Logocentrism is Good

(What does it mean for sacerdotalism?)

. . . this short list will identify some reasons for words’ preeminence throughout time as the highest form of communication:

#1. The ability to communicate through words makes us human.

Any monkey can take a picture with a smartphone. Point and click. But the ability to encapsulate a moment in nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs – only a human can do that. It is the height of linguistic and cognizant evolution to the evolutionist, the sacredness of humanity to the Christian (“In the beginning was the Word”).

#2. Words give expression to the abstract in a way that image cannot.

“To be or not to be – that is the question.” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet)

The moment you can take an Instagram photo that captures this sentence, with all its philosophy, anguish, and transcendence, perhaps you will convince me that an image can properly replace words.

#3. Word gives us the full story: its context, background, beginning and ending.

Humans love story. We always have. It enchants the two-year-old and 70-year-old, binds the angst-ridden teenager and wizened professor. While pictures can capture a beautiful moment in story, they cannot capture narrative in its entirety. Story at its best includes words.

#4. Words connect us to the other.

In story, we lose ourselves to the beauty of another’s story. We explore the memories and thoughts of people long dead. Words open our souls to human thought and feeling beyond our own, in a way that an image cannot. They connect us to human nature and to an entire history.

#5. Words awaken our imagination.

Taking a picture of a waterfall or a sunset is a good thing. Writing a Facebook status about your wonderful evening with friends is good. But read these words:

Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. (Jack Kerouac)

When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun. (Shakespeare)

Precious are the dead that lie there, every stone over them speaks of such burning life in the past, of such passionate faith in their work, their truth, their struggle and their science, that I know I shall fall on the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them; though I’m convinced in my heart that it’s long been nothing but a graveyard. And I shall not weep from despair, but simply because I shall be happy in my tears, I shall steep my soul in emotion. I love the sticky leaves in spring, the blue sky — that’s all it is. It’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s inside, with one’s stomach. (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

And he knew, also, what the old man was thinking as his tears flowed, and he, Rieux, thought it too: that a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart. (Albert Camus)

Reading such words, one cannot help feeling a connection beyond the sensory to timeless truths explored, forgotten, and explored again. Eteraz’s article references Stendhal, who once said writing holds a mirror to the world. Eteraz surmises this “is no longer appropriate (especially as smartphone screens reflect better).”

But perhaps we have merely been entranced looking in one mirror – a fun, but rather pixelated one. And with time, perhaps our imaginations will seek out those inky, mysterious, beautiful word mirrors once again.

Presbyterian Borderlands

Thanks to an our Old Life Tennessee correspondent I came across a recent conversation about evangelicals in the Presbyterian world (including mainline and sideline denominations). First, the post about the state of so-called conservatives in the PCUSA:

I am in the ordination track for the Presbytery of Charlotte. And if that were not enough, I attend a PCUSA seminary, and I work at the seminary. Needless to say, I have an invested interest in the controversies plaguing the Presbyterian Church (USA). It pains me beyond words to see our denomination complete its long trajectory of cultural pandering and shameless accommodation.

A few weeks ago, the session (elders) of our church voted unanimously to be dismissed from the PCUSA. The Sunday after the vote, each elder gave his or her perspective on the decision, resulting in a remarkably diverse enumeration of grievances. I know from talking with the pastoral staff and some of the elders that this was not an easy decision. It was soaked in prayer, especially in the immediate weeks prior to the vote. There was no triumphalism in their statements, yet a confidence that God will continue to be faithful in the journey ahead. The elders were especially intent on making it clear that we are not morally superior to the PCUSA, for we are all equally dependent upon God’s grace. The congregation still needs to vote, but I expect wide support for the elders’ decision. Like most of the recent dismissals, we are planning to enter the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO).

Naturally, I am in the middle of all this as a seminarian. I have told the session that where the church goes, I will go. Thus, I will likely transfer into the ordination process of ECO.


In our area, the most significant dismissal to ECO has been First Presbyterian Church, Greenville (SC), which is about 3,100 members. I know that we are supposed to be pious and not focus on numbers, but it is a significant fact that the average ECO congregation is over 500 members, with FPC-Greenville and FPC-Colorado Springs as the largest. As well, there have been significant departures to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), notably First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, which is nearly 4,000 members. By contrast, the average PCUSA congregation is just shy of 100 members. I know, numbers aren’t everything, we shouldn’t focus on numbers, and so on. I understand the sentiment, but when you are looking at a demographic catastrophe in membership loss, numbers are actually pretty damn important. So, what are some of the denominational numbers?

Then an intervention from a PCA reader:

I am a member and officer in a PCA church, and have studied at Reformed Seminary in Charlotte, fwiw.

I would classify the PCA like this: a denomination that requires its officers to strictly subscribe to the Westminster Standards and largely rejects Neo Orthodoxy and most higher critical Biblical hermeneutics. It is largely aspiring to be an Old School Presbyterian denomination. In terms of practice, it is more New School than the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, though virtually identical to the Associate Reformed Presbyterian (ARP).

