Y B O P C

I have already raised the question about whether belonging to a denomination like the OPC is a good thing. Now as I sit through a prolonged and valuable procedural debate at General Assembly, I wonder again why pastors who want big, contemporary congregations that appeal to Protestants without great biblical or theological discernment and who prefer up-tempo Christian songs led by praise bands (without brass instruments, mind you) — why do these officers endure the deliberations that consume sessions’, presbyteries’, and assemblies’ time and talents. What do you gain by being a minister in a Presbyterian communion like the OPC? It is not as if the OPC is a brand that attracts visitors and new members. You don’t put the OPC logo on your church signs to watch the parking lot fill. So why put up with the often baroque dealings of church courts and committee reports when you are not so particular about worship, the fine points of the confession, and the rigor of Reformed piety (e.g. Sabbath observance)?

I have come up with three reasons for people who come into the OPC and stay there.

1) Tribalism: Someone whose father or grandfather left the PCUSA in 1936 with Machen. The notion would be something like, “this is the church where my family has worshiped for three generations and so out of loyalty to my kin and I remain a true blue Orthodox Presbyterian.” Other Reformed communions, those with ethnic identities, like the CRC (Dutch-American) or RPCNA (Scots-American) have ethnic attachments that generally elude the OPC. But in some cases, you do see how family keeps some Orthodox Presbyterians Orthodox Presbyterian. (Of course, the nature of covenant nurture itself is a form of tribalism since a child baptized and nurtured in an OP family and congregation, who remains OP, does so in part as part of generational succession.)

2) The Cause: People who identify with Machen and the battle against liberalism in the church and who defend the authority of Scripture come to the OPC and stay there because the denomination is the embodiment of that cause that J. Gresham Machen led throughout the 1920s and 1930s. This was a big factor in my own joining the OPC and continuing to serve. This understanding of OPC identity has sometimes run up against a view of the OPC as a church committed to the Great Commission in which polemics and debate distract from evangelism and edification. The problem with this view is that you wouldn’t have the OPC without polemics and debate. So seeing the very pieces of the church’s DNA as antithetical to evangelism and mission is to be in denial about the denomination’s origins. For these OP’s, evangelism and edification occur in the context of polemics and debate.

3) The Reformed Faith is Pretty Good Great: Another way to identify with the OPC is to look at the central dynamics of the Reformed branch of Protestantism and try to find them in existing communions where you live. Then find and join the one that is most interested in a ministry reformed according to the word of God. Any number of communions could qualify as following in the larger footprints of the Reformation, but judging which one is most reformed according to the word determines which one you join. (Since having to think about the global history of Reformed Protestantism, I have come to regard and identify with the OPC on these grounds.)

I’m willing to lengthen my list.

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Why Did Christ Die?

Was it because sin is so heinous or because humans need a cosmic flannel graph to illustrate God’s displeasure over sin (I don’t think he is weeping about it)? Machen thinks the former:

The atoning death of Christ, and that alone, has presented sinners as righteous in God’s sight; the Lord Jesus has paid the full penalty of their sins, and clothed them with His perfect righteousness before the judgment seat of God. But Christ has done for Christians even far more than that. He has given to them not only a new and right relation to God, but a new life in God’s presence for evermore. He has saved them from the power as well as from the guilt of sin. The New Testament does not end with the death of Christ; it does not end with the triumphant words of Jesus on the Cross, “It is finished.” The death was followed by the resurrection, and the resurrection like the death was for our sakes. Jesus rose from the dead into a new life of glory and power, and into that life He brings those for whom He died. The Christian, on the basis of Christ’s redeeming work, not only has died unto sin, but also lives unto God. (Christianity and Liberalism)

But what if God can change you apart from the death and resurrection of Christ?

In the midst of this crisis, (that went on for more than a year,) I came across the teaching of Martin Luther and his followers, who, when confronted with the same apparently insoluble problem, issued a ruling that was, essentially, against God. Human nature was hopelessly corrupt, top to bottom and god Himself has no power to alter it. They described the human soul as a dung heap, over which the grace of God falls like a deep covering of snow, that changes nothing of the underlying corruption.

