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.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Engaging the What? (IV)

The Modern Church’s Infatuation with Culture

In his Stone Lectureship series at Princeton, Herman Bavinck declared, “If we are to speak of the relation which Christianity bears to culture, we must first of all give a clear account of what we understand by culture, and of precisely the kind of culture Christianity is to form a contrast to.”[1] And therein exists the problem of a lion’s share of modern ecclesiastical discourse. Discussions are neither clear nor precise, but tend to flit about the accoutrements or forms, without discussing, debating, or disagreeing or agreeing with its contents.

Back in 1959, Henry Van Til commented that “Culture is not something neutral, without ethical or religious connotation. Human achievement is not purposeless but seeks to achieve certain ends, which are either good or bad. Since man is a moral being, his culture cannot be a-moral.”[2] Van Til began his book with the observation that “The Christian is in the world, but not of the world. This constitutes the basis of the perennial problem involved in the discussion of Christian culture.”[3]

One of our problems in the 21st century is that few are stepping forward with a clear and precise definition of what this animal is that many are suggesting Christians “engage.” Bavinck supplies us with a simple, starting working definition to get us moving on the right track. “Culture in the broadest sense…includes all the labor which human power expends on nature.”[4] His historical investigation lead him to explain that the word “culture” was a product of the eighteenth century and arose concomitantly with the related terms “civilization,” “enlightenment,” “development,” and “education.” Each of these terms lent themselves to an understanding of “general cultivation, improvement, and [they] always presuppose an object which must be improved.”[5]

What is that object that must be improved? What is its name? In our time, Mother Earth might be appropriate. In Bavinck’s day, from a secular standpoint, it was usually called “nature,” but in the Christian scheme of things it is called “creation.” It ought to be clear that all three of these names conjure up very different meanings of life and a totally different life and worldview. Contrary to so many of our modern ecclesiastical leaders who desire to make “church” comfortable for the pagan, Bavinck’s desire was to engage the non-believer and to present what has come to be called the Neo-Calvinistic worldview. Both Bavinck and Kuyper were champions of all of life being formed and informed by Scripture. In that regard, both were active in politics, education, and a host of other related areas. Their occasional writings and speeches manifest a remarkably broad “Renaissance” approach to life. At the same time, however, they never considered jettisoning their distinctive Reformed way of life to achieve their goals in culture.

That is due, in part, to the fact that Bavinck analyzed “nature” from a twofold perspective. First, “it includes not only the whole visible world of phenomena which is outside man,” but, second, it also includes “in a wider sense, man himself; not his body alone, but his soul also.”[6] What Bavinck means with this distinction is that “The faculties and powers which man possesses have not been acquired by him, but are given to him by God; they are a gift of nature, and these gifts are a means for cultivating the external world, as well as an object which must be cultivated.”

Culture, its norms, measures, and standards are not derived autonomously, but are given by God. It’s one thing for the non-Christian to be ignorant of this truth because of the blindness of unbelief, but it is quite another thing for Christians to be confused about it. For all who are “cultural warriors,” there is a standard, which is God’s standard and every individual is required to operate by God’s standard and they are held responsible for not living in accordance with that standard. They are, in a word, without excuse (Rom. 1:20). Lamech, Jabal, Jubal, and Tubal-cain might have done something to advance “culture” as they understood it, but they misunderstood it in their desire to live autonomous lives and not to glorify God in it. The good folks in the land of Shinar suffered under the same delusion.

In 1941, Pitirim Sorokin wrote a thorough analysis of culture entitled, The Crisis of Our Age.[7] His sentiments were echoed by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, when he said, “Men have forgotten God.” Today, we seem to have forgotten that men have forgotten God. If the progressive secularists/humanists have long since forgotten God, modern evangelicals have long since forgotten the importance of biblical truth (read: doctrine) for modern Christians. There is little wonder, therefore, that many who call themselves evangelicals have either moved away from the faith altogether, or “will become full-blown liberals.”[8] One of Wells’ theses is that essential doctrinal differences do not seem to matter much anymore today.

