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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.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The New Evangelical Left (XXII)

A Conflict of Visions

Today, I want to make use of two very different authors to make one point. Then, I want to take that one point and make multiple applications, especially to the PCA. (I will not complete those applications in this installment.) The header for this section is borrowed from two sources: Thomas Sowell’s book by that title,[1] and a header in his latest book entitled Intellectuals and Society.[2] The other author I want to employ is Samuel Miller (1769-1850), who wrote an introduction to Dr. Thomas Scott’s The Articles of the Synod of Dort.[3] Even though these two works were written in quite different times and by authors who excelled in different disciplines, both make points that are noteworthy and, even though their books are quite different in many respects, there is a remarkable amount of overlap as far as principles and insights are concerned.

I’ll begin with Sowell. His latest book possesses the same standard of excellence as his other writings. One of his theses is that far too many intellectuals have a very high regard for their own self-importance. Sowell opens his book with these words. “Intellect is not wisdom. There can be ‘unwise intellect’…. Sheer brainpower—intellect, the capacity to grasp and manipulate complex concepts and ideas—can be put at the service of concepts and ideas that lead to mistaken conclusions and unwise actions, in light of all the factors involved, including factors left out of some of the ingenious constructions of the intellect.”[4]

Sowell makes a distinction between the “special” knowledge of the intellectuals and the “mundane” common sense knowledge of others. The intelligentsia tends to have little understanding of or appreciation for “mundane” knowledge (common sense) because it’s well, mundane. He writes, “Since intellectuals have every incentive to emphasize the importance of the special kind of knowledge that they have, relative to the mundane knowledge that others have, they are often advocates of courses of action which ignore the value, the cost, and the consequences of mundane knowledge.”[5]

By virtue of the fact that these intellectuals believe that the ills of society are ultimately intellectual and moral problems, for which they are especially equipped to provide answers by virtue of their greater knowledge and insight, there emerges their “vision”—the vision of the anointed. The vision of the common sense people is termed the “tragic” vision. It is the one held by the “uninitiated.” Thus two visions: One from the intelligentsia (the anointed vision) and one from the common people (the tragic vision). Even though Sowell doesn’t say so, this is certainly the case with progressive secularists and progressive, new-left Christians. The intellectuals exist to take up the slack and inform the otherwise uninformed. Theirs is a noble task, indeed.

Whereas Sowell refers primarily to the secularists in his book, there is most certainly a Christian counterpart, isn’t there? Using words that could describe either the Christian or non-Christian visionary, Sowell declares, “These opposing visions differ not only in what they believe exists and in what they think is possible, but also in what they think needs explaining. To those with the vision of the anointed, it is such evils as poverty, crime, war, and injustice which require explanation.”[6] I would add global warming to that list. And by adding global warming or climate change to the mix, we could be talking about progressive humanists or progressive Christians. I have been pointing this out concerning the signatories of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Even after the telling disclosures and outright lies from Dr. Phil Jones from East Anglia University, there hasn’t been a peep from the well-known evangelicals who signed that piece of undocumented nonsense.

The dichotomy between the two visions in Christian circles manifests itself in those who want to hold on to traditional values (tragic) and those who want to break out of the confirming strictures of Scripture, the Westminster Standards, and the Book of Church Order (anointed). Thus, when it comes to holding on to traditional doctrines as opposed to those who are more cutting edge the anointed ones opt for the latter. Speaking of secularists, Sowell writes these words that could just as well be for the Christian: “There is no personal exaltation resulting from those beliefs. But to be for ‘social justice’ and ‘saving the environment,’ or to be ‘anti-war’ is more than just a set of beliefs about empirical facts. This vision (the anointed one—RG) puts you on a higher moral plane as someone concerned and compassionate, someone who is for peace in the world, a defender of the downtrodden, and someone who want to preserve the beauty of nature and save the planet from being polluted by others less caring. In short, one vision makes you somebody special and the other vision does not.”[7] While excoriating the so-called Religious Right, the New Evangelical Left worships at the shrines of Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, the ongoing dialogue/conversation (you need a smoking jacket and a pipe to participate. Oh yeah. You also must also have a lifetime membership at Starbucks, wear Birkenstocks, and drink tofu smoothies), and be able to find some redeeming quality in The Shack. It was well written and the author manifests a genuine struggle for the real issues of life and death. You know. The caring anointed visionaries are always ready with a sympathetic bit of intelligentsia.