While someone like Tim Keller, for instance, may seem more moderate, I disagree that he is more Gordon than Westminster Philly, especially since he studied and has taught at Westminster Philly. He still strictly subscribes to the Westminster Confession, for instance. A Keller / Redeemer model is more of a majority of the PCA these days than older, Southern models. In many ways, what comes out of Redeemer New York is doctrinally more conservative than many, older Southern churches.

I’m confused by what you mean by the PCA being more fundamentalist. Do you mean in a Charles Hodge / Gresham Machen way? Or a cultural fundamentalism?

Honestly, I would say that many AMiA guys would be friendly to the PCA, especially since they have some of their students at Reformed Seminary.

Intinction was really a very minor thing. The big doctrinal discussion in PCA circles these days was over Federal Vision.

I remain very saddened over the mess going on in many PC USA circles, and am glad more congregations are leaving that denomination.

Then a couple of comments about Keller:

Keller is respected, indeed, and several of the guys like his model for ministry. At the same time, I’ve heard more than one complaint about his friendliness toward Francis Collins and other theistic evolutionists and his own progressive Creationism views. This is the huge debate, as you are likely aware, within evangelicalism and certainly on the Charlotte campus of RTS. A number of key faculty members were very hostile to any hint of evolutionary science and rather suspicious of progressive Creationism. The favored model on campus, by far, was/is Young Earth with a handful of Old Earth guys. The other complaint about Keller is his views on women deacons, including certain charges against him for being duplicitous in having women functioning in these roles.

Keller represents the prior generation of Reformed evangelicals, like Meredith Kline and Roger Nicole, who both taught at Gordon (and the latter also at RTS-Orlando). Roger Nicole would never even remotely have a shot today at RTS-Charlotte because of his views on women in ministry, and Kline’s framework hypothesis would be that “slippery slope” that everyone fears. These two issues — science and women in ministry — are by far the dominant ones at RTS and the like-minded young guys who follow Al Mohler, John Piper, and the same round of conference speakers. Federal Vision is still discussed, but with far less passion.

In general, the trend at conservative Reformed seminaries — like WTS and RTS, plus SBTS for the Baptists — has been an increasing shift toward the right (i.e., even further right!). When I tell people that the PCA and RTS is more conservative today than in the 70′s and 80′s, they say, “Oh, yeah, definitely.” I’m a pretty conservative guy, and in most settings I’m the most conservative guy in the room. At RTS, I was by far the most liberal guy!

I do hear you that in some PCA circles there is some fear that that some segments have doubled down, just to prove how conservative they are. And I have experienced it personally, and have seen what amounts to party splits over secondary issues, standing in proxy for major ones. For instance, you’ll see guys at places like a Greenville Seminary embrace a real scholasticism.

I think if you could take a poll among TE’s in the PCA, I still think the majority would be more like a Keller or Frame. I think the “we are conservative to prove a point about it” are loud though and probably seem more representative than what their real numbers might suggest.

I’m personally more a Kline / Framework guy, and I understand the history that in the PCA, a ministerial candidate holding something like Kline’s views were quite acceptable a generation ago – and are getting rejected in certain Presbyteries, and end up going to the EPC.

The take away seems to be that evangelical Presbyterians are caught between confessionalists and liberals — they want to be Reformed but moderately so. Because pietist evangelicals share more affinities with liberals (as in, we’re not going to be pains in the arses about doctrine or worship or polity), they wind up thinking more about size and influence (think neo-Calvinism) than about what their Reformed heritage might tell them (not to mention that old-fashioned idea that the Bible teaches Reformed doctrine, Presbyterian polity, and Reformed worship). Hence the appeal of Tim Keller.

That’s not to say that small is beautiful and that the entire mother load lode of Geneva, Amsterdam, or Edinburgh resides in the RPCNA, OPC, or URC. But the discussions in these small communions are different from the ones among conservatives in larger denominations like the PCA, where apparently size does matter, closer to the border of the mainline denomination. Indeed, it seems to me that TR’s in the PCA would never countenance the OPC or RPCNA because these are pea-sized denominations. Again, the appeal of Tim Keller.

What Hath Jerusalem (monarchy) To Do with Athens (democracy)?

Or, what hath Geneva to do with Colorado Springs?

For Whom Would You Vote? (I appreciate the avoidance of the dangling preposition) is a resource provided by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Here is the justification:

As the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals exists to foster a Reformed awakening, we want to offer a free resource to help voters to think biblically about their responsibility. In his helpful booklet, “For Whom Would You Vote?,” Dr. Roy Blackwood argues that the checkered history of both good and bad Jewish kings teaches us to be discerning of the character (the just-ness or “righteousness”) of those who rule over us.