This nauseating and plainly wicked doctrine – essentially nihilistic – so infuriated me that I realized in a flash that it was an insult, not to me in my failings, but to God’s infinite perfection and power. My very fury at this insult made me understand at last what the Church had always held: that it is not my power, but the power of God that will change me into this “perfect” new thing. This promise was true, and it had much more to do with Him than with me.

If God can change us, why would he need to send his son to die on the cross?

But if Machen and Luther are right about the extent of sin and the irredeemable character of fallen humans apart from an alien righteousness imputed to them and received by faith, then what incentives do people have to be good?

We cannot “earn” God’s love but, alas, too often we reject it. And it is up to us to use the gifts God has given to us—including our inherent rationality as well as the Church and the aids to faith and reason it provides—to orient ourselves to the good. Through hard work we can develop our character (habits of virtue or vice that go far toward determining who we are) such that we will recognize and say “yes” to God’s will. The saint does not achieve salvation through mere right conduct, but the saint’s conduct, both spiritual and physical, help him to surrender fully to God and do His will. In doing the right thing for the right reason we orient ourselves toward what is right and thereby recognize and accept God.

. . . Good works help develop within us habits that enable us to distinguish between good and evil; good works make it more likely that we will choose the good, even when it brings with it pain and death. This, I submit, is not some prideful claim to earning one’s own salvation, but rather a recognition of both the dignity and the weakness of the human person. We have within us an impulse toward the good, which we too often ignore. We have written on our hearts a knowledge of God’s will, which we also too often ignore. By both thinking and doing right we can embrace the good, opening ourselves to the grace offered by God—who is beyond our full knowledge but who has created within us a soul capable of recognizing His will.

If we have goodness, or an openness to the good within us, why exactly did Christ have to die?

Somethings don’t develop or change. Christianity doesn’t make humanism Christian.

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.

You Know What Would Really Be Audacious?

So the papal visit to the United States has even more people reaching above their pay grades, trying to interpret that the chief interpreter is really up to. Is Pope Francis a lefty, is he a traditionalist, will anything change on marriage? So far Bryan and the Jasons are stuck.

What I’m curious about is whether Pope Francis is a pastor who ministers the good news of Jesus Christ. Think about this. Yesterday in the Wall St. Journal William McGurn opined that the pope is mistaken in his understanding of poverty, that capitalism is far better for raising the prospects of the poor than other schemes. That seems sensible enough.

In on of the comments on McGurn’s piece, a defender of Pope Francis tried to explain for the infallible explainer:

William misses the whole point. The Pope isn’t saying capitalism is wrong, he is saying the greed of executives and stockholders is wrong. It isn’t enough to make a good salary, they have to make more than the executives at their competition. They have the attitude, what is the minimum we must pay to get someone to do the job competently and that is what we will pay. The attitude of sharing the wealth is foreign to most executives and stockholders. Stockholders are not satisfied with the return they get, they insist the returns must increase or I will take my money elsewhere. It is when greed takes over that capitalism fails.

Maybe this person also has a point. Capitalism isn’t evil. It’s people who abuse capitalism. Got it.

Here’s the thing, Pope Francis actually has the remedy for the greed of executives and stockholders. He has at his disposal the truth of the gospel (as he understands it), a Petrine ministry, and a sacramental system that could actually change the hearts and minds of New York City financiers. Imagine if instead of visiting political figures, the pope went to Wall St. and preached. Short of a Cornelius Van Til moment, imagine if he had Cardinal Dolan set up a bunch of meetings in the board rooms of corporate New York and he explained the sinfulness of the human condition and the possibility of grace in the sacraments (not to mention the assistance of the Blessed Virgin). Wouldn’t that be something a pastor would do?

Imagine this as well, not only could he point the world’s capitalists to a life of virtue, he also has the remedy for these folks should an insufficient number of them convert and follow Jesus. If the world continues to warm and catastrophe happens, Pope Francis is actually sitting on the goods for a good life in the world to come.

Not too shabby.

