See What Keller Did Now?

Tim Keller has made the history of Presbyterianism obsolete. Look at the way Jake Meador describes the challenges facing young pastors in the PCA:

… young Presbyterian pastors, many of whom are on university campuses with RUF or working in gentrifying urban neighborhoods, face enormous class-based pressure to conform to certain progressive cultural norms. These pressures make themselves felt in a variety of ways.

First, there is a strong and classic American pull toward being dismissive of the past, toward what is established, and to embrace what is new. This temptation exerts an even stronger pull than normal on many young PCA pastors because many younger pastors and RUF guys have strong entrepreneurial tendencies. While this is often a very good thing—indeed, it’s what makes it possible for them to succeed as church planters and RUF pastors—this same trait can make them naturally inclined to be dismissive toward established norms, policies, and beliefs, especially when they are surrounded by other young people with the same entrepreneurial sensibilities. It is probably not a coincidence, in other words, that the most famous “Kellerite” to go progressive is pastoring in San Francisco, the capital of Silicon Valley.

In addition to the disregard for things that are older, established, etc. there is also strong cultural pressure to embrace a kind of bourgeois bohemian lifestyle—buy a cute house in the gentrifying neighborhood, embrace the careerism, food and exercise regimen, lifestyle trends, and broadly progressive ethos of your neighbors. You can even say you’re just being outreach-focused as you do it. While none of these things are bad in isolation, taken together they’re all steps that involve embracing the norms of a younger bobo sub-culture. And if you’re embracing those norms out of a desire to be liked rather than a pure desire to make the Gospel sensible, it will be disastrous.

But, of course, it is all very complicated: Essentially, these are young pastors being handed different cultural scripts and asked to choose which ones to follow. But these clashing scripts cannot be simplistically labeled “good” and “bad” such that we can tell young pastors to follow the “good” script and avoid the “bad.” It is more complicated than that.

This is similar to the point that Ron Belgau made in his response to Rod Dreher earlier this week: It’s not that we have a legacy PCA script that is unambiguously good that we need to cling to. That script has problems—it’s awful on race issues, for starters. So figuring out the cultural scripts question in the PCA is challenging: The young white bobo script you’re pushed toward culturally and according to class is bad, but then you don’t necessarily have a good alternative script, particularly if you’re trying to plant a church or RUF in a more hostile environment. There simply aren’t good evangelical templates for how to do that because we have for the most part been really bad at it.

In such a situation, the draw toward Keller and the ham-handed attempts to mimic him are quite understandable. What other models do these pastors have? Driscollism? Straight-up progressive Episcopalianism?

Certainly, you can argue that there actually are other models out there—Calvin basically turned Geneva into a booming intellectual hub. Someone like Richard Sibbes was a very successful preacher in Cambridge at the university in the 17th century. Richard Baxter could be helpful in that we know more about his routines as a pastor than any other minister of his era. Bucer and his colleagues in Strasbourg did good and faithful work in a major intellectual, cultural, and scholastic hub. But these examples are all either from radically different cultural contexts, much more obscure, or both.

It isn’t unreasonable that these pastors would look to Keller and, being young and failing to understand their context, fail to mimic him well. But that isn’t Keller’s fault and it isn’t entirely the young pastor’s fault either. It’s a predictable outcome given all the factors I have mentioned already.

Whatever happened to vanilla Presbyterianism? A pastor ministers the word, administers the sacraments, catechizes the youth, shepherds the flock, and goes to presbytery. What does all this worry about culture have to do with it? Meador doesn’t think Keller is responsible for leading the PCA down a misguided path of Kellerism. That is mostly true. What happened it seems to meeeeEEEE, is that Keller fulfilled the aspirations of some PCA leaders who wanted to “engage” the culture — marriage is still up for grabs.

What is happening in the PCA is what always happens to denominations that Americanize and try to adapt to the culture. The Presbyterian version of this is not whether to be Baptist or Episcopalian — though why don’t the boho’s seem to notice that Keller’s urban ways draw him to Baptists at TGC and other urban pastors like John Piper and Mark Dever? The Presbyterian version of assimilation is New School and New Life. In the 19th century, those who wanted to Christianize the culture were the New Schoolers (Lyman Beecher and Charles Finney), and their opponents were Old School Presbyterians who tried to maintain creedal theology and presbyterian governance. In the twentieth century (let’s leave aside the modernists for now), the assimilationists were New Lifers (in the OPC mind you) who wanted Orthodox Presbyterians to join with the wider evangelical world and also reach the young people with long hair. In case no one noticed, Tim Keller’s origins are in the New Life wing of the OPC, with Harvie Conn supplying a theology of the city, and Jack Miller providing a relaxed Presbyterianism that could adjust to the culture (Miller’s tastes ran less to ballet and more to Jesus people. Keller went to New Life Glenside while he taught at WTS, if I am not mistaken.) Not to mention that the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (which goes back to the Bible Presbyterians) side of the PCA that gave it Covenant College and Covenant Seminary, is not the same slice southern Presbyterianism that produced Reformed Seminary and the original PCA.

