Christianity: Doctrine and Ethics

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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Anne Lamott Publicly Confesses to Murder

One of the Emergent Church’s Darlings
Anne Lamott belongs to the elite. She writes novels that people who are in psychotherapy read while they’re in their analyst’s waiting room (Hard Laughter, Rosie, All New People, Operating Instructions, Bird by Bird); she has published two books ostensibly dealing with faith—any resemblance between what she writes and what the Bible says is purely coincidental (Traveling Mercies; Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith)—, and the apostate Christianity Today describes her as “Jesusy.” Cute. The word “Jesusy” applied to someone like Anne Lamott makes you wonder where CT is getting its journalists.
In addition, Lamott is a darling among those know as Emergent Church leaders.[1] Keep in mind that Rob Bell has no clue what the Bible says about homosexuality, believes that Jesus died on the cross for everybody, everywhere,[2] took everybody’s sins upon himself,[3] yet also contends that hell is full of forgiven people; full of people God loves, and for whom Jesus died.[4] Brilliant. Just makes you want to go out and attach yourself to such a mental giant’s congregation, doesn’t it?
Ms. Lamott certainly got my attention recently with the opening sentence of her Op-Ed piece on “The man I killed did not want to die, but he no longer felt he had much of a choice.” Now please keep in mind that even though Ms. Lamott has a live-in boyfriend—but it’s okay because he’s a sensitive artist—and has possibly the foulest mouth in Marin County California she considers herself to be a Christian and others in the ECM tribe also consider her to be one.
Given what she will disclose in the course of the op-ed, her opening salvo was highly incorrect. She did not kill the man; she murdered him. Apparently she is not aware of the biblical difference. Euphemistically, our culture of death prefers the gentler, softer, kinder phrase “assisted suicide.” Nothing moral going on here.
Well, to say the least, I was intrigued by Ms. Lamott’s confession and am—quite frankly—shocked that the police have not arrested her by this time. As flaky as Ms. Lamott normally is, she outdid herself in this op-ed piece. Allow me to walk you through it. Her friend’s dilemma was that “He had gone from being tall and strapping, full of appetites and a brilliant manner of speech, to a skeleton, weak and full of messy needs.” Anyone who has been a pastor long enough has dealt with cancer patients in every phase of the illness. I really don’t need Anne Lamott to tell me about it. By the way, I have known “skeletons, weak and full of messy needs” to be highly spiritual people. I often found after leaving their bedside that they ministered to me far more than I ministered to them.
In other words, though, the man had lost the ability to do the things he liked best: to cook, overeat, hike, and travel. Moreover, he had “always been passionately literary.” I think I understand, but truly you could substitute anything for “always been passionately literary” but that would hardly make the man a candidate to have a hair-brain like Anne Lamott perform euthanasia on you. Crassly, someone might say, “Bubba was always passionate about the WWF” and he couldn’t watch it anymore, so he wanted to die.
Of course you and I know that the value of human life is entirely dependent upon whether you’re passionately literary or a redneck. The woman is clueless. At any rate, her friend was diagnosed with cancer at age 60. As sad as that is, it might be an opportunity to begin—albeit later in life—to ponder metaphysical and epistemological truth that actually outweighs being passionately literary. It seems that Dickens has limited spiritual application—especially in the face of cancer.
What seemed to bother Mel the most was not merely that his body was deserting him, but his mind, ideas, and self were exiting the building as well. As a staunch Christian, which is the way Lamott describes herself, it seemed like she might have come with some biblical counsel about Mel’s soul as well, but that is asking far too much. That is so…well, to be so unliterary to one of Christianity’s cultured despisers. Lamott informs us that Mel opted to live out his days “on his own terms,” which can definitely have eternal drawbacks. Ever the optimist, Lamott “believed that God would be close to us all no matter how things shook down, even though Mel was not a believer.” Obviously, she’s been listening to Rob Bell’s sermons.
Besides, Lamott is convinced from years of theological study that if you have a body (and who among us doesn’t?), “you are entitled to the full range of feelings. It comes with the package.” It? I was waiting for something on man being created in the image of God, but that was surely far beyond the pale of reasonable expectation.
Then one day over lunch Ms. Lamott—the liberal Presbyterian answer to Sister Teresa—“told him that if he ever experienced too much pain or diminishment, I would try to help him die on his own terms, if he wanted.” If there were ever a case of both Ms. Lamott and Mel playing God, this was it. I’ve been around the block a few times—twenty-five years as a non-believer—so I truly do not consider myself naïve, but is it just me or was there an open door for Ms. Lamott to present the gospel to Mel at this point in the conversation?
The upshot of their luncheon meeting was that Sister Anne (a.k.a. Dr. Death) offered to “help” Mel if he ever needed her. Once again, Mel opened the door for Ms. Lamott to present the gospel. He asked her what she thought death was like, which is reasonable coming from a man who is acutely aware of impending death. He can hear the hoof beats of the horses of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. She could have, I suppose, said something of a “fundamentalistic” Christian mindset about God and death, Jesus and death, or the Holy Spirit and death, but she opted instead for this: she informed him that she didn’t have a clue—who would have guessed?—but she had heard “an Eastern mystic say that it was like slipping out of a pair of shoes that had never fit very well.” That’s comforting and oh so helpful.
From there the conversation devolved into this: “Then we moved on to what we were reading, and how our kids were. I knew for a fact, though, that Mel believed in assisted suicide. We had discussed a story in the paper once, about a local man who gave his wife an overdose, and then sealed her upper body in a plastic trash bag with duct tape. Then he had done this to himself, and they died holding hands. What love!” Isn’t it amazing how a Glad trash bag and some duct tape can add to death with dignity? The Eastern mystics must have something profound to say about trash bags and duct tape.
Even old atheist Mel was a little taken aback, however, that as a Christian, Lamott “so staunchly agreed with him about assisted suicide.” Yes, one might ask that question. Lamott is quick with an answer however: “I believed that life was a kind of Earth school, so even though assisted suicide meant you were getting out early, before the term ended, you were going to be leaving anyway, so who said it wasn’t OK to take an incomplete in the course?” You probably missed that text of Old Testament or New Testament wisdom literature that made this profound Christian point: Life is a kind of Earth school—2 Hesitations 14:6. This truly qualifies as the Profound Thought of the Day. Ms. Lamott doesn’t seem to realize that to a sovereign God no one leaves “before the term ends.” When God calls them to whichever eternal destiny awaits them, it comes as no surprise to him. He does tell us, however, that he is God and it is not man’s place to decide to take his own life.