But popes don’t do this and this is one of the greatest problems of episcopacy — it removes ministers from their flocks, or makes the pastors of flocks that are beyond their capacities. If Tim Keller has trouble visiting all the people who belong to Redeemer PCA, imagine the pope’s challenge of visiting 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, in addition to evangelizing Wall Street’s financial tycoons.

Peter Steinfels, by the way, as a liberal Roman Catholic is not pleased by all the attention on Pope Francis since Steinfels believes that Roman Catholicism “is bigger than one man.” Well, Protestants have been saying that about Christianity for some time, though they have also said Christianity is all about the God-man, Jesus Christ. Even so, Steinfels is pointing in the direction of the serious flaws that come with episcopacy and especially one whose universal jurisdiction makes the ordinary efforts of priests look irrelevant. Talk about subsidiarity.

Even so, if as J. Gresham Machen said, ministers have something that the world can never give, isn’t that even more true (on Roman Catholic grounds) of the papacy? He has it all — truth, ministry, sacraments. And what do popes do? To the untrained Protestant eye, it looks like a modern encyclical merely becomes a conversation starter. It’s a jumping off point for the faithful (now much better educated than the immigrant church that paid, prayed, and obeyed) to show off their expertise.

And to answer his critics, Pope Francis says that he could affirm the Nicene Creed. Yes, he could do that. But why not teach it? Why not explain it? Why not take it to the executives of Wall Street, Berlin, London, Rome even?

This is one reason why I think the church has become modernist. Sure, you can say the Nicene Creed. But do you believe it? Even more, does it inform your ministry? But if you think you are a moral life coach for the world’s population, a source for thinking virtuously about human flourishing, the leader who will point the world’s systems to a better and more just way — if you think of this world as home rather than as a foreign land — then you very well might engage in all sorts of pious thoughts about the world system of finance and technology and not consider that if you saved more people from their sins and put them on a path to holiness, maybe this world would be a better place.

When you are accustomed to mixing it up with emperors, monarchs, and presidents, mixing with the ordinary laity — even the ones making guhzillion figures — looks, well, shabby.

Who's Radical Now?

After lots of push back (at least from some readers) on gay marriage and resistance to it (the Summer of SSM), an attempt to reset the 2k thermostat might be in order.

Once again, a common objection to 2k is that if you don’t oppose same sex marriage or support Kim Davis “the way I do,” then you must really favor same sex marriage and the imprisonment of Kim Davis. It’s the same old problem that J. Gresham Machen faced because he opposed Prohibition. Taking issue with legislation or those who support it is not the same thing as favoring what the legislation opposes. Just because you object to Prohibition (Kim Davis) does not mean you favor drunkenness (political tyranny). The nooks and crannies of politics and legislation don’t allow for such simple calculations. But that doesn’t stop some attorneys from being simplistic (oh the inspirational qualities of Kuyperianism to hyperventilate away complicated matters).

But beyond this besetting problem of Americans (looking beyond the cause to the tactics of pursuing the cause), another obstacle that 2k faces is the charge of cowardice. For some Christians, apparently, serving the Lord and pursuing holiness is insufficient if it is not also creating problems for the wider society. In other words, if Christians try to make accommodations with the new legislative and marital landscape, for instance, they are not being faithful to their Lord. Only if they stand out like a sore thumb can they be counted among the true, the faithful, the holiest.

What needs to be observed about this inclusion of obnoxiousness to the fruit of the Spirit is that it is not the practice we see among some of the heroes of Reformed Protestantism. Did J. Gresham Machen try to be a pain in the neck for the ruling authorities, such as when he objected to the proposed Federal Department of Education? No. He testified before Congress, showed respect and deference in his testimony, and tried to figure out ways for Christians to pass on the faith even in the midst of legal challenges (which is why he supported private Christian schools)?

Or how about Abraham Kuyper? For all of his emphasis on the antithesis and his opposition to political liberalism (read secularization), Kuyper figured out a way to accommodate the diversity of Dutch society such that Calvinists would be able to maintain their faith and associational life even while accepting the presence of Roman Catholics and secular liberals as part of Dutch nation.