Doctrine has been supplanted by issues that are more tangible—at least ostensibly—such as eradicating global poverty and global warming. Bible studies that earlier presented scriptural truths have been put on the back burner for “Christian” yoga classes and other trendy fads. Movie discussions are a lot more interesting and less threatening than, say, Paul’s discussion of truth in Ephesians 1:3-14, for example. Wells summarizes the current situation/dilemma in this way: “When all is said and done today, many evangelicals are indifferent to doctrine—certainly they are when they ‘do church.’ Privately, no doubt, there are doctrines that are believed. But in church…well, that is different because, many think, doctrine is an impediment as we reach out to new generations.”[9]

This attitude towards doctrine is bad enough, but, sadly, it is not the end of the story. Wells proceeds to explain that “In the last two or three decades evangelicals have discovered culture.”[10] Now, many today might think that this is a good thing. The spate of books on the subject that ostensibly give us the impression that the cultural puzzle will be resolved for us are, as often as not, very superficial treatments of a very complex subject. American evangelicals like this very much, however. Just give them a glib 3, 5, or 7 steps to understanding culture and they are more than satisfied. Someone needs to write a culture Cliff’s Notes or Culture for Dummies. That way very little is asked or required of us. When Wells writes that evangelicals “discovered culture,” he reminds us that his words sound “more flattering than I intend…. A serious engagement with culture, though, is not what most evangelicals are about.”[11]

If Wells is correct, what might evangelicals be doing when they say they are “engaging the culture”? Here is Wells’ assessment: “They want to know what the trends and fashions are that are ruffling the surface of contemporary life. They have no interest at all in what lies beneath the trends, none on how our modernized culture in the West shapes personal horizons, produces appetites, and provides us ways of processing the meaning of life…. Pragmatists to the last drop of blood, these evangelicals are now in the cultural waters, not to understand what is there, but to get some movement.”[12] On an even more negative note, Wells states, “to be quite honest, the question is raised by only a few on the sidelines, and in many evangelical churches the question barely even makes sense.”[13] Indeed.

Wells has placed his finger on the pulse of a great deal of modern ecclesiology. It is trendy, pragmatic, and only interesting to a select few, yet you’d think that it is the hot ticket item in every church; the issue upon which the Church stands or falls. Will the modern Church, will modern PCA churches build on the basis of sola Scriptura or sola cultura?[14] This is a question that every church leader and every congregation should face squarely and review periodically. For that kind of spiritual self-examination involves the following questions: “What is the binding authority on the church? What determines how it thinks, what it wants, and how it is going to go about its business? Will it be Scripture alone, Scripture understood as God’s binding address, or will it be culture? Will it be what is current, edgy, and with-it? Or will it be God’s Word, which is always contemporary because its truth endures for all eternity?”[15]

In other words, will modern Christians increasingly abandon the notion of Christos Pantokrator (Christ the Ruler of All) and opt for what Sorokin called the sensate mentality; the mentality that is almost solely interested in things material in nature, the imposing, the impressive, the voluptuous, and the self-indulgent? Lord willing, we’ll go further in our next issue.

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, (Henry Dosker; Nicholas Steffens; & Geerhardus Vos [trans.]), (Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Discount Book Service, n.d.), p. 249. Emphasis added.

[2] Henry Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1959), p. 27.

[3] Ibid., 15.

[4] Bavinck, TPR, 249.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Pitirim A. Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age, (NY: Doubleday, 1941). The work went to a second edition in 1956.

[8] David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), p. 2.

[9] Ibid., 3.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 4.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Engaging the What? (III)

Is Christianity As We Know It Outmoded?

There are voices today that would have us believe that Christianity has seen better days and that if we’re going to relate to and engage our modern culture, we’re going to have to “do church” a lot differently. This really should not surprise us, since this mentality is traceable and discernible much earlier. This accusation falls under the “Nothing New Under the Sun” accusation.

As we continue to investigate what Herman Bavinck, one of the best Reformed theologians ever, had to say about this, we’re focusing on his discussion of Revelation and Culture, which was included in his book Philosophy of Revelation, but was never delivered at his Stone Lectureship series in the academic year 1908-1909 at Princeton. In his time (1854-1921) Bavinck noted that there were those who suggested that “Christianity has had its day, and can no longer live with our present-day culture.”[1] Why would someone come to such a conclusion? Clearly, there are a wide variety of reasons why (progressive) secularists and philosophers would hold such an opinion, but it is more disconcerting that those who claim to be theologians of the Christian faith would follow suit.

Usually, Bavinck writes, such a “paradigm shift” occurs slowly, almost without perception. That is to say, it is usually a gradual process where what are offered as “legitimate questions” are raised. Whereas the loci of theology may not be attacked as a whole, Bavinck’s concern is that Christians are aware that the “most unkindest” attack of all is in Christology, since this locus is pivotal, essential, and indispensible for our understanding and comprehension of the other loci of theology.

