Is the PCA Big Enough?

The death of R. C. Sproul and the occasion of The New Yorker publishing Tim Keller provide the opportunity for further reflections on ecclesiology and parachurch agencies. For instance, Keller’s article in The New Yorker includes this byline:

Timothy Keller is the founder and Pastor Emeritus of the Redeemer Presbyterian Churches of New York City.

And here is how Christianity Today began its death notice for Sproul:

Late PCA leader influenced generations of Christians by filling the gap “between Sunday school and seminary.”

Both men belong/belonged to the PCA. But no one identified either man in his professional life with the PCA. Keller is his own church-planting guru with Redeemer City-to-City as the vehicle for funding church start ups in big cities around the world. Sproul made Ligonier Ministries his brand. Both are hugely successful authors who are/were known more for books than denominational affiliation. Neither man found it possible to work within the confines of denominational mechanisms. Could Keller have somehow made his church planting operation part of the PCA’s Mission to the World? (And what if Keller decided to put Crossway Publishing on his back and allow them to publish his New York Times bestsellers? Or, what if Keller became the face of the Gospel Coalition and transferred his energies from Redeemer’s many operations into the Gospel Coalition’s many operations?) Imagine what that might do for the PCA’s name recognition. Or could Sproul have operated Ligonier as an arm of the PCA’s Discipleship Ministries (the equivalent of the OPC’s Committee on Christian Education)? The answer is yes. But that affirmative would have changed significantly the shape of what Keller and Sproul accomplished as expositors of God’s word and teachers of doctrine.

This is not meant as a criticism of either man. The intention here is simply to note the real limitations of denominations. Everyone faces them. Denominations are clunky, procedural, deliberative, slow. Presbyterian denominations even more so. So to take a non-profit and move it under the umbrella of another non-profit is a dicey institutional maneuver. At the same time, becoming the head of a denomination’s church planting operations or its Christian education agency is to give up space for personal initiative and take a back seat to supervising committees and denominational procedures.

And yet, not everyone conducts work that duplicates that of a denominational agency or committee. In the case of a church historian, for instance, a denominational committee may publish books that cover institutional or theological history but they don’t produce books on the arts and sciences. In which case, an academic historian needs to find other publishing outlets for non-denominational writing. At the same time, writers and authors constantly face the temptation to create their own media company. Think Rush Limbaugh. Then imagine Rush having to cooperate and even submit to the guidance of the Republican Party. Not gonna happen. But when Rush wants to achieve a higher profile, does he work with his own website and editorial services or does he seek a trade press that knows the ropes of getting books into bookstores and handles distribution and invoices?

Which comes around then to a question bigger than celebrity, namely, entrepreneurialism. To what degree should pastors and theologians be in the business not only of creating ideas and arguments that encourage the faithful but also the start of organizations for promoting their own initiatives? The related question is whether denominations or church government is compatible with entrepreneurial pastors. Communions like the PCA, from the outside, look fairly capacious. If the OPC has the reputation for helicopter Presbyterianism — which is so far from reality — then the PCA is a Presbyterian version of a confederation of congregations like the URC or the SBC. It would seem to be a perfect place to allow for energetic and industrious pastors to work out their gifts and callings.

But the examples of Sproul and Ligonier, and Keller and Redeemer suggest otherwise. Not even as vigorous, missional, and hands-off a denomination as the PCA is capable of employing the talents of men like Sproul and Keller.

So either denominations have run their course of usefulness, or gifted ministers need to turn down their talents to settings conducive to a communion’s normal operations.


Signers and Decliners

Now comes another statement, named for a Tennessee city, with the signatures of more Christian scholars attached to it. I wonder if those who signed “An Open Letter from Christian Scholars on Racism in America Today” will also sign the Nashville Statement on biblical sexuality. Lots of professors are listed on each statement, and yet I can’t help but think each set has reservations about the scholarship practiced by the signers of the other statement.

What is it about statements? The one time Tim Keller and I agreed came in 1996 at the meeting of theologians and pastors that produced the Cambridge Declaration, a statement that expressed concerns about contemporary worship and megachurches. Keller did not sign. Nor did I. My reasons for not signing went along the lines that Matthew Anderson recently gave for not signing the Nashville Statement:

While I am generally ‘statement-averse,’ it seems reasonable to want a succinct depiction of the theological boundaries on these issues. If nothing else, such statements are efficient: they remove much of the work of retelling all of our convictions on a certain matter by giving us a public document to point to. It’s a lot easier to find all the people who are on board with a certain vision of the home, for instance, by asking what they make of the Danvers Statement.

