Rah Rah T(eam) G(ospel) C(oalition)

Justin Taylor recommends Richard Lovelace’s pro-revival book, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, and shows the telltale faults of the gospel allies. Taylor praises a book that is more theology than history as a work of church history, and he reproduces endorsements from TGC heavyweights about how important Lovelace’s book was for their ministry and careers:

There is not another book quite like Richard Lovelace’s The Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (IVP, 1979).

It was published before Tim Keller and John Piper had written any popular books.

It was written back when Jonathan Edwards was hardly anybody’s homeboy.

It was written by an author who is a bit eccentric, but whose every page—agree or disagree—is worth wrestling with and pondering.

Tim Keller says that if you read this book, you’ll say that you now know where he got all his material. He still thinks we can’t do without this book.

David Powlison says he read the book multiple times in the 1980s.

Ray Ortlund has said that this book is rarely far from his thoughts.

So we have the problem of the veneer of uncontested scholarship followed by the problem of group think. Does anyone challenge Lovelace on historical or theological grounds? Or is Lovelace wonderful all the time because he means so much to TGC celebrities? (I suppose Justin has to adjudicate such questions sometimes as an editor at Crossway books but among TGC eminences such critical perspectives rarely arise.)

I ran a search of Lovelace’s book and discovered that it received no reviews in the standard historical journals (religious or secular). But at Reformed Journal, Mark Noll, then a relatively obscure young scholar, raised precisely the sort of concerns that should have dawned on Taylor, Tim Keller, Ray Ortlund, and David Powlison before praising the book in such glowing ways. Noll’s concerns are also those that confessional Protestants bring to the book:

The more diffuse second half of the book proposes programs for personal and parish renewal, while warning against emotional, spiritual, and theological errors which lead revivals astray. It contends for a faith that neglects neither personal spirituality nor doctrinal orthodoxy nor structural reform. It concludes with a potpourri of concerns pointing out the value to renewed Christians of remaining in their denominations, offering a blueprint for artistic revival among evangelicals, and stressing the need for a socially active faith.

The book attempts so much that it is bound to leave each reader unsatisfied at some points. To quibble, I found it strange that Lovelace would exalt Jonathan Edwards as a flawless model for ongoing spiritual renewal. However influential Edwards’ Narrative of Surprising Conversions was for the Great Awakening of the 1730’s and 1740’s, the message of renewal evidently did not permeate even Edwards’ own Northampton congregation, which dismissed him less than a decade after the flowering of the revival. Also, Lovelace’s repeated contrast between the spiritual vitality of today’s young people and the enculturated sterility of the older generation is naive.

More seriously, Lovelace exhibits a strange lack of concern for “steady state” Christianity. He focuses so intently upon the manifestations of spiritual renewal in local churches, denominations, and society as a whole—his enthusiasm is so great for the rare moments of dramatic spiritual quickening in Christian history—that he neglects what have been the day-in, day-out realities for most Christians in most eras of the church’s history. Work and family life, for instance, receive little attention here Yet if spiritual renewal is to be a sustaining presence in the church at large, it must certainly go beyond what theologians, preachers, denominational officials, and other professional Christian workers do for a living It must even go beyond what lay people do in devotion, worship, witness, and Christian social involvement. One group of Lovelace’s heroes, the Puritans, recognized the need for Christian renewal to remake relationships in the home and workplace. Yet, except for a few brief comments concerning “theological integration,” Lovelace seems content to leave untouched that artificial division between spiritual and secular worlds which has so bedeviled the church. (“Breadth and Longevity,” Nov. 1980)

Is Noll being unnice to suggest that Lovelace promises more than he delivers? Or that steady state Christianity (what some might call confessional Protestantism) is superior to the emotionally laden and earnest evangelicalism that Edwards promoted and for which the gospel allies are nostalgic? Are the gospel allies guilty of the same flaws as Lovelace? Who will compel them to see their weaknesses if critics don’t do it? If they refuse to listen to meanies like Old Life, how about Mark Noll?

Fewer high fives, more sobriety.

Moderation Coalition

Is it just me, or has a pattern emerged among the leaders of the Gospel Coalition – namely, to regard Reformed Protestants as extreme?

First, Ray Ortlund compared TR’s to the Judaizers in Paul’s Galatia.