Well, long story short, several months later Mel and his wife, Joanne, call Sister Teresa. Mel had decided to take her up on her offer. Her Christian response was: “Oh my God (cute. Don’t you just love it when staunch Christians take the Lord’s name in vain like that? It’s so endearing.), I thought—I had just been being nice. I couldn’t take someone’s life. I’m not at all that sort of girl.” It is nice to know that Ms. Lamott has scruples about some things. Shacking up and having a completely filthy mouth are one thing, but “taking someone’s life” is quite another. Once again, Ms. Lamott regales us with her penchant for euphemism. What she’s talking about, folks, is not taking someone’s life like a prison warden would “take the life” of a convicted murdered. In the warden’s case he is simply killing, putting to death, or taking the life of a convicted criminal. What Ms. Lamott is describing is actually murder. We need to keep that in mind. Best of motive and intentions aside, she has zero biblical warrant for what she’s describing.
Even though she is not the kind of girl who would actually take another’s life—according to her offer—she had done her homework. When her own father was dying from cancer, she communicated with the happy crowd over at her friendly neighborhood Hemlock Society. Those kind-hearted, well-intention dragons informed her precisely how many Seconal® pills it took to kill a big person. Nope. How many pills it took to murder a big person. They even went so far as to describe how to feed the victim (Lamott and the Hemlock Happies call the victim the “sick person”) toast and tea so that they won’t throw up the pills. Nothing worse than messy emesis to ruin a perfectly good murder.
Nice girl Anne accedes to their request. There’s a bump in the road though. How could they acquire the requisite number of Seconal® pills to do the job? Ready for the next euphemism? “Through wily and underground ways, I came up with a prescription that would cover enough pills for a lethal dose.” (Emphases mine.) This “op-ed” gets more sordid and macabre as we go along! Not only is Lamott admitting publicly that he engaged in assisted suicide/murder, but also that she got the prescription illegally. She calls it wily and underground.
Have you tried recently to buy more than two bottles of NyQuil®? Last winter everyone in my family except for me came down with a case of the most pernicious flu on the planet. It was so bad that I found my wife lying face down on the bathroom floor with our German Shepherd, Hosanna, licking her ears. She was trying to get to the toilet but just gave up halfway and decided to die on the tile floor. She didn’t move but let Hosanna lick away. Actually, that’s not true, but everyone was really sick. Being the only one ambulatory in the house my wife threatened to write me out of the will if I didn’t rush down to SavOn and buy a case of NyQuil®. You cannot do it. Since we have three children still at home I thought a personalized bottle for everyone would be a nice touch. The cashier informed me that two was the limit. Physicians know the doses of medication and almost always refuse to prescribe anything over the lethal dose for fear a patient would “OD” on the drug. Can you say malpractice? I leave it up to you to decide what the words “wily” and “underground” mean in the context of his op-ed piece.
I’ll leave out the part about the events of the last evening leading up to Mel’s murder by Ms. Lamott and her musings about coming across a dying cat in a field—it’s all of a piece, isn’t it?—and cut to the chase. At Mel’s bidding Lamott confesses to going into the kitchen, crushing the pills with a mortar and pestle, and then stirring them into applesauce in a tiny Asian bowl. A tiny Asian bowl? Lamott is getting ready to murder her friend Mel, but being the literary, nice-girl butterfly nut case that she is, she simply has to mention that the murder weapon was a tiny Asian bowl. Excuse me, but who really cares? It’s like saying that you were wearing Gucci high heels while you pumped your friend full of hollow-point bullets from your elegantly appointed .357 magnum Smith & Wesson! Anyway, tiny Asian bowl.
She also admits to feeding the concoction to him and recounts that he actually grimaced as she did, “like a child swallowing medicine.” What a lovely turn of a phrase! As Mel approached death’s door and a very real encounter with his Creator he left the little group huddled around the tiny Asian bowl full of death with this profound thought: Every person owes God a death and everyone should be as lucky as he. Lamott, who simply cannot leave off being the quintessential literature snob, added that he was paraphrasing Shakespeare. That was a nice touch for the unwashed masses.
Before he died Mel informed Lamott that he had left her a present: a framed 8-by-10 photograph of Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps a more appropriate gift would have been an autographed photograph of Dr. Jack Kevorkian and an orange jump suit while she awaited trial for murder. Of course, given the muddleheaded thinking in our society today, there will be those who will applaud her efforts. How loving; how caring; how humane.
In glaring juxtaposition to the drivel that Lamott spewed out, I received an email this morning (6.28) written by an acquaintance who has also been diagnosed with cancer. The difference is that he is a strong believer. The letter was, to put the matter mildly, very moving, but was written from the heart of a man of God. He explains that while on a plane trip out East for treatment he read a book entitled, An Unexpected Journey. Then he went on to say words to this effect: When you are facing something serious you reflect back upon your life. But in reading this book it reminded me that it is not what I have done that is of significance because our best works are as nothing when it comes to what Christ has done for us. It is by faith in Him and resting in His righteousness that we can look forward to eternal life. The author said, “Faith alone looks to Christ alone and Christ alone justifies those who have faith alone.”
He closed his letter with these words: “As we close, let me share with you a few verses from Psalm 73. ‘Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart my fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever....But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.’”Lamott’s op-ed and this man’s letter are worlds apart. One claims to be a Christian and the other truly is. The ECM tribe can have Lamott and her ilk. I used to think of her babblings as fodder for satire. Now I think of her as a wretched woman who performed premeditated murder on a fellow human being If I had to chose the one I’d want with me in time of trouble, the choice would be a very easy one.
[1] For example, Rob Bell cites her as one of his favorite authors (Velvet Elvis, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005], p. 54.
[2] Ibid., 145.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 146.

