Lessons from a Man Who Has Been There and Done That (III)
In Thomas Oden’s book After Modernity…What? he tells a fascinating story that set me to thinking. It seems that he had a research year, but was going to be limited in the actual number of books he would be able to take with them. Thus, he found himself in the highly untenable situation of having to choose only a rather small selection. I pray that I’ll never have to do that, but Oden did.
As he went through his second and third round “cuts” what he describes as “an astonishing pattern” became apparent to him. When he had finally pared the books down to the actual number he would take with him he writes, “…the shock hit me: there were no books among my final selections from the twentieth century!” I don’t believe I’d go quite that far as I believe some very good books have appeared in the 20th and 21st centuries, but his point is well taken.
Rick Lints explains, “It might be argued that evangelical theology has not attained prominence because the evangelical community has not produced a theologian with the abilities of an Augustine, Calvin, or Edwards.” In a footnote to this statement Lints states, “But it is worth noting in this regard that the evangelical community has managed to produce scholars gifted enough to make their mark on the disciplines of philosophy, history, and the social sciences. These scholars may not rank with Augustine, Calvin, or Edwards in the history of Christendom, but their profound influence in the academy is unmistakable.” He’s right. However, for me, the number of modern books I’d take would be quite limited. I would include Lints’ book as well as David Well’s books.
I use this provocative example precisely because John Leith has a heading in the first chapter of his book Crisis in the Church, that deals with modern man’s love affair with “the new” and his almost utter disdain for what is “old.” Why bother reading a bunch of dead guys anyway? It’s under the section entitled “Consequences of the Crisis” that Leith lists nine key, essential consequences that occurred in the Presbyterian Church USA that serve as excellent warnings for us today.
Hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear something about the Emergent Church gurus, their denial of penal substitutionary atonement, the sin of homosexuality, or some new discovery by N.T. Wright, the folks who embrace the Federal Vision, or the advocates of the anonymous document: Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together. We’ve had Black Theology, Feminist Theology, Liberation Theology, the Death of God Theology, and a host of others. We still don’t get it and tend to be very “issues” oriented both in the seminaries as well as in the Church.
So in the next installments we shall listen to the nine areas of loss that Leith points out: Loss of tradition, gratitude, church orientation (secularization), sense of mission and direction, curriculum focus, ecclesiastical commitment, accountability, academic freedom, and the ability of seminaries to educate graduates who are effective pastors.
Loss of Tradition
In the case of the Presbyterian Church USA, Leith tells us that “The seminaries understood they belonged to a clearly defined tradition beginning with Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin and developing through the scholastic theologians, the Puritan revolution and the Westminster Assembly, Heinrich Heppe and Charles Hodge, and more recently Emil Brunner and Karl Barth.” Apart from the disagreement about how helpful either Brunner or Barth were, Leith draws our attention to part of the reason the “wheels came off” in the PCUSA.
It’s more than a touch ironic that conservatives today who want to hold on to tradition in a good sense of the word are vilified as those who “bicker” and “nit-pick.” Some cannot fathom why people want to hold on to something or someone who, to their mind, is passé. It is precisely this mindset that causes Oden to inquire whether newer truly means better. He suggests a game to us where we can (unscientifically) measure how words such as “new” or “change” can function like “potent magic words.” Oden asks us to “count the number of times new and good are used as synonyms” in modern parlance. The insidious nature of language can very well be that it is “silently assumed that new = good, change = improvement.”
He adds that “Some conversants will use the magic words incessantly, sprinkling them generously into nearly every reference. Others use the magic words somewhat as a kid uses body torque while playing pinball, as if to persuade the ball to go a certain way without lighting up the ‘tilt’ sign.” Egregious offenders are, according to Oden, academics who “prefer more sophisticated synonyms, such as emergent, innovative, revolutionary, or metamorphosis. Here’s his point: “Anything that looks ‘old hat’ or ‘antiquated’ or ‘rigid’ or ‘traditional’ will be subtly linked implicitly with evils to be avoided, vicious repressions that hold us down, powers of darkness. The adjective abound—all with a stale smell: paleo-anything, medieval, obsolete, senile, elderly, bygone, extinct.”
This is what Leith is describing that took place in the PCUSA and it continues today. There is tremendous pressure to be “hip,” “out there,” and “cutting edge,” all the while forgetting what value tradition has both in society as well as in individual lives; in the academy, the Church, and the pew. In the past, Leith explains, the PCUSA used textbooks written by Turretin, Charles Hodge, and others, but all with the approbation of the Presbyterian Church. That is no longer the case, not only in the rapidly sinking PCUSA, but you’d be very hard pressed to find any seminary that takes this approach anymore. In the case of tradition, Leith is adamant that “Tradition is more than theology. It is also ethos, practice, and life.” Very interesting point. Certainly one worth pondering.
He also raises another valid consideration regarding books and modern books. I’ll begin with the latter. When I sit down and read a book, for example, coming from the Emergent tribe—McLaren, Miller, Lamott, Chalke, Bell, and others—they are easy reads; simplistic to the point of being simpleminded. Lamott is a joke and Miller isn’t far behind. When I read Blue Like Jazz I felt like I was reading the mind-numbed meanderings of a teenie-bopper with zits. Bell and Zondervan should both be taken to task for wasting our trees in printing such a vapid book. If Zondervan had reduced the triple spacing and all the blank colorful pages the book could have been reduced to two to three pages and then you still wouldn’t have anything of substance to read. In short, these are contemporary works that will best be used again if you have a short leg on one of your tables.
The classics, however, are—well, classics. These are the books that contain so much rich spiritual value and the books to which you return often and joyfully. Bullinger, Calvin, and Bavinck are pulled from my shelves frequently, consulted, marveled at for their scriptural content, and put back until the next time. Leith’s words about this matter are these: “It is significant that the writings of nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologians are continually being reprinted, though they are seldom to be found on mainline seminary bibliographies or in Presbyterian seminary bookstores.” Fortunately, he’s not referring to conservative seminary bookstores, but we can ask the question: Just how much are conservative theological students reading these classics as opposed to say N.T. Wright? (Since I did my New Testament minor with Dr. Herman Ridderbos, I keep asking myself why someone does not compare Ridderbos and Wright on Paul.)
It might come as a surprise to many, but Leith chronicles for us that nine Charles Hodge’s ten books are still in print—at times from several different publishers, more than 120 years after his death. And this does not even touch on the works of A.A. Hodge, B.B. Warfield, Robert Dabney, James Thornwell, John Girardeau, and my beloved Herman Bavinck.The bottom line for us all is this: “The loss of tradition in the seminaries contributes to the loss of tradition in local congregations.” This is clearly manifest in our modern services that are supposed to be—in some sense—worship services. If you want a reflection of what books your pastor is reading, has read, and have had a profound impact on his life, observe what he calls worship in his congregation.
 Thomas Oden, After Modernity…What? Agenda for Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), p. 24.
 Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 54.
 Ibid., note 54.
 I have learned that the actual author is Anonymous V. His parents must be very proud of him—whoever they are.
 John H. Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), pp. 13-21.
 Ibid., 13.
 Oden, AMW, 41ff.
 Ibid., 41.
 Ibid., 42.
 Leith, CiC, 13.
 Ibid., 14.
 Ibid., 15.