Applying this to the current debate in the PCA regarding deaconesses, the notion that roils just beneath the surface of the debate is that those who are in favor of deaconesses really and truly have the women’s best interests in mind, are compassionate towards them, and understand their plight. After all, it is suggested, these are talented and sometimes “professional” women (No! Not that kind of professional!) and are lawyers, physicians, college and seminary graduates, and CEOs. They don’t understand why they can function in secular society as leaders and not in the local congregation. The stereotype is that the tragic traditionalists (are they tragically hip?) just want the women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.

What Sowell questions is what the PCA should be questioning. What scriptural grounds are there for moving towards doing what the PCA has never done? Where is the wisdom, but also where is the overwhelming biblical proof that the traditional vision is the incorrect one? Lord willing, we will return to this notion frequently in future installments.

Samuel Miller’s Introductory Essay

Miller wrote his introductory essay to convince Thomas Scott’s readers that Scott was on the right tract, as was the Synod of Dort in combating the doctrines taught by Jacob Arminius and his followers. Of course, Arminius, whose last name was actually Harmensen, roundly denied holding to any opinions that even vaguely resembled Pelagianism and “declared his full belief in all that Augustine had written against those opinions; and promised in the most explicit manner that he would teach nothing contrary to the received doctrines of the Church.”[8] Right. He made this confession in order to be confirmed as professor of Theology at Leiden University. Thankfully, he was not teaching Ethics. Apparently, Arminius’s oath came with an expiration date because “after he had been in his new office a year or two, it was discovered that it was his constant practice to deliver one set of opinions in his professorial chair, and a very different set by means of private confidential manuscripts circulated among his pupils.”[9] Ah, the ethics of the anointed visionaries! Normal people would call this disingenuous and the uninitiated would take the Joe Wilson approach and simply yell out, “You lie!” One can only imagine what impact this obvious, blatant encroachment upon his oath had on his students who were preparing for the pastoral ministry. Moreover, Arminius “also frequently intimated to his pupils, that he had many objections to the doctrines usually deemed orthodox, which he intended to make known at a suitable time. Apparently, being disingenuous is acceptable if you choose your time when you’re going to finally tell the truth. You cannot allow this kind of deception to be known to those who are tragically traditional, because they’ll get their guns, form an ecclesiastical posse, and go on a witch hunt.

At a very simple level, this sort of disingenuousness occurs in the PCA regularly, frequently when candidates for ordination make no mention whatsoever that they plan to us females for reading Scripture and praying in the worship service, and, once ordained, simply begin to employ females this way as a matter of course. I’ve witnessed this in my own Presbytery and have even repeatedly mentioned it, but it seems that some pastors have consciousnesses that cannot be bothered by keeping one’s word. They somehow do not feel obliged to let their respective Presbyteries know if they have changed their views.[10] Besides, those who allow this type of thing to occur can always point their fingers at others who have been doing this with impunity. Evidently all are equal in the PCA, but some are more equal than others.