Responding to the cultural despisers of Christianity in his time, Bavinck notes that in “the estimate of the person of Jesus an important change has slowly taken place.”[2] Ironically, that shift in his day has interesting parallels to our time. Influential thinkers such as Ernst Renan (philosopher),[3] Heinrich Holtzmann (theologian),[4] and David F. Strauß (philosopher/theologian)[5] “took indeed a humanitarian view of the life of Jesus.”[6] How can the propositions of these men best be summarized? In the first place, using higher critical methods, these men denuded Christ of his deity. He was not truly the Son of God, but remained “the true, ideal man, who established the pure religion by his word and deed.”[7] To their collective minds, Jesus descried ceremonial worship, purified morals from all legalism, “who as a human man shared in all the pleasures of life, and presented a moral ideal which deserves our admiration and imitation to-day.”[8]

For the discerning and concerned Christian, there is a great deal in what Bavinck just described that is applicable for us today. In the last installment, we asked how much modern Christians are willing to compromise in order to present the gospel to Paul and Patty Pagan (or their good friends, Simon and Sylvia Seeker). This is an essential question for us and our modern culture. There are some who believe that evangelism trumps everything. That is to say, whatever “works” and gets them into the pews is fair game. What they need is a kinder, gentler Christianity; a Christianity without the “rough edges” and unreasonable demands. Schleiermacher knew a lot about this approach and it is alive and well in the 21st century in spades.

A friend and I were discussing economics last Wednesday after our men’s Bible study and he offered that we have just scratched the surface economically regarding how bad this economic downturn is going to be. I concur, especially in light of President Obama’s disastrous proposed “solutions.” If he implements what he’s promised, he will make Herbert Hoover and F.D.R look like fiscal conservatives. I use this illustration to predict that we have yet to see just how bad what we call evangelicalism is going to look down the road. It has not yet reached its spiritual nadir, but it is plummeting fast. With all the unspiritual and unbiblical ballast its carrying now, twenty-four feet per second per second looks like slow-mo.

Hybels has admitted that he blew it, but decided to try emergent theology rather than orthodoxy. Schuller—well, what can you say? God loves you and so do I. Anyone who would call his program the Hour of Power definitely has some ego and spiritual problems. Warren’s theology is awful, but probably not as bad as Osteen’s and better than T.D. Jakes, but that’s not a compliment. Every time I catch snippets of their broadcasts I cannot help but hope that the people sitting there are computer generated. It’s inconceivable to me that people would actually watch that spiritual gruel let alone drive to the actual location and hassle for a parking space to be present. The Church of Christ has lost a generation in the mega-church. For the most part, the attendees at these and other venues are spiritually illiterate with no spiritual legacy to pass on to their children (Ps. 71:17-18).

Enter the emergent church. While the desire for community is both understandable and reasonable, people such as McLaren, Bell, Pagitt, Burke, Miller and others have only substituted one type of spiritual consumerism for another. The bottom line is that as much as they disdain the mega-church, they are serving the same old spiritual gruel. They just walked the chicken through the pot one more time. What do I mean? Allow me to explain.

Bavinck believed that prior to his birth and thereafter “There were those who looked so kindly upon culture that they failed to do justice to the rights and requirements of the Christian confession.”[9] Emergent non-leader leader types have eschewed Bavinck’s premise from the outset. The only creeds that matter or carry any weight are the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. One can only guess why, but that is another story for another time. Once McLaren became the proclaimed darling of the Emergent church movement, he methodologically began to chip away at the Christian faith. He was so cool and hip and said all the right things that the children of the mega-church parents wanted to hear. He pointed out the hypocrisy in the Christian Church—of others, of course; not his own—and the uninitiated, who know nothing of history lapped it up. For those of us who have been around the block a few times, this was a re-run of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the Church. Hypocrisy was a big word then too. While it was raining cats and dogs regarding sexual immorality in society, it began to drizzle in the Church as well and the drizzle turned into a steady rain that morphed into a downpour.

McLaren knew that, so he needed to introduce some elements that the 60s and early 70s lacked. I know, he thought, let’s try some nifty, spiffy labyrinth prayer, breath prayer, and contemplative prayer like the Roman Catholic mystics used to use.[10] He openly admitted his openness to other religions, a thesis that has been worked out into universalism as he progressed (or regressed) in his writings. Claiming to be a Calvinist (Chapter 12), which was one of the funniest chapters in the book, he also claimed, “I am consistently oversympathetic to Roman Catholics, Eastern orthodox, even dreaded liberals, while I keep elbowing my conservative brethren in the ribs in a most annoying—some would say ungenerous—way.” (p. 35.) Just for the record, I wouldn’t call it ungenerous, just uninformed. Also, just for the record, the main annoyance seems to be Bri’s, when conservatives elbow back. He retreats into silence and refuses to answer legitimate questions. In the meantime, the uninitiated, who received no spiritual legacy from pa and ma think this nonsense is the best thing since canned beer.