In other words, the history is thick behind Keller and simply looking at the PCA from the perspective of Baptists and Episcopalians doesn’t take you very far into the weeds.

Yet, when you apply the categories of Baptist and Episcopalian, you wind up rendering Old School (or vanilla) Presbyterianism as a couple clicks away from strange:

During times when progressivism is ascendant, as it certainly is in our day, there is a natural temptation amongst conservatives to want to double down on their most strident rhetoric, add purity tests to protect their institutions, and to begin attacking people not only for holding wrong ideas, but for holding ideas which they suspect could lead to wrong ideas (even if they won’t inevitably lead to them).

Is this a plea for Erdmanesque tranquility so that the boat won’t rock? Ministry unites, doctrine divides?

Whether Keller is responsible or no, he has not helped to prepare the PCA for the predicament that Meador thinks the denomination faces:

You’re in this weird denomination that aspires to being the church that can reach secular bobo-types in upwardly mobile neighborhoods but that also aspires to be faithful to theological orthodoxy and even to be theologically evangelical, all the way down to not ordaining women. That is an awkward position to be in from the beginning.

If Keller had left the impression that working through presbyterian channels was not weird but normal, and had achieved his fame not as a pastor with one foot in presbyterianism and another in networked Protestantism but as a regular Presbyterian minister, he might have communicated an important lesson to young pastors, namely, that it’s okay to be simply a pastor. But that is not what he did. And his fellow Presbyterian Church in Americans are sorting out what the Age of Keller means.

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Dissecting Signers (cont.)

I wonder why John Fea and other signers of the “Open Letter” about racism and Confederate Monuments did not feel the pinch of Matthew Lee Anderson’s criticism of the Nashville Statement. Anderson wrote again:

While forming God’s people is a thoroughly laudable aim, I wonder: why then the website, the press release, and the signatories? The means of communication are not neutral, after all. They deliberately invite attention not just from evangelicals, but the world. If the form of such statements is part of catechesis, then why were Bible verses left off? And why were reasons for each of the affirmations and denials not given, or definitions of terms not supplied? Such additions would dramatically expand the statement’s length. But what does that matter, if the purpose is catechism and not the culture war?

And why is there not more attention to the pastoral dynamics of how these affirmations and denials are to be worked out in the context of local communities? For a statement signed by a heavy concentration of Baptists, its form and substance have little to do with congregational life. It is a “statement” by an evangelicalism that has left ecclesial communities behind in favor of trans-denominational, parachurch partnerships.

That could equally be said of the Christian scholars who signed the letter opposing Neo-Nazis. What about the means of communication? Where are the biblical citations? Why isn’t the “Open Letter” taking a side in the culture wars? One answer could be that the sins are so obvious. So why isn’t it possible to see the self-evident character of the sins enumerated in the Nashville Statement? Only some evangelical scholars are allowed to pontificate, only the smart ones?

When Fea writes that Anderson is observing what evangelical historians are seeing — “Anderson and Gerhz seem to be in agreement that the Nashville Statement reflects what we (and now many others) have been calling ‘The Age of Trump'” — that avoids partisanship?

You could even argue that Anderson’s diagnosis of the subtext and optics of the Nashville Statement apply across the board, even to celebrity Christian intellectuals, like Rod Dreher who is excited about the release of the French translation of Benedict Option. If the means of communication and the publicity machines are not neutral, if they capitulate to the economic structures, inequalities of late modernity, and the desires of consumers, then why not apply that to individuals as much as statements?

But when it comes to Tim Keller, nothing to see (not even the publicity machine, fundraising, digital networks, and fame trafficking that has attended the New York City star):

it isn’t fair to assign blame to a teacher when students do not live up to his standard, particularly in a case like this one where the “teacher” had virtually no personal contact with most of the students and has instead simply attracted a crowd of admirers via publications.

Indeed, if anything I think we should commend Keller for his stewarding of his position at Redeemer. They were very selective in what sermons they made freely available online, he waited a long time to start writing books, and he has put a far greater emphasis on church planting in NYC rather than simply growing his brand as a celebrity pastor. Given what has happened to Mark Driscoll and now Darrin Patrick, we should be profoundly grateful for men like Keller (and John Piper) who manage to be in the spotlight for so long and to do so with relatively little scandal.

I thought Anderson said that publications, lack of personal contact, and crowds of followers were not “neutral.”