The way that previous Reformed leaders have tried to get along in their society — rather than taking the Amish or Islamist option — suggests that the real radicals today are not 2kers but the anti-2kers (RA2K). It is indeed radical to oppose the social and political order. Sometimes it may be necessary. But to make it a badge of Christian faithfulness is not only historically unprecedented but anti-biblical. Peter and Paul preached submission to and honor for the emperor, and Paul said Christians should pray for peace and quiet so they could live out their lives faithfully. But if 2kers employ arguments designed to secure such social stability, we are traitors and deny our Lord.

Funny thing is, we are actually in the majority of Americans:

62 percent of those polled support jailing people for contempt of court; only 15 percent said they opposed it

Of Republicans polled, 64 percent said they supported jailing people for contempt of court

Strong majorities in every demographic category (except for African-Americans) supported jailing people for contempt of court The region where support for jailing them was strongest? The South, Kim Davis’s home region

An overall majority of people (53 percent) believe religious liberty is under threat in America. Four out of five Republicans believe that, and 55 percent of Independents do. The only demographics that didn’t believe that? Democrats, those making over $100K per year, and those living in the Midwest (though in the Midwestern case, it was a plurality).

A slight overall majority (52 percent) believes that elected officials should not be given a religious exemption from doing their job, though the numbers break down along partisan and regional lines. Republicans alone among the political orientations are divided equally.

Majorities in all regions except the South believe elected officials should be required do their jobs regardless of their conscience — and in the
South, the “do your job” faction polled a 47 percent plurality, versus 38 percent of Southerners who believe in the conscience deferment, and 16 percent who aren’t sure.

An overall majority said Kim Davis, in particular, ought to have gone to jail for contempt of court. Interestingly, Republicans, who answered generically that someone in Davis’s position should go to jail, were evenly split when Davis’s name came up.

Big majorities across every demographic category say that Kim Davis ought to resign as a matter of principle. It’s not even close. Only 22 percent of people say she should keep her job and remain defiant

Those numbers may suggest salt that has lost its savor. I actually think it indicates which Christians are on their meds. But it hardly makes us radical.

The Spirit Neglected

I’m not sure what branch of Protestantism Father Dwight belonged to before he converted, but surely you don’t need to be a speaker of tongues to know the importance of the Holy Spirit in accounting for true faith Protestant-style. Somehow, though, Father Dwight believes that faith invariably proceeds from reason (and not from the mysterious operation of the Spirit):

Like most Freemasons, Franklin had a spiritual blind spot. There was nothing wild and mystical in his life. Passion and romance in religion were alien to him. His creed was one of common sense, mild-mannered good works and human virtue. As such it was not only blind. It was bland.

I came across a quotation of his the other day which sums it up. He wrote, “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.” It is the sort of sophomoric bromide one expects from rationalist, and it doesn’t stand up to even the mildest of objections.

It is understandable, however. Ever since the nominalists suggested that material things had no connection with the unseen world and were no more than what you call them, a divide had been growing between the physical and the metaphysical realms. The Protestant Revolution confirmed the break, and the Enlightenment hammered it home with the French and American Revolutions.

If there was a divide between the spiritual and the physical realm, then preachers could have nothing to say about science, and scientists had no concern with religion. Science and reason dealt with this world and religion with the world to come, and that was that.

Consequently, the Protestant religion became either an abstract debate about theology or a subjective, emotional experience. In other words, you could be a bookish Bible nerd or a hellfire, “come to Jesus!” weepin’-and-wailin’ preacher. Neither had much to do with the material realm, and neither had much use for science and reason. Thus Benjamin Franklin’s conclusion that to “see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.”

Fideists and fundamentalists distrust the man of reason as much as he distrusts the man of religion. Therefore, even today many Protestants take an intentionally anti-intellectual stance, agreeing with the rationalists that faith and reason are incompatible. Blind Benjamin Franklin is father to them all.