Once Mr. Birkenstock laid his cards on the table and no one in the emergent camp knee-jerked, he proceeded. The worst was over and now he could simply implement his blueprint because no one in the emergent camp was discerning enough to get it. Gradually, carefully, he made forays into homosexuality, the atonement, and his latest debacle: a nonviolent Second Coming. The pacifists in the Emergent church movement think he’s making some genial statement about war, but what he really means is a Second Coming without judgment. In other words, Bri’s teaching universalism. So we can all stay home and watch our discounted DVDs of Emergents Gone Wild, because we’re all going to make it anyway.

Bri, Wallis, and the other emergents (yes, I know they all don’t think exactly the same way! Ho-hum!) believe that orthodox Christianity has had its day and whereas the mega-church moved in the direction of CEO-esque “pastors,” comfortable auditoria, and entertaining drama and praise bands, the Emergent church movement has substituted labyrinth prayer, mysticism, feel-good community, and uncertainty for the mega-church accoutrements. In reality, it’s a cheap exchange although neither provides much that’s in any sense substantive. The underlying emergent asceticism borrowed from Buddhism is fodder for the Social Gospel views concerning the planet, Mother Earth, global warming, and global poverty, and a garden variety of social ills. These “concerns” are really thinly veiled slams at orthodox Christianity. The Jesus of orthodoxy and his worldview are not, according to the Emergent church and earlier liberals, “suitable for our time and circumstances.”[11] As much as emergents purport to despise the thinking and thought forms of modernism, underlying the emergent program is a Nietzschian logical aristocratic anarchism.[12] What will truly free men is not the stuffy, stale doctrines (gag!) of orthodoxy, but ridding the earth of man-generated Carbon Dioxide. Those who think along these lines are the enlightened and are far superior to those who don’t drive hybrid cars or who don’t believe that wind and solar energy is truly efficient. Oh, yes, they’re also the ones who think ethanol is a bad idea, since it takes a gallon-and-a-half of gasoline to make a gallon of ethanol.

The emergents have long since abandoned an ideational mentality (if they ever possessed one in the first place) and have opted for identification with a sensate mentality. What are those mentalities? It is important to know, for they will continue to play important roles in our further discussions of Bavinck’s chapter on Revelation and Culture. Quite simply, “The ideational mentality sees spiritual truth and values as virtually the only truth and values worthy of the name. God and the divine world are the highest and truest realities; the good is what God wills.”[13] Clearly, the overwhelming majority of emergents have eschewed this notion almost from their inception. What do they substitute then? In the course of their writing and speaking it is evident that they hold to a more sensate idea of theology and life. Brown describes their position this way: “The sensate mentality is the exact opposite of the ideational mentality. It is interested only in those things, usually material in nature, that appeal to or affect the senses.”[14] In subsequent installments, we will develop more specifics regarding these two mentalities and how they function in theology and ethics.

In our next installment, we’ll move on to listen to how Bavinck actually describes the word “culture,” which is a profitable undertaking that few have found important. For example, in the ostensibly PCA magazine byFaith, there has yet to appear a working definition of what culture actually is, although we’re encouraged by its editors and contributors to engage it. Therefore, next time we’ll listen to what Bavinck has to say on this matter—if global warming doesn’t kill us by then, but then with forty-below temperatures in Michigan, maybe there’s not too much to worry about.

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, (Henry Dosker; Nicholas Steffens; & Geerhardus Vos [trans.]), (Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Discount Book Service, n.d.), p. 247.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Evangelisches Kirchen Lexicon, Bd. III, (Heinz Brunoth & Otto Weber [hrsg.]), (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1958), pp. 627-628.

[4] EKL, II, 195-196 & Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, (Kurt Galling [hrsg.]), (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1959), pp. 435-436.

[5] EKL, III, 1172-1173; RGG, VI, 416-417; Helmut Thielicke, Glauben und Denken in der Neuzeit, Die großen Systeme der Theologie und Religionphilosophie, (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1983), pp. 16, 68, 120, 393.

[6] Bavinck, TPR, 247.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 244.

[10] See McLaren’s chapters in A Generous Orthodoxy, “Why I Am Charismatic/Contemplative,” & “Why I Am Mystical/Poetic.”

[11] Ibid., 248.

[12] Ibid., 249.

[13] Harold O.J. Brown, The Sensate Culture, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1996), p. 9.