Aside from the anomaly of likening the voting process to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the naivete of thinking we can ever know our federal candidates’ personal qualities through the haze of sloganeering, advertisements, and photo-ops, is this really an instance of Reformed conviction and reflection? Or is it a case of Calvinistic evangelicals doing what evangelicals do, namely, bring God into the ballot box?

Protestants used to be bothered when Roman Catholics did this, and many American Christians don’t care for Muslim-Americans invoking Allah in public life. So what makes this permissible? What makes it Reformed?

What A Turkey! Part 4: When Christianity Imitates Islam

For this trip I brought along reading that might give me some acquaintance with Turkey and its culture and history. This meant including a novel by the Nobel Prize author, Orhan Pamuk, who has set most of his stories in Turkey or the Ottoman Empire. I also brought along a book about Turkey’s political predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, just to get an overview of that regime. And because I wanted to consider the character of contemporary Islam, and because I have wanted to read the book for some time, I included in my bags Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. I trust any readers of Turkish descent will not take offense that somehow I have equated Turkey with Iran. I brought along Nafisi precisely to see the difference between Turkey, a secular state that is demographically Muslim, and Iran, a republic ruled by Muslims. (In this sense, the U.S. is closer to Turkey than to Iran — a secular state that is demographically Christian.)

While reading these books I can’t help but notice parallels between political Islam and those Reformed Protestants who most emphasize the antithesis – to the point where it goes all the way down to every square inch. Pamuk’s novel, Snow, is all about the tension and sometimes conflict between radical Muslims who hate the West (i.e. Europe) for its its secularity and therefore its rejection of God. The following is an exchange from the novel between a Turkish official and a proponent of political Islam:

. . . because I happen to be a free man who can do as he pleases, I sometimes end up getting on a bus and traveling to the other end of Turkey to track down the perpetrator, wherever he is, and have it out with him face-to-face. So please, sir, answer my question. What’s more important, a decree from Ankara or a decree from God?

– This discussion is going nowhere, son. What hotel are you staying at?

– What, are you thinking of turning me int to the police? Don’t be afraid of me, sir. I don’t belong to any religious organizations. I despise terrorism. I believe in the love of God and the free exchange of ideas. That’s why I never end a free exchange of ideas by hitting anyone, even though I have a quick temper. Al I want is for you to answer this question. So please excuse me, sir, but when you think about the cruel way you treated those poor girls in front of your institute – when you remember that these girls were only obeying the word of God as set out so clearly in the Confederate Tribe and Heavenly Light chapters of the Holy Koran – doesn’t your conscience trouble you at all?

– My son, the Koran also says that thieves should have their hands chopped off, but the state doesn’t do that. Why aren’t you opposing this?

– That’s an excellent answer, sir. Allow me to kiss your hand. But how can you equate the hand of a thief with the honor of our women? According to statistics released by the American Black Muslim professor, Marvin King, the incidence of rape in Islamic countries where women cover themselves is so low as to be nonexistent and harassment is virtually unheard of. This is because a woman who has covered herself is making a statement. Through her choice of clothing, she is saying, Don’t harass me. So please, sir, do you really want to push our covered women to the margins of society by denying them the right to an education? If we continue to worship women who take off their head scarves (and just about everything else too), don’t we run the risk of degrading them as we have seen so many women in Europe degraded in the wake of the sexual revolution? And if we succeed in degrading our women, aren’t we also running the risk of – pardon my language – turning ourselves into pimps?

Of course, radical American Calvinists who detest what the West does to male and female relations and roles, don’t advocate that women wear scarves. But they do insist on female subordination to men, and some also speak favorably of Old Testament penalties being carried over to places like sixteenth-century Geneva. Why I have had exchanges in the blogosphere that resemble this one. A theonomist brings up the death penalty for adultery. I respond by mentioning that the state does not outlaw blasphemy and idolatry, a situation that works well for theonomist’s Roman Catholic or Mormon neighbors. But rather than trying to kiss my hand, this theonomist interprets my response as a form of infidelity, as if I don’t love the Lord.

Thankfully, political Christianity in the United States has imbibed enough of the West and its differentiation between religion and politics not to try to enforce their religious convictions with physical violence or political treason. The worst they do is defame other Christians and excoriate certain public officials — always in the name of God and his law.

As welcome as the pacifism of political Christianity in the United States is, I do wonder if the Calvinists who hate secularism and its cultural consequences ever ponder their resemblances to political Islam. (Not to wind up the neo-Calvinists too much, but have they ever considered how intoleranttheir views of the French Revolution and political liberalism are.) Of course, Islam is not wrong simply because of its political embodiments like those in Iran. It could be that Christians should imitate regimes like Iran with imprisonment and execution of political dissidents and intolerance of deviations from orthodox practices. But since Jesus and his apostles left no traces of the political profile exhibited either by Joshua, David, or Mohammad, it could be that Christians pining for a regime that enforces their faith and practice is actually an alien notion among Christ’s followers. To prove the point, just imagine the Baptist Republic of South Carolina where Presbyterians are forced to dunk their adolescent children and Episcopalian men are required to wear white patent leather shoes.