Friday, June 09, 2006

John Armstrong’s Tirades Get Worse and Worse

Breaking a Promise
When I completed my responses to John Armstrong’s accusations leveled at the Presbyterian Church in America and the Southern Baptist Convention I really did think that I had written enough. Truly, I had no intention of ever writing another word about Armstrong’s tirades, but his June 2, 2006 post entitled “Questions I Ponder as a Reformed Christian” was so far over the top that is both saddened and angered me simultaneously. When I read his questions and assumed that they were not rhetorical in nature I decided to respond, if for no other reason than to clear up the obvious distortions that cling to his ten questions. Just for the record: these questions are so tendentious and misleading that I cannot imagine that a serious theologian wrote them. In fact, a serious theologian didn’t. John Armstrong did. How could anyone who is acquainted with the wide range of what Armstrong calls “confessional Reformed Christianity” come up with such distortions of the truth and misinformation? Is Armstrong deliberately attempting to delude or does he really not know? The answer is possibly both.
In point of fact, it is time to take off the gloves with Armstrong. In his first two “rantings,” he piled vagary upon vagary, refused to document anything he was talking about, and resorted to phrases like “someone said to me…”; “I was told…” In both of my previous rejoinders, I encouraged Armstrong to give us specifics; something concrete that we could deal with, but that was to no avail. After my first response he asked my permission to write a rebuttal and to put the piece up for discussion. I agreed because I think this is part of the process and I looked forward to the discussion. No rebuttal was forthcoming—for either piece that I wrote.
This third piece is, by far, the worst he’s written and the biggest piece of propaganda that I’ve read in quite a while. I’ll begin with the ridiculous—I can find no other adequate and appropriate term—words with which he ended his latest temper tantrum: “I see a growing number of younger Christians who find this whole ‘Reformed’ view completely irrelevant the more they read widely and encounter real people in real churches. One can pray that their tribe will increase as people realize that we must live in the 21st century, not the 17th.” (Italics mine.)
Once again we are tortured by yet another Armstrong generality: a growing number. Survey? Statistics? How are we assured that they are truly Reformed, because if they are anything like Armstrong I would rather doubt that they are as I will show below. But it is quite unfortunate that these younger Christians are canning the “whole ‘Reformed’ thing” (sorry folks, this is as specific as it gets with Armstrong) because where should they go to get a cohesive life and worldview? In fact I challenge Armstrong to give me one—just one—non-Reformed person or denomination that possesses a comprehensive, unified worldview like the Reformed have espoused. To coin his words: I won’t hold my breath.
I do have to give it to him, though. In spite of his temper tantrums he did open my eyes to a huge shortcoming in my ministry. Unbeknownst to me, I have been dealing with frauds, fakes, and reasonable facsimiles and not real people. I was under a huge delusion! I’ve often dabbled with the notion of the reality of UFOs, but until Armstrong’s temper tantrum I did not fully realize that I had been dealing with “body snatchers” and not real people. But that’s not the end! Not only have I been dealing with fakes and flakes but I’ve been ministering in all the wrong places in Holland, Canada, and the U.S. You see, real people—like Armstrong and the growing number of younger Christians know—are only encountered in real churches. Catch the dilemma? My congregation here in Southern California falls under Armstrong’s scathing accusation of being a “culture-bound church that is knee keep in compromise and confusion.” Understand? If you’re a real person attending a real church like—let me guess: John Armstrong and the growing number of younger Christians—then this will be oh so evident to you. If you’re not real, then John will pray for you that you’ll see the light.
Armstrong wants this growing number of younger Christians, who find this whole Reformed view completely irrelevant, to be the “tribe” (his word) that brings us to our senses. I was thrilled that Armstrong’s compassion reached so far that he was kind enough also to remind me that I am living in the 21st century and not in the 17th. Thanks. That was quite a relief because I kept wondering where in the world I was going to plug in my computer!
So we’ll start with answering Armstrong as he vents his spleen as a confessional Reformed Christian in a time of real ecclesial change in the West (his words, but emphasis mine). Are you starting to get the impression that you’ve never known anybody or done anything that was real simply because you didn’t hang out with Armstrong? By the way, please take due note that Armstrong has embraced some of the language (tribe) of the Emergent Church Movement.

Ad 1:
Armstrong, the confessional Reformed Christian, ponders this first: Why do modern conservative Reformed Christians seem to have historical amnesia when it comes to events that transpired in church history from the death of John on the Isle of Patmos, late in the first century, until the completion of the Canon several centuries later?
Since Armstrong, in his inimitable fashion, lumps all modern conservative Reformed Christians together, I’ll simply follow suit and answer: they don’t. I have no clue what Armstrong has been smoking, but this is his typical irresponsible, general, undocumented clap-trap. If he ever expects anyone to take him seriously then he needs to ratchet his scholarship up several notches. What he has done in all three of his latest “articles” doesn’t even qualify as poor scholarship—except maybe for real people in real churches.
Moreover, I want to draw your attention to the way Armstrong speaks about the Canon. Since he is not one of those folks who is not knee deep in confusion and compromise light the rest of us in the unwashed masses, I thought that he must have been referring to Pachelbel’s Canon (in real D) and I concluded, therefore, that Pachelbel did compose the piece several centuries later. Ah, but Armstrong wasn’t talking about Pachelbel, and his glorious Canon in D, but about the Canon of Scripture! Well, that changes everything! Being knee deep in compromise and confusion, I posited that the Canon of Scripture was completed the moment the last human author of the Bible put down his stylus and headed over to the real church for some honest discussion.
It would be highly beneficial, I believe, for Armstrong the confessional Reformed Christian to go back and read his confessional Reformed heritage. It might be an eye-opener about what it thinks about how the Canon was formed. For example, Rick Lints makes the following point about Calvin’s view of the formation of the canon of Scripture: “Specifically, he rejected the Roman Catholic position that the authority both to determine the extent of the canon and to interpret its message ultimately lay in the hands of the church.”[1] It appears that Armstrong is clueless at this point and has bought off the liberal or Emergent Church notion of canon (the two are becoming increasingly synonymous) and mouths the platitude. Pass the Kool-Aid, please.
On a more serious note (I am serious about Armstrong reading what he claims is his confessional heritage), this part of Armstrong’s question reveals substantially more about Armstrong that it does about the tradition to which he claims to adhere. It might be beneficial to spend less time critiquing, especially if you don’t seem to grasp the basic of how the Canon of Scripture was actually formed. You might even want to ponder God’s role in the formation of the Canon. As bad as the first question was, it gets worse.

Ad 2:
Next Armstrong asks this: Why do modern conservative Reformed Christians virtually ignore the Church Fathers as well as the catholic creeds of the Christian church?
Short answer: They don’t! I am privileged to know a very large number of modern conservative Reformed Christians and I can say with full assurance that not one of them virtually ignores the Church Fathers or the catholic creeds. What a foolish, foolish thing to say! It is simply a reprehensible thing to say! Again, we must ask: do you want to provide us with a sampling of statistics to back up your accusation? It would be interesting for Armstrong’s readers to be given some real numbers. But you and I are more than well aware of what this is. Armstrong has contrived this all. He simply made it up because he has an agenda. He is so enamored of the ECM and liberalism that he’s prostituted himself to their cause making outlandish accusations that he cannot begin to back up. What makes this all the more despicable is that he couches it under the guise of being compassionate and understanding. This is the lowest of the low and poorest of the poor.
If you look in the back of the Trinity Hymnal, you will find both the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. If you look in the overwhelming majority of Reformed hymnbooks, you will find the catholic creeds of the Christian Church. My bookshelves contain a large number of books by the Church Fathers and I have been a pastor in both the Reformed as well as Presbyterian churches. Quite frankly, I have no clue what Armstrong is talking about with his second question.
By this time, he should have given names and ID numbers with all of his accusations, but since he has not brought forth one shred of real evidence we must conclude that this too is yet another Armstrong fabrication. As one who has a great deal of contact in both the Presbyterian and Reformed communities I can truthfully say that Armstrong’s veiled question is sheer nonsense. My words to him are: shame on you for such blatant untruth! The same words carry over to his next “question.”