The lesson is that the means of production behind the Nashville Statement are flawed. But the means of production behind Keller — well, he arrived ex nihilo.

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.

Odd What Big Cities Do To Church Life

Is Tim Keller getting cold feet about “the city”? He bears his apparent burden to the other coolest guy in the Reformedish room, Jamie Smith:

JS: As a pastor, and now increasingly a theological educator, where do you most see a need for renewal and intentionality? If you could heal churches, what would you heal in them? What do you wish was stronger, deeper, healthier, more functional in local congregations?

TK: One challenge is pastoral care, primarily because of transience. There is an indication—though it’s hard to prove—that, say, thirty years ago, the average member probably came to church four out of five weeks or five out of six weeks. Now it’s like one out of two. People are travelling more; their attention is divided. Also costs are such that it’s very expensive to have a full-time staff. Frankly, it’s seductive to have a larger church with fewer pastors where people are basically consumers. They’re not really being watched or cared for. There’s pastoral triage, which means that when your life’s falling apart the good churches will be there. They’ll be at the hospital, they’ll be at the funeral parlour, they’ll be in the counselling office. They can do triage. But when it comes to the ordinary kind of positive, proactive pastoral care and intervention where you are actually examining people, only in a nice way—How are you doing? Where are you going? How much do you know about the Christianity? Where could you grow?—that’s just not happening at all.

Keller also seems to pine for a small church. But elders? Not so much:

JS: How much is that the weakening of the priesthood of all believers, do you think? Your point makes me think of a line from Klaas Schilder, a minor twentieth-century Dutch theologian who said something like, “Don’t underestimate the significance of the wise ward elder. He is a cultural force.” By attending to families, doing household visits, the elder is a culture-shaping force because he or she is forming people. I wonder how much what’s missing is not just a lack of pastoral staff but a failure to equip lay elders to do this care.

Several years ago, I was at Whitworth University, and they do a summer program for pastoral professional development—the Whitworth Institute of Ministry. But then alongside it, they do this elder leadership initiative where pastors bring some elders with them and they dive into theology and pastoral resources. I just thought, as go elders, so go the church. What are you seeing in terms of people’s capacity to be elders?

TK: I do think there’s a breakdown. In fact, I get where you’re going and I absolutely agree. The right thing to do is to have a layer of lay leaders; maybe there is an elite group that you can call your elders, but by and large you probably have more like 10 or 15 percent of your people who are mature enough and willing enough and maybe even have the time to be regularly trained by the pastors to do every-member ministry, every-member pastoral care—including evangelism, by the way. Those are the people who bring their friends to church and reach out. But there are also people who are out there just caring for people and then letting you know. They’re your radar system; they let the pastors know.

In a small church where you have maybe eighty people coming to church, then you need about eight or ten of those folks, and you should be meeting with them at least every month. So you’re catechizing them and you’re reading great books together and that makes them feel two things: (1) It makes them feel confident to pry a little bit into people’s lives and have conversations, otherwise they’d be afraid. Most of these folks are afraid to be asked a question they can’t answer. That’s the reason they don’t reach out both in evangelism and in instructing and caring.

So you have to give them (1); but then (2) they have to know that they can get right back to you. If I’m talking to somebody and they ask me a question I can’t answer, I need to be able to get right to you and know that you will get right back to me. So if you have eighty people in your church and you’re a full-time pastor and you have, say, eight or nine people like that and maybe two or three elders as part of that group—you’re going to be fine. Nobody’s going to fall through the cracks, people will lead probably proactively, the minister will visit people and see them, and they’ll also be getting other touches from the church, not just the minister.

So the priesthood of all believers is absolutely crucial. You know, by the way, in Geneva, what Calvin did—at least I’m pretty sure; you know the experts are going to tell me I’m wrong, but I’m almost sure I remember [laughter]. In Geneva the elders were responsible for wards, and when it looked like there was somebody that needed pastoral exhortation, they were brought before the consistory, which met every Thursday, and it was Calvin and the elders. Evidently, like ninety-five times out of one hundred, there was no real discipline. There was exhortation. So people were exhorted to come to church or to love their wife better and so on.

In a small church? If you have 80 people in your church? What is Keller talking about? Why not include observations about Redeemer?

The optics!

The reticence!

Keller and Princeton – Another Perspective

Protoprotestant is a fellow who — I think — once commented here and had some brush with the NAPARC world. He blogs at The Pilgrim Underground and The Pilgrim Path/Proto-Protestantism. I’m not sure I can locate his outlook, but he is usually worth reading. Certainly not predictable.