[14] Ibid.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Engaging the What? (II)

Revelation and Culture

In the academic year 1908/1909, Dr. Herman Bavinck delivered the L. P. Stone Lectures at Princeton.[1] Of the eight lectures, only six were actually delivered. The English translation was performed by Bavinck’s lifelong friend, Geerhardus Vos, as well as Henry Dosker and Nicholas Steffens. We closed our last installment with a deliberate quotation from Bavinck’s lecture on revelation and culture to the effect that those who are enamored of culture or who look at it with a “happy” eye fail to do justice to the rights and requirements of the Christian confession.

This seems to be the malady of a large portion of the Christian Church today. I’ll use Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren as examples. Both have written the equivalent of books on ethics filled with “shoulds” and “oughts.” Simultaneously, their books are virtually void of serious engagement with Scripture on issues such as (just) war, global warming, global poverty (how do you eliminate that when you cannot even eliminate it in your own country and Jesus tells us that the poor will always be with us?), environmentalism, renewable energy, equality, diversity, family, homosexuality, abortion, and the list goes on and on. Wallis and McLaren talk a game that can give the impression that they are deeply concerned (who isn’t?), but offer precious little in terms of real solutions. But it is all so trendy and sounds so hip. It’s a like a number of our PCA church plants and church planters who are hot to trot for engaging the culture. Over at Pressing On I found an interesting thread dated October 8, 2007. The blogger asserts that “The phrase ‘engaging the culture’ has become one of the new buzz phrases of many in the church over the last couple of years.” It still remains a very ill-defined phrase, with notable exception, in the PCA. No one has even nearly approximated what Bavinck described in one lecture.

As often as not, engaging the culture means doing something to get the unchurched into the church service. For the most part, scant time has been devoted to what we mean when we employ the term “engage.” Ostensibly, this is a “flat line” term with only one definition and we all know precisely what that term means—or do we? “Engaging” the culture does sound more intellectual and caring though. It is smoother, more glib than, say, “meshing with” the culture, “fitting in with” the culture, or “interlocking with” the culture. The blog site asked some very good, pertinent questions that to my mind demand answers from all of us. Here is a sampling of some of the provocative questions. First, “Does the method and means by which the gospel truth is shared matter?” In other words, does the Bible give us the wiggle room to use anything in an “evangelicalism trumps everything” motif? Second, when we are talking to Paul and Patty Pagan, “Is the gospel truth watered down or certain parts ignored or deemphasized so that it will be charming and compelling?” If we believe that it is necessary to ignore certain truths of the Bible, which parts of the gospel are unaffected by being watered down? Third, “Is the gospel truth obscured by all the other stuff that is done to engage them?” A decent barometer would be to go to the unchurched that have attended these assemblies and find out how much biblical truth they understand after a year. Fourth, “Is doing church like this really a subtle form of manipulation?” In other words, by engaging the culture by compromising the gospel aren’t we engaging in deception and dishonesty? I would ask a similar question of those PCA churches who refuse to use the word Presbyterian in their name or those who claim to be PCA and the only ultimate resemblance between their way of “doing church” and Presbyterianism is purely coincidental. Doesn’t basic Christian honesty require that we tell our members—eventually—that we are actually Presbyterians? Isn’t there an obligation to teach from Scripture that homosexuality and abortion are condemned by God in the Bible? Are we fearful that once with explain to a member or one who attends our worship services that yes, abortion is wrong because it is murder, but the wonder of Christ’s atoning sacrifice is that his precious shed blood is sufficient to cover the sin of abortion as well?

I don’t know how many of my colleagues open with prayer at civic meetings in their locales. I used to, but I caused much consternation because I insisted on praying in the name of Christ. I was asked not to, but I did it every time. Finally, I was told that if I kept on, I would not be asked back to pray anymore. I was not asked back to pray anymore. If I have scruples about praying in Jesus’ Name at the opening of a city council meeting, why would I hesitate to tell a sinner that a sin is a sin, but the wonders of grace are that in Christ there is rich, bounteous, and plentiful forgiveness?

Bavinck’s belief was that first and foremost Christians are to do justice to the rights and requirements of the Christian confession, which would entail no watering down of the truth. This clearly doesn’t mean that we should “rub it in the face” of the non-believer, but at the same time, we should not sugarcoat the gospel or walk on eggshells around non-believers so that they’ll think we’re nice guys and girls. Without a doubt, we are discussing competing, opposite worldviews and both parties need to acknowledge that in the discussion, engagement. The manner in which a non-believer thinks about God, man, society, truth, knowledge, and ethics is, as often as not, one-hundred-and-eighty degrees out of phase with the Christian life and worldview.

