You Can Take the Curmudgeon out of Presbyterianism . . .

But you can’t take Presbyterianism out of the Curmudgeon.

The best priest we know serves up even more reasons for thinking New Calvinism is a sham:

Drs. Moore and Mohler have also been involved in another SBC fight. They are Calvinists in a denomination that has embraced evangelism and church growth of first of the Second Great Awakening sort (100 verses of “Just As I Am” waiting for one more sinner to be converted or one more backslider rededicate) and then of the church growth/contemporary church sort (rock bands, smoke machines, and preachers sitting on stools). But large number of Southern Baptists have embraced what they call “Calvinism” (How is a credo-baptist really a Calvinist?), or “the doctrines of grace” (“soteriological Calvinism, though one must also ask what kind of soteriological Calvinism denies a means of grace, baptism, to children?). The tension between traditional Baptists and the so-called Calvinistic Baptists is another fault line in the Convention, though a piece of plywood has been put over crack.

To keep it straight, the Gospel Coalition attracts and promotes Calvinists (think Tim Keller and the PCA) who do not minister as Calvinists, that is, Calvinists who look the other way when it comes to worship and the ministry of the word. To be sure, New Calvinists care about ministry, but their concern is for relevance, influence, size (matters). Their concern is not like Calvin’s or Bucer’s or Ursinus’ to make ministry conform to Scripture — Reformed according to the Word.

That is where tranformationalism goes. It sups with practices designed to be strategic, to win a hearing, to sit at the table. And all along, the freedom to minister word and sacrament, follow the regulative principle, administer church discipline is still overwhelmingly available. The problem is that the traditional means of grace and serious worship won’t rise above the hum drum of congregational life to amount to a movement, a following. Shouldn’t New Calvinists trust the God-ordained means of grace? Or do they know something God’s word doesn’t?

It reminds me of Hughes Oliphint Old’s point about contemporary worship:

In our evangelistic zeal we are looking for programs that will attract people. We think we have put honey on the lip of the bitter cup of salvation. It is the story of the wedding of Cana all over again but with this difference. At the crucial moment when the wine failed, we took matters into our own hands and used those five stone jars to mix up a batch of Kool-Aid instead. It seemed like a good solution in terms of our American culture. Unfortunately, all too soon the guests discovered the fraud. Alas! What are we to do now? How can we possible minister to those who thirst for the real thing? There is but one thing to do, as Mary the mother of Jesus, understood so very well. You remember how the story goes. After presenting the problem to Jesus, Mary turned to the servants and said to them, “Do whatever he tells you.” The servants did just that and the water was turned to wine, wine rich and mellow beyond anything they had ever tasted before.

When Tim Ignores Tim

Tim Challies needed support for his opposition to portrayals of God in film (think The Shack, I guess). So where did he go? He went to the Westminster and Heidelberg Catechisms, not to Tim Keller’s New City Catechism.

Notice the repudiation of images of God in Westminster and Heidelberg (from Tim):

Q. What is forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment forbids the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word.
Q. What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment?
A. The reasons annexed to the second commandment are, God’s sovereignty over us, his propriety in us, and the zeal he has for his own worship.

Q. What does God require in the second commandment?
A. We are not to make an image of God in any way, nor to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.
Q. May we then not make any image at all?
A. God cannot and may not be visibly portrayed in any way. Creatures may be portrayed, but God forbids us to make or have any images of them in order to worship them or to serve God through them.
Q. But may images not be tolerated in the churches as “books for the laity?”
A. No, for we should not be wiser than God. He wants his people to be taught not by means of dumb images but by the living preaching of his Word.

Tim concludes:

On the basis of the information I’ve collected, I can make this determination: According to the Reformed tradition, the Bible forbids portraying God in any form, whether for worship or as a teaching aid.

But I shouldn’t stop there. The catechisms include Scripture references for each statement they make, so I should follow those references back to the Bible to ensure the writers of the catechisms properly interpreted the passages. Having done that, I can conclude I am on firm ground and consistent with Reformed theology when I say it is wrong for human actors to portray God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To reach a different conclusion would put me at odds with the established Reformed tradition.

That got me thinking. When Tim Keller wrote the New City Catechism, how did he parse the Second Commandment?

What does God require in the first, second, and third commandments?
First, that we know and trust God as the only true and living God. Second, that we avoid all idolatry and do not worship God improperly. Third, that we treat God’s name with fear and reverence, honoring also his Word and works.