The Judaizers in Galatia did not see their distinctive – the rite of circumcision – as problematic. They could claim biblical authority for it in Genesis 17 and the Abrahamic covenant. But their distinctive functioned as an addition to the all-sufficiency of Jesus himself. Today the flash point is not circumcision. It can be Reformed theology. But no matter how well argued our position is biblically, if it functions in our hearts as an addition to Jesus, it ends up as a form of legalistic divisiveness.

Then came Tim Keller who riffed on Martin Lloyd Jones to warn against what Reformed Protestants are known for – arguing about doctrine:

However, whenever Lloyd-Jones takes up the importance of doctrine, he always points out that there is a danger on the other extreme. He speaks of some Christians and says “There is nothing they delight in more than arguing about theology” and they do this in “a party spirit” (p. 24). One of the signs of this group is that they are either dry and theoretical in their preaching, or they can be caustic and angry. They have “lost their tempers, forgetting that by so doing they were denying the very doctrine which they claimed to believe” (p. 24). In short, ministers who go to this extreme destroy the effectiveness of their preaching. What is the cause of this? Lloyd-Jones answers that they have made accurate doctrine an end in itself, instead of a means to honor God and grow in Christ-likeness. “Doctrine must never be considered in and of itself. Scripture must never be divorced from life” (p. 25).

And now John Piper warns against the tendencies of pride among the Reformed.

Reformed people tend to be thoughtful. That is, they come to the Bible and they want to use their minds to make sense of it. The best of them want to make sense of all of the Bible and do not pick and choose saying, “I don’t like that verse. That sounds like an Arminian verse, so we will set it aside.” No! Fix your brain, don’t fix the Bible.

The kind of person that is prone to systematize and fit things together, like me, is wired dangerously to begin to idolize the system. I don’t want to go here too much, because I think the whiplash starts to swing the other direction, and we minimize the system, thinking, and doctrine to the degree that we start to lose a foothold in the Bible. . . .

Hanging on with the danger I am speaking of is pride—a certain species of pride. There are many species of pride, and this is just one of them. You can call it intellectualism. There is also emotionalism, but that isn’t the danger we are talking about right now. Intellectualism is a species of pride, because we begin to prize our abilities to interpret the Bible over the God of the Bible or the Bible itself.

This is a strange tendency with the Gospel Coalition since in the evangelical world, GC draws much more from the Reformed than the Wesleyan side of adherents. The only explanation can be that hanging around with Reformed-leaning types the way that Ortlund, Keller, and Piper do, they apparently do not want to be confused with the mean, proud, or idolatrous type of Reformed Protestant. This explanation gains plausibility when you consider that Lutherans and Dispensationalists are not too shabby when it comes to doctrine and intellectualism. And yet, no one seems to bring these Protestants up, even though the United States has many more Lutherans and Dispensationalists than it does Reformed Protestants. (Compare the enrollment at Dallas Seminary to both Westminsters, or membership in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod to the PCA and the OPC combined!!!)

What is bothersome about this constant refrain of “Reformed meanies” is the failure of Ortlund, Keller, and Piper to acknowledge that the Reformed faith came to these men and their libraries (not to mention their communions in the case of Keller), not through avoiding extremes but by way of contending militantly for the faith. If we didn’t have belligerents like Bullinger, Ursinus, Knox, Erskine, Hodge, or Van Til, we would not have a Reformed faith from which to draw, no matter how moderately we try to do it. And the reverse is also true: when Reformed Protestants are not militant, that faith withers and eventually dies.

In which case, when will the Gospel Coalition folks understand that moderation leads to equivocation?

Mike Horton is More Fun Than Mark Dever (though Mark has his moments)

Justin Taylor made me do it.

He linked to Ray Ortlund’s blog from a couple days ago at the Gospel Coalition – calling it a “classic” in which the he warns TR’s (i.e., Truly Reformed) about the danger of falling into the Judaizer trap. Ortlund writes:

The Judaizers in Galatia did not see their distinctive – the rite of circumcision – as problematic. They could claim biblical authority for it in Genesis 17 and the Abrahamic covenant. But their distinctive functioned as an addition to the all-sufficiency of Jesus himself. Today the flash point is not circumcision. It can be Reformed theology. But no matter how well argued our position is biblically, if it functions in our hearts as an addition to Jesus, it ends up as a form of legalistic divisiveness.