Standing in contrast to this impasse is the Catholic religion which has always contended that faith is reasonable and reason requires faith, or as Pope St. John Paul II put it, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

Perhaps, but if you take the fall seriously (which is arguably the bottom line difference between real Protestants and Roman Catholics), reason doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. As the British divines explained (but Father Dwight apparently did not read):

5. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. (Confession of Faith, chapter 1)

Nevertheless, Father Dwight thinks that a belief in the resurrection, for instance, is not that different from testing a cat for feline leukemia:

From that foundation of personal observation and reliance on tradition the scientific enquirer proposes a theory to explore and discover further. So does the religious enquirer. Both devise a theory to meet the facts and answer a question that has arisen. The enquirer then tests the theory with experimentation–gathering data and experiences and processing them through intuition, reasoning and further reliance on tradition. Should the experiment fail, he uses the error to refine the theory and continue his exploration until he finds a satisfactory answer.

This is precisely what the informed and intellectually engaged religious enquirer does. He has certain experiences which are analyzed and filtered through tradition and he goes on to explore further, analyze experience, test reality, reject what is false and affirm what is true, and as he continues his exploration and experimentation he uses a combination of personal experience, tradition, reason and intuition to analyze and construct a working hypothesis.

Then, for both the scientist and the religious explorer there comes a step which we can call “faith.” The homework is done, the data is collected. The experience is analyzed, the tradition is accepted, the guesswork is completed, and the theory has been tested as thoroughly as possible. The scientist or the religious enquirer then changes his actions based on the new belief which he has come to accept based on this process.

In point of fact, a much better explanation for faith comes from the side of an affirmation of total depravity and the inherent limits it puts on human reason. As J. Gresham Machen explained, the miracle of the resurrection makes a lot of sense if you consider the enormity of the human predicament post-fall:

In one sense, certainly, miracles are a hindrance to faith − but who ever thought the contrary? It may certainly be admitted that if the New Testament narrative had no miracles in it, it would be far easier to believe. The more commonplace a story is, the easier it is to accept it as true. But commonplace narratives have little value. The New Testament without the miracles would be far easier to believe. But the trouble is, it would not be worth believing. Without the miracles the New Testament would contain an account of a holy man − not a perfect man, it is true, for He was led to make lofty claims to which He had no right − but a man at least far holier than the rest of men. But of what benefit would such a man, and the death which marked His failure, be to us? The loftier be the example which Jesus set, the greater becomes our sorrow at our failure to attain to it; and the greater our hopelessness under the burden of sin. The sage of Nazareth may satisfy those who have never faced the problem of evil in their own lives; but to talk about an ideal to those who are under the thralldom of sin is a cruel mockery. Yet if Jesus was merely a man like the rest of men, then an ideal is all that we have in Him. Far more is needed by a sinful world. It is small comfort to be told that there was goodness in the world, when what we need is goodness triumphant over sin. But goodness triumphant over sin involves an entrance of the creative power of God, and that creative power of God is manifested by the miracles. Without the miracles, the New Testament might be easier to believe. But the thing that would be believed would be entirely different from that which presents itself to us now. Without the miracles we should have a teacher; with the miracles we have a Savior. (Christianity and Liberalism, 103-104)

Father Dwight may have a point about Ben Franklin’s blind spots (is shooting fish in a barrel really intellectually compelling?). But did Father Dwight miss the log creating his own blind spot?

Disappointed

Obviously, Ross Douthat isn’t following 2k debates nor has he read A Secular Faith:

What’s more, the alternative perspective here — that a politician’s religious commitments are so personal and private that no one else can reasonably be asked to comment on them, or even to identify them at all — usually belongs to a particular slice of the secular left: The slice that doesn’t think that religion should have any public role in politics, the slice that was so anxious about “theocracy” in the Bush era, the slice that finds Walker’s own public expressions of faith eminently mockable today. That’s where you’ll find a principled argument for regarding Obama’s religious profession as irrelevant to our political conversations. But that argument points toward a full privatization of religion, toward a system much more like French laïcité than the American tradition of religiously-informed politics — and as such it’s a very strange argument for American conservatives to embrace.