Ad 3:
Why do modern conservative Reformed Christians ignore the fact that John Calvin was especially influenced by the Church Fathers? For that matter why do these same conservative Reformed Christians virtually ignore other Reformed writers who relied very heavily upon the classical catholic tradition such as Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley?
Thomas Cranmer? Who? Never heard of him! Must not have been a real person. Hugh Latimer? I know a Hugh Grant. He stars in movies along with other real people like Julia Roberts—next to Barbra Streisand, my very favorite real person. Nicholas Ridley? Doesn’t he play for Cubs? And as far as Calvin is concerned, I know for a fact that he never showed any familiarization with or willingness to use any of the Church Fathers.
Again, I could cite a number of statements to the contrary, but allow me to suffice with what Rick Lints offers—knowing, of course, that Lints cannot hold a scholarly candle to the likes of Armstrong! In succinct fashion Lints writes, “Neither Calvin nor Luther simply threw out the preceding 1,500 years of church history. In representative fashion, Luther defended tradition in his treatise against the Anabaptists (1528)…. The indebtedness of Luther and Calvin to tradition can be seen clearly in their reliance on Augustine at central points. Calvin was also profoundly indebted to the secular authors of antiquity…. He drank deeply from the well of history, and the strength of his convictions was often a function of the clarity of the conviction he found in Scripture mediated through the patristic tradition.”[2] Every truly Reformed professor, pastor, and teacher I know accepts what Lints has summarized for us as indisputable truth. I have no clue why Armstrong would make such a silly, unfounded assertion. It simply is not true.
Therefore, this form of “question” that Armstrong raises is truly well beyond the pale. I am issuing a challenge to Armstrong to give me a list of five—since he’s talking in such gross generalities this should not take him two seconds to do—of the chief offenders by name. If he doesn’t take me up on this, I will publish his failure to do so. Anyone who has done any study of Calvin at all will know that he is deeply influenced by a number of Church Fathers, but he as also solidly a Reformer and Reformed. Apparently, Armstrong doesn’t know how that can be. There is only one category for this third question: ignorance of the truth. It’s either that or intentional distortion of it. In Armstrong’s case it’s getting increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two.

Ad 4:
This is a long one so hold on. Why do conservative Reformed Christians treat only certain confessional traditions, such as the Westminster Confession or its cousin the London Baptist Confession, as if only these confessions and catechisms were the proper confessional grounds for the Reformed faith and thus for contemporary understanding of the Bible and classical Christian thought, if they even care about classical thought? These important creedal standards of the 17th century are not the only standards for orthodoxy, for all time and all cultures, and few have ever treated them in this manner. Therefore, why do ordinary Christians hardly ever hear this from the many of the conservative Reformed spokesmen? (There are few if any conservative Reformed spokeswomen, which is another question for another time.)
Now let’s see; does Armstrong have a bone to pick here? I suppose that one of the reasons I taught the Three Forms of Unity in Holland and Canada was because…hmm, let me see… Oh, I know now! I signed on the dotted line and gave my word that I would. Those three documents just happened to be the confessional statements of my church. Odd.
When I became a “Presbo” I also gave my word that I believed with heart and head that “I sincerely received and adopted the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of the PCA (Westminster Standards) as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” (Book of Church Order, 21-5.2.) Having principles, I concluded that it might be the ethical thing to do once again to keep my word. You might recall that two of the three—the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession—are ostensibly Armstrong’s favorites. I say “ostensibly” because it is getting more and more difficult to see precisely what value he attaches to them.
It is height of tendentiousness for Armstrong to insinuate that simply by signing on and keeping your word you somehow believe that your confessions are the only ones. Did it ever cross his mind that in the wide gamut of confessional statements people who have principles might keep the oath they swore? Just for the record, there are quite a few Reformed and Presbyterian confessions that I use on a very regular basis including the Westminster Standards, the Three Forms of Unity, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Scots Confession and a host of others.
No one I know has ever made the assertion that the creeds of the 17th century are the only standards for orthodoxy. But wait! Armstrong is letting his Emergent Church slip show a little. McLaren, Bell, Chalke, Pagitt, Miller, and the other non-leader leaders of the EM tribe follow the postmodern mantra that all truth is culturally conditioned, thereby denying universal, absolute truth. It sounds very much like Armstrong is rushing headlong over that cliff. If Armstrong ever got off his contrived bandwagon and listened to real people and not this faceless crowd that he continually thrusts upon us, with nothing to back his allegations up, he would be more than aware that conservative Reformed Christians speak about a variety of creeds frequently. I’ll let Armstrong’s comment about conservative Reformed spokeswomen slide since it’s pretty evident where he’s heading with that. I would, however, mention Susan Hunt, Jane Patete, and Rebecca Jones as examples of conservative Reformed spokeswomen, two of the three being published.

Ad 5:
Why do conservative Reformed Christians demand a kind of purity from other Reformed writers that allows so many of them to never actually engage the culture and do the hard work of the Kingdom in the 21st century? Why do they attack all expressions of emerging culture and church life when in fact their tradition emerged in a specific time in history too?
Huh? Just in case Armstrong is unaware—and it really seems like he is!—conservative Reformed Christians have written extensively about “engaging the culture.” Groen van Prinsterer, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Hans Rookmaaker, Francis Schaeffer, R.C. Sproul, David Wells, Rick Lints, D.A. Carson, and a host of others have actively participated in and written about culture and how to “engage” it.
Lints, for example, reminds us that “Evangelical theology must not only engage a culture that is largely resistant to its claims of absolute truth but must also recognize the influence which that culture has exercised upon it.”[3] This quote provides a necessary balance for Armstrong and others like him who seem to forget or ignore the “reciprocal” aspect of engaging the culture: the culture will engage you back. This is an important point that is often overlooked or left unmentioned in many modern attempts to “engage the culture.”
What I learned from Bavinck, Kuyper, van Prinsterer, Rookmaaker, and others is while you’re “engaging” the culture as a Christian, you must maintain a clearly defined and strongly defended notion of “antithesis.” To engage the culture without this spiritual tool in your armamentarium is one of the best ways of having the culture assimilate you into its ethics and morals. “Engaging the culture” is one of those glib, faddish statements that, as often as not, fails to heed Lints’ warning about the concept of reciprocity. A cursory glance at many of the Emergent Church web sites will bear this out.[4] I invite you to read the previous footnote carefully and to note what lengths some are willing to go to in order to “engage the culture.” To someone who is Presbyterian or Reformed, the strong drink efforts would be appealing and might involve mass conversions, but there is still hope that they wouldn’t “ditch” sermons for drama or porn weekends. Porn weekends? Give me a break!
David Wells has also written four excellent books, which it sounds as if Armstrong has never read, that address Christians and culture as well. If Armstrong takes the time to read Wells and Lints, he can easily remove this 5th question. In fact, he’d probably be ashamed he even asked it—maybe.
Arguably, the “cRC” (for whatever reason, Armstrong dropped “modern” after the 3rd question) tribe doesn’t attack all expressions of emerging culture and church life. There are some enormous problems with both, however, if Armstrong only had eyes to see them. A quick read of D.A. Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church would be a good start.

