging from Europe demands a response. Divisions arise between those who emphasize personal piety and others who prioritize the sacraments in the Christian life. Developments in science force Christians to reconsider their understanding of Genesis.

The author, Andy Jones, a PCA pastor in North Carolina, continues:

The seminary originally aimed to produce men of great learning and vital piety. The leaders of Princeton were men who advocated for Calvinism and the Great Awakening. They were Reformed revivalists. In the classroom, they introduced their students to the biblical languages and the Latin edition of Francis Turrentin’s Institutes. Yet they also emphasized the necessity of personal piety. Their goal was to produce ministers who were biblically grounded, theologically enlightened, and spiritually awakened. By establishing a seminary that linked together vigorous learning and piety, the founders hoped that “blessings may flow to millions while we are sleeping in the dust.”

Though governed by Presbyterians, Princeton Seminary welcomed students from diverse backgrounds. It graduated men who became leaders in Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Baptist churches. Among Princeton’s first graduates was Charles Hodge, who would become the seminary’s leading influence in the 19th century. Another early graduate and Hodge’s best friend was John Johns, a leader among Episcopalians and ultimately the president of William and Mary. One of Hodge’s students, James Petigru Boyce, became the founding professor of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

In the 19th century, Princeton was a leader among conservative evangelicals in America. It was the “grand central station” for the “young, restless, and Reformed.” Through The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, a prominent voice in 19th-century religious journalism, it apprised Presbyterians of the latest thinking among biblical scholars, engaged in controversies facing the church, and responded to challenges in the surrounding culture.

In other words, PTS was the Gospel Coalition of the nineteenth century — revivalistic, interdenominational, devout, and informed.

This is one way of interpreting PTS but it is highly selective since it leaves out the less reassuring bits about Princeton’s Old School tradition — Hodge’s criticisms of the First Great Awakening, Samuel Miller’s defense of something close to jure divino Presbyterianism, the seminary’s cultivation of polemical theology, its insistence on infant baptism, and its legacy in institutions like Westminster Seminaries and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Old Schoolers like myself have not ignored Princeton’s experimental Calvinistic side and some of us have even explored the tensions between revivalism and confessionalism that the Princetonians may not themselves acknowledged. But at least we have not denied the uncomfortable parts of PTS’ past. I would hope the Gospel Co-Allies would do the same.

Meanwhile, this is the second time in the recent past where GC advocates have appealed to historical precedents for their alliance. One commenter here invoked seventeenth-century British Protestantism and its kaleidoscope of Puritans, Independents, Presbyterians, and Baptists. He left out the Quakers and failed to acknowledge that these groups did not found a parachurch agency but went into separate churches. Now comes an attempt to draw parallels between the GC and PTS. Be careful with those pits.

I do not understand why GC historians don’t liken themselves to the most obvious precedent — the neo-evangelicals of the 1940s. Leading that group was Harold John Ockenga, Carl Henry, and Billy Graham. They too set up non-denominational institutions to draw in “conservative” Protestants of all stripes. And they also drew inspiration from Princeton Seminary. As George Marsden shows, PTS was very much on the minds of Fuller Seminary’s founders.

The trouble with appeals to Old Princeton like the neo-evangelicals and GC’s is that they ignore the side of the seminary that spooks pietists — the polemics not only against liberals but also against “conservatives.” PTS did welcome students from all churches. But you cannot find a bigger critic of Finney, holiness, Wesleyanism, perfectionism, New School Presbyterianism, Taylorism, biblical criticism, and Darwin. Old Princeton knew how to say “no.” Does the Gospel Coalition?

One way to answer this question without long reflection is to compare Mark Driscoll to Charles Hodge. Puhleeze. If Hodge were living today, he would take Driscoll to the woodshed (that is, unless Driscoll’s powers of clairvoyance alerted him to Hodge’s approach).

Confessional Intuition

Worldviews are overrated. Intuition matters. At least, that’s the impression readers may take away from a thoughtful review of a new book on philanthropy by Jeff Cain, a former colleague and now the co-founder of American Philanthropic. The book in question is Do More Than Give: The Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World, and the title gives away the naivete that so often informs the transformationalist outlook, whether cultural or ecclesiastical. For the world of philanthropy the contrast runs as follows:

Maybe you are the kind of donor who supports nonprofits in your community. Like many Americans, you give or tithe through your church or temple. You support local human-service organizations that provide direct aid to the needy, infirm, and down-and-out. You contribute to your alma mater, local theatre company, community hospital, or library-building campaign.

