Lie Down with Prayers & You’ll End Up with Pleas
I thought when I wrote my response to John Armstrong about his shot across the bow of the PCA that the matter would be laid to rest or that John would provide concrete examples to offset the vague generalities that plagued his blog. I was wrong on both counts, with the exception that he seems to have moved his sights away from the PCA and on to the Southern Baptist Convention.
His recent blog, “Leaning into Some Questions, Losing Some of My Answers” (May 8, 2006) is a case in point. It seems that Armstrong is bent on regaling us with his theological journey and, at the same time, to set himself up as the arbiter of discussions theological. Certainly all of us in theology have made changes and been through certain transitions, but few believe that the rest of the world would find this, in any sense, very entertaining or enlightening.
Apparently, he has been the recipient of criticism based on what he has said or written. Allow me to back up half a frame and get us all on the same page. In his article, Armstrong chronicles his slow movement away from his “separatist and sectarian neo-Puritanism over the last twenty years.” According to him, not everyone has either welcomed or understood his new image as non-sectarian neo-Puritan and have taken a strip out of John. To his mind, the sad irony is that “99% of the concern expressed about me has come by way of sermons and public statements, not by means of private conversations with me.” (Emphasis his.)
99% is a very high percentage. I do a little blogging and people do not always agree with what I have written, but I understand that going in. In fact, I am not always writing with the intention that people would agree with me. For example, if I write an article, give a talk, or blog on the Emergent Church, I really expect a backlash from a certain quarter. I’ve been called mean-spirited, unloving, a man without a pastor’s heart, and other terms of endearment. To coin the vernacular: It goes with the turf.
This does not seem to be the case with Armstrong, however. As I read the first three paragraphs of the article I found myself scratching my head and wondering what it was that he was trying to get at. It sounded almost like something that better fit on Oprah or Drs. Phil and Laura than on a theological blog. But I digress.
Assuming & Breaking Down Open Doors
Armstrong explains that in his theological pilgrimage he left the neo-Puritan vision of the church but kept his Reformed vision of the world. Are you tracking with me? Can we pause there just for a moment? I mentioned in my first article on Armstrong that his writing suffered—horribly—from gross generalizations and vagaries. It seems that he didn’t take my very helpful advice to heart. In our day and age when modern Christians don’t have a clue what justification by faith is or where to find the Ten Commandments in the Bible that they will know, with any degree of precision, what the Puritan view of the Church was, let alone its neo-Puritan cousin. If Armstrong expects us to take him seriously, he must begin using specific examples of what he means. Quite possibly some will react/respond, but that is the nature of and fun part about discussion. We exchange ideas and seek for precision.
When I say that Armstrong breaks down open doors I mean this: he states that in the course of time he learned from charismatics (my spell check doesn’t like this word and offered charisma tics. My spell check doesn’t speak in tongues either), liberal social activists, who, we are reminded are not always wrong (Really?), Quakers, mystics, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox writers. So what’s new? Even neo-Puritans with some kind of vision of the Church occasionally read other authors. Reading is not equivalent with agreeing, but certainly agreement can be found in, say, reading Roman Catholic Moral Theology on bioethics, abortion, and stem-cell research. Moreover, Armstrong acts as if he’s uncovered some little-known secret when he informs us that Calvin and Luther were dependent on the Fathers of the Christian Church. Yep. We might as well break down that open door as well. Helpful.
So where has Armstrong landed thus far in his journey away from the neo-Puritan vision of the Church? He ensconces himself in the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. My interest was piqued when he wrote that because I taught on both of these documents for fifteen years in the Dutch-speaking and Canadian churches that I served. Armstrong writes that the Belgic Confession arose out of political hostility or persecution, which is one of those half-truths that Armstrong detests so much. The author, Guido de Brès, was a preacher in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, which I still contend is very close to the country of Holland. He died a martyr’s death in 1567. His death was in one sense political, but then political at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. The Belgic was received by the Synod of Emden in 1571 and the authentic French text was revised by the Synod of Dort, with a brief historical and critical introduction. Apart from that I am not certain where Armstrong finds the “preface” he refers to, but I could be wrong. I just have never seen it.
Concerning the contents of the Belgic Confession Armstrong states, “It is solid, sturdy, confessional Reformed Christianity. It is a wonderful human witness to Christ. We need this element of witness in our modern world desperately.” No argument from me on that, but let’s take those statements to a place that I’m certain Armstrong does not want to go. In light of today’s “bickering” de Brès is unbending on the following theological issues: The Authority and Sufficiency of Holy Scripture (Arts. 5 & 7), Divine Election (Art. 16), Justification by Faith (Art. 22 explicitly denies what today is called the Federal Vision), The Place of Works in Salvation (Art. 24), Christ’s Active Obedience (Art. 25), The Doctrine of the (neo-Puritan) Church (Arts. 27-29, which reject the Roman Catholic Church), The Nature of the Sacraments (Art. 33), The Sacrament of Baptism (Art. 34), and The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Art. 35), just to hit the “biggies.”