More than You Bargained For?

If a person living in the United States discovers that he prefers democracy to other forms of political governance, glaces at the major parties and discovers a Democratic Party, and decides that’s the party for him, he may have made a legitimate decision. But wouldn’t he want to find out something about the party’s past and platforms. What happens when he examines the work of Andrew Jackson, or Stephen Douglas, or Woodrow Wilson, or Bill Clinton, and finds that these figures may be Democrat but he hardly approves of their administrations? Does he then rethink his identification with the Democratic Party?

This analogy occurred to me once again when considering the arguments of John Frame against the so-called Escondido Theology. Greenbaggins has started reviewing Frame’s latest book and has come to the first chapter on the law-gospel distinction. He writes in response to one of Frame’s infelicities:

Frame goes on to say, “They are also motivated by a desire to oppose what they regard as theological corruptions of the Reformation doctrine, particularly the views of N.T. Wright, Norman Shepherd, and the movement called Federal Vision.” I would be a whole lot more comfortable with this sentence had Frame struck out the words “what they regard as.” These distancing words would seem to imply that Frame does not regard Wright, Shepherd, and the FV to be corruptions of the Reformation doctrine. Also, I would think a more charitable way of phrasing this motivation would be that the WSC theologians are motivated by a desire to defend the truth (are they really motivated by opposition, or are they motivated by the truth?).

Greenbaggins contends that the law-gospel distinction has a long pedigree in Reformed circles. It is not merely a Lutheran way of interpreting the Bible, even if Reformed Protestants are not of one mind in distinguishing law and gospel.

Frame notes what he thinks are two failures of the WSC theologians: 1. They fail to notice the problems with the law-gospel distinction. 2. They “fail to understand that the law is not only a terrifying set of commands to drive us to Christ, but is also the gentle voice of the Lord, showing his people that the best blessings of this life come from following his will” (p. 2). WSC theologians fail to notice the problems that Frame points out because they are not problems for the law-gospel distinction. Advocates have noted these objections before and answered them. As to the second point, Frame seems to be accusing the WSC theologians of denying the third use of the law. Whether this is an accurate assessment of Frame’s charge here or not, Frame is off the mark. WSC theologians do not deny the third use of the law any more than Lutherans do (there is an entire section in the Augsburg Confession devoted to the third use of the law).

Greenbaggins’ critique of Frame has not prevented his readers from wondering whether something is still suspect about Westminster California. Some continue to think that the law-gospel distinction has no standing in the Reformed creeds. Others seem to think it may be there but the Southern Californians use it in a radical way. So I’m to imagine that using the law-gospel distinction in opposition to Shepherd, Wright, and the Federal Vision is extreme?

Once again, what seems to happen is that Reformed Protestants understand the Reformed tradition to be as old either as the founding of the Free University or the creation of Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia). These folks continue to be surprised that older members of the Reformed tradition, some of those who defined it, spoke about doctrines like jure divino presbyterianism, or exclusive psalmody, or the priority of justification, or the law-gospel distinction. I too was surprised to learn these doctrines back when my exposure to the Reformed faith came mainly from the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology and Francis Schaeffer. But, you know, I soon discovered that the Reformed faith preceded Princeton Seminary and Jonathan Edwards and went all the way back to the sixteenth century where Protestants talked about law-gospel distinctions. Unlike the democrat who did not like what he found among the Democratic Party, I had no problem trying to take instruction from Reformed Protestants older than Abraham Kuyper and Cornelius Van Til (both of whom Frame claims to follow).

Speaking of following Kuyper and Van Til, these Dutch Protestants were members of a church that confessed the Heidelberg Catechism. And lo and behold, the Heidelberg Catechism makes a distinction between law and gospel.

Question 3. Whence knowest thou thy misery?
Answer: Out of the law of God.

Question 4. What does the law of God require of us?
Answer: Christ teaches us that briefly, Matt. 22:37-40, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and the great commandment; and the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Question 18. Who then is that Mediator, who is in one person both very God, and a real righteous man?
Answer: Our Lord Jesus Christ: “who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.”

Question 19. Whence knowest thou this?
Answer: From the holy gospel, which God himself first revealed in Paradise; and afterwards published by the patriarchs and prophets, and represented by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and lastly, has fulfilled it by his only begotten Son.