Ad 6:
Why do conservative Reformed Christians identify so strongly, and often so stridently, with other non-Reformed Christians in certain area [sic] of gospel controversy, especially in advocating very narrow definitions of the gospel in an attempt to impress lay and inadequately taught pastors that they alone are standing for the truth in this dark day? This has been done over the last ten years with the issuance of various joint statements and widely promoted conferences, as if these faithful spokesmen alone have the courage to defend the gospel and the correct understanding of what actually constitutes the gospel.
Short answer: Because on certain social issues we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder and on other theological issues we have differences—sometimes substantial differences. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a nuanced approach to life and the Christian life. Once again, reading someone like Bavinck or Kuyper would clarify a great deal for an apparently quite confused (and compromised?) Armstrong. He must have attended my culture-bound congregation that is knee deep in compromise and confusion and some of it just rubbed off on him. I certainly like the conservative Reformed Christian definition of the gospel substantially better than I like, say, Jim Wallis’ version of it in either God’s Politics or Sojourners. There. I’ve named a name which is more than Armstrong has ever done. I would challenge Armstrong to show me where Wallis’ “gospel” in God’s Politics comports with the biblical gospel. I’m up to the challenge and looking very much forward to the exchange.

Ad 7:
Why do conservative Reformed Christians generally treat Roman Catholics (and Orthodox Christians if they bother to respond to them at all) as non-Christians, especially in their public pronouncements? Do these same Reformed Christians, at least on the Presbyterian side of the aisle, ever admit that their own traditions have always accepted Catholic/Orthodox baptism as valid Christian baptism? I also wonder if these conservatives, who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other non-Reformed fundamentalists in a type of reductionism that results from their narrow gospel definitions (as noted as in question six above), really ever make these facts plain to their non-Reformed (Baptist and dispensational) allies, who I suppose would be aghast if they understood this?
Apart from coming dangerously close to dangling with participles, I’m not convinced that Armstrong understands the history of the Church. One conservative Reformed Christian, John Calvin, for example, readily acknowledged that there were Christians in the Roman Catholic Church—in spite of the falsehood taught there. By the way, if Armstrong—as an avowed Reformed Christian—is not aware of the glaring differences between the Presbyterian/Reformed and the Roman Catholic/Orthodox then there is no hope for him.
Reading in our modern society is rapidly becoming a lost art and it seems to be wasted on Armstrong. I direct his attention to Westminster Confession of Faith (27.3) that has—long since—been accepted by the cRC tribe: namely that “neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution…” In short, even the notorious Presbyterian side of the aisle has accepted Christian baptism, which means that to this point they have not declared the Roman Catholic Church to be absolutely false.

Ad 8:
Why do conservative Reformed Christians rail so harshly, and react so emotionally against liturgy in worship (a huge list could be constructed to make this point) on the one hand, while on the other they hate pop-cultural, happy-clappy, contemporary evangelical worship services with a passion? Do they realize that what they have created in many cases, is a modern lecture hall with hymns and a collection? Do they realize that this is much more like a Plymouth Brethren gathering than a truly Reformed service, with all its variations and rich use of older liturgical tradition?
React so emotionally against liturgy in worship? I have no idea what Armstrong is trying to say here. If, however, a huge list could be constructed to make his point, why doesn’t he supply us with one or two examples? I do believe, however, that the disdain that some hold for contemporary worship services is that they are not worship services in the strict sense of the word, but rather are much more man-centered entertainment.
The “hate” that Armstrong conjures up in his imagination is not so much against pop-culture but against pop-culture’s intrusion into what is supposed to be the worship of the Lord God Almighty. On the Presbyterian side of the aisle, we hold to the ordinary means of grace that God has provided and we also believe that the Lord has revealed to us those things that are pleasing to him in worship. If you don’t believe me, just ask Nadab and Abihu.
I take great exception to Armstrong’s accusation of an ordinary means of grace worship service being “a modern lecture hall with hymns and a collection”! This is outrageous and Armstrong should not only be ashamed of himself but should apologize. To coin his language again: I won’t hold my breath.
Historically, Calvin was greatly concerned about proper liturgy and differed from the Lutherans on this point. Presbyterian and Reformed theologians are convinced that “Calvin was firm in his conviction that the substance of theology must extend no further than the limits of Scripture.”[5] Reading Calvin’s Institutes as well as his “occasional” writings leaves no doubt where Calvin stood on the matter of liturgy.[6] It is also clearly evident that “Unlike Luther, Calvin was convinced that the liturgy of the Protestant churches ought to include only what is expressly affirmed in Scripture.”[7]
Presbyterians and the Reformed have affirmed this truth, which is one of the primary reasons that their worship services might appear to be lecture halls with hymns (or worse yet, psalms!) and a collection. We especially like the collection. At Grace Presbyterian we take at least five collections per service. Right. I dare say, an expository sermon hardly qualifies as a “lecture,” but Armstrong has declared it to be so; thus, in his mind it is—by a form of ex cathedra declaration.
What eludes Armstrong—among other things!—is the truth that “…Calvin believed it was necessary to revamp the entire service based on explicit biblical injunctions. Calvin’s ‘regulative’ principle sought to distinguish more clearly the practices of the Protestant churches from those of the medieval church. His reverence for tradition was no less than that of Luther, but he believed it had to be filtered through Scripture more fully in matters of practice. [8] If Armstrong isn’t aware of this, he certainly should be; if he is aware of it he should be ashamed for setting up such a false dilemma.
Finally, I really believe that Presbyterian and Reformed professors, pastors, and laymen understand what actually constitutes the different between a truly Reformed worship service and a Plymouth Brethren gathering and we do not need someone like Armstrong to lecture us on the matter. In fact, I will not be lectured by him on what constitutes true, biblical worship.

Ad 9:
Why do conservative Reformed Christians often promote a high ecclesiology (in theory) while in practice they act much more like Southern Baptists who add presbyteries and general assemblies on to a modern form of culture religion? In practice these sorts of Reformed groups govern themselves, and do theology, less and less like historically Reformed bodies. Think populism and democratic idealism, not historic Reformed confessionalism, and you get my point.

While understanding populism and democratic idealism, I have no idea what Armstrong is getting at here. To my mind, this is yet another nebulous, vague declaration. The clear trend is that Armstrong pontificates, accuses, and offers solutions but does not give any concrete examples of what he means. If, in fact, those promoting a “high ecclesiology” are doing what Armstrong is saying they’re doing then why in the world doesn’t he give us some specific examples? I have mentioned this in my two previous articles responding to Armstrong and he just doesn’t seem to get it! Give examples of what you mean! Support your accusations with real instances of what you are driving at. I am now to the point where I truly believe that it is within the realm of possibility that Armstrong is listening to gossip and then fabricating stories that belong in the Fantasy Land section of Disneyland. The truly sad thing is that it seems that he really expects us to take him seriously and at his word. I, for one, refuse to do either. I say this not because I’m particularly intractable, but simply because I would like—for a refreshing change—to have some facts from Armstrong to deal with.