Recently he commented on the dance performance at Redeemer NYC in ways agreeable to many confessional Presbyterians. But before going there, ProtoProtestant’s memories of and reflections on Princeton Seminary are useful for situating his Presbyterian convictions. After a recent visit to Princeton he reflected on his own spiritual pilgrimage over a twenty-year period after his first visit to the seminary town:

Standing in front of Charles Hodge’s house I couldn’t help but think of his approach to Systematic Theology and his struggles to combat Darwinism. While the latter was indeed admirable and right, his unwitting embrace of Enlightenment categories had all but fettered his own hands. I see him as a tragic figure, trying to hold something together and yet incapable, not even fully understanding what is happening.

When I think of his son AA Hodge I cannot help but recall the rationalist nature of his theology and the great lack of wisdom and insight with regard to society and Christianity. An advocate of what I would identify as imperialist missionary work and the kind of Sacralist doctrine at odds with the New Testament, AA Hodge is a breath of fresh air to Dominionists and the Theonomists who still haunt the halls of American Presbyterianism. At one time his name was hallowed to me. Today, even though a volume or two of his writings remain on my shelf, he is not one that I would esteem.

Of course BB Warfield was the ‘Lion of Princeton’, the great defender of Calvinistic Orthodoxy in the late 19th and early 20th century. An author of many fine works Warfield was nevertheless inept when it came to defending Scripture in the face of Modernism. This statement will astonish many for they view him as ‘the great defender’ of Scripture in the face of Modernism. But they say this failing to understand his capitulation and compromise. Unwittingly, Warfield laid the groundwork for today’s Evangelical laxity with regard to Scripture and the collapse of Biblical authority.

. . . Princeton, so hampered by faulty philosophically dependent Evidentialist Apologetics proved weak and began to collapse in the face of Higher Criticism and the Scientific Revolution. Warfield was himself weak on the question of evolution.

Though not buried there I could not help but think of J Gresham Machen, the founder of Westminster Seminary and the figure most associated with the genesis of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). I was once a member of that denomination and would certainly never have anything to do with it again. That said, I cannot but to a certain extent admire Machen and (to a degree) those that went with him. His work on Christianity and Liberalism still holds a place of honour on the shelf. Though authored almost a century ago, the fundamental issues have not changed in the least. It is still a relevant and worthwhile book.

Some merit here, but clearly not an Old Life perspective.

So consider how Tim Keller looks to Protestants like this fellow:

So much for the Regulative Principle….so much for the Sufficiency of Scripture…. these doctrines aren’t even on the horizon for most ‘Reformed’ people anymore. They pay lip service to them but in actuality reject them. Keller, the PCA’s celebrity pastor has led the charge. A Dominionist cut from modern cloth, he’s a man very much at home with the world. When you believe that heaven will look something like Manhattan (investment bankers and all)… then the filth of Broadway, the Theatre District and Lincoln Centre will also be part of it.

In fact Keller’s Church, ‘Redeemer’ PCA is apropos. He believes that all of culture can be redeemed. To put it differently, all of culture can be sanctified and made holy. You must understand this if you wish to grasp why men in tights are dancing around during a worship service. Ballet is being made holy… this is (to Keller) a foretaste of heaven.

Of course this is in addition to the jazz or reggae services they host. It’s a big package. In reality it’s the same worldly gospel of the Prosperity folks but less tacky. It’s for the refined and sophisticated people of the Upper West Side.

Keller is a big deal in Reformed circles and he’s done rather well for himself. I abandoned the Reformed label years ago but even then I realised, if Keller, Piper, Mohler et al. are the Reformed ‘stalwarts’ of the 21st century then the 20th century Calvinist revival will be short lived indeed.

Old Lifers and Old School Presbyterians are not the only ones who see.

The optics!

Presbyterians Who Don’t Want to Be

David Robertson gives away his tell when he responds to criticism for dedicating children. He thinks that critics strain at gnats while swallowing camels — the camel being a market model of ministry:

At the risk of overgeneralization it seems to me that there is a Scottish/UK version of Presbyterianism that seeks (but does not often practice) visible church unity and does not accept the ‘market place’ mentality that Paul mentions. On the other hand in the US, the land of 1,000 denominations, there is a much greater market place mentality with the pros (greater initiatives, freedom etc.) and cons (disunity, less church discipline etc.). It seems sad to me that even as the number of Christians in the US declines, the number of Presbyterian denominations will probably increase – all owning allegiance to a Confession of Faith which was set up to prevent that happening!