Some may wonder if this really is a law-gospel distinction (by the way, you can see a similar distinction between Q. 39 in the Shorter Catechism — “The duty which God requireth of man is obedience to his revealed will” and Q. 85 “To escape the wrath and curse of sin, God requires of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, and the diligent use of the outward means whereby he communicates the benefits of redemption.” The section on the law is distinct from the means of grace.). But if you go to Zacharias Ursinus’ commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, it sure looks like he thinks Heidelberg rests upon this basic distinction:

The gospel and the law agree in this, that they are both from God, and that there is something revealed in each concerning the nature, will, and works of God. There is, however, a very great difference between them:

1. In the revelations which they contain; or, as it respects the manner in which the revelation peculiar to each is made known. The law was engraven upon the heart of man in his creation, and is therefore known to all naturally, although no other revelation were given. “The Gentiles have the work of the law written in their hearts.” (Rom. 2: 15.) The gospel is not known naturally, but is divinely revealed to the Church alone through Christ, the Mediator. For no creature could have seen or hoped for that mitigation of the law concerning satisfaction for our sins through another, if the Son of God had not revealed it. “No man knoweth the Father, but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him.” “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee.” “The Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” (Matt. 11: 27; 16: 17.)

2. In the kind of doctrine, or subject peculiar to each. The law teaches us what we ought to be, and what God requires of us, but it does not give us the ability to perform it, nor does it point out the way by which we may avoid what is forbidden. But the gospel teaches us in what manner we may be made such as the law requires: for it offers unto us the promise of grace, by having the righteousness of Christ imputed to us through faith, and that in such a way as if it were properly ours, teaching us that we are just before God, through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The law says, “Pay what thou owest.” “Do this, and live.” (Matt. 18: 28. Luke 10: 28.) The gospel says, “Only believe.” (Mark 5: 36.)

3. A the promises. The law promises life to those who are righteous in themselves, or on the condition of righteousness, and perfect obedience. “He that doeth them, shall live in them.” “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Lev. 18: 5. Matt. 19: 17.) The gospel, on the other hand, promises life to those who are justified by faith in Christ, or on the condition of the righteousness of Christ, applied unto us by faith. The law and gospel are, however, not opposed to each other in these respects: for although the law requires us to keep the commandments if we would enter into life, yet it does not exclude us from life if another perform these things for us. It does indeed propose a way of satisfaction, 105which is through ourselves, but it does not forbid the other, as has been shown.

4. They differ in their effects. The law, without the gospel, is the letter which killeth, and is the ministration of death: “For by the law is the knowledge of sin.” “The law worketh wrath; and the letter killeth.” (Rom. 3: 20; 4: 15. 2 Cor. 3: 6.) The outward preaching, and simple knowledge of what ought to be done, is known through the letter: for it declares our duty, and that righteousness which God requires; and, whilst it neither gives us the ability to perform it, nor points out the way through which it may be attained, it finds fault with, and condemns our righteousness. But the gospel is the ministration of life, and of the Spirit, that is, it has the operations of the Spirit united with it, and quickens those that are dead in sin, because it is through the gospel that the Holy Spirit works faith and life in the elect. “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation,” etc. (Rom. 1: 16.)

Objection: There is no precept, or commandment belonging to the gospel, but to the law. The preaching of repentance is a precept. Therefore the preaching of repentance does not belong to the gospel. but to the law. Answer: We deny the major, if it is taken generally; for this precept is peculiar to the gospel, which commands us to believe, to embrace the benefits of Christ, and to commence new obedience, or that righteousness which the law requires. If it be objected that the law also commands us to believe in God, we reply that it does this only in general, by requiring us to give credit to all the divine promises, precepts and denunciations, and that with a threatening of punishment, unless we do it. But the gospel commands us expressly and particularly to embrace, by faith, the promise of grace; and also exhorts us by the Holy Spirit, and by the Word, to walk worthy of our heavenly calling. This however it does only in general, not specifying any duty in particular, saying thou shalt do this, or that, but it leaves this to the law; as, on the contrary, it does not say in general, believe all the promises of God, leaving this to the law; but it says in particular, Believe this promise; fly to Christ, and thy sins shall be forgiven thee.

Now since several of Westminster California’s faculty are ministers in a communion that confesses Heidelberg, should it really be that surprising they follow Van Til and Kuyper all the way back to Ursinus and affirm a distinction that the historically challenged consider to be sub-Reformed? Or might it be more plausible to recognize that since members of Westminster California’s faculty work within the Continental Reformed tradition, their appeal to the law-gospel distinction entirely compatible with earlier generations of Reformed Protestants?

This doesn’t settle, of course, whether the law-gospel distinction is correct. But given Frame’s endorsement of a pro-Shepherd account of the Shepherd controversy, I am reserving the right to question what he believes to be at stake in contemporary debates over justification, not to mention other matters of Reformed Protestant conviction.

I Didn't Know Brian McLaren was Asian-American

Preoccupation with Jeremy Lin continues among evangelicals and it has produced an effort to distinguish Asian-American evangelicalism from white evangelicalism. The result, in the case of Carl Park’s piece, is an attempt to avoid the constraints of one kind of particularity (the white kind) by appealing to the experience of another kind of particularity (Asian-American). (Why folks can’t recognize that Asian-American is as much a construction devoid of particularity as “white” I do not know. After all, Park is a name associated with Koreans and Lin is of Thai Taiwanese descent and Asian hardly does justice to differences among all the ethnic groups produced by Asia. China and Taiwan are vying for Lin, which raises an entirely different problem for the concept of Asian-American.)