But what about the Heidelberg Catechism? Armstrong tells us that one Reformed author called it “even devotional.” Yes it is. The first question and answer speaks to us about our only comfort in life and death. The Heidelberg Catechism is definitely a little book of comfort. The Larger Heidelberg Catechism that was written by Ursinus appeared approximately one year before the (Shorter) Heidelberg Catechism saw the light of day contained 323 questions and answers. The first Q/A of the Larger answers in terms of God’s covenant of grace. Therefore, both comfort (devotion) and covenant form the structural poles around which the catechisms were composed.
But we must not come away with the idea that the Heidelberg Catechism leaves a person with the “warm fuzzies.” Surely, it is one of the most comforting catechisms I have ever read or studied. I benefit from it constantly. I say this because I simply do not understand how Armstrong makes the leap from the Heidelberg Catechism to how it allows him to relate with love (and in mystery) to the entire catholic church and the modern world. Allow me to explain. There are three Q/As that deal directly with the notion of the union of the believer with Christ in the Heidelberg Catechism: 20, 64, and 80.
Twenty deals with true, saving faith; sixty-four deals with a very strict notion of justification by faith; and eighty, which was not in the original but added a year later, deals with the Lord’s Supper. Apparently, both Olevianus and Ursinus were so consumed with how to relate, in love and mystery, to the entire catholic church that they decided to remind us that the Roman Catholic Mass is “basically nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry.”
I give you this background because I must admit I am at a loss to explain how Armstrong can make the assertions he does about these two documents and then, in the next breath assert that many conservative Christians “need to control the boundaries of the faith more tightly.” I can think of few documents that set out the boundaries of true, saving faith more carefully and precisely than the two Armstrong cites. Odd.
Frightening Conservative Christians
Armstrong seems to think that the direction he has “taken frightens many conservative Christians.” Frightens is a highly inappropriate word and was poorly chosen to describe the situation. “Saddens” might be more to the point. “Confuses” is another word that comes to mind. I must confess that I have not spent a great deal of time tracking the winds of change that have blown in Armstrong’s life for a number of reasons. First, they simply do not interest me all that much. Second, given the vagaries with which he has written recently you quite frankly are at a loss as to where to begin because you don’t really know what he’s getting at. Personally, I would be very loathe to write about my personal health problems on a blog, except for my recent hair restoration surgery, my face lift, and my tummy tuck—oh yes, there was that liposuction as well, but that’s about it.
But all that aside, why would Armstrong think that his direction would affect conservative Christians? His answer is: “They need to control the boundaries of the faith more tightly.” As I pointed out in my previous article, vagaries are not helpful. I cannot help but wonder if Armstrong would level the same criticism at de Brès, Ursinus, and Olevianus. As tightly Reformed as the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism are would these men fall under the criticism of attempting to control the boundaries of the faith? What is interesting is the word choice that Armstrong employs here. These “bad guy” conservative Christians are control freaks. If you change the language slightly and say that these conservative Christians are desirous of fulfilling what is described in Jude 3 you get a very different take: “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” Armstrong seems intent in ascribing motives to these people—whoever they are!—that are less than complimentary. Why didn’t he just say that they’re on a “witch hunt?” This is all the more perplexing as he accuses these conservatives of “hyper-orthodoxy,” eviscerating vital missional (don’t you just love that word?), and backbiting. At the same time, Armstrong contends that he is a very conservative Christian and that he is not comfortable with radically liberal agendas. Go and figure, but the logic is difficult to follow.
All the Truths That Are Worth Conserving
As we meander on in Armstrong’s article he writes, “I believe that we who are orthodox in the theological mainstream have something very important things to conserve in these tumultuous time.” For those of you silly enough to expect Armstrong to tell you what that might be I must disappoint you. Nothing. The inherent weakness of much I have read by Armstrong suffers from this deplorable, inexcusable lack of precision. Even if you don’t want to “control the boundaries” yourself, you can at least give one or two salient examples of what in the world you’re talking about with regard to those you’re accusing!
Rather than that, however, Armstrong suffices with: “What I have come to strongly question is whether or not the present conservative agenda, of popular evangelicalism, will actually accomplish this, either in the church or in the culture.” “This” obviously refers to “something very important” I guess. Again, what might this “present conservative agenda” be? Look like? The closest we get to any coherent explanation of what Armstrong means is this: “For example, I cheered for the conservatives in the Southern Baptist (SBC) battle in the 1970s and 1980s. But I am deeply distressed by how far this movement has gone in trying to correct things. The present results of the SBC conservative resurgence frighten me. In opposing the liberal use of ‘soul liberty’ (often misunderstood and misused by liberals) conservatives have begun to take away the real soul of good orthodox men and women.”