This is truly an amazing assertion by the Nashville pastor. Even though Reformed folks think they are following Paul in their teaching and ministry (let’s not forget the Jerusalem Council or the pastoral epistles which say something about presbyterian polity), they become Judaizers by following Paul and insisting that the church heed everything Christ commanded – from theology to worship and polity. I feel like I am in a Coen Brothers movie where up is down, white is black, and rodents are felines.

Ortlund’s post is standard fare among evangelicals who look for a lowest-common-denominator approach to Christian unity and so regard sticklers for doctrine and practice – like the Reformed – as sticks in the mud and unloving sectarians to boot. (Ortlund fails to remark that Baptists, Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutherans, who insist on the correctness of their distinct teachings and practices, are also would-be Judaizers. Rather than acknowledge that differences exist within the church because different parts of the visible church interpret the Bible differently, Ortlund, like many a pietist before him, disregards actual differences and chalks up resistance to unity as a lack of love – for both Christ and for other Christians. As the Church Lady might say, “isn’t that charitable?”

But the neat trick that Ortlund adds to this standard kvetch about Reformed particularists is a claim about the psychology and sociology of being Reformed. He comments on Gal 4:17 – “They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them” – in the following paraphrase:

“When Christians, whatever the label or badge or shibboleth, start pressuring you to come into line with their distinctive, you know something’s wrong. They want to enhance their own significance by your conformity to them: ‘See? We’re better. We’re superior. People are moving our way. They are becoming like us. We’re the buzz.’”

Ortlund adds, “What is this, but deep emotional emptiness medicating itself by relational manipulation? This is not about Christ. This is about Self.”

Isn’t that charitable, indeed.

Is it so hard to imagine that other people with whom we disagree may actually have good reasons for what they hold, and that they may actually be trying to honor, serve, and love the Lord and his church? Apparently, Ortlund would rather speculate on motives and psychology.

Ortlund concludes with this plea to Reformed Protestants:

My Reformed friend, can you move among other Christian groups and really enjoy them? Do you admire them? Even if you disagree with them in some ways, do you learn from them? What is the emotional tilt of your heart – toward them or away from them? If your Reformed theology has morphed functionally into Galatian sociology, the remedy is not to abandon your Reformed theology. The remedy is to take your Reformed theology to a deeper level. Let it reduce you to Jesus only. Let it humble you. Let this gracious doctrine make you a fun person to be around. The proof that we are Reformed will be all the wonderful Christians we discover around us who are not Reformed. Amazing people. Heroic people. Blood-bought people. People with whom we are eternally one – in Christ alone.

Brother Ray, I have been around the non-Reformed and they are not nearly as much fun as Reformed folks are. As much as I do enjoy Mark Dever’s company (sorry for name-dropping), I refuse to smoke a cigar or drink a Gin & Tonic in his company, not because I find him unworthy of such camaraderie but because I know my smoking or imbibing could get Mark in trouble. Baptists still bulk large in the prohibitionist camp and for that reason the merriment supplied by leisurely conversation over a pipe or a pint (better with both) is off limits to many of the Christian groups that Ortlund wants me to hang out with and have fun.

This may seem like a trivial point but it actually bears much more on the passage to which Ortlund appeals than it might seem at first. Paul’s battle with the Judaizers was over the misapplication of Scripture. In the Judaizers’ hands formerly God-made rules had become man-made norms because the work of Christ introduced freedom from the old covenant norms. In other words, the Judaizers were effectively substituting man-made rules for being Christian than the gospel that Paul was preaching. The Judaizers were denying Christian liberty in the way that contemporary believers do when they conclude that smoking or drinking is sin with (erroneous) appeals to Scripture. Without a proper biblical justification for their prohibitions they wind up enslaving Christians and thus burden the very gospel that Paul was out to protect among the Galatians.

In my own knowledge of church history, it is the Reformed (and other confessional Protestants) who understand much better than the “Jesus only” evangelicals the difference between the word of God and the words of men. And it is this difference that makes Reformed Protestants (with apologies to my friend, Mark Dever) more fun.