Yet this virtue is also a vice: by creating a public context in which all the people who affirm certain doctrines or ideas are identified under the same banner, statements tacitly shift the playing field, such that to not sign is to signal disagreement.

Ding ding. Statements imply that those who don’t sign are not of the right outlook because those who sign are right. A lot of signaling going on.

Yet, a curious feature of the Nashville Statement is that it includes the heavy hitters in the Gospel Coalition. John Piper, Lig Duncan, D. A. Carson, Al Mohler, Russell Moore, even J. I. Packer and R. C. Sproul. Tim Keller did not sign.

The problem could be that statements are a problem. But Anderson also explains another reason for the Nashville Statement’s deficiency. It specifies a minimal set of norms while leaving aside a broader sexual ethic and biblical anthropology that should provide the source for specific practices or convictions:

With the signers and the drafters of the Nashville Statement, I am persuaded that the current controversies over sex, gender, and marriage are of maximal importance. With those individuals, I agree that there are matters here essential to the truthful, beautiful articulation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. With those individuals, I agree that the crisis in the evangelical church is real, and that those seeking to alter our institutions so that they affirm gay marriage undermine and distort the faith that all Christians, in all places and times have affirmed.

But issues of maximal importance deserve maximal responses. It is possible to say too little, as it is possible to say too much. If I have sometimes erred toward the latter vice in my exposition and defense of a traditional account of sex and gender, I have done so only because the deflationary and minimalist approach to such questions is itself an intrinsic part of the intellectual atmosphere which has left the orthodox Christian view unintelligible to so many.

Meanwhile, secular academics are trying to defend middle-class virtues:

That [mid-twentieth-century bourgeois] culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

These basic cultural precepts reigned from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. They could be followed by people of all backgrounds and abilities, especially when backed up by almost universal endorsement. Adherence was a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.

Imagine if the Christians who signed the Open Letter or the Nashville Statement had joined with Amy Wax and Larry Alexander in a defense of older American norms.

It sure looks like Wax and Alexander could use it:

We, a group of Penn alumni and current students, wish to address white supremacist violence and discourse in America. Even if we are not surprised that Charlottesville can happen, witnessing blatant racism takes an emotional toll on us, some more so than others. And yet, overtly racist acts are identifiable and seem “easy” to criticize. It is nearly impossible for anyone, white, black or otherwise to see what happened in Charlottesville and not admit that a wrong occurred — unless you are a white supremacist yourself, that is.

But at the same time, history teaches us that these hateful ideas about racial superiority have been embedded in many of our social institutions. They crawl through the hallways of our most prestigious universities, promoting hate and bigotry under the guise of “intellectual debate.” Indeed, just days before Charlottesville, Penn Law School professor Amy Wax, co-wrote an op-ed piece with Larry Alexander, a law professor at the University of San Diego, claiming that not “all cultures are created equal” and extolling the virtues of white cultural practices of the ‘50s that, if understood within their sociocultural context, stem from the very same malignant logic of hetero-patriarchal, class-based, white supremacy that plagues our country today. These cultural values and logics are steeped in anti-blackness and white hetero-patriarchal respectability, i.e. two-hetero-parent homes, divorce is a vice and the denouncement of all groups perceived as not acting white enough i.e. black Americans, Latino communities and immigrants in particular.

Wax’s and Alexander’s claims rely on a simplistic, bigoted and archaic notion of culture; a concept purported to be bounded and discrete, a postulate which anthropologists “dismantled” decades ago by showing how such formulations of culture are embedded in systems of political, economic and social oppression.

Against outlooks like this statements don’t have a snowball’s chance in hades.

The Value of Keller's Stock

Bill Evans’ piece on the decline of conservative Reformed Protestantism has been making the rounds and it raises an important question about the better and worse times in church history. He starts by noting that conservative Presbyterians are not as influential as they once were:

A while back my friend Anthony Bradley posted an insightful and provocative blog piece asking why the popular influence of conservative Presbyterians prominent a few decades back (e.g., Jim Boice, R. C. Sproul, Sinclair Ferguson, and John Frame) seems to have waned in comparison to Baptists of a broadly Reformed soteriological persuasion. I posted an extended comment at the time, and thought I would expand on it here.

There are at least two big issues in play—the Baptistic Reformed success as driven by institutions (e.g., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Founders’ Movement) and gifted individuals (e.g., Don Carson, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Mark Driscoll) on the one hand, and the apparent Presbyterian decline on the other. As a Presbyterian I’m not particularly well equipped to comment on the first, but I think I have something to offer about the second.