Heck, he hasn’t even read J. Gresham Machen:

you cannot expect from a true Christian Church any official pronouncements upon the political or social questions of the day, and you cannot expect cooperation with the state in anything involving the use of force. Important are the functions of the police, and members of the Church, either individually or in such special associations as they may choose to form, should aid the police in every lawful way in the exercise of those functions. But the function of the Church in its corporate capacity is of an entirely different kind. Its weapons against evil are spiritual, not carnal; and by becoming a political lobby, through the advocacy of political measures whether good or bad, the Church is turning aside from its proper mission, which is to bring to bear upon human hearts the solemn and imperious, yet also sweet and gracious, appeal of the gospel of Christ.

Modernism Watch

The classic definition of Protestant modernism came from J. Gresham Machen in Christianity and Liberalism. He understood that modernism was an apologetic strategy — a way to save Christianity in the face of modern intellectual and social developments. That strategy involved explaining away certain doctrines as the mere husk of Christianity (deity of Christ, virgin birth, infallibility of Scripture) and properly locating the kernel of Christian teaching (the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the vicinity of Boston). What modernists did and still do is historicize the faith. Christians believed truth X once upon a time but we now understand how X was the product of a historical moment. The modernist looks beneath the exterior of Christian belief, which is historically situated, and finds the universal truth to which it points.

The classic definition for Roman Catholic modernism came from Pius X (hence the Society of Saint Piux X) who in 1907 wrote:

These rebels profess and repeat, in subtle formulas, monstrous errors on the evolution of dogma, on the return to the pure Gospel—that is, as they say, a Gospel purified of theological explication, Council definitions, and the maxims of the moral life—and on the emancipation of the Church. This they do in their new fashion: they do not engage in revolt, lest they should be ejected, and yet they do not submit either, so that they do not have to abandon their convictions. In their calls for the Church to adapt to modern conditions, in everything they speak and write, preaching a charity without faith, they are very indulgent towards believers, but in reality they are opening up for everyone the path to eternal ruin.

And now traditionalist Roman Catholics fear that the Synod of Bishops who are discussing the nature of marriage, that these church authorities are dabbling in modernism. Even some on the left side of the Roman Catholic spectrum seem to agree (even if taking encouragement from such dabbling) though they prefer the phrase “development of doctrine” to modernism (who wouldn’t?):

Let’s look at this issue of developing doctrine and changing pastoral practice as it relates to the “homosexual agenda” which has +Burke so exercised. For years, for centuries, the Church shared the biases of the ambient culture. Homosexuality was the sin that dare not speak its name and gay people were ostracized and worse. There was little in the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family that was crafted with even a thought to the existence of LGBT people and no obvious congruence between that teaching and the lived experience of gay Catholics. But, what the Church neglected for all those years was a core, foundational doctrine: All human persons are made in the image and likeness of God. This doctrine is, I dare say, even more foundational than the Church’s teaching on marriage, indeed, the Church’s teaching on marriage and all ethical issues is built upon the imago dei, but nobody, until our lifetimes, thought to apply this doctrine to the pastoral care of gays and lesbians.

What changed? First, the experience of HIV/AIDS. In the same way that the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin demonstrated to all the suffering and horror of slavery to people who knew little about it, the AIDS epidemic called forth the most basic Christian, humane sensibility: compassion. . . .

There is an old joke that when the Church announces a change, the document always begins, “As the Church has always taught….” This is usually cited as a way to suggest that the Church is a bit cynical, even hypocritical. But, in fact, this is how change happens in the Church. “The Church has always taught” that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, we just forgot to apply that to gays and lesbians for a few centuries. The Church has always taught that Communion is the food of mercy, essential to the on-going conversion of all Christians, not just the divorced and remarried. No one is going to “change doctrine” at this synod, but the synod fathers are trying to retrieve lost insights, recalibrate the way our doctrines are applied in real pastoral praxis, discern new ways to proclaim the Gospel. The synod is evidence that the Church is alive and still attentive to the Holy Spirit, not only to the treatises on canon law. Those who are afraid of this synod – and of this pope – and the ones of little faith.