Now here is the instructive part of Miller’s essay. The Deputies (ecclesiastical deputies, that is) of North and South Holland finally nailed Arminius down to meeting with them. This he was loathe to do. Whenever easy, straightforward, Yes or No questions were put to him by the Deputies, Arminius would, according to Miller, equivocate. In other words, he “was never ready, and always had insurmountable objections to every method proposed for explanation or adjustment. It was evident he wished to gain time…”[11] His modus operandi was rather than answering the questions in an uncomplicated, clear-cut fashion to keep on “evading, postponing, concealing, shrinking from every inquiry, and endeavouring secretly to throw every possible degree of odium on the orthodox doctrines.”[12] Don’t we witness this same sort of thing today? We hear candidates of colleagues in the PCA say, “Yes, I hold to the Westminster Standards, but…” Or, a candidate will present a litany of exceptions to the Westminster Standards. I recently heard about a candidate that had five pages of exceptions. My initial response was, “Why does he want to be PCA and why would a Presbytery allow him to be?

Miller’s observation that when differences with doctrines or oaths taken occur with the disingenuous anointed, they are “never frank and open.”[13] He continues, “It always begins by skulking, and assuming a disguise. Its advocates, when together, boast of great improvements, and congratulate one another on having gone greatly beyond the ‘old dead orthodoxy,’ and on having left behind many of its antiquated errors: but when taxed with deviations from the received faith, they complain of the unreasonableness of their accusers, as they ‘differ from it only in words.’” (Emphasis in the original.)[14] They can act as they do because they possess the vision of the anointed.

In the final analysis, according to Miller, people who have something to hide or cover up “…are almost never honest and candid as a party, until they gain strength enough to be sure of some degree of popularity.”[15] He cites the cases of Arius, Pelagius, Arminius and his emerging “conversation,” Amyraut, and the Unitarians. There are, of course, others, but the ones Miller mentioned all had the following in common: “They denied their real tenets, evaded examination or inquiry, declaimed against their accusers as merciless bigots and heresy-hunters, and strove as long as they could to appear to agree with the most orthodox of their neighbours; until the time came when, partly from inability any longer to cover up their sentiments, and partly because they felt strong enough to come out, they at length avowed their real opinions.”[16] It’s so simple and straightforward even a cave man can understand it. Each time this type of thing occurs, it’s like the Charlie Brown, Lucy, and I’ll-really-hold-the-football-this-time scenario. This time will be different. You know, kind of like socialism working in America after it’s failed dismally everywhere else. That kind of “it’ll be different this time.” The other phenomenon is that the anointed accused the “tragics” of adhering to a simplistic and simple-minded “domino theory.” Sure, it may have gone down in flames before, but this time will be different.

Miller is, of course, correct. Today, when faced with analogous circumstances—not with heresy, but with error and deviation from an oath taken—the anointed smile and nod knowingly and accuse the tragic/traditional folks of being stuck in the past, of being dinosaurs, of being unconcerned about people and evangelicalism, or holding to the domino theory, which, as far as I know, has nothing to do with pizza.

I have taken a few moments and have given you an outline and I believe that parallels can be drawn from both Sowell and Miller to a number of the issues that face us in the PCA today ranging from deaconesses to the un-Presbyterian notion of site churches. But this should give us material for further discussion.



[1] Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions, (NY: Basic Books, 2007).

[2] Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society, (NY: Basic Books, 2009), pp. 76ff.

[3] Thomas Scott, The Articles of the Synod of Dort, (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1993).

[4] Sowell, Intellectuals, 1.

[5] Ibid., 18.

[6] Ibid., 79.

[7] Ibid., 79-80.

[8] Samuel Miller, “Introductory Essay,” in Thomas Scott, The Articles of the Synod of Dort, (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1993), p. 12.

[9] Ibid., 12-13.

[10] The PCA Book of Church Order, Chapter 21-5.2 reads, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?

[11] Ibid., 15.

[12] Ibid., 15-16.

[13] Ibid., 16.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 16-17. Emphases added.

[16] Ibid., 17.



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2 Comments:

Blogger Morris Brooks said...

Ron,
Sowell could have been describing N T Wright.

As for the "Progressives" that Miller describes, sentiment is their hole card, which is always up their sleeve.

Morris

8:57 PM  
Blogger Bradley said...

Ron,
Can't we all just get along?

5:29 PM  

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