Perhaps, too, your giving is influenced by your family members, colleagues, and close friends in your church, business, or neighborhood. You give out of a genuine sense of caring and gratitude for those people, places, and institutions to which you are geographically, psychologically, or spiritually connected.

If these sensible and natural forms of charitable giving describe your philanthropy, then Do More Than Give: The Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World is not for you. This fast-paced encomium to good intentions grounded in strategy and directed by experts is aimed at a special breed of philanthropist—a breed so special that it is honored with its own moniker: catalytic philanthropists, intent on changing the world.

The same kind of difference applies to the religious world and separates the churchly Protestant from the born-again believer who flocks to the parachurch organizations and their conferences in search of that fix that the local, mom-and-pop – okay, dominie only – church provides. If the idea of philanthropy is not to change the world, so the idea of confessionalism is about perseverance, pilgrimage, and waiting for the only transformer who is capable of changing the world.

The review is short and well worth a read. Aside from the point it makes about philanthropy, it also illustrates the difference between a worldview that holds to abstract truths as opposed to a profession of faith with concrete loyalties. Viewers of the world – perhaps because they don’t live in it – invariably want to change the world and think they have ideas capable of doing so. Confessionalists know that ideas don’t change the world (God does) and understand that those who attribute such power to ideas border on folly, never considering ironically the impotence of human reason. Chances are, though, that the people who are supposed to be the smartest in the room – the ones with all the philosophy and epistemology and theory – won’t ever intuit this dilemma because the people who object to worldview in favor of intuition can’t theorize their instincts. And without a theory, as all worldviewers know, knowledge is inconsequential.

Young, Restless and Lutheran?

If you read Collin Hanson’s book on the young Calvinists you will discover that of Dort’s five points the young and restless ones affirm at most two of the five. You will also see that what drives young Calvinists has less to do with the five points of Calvinsim than with one big point – the sovereignty of God. The youthful interest in being Reformed seems to stem primarily from expressions about the glory of God – thanks to John Piper channeling Jonathan Edwards – that present to late adolescents and young adults an image of God much bigger and grander than anything they had encountered in evangelical preaching and teaching. (I could get snarky and ask what Bible have these “converts” to Calvinism been reading, but I’ll resist mainly.)

But why is an affirmation of divine sovereignty Reformed? It is just as much Lutheran as it is Reformed. It is in fact basically true of Christianity to affirm the sovereignty of God. That business in the Nicene Creed about “maker of heaven and earth” does point in the direction of a divine being sufficiently powerful to create everything and then govern and maintain it all.

So why don’t we call the new evangelical resurgence of interest in divine sovereignty Lutheran instead of Reformed? After all, there is nothing about the young and restless that is explicitly Reformed other than the Jonathan Edwards is My Home Boy t-shirts (and Edwards, for all his genius, is not exactly the standard for Reformed Protestantism).

One explanation may be evangelicals mistakenly think of themselves as Reformed because they are following the lead of Reformed Protestants themselves. The latter are more inclined to think of themselves as evangelical than as Reformed. In turn, this tendency cultivates an atmosphere where Reformed Protestants look, speak, and act like evangelicals. In which case, the reason that evangelicals don’t consider themselves Lutheran – though they do affirm as much of Lutheranism as they do of Reformed Protestantism – and don’t make Martin Luther is My Home Boy t-shirts is that Lutheranism is not a comfortable environment for evangelicals.

Evidence of this tension comes from Kevin DeYoung’s recent interview with the Lutheran pastor, Paul T. McCain (sounds pretty Scottish and not very German). To the question of whether Lutherans consider themselves part of American evangelicalism, McCain responded:

I do not think that most Lutherans consider themselves to be American Evangelicals. We tend to think of ourselves first, and foremost, simply as Lutheran Christians. I must say in light of the fact that conservative Lutherans do have a single book by which they can identify themselves, doctrinally, we find trying to nail down precisely what “Evangelicalism” is a bit like an exercise in nailing jello to a wall, and that kind of gives us the heebie-jeebies. That’s a technical term.

And in a follow up question about differences between Reformed and Lutheran Protestants, McCain had this intriguing response:

We are keen on emphasizing the proper distinction between God’s Law, that shows us our sin, and God’s Gospel, that shows us our Savior and we emphasize God’s objective work through both His Word and His Sacraments. The “S” word makes our Evangelical friends very nervous, but we hold and cherish the Sacraments and really believe that God works saving faith by the power of His promising Word through Baptism. We also believe that the Lord’s Supper is our Lord Christ’s own dear body and blood, actually under, with and in the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and drink, and that through it we receive forgiveness and life, and wherever there is forgiveness and life, there is salvation.