In England there are hardly any Presbyterians and yet we have at least two denominations committed to the WCF. In Scotland the situation is embarrassingly worse. I feel bad that the Free Church has to exist. Because of the apostasy of the Church of Scotland, I think we do have to, but I would much prefer that we didn’t. At one point I was even part of a delegation from the Free Church that met with the C of S and looked at whether and how we could reunite. But it is even more shameful to me that after a lifetime devoted to evangelism in a declining church in a decaying culture, instead of the churches which adhere to the WCF uniting together we have further divided. In my time in ministry in Scotland we have even seen four new Presbyterian denominations, all adhering to the WCF, come into being. The Associated Presbyterians, the Free Church Continuing, International Presbyterian Church and Covenant Fellowship. We talk about church unity but actions speak louder than words. My hope and prayer is that one day the Free Church will cease to exist (that will certainly come true in heaven!). I would be even more radical than that – I would prefer to work in organizational unity with Baptists and others – not just networking but pooling resources and genuinely being the one Church of Jesus Christ.

Notice that he wishes the Free Church did not exist and that he would prefer to minister with Baptists. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Scotland, I suppose, like the United States is a free country (Free Church in a Free Country). But I’m not sure how confessional or Presbyterian that attitude is. It does explain Robertson’s attachment to Tim Keller. It also suggests a certain kind of naivete. Does Robertson really think that TKNY is not part of a market model, or that Keller has not become a brand? Either way, why be a Presbyterian when you could just as easily minister with Baptists?

Robertson may also explain why Keller appeals to pastors in small, out of the way, denominations (perhaps unintentionally):

When evangelicals in the Church of Scotland decided that enough was enough and began to leave – they of course looked for a Confessional Presbyterian Church that was faithful to the Bible. For doctrinal and practical reasons most could not join the Reformed Presbyterians, the APC, the Free Church Continuing or the Free Presbyterians – amongst other reasons they were exclusive psalmody. That basically left the Free Church. Now there may be theological reasons why some ex C of S ministers and congregations could not join the Free Church (e.g. those who had women elders and wanted to retain them), but what of those who subscribe to the WCF, are complementarian and Presbyterian? Many have joined but an equal number haven’t – why? Some of it may be the Free Churches own fault – not being welcoming enough etc., but is that the real or adequate reason?

I think that it is the religious market place that Paul so rightly complains about which kicks in here. The reasons are not doctrinal and theological but social, personal and historical. Some had an aversion to the Free Church because of past experience (love remembers no wrongs?), image or misunderstandings about our positions. I have heard others though express things in terms of what I could only call social and class snobbery. We are perceived as not sophisticated enough, too Highland, too working class. I recall a C of S man having what I can only describe as a ‘coming out’ dinner in his home – where he invited his middle class friends to a dinner at which he introduced myself and a couple of others from the church and then announced he was attending the Free Church. It was as though he had announced he was gay! In fact he probably would have got a more favourable response! That attitude may be extreme but in a more modified form it is still there. Is not wanting to be called ‘Wee Free’ a sufficient reason for setting up yet another denomination?

This part of Robertson’s post was intriguing if only because in the United States, conservatives in the PCA seem to have a similar aversion to the OPC — not sophisticated, too tacky, ugly buildings on the wrong side of the beltway. But instead of identifying with communions of like faith, practice, and awkwardness, Robertson instead regards Keller as the right kind of American Presbyterian.

This may make sense since with all of the writing for newspapers and speaking in public that Robertson does, he may regard himself as a kind of public intellectual after the fashion of Keller. He is certainly akin to Keller in the way in which denominational attachments rest lightly on his ministerial shoulders:

The parish and pastoral approach is one that I prefer. We are not engaging in the religious market place (ironically those who take the purist/polemical approach are much more likely to do that), but we are seeking to reach out to every one in the community where we are based. (I realize of course that most of us would claim that is what we are doing and I should also point out that I think that is what Paul’s church is doing in Ealing – I’m talking about the wider issue here – not having a subtle dig – I don’t do subtle!). This means that our primary identity is not that we are a Free Church, or a Reformed church, or the church with the best preaching in Dundee, or David Robertson’s church or any other claim we might foolishly want to make. We are a church of Jesus Christ.

This is the way of pietists, to claim the high ground and act as if denominational particularities are inconsequential in comparison to vision, mission, or devotion. What happens, though, when Robertson or Keller need to explain why another church, say the Church of Scotland or the PCUSA or the Methodists are not quite up to the status of “the church of Jesus Christ”? At that point, don’t arguments about purity and polemics and doctrine kick in?

And what happens when Robertson or Keller receive funds from Presbyterian sources that were given precisely to uphold Free Church and Reformed convictions? Don’t you have to explain the way you are going to use the funds? You will use them for generic Christian purposes, not for Presbyterian ones only?

That is the sort of equivocation that captured the Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. before the Free Church and the PCA formed separate communions. Such a separate status is not everyone’s cup of tea. That’s why we have evangelicals. But evangelicals presenting as Presbyterian? That’s why we have The Gospel Coalition.

