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, April 29, 2010

The New Evangelical Left (XXV)

Lessons from the Synod of Dort (1618-1619)

History has a lot to offer the curious and inquisitive mind, or as my old friend “Bri” (McLaren) likes to put it: To thoughtful people. Typically, it seems that those who constitute “thoughtful people” with Bri are the ones who agree with him. Anyway, Samuel Miller (1769-1850), former professor at Princeton, chronicles the disingenuousness, divisiveness, and deviousness of Jacob Arminius and his followers leading up to the Synod of Dordrecht (1618-1619). The synod itself was truly a pivotal one, depending on the Belgic Confession (1561) and Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and being a formative document for the Westminster Standards (1647).

Miller, writing an Introductory Essay to Thomas Scott’s work on the Canons of Dort, captures some of the characteristics of Jake and the boys and their break with the received faith of Leiden University. It will behoove us to allow what Miller records to pass in review because the proceedings most certainly have a great deal to offer in terms of contemporary applications and warnings. Being able to “return to those thrilling days of yesteryear,” as the announcer for the TV show The Lone Ranger used to say, is invaluable regarding the manner in which Jake and his followers went about implementing their doctrines. In fact, I believe we’ll find what occurred very instructive with ample parallels in our time.

The essay starts out by reminding us that “When heresy rises in an evangelical body, it is never frankly open.”[1] The same type of thing can be said about error or a push to change an established ecclesiastical practice without being willing to go through proper procedures and channels. The two cases that come to mind immediately in my church affiliation, The Presbyterian Church in America, are the Federal Vision and the current controversy swirling around “commissioning” unordained deacons and deaconesses. The latter has been discussed in the PCA at the last two General Assemblies. It should be said that we can discuss this matter, but what is most disturbing and disconcerting is the manner in which some are blatantly going against the Book of Church Order without attempting to take the proper steps to revise it. There are procedural steps that need to be taken and the PCA needs to receive proposed amendments to the BCO and then to vote on them in what must reflect matters done decently and in good order (cf. 1 Cor. 14:40). I have written about the Federal Vision elsewhere and for those who want to understand that controversy, I’ll simply recommend the excellent books by Guy Waters on those subjects, and for those who want a Reader’s Digest version, Cornel Venema’s book is what you’re looking for.

But back to Miller’s assertion that when change is in the air in an evangelical body, the conversation is never frankly open. I certainly experienced this when I was a pastor in Toronto, Canada. I was a pastor in the Canadian Reformed church, but I was acquainted with a number of my Christian Reformed Church colleagues. I observed them moving towards and eventually jettisoning their rich Reformed heritage and background for a more “culturally accepted” position. This movement was facilitated, unfortunately, by the abrogation of many males in the CRC of their God-ordained place as spiritual leader in the home and in the church. For example, some men in the CRC opined that they were far too busy with work so they concluded that they were more than willing to allow the women to take on the roles and leadership the Bible clearly says belong to men. After all, the illogic went, if the women are “gifted” for a particular task, they should be able to exercise those gifts. In a parallel fashion, it was during this time that the CRC began to question the authority of Scripture. While holding to what I call “theoretical” inerrancy, in the practice forces were eroding a high view of the Word of God.

In essence, the CRC’s approach was exegetically bereft of serious thought (they were not Bri’s “thoughtful people” although they acted as if they were. Anyone who disagreed with them was treated like a person who was trying to get their IQ into double digits.). Instead, the “new CRC” approach more closely resembled subjectivism and experientialism rather than biblical truth. But, of course, doctrine had fallen on hard times and into disrepute in the CRC, so all impediments were removed from the CRC’s hasty retreat to the left.

Once Miller states his thesis about proponents of change not being frankly open, he proceeds to describe the other side of the coin which is that heresy in the Church always assumes a disguise.[2] For instance, those who advocate a “new position” or “paradigm shift” tend to congregate among themselves and “boast of great improvements and congratulate each other on having gone beyond the ‘old dead orthodoxy’ and on having left behind many of its antiquated errors.”[3] This should sound very, very familiar to the modern Church and those of us living in the 21st century and especially to those of us in the PCA. In each case of “new ideas” put forward by those possessing the “vision of the anointed,” they are adamant that they only want to make modest and much-needed, necessary improvements to an otherwise untenable situation. They present their opponents with the notion that the current circumstance is not working (well) and certain people are being neglected and marginalized. In the case of the PCA, those being neglected and pushed out to the periphery are the educated, professional “warrior” women, to use the term of Carolyn Custis James. These women need an outlet for their expertise, but teaching other women and children is somehow beneath their dignity and pay grade. Therefore, these warrior women (If Machen can have his warrior children, I suppose the PCA can have its warrior women.) need a more suitable outlet for their gifts of leadership. We could compare them to the Meg Whitmans of the PCA.