Now, of course, Lutherans and Reformed disagree on the Lord’s Supper and have ever since 1529. But why are Reformed Protestants any more appealing to evangelicals than Lutherans on sacramental grounds. After all, Reformed Protestants also have sacramental teachings and practices that would scare evangelicals if they ever went beyond the first question and answer of the Shorter Catechism. Does baptism come to mind? Plus, the Reformed churches’ teaching on the Supper – from the Belgic Confession to the Westminster Confession – is no more agreeable to most evangelicals (whoever they are) than the Book of Concord.

So again I find it very strange that many seem to think that Reformed and evangelical go together when as many wrinkles exist between these expressions of Protestants as between evangelicals and Lutherans. Could it be that if Reformed Protestants were as serious about being Reformed as Lutherans have been about being Lutheran the young and restless would simply be content with calling themselves Baptist?

Why Does Mahaney Get More Slack Than Nevin?

The answer appears to be that if you I have spoken at conferences with C.J., shared a meal with him after one of those sessions, or sung Sovereign Grace Music songs on stage with him, then it is possible to stand in the gap with C.J. in the current difficulty that SGM is experiencing. But if you have not done any of those relationship-building things with J.W., then it is not possible to give Nevin the benefit of the doubt.

This is another way of saying that personal knowledge and friendship appear to be significant elements in the reactions from famous evangelical Reformed figures to the news about C. J. Mahaney and the difficulties besetting SGM. Al Mohler has issued a statement of full confidence in Mahaney and so Ligon Duncan has recently issued a statement over at Reformation 21 which includes this:

It is clear that far from a scandalous cover up, our brothers at Sovereign Grace are taking these matters with utter seriousness and are endeavoring to walk in Gospel repentance and humility and fidelity. C.J. knows of my complete love and respect for him. And my brethren at Sovereign Grace know of my support and prayers for them. . . . I want to emphasize that we fully respect the process that SGM is taking to review the entire situation and that we have no intention whatsoever of joining in the adjudicating of this case in the realm of the internet – a practice as ugly as it is unbiblical.

Here’s the problem. For schlubs like me, who have had no personal interaction with Mahaney, the only information I have to go on are those formal statements that describe SGM’s work. And when I go to the website of SGM I discover that Sovereign Grace churches are weak on the sacraments, have no presbyterian polity, and also include statements friendly to charismatic views of the Holy Spirit. These official teachings and practices have nothing to do (as far as any of us know) with the current difficulties at SGM. C.J. may be guilty or innocent no matter what SGM teaches and does.

But those formal statements would be enough for me not to have personal knowledge of C.J., at least the kind that comes from parachurch conferences, networks, and alliances. All serious Reformed church members and officers, of course, may and do participate with non-Reformed in a host of voluntary organizations. You cannot exist in civil society and not participate with Baptists, Mormons, or Roman Catholics at the Parent Teachers Association, or at the committee for expanding the local library, or on the Chamber of Commerce. You might even participate with non-Reformed in religious endeavors like a college or a magazine.

But if an association or organization calls itself a ministry, I am not sure how such cooperation can exist. The reason has to do with the word “ministry” itself. It invariably goes with “the word” as in minister the word of God (except for the neo-Calvinist/evangelical clutter of “every member ministry”). And when we talk about ministry in this way, we are in the ballpark of ordination, ecclesiology, sacraments, worship, and doctrine. Ministry as such should be confessional. Cross-confessional ministries undermine confessionalism. (And if an organization has the word “gospel” in its name and does not call itself a ministry then it should cease its activities because ministering the gospel is of the essence of ministry.)

So again, I am in a dilemma regarding the current situation at SGM. I have a knowledge of C.J. that only comes from formal statements that would prevent me from entering into ministry relationships with him. And not having those ministry relationships I have no personal knowledge that he is a worthwhile friend and colleague. At the same time, I have friends and acquaintances who are assuring me that everything is basically okay with C.J. and this advice stems from personal knowledge that is grounded in a cross-confessional ministry. Reassurances about C.J. would not be coming from evangelical Reformed types if those Reformed and Baptist figures were as particular in their understanding of ministry as anyone who takes seriously the visible church should be.