David Robertson is What’s the Matter with Tim Keller

Amy Mantravadi wanted to know what’s the matter with Tim Keller around the same time that David Robertson decided to make Keller the test for loyalty to gospel ministry. Amy makes careful evaluations (charitable) of Keller. Robertson sneers at anyone who takes issue with Keller.

And that is the problem. Keller is merely one pastor whose foibles would be unknown to any outside his congregation if he had not allowed himself to be a poster-boy for urban, transformationalist, pastor-to-(some of)-the-intelligentsia ministry.

Lots of pastors in the Reformed world do not follow the rules of polity, liturgy, and confessional austerity. They likely face their own sets of critics whether from within the congregation or at presbytery. But these pastors do not pretend to have written the book for successful ministry or allow fans to crow about their success.

Keller, however, has become a brand and pastors like David Robertson have gladly wrapped themselves in it. In fact, when Keller says something that so patently needs qualification, Robertson is there to dare anyone who would question Keller’s devotion, wisdom, and truth.

Keller is too big to fail and defenders like Robertson made him so.

Here is what Keller said about art:

The Church needs artists because without art we cannot reach the world. The simple fact is that the imagination ‘gets you,’ even when your reason is completely against the idea of God. ‘Imagination communicates,’ as Arthur Danto says, ‘indefinable but inescapable truth.’ Those who read a book or listen to music expose themselves to that inescapable truth. There is a sort of schizophrenia that occurs if you are listening to Bach and you hear the glory of God and yet your mind says there is no God and there is no meaning. You are committed to believing nothing means anything and yet the music comes in and takes you over with your imagination. When you listen to great music, you can’t believe life is meaningless. Your heart knows what your mind is denying. We need Christian artists because we are never going to reach the world without great Christian art to go with great Christian talk.

If you are a minister devoted to the sufficiency of Scripture, maybe you qualify this a little? You put yourself in the situation — wouldn’t all that reading of Charles Taylor help you? — of Christ and the apostles and maybe remember that art did not seem to be high on the apostles agenda.

Instead, Robertson doubles down and does for Keller what so many Roman Catholic apologists do for Pope Francis — spin:

Now there is a narrower sense in which art is used – I guess the sense in which it is studied in art colleges. And if Keller was saying without painting we can’t communicate the Gospel then he would deserve the ridicule that comes his way. But do you think Keller is restricting ‘art’ to the narrower sense of painting only (or perhaps ballet?). Can’t you be a little more charitable and assume that a bible believing teacher such as Keller might actually know something about the bible, church history and evangelism? At least enough to prevent him accusing Paul and Jesus of not knowing how to proclaim the Gospel?

The truth is that Keller and the upcoming downgrade in the PCA is not the problem. He is not a heretic and his views on art are not heretical – they are basic Kuyperian Calvinism. No, it is the ugliness of some who profess the Reformed Faith, those macho keypboard warriors who think that putting the adjective effeminate in front of anything is enough to damn it; seeking their own niche and identity by dissing others who are the real heretics. Why? Because although they profess orthodox faith in Christ – it’s not enough. We must reflect the glory and beauty of Christ. To turn beauty into ashes is anti-Christ and the real heresy.

You mean, all that time in the city has not in the least influenced Keller and how he presents? You mean, Robertson has never studied the history of how Presbyterians are like frogs in the kettle and become used to the cultural temperature around them? You mean, that a minister in the Free Church cannot ever fathom how liberal Presbyterianism happens?

That’s a problem.

Improving Disagreement since 2009

Old Life may not be every Protestant’s pint of IPA. But at least critics can’t fault Old Lifers for attributing the worst to non-Old Life Protestants (sorry if that sounds like the Pharisee’s prayer). Consider:

ad hominem is a problem, but if you watch cable news, or follow Twitter, or reflect on the way that Donald Trump engages with Democrats, or Democrats with other Republicans, you notice a style of argument every bit as pernicious. It consists of constantly elevating the very worst of the other side, attacking only the weakest rather than the strongest part or version of the ideas held by the other political party or ideological tribe or cultural identity group. As Scott Alexander puts it, “The straw man is a terrible argument nobody really holds, which was only invented so your side had something easy to defeat. The weak man is a terrible argument that only a few unrepresentative people hold, which was only brought to prominence so your side had something easy to defeat.”

To call a Presbyterian like Tim Keller an evangelical is not ad hominem. No either-or here. Old Life recognizes many shades of Christian. The question is whether Presbyterians really want to be Reformed or whether they simply want a better grade of Protestantism than Baptist or Christian & Missionary Alliance.

Why Do Celebrity Pastors Stumble Over “Thus Saith the Lord”?