Of course, the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition has been declining as a percentage of the American population since the nineteenth century. But statistics available in resources like ARDA and the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches indicate that some of the NAPARC denominations are plateaued or in decline. This is worrisome, and the reasons are doubtless complex, having to do with social as well as theological factors. Below are five general observations from the “for what it’s worth department.”

Matt Tuininga agrees and disagrees:

Evans describes the commitment of many Presbyterians to an increasingly rigid, or fundamentalist understanding of the authority of Scripture. He also worries about an exaggerated confidence in the ability of confessions to productively shape (or leverage?) Scriptural interpretation. When our obsession is with preserving our own micro-traditions, pale imitations of a once great theological and ecclesiastical stream, the temptation is overwhelming to manipulate Scripture for our own purposes, ignoring the difference between the Word and human interpretation of that Word. When we have an exaggerated understanding of the exhaustive significance of 16th and 17th century confessions designed with 16th and 17th century problems in mind, our theology, preaching, and church life quickly become more like artifacts in a museum than like the faithful witness of Christ’s church in 21st century America.

No doubt things are not quite as bleak as this blog post might suggest. And neither Evans nor I are suggesting that Reformed believers abandon the authority of Scripture or vigorous allegiance to our confessions. The problem is not with historic Reformed theology at all, per se. But what Evans seems to be suggesting, and if so, I agree with him, is that the church needs to reexamine whether a tragic preoccupation with tradition and with the forms, practices, and controversies of the past is actually undermining the authority of Scripture, the role for which our confessions were historically intended, and our faithful witness in the present. One thing seems clear. In terms of size, influence, and prospects, the Reformed tradition is, and has been for quite some time, in serious decline. We have a lot of soul-searching to do.

One item worth highlighting, as the title of the post indicates, is that despite the amazing popularity of TKNY in conservative Presbyterian circles, Tim Keller cannot make up for the presence that the likes of Jim Boice and R. C. Sproul projected and still project. It could be that associations with The Gospel Coalition so water down Keller’s Presbyterian identity that his influence from deep within one of the largest, most media-saturated, and wealthiest cities in the history of redemption cannot make up for the sheer doctrinal firepower of the old regulars at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.

The bigger aspect here, though, is how to assess the relative strength of Reformed Protestantism, whether thirty years ago, three hundred years ago, or today. The present is always the hardest to assess. What lasts is seldom known now. (It looks like the Harlem Shake has surpassed Gangnam Style. What a shame.) So making projections about the health of Reformed Protestantism based on contemporary observations is inadvisable.

When it comes to thirty years ago, it is possible to argue as I did in Between the Times that at least one conservative Presbyterian communion is doing better than it was. But the study of church history should always breed sobriety rather than enthusiasm. This is not because the history of Christianity is one long story of decline. It is instead because in the case of Reformed Protestant history, the Reformed churches have always faced an uphill battle. In fact, when the churches were at their most influential (the Free Church of Scotland, the Reformed Church of the Netherlands [GKN], or even the PCUSA), they were generally the most mixed they ever were. It is the nature of any organization, even spiritual ones, that when they become large, they also become fat.

In which case, it is interesting to notice that when they were turning heads thirty years ago, Boice and Sproul were still ministers in the mainline (not conservative) Presbyterian Church, which was hardly the strongest platform from which to lead a recovery of Reformed teaching and ministry.

I myself am not sure where conservative Presbyterianism is headed. I do hold to the view that the healthiest path for conservative Presbyterianism is not celebrity speakers and theologians but churches where worship is lean, teaching confessional, and government procedural. Slow and steady many not win the race. But in the eternal life race, finishing is pretty good.

From PCRT to Ligonier to Gospel Coalition

Anthony Bradley’s memories of coming into Reformed Protestant circles during the 1980s has been making the rounds and includes a question about why Baptists dominate contemporary discussions of Calvinism. Back in the day, according to Bradley, James Montgomery Boice, Sinclair Ferguson, and R.C. Sproul dominated discussions of Reformed theology.

They are all Presbyterians. In those days “Calvinism”/”Reformed” and Presbyterian were synonyms. Something happened, however. The Presbyterians lost their voice some would say and I’m not sure how to explain how that happened. Somehow “Reformed” today (2012) is more associated with Baptists (or Baptistic folks) D.A. Carson, John Piper, and Mark Driscoll.