Ad 10:
Why do conservative Reformed Christians promote certain aspects of Puritanism, often without really understanding Puritanism in the way a real scholar like J.I. Packer does, while at the same time they despise the real Puritan approach to the Holy Spirit and to a practical experiential religion centered in the heart? And why do these same people hate almost every type of ascetical or mystical theology while whole segments of the Reformed movement have loved these parts of the Christian tradition deeply?(This is precisely why some conservative Reformed spokesmen despise Jonathan Edwards, which I discovered first-hand, to my profound surprise, about then years ago.)
Hmm. Let me think on this one a minute. Well, one reason why members of the cRC tribe might reject the Congregationalism of a number of Puritans is because, well, they are Reformed and Presbyterian. That is a “certain aspect” of the Puritans that the Reformed and Presbyterians find to be less than helpful. In addition, I am not at all certain that you have to understand Puritanism like J.I. Packer (a real scholar) to be critical of part of it while accepting other good things in it. Who would be an unreal scholar? Me? Armstrong?
But it’s pretty clear what Armstrong’s aiming at, isn’t it? He really believes that the cRC tribe—head-for-head—despises the real Puritan approach to the Holy Spirit and to practical experiential religion. I cannot tell you the first word that came to my mind when I read that, but I can tell you that you wouldn’t want to step in any. Armstrong might have added to his delusional ranting that prior to the Puritans, John Calvin was known as “The Theologian of the Holy Spirit” and that he spoke about true, biblical piety and the experience of one’s faith. (He was given that title at a ceremony at his culture-bound church in Geneva affectionately known as the “Knee Deep in Confusion and Compromise Church”—in French, of course.) Moreover, Armstrong could have pointed to the truth that Calvin, Olevianus, and Ursinus collectively described true, saving faith as both sure knowledge (head) and firm confidence (heart).
Going further, Armstrong should be aware of the downside of asceticism á la Francis of Assisi in his brother sun sister moon pantheism. Where Armstrong clearly—clearly—manifests his consummate ineptitude is when he so glibly (and with consummate lack of precision) speaks about “mystical theology.” If he means Mysticism, then the cRC tribe is correct in rejecting that aberration. At the end of the mystic’s journey he or she could say to God, “I am you.” If, however, he means the mystical union (unio mystica) of the believer with Christ, the Reformed and Presbyterians have always taught this as an integral part of their doctrine. Those in mystical union with Christ say, “I am yours.” Big, big difference! The two—Mysticism and the unio mystica—are very different, but it seems as if Armstrong is not aware of it because he is, at best, sloppy with his language.
As far as Edwards is concerned, I am certainly not convinced that “some conservative Reformed spokesmen” despise Jonathan Edwards because he taught experiential religion. That is sheer nonsense. Since we’re dropping names, the late John Gerstner wrote a three-volume work on Edwards in which he was, from time to time, critical of certain facets of Edwards’ theology. Does that mean that he hated or despised Edwards? Hardly. Any reasonable person would conclude that having certain criticisms of a theologian is a far cry from despising him. Like any theologian, “some conservative Reformed spokesmen” will like part, some, or a lot of Edwards, Bavinck, Kuyper, Hoekema, Baxter, Watson, Dabney, Thornwell, Sibbes, Goodwin, Owen, Calvin, Bullinger, and others.

Armstrong’s Conclusions:
We have come full circle. So what are Armstrong’s conclusions to his ten questions? He writes, “Separatism and fundamentalism are both alive and well among many conservative Reformed Christians in our day. I wish more people understood the simple truth of this obvious fact.” I wish I could get a verifiable fact from Armstrong! Who might these separatist, fundamentalist cRCs be? What, precisely, qualifies them to be both separatist and fundamentalists? In certain circles, this type of unfounded commentary could qualify as gossip at best and libel at worst. Besides, if the spiritual danger is as immanent as Armstrong seems to think it is, why wouldn’t he supply us with more factual data so that real people in real churches could avoid the culture-bound church that is not only knee deep in compromise and confusion, but also separatism and fundamentalism? In his compassion for us why doesn’t he give us names and addresses so that we can avoid these obvious spiritual pitfalls? Unwarranted, unfounded, unbelievable! The man knows no shame.
After two pages of questions that ramble, Armstrong is apparently sufficiently convinced in his own mind—that’s about the only one he’s convinced, along with the Emergent tribe, and Jim Wallis—that he has exhausted the subject, when in fact he actually poses a classic false dilemma. The uptight cRC tribe needs to “allow an honest discussion in their circles of influence,” to which Armstrong adds that he is not holding his breath, which is precisely what I’m not doing until Armstrong actually produces a shred of evidence in his writing! Why does Armstrong want this “honest discussion?” Here’s the answer: “To open up such circles to an honest discussion would require an open denial of the narrow use of their creedal tradition. Bible-belt American culture has much more to do with these questions than historical creeds and confession, as do pride of person and place.” (Emphasis his.) The false dilemma is precisely this: there are souls to save out there; forget the creeds and let’s save souls.
While no one denies the biblical mandate to evangelize, that mandate does not come with a tag that reads: jettison your theology; check it at the door. Moreover, I am once again completely in the dark about what would constitute a narrow use of my creedal tradition with a view to say, the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, justification by faith, the sacraments, the doctrine of the Church, the doctrine of the atonement, the Second Coming, the session of Christ at the right hand of the Father, etc. Once again, Armstrong doesn’t…well, you know the drill by now.
This is getting long, but allow me a short postscript.
First, John Armstrong should not be taken seriously for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he does not offer any concrete evidence of his any of his accusations. His “evidence” is, at best, hearsay, verging on gossip and cowardice. Cowardice? Yes. If things are even half as bad as he reports them, let him name names. We are all big boys and most of us are prepared to defend our positions with Scripture and creeds.
Second, John Armstrong should seriously consider no longer calling himself Reformed. In his shots at the PCA and SBC as well as in this article he has distanced himself from classical Reformed/Presbyterian theology. As critical as he is, why doesn’t he simply choose something other than Reformed. I realize that he will argue that he is Reformed and loves Reformed, but his accusations are not merely hurled at “modern conservative Reformed Christians,” but also at the authors of these Reformed documents that actually held to very decided views of right and wrong with regard to Ecclesiology and Soteriology, just to mention a couple.
Third, John Armstrong should cease from advising others about what actually constitutes Reformed/Presbyterian theology. In the course of these three articles I have become convinced that he wouldn’t know classical Reformed theology if it walked up and hit him in the face.
Fourth, in the name of fairness, John Armstrong should not write another accusatory piece unless he musters up the fortitude to name names and give specific examples of what he means. Until he is willing to do this, no one with any credibility should take him seriously.
Fifth, John Armstrong should not consider himself to be the one to explain Reformed/Presbyterian theology to others or to point them to the perceived deficiencies in it.
Sixth, look for John Armstrong to continue to write favorably about the Emergent Church Movement, but do not expect him to give you any real warning signs about the presuppositions of its theological, pastoral, or youth leaders.
Seventh, expect John Armstrong to continue to write in this irresponsible manner. Apart of being convinced that he has somehow been appointed to straighten everyone else out, he seems delusional to the point that wisdom will, in fact, die with him. You almost get the feeling—to parody Mark Twain—that if there were ever a vacancy in the Trinity, he’d consider applying.
When I began responding to this article I will admit that I was mad—livid is probably a better word. But I wasn’t mad because what I read was true, but precisely because it rang so untrue; so tendentious. Armstrong sits back and throws his theological spitballs at the Reformed community, all the while wanting us to believe that he understands Reformed thinking—which I don’t believe he does; at least not the twenty-five years plus I’ve trafficked among the Reformed and Presbyterians.At the end of all this I am no longer livid, but I am still mad; mad that such false accusations would be leveled against men I love and admire in the Lord. Do we have faults? Yes. Are we 100% correct? No. But more than being mad, I am sad for John Armstrong. What he has done in his three articles has been neither responsible nor theological. His irresponsibility in failing to substantiate his claims is evident to all. At the same time, none of his ramblings have anything to do with real theology. It’s sad that he thinks that it would. The best place for such undertakings is either the trash can or The National Inquirer.