It is more than interesting—and more than coincidental—that the modern purveyors of pacifism bear a striking resemblance to many who preceded them. For example, both black suit, black turtleneck Jim Wallis and old Birkenstock and designer latte Bri sound a lot like Tolstoi, who also constructed a “wholly passive ethics, from the commandment in the sermon on the mount…”[2] This aspect of the Social Gospel is quite in vogue today, especially among some pastors. Some think that pacifism is the default setting for pastors, while others view such a position as the actual loss of manhood. We have lost the concept of the gentleman/warrior in the shuffle. To be a “gentleman” doesn’t mean that you are a dandy, but involves teaching/mentoring other young men and boys that a gentleman’s honor depends on things like getting and staying married to someone of the opposite sex, providing for and protecting one’s family (to the death if necessary), protecting all women and children from harm and aggression whenever it is within your power to do so, being a well-informed patriot, and serving one’s country and the true God of the Bible. It also involves teaching these young men that in a home invasion dialing 911 or having a silly home burglar alarm is probably equivalent to dying at the scene.[3]

In the engagement of culture among many of the postmodern pastors and theologians there is an unspoken belief that the gospel just doesn’t cut it anymore. In Bavinck’s words, these folks are convinced that “Christianity has had its day, and can no longer live with our present-day culture.”[4] Even though these people still speak of Christianity in glowing terms and hold the gospel in high esteem, they remain unconvinced that it is sufficient for modern (or postmodern) man. To their mind, it has to be the Bible plus something. This, of course, is not a new trend, but has its roots in history. Bavinck reminds the reader that after Rationalism had rejected the church doctrine concerning the person of Christ (like Wallis and McLaren implicitly have), “men such as Strauss and Renan, Schenkel and Keim and Holtzmann took indeed a humanitarian view of the life of Jesus (like Wallis and McLaren have—RG).”[5] Such movements in the emergent conversation (thus far, the “conversation” is like sitting on a flight from LA to Amsterdam where cell phone talking was permitted and you were sitting next to someone where you heard only one side of the conversation for 12 hours.) have always had an implicit low view of Scripture. They knew, of course, that if they showed their cards they might—might—lose some of their followers.

Now, however, some of the bold, fresh pieces of emergent humanity like Phyllis Tickle (yes, that’s her real name) are on record predicting the demise of sola Scriptura. Speakers at the Great Emergent Conference stated, “it’s not if sola Scriptura ends but when.” Ms. Tickle has actually written a very thought provoking book entitled The Great Emergence. You’d need to read past the title, because such a title could be taken a number of ways. Actually, I very much appreciate Ms. Tickle’s honesty, because she is saying what I’ve long suspected among the emergent tribe, namely that even though they talk a lot about Scripture, in their actual methodologies they do not like its authority in their lives. It tends to cramp their style. That’s one of the reasons they play so footloose with it.

In her book, Ms. Tickle says this: “Now, some five hundred years later (after the Reformation—RG), even many of the most die-hard Protestants among us have grown suspicious of ‘Scripture and Scripture only.’” She goes on to assert, “We question what the words mean—literally? Metaphorically? Actually?” If Ms. Tickle attended seminary, she got ripped off because obviously no one bothered to teach her basic hermeneutics. One can only wonder what the dear lady does when she comes to a stop sign or tries to buy a can of Campbell’s soup. Literally? Metaphorically? Actually? Ms. Tickle is not very original either. She describes adherence to the principle of sola Scriptura as “the creation of a paper pope.” (p. 47.) Well, no one has ever said that before—except every liberal who didn’t want to bow under the authority of the Word of God. Does the Ticklester actually believe this is new stuff? There really is nothing new under the sun. The Tickle-Meister must have slept through both hermeneutics and Church History. In Bavinck’s day he was pointing out that many predicted the downfall of Christianity precisely because it was outmoded. Now Tickle wants her merry emergents to believe that she has stumbled on to something new and unique.

What is Ms. Tickle’s solution to the paper pope mentality? Here it is: “The new Christianity of the Great Emergence must discover some authority base or delivery system and/or governing agency of its own.” Thank you, Ms. Tickle. Just who will discover this new authority base and how will we know it is authoritative when it’s discovered? Delivery system? You mean like FedEx or UPS? A “governing agency” sounds as it if has popish overtones to me. Will it be a governing agency with teeth or will it just gum you to death? Who will man this governing agency? Tickle? Old Bri? Jim Wallis? Only Ms. Tickle and the initiates into the Great Emergence have a clue what the answer to these questions might be. She is convinced, however, that the sola Scriptura “is now seen as hopelessly outmoded or insufficient.” (p. 151.)