As someone who regularly attended the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology at Tenth Presbyterian Church and who benefited from lectures and sermons by Boice, Sproul, John Gerstner, and Roger Nicole, I too have sometimes reflected on the change of ecclesiastical landscape over the last twenty-five years. Back around 1980 Reformed Protestantism in the United States looked to be the most formidable expression of Christianity and was even drawing converts from Rome. In addition to PCRT, the editors of Reformed Journal assembled a remarkable collection of academics and pastors to write thoughtfully about church life, politics, and the arts. Contributors included Rich Mouw, George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nick Wolterstorff, Ronald Wells and others. Not too long into the 1980s, however, Calvinists lost their swagger and mojo, and Roman Catholicism, thanks to the appeal of John Paul II, became the alternative for thoughtful and socially active “conservative” Christians.

Some could explain the change as simply a function of age and even death. Gerstner and Boice are no longer with us, and folks like Sproul are fast approaching retirement. Another factor is that the Reformed consensus of the early 1980s that appeared to be drawing conservative Presbyterians and Reformed Protestants together had fallen apart by 1990. The OPC found a way to avoid J&R with the PCA and in the process recovered something of its older polemical edge. The PCA became a refuge for disaffected Orthodox Presbyterians of a New Life persuasion. The CRC debated and finally gave its blessing to women’s ordination. As the OPC hardened, the PCA softened, and the CRC amended, Reformed Protestantism fractured.

Meanwhile, Ligonier became the national successor to the PCRT’s regional presence. And the process of building a national constituency led to the inclusion of speakers who would not have been considered either Reformed of Calvinistic, such as John Piper and John MacArthur. At the same time, while Ligonier expanded what it meant to be Reformed, the Alliance of Confessional Evangelicals — a body formed by Boice — broke up with Mike Horton’s version of confessionalism going one way and the Alliance’s going another. Neither ACE nor White Horse Media, however, could keep up with local/national ministries of Piper and Desiring God, Driscoll and Acts 29, or Tim Keller and the Redeemer phenomenon. When the Gospel Coalition came together it did on a national scale what Boice had done on a much smaller (and pre-internet) scale with PCRT. What is more, it received buy in from national celebrity academics and pastors in ways that Ligonier could not, dominated as it was by one speaker and author.

The answer to Bradley’s question then seems to be that in order to achieve national prominence, Calvinism needed to go off the Presbyterian and Reformed reservation and include groups that were much bigger and speakers more celebrated than Presbyterians could muster. Recent posts at the Coalition underscore the breadth that contemporary Calvinism represents thanks to the move from local to national settings. According to Collin Hansen, the Young & Restless phenomenon is a “critique movement”:

Calvinism has thrived, then, as a fire engine sounding the alarm and bearing water to put out the flames consuming American evangelicalism. We’re not surprised by the bad numbers. In fact, even inside some of the biggest churches in America, we’ve seen the limits of any strategy that fails to account for our God-given need for transcendence, transformation, and tradition. Numbers are a lagging indicator of unhealth. Even during the megachurch boom of the 1980s and 1990s, all was not well with the evangelical soul.

Some could only wish that the critique extended even to members of the Coalition, that it might fault Driscoll’s new measures (and clairvoyance) or Keller’s failure to be a traditional Presbyterian.

But when the definition of Calvinism includes Wesleyanism, what kind of critique might you expect? John Starke’s recent exchange with Fred Sanders, a Wesleyan who teaches at BIOLA and who quotes Calvin, reinforces the point about the breadth that afflicts the new Calvinism of the non-Reformed variety. Here is Starke’s introduction:

I’ve been reading Fred Sanders’s blog for a long time, and when his book, The Deep Things of God, came out, I was eager to read it. He’s a good writer, he loves and quotes the Puritans, he’s a reasonable thinker, and he knows how to do careful exegesis.

He’s also a Wesleyan.

I don’t mean to declare that so menacingly. But the first time I learned Sanders—associate professor at the Torrey Honors Institute of Biola University—was a Wesleyan, I was a bit surprised. It’s not that Wesleyans and Arminians can’t be careful interpreters and reasonable thinkers—I just don’t often resonate with their writings and conclusions quite the way I do with Sanders’.

And so, I had to know: For a guy who loves, quotes, and depends upon Calvin and Calvinists, why isn’t Fred Sanders a Calvinist? We corresponded, and he explained the one thing he wished Calvinists would stop accusing Wesleyans of doing and why Wesleyanism is only the opposite of Calvinism in a very small thought-world.

Will Fred Sanders make an appearance at a Gospel Coalition conference and receive a “Calvinistic” benediction? Odder things have happened in the world of contemporary Calvinism.