Of course, it is commendable for people to stand by their friends and I commend Duncan and Mohler for not doing the self-righteous thing of throwing Mahaney under the bus simply at the accusation of misconduct. Innocent until proven guilty works in both kingdoms.

But if friendship is really a function of fellowship and such fellowship is misbegotten on confessional grounds, then standing by one’s friend may really be a form of standing by a fellow minister while having no ecclesiastical basis or status for doing so.

So I remain ignorant of C.J.’s personal charms because I remain separate from Sovereign Grace Ministries.

Al Mohler, the Gospel Coalition, and Me (about whom it always is)

Name-dropper alert: Al Mohler and I have been friends for over two decades. (The Harts used to be on the Mohler’s Christmas card list until the former’s nomadic way of life prompted USPS to stop forwarding those attractive greetings from the president’s house in Louisville.) Al and I met when we were participants in a Lilly Endowment project for young Protestant leaders. Because Lilly has historically been most interested in mainline Protestant communions, the religious leaders in Al’s and my group were mainly from the mainline. But because Lilly was aware of the growing prominence of evangelicalism in the United States, they included so-called conservative Protestants, which left Al and me the beneficiaries of mainline Protestant affirmative action. We held hands (not literally) and commiserated over the social justice orthodoxy that continued to prevail among mainliners, and we expressed mutual surprise at how little the Trinity of race-class-gender had come in for revision among those Protestants ever looking for excuses to revise. When a couple years later I was looking for a co-editor for a book on evangelical theological education, Al who had been recently appointed president of Southern Baptist, the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, was a natural for the book project.

All of this is to say that Al and are friends, we are co-authors, and we also affirm the five points of Calvinism.

But all of this coalition potential would not generate a second look at my candidacy if Southern Seminary had an opening in church history and I applied for the job. As Calvinistic as SBTS may be, it is also an agency of one of the conventions (Southern Baptist polity is so Byzantine) within the SBC. That means that my membership and identity as an Orthodox Presbyterian is a non-starter at Southern Seminary. What may be strike-two against me is my disbelief in evangelicalism. Strike three is a less than winning personality (though the Harts’ felines, Cordelia and Isabelle seem to enjoy my ornery companionship). Even aside from these other drawbacks, not being Southern Baptist is enough of a strike to count me out – like those backyard wiffle ball versions of home run derby which dispense with all three strikes.

So big an obstacle is my ecclesiastical identity that even if I joined the Gospel Coalition Al would still not have enough approving material in my dossier to recommend me to his board for a faculty appointment. Indeed, joining TGC would arguably deconstruct my efforts to deconstruct evangelicalism, and might even send the message that I am a kinder and gentler warrior child of J. Gresham Machen. But Gospel Coalition status still would not be enough for me to clear the hurdle of Southern Seminary’s faculty requirements.

For what it’s worth, when I was academic dean of Westminster California, if we had had an opening in theology and if Al had been interested in a change of scenery, his Calvinism and courageous and commendable stands against various theological and cultural ills would not have been enough to get him to the interview stage. His Southern Baptist credentials would have failed to meet the requirements for Westminster faculty. And in case this is not obvious by now, Al’s identity as a Southern Baptist would also disqualify him from holding office in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

This leaves us with the following set of memberships and identities:

The Southern Baptist Convention rejects D. G. Hart because he is Orthodox Presbyterian.

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church rejects Al Mohler because he is Southern Baptist.

The ‘Gospel Coalition accepts Al Mohler and D. G. Hart no matter what their ecclesial identities (if they choose to join).

This picture would seem to make the Gospel Coalition a commendable organization in that it looks aside from seemingly petty ecclesiastical differences in order to unite seemingly conservative Protestants together in promotion of Christ as revealed in the gospel. And set of allegiances would also seem to depict the Southern Baptist Convention and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as narrower and more divisive than the simple gospel of Jesus Christ and its proclamation.

Beneath this picture’s warm and alluring hues is the downside of the Gospel Coalition, namely, that they run their affairs as if the church does not matter, as if the gospel is independent of every church affiliation and membership (Protestant, that is). That may sound strong but ecclesiastical membership and ordination pose no apparent barrier to working with, attending, or speaking at the Coalition. The reason for setting up an organization free from denominational norms apparently is to get around the difficulty that confronts administrators at denominational seminaries and officers in churches: ecclesiastical standards are divisive and the creators of the Coalition seem to think that the gospel should not nurture such separation. For a confessional Protestant, this logic is a huge problem since confessionalists believe that the gospel not only inevitably produces good works but also is inevitably embodied in a disciplined ecclesiastical body. This is not, by the way, simply the oddity of hard-core Missouri Lutherans or vinegary Orthodox Presbyterians. It is also the outlook of Southern Baptist institutions like Southern Seminary (such as I understand it).