Asian American evangelicals also have a different history than white evangelicals. We have, by and large, never been a part of the Religious Right. We never marched after Roe v. Wade, and we didn’t know who Pat Robertson was. We knew James Dobson from Focus on the Family tapes, but we did not know his politics.

We weren’t a part of the fundamentalist-liberal divide from the early 20th century. So we, as gospel-pondering Christians, might attend a debate about whether or not social justice is an essential part of the church’s mission, but we’re sort of perplexed by the question. In our history, immigrant churches preached the gospel and took care of the everyday needs of the immigrant community—explaining the water and electric bills, providing loans to one another, helping each other’s children get into college—without any bifurcation or angst.

Our Presbyterians spoke in tongues, our mainline pastors preached the exclusivity of Jesus. We wondered how any Christian could have qualms about something called “liberation theology,” until we read Cone and Guttiérez, and we were shocked to learn that some “Christian” seminaries do not confess the Nicene Creed. Our piety and worship tend to feel trans-denominational. Today, Asian American evangelicals in New York who don’t join a predominantly Asian American church are happy to be a (large) part of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, but we are also happy to be with Times Square Church. Both churches’ spiritualities feel familiar.

We aren’t quite Emergents or New Calvinists, because we’re not emerging from a white 80s-and-90s megachurchish spirituality that those groups take to task. We can identify with some aspects of those groups—we are urban and charismatic-friendly, and we were the Other long before it was cool to be—but much of the rhetoric does not connect. We have had more than our share of problems, but a mechanistic or programmatic model of church has not been one of them, and our parents’ churches sang plenty of hymns.

If Park’s point is that evangelicalism a religious identity that obliterates ethnic differences and the history of distinct peoples, well, he has a point. And that point applies in spades to distinct Protestant communions (which happened to fall along ethnic [read: national] lines). Evangelicalism can’t do justice any more to Thai-American Protestants than it can to Reformed Protestants.

But what is curious about Park’s piece is how he is willing to affirm the particularity of ethnicity but not grant a similar import to the specificity of fundamentalism, neo-evangelicalism, or the Religious Right. It is a denial similar to the one that emergents make of evangelicalism; you reject the political provincialism of Falwell for the social justice cosmopolitanism of Campolo. But how that works for affirming ethnic identity is a question that needs more attention. (BTW, interesting to see how this cosmopolitan, yet ethnic, faith is comfortable at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City where Presbyterian particularity is often in short supply compared to identities supplied by modern urban demographics.)

Where's Waldo Wednesday: No Cherry Picking (or Flipping)

Now that I’ve finished all six seasons of the “Larry Sanders Show,” which still comes highly recommended as arguably the funniest and most poignant treatments of celebrity in Hollywood, I am free to flip channels. (Those who haven’t seen the show need to understand that after his monologue, before going to commercial, Larry would say “no flipping.)

But we still need someone like Larry to tell us Reformed debaters to stop cherry picking. In basketball, a cherry picker is someone who lingers at one of the court — the offensive one (not in the sense of being objectionable for UK readers) — and never goes to the other end to play defense.

A similar tendency exists in debates over union. Lots of pro-unionists cite Calvin on union. They hang out at the end of the court where Book III begins. Not so many of these cherry pickers lurk at that end where Calvin talks about the sacramental significance of union. But as for doing the hard work of looking beyond Calvin to other theologians who were Reformed churchmen, some would rather not do the laborious work of running from one end of the court to the other.

Calvin’s support in turn becomes a warrant for declaring that other people who claim to be Reformed are not — hence assertions about Lutheranism, semi-Pelagianism, and the like. Not only has the argument cherry picked from Calvin, but also from the history of Reformed Protestantism. For the claim that someone is Reformed, Lutheran, Arminian, Baptist is not a biblical assertion but a historical judgment. The Bible may reveal what it means to be Reformed. But Reformed Protestantism emerged and developed not by finding a creed, polity, and liturgy written down in Scripture but by Reformed officers trying to figure out what the Bible teaches and applying that teaching in a host of circumstances from 1522 to the present.

All of this is to say that the way forward in the debates about union — a question that emerged at the end of Mike Horton’s interview at Reformed Forum — is to let the historians decide. Of course, this sounds self-serving (which it isn’t because I am not a historical theologian). It is actually a realistic assessment of the most contested claims made by all parties in the discussions of union. Everyone wants to be biblical and execute the best exegesis. But interpreting the Bible is not the way you understand or define Christian past. To know the Reformed tradition, you need to study the past. That way you can see which theologians held what views, which churches professed what creeds, which synods or assemblies excluded what teachings as erroneous.