Aside from raising questions about pedagogical strategy or showing proper regard for the moral law by covering three commandments in one question (that’s not Trinitarian), where does the New City Catechism put Keller and his Gospel Allies in relation to the established Reformed tradition? Do any of Keller’s fans or allies care?

Every Square Inch is a Demanding Taskmaster

Devin Wax is not so happy with the significance attached in the current cultural climate to ordinary choices like where to eat. He wishes a chicken filet sandwich were merely a chicken filet sandwich:

We’re witnessing a convergence of two developments.

Development #1: Consumerism as a Religion

The first development is the lifting up of our consumer choices to the level of religion.

In American society, we are more and more inclined to define ourselves by what and how we consume. We no longer buy things to meet our needs, but to become something, or to express who we are.

“Brands are the new religion,” says Douglas Atkin, writing about customer loyalty. People express their own identities through what they buy.

With an endless sea of choices, Skye Jethani says, “individuality is the new conformity.” Choice is a powerful factor in a consumer society, because more choices provide more ways for consumers to demonstrate their uniqueness.

Development #2: Politics as Religion

The second development is the lifting up of our political views to the level of religion.

In American society, we are more likely to see political views as non-negotiable aspects of our true selves. This is why recent research shows families having a harder time with a son or daughter who wants to marry someone from an opposing political party than from a different religion!

Tell me how Neo-Calvinism did not add momentum to this. When all of our choices have religious significance, how different is that from the “personal is political” that feminists and other politics of identity advocates taught us? Now Mr. Trax wants a cigar (okay, a bubble gum cigar) to be only a cigar?

If more New Calvinists had read 2kers more than Tim Keller, had understood that religion is different from common life, had been content with Reformed worship instead of transformed cities, had valued church officers more than every membered ministry, they might be able to eat tacos without the least concern for larger significance — political or religious.

Neo-Calvinists Made This Possible

How to be a Calvinist without subscribing the Three Forms of Unity (especially the Canons of Dort), Trevin Wax uses the same logic that allowed USA Presbyterians to be Presbyterian without subscribing the Confession of Faith:

I do wonder how David defines the contours of the Reformed heritage. At times, I get the impression that he is speaking of the Reformed tradition in its distinctively Calvinistic soteriological position. Certainly, one can speak of the “Reformed” in this way, but I suppose I come at this definition by considering the broader framework of the Reformation tradition.

For example, I don’t think of Os Guinness or Charles Colson as “Calvinists,” but as thinkers who have adopted and adapted the Kuyperian worldview and its distinctive approach to creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Perhaps my concern with proper definition says more about my own placement in this tradition, as one who doesn’t line up exactly with Calvinist soteriology and yet appreciates the worldview emphasis one finds within this tradition. I would include John Wesley under the Reformed moniker, even though he was an Arminian with his own Wesleyan twist on the doctrines of salvation.

Interestingly, when David lifts up contemporary treatments of the atonement from N. T. Wright and Fleming Rutledge as preferable to the classical Reformed tradition, he is lifting up heirs to that broader tradition. That’s not to say there aren’t differences between Wright, Rutledge, and the classically Reformed. Still, these writers operate within the basic Reformed worldview and outlook. So, when David differentiates his perspective from the “Reformed,” he does so by appealing to one wing of the Reformed tradition over against another.

Wax never knew Machen:

Even if all this were true, even if a creedal Church were an undesirable thing, it would still remain true that as a matter of fact many (indeed in spirit really all) evangelical churches are creedal churches, and that if a man does not accept their creed he has no right to a place in their teaching ministry. The creedal character of the churches is differently expressed in the different evangelical bodies, but the example of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America may perhaps serve to illustrate what is meant.

It is required of all officers in the Presbyterian Church, including the ministers, that at their ordination they make answer “plainly” to a series of questions which begins with the two following: “Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?” “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?”

If these “constitutional questions” do not fix clearly the creedal basis of the Presbyterian Church, it is difficult to see how any human language could possibly do so. Yet immediately after making such a solemn declaration, immediately after declaring that the Westminster Confession contains the system of doctrine taught in infallible Scriptures, many ministers of the Presbyterian Church will proceed to decry that same Confession and that doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture to which they have just solemnly subscribed! (Christianity and Liberalism)

Neo-Calvinism created this when it stressed culture over salvation, transformationalism over doctrine. Now we have cultural Calvinists, like cultural Jews and cultural Roman Catholics.

Thank YOU!