It is noteworthy and instructive that these “changes,” “fads,” and “trends” are not purely theological in nature. It is not the case that someone has been doing some incredible exegesis and has made a discovery that the Church missed for about 2,000 years. Rather, the cry for change also has parallels in society. In the 1960s, Three Dog Night crooned about thoughtful people who really, truly, and deeply cared about “social injustice,” which was a kind of mantra during those halcyon days when students came down off their drug highs long enough to occupy the offices of various university presidents. But just as Joseph Fletcher failed miserably to define what “doing the loving thing” was in his situation ethics, so the proponents of “social (in)justice” never got around clearly to define what it was they were talking about and how they were going to go about getting the nation to get on board with social justice. What is it; what does it look like; and how can we implement it? Apparently, at some level, social justice involved wearing bell bottom jeans, tie-dye shirts, Viet Constitution-esque sandals, and growing your hair long, but not giving actual definitions of and solutions for social injustice. Peace man! Draft beer, not men.

Further, as often as not, talking care of social injustice involved buying into Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” and “War on Poverty,” both of which were enormous flops. The only things LBJ’s programs really accomplished were enormous, inordinate drains on the economy, higher taxes to fund the welfare programs, and a staggering increase in welfare and welfare recipients. During those days of LBJ’s brand of progressivism and social upheaval and unrest, the political downpour started trickling, drizzling into the Church. Youth Sundays (Boy, they were fun and spiritually uplifting and edifying, weren’t they?) occurred with alarming regularity in an attempt to keep the youth from a mass exodus from the Church. Gimmicks were employed and the church folk bent over backwards to accommodate the real or perceived needs of those now seeking social justice, albeit in an ecclesiastical format, but by and large, the young people left anyway. In the process, we still didn’t have a biblical working definition of what social justice and injustice looked like from a biblical perspective. In Jim Wallis’s case, we still don’t, even though he continues to wax eloquent about the crying need for social justice in the 21st century. The closest we’ve come in Wallis’s case is a carbon copy of what it means from the far-left Democratic Party playbook.

Today as modern theologians reach back into the Social Gospel and social (in)justice eras, there is not need to hold your breath until they supply a biblical definition because trying to get such a definition will be like waiting for Godet. Lord willing, more next time.

[1] Samuel Miller, “Introductory Essay,” in Thomas Scott, The Articles of the Synod of Dort, (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1993), p. 16.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.


Friday, April 16, 2010

The New Evangelical Left (XXIV)

Gradually Slouching Towards Ecclesiastical Change

History is fascinating, and, as the philosopher Santayana warned us, not knowing it means you’re destined to repeat it. This is true in all realms of life. Politically, Americans did not learn much from the progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, or Bill Clinton. Today, when our politicians announce that they are “progressives” (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama being recent cases in point), we hardly bat an eye. Yet, if we were acquainted with history and what progressivism stood and still stands for, we would have good reason to be upset.[1] But since few read anymore, let alone read history, they remain ignorant of trends and ideologies.

I’m transcribing the words in this installment that I wrote on a recent flight from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California to Houston. The man sitting beside me in the center seat was about forty years old and he played with an electronic device for the entire three hour flight, thumbs moving at a mind-boggling rate, and generally making a nuisance of himself, bumping my arm repeatedly. We play, we are enamored of electronica, and we watch TV and movies endlessly.

On part of the flight to Houston, I occupied some of my time reading an account of the proceedings leading up to the Synod of Dort (1618-1619). Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Actually it was, and since I have to lecture on the subject at the Talbot School of Theology at the end of this month, it was also a necessary read. The author of the book was Thomas Scott, but the work contained a preface by Samuel Miller (1769-1850). Miller opined that once the “Remonstrants” issued their five points, there were those who believed that those points were aberrant, heterodox, and deserving of a thorough response.

What complicated matters substantially, however, were the subterfuges and obstacles thrown up by the supporters of the five points of the Remonstrance. Jacob Arminius, then professor at Leiden University in Holland, was one of the main players in the mix, along with Episcopius, who was a friend and an avid defender of Arminius’s theology. Unfortunately for history, Arminius died prior to the Synod of Dort. In the question of what he actually held as far as his views on predestination, election, and God’s foreknowledge, just to mention a few, Arminius had been disingenuous from the outset, teaching orthodoxy from his professorial chair in the lecture halls, but speaking his private opinions to his students. It is important to keep in mind that during this entire controversy the Reformed view was considered orthodoxy and what Arminius was teaching as unorthodox. Although Arminius found some supporters, it cannot be denied that the Christian world was, by and large, a proponent of God’s absolute sovereignty.