But an even deeper problem for the Gospel Coalition is that its cultivates its appeal through religious stars who have established their reputations not in parachurch ministries but through the churches themselves. In which case, the Gospel Coalition wants the results of the hard work of ordination and pastoral ministry in church settings without the baggage that comes in those ecclesiastical institutions. (And as long as the Gospel Coalition is an exclusively Protestant outfit, it will implicitly rely on differences that divided the Eastern and Western branches of the church, and on the churches that broke with Rome in the sixteenth century. Short of the new heavens and new earth, we can’t have Christianity in this world apart from the visible churches who translated the Bible, interpreted its teaching, established forms of worship, and determined qualifications for membership and office.)

Most if not all of the figures who attract the hearers and viewers of TGC materials and events are ministers. Their credentials come either from denominations or congregations. These communions are responsible for creating the spiritual capital that gives credibility to the Coalition’s speakers and authors. These pastors in turn add value to this capital by conducting successful ministries (leaving aside that thorny question of what constitutes success in the kingdom of God). The Coalition then assembles the most successful pastors, shorn of their denominational or congregational ties, either during the minutes it takes to conduct a Youtube video or over the course of several days at a conference. The Gospel Coalition adds no inherent value to the capital that these pastors and their churches have created and invested. No offense to Justin Taylor or Colin Hansen, but American evangelicals are not signing up to attend the Coalition conference because those young and restless editors and bloggers are speaking.

This leaves the Coalition with a product that is worth only a percentage of the ecclesiastical currency that the ministers (and the communions they represent) have created. To be sure, the gospel is of incomparable value. But Christ did not complete the gospel merely by his death, resurrection, and ascension. The last I checked, he commissioned apostles, inspired authors of sacred writings, ordained means of grace, gave instructions for planting churches, and included rules for those churches’ government and discipline. The reason would apparently be that sheep need shepherds, that believers need to hear the gospel longer than an evangelistic sermon lasts and learn of its implications for a longer time than at a two-day conference. They need to hear the gospel their entire life, and that means they need pastors and overseers who will be faithful, hence all the mechanisms to insure the creation and maintenance of sound pastoral ministry, and the rules governing how those ministers conduct worship and oversight.

Yet, the Gospel Coalition seems to regard all of this ecclesiastical work as incidental to the gospel, as a mere appurtenance. How else can one explain the indifference to the communions from which their speakers and leaders come? How else to explain that those speakers and leaders could not hold jobs or receive calls in the other speakers and leaders’ communions? For the sake of the Gospel Coalition’s gospel, those differences and separations are unimportant compared to the gospe.

But at institutions like Al Mohler’s Southern Baptist Seminary they do. For that reason, I’d rather live in the real world of respectful differences between the SBC and the OPC in their diverse efforts to follow all of Christ’s Great Commission (word, sacrament, and discipline) rather than the la la land of the Gospel Coalition where speakers and audiences act as if such differences don’t matter and where members of different communions are tempted to forget about the ecclesiastical vows and think that what happens in Chicago stays in Chicago.

Postscript on fellowship: Readers may be thinking that the point here about the church and the parachurch here make sense, but is there no room for pastors and members from different churches and denominations to fellowship together? Should the Banner of Truth stop offering conferences?

Part of the answer depends on what we mean by fellowship. If a Southern Baptist pastor cannot minister in the OPC without rejecting his former views on baptism and polity (for starters) and subscribing the OPC’s confession of faith, then it is fair to conclude that the OPC and the SBC are not in fellowship. And if a Southern Baptist transferring his membership into the OPC has to go through the same examination as someone who is a recent convert, then again fellowship is not the word we would use to describe this relationship.

Was it fellowship that I had with my parents when we prayed before meals, even though they were Baptists and I an Orthodox Presbyterian? Probably, but not in an ecclesial sense.

In which case, why do paraecclesial ideas about fellowship trump ecclesial ones? Why is a gathering of ministers at a Banner of Truth Conference more “sweet” than the relations among pastors and elders at a presbytery meeting? Or why is a Gospel Coalition conference (or a Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, for that matter) more moving and invigorating than an ordinary Lord’s Day sandwiched by two preaching services?