Phyllis needs to get out more and change her friends and drop all the New Age themes like Great Emergence. It will be interesting to watch and see when and how the “new Christianity” will discover what the new authority base will be. I’m interested in why whatever is decided upon will be the real new deal and precisely what this authority base will be. I might be willing to wager that Tickle will set herself up in some kind of position of non-authoritarian authority, given that she is the poster matron for hermeneutical Voraussetzunglosigkeit.[6]

Phyllis Tickle has been a driving force in the Emergent church movement for the longest time. And now we are witnessing what occurs when we tolerate nonsense. The liberals trot out more warmed over liberal drivel and declare it to be new to an ignorant generation. The emergents know nothing theological because, by and large, their parents are the products of Willow Creek, the Crystal Cathedral, Rick Warren, and Joel Osteen. As sad as this all is—and it is sad—there are still pastors out there trying to be mega-church knockoffs or emergent Tickles and this also applies to the PCA. Other churches will need to deal with this spiritual travesty, but the PCA continues to act as if there are cute and valuable sides to the Emergent church movement. Thus far, the emergents have denied sola Scriptura, hell, homosexuality as deviant behavior, penal substitutionary atonement, the central place of abortion as a major problem, and a “violent” Second Coming where the sheep and goats are separated.

Can someone in Atlanta, on the staff of byFaith magazine, or in an emergent-leaning congregation please tell me what is either cute or valuable about this movement? Can someone explain to me why the PCA has not come down hard on this movement? Are we so bogged down in pseudo-toleration that we are afraid to call a spade a spade? Tickle is out aggressively promoting The Great Emergence and byFaith is writing about church plant openings with jazz quartets, pagan art exhibits, and the requisite tastefully done chardonnay and brie. Please gamble responsibly.

[1] Herman Bavinck, Wijsbegeerte der Openbaring, (Kok: Kampen, 1908); E.T.: The Philosophy of Revelation. For these articles, I will naturally use the English translation.

[2] Ibid., 247.

[3] See attorney, Richard Stevens’ excellent little book, Dial 911 and Die, The Shocking Truth about the Police Protection Myth, (Hartford, WI: Mazel Freedom Press, Inc., 1999).

[4] Bavinck, TPR, 247.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Without any presuppositions.


Thursday, January 08, 2009

What Is Certainty? (III)

God Speaks to the Conscience of Every Person

We are investigating Herman Bavinck’s work The Certainty of Faith (De zekerheid des geloofs). In our last installment, we took due note of the fact that even though it is trendy to feign a lack of desire for certainty and knowledge, few live consistently within that life and worldview. In life and in death, people desire certainty, assurance. Because of Herman Bavinck’s commitment to Scripture and the Reformed faith, his little book is most helpful and practical for our topic.

Rather than pandering to the “unchurched” crowd, Bavinck states directly, “There are no atheists, no people without a heart or conscience. Or more precisely, God never leaves Himself without a witness. Whether it be through blessings or through trials, He speaks to the conscience of each and every person.”[1] While it is true that there are those who suppress God’s truth in unrighteousness (cf. Rom. 1:18ff.) or to cauterize their consciences, “history also gives us incontestable evidence that the human has not been extinguished even in the most hardened sinner; the voice of the almighty and omnipresent God sets up a responsive chord somewhere deep in the heart. ‘There is no peace,’ says the Lord, ‘for the wicked’ (Isa. 48:22).”[2]

When we reflect even for a moment, it is apparent that Bavinck’s approach truly frees up the pastor/preacher to do what the Lord has called him to do. We are not certain where that “responsive chord” in each individual in the congregation might be, but we do know that God knows where it is and, as Calvin put it, the secret watering of the Holy Spirit is sufficient to find that chord. What we need to do is to proclaim the Word of truth as clearly and as accurately as we are able. Or, as Bavinck puts it, “In order to live comforted and die happily, we need certainty about the invisible and eternal things above. We must know what we are and where we are going. We must know that our personhood is more than a ripple in the ocean, that the moral battle stands far above the natural order, and that the highest and purest ideals of the soul are not illusions but reality. We must know how we can be liberated from the accusations of our conscience and from the weight of sin. We must know that God is and that He is our God. We must be sure we are reconciled to Him and can therefore approach death and judgment without terror. In all this, our greatest need is for certainty.”[3]

This is what I meant in the previous issue when I spoke of not playing games. This will come as a great shock to some I’m sure—well, you know what I mean—but Bavinck was a much, much better theologian than McLaren, Wallis, Bell, Pagitt, and others combined. He taught Dogmatics and Reformed Ethics in Kampen for twenty years and then was professor of Dogmatics at the Free University of Amsterdam from 1902 until his death in 1921. As intelligent as he was, he still spoke the simple, clear language of Scripture and confession.