[1] Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 158-159. Italics mine.
[2] Ibid., 157.
[3] Ibid., 26.
[4] Just as an example, try Kevin D. Hendricks’ site, “Church Marketing Sucks.” Don’t let the title fool you. Hendricks is convinced that marketing the church is a good thing; he merely believes that the modern mega-church has gone about it the wrong way. An excellent response to Hendricks and his ilk was posted by Phil Johnson ( “For those who still don’t get it…” In that article, Johnson describes (read: documents) some of the ridiculous notions that Hendricks advocates in getting people to church. He writes, “On the contrary, the varieties of "marketing" you have promoted include everything from "Ditching Sermons for Drama" to "outreach efforts involving strong drink—not to mention deliberately titillating ad campaigns, lingerie parties, and porn weekends.
[5] Lints, FT, 158.
[6] Ibid. Lints states, “A particularly acute example can be found in his (Calvin’s—RG) understanding of appropriate worship.”
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid. Emphasis mine. Comp., for example, Calvin’s Second Defense of the Godly and Orthodox Faith concerning the Sacraments against the False Accusations of Joachim Westphal.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Lessons from a Man Who Has Been There and Done That (V)

A Sense of Loss (II)
As I mentioned in our last issue, the late John Leith has performed a most necessary service for us in his book Crisis in the Church.[1] We would be very wish to pause and to reflect upon his warnings. Previously, we examined his observations regarding the Presbyterian Church USA’s loss of tradition, gratitude, and orientation when they moved to the Left theologically.[2]
This movement had a clearly discernible “trickle down” effect. What the professors began to teach was not connected to the man and woman in the pew simply because the pastors graduating from PCUSA seminaries were not equipped to be effective pastors. The pastors, in turn, morphed into “disabling agents” rather quickly and the man and woman in the pew bore the brunt of the ineptitude. Unfortunately, the story does not end there. As God’s people developed “leanness of soul” (Ps. 106:15—Authorized Version of 1901) they lost their abilities to discern truth from error.
As this occurred there was a deliberate turn towards the Social Gospel, seeking to aid and abet those who suffered from social injustice. This is a noble undertaking, but the PCUSA has effectively removed itself from biblical thinking and its creedal background, leaving it adrift, without a moral compass.[3] The net result was a very negative reciprocity in the sense that professors continued to distance themselves from their Presbyterian tradition and embraced Neo-orthodoxy, feeding that to their pastors, who fed it to the people. The more theological ignorance grew, the more the people and pastors wanted to be relevant, cutting edge. A classic example of the PCUSA’s pilgrimage is their funding of Angela Davis and the Black Panthers with PCUSA contributions from the hard-working men and women in the pew. What goes around comes around.
The PCUSA’s drift towards progressive thought and action continued to have its deleterious effects, which included a loss of sense of mission and direction.[4]

Losing Mission and Direction
Leith writes, “Seminaries…were established by the church to prepare pastors for the church. Contemporary faculties coming out of graduate schools tend to pressure the seminaries in another direction; namely, that of the academic institution. Seminary faculties increasingly like to think of themselves as centers for thought, for research, for the writing of articles and books and creative theological enterprises.”[5]
Following the lead of German theology, Americans have not merely added Ph.D. programs, but at times seem almost to worship them. Don’t get me wrong: there is nothing inherently or intrinsically wrong with having a Ph.D. Much good has come from true biblical scholarship. Christian scholarship’s best place is in the pulpit. The danger, however, is when the Ph.D. becomes an academic pinhead and takes up residence in the proverbial “ivory tower.”
When you couple this with a theology professor who has little or no real pastoral experience, then you have a pretty good recipe for disaster. During the 1950s and 1960s seminary curriculum revision became the undertaking du jour. Leith calls the obsession with curriculum revision “endemic.” Prior to World War II curricula were pretty basic: Bible history, theology/ethics, church history, and pastoral theology. Specialization was on the upswing so that we knew more and more about less and less with the eventuality that we now know everything about nothing, which is a way of saying that our knowledge of biblical truth is at low ebb from the seminary to the pew.
Even though there are still good and reputable seminaries they are, in point of fact, becoming increasingly difficult to find. To my mind, the first and most essential task of a seminary should be to prepare preachers, “who use theological and biblical knowledge to proclaim the gospel and to nurture congregations.”[6] And it is precisely here that the rub comes. Seminary students today, depending on their alma mater can have no knowledge of the original languages, precious little information about the history of the Church, no grasp of a systematic overview of the Bible, and not having read the Bible from cover to cover.
I’m convinced that one of the first questions we should ask a theological candidate who is seeking to be a pastor is Have you ever read the Bible from cover to cover? The follow-up question is: How many times? A perennial problem is that theology students populate their bookshelves with books they haven’t read or digested to impress us, but have not taken the time to have read through Scripture or memorized the catechism(s) of their respective denomination. Leith laments, “Many students graduate having read a few pages of many theologians, but without having mastered any comprehensive theological text that played a decisive role in the growth and development of American Presbyterianism.”[7] Mutatis mutandis the same would hold for the Baptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, and Joel Osteen.