It could be that the conferences are subjectively more moving than worship. Or it could be that spiritual standards, like the decline of cultural standards from watching too much television, have declined thanks to the prevalence of revivals, conferences, and retreats – all of those man-made devices for generating devotional excitement.

Of course, it is a free country. We do not have a federal agency regulating spiritual life (I don’t think they have one even in Moscow, Idaho). So parachurch agencies are free to have their conferences and American evangelicals are free to flock to them and feel warm and filled. At the same time, confessional Protestants are free to wonder what good these extra-ecclesial forms of fellowship are doing to the means that we do know God ordained through the clear teaching of his word. If the experiential Protestants are really serious about biblical inerrancy, wouldn’t you think they would want to be faithful to what God has inerrantly revealed about the means he has promised to use to save his people (even when they don’t feel “it”)?

Look At All the Detail (and Beware the Adverbs)

When teaching on the historical development of Reformed Protestantism I have been struck lately by the greater and greater amounts of detail into which the Reformed churches went in descriptions of the Holy Spirit’s work. If you look (see below) at the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) you don’t see much beyond affirmations of faith, regeneration, and the work of the Holy Spirit. (I don’t think I have been overly selective.) And if you look at the nature of conversion, as sixteenth-century Protestants understood it, you see a notion much closer to Nevin’s idea of organic and life-long development than to the First Pretty Good Awakening’s standard of a moment of crisis of existential proportions.

When it comes to the Shorter Catechism (1647), you see much more detail (see below) about the layers and stages of the work of the Holy Spirit, not to mention the ordo salutis. You still don’t see any modern conception of conversion. The Divines were still thinking in terms of mortification and vivification over the course of a saint’s life. But effectual calling receives attention in a detailed way, and faith and repentance have descriptions that go beyond what the sixteenth-creeds or catechisms. (I suspect the influence here of Puritan practical or experimental divinity.)

Which then brings us to the American Presbyterian Church’s Plan of Union from 1758, a document that brought the Old Side (anti-revival) and New Side (pro-revival) back together in a hodge-podge of objective and subjective formula. What you see is even more detail regarding the inner workings of the Spirit than in the Shorter Catechism. Which is a puzzle to me. These Presbyterians already affirmed the Shorter Catechism. If they had only subscribed Heidelberg, they might have wanted a fuller statement of the Spirit’s work. But they had one. And they felt compelled to add girth to the Shorter Catechism’s already full figure. I suspect the influence of pietism and revivalism where the quest for spiritual authenticity requires ever greater levels of specifying the Spirit’s work.

Heidelberg Catechism
Q.21. What is true faith?
A: True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.

Question 65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence does this faith proceed?
Answer: From the Holy Ghost, (a) who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments. (b)

Q 88. Of how many parts does the true conversion of man consist?
A: Of two parts; of the mortification of the old, and the quickening of the new man.

Q 89. What is the mortification of the old man?
A: It is a sincere sorrow of heart, that we have provoked God by our sins; and more and more to hate and flee from them.

Q 90. What is the quickening of the new man?
A: It is a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.

Shorter Catechism
Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?
A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.

Q. 31. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

Q. 85. What doth God require of us that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?
A. To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.

Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.

Plan of Union (1758)
. . . all mankind are naturally dead in trespasses and sins, an entire change of heart and life is necessary to make them meet for the service and enjoyment of God; that such a change can be only effected by the powerful operations of the Divine Spirit; that when sinners are made sensible of their lost condition and absolute inability to recover themselves, are enlightened in the knowledge of Christ and convinced of his ability and willingness to save, and upon gospel encouragements do choose him for the Saviour, and renouncing their own righteousness in point of merit, depend upon his imputed righteousness for their justification before God, and on his wisdom and strength for guidance and support; when upon these apprehensions and exercises their souls are comforted, notwithstanding all their past guilt, and rejoice in God through Jesus Christ; when they hate and bewail their sins of heart and life, delight in the laws of God without exception, reverentially and diligently attend his ordinances, become humble and self denied, and make it the business of their lives to please and glorify God and to do good to their fellow-men, – this is to be acknowledge as a gracious work of God, even though it should be attended with unusual bodily commotions or some more exceptionable circumstances, by means of infirmity, temptations or remaining corruptions; and wherever religious appearances are attended with the good effects above mentioned, we desire to rejoice in and thank God for them.