Historical investigation will never satisfy the bibilicist (just ask John Frame). But it will teach everyone to be more careful about the use of words like Reformed.

The alternative is to abandon words like Reformed, Lutheran, Pelagian, and Baptist altogether. “Hmmmmmmm, no denominations.” Imagine a world separate communions. I think John Lennon (and Frame) would go for that.

Old Life Yeast

As I mentioned, the current issue of Ordained Servant features the talks that John Muether and I gave at the pre-General Assembly conference that was part of the 75th anniversary festivities for the OPC. Here’s an excerpt from my presentation, “Is the OPC the Church that Calvinists Have Been Waiting For?”:

This all too brief tour of the first seventy-five years of other Reformed communions is a good reminder of the dangers that lurk in church history. If Machen thought the history of western Europe circa 1933 was depressing, one reason was his own struggles in the ecclesiastical part of the West’s history. The OPC’s own history is further evidence of the difficulties that Reformed churches have experienced since the Reformation. The question is whether these difficulties are part and parcel of Reformed history or an aberration. If part of being the church militant means always experiencing contention, disloyalty, and departure, then the OPC’s own struggles are no worse than those that Reformed Protestants have experienced before.

Still, making the case that the OPC is a worthy successor to Reformed history requires being clear about the nature of Calvinism and the Reformation’s significance. For the better part of two hundred years the Corinthian temptation has been to regard Reformed Protestantism’s importance in cultural and political terms. This was a perspective held not only by Reformed believers. Think of Max Weber and his theory about Calvinism and capitalism, or of Alexis de Tocqueville and Calvinism’s contribution to democracy, or of Robert Merton on Calvinism and the rise of modern science. These older arguments do not have the force they once did, but even a couple of years ago at the academic conference in Geneva that marked the five hundredth anniversary of Calvin’s birth, most of the scholarly presentations explored not the sorts of ecclesiastical reforms that characterized Reformed Protestantism but the way that Calvinism shaped the modern world. Such assessments have prompted Reformed believers to think of Calvinism less as a churchly movement than as a religiously-based source for social transformation. Of course, the rise of neo-Calvinism and the inspiring words of Abraham Kuyper have contributed mightily to this estimate of Reformed Protestantism.

But even before Kuyper, the temptation to regard Reformed Protestantism for its political and cultural significance was constant for Presbyterians. How could it not be since the rise of Reformed Protestantism was bound up with European politics. Indeed, the division of Western Christianity that split the Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican communions from the Roman Catholic Church was also part of the confessionalization of western Europe. After 1600 individual nations could be identified by the kind of church and confession they sponsored. This process helped to secure the creation of the nation-state, a form of government that greatly centralized the economic, legal, educational, administrative, and even linguistic features of territories that had previously been decentralized and diverse. However we estimate the size, scope, and power of the modern nation-state, the reality is that Reformed Protestantism was on the ground floor of the construction of modern Europe and its colonial proliferation, a period that ran from 1600 at least to World War II. No wonder, then, that conservative Reformed believers pine for the days when their faith mattered to the mission of a particular nation. Scottish Presbyterians still long for the days of the National Covenant. Abraham Kuyper endeared himself to Reformed believers by evoking a golden age of Dutch history. Meanwhile, American Presbyterians have their own version of this nostalgia and attempt to construct a Christian founding of the United States even though the very point of the new nation was to bring an end to the pattern of confessionalization that had torn apart Europe (and especially England) during the seventeenth century.

Yet, the question remains whether Reformed Protestants were hoping to remake Europe or reform the church. Thanks to a host of Holy Roman Emperors, from Constantine and Charlemagne to Charles V, thinking about Europe apart from the church was impossible. Even so, the reforms that the original Protestants initiated were overwhelmingly ecclesial and bore directly on doctrine, liturgy, and church polity. Only because the church was part of the established political order did church reform translate into broader social and political developments. The Reformation was first and foremost a religious effort and only secondarily did it affect politics and culture.

If Reformed Protestantism was chiefly an instance of ecclesiastical reform and renewal, then against that measure the OPC may be a worthy heir to the mantle of Reformed Protestantism, even meriting a celebratory toast. To be sure, the history of the OPC is strewn with believers who still want the church to be more than the church, to be at the forefront of maintaining and promoting social righteousness. But just as important to the OPC’s history has been a growing contentment with the church as simply the church. The word “simply,” of course, understates this sense because the church’s mission is hardly simple or ordinary. But to recognize that the church has a responsibility that no other institution does, and that God has instituted the church uniquely for his redemptive purposes, is the start of a broader sense of restraint and resolve that the OPC, while lacking many of the attributes and features that impress the Corinthian minded, is doing a good and important work no matter how quiet or routine.