Bavinck knows what many today do not seem to know or want to know, namely that “Mankind has sought for certainty all through the ages, although along the wrong roads and with the wrong methods. Every religion, no matter how distorted, seeks for the highest and holiest known to man. Every religion is born out of and sustained by the desire for eternal survival.”[4] This is the exact opposite approach of McLaren, Wallis, and the whole liberal Social Gospel bag. Their concern is the hic et nunc—here and now. Why won’t McLaren talk about sin and Christ’s Second Coming? Well, the answer is: in part it’s theological and in part it’s pragmatic. It’s pragmatic in the sense that McLaren and Wallis understand that if they talk about sin and if they disclose that what theology they have is built on the precepts of Jürgen Moltmann’s universalism, some will leave, especially about the sin part. And that’s where the theological part enters. When McLaren descries a violent Second Coming you need to understand that he is rejecting a doctrine of the Second Coming that involves judgment and the separation of the sheep from the goats. In other words, McLaren is a universalist.

Simultaneously, what makes Wallis, McLaren, Bell, and others guilty of a double whammy spiritually is that they refuse to encourage their adherents to “the highest and holiest known to man.” By refusing to engage the biblical truth of sin the destruction paradigm shift is away from biblical truth (homosexuality, the atonement, the fall, the Second Coming) to the things that are below. That is to say, rather than having man focus his attention on God and his Word, the shift is towards problems on the planet, first and foremost. This is but one of the reasons why both McLaren and Wallis diminish the issues of homosexuality and abortion and accentuate poverty and global warming. If you and I are constantly leaving our carbon footprint all over the place, we need to understand that there are bigger fish to fry than 1.5 million abortions per year.

Bavinck contends that when confronted by life’s deepest problems, science has often taken a stance that conflicts with the seriousness of these problems.[5] This is true, but is further complicated by the fact that, just as in Bavinck’s day (there is nothing new under the sun) when the liberals sought a shift away from Scripture and towards the myriad of social problems facing the Netherlands, the mega-church shifted from biblical truth to a “let me solve your most recent problem” that turned the pulpit into a CEO-like weekly report, a stand-up comedy routine, or a church version of Dr. Phil. Pop-psychology was the order of the day and a meaty message from the Bible was supplanted by “slice-of-life” drama, liturgical dance, and the latest contemporary praise music. Being entertained in church just like we are in nightclubs, at the movies, and watching TV might be fun for a while, but “it leaves the heart unsatisfied.”[6] Where does all of this stuff and fluff leave us “In the hour of suffering and in the face of death…?”[7]

While Bavinck criticized science for failing to deal with life’s real issues, with the necessary changes being made (mutatis mutandis) the same can be said of both the mega-church and the Emergent church movements. Those movements are mistaken if they bypass the “serious problems of human life with an indifferent shrug. The consciousness of good and evil, the awareness of sin, righteousness and judgment, the accusations of conscience, the fear of death and the need for reconciliation are just as real as matter and energy, and size and number. In fact, they are realities of tremendous import, for they rule the world and mankind, life and history. To act as if they don’t exist betrays a lack of love for the truth…. And to dismiss them as outdated images and foolish delusions demonstrates an extensive superficiality.”[8]

Although the mega-church and Emergent church movements believe that Christianity as we know it has had the biscuit, Bavinck was keenly and acutely aware that the State Church in Holland (Hervormde Kerk) had taken precisely the same approach. Liberalism was in and the Bible was out because it was outdated and irrelevant. Liberalism failed then as it always has. McLaren’s claim to be orthodox would be a good belly laugh if it weren’t so sad; if it didn’t leave those who invest their lives in his nonsense in such spiritual bankruptcy. If there is no sin, no judgment and no punishment, no hell (why is there only heaven?), then, says Bavinck, let the person making such a claim “give us sufficient, incontrovertible proof.”[9] The only thing McLaren, Wallis, and the other Emergent church movement tribe has offered is an “it’s true because I say it is” approach, and I, for one, am not prepared to take old Bri at his word; Wallis even less so. If there is no hell, no violent Second Coming, “We should be absolutely sure of the truth of this denial—so sure that we can confidently live and die by it.”[10]

Why is that? Bavinck offers a clear reason that I’ll close on this time: “At stake is our irrevocable eternity, so we need firm, unshakable, divine certainty on this point.”[11]

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Certainty of Faith, (Harry der Nederlanden [trans.]), (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada: Paideia Press, 1980), p. 12.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 12-13.

[4] Ibid., 13.

[5] Ibid., 14.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 14-15.

[9] Ibid., 15.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.