It’s next to impossible to keep quiet in ecclesiastical circles if you’re in disagreement with the going theology. It was true of Arminius, it is true today, and it is true of every heretic and theologian that was in serious error that has come down the pike. Views held either heretically or in stubborn error manifest an urgency to be out in the open, as if no one had every heard them before. The amazing thing about heresy and error is that people act as if it’s new. It isn’t and shouldn’t be treated as if it is. If we had an historical consciousness, we’d know that it isn’t new.

A dead giveaway regarding stubborn error and heterodoxy is a sentence or statement punctuated this way: “Of course, I hold to orthodoxy as far as (fill in the doctrinal blank here), but…” Increasingly, that sort of statement is heard in my church affiliation: The PCA. We’ve done that drill with the Federal Vision crowd and we’re starting to hear it with those who want “unordained” deaconesses. This amounts to the “big tent” mantra. The question is posed whether the PCA is a big enough tent to allow for differences. There’s a short and long answer to this. I’ll begin with the short answer.

The short answer is simply Yes. We can allow for differences, but it does matter what those differences are, doesn’t it? Hughes Oliphant Old reminds us that “Reformed is not the same thing as Lutheran, Zwinglian, or Calvinist.”[2] We also know that differences were allowed in the manner in which the Lord’s Supper was celebrated among the Reformers.[3] Thankfully, the Reformers gave us the dictum, “Reformed and always reforming.” There is, however, a negative way to understand this truth. Positively, the Reformers and those who wish to follow in their footsteps, understand that what is aimed at here is “always reforming” according to Scripture. In a negative sense, this same saying can be used as a blunt object to promote a sort of theological Trotskyism. As Old puts it, “It can mean submitting the worship of the church to perpetual revolution.”[4]

The long answer involves a little more. In many ecclesiastical circles today the words “tradition” or “traditional” are dirty words. But are they really? Old contends that “A tradition that gets radically changed every generation is not really a tradition. For tradition to be tradition, it must have a considerable amount of permanence and changelessness. Tradition can become tradition only when it is passed from one generation to another. That is what the Latin verb tradere means, ‘to hand over,’ from one hand to another, from one generation to another. Tradition cannot be invented. It can be discovered or recovered, but it must be received from someone else.”[5]

Within the context of the two great dissents the PCA has faced recently, we find the Federal Vision and the renewed efforts to argue that deaconesses were a fixture in the early church. The latter is simply not the case. Certainly, within the Eastern Orthodox Church we find a fairly refined office of widow and deaconess early on, but with very different functions and duties than those being advocated in the PCA today. I have written rather extensively on this development within both the Western and Eastern churches and they can be found archived on this blog.

Yet another phenomenon that is being observed with a disturbing degree of regularity in the PCA is that of candidates taking a litany of exceptions to the Westminster Standards. Hearing or reading some of these exceptions really does make one ask oneself why someone with so many exceptions would want to remain in the PCA. Wouldn’t it be simpler and easier merely to look elsewhere, especially when one’s views are so out of line with Reformed beliefs and Presbyterian polity? I ask myself from time to time why someone who desires to commission unordained male and female deacons wouldn’t simply seek ordination or transfer of membership into the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Christian Reformed Church, or the Reformed Church of America? Some have, but others, who are totally out of line with the Constitution of the PCA insist on bringing up the same old hackneyed material General Assembly after General Assembly. It seems to bother these brothers little that unless they took exceptions to ordaining only male deacons in their ordination vows, they are in violation of those vows and the PCA Book of Church Order.

PCA pastors know going in what the BCO requires regarding elders and deacons, and yet they act in blatant disobedience to their vows and decide to have unordained male and female deacons anyway, because it “works for them and their congregations.” I dub this the pragmatist, pomo (post-modern) non-argument argument. While most PCA pastors would not permit this type of vow breaking in, say, a marriage in their congregation, they are more than willing to practice it themselves. Why is this? I’m just askin’.

[1] See Michael Allen & Larry Schweikart, A Patriot’s History of the United States, (NY: Sentinel, 2007), pp. 457-588.

[2] Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 20022), p. 162.

[3] W.F. Dankbaar, Communiegebruiken in de eeuw der Reformatie, (Groningen: Het Instituut voor Liturgiewetenschap, 19872).

[4] Old, Worship, 165.

[5] Ibid.