The 2k Middle Way

This should eliminate the “R” from R2K with help from the Gospel Allies. Trevin Wax mentions three matters where New Calvinists (posing as neo-Calvinists) can learn from Anabaptists (hint, it’s not how to build a gospel barn). If Mr. Wax had spent a little more time with 2K, he might have posed these theses better.

First, “What happens in the church matters more than anything that happens in the world.

Reply: what have 2kers been saying but only to hear that Christianity must go beyond the church parking lot? And is it not a tad rich to hear about the importance of the church at a website that puts the RA in parachurch? In other words, a high church Calvinism would help Mr. Wax restore the visible church to its proper significance.

Second, “The church changes the world by being the church.”

Reply: don’t go empire building without referring to your Constantinian playbook. Heck, would the church even have a Trinitarian theology to wind up the complementarians without the emperor calling an ecumenical council? Don’t forget either that the conversion of emperors and kings gave a plausibility to Christianity that made the evangelization of medieval Europe more plausible than it would have been with Christianity as a minority and persecuted faith. Do remember as well that the number of Christians spiked in the first half of the fourth century — from 10% of the population in 300 to 50% in 350 — undoubtedly because Christian politicians made the faith respectable and even remunerative.

Meanwhile, as kind as it is to regard Anabaptists as making a difference, overlooking the enormous influence of magisterial Protestants in so many of the aspects of Christian life we take for granted is unfortunate. Whether you like Vacation Bible School, Sunday school, a Bible in every hotel room, or parachurch foreign missionary enterprises, the evangelicals who read and take heart from the Gospel Allies would have a dry and parched religious landscape if they had had to depend on Anabaptists who went before.

Third, “The church is strongest in its witness when it occupies the margins.”

Reply: another kind and generous assertion, but is anyone going to tell me that the OPC has been incredibly strong — compared to Tim Keller, the Gospel Allies, the hipper portions of the PCA, and the behemoth Southern Baptist Convention — because Orthodox Presbyterians have ministered on the margins? Please.

So before anyone tries to buy a farm next to an Amish family, take Mr. Wax’s recommendation of Anabaptism with a grain of salt. If you’re really Reformed, you can chase it with a shot of Rye.

Why Doesn’t Mere Orthodoxy Take Heed of Full Orthodoxy

Matthew Loftus thinks conservative Christians have more in common with immigrants from non-Christian countries because of the civilizational angle:

If globalism and liquid modernity are the problem, then immigration restriction is cutting off one of the few sources of new citizens who might possible share your views on the priority of faith and family and the importance of religion in providing some moral undercurrent (or restraint) for the state’s actions. Both Putin and Trump appear to be happy to throw a bone to religious conservatives in order for their loyal support, but neither has any respect for human life in the eyes of the state and would happily preside over a fiefdom full of people lost in drugs, alcohol, gambling, or sex as long as they stay in power. There won’t be much civilization left to defend because modernity will continue its corrosive destruction through the institutions we love and believe in– the individualistic atomism that is hollowing out our civilization is a juggernaut that cannot be stopped by an authoritarian state and closed borders.

The lesson for Trumpsters is apparently apparent, but why not for big city pastors who trumpet (see what I did there?) urban life as the kingdom coming? When oh when will the young restless sovereigntists ever see that modernity clings to very institutions that they consider to be “traditional” or conservative (like Gospel Coalition and Tim Keller New York City Inc.)?

Imagine if the head pastor at Redeemer NYC had to respond to this:

…resisting the corrosive and disenchanting forces of modernity is going to require solidarity across ethnic, national, and religious lines because there is a large bundle of assumptions about the self, the world, and God that we share. What’s more, intentionally assimilating people into otherwise racially and religiously homogeneous communities might be one of our best chances at building that solidarity and preventing these newcomers from becoming balkanized (or, God help us, Democrats). Whether you want real civilization that is communal instead of individualistic or genuine ideology that governs according to principle rather than power-grabbing, immigrants and refugees are conservatives’ allies.

Can Mr. Loftus ever imagine that Old School Presbyterians are closer to his concerns about modernity, community, and the self than New Calvinists who thrive in the oh so modern settings of the Internet, weekend conferences, and celebrity pastors and authorettes? If you want real solidarity among believers, try strong local congregations with clear lines of accountability who send commissioners to wider church assemblies to oversee the lives of officers and church members. It’s not magic and it’s often not as thick as village life in the Outer Hebrides, but Presbyterianism is as good a Christian effort as any to resist modernity. You sure won’t find it in the Big Apple unless you live in the ghetto.

