Lessons from a Man Who Has Been There and Done That (V)
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.”
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.” 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.” 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.” 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. They outline an elaborate, extensive three-stage strategy “to Desensitize, Jam and Convert the American public” 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.
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.
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.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.
 John H. Leith, Crisis in the Church. The Plight of Theological Education, (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).
 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.
 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.
 Leith, CiC, 17.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 18-19.
 Stetson & Conti, TTAT, 27.
 Marshall Kirk & Hunter Madsen, After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the ‘90s, (NY: Penguin, 1989).
 Paul E. Rondeau, “Selling Homosexuality in America,” Regent University Law Review, vol. 14 (2002):443.
 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.
 Leith, CiC, 20.
 John Levenson, “Theological Liberalism Aborting Itself,” Christian Century (Feb. 5-12, 1992):146.
 Leith, CiC, 21.