It’s hard to know how to argue against a view that says “we have always believed this even though it didn’t look like it.” But then arguing against experience as opposed to debating a proposition (yes, I’ve invoked the bogeyman of propositional truth, language speaker than I am) is like making a case against second-hand smoke. And yet, following experience instead of doctrine appears to be precisely what the cardinals are doing in Rome:

Unlike in the past, when bishops or theologians would deduce theology from general, sometimes idealized notions of God or humanity, the prelates at the Synod of Bishops on the family are using inductive reasoning to instead examine theology in the reality of families today, Canadian Archbishop Paul-André Durocher said.

“What’s happening within the synod is we’re seeing a more inductive way of reflecting, starting from the true situation of people and trying to figure out what’s going on here,” said Durocher, who leads the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The prelates, the archbishop said, are “finding that the lived experience of people is also a theological source — what we call a theological source, a place of theological reflection.”

“I think we’re learning to use the Harvard case study method in reflecting theologically on the lives of people,” continued the archbishop, who also heads the archdiocese of Gatineau in Quebec.

“And we’re only, in a sense, starting to learn how to do this as church leaders,” he said. “And this is going to take time for us, to learn to do this and together to come — as we reflect on this — to find what is the way that God is showing.”

When the bishops do eventually figure out how to use the experience of people to construct theology, will Jason and the Callers follow suit? So far the answers from the Callers have been all out of a Pius X framework. They have yet to enter or accommodate the modern world that Vatican II embraced (not to mention missing all the lessons of twentieth-century Protestant history that produced separate communions like the OPC and the PCA).

The Danger of Flattening

According to J. Gresham Machen:

. . . the witness of the New Testament, with regard to Jesus as the object of faith, is an absolutely unitary witness. The thing is rooted far too deep in the records of primitive Christianity ever to be removed by any critical process. The Jesus spoken of in the New Testament was no mere teacher of righteousness, no mere pioneer in a new type of religious life, but One who was regarded, and regarded Himself, as the Savior whom men could trust.

But by modern liberalism He is regarded in a totally different way. Christians stand in a religious relation to Jesus; liberals do not stand in a religious relation to Jesus − what difference could be more profound than that? The modern liberal preacher reverences Jesus; he has the name of Jesus forever on his lips; he speaks of Jesus as the supreme revelation of God; he enters, or tries to enter, into the religious life of Jesus. But he does not stand in a religious relation to Jesus. Jesus for him is an example for faith, not the object of faith. The modern liberal tries to have faith in God like the faith which he supposes Jesus had in God; but he does not have faith in Jesus. According to modern liberalism, in other words, Jesus was the Founder of Christianity because He was the first Christian, and Christianity consists in maintenance of the religious life which Jesus instituted. . . .

Yet in the Gospels Jesus is represented constantly as dealing with the problem of sin. He always assumes that other men are sinful; yet He never finds sin in Himself. A stupendous difference is found here between Jesus’ experience and ours.

That difference prevents the religious experience of Jesus from serving as the sole basis of the Christian life. For clearly if Christianity is anything it is a way of getting rid of sin. At any rate, if it is not that it is useless; for all men have sinned. And as a matter of fact it was that from the very beginning. Whether the beginning of Christian preaching be put on the day of Pentecost or when Jesus first taught in Galilee, in either case one of its first words was “Repent.” Throughout the whole New Testament the Christianity of the primitive Church is represented clearly as a way of getting rid of sin. But if Christianity is a way of getting rid of sin, then Jesus was not a Christian; for Jesus, so far as we can see, had no sin to get rid of. (Christianity and Liberalism)

Wouldn’t Machen’s logic, not to mention his noteworthy battle with liberalism, be a reason for avoiding statements that regard Jesus as the greatest Christian ever?

Queen of the Sciences?

That’s the old phrase reserved for systematic theology when people regarded it as the culmination of human thought about special and general revelation. Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield and the Old Princeton faculty more generally regarded systematic theology as the telos of biblical and theological investigation.