To write that kind of vague accusation is, to my mind, unconscionable and irresponsible. How can anyone seeking theological precision speak in such gross, inexcusable generalities? Things? What things are we talking about? What “present results” are being mentioned regarding the SBC? Whereas Armstrong was concerned that his direction would frighten many conservative Christians, now he’s frightened. This is all getting scary. Moreover, if his concern reaches to taking away the soul of good orthodox men and women, Armstrong should be prepared to name names and give us a litany of things that are robbing orthodox men and women of their soul liberty.
Recently, I read a response to a blog by one Anna Nymous. I’m frightened that that is not his or her real name, but that’s another matter. I tell you this, however, to borrow a phrase that the fetching Ms. Nymous used: sloppy narcissism. At this point in Armstrong’s article, it’s an apt phrase. Armstrong is standing above the fray—just like he did in his shot across the bow of the PCA—as the knight in shining armor who is poised to rescue those in the SBC who are being robbed of their soul liberty. He tells us: “Many express, very privately, their fear for their future and that of their beloved denomination.” Many? You mean like in many are saying things? I’m not sure what very privately means other than it sounds like he has become the Father Confessor to many in the PCA and SBC who, under the cover of darkness (how else can you avoid these neo-Puritan thought police?) pour out their hearts to him about things.
What is needed in the SBC, according to Armstrong, is “milder” and “gentler” leadership. If it is not forthcoming, Armstrong believes that the future of the SBC will not be nearly as bright as he had hoped. He assures us that this is not an attack on a person or institution but merely a plea from a friend. With the PCA it was a prayer; with the SBC it is a plea. Reading the articles regarding the PCA and the SBC the words seem interchangeable. Plea. Prayer. Many. Things.
In his plea there is a prayerful opinion—are you tracking with me on this?—that what the SBC needs is “not more controversy and more gaining and keeping of power in a handful of carefully chosen loyalists, but a renewal of love and a profound tolerance for real brothers and sisters who do not always agree.” Once again, we are confronted by unsubstantiated claims that present certain people and institutions in the SBC in a highly unfavorable and very poor light. If I didn’t know better I’d think that the SBC was run by—since we’re using letters—the KGB. What started out good has turned into a power grab. In fact, Armstrong has his doubts that the renewal of love and profound tolerance so desperately needed in the SBC will occur, “given the history of the Puritan ethos, and the inherent separatism of this resurgence.”
Therein lies the problem. I really feel sorry for the Puritans in their neo- and other forms because they have gotten some very bad PR in Armstrong’s article. If I were an unknowing person who was reading Armstrong for the first time, the last person I would want to be like would be a Puritan—any Puritan. I would have no interest in reading any of them and I would believe that the first American Thanksgiving was merely a cover for the later power grab in the SBC.
Having said all of these things—in love of course—Armstrong believes he will become a target for both conservatives as well as liberals. He writes, “Thus, I expect some conservatives, and a growing number of liberals as I reach into the mainline more and more these days, will find me an attractive target. I hope I respond well.” I certainly hope he responds better—substantially better—than he has in his critiques of the PCA and the SBC. Both responses were abysmal. But what should we expect from a man who has “been forced to move away from a theological stance that was filled with a kind of certitude that leaned more on non-Christian categories than on biblical ones.” (Italics mine.) Forced? Did someone hold a gun to his head?
I submit that his theological pilgrimage—for better or for worse—has occurred by his own volition. Furthermore, it was done consciously. Without a doubt, numerous forces have been brought to bear on his transition, but Armstrong must accept responsibility for his own theological stance. If I were to become a Barthian—which I am not—it would not be the fault of the PCA, the SBC, the KGB, or even that of the fetching Anna Nymous. Armstrong has moved into his present position because he chose to. Period. That much is evident by his bold-type assertion, “Here I stand!” No one forced Luther to move into his theological stance except the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God. If Armstrong is convinced that he is in some sense Luther-like then let him act with the scriptural integrity of Luther and stop all of his vapid sniping at denominations.
For my part, this will be the last response I will write to anything that Armstrong writes or has written. I am weary of the rampant confusion, the unsubstantiated accusations (if this were someone in our congregation we’d call it gossip), and the ascription to himself of Father Confessor to those who do not have the fortitude to stand up for themselves. But this type of blogging definitely needs to cease immediately for Armstrong is doing himself and others absolutely no favors.His so-called prayer and plea have left me cold because they were actually thinly veiled unsubstantiated accusations and he ought to know better. I hope that Armstrong can do better—much better—because if he can’t he should stop altogether because as much as he speaks about unity these types of articles have the exact opposite effect. If he has concerns about the PCA and the SBC he should pray, trust in God’s sovereignty, and believe these two denominations can, by God’s grace, sort out what needs to be sorted out.
 Catechesis, summa theologiae per quaestiones et responsiones exposita: sive, capita religionis christianae continens.