Gospel Coalition as Harlem Globe Trotters

One of our many southern correspondents notified me of TGC’s year-end pitch for charitable donations. At the end of Collin Hanson’s post is a link to TGC’s 2016 Annual Report. Curiously absent are the financials. The Allies encourage people to give but those people have to trust TGC staff about funds.

The similarities and differences between the Coalition and a church are striking. Since I serve on the Christian Education Committee of the OPC and am also one of the OPC’s representatives on Great Commission Publication’s board of trustees, I see strong similarities among the OPC, PCA, and TGC at least in the arena of education, curriculum development, and publication. TGC’s report on website hits, best selling books or pamphlets, and plans for 2017 titles is the sort of information I see four times a year as an OPC/GCP officer. But what I don’t see from TGC is any financial spread sheet. Since the church and parachurch both operate in a voluntary world of free-will gifts, support, and self-identification of members, you might think that giving supporters some insight into the Coalition’s funds would be not only wise but honorable.

Chalk up one for the church over the parachurch.

Another note of concern for TGC supporters may be the popularity of Jen Wilkin. According to TGC’s report:

Our all-time bestselling resource on any paid platform is Jen Wilkin’s Sermon on the Mount study with LifeWay, but it may end up topped by her 2016 TGC release, 1 Peter: A Living Hope in Christ.

Jen Wilkin may be a great lady — I’ve never heard of her though she appears to take hairstyle-advice from Ann Voskamp (not Jen Hatmaker) — but do supporters of TGC have no trouble with a non-ordained person teaching the Word of God to Christians? Maybe Ms. Wilkin is ordained. Either way, TGC’s efforts to attract support from conservative Reformed Protestants runs up against church polity that again separates the parachurch from the church (not in a good way, by the way).

But when you look at TGC’s report, you have to come away impressed with all the effort the Allies put into their labors. But what would happen if those same people put their energies into the PCA with Tim Keller or into the Southern Baptist Convention with Ms. Wilkin who goes to The Village Church (is there only one?) or into the Evangelical Free Church with D. A. Carson (does he belong to the EFC?). Where’s the efficiency? Sure, a TGC supporter could argue that the OPC or PCA or SBC are competing with TGC and these other Protestants should join forces with the Allies. But this is always what happens with “unity” projects among Christians. You form one agency to unite everyone and simply add one more organization or church to the landscape. The United Church of Canada did not unite Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. It added the United Church to the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Anglican churches.

And then there is the question of officers or pastors who hold credentials in the PCA or SBC adding their energy and resources to another Christian organization. If I play football for the Philadelphia Eagles, would the NFL allow me to play for a European football league midweek during the season (or even in the summer)? Or if I am a contributing editor to Atlantic Monthly, do I write regularly for The New Republic? These are obviously apples and oranges — publishing and sports are not ministry (though to hear some neo-Calvinists. . .). But questions about which is the primary outlet for Coalition contributors and officers is a real question that supporters of TGC should question. If I give to TGC, do I want Tim Keller spending a lot of time on committee work for his presbytery?

Chalk up another for the church.

One last observation that makes me think TGC more like an exhibition sports team (Harlem Globe Trotters) than a Major League Protestant Communion: I went to the staff page of TGC and noticed that no one works in a central office. The executive director lives in Austin, Texas (no church mentioned). The executive editor lives in Birmingham, Alabama and is part of a local community church. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of the organization, payroll, accounting, general housekeeping, again staff is scattered. The director of operations lives in Austin (no church listed). The director of program development lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (no church listed). The director of advancement lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota (no church listed). The manager of operations lives in Minneapolis (no church listed). The business manager lives in Austin (no church listed). And yet, for full-time staff’s location in places far away from the Big Apple, TGC’s major publishing project for 2017 is a print version of Keller’s New City Catechism. When terrorists band together, we call them non-state actors to distinguish them from the military personnel of nation-states. Nation-states engage use coercive force legitimately (ever since 1648). Terrorist organizations do not. Does that make the Allies spiritual terrorists who have no geographical or ecclesiastical home?

The impression TGC gives overall is doing all the stuff a church does (including solicitation of funds) without many of the rules that give accountability to churches in their work of word and sacrament ministry. The Allies produce conferences and literature and a website presence that provides much of the teaching and encouragement that churches also give. And yet, the Coalition has no mechanism for discipline or oversight or even ecumenical relations. To be in TGC’s orbit is like following an exhibition basketball team instead of the National Basketball Association. I guess, when your home team is the Sixers, the Globetrotters look pretty good. But it’s not real basketball.