If You Can't Stand the Polemic, Get Out of the Calvinist Kitchen

An arresting little wrinkle in the current popularity of Calvinism among those who don’t baptize their infants and sometimes speak in tongues (and don’t belong to a Reformed church — redundant, I know), is the notion that Calvinists are mean. Justin Taylor is apparently on vacation and has bloggers filling in for him. Jared Wilson’s number came up on Wednesday and he tried to explain the stereotype of the “graceless Calvinist” (would Mr. Wilson actually refer to Americans of Polish descent in such a stereotypical manner?). Such exhibitions of pride are exceedingly disappointing to Wilson:

. . .gracelessness is never as big a disappointment, to me anyway, as when it’s found among those who call themselves Calvinists, because it’s such a big waste of Calvinism. Why? Because it’s a depressing irony and a disgrace that many who hold to the so-called “doctrines of grace” are some of the most graceless people around. The extent to which your soteriology is monergistic—most Calvinistic nerds know what I’m talking about here—is the extent to which you ought to know that your pride is a vomitous affront to God.

What is odd about this comment is that Wilson seems to show a similar gracelessness in calling out Calvinists. (Hasn’t every husband figured out a euphemism for observing a weight gain in his wife?) Wilson knows that gracelessness is wrong and so apparently doesn’t need to be gracious in pointing it out. He does not seem to consider that some Calvinist polemics may stem from a sense of error as deeply felt as Wilson’s. If Wilson knows that gracelessness is obviously wrong, maybe Calvinists also know that Arminianism is profoundly wrong. In which case, Wilson attributes Calvinist gracelessness almost entirely to character, not the most flattering or gracious interpretations of Reformed orneriness.

Also odd is Wilson’s perseverance in identifying with Calvinism, since the man to whom that moniker points was no slouch when it came to invective. For instance, here’s an excerpt from Calvin on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments:

. . . although the passages which we have collected from the Law and the Prophets for the purpose of proof, make it plain that there never was any other rule of piety and religion among the people of God; yet as many things are written on the subject of the difference between the Old and New Testaments in a manner which may perplex ordinary readers, it will be proper here to devote a special place to the better and more exact discussion of this subject. This discussion, which would have been most useful at any rate, has been rendered necessary by that monstrous miscreant, Servetus, and some madmen of the sect of the Anabaptists, who think of the people of Israel just as they would do of some herd of swine, absurdly imagining that the Lord gorged them with temporal blessings here, and gave them no hope of a blessed immortality. Let us guard pious minds against this pestilential error, while we at the same time remove all the difficulties which are wont to start up when mention is made of the difference between the Old and the New Testaments. By the way also, let us consider what resemblance and what difference there is between the covenant which the Lord made with the Israelites before the advent of Christ, and that which he has made with us now that Christ is manifested. (Institutes II.10.1)

Hide the Anabaptists and their unbaptized children.

Of course, we could chalk this type of polemic up to the parlance of Calvin’s time, when such vituperation was common in the academy and the church. But if that’s the case, why does Wilson not give modern-day Calvinists a similar benefit of the doubt? He concedes that other groups of believers exhibit gracelessness. And if he watches CNN or Fox News, he may also become familiar with invective in the culture at large, all of which might suggest that Calvinists don’t have a corner on meanness.

Or maybe if the young Calvinists actually read Calvin, they would come to understand that some doctrines and practices really are worthy of polemics, and some faulty ideas and forms of devotion really are harmful.

Either way, it is clearly odd to identify with Calvin who was capable of getting agitated and then object to Calvinists when they become animated. Calvinism would appear to be the wrong label. Again, why not Particular Baptist?

I could take some comfort from Wilson’s explanation of Calvinistic gracelessness:

. . . the problem is not the Reformed theology, as many of my Arminian friends will charge; it’s not the Calvinism. No, the problem is gospel wakefulness (which crosses theological systems and traditions), or the lack thereof. A joyless Calvinist knows the mechanics of salvation (probably). But he is like a guy who knows the ins and outs of a car engine and how the car runs. He can take it apart and put it back together. He knows what each part does and how it does it. A graceless Calvinist is like a guy who knows how a car works but has never driven through the countryside in the warm spring air with the top down and the wind blowing through his hair.

This is a curious analogy since it suggests that nice Calvinists conceive of the Christian life as a joy ride. This is not exactly the way that Calvin thought of our life in this world, which he likened to being on look out at a sentry post. But jarring analogies aside, what happens to the guy with the wind-blown hair when the universal joint goes on his Thunderbird? Or a little less dramatic, does the fellow who likes to take the car out for rides through the country need to worry about filling up the tank (or even about the environmental consequences of fossil fuel)? Maybe Wilson’s analogy is entirely apt. The young and restless ones don’t want to be bothered with fixing cars or refilling the tank, and as stereotypical youngsters they regard parents who say that teens should attend to these things are mean. That difference might go along way to explaining the difference between a gospel coalition and a Reformed communion.

Young, Restless and Lutheran?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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