Warfield worried, however, that biblical theology would displace systematics:

Systematic Theology may look on with an amused tolerance and a certain older-sister’s pleased recognition of powers just now perhaps a little too conscious of themselves, when the new discipline of Biblical Theology, for example, tosses her fine young head and announces of her more settled sister that her day is over. But these words have a more ominous ring in them when the lips that frame them speak no longer as a sister’s but as an enemy’s, and the meaning injected into them threatens not merely dethronement but destruction.

In that new environment, the queenly status of systematics might have more to do with sexual orientation and the politics of identity rather than with a hierarchy of knowledge.

After reading the exchange between Dick Gaffin and Clair Davis regarding recent faculty developments at Westminster Theological Seminary, I am still convinced that an important difference between Old Princeton and contemporary Westminster is the status accorded systematic theology. Gaffin and Davis both debate how best to interpret Geerhardus Vos and the proper hermeneutic associated with redemptive historical exegesis, but systematic theology is distant from their concerns.

Of course, faculty at the Reformed seminaries are supposed to subscribe the “system of doctrine” taught in the Westminster Standards and/or the Three Forms of Unity. But whether all faculty are equally willing to teach and defend that system of doctrine — say in Sunday school or even in their own non-ST classes — is another question altogether. I mean, are the advocates of a Christotelic or Christocentric reading of the OT prepared to teach and defend limited atonement or the eternal decree? And if all seminary faculty were willing to contend for those doctrines, would the disputes among the Vossians have taken on such magnitude?

I am well aware that it is easy and a bit of a cliche to quote Machen the way that political conservatives quote the American founders. (Here goes Machen boy again.) But I wonder how many seminary faculty would agree with this assertion from Machen’s first address about WTS?

. . . biblical theology is not all the theology that will be taught at Westminster Seminary, for systematic theology will be at the very center of the seminary’s course. At this point an error should be avoided: it must not be thought that systematic theology is one whit less biblical than biblical theology is. But it differs from biblical theology in that, standing on the foundation or biblical theology, it seeks to set forth, no longer in the order of the time when it was revealed, but in the order of logical relationships, the grand sum of what God has told us in his Word. There are those who think that systematic theology on the basis of the Bible is impossible; there are those who think that the Bible contains a mere record of human seeking after God and that its teachings are a mass of contradiction which can never be resolved. But to the number of those persons we do not belong. We believe for our part that God has spoken to us in his Word, and that he has given us not merely theology, but a system of theology, a great logically consistent body of truth.

That system of theology, that body of truth, which we find in the Bible is the Reformed faith, the faith commonly called Calvinistic, which is set forth so gloriously in the Confession and catechisms of the Presbyterian church. It is sometimes referred to as a “man-made creed.” But we do not regard it as such. We regard it, in accordance with our ordination pledge as ministers in the Presbyterian church, as the creed which God has taught us in his Word. If it is contrary to the Bible, it is false. But we hold that it is not contrary to the Bible, but in accordance with the Bible, and true. We rejoice in the approximations to that body of truth which other systems of theology contain; we rejoice in our Christian fellowship with other evangelical churches; we hope that members of other churches, despite our Calvinism, may be willing to enter into Westminster Seminary as students and to listen to what we may have to say. But we cannot consent to impoverish our message by setting forth less than what we find the Scripture to contain; and we believe that we shall best serve our fellow Christians, from whatever church they may come, if we set forth not some vague greatest common measure among various creeds, but that great historic faith that has come through Augustine and Calvin to our own Presbyterian church. (“Westminster Theological Seminary,” 1929)

Of course, Machen could be wrong about systematic theology. If so, a biblical theologian might want to step up and say so and explain why. Machen’s not the pope.

But if he is right about systematic theology being as biblical as biblical theology, if he’s right about it forming the center of the theological curriculum, and if he’s right about Calvinism (as the WTS affirmations and denials — see pp. 9 and 10 — suggest), then the debates about Vos and the proper way to read the Old Testament look less important than they have become. The real test is not whether you get Isaiah or Vos right, but whether or not your teaching and writing supports the system of doctrine taught in the church’s standards. If that were the criterion for appointment and promotion, the debate between Gaffin and Davis might be better left for the attendees at the Evangelical Theological Society.