Loss of “Tolerance”
With all of our pluralism, diversity, and culture wars you’d think that we understand what tolerance is all about. Wrong. Simple questions such as Does tolerance require the acceptance of all views on a given subject as equally true? or Can I be tolerant and still believe in objective truth about the Bible, ethics, and politics? tend to give us pause for reflection—at least they ought to! Of course in our modern (evangelical) society, “If no one knows what is true or false, good and evil, then we must be tolerant of all.”[8] And yet we still haven’t defined what true toleration is and for those who have lived long enough or have attended liberal schools, we are forced to answer, “It depends” when it comes to defining the term.
One example will have to suffice. In order to get Americans to “tolerate” homosexuality Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen wrote a book entitled After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the ‘90s.[9] They outline an elaborate, extensive three-stage strategy “to Desensitize, Jam and Convert the American public”[10] in a style reminiscent of George Orwell’s premise of “goodthink” and “badthink” in his work 1984. Systematically, the homosexual community has aggressively implements Kirk and Madsen’s “battle plan” so much so that “toleration” has come to mean “completely buy into” in homosexual circles.[11]
I tell you all this because Leith makes a parallel point regarding the movement Left in the PCUSA. He reminds us that what we call “academic freedom” can be a Trojan horse or the proverbial camel with his nose under the tent. Professors and pastors should be entitled to have the requisite freedom to pursue what the Bible and creeds say. We could call this freedom for the faith. The caveat however is that “The tragedy is that freedom for the faith became freedom from the faith” in the PCUSA.[12]
Every professor, pastor, and man and woman in the pew needs to reflect upon that statement. The implications and applications are “legion” at every level. Jon Levenson has issued a similar warning. Levenson argued that “No community can be equally open to all ideas, and the academic equivalent of the First Amendment absolutism…is neither possible nor desirable.”[13] This ties in very closely with the lame, repetitive mantra of “you just don’t understand me.” Positively no one is as obscure as someone who claims to be orthodox and fudges at every turn. I heard this mantra constantly when I studied at a liberal theological seminary in Holland. Today, it is heard time and time again by those who claim to adhere to a particular theological tradition—for example, PCA—and who have “signed on the dotted line” of subscription but who continually “hedge” when it comes to crucial doctrines of the faith. As often as not, what is heard is, “You don’t understand me.”
Allow me one egregious example. The name Norm Shepherd is a household name in Reformed theological circles. The controversies surrounding his teachings began in the late 1970s. Today, Shepherd’s theology is still under discussion but in the course of almost three decades a man as articulate as Shepherd is has not been able explain clearly and to everyone’s satisfaction what precisely it is that he avows. Some of the greatest theological minds of our time have examined his writings and declared them aberrant. Nevertheless, Shepherd and his followers continue to tell us that we don’t understand them. This is a sad commentary on Norm Shepherd’s abilities to communicate effectively certain theological issues as well as on those who embrace what is called the Federal Vision and/or the theology of N.T. Wright. How many well-trained theological minds does it take to follow a theological argument? Why is it that at the end of the argument those in the Federal Vision camp claim to hold to the teachings of the Westminster Standards when it is clear that they do not? If it is so self-evident that these people hold to the doctrinal standards of their denomination, why are there so many questions? For example, why couldn’t we simply point someone to the Westminster Standards on justification by faith and say, “That is an adequate summary of what I believe regarding justification—period”?
In the long haul, tolerance can be little more than a ruse as Leith points out. He reminds us that “No fundamentalist group in the South was ever as relentless in denying freedom for theology and ministry as the left wing of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been in denying freedom to those who challenge their special dogmas, not only in the seminary but in the church.”[14] This is the classic example of the iron fist in the velvet glove and it is patently true. Leith knew first hand from experience that “The left-wing censors leave few openings for freedom.”[15] This holds true not only for “left-wingers” but also for those who are journeying in that direction.
Voices can be heard today from a variety of circles descrying so-called “traditional” approaches to the Christian faith ranging from the mega-church to the Emergent Church movement. Documents are proposed advocating charity in theological discussion, which, in general, is a quality to strive for. The problem, however, is one of reciprocity or lack thereof or that there is no longer any “line” where you can say, “If you step over this, you’ve gone too far.”
At virtually every level we can observe the true face of toleration when speakers are shouted down or prohibited from speaking on college campuses. Leith witnessed this phenomenon in the PCUSA when it was demanded—demanded—that “new appointments to faculties respect their dogmas…” and, Leith continues, “…they even attempt to censor the language of chapel speakers.”[16] These are the same fine folks that advocate freedom of speech and toleration. Got it? This sort of approach recurs repeatedly in history and in the history of the Church.
Just in case you weren’t aware of it, “Princeton, Union in Virginia, and Columbia all have statements in their handbooks specifying the ‘inclusive’ language they expect of chapel speakers.”[17] If you do not comply, you will not speak there. Here’s the way it works: All are free to speak; some are just freer than others. Pass the Kool-Aid. These same tolerant, self-absorbed, self-serving people supported the “use of crude and vulgar language at the Minneapolis Re-imaging Conference, such as specific sexual references not usually heard in church gatherings as well as crude caricatures of traditional Christian doctrines such as the atonement.”[18] But when it comes to allowing people that disagree with them to speak, toleration flies out of the door. Typical.
This boils down to the following: “The pressure from the orthodoxies of political correctness and social agendas endangers the integrity of theological scholarship.”[19] There are a couple of ways this is actually implemented. I mentioned the “you don’t understand me” ploy above and it continues to be one of the hallmarks of discussions theological and otherwise. The other tactic is simply to be smug and arrogant. You can experience that today. Engage in a conversation with someone who is bound and determined to be politically correct and in no time at all you will discover that that person will insist that you be politically correct as well—all in the name of toleration of course.
Leith is reminding us that without being hard-hearted we at least need to be circumspect about those who wish to deviate from the norm. If, for example, someone is not pleased with the doctrine of justification by faith taught in Scripture and in, say, the Westminster Standards or Three Forms of Unity, I would recommend that they simply seek a church elsewhere; a church where their views conform more to their thinking—provided that they are certain that their views are scriptural. If, for example, you become convinced that the doctrine of justification by faith taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith or Heidelberg Catechism is not correct, then rather than staying and pleading for tolerance and freedom, leave quietly and find another church.Much of what Leith experienced was a slow, gradual, at times almost imperceptible chipping away at the foundations. Various denominations from the Presbyterian Church in America to the Southern Baptist Convention are experiencing something very similar whether the issue is justification by faith, the Federal Vision, N.T. Wright, the ordination of women as Deacons, what a helpful theologian Karl Barth was, or whether Genesis is “inspired” myth. We are facing these issues now and history will reflect how we responded.

[1] John H. Leith, Crisis in the Church. The Plight of Theological Education, (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).
[2] One of the best accounts that I’ve read about the PCUSA’s demise is found—in popular style—in Sean Lucas’ new book On Being Presbyterian, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2006), pp. 151-251.
[3] Lucas points out to us (p. 227) that the phrase “What would Jesus do?” originates from this period. That is an interesting as Brad Stetson and Joseph Conti reminding us that the phrase “politically correct” is derived from Marxist political theory. See The Truth about Tolerance, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), p. 16.
[4] Leith, CiC, 17.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 18.
[7] Ibid., 18-19.
[8] Stetson & Conti, TTAT, 27.
[9] Marshall Kirk & Hunter Madsen, After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the ‘90s, (NY: Penguin, 1989).
[10] Paul E. Rondeau, “Selling Homosexuality in America,” Regent University Law Review, vol. 14 (2002):443.
[11] Almost all of my books are currently packed away while my church expands my study to accommodate my books, but I highly recommend the work of My Favorite Lesbian, Tammy Bruce, The Death of Right and Wrong.
[12] Leith, CiC, 20.
[13] John Levenson, “Theological Liberalism Aborting Itself,” Christian Century (Feb. 5-12, 1992):146.
[14] Leith, CiC, 21.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.