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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.



Blogger Wes White said...

Excellent post, Ron. Keep up the good work. This is a good series. Are you going to turn it into a book?

12:35 PM  

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