I am not sure why Eugene Peterson’s flip-flop on gay marriage is such a big deal. But (all about mmmmmeeeeEEE) I’m not in the habit of taking my cues any more from popular Christian authors or personalities. That could be age, temperament (naysayer), or wisdom — and in the right combination separating those traits may be redundant. But I continue to be surprised by what catches on among evangelicals who fret (even if I don’t want to come across as being above it all).

While following some of the reactions, I came across responses from Tim Keller, John Stott, and Sam Allberry. Since Stott is deceased, I should have known that these would not be direct reactions to Peterson. What caught my eye was the link to a review by Keller — can you believe it? There on display is the same affliction that got Peterson into trouble in the first place — namely, failing to minister God’s word and telling us instead about thoughts and reflections based on a lot of stuff you’ve read.

What is especially noteworthy about Keller’s handling of such a controversial subject as homosexuality if he is going to maintain his New York City profile is his ability to quote authors (other than the prophets and apostles).

First some of the debate about homosexuality in church history and antiquity:

These arguments were first asserted in the 1980s by John Boswell and Robin Scroggs. Vines, Wilson and others are essentially repopularizing them. However, they do not seem to be aware that the great preponderance of the best historical scholarship since the 1980s — by the full spectrum of secular, liberal and conservative researchers — has rejected that assertion. Here are two examples.

Bernadette Brooten and William Loader have presented strong evidence that homosexual orientation was known in antiquity. Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, for example, tells a story about how Zeus split the original human beings in half, creating both heterosexual and homosexual humans, each of which were seeking to be reunited to their “lost halves” — heterosexuals seeking the opposite sex and homosexuals the same sex. Whether Aristophanes believed this myth literally is not the point. It was an explanation of a phenomenon the ancients could definitely see — that some people are inherently attracted to the same sex rather than the opposite sex.

For comparisons of homosexuality to slavery Keller can take you to more scholarly literature:

But historians such as Mark Noll (America’s God, 2005 and The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 2006) have shown the 19th century position some people took that the Bible condoned race-based chattel slavery was highly controversial and never a consensus. Most Protestants in Canada and Britain (and many in the northern U.S. states) condemned it as being wholly against the Scripture. Rodney Stark (For the Glory of God, 2003) points out that the Catholic church also came out early against the African slave trade. David L. Chappell in his history of the Civil Rights Movement (A Stone of Hope, 2003) went further. He proves that even before the Supreme Court decisions of the mid-50s, almost no one was promoting the slender and forced biblical justifications for racial superiority and segregation. Even otherwise racist theologians and ministers could not find a basis for white supremacy in the Bible.

He even uses awareness of 19th century debates about slavery to take a swipe at Southern Presbyterians:

During the Civil War, British Presbyterian biblical scholars told their southern American colleagues who supported slavery that they were reading the Scriptural texts through cultural blinders. They wanted to find evidence for their views in the Bible and voila — they found it. If no Christian reading the Bible — across diverse cultures and times — ever previously discovered support for same-sex relationships in the Bible until today, it is hard not to wonder if many now have new cultural spectacles on, having a strong predisposition to find in these texts evidence for the views they already hold.

What are those cultural spectacles? The reason that homosexual relationships make so much more sense to people today than in previous times is because they have absorbed late modern western culture’s narratives about the human life. Our society presses its members to believe “you have to be yourself,” that sexual desires are crucial to personal identity, that any curbing of strong sexual desires leads to psychological damage, and that individuals should be free to live as they alone see fit.

As if the Bible supported abolitionists or anti-slavery arguments were immune to “modern western culture’s narratives about the human life.” Sometimes Keller wades into scholarly material superficially so that it agrees with him, but I digress. (Funny how when I bring the Bible into the history seminar it doesn’t gain me any credibility.)

Then you have Keller appealing to more academics to critique these modern “narratives”:

These narratives have been well analyzed by scholars such as Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor. They are beliefs about the nature of reality that are not self-evident to most societies and they carry no more empirical proof than any other religious beliefs. They are also filled with inconsistencies and problems. Both Vines and Wilson largely assume these cultural narratives. It is these faith assumptions about identity and freedom that make the straightforward reading of the biblical texts seem so wrong to them. They are the underlying reason for their views, but they are never identified or discussed.

Maybe this is impressive to David Brooks and other columnists and reporters at the Times, but wasn’t Keller called to minister God’s word? Where is Moses, Jesus, or Paul? Nothing wrong inherently with being aware of some of the scholarly and public intellectual literature. But can’t you give us a “thus saith the Lord” pastor Tim?

When he finally gets around to the Bible, Keller accentuates the positive (the way Mr. Rogers did):

The saddest thing for me as a reader was how, in books on the Bible and sex, Vines and Wilson concentrated almost wholly on the biblical negatives, the prohibitions against homosexual practice, instead of giving sustained attention to the high, (yes) glorious Scriptural vision of sexuality. Both authors rightly say that the Bible calls for mutual loving relationships in marriage, but it points to far more than that.

In Genesis 1 you see pairs of different but complementary things made to work together: heaven and earth, sea and land, even God and humanity. It is part of the brilliance of God’s creation that diverse, unlike things are made to unite and create dynamic wholes which generate more and more life and beauty through their relationships. As N.T. Wright points out, the creation and uniting of male and female at the end of Genesis 2 is the climax of all this.

That means that male and female have unique, non-interchangeable glories — they each see and do things that the other cannot. Sex was created by God to be a way to mingle these strengths and glories within a life-long covenant of marriage. Marriage is the most intense (though not the only) place where this reunion of male and female takes place in human life. Male and female reshape, learn from, and work together.

Gee golly williker. Marriage is just one stroll down the trail of delight (or maybe through Homer Simpson’s Land of Chocolate). Where is the grit of NYC? Where is the complicated character of life in the modern world where we have to make tough choices, or recognize the good and less attractive in all people we meet, and the institutions in which moderns operate? Where is the edge that attracts at least some people like Brother Mouzone or Woody Allen to the Big Apple? The view from Keller’s study is awfully pleasant (and crowded with books other than the Bible).

Meanwhile, Russell Moore made a decent point about Peterson when he compared the evangelical celebrity to Wendell Berry’s own flip-flop on gay marriage:

And now Peterson says he’s willing to walk away from what the Scriptures and 2,000 years of unbroken Christian teaching affirm on the conjugal nature of marriage as the one-flesh union of a man and a woman reflecting the mystery of Christ and the church. I can’t un-highlight or un-flag my Peterson books. I can’t erase from my mind all the things he has taught me. Should I stop reading him, since he has shown a completely contrary view on an important issue of biblical interpretation—and, beyond that, of the very definition of what it means to repent of sin?

This is the same sort of conversation had a few years ago among those of us who’ve been taught much by novelist and poet Wendell Berry when he, too, embraced the zeitgeist on marriage and sexuality. Some said we should throw out our Berry books and never read him again. Others, I’m sure, seeing how much they’d benefited from Berry on place and memory, probably decided to follow him right into this viewpoint. Maybe the same will happen with Peterson now.

True enough, but when Moore says we should not throw Peterson’s books away (who am I to adopt such a move since H. L. Mencken sets on my shelf of worthies right next to Machen — alphabetically anyway), I wonder why Mr. Southern Baptist doesn’t distinguish Peterson as a would-be pastor and theologian from Berry who simply is a writer and farmer. Berry makes no pretension to issue “thus saith the Lord’s” based on his reading of Scripture. Peterson, however, operates in the world of Scripture and theology (and all you usually get — my impression — is “the Lord would be really happy if you might ever consider this and you may also flourish forever and ever”).

First Princeton, Now Yale

The PCA keeps coming up short (the OPC is not even on radar).

Remember Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary? Here was how he stood in opposition to the PCA at the time that women objected to Tim Keller receiving the Kuyper Prize:

Our seminary embraces full inclusion for ordained leadership of the church. We clearly stand in prophetic opposition to the PCA and many other Christian denominations that do not extend the full exercise of Spirit filled gifts for women or those of various sexual orientations. We know that many have been hurt by being excluded from ministry, and we have worked hard to be an affirming place of preparation for service to the church.

I wonder which prophets Dr. Barnes goes to to oppose the PCA. But at least it’s an ethos.

Now comes a Yale Divinity School graduate and PCUSA pastor who puts the differences between the PCUSA and PCA this way:

I am a Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor who has family members who attend PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) churches. The best (and simplest) way to differentiate between the two is that the PCA asserts that the Bible is inerrant, or without error. The PCUSA believes that the Bible is authoritative, or guided by God, but actually written by human beings, influenced by their culture, time, and limited knowledge of the world.

You might not notice this while visiting either churches, except that the PCA, because of their stance on the Bible, read Paul’s writings that prohibit women from participating in the leadership of worship as what God intended. So you will not see a female pastor (like myself) at a PCA church, or indeed, any women ruling elders (the governing body within each congregation).

The order of worship for both denominations is essentially the same; both are part of the Reformed movement. However, the preaching will likely be quite different, with a PCUSA pastor emphasizing the broad love of God for all of God’s people, and a PCA pastor leaning more towards evangelism and conversion.

No mention of the alt-right, Confederate Monuments, or even LBGT. Maybe the lesson is that resolutions are overrated.