May 22, 2013
What has most impressed me about Tim Keller’s ministry (Redeemer Pres, NYC) is expressed in this quote:
Early in Redeemer’s ministry, we discovered it was misguided for Christians to feel pity for the city, and it was harmful to think of ourselves as its “savior.” We had to humbly learn from and respect our city and its people. Our relationship with them had to be a consciously reciprocal one. We had to be willing to see God’s common grace in their lives. We had to learn that we needed them to fill out our own understanding of God and his grace, just as they needed us.
I believe many Christians in the West avoid the city because it is filled with “the other.” Because cities are filled with people who are completely unlike us, many Christians find this disorienting. Deep down, we know we don’t like these people or don’t feel safe around them. But see how easily we forget the gospel! After all, in the gospel we learn of a God who came and lived among us, became one of us, and loved us to the death, even though we were wholly other from him. The city humbles us, showing us how little we are actually shaped by the story and pattern of the gospel.
Emphasis mine. Timothy Keller, Center Church (Zondervan, 2012), 168-169.
Image: “Praskie Ulice” by Muszka
April 29, 2013
As I previously announced, our church is in the process of gracious dismissal into the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). One of the more impressive aspects of ECO is their commitment to theological revitalization, including this year’s push to have every member church do a study of the French Confession of 1559. More significantly, ECO requires the officers of every church to affirm the Essential Tenets of the Reformed confessions. I highly encourage everyone to read the document (the tenets begin on page 5). It is an excellent expression of our faith — clear, warm, irenic. It also exhibits a precise grasp of the Reformed faith in each of the loci.
The section on election is notably Reformed, even more than I expected. It is very well-written, with due attention to the Incarnation and election’s purpose of witness to those outside the covenant (“We are not elect for our own benefit alone”). This is not to say that a pure Barthian (if such a thing exists) would be entirely satisfied. The ordo salutis for election follows the classic Reformed paradigm, yet there is no reciprocal statement on reprobation — for which I am grateful, since such statements tend to imply a symmetry between election and reprobation.
There is also an extensive study guide for the Essential Tenets, developed for a classroom setting. They have created both a Leader’s Guide and a Participant’s Guide.
February 26, 2013
The Scots Confession of 1560 has several advantages actually, but one definite advantage is the location of its doctrine of scripture. Unlike the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), which begins with the authority and inspiration of scripture, the Scots Confession does not attend to this doctrine until chapters 18 and 19! The Scots Confession rightly begins with the doctrine of God, proceeding with a redemptive-historical outline of God’s covenant work, only after which the Protestant claims for scripture are given.
This seems to be an important ordering of the material. The WCF locates the doctrine of scripture at the very beginning. This has resulted in an unfortunate apologetic strategy where the authority of scripture is defended before the gospel of Christ and the triune economy is espoused. That is precisely backwards, it seems to me. I do not believe in Christ because I first believed in the authority of scripture; rather, I believe in the authority of scripture because I first believed in Christ. This is not materially denied by the WCF, of course. Yet, the formal ordering is important for contextualizing the doctrine of scripture, locating it within the doctrine of God — a good rule of thumb for all theological categories.
The WCF replaced the Scots Confession in 1647 as the subordinate standard for the Church of Scotland and her Presbyterian missions. Baptist confessions would model themselves on the WCF, from the London confession to the Philadelphia confession to the Southern Baptist Faith & Message. Nothing is more natural to evangelicals today than to conceive of the Bible as an apologetic foundation for an enumerated list of (normally rather disconnected) doctrines and morals. The most popular systematic theology today, based upon sales figures, has been Wayne Grudem’s ST. Not surprisingly, it begins with the authority and infallibility of scripture. In its crudest form, read this ridiculous article in The Christian Post.
If you want a good example of properly locating the norming of scripture as an auxiliary claim of our christology (and soteriology), I encourage you to read these two posts on P. T. Forsyth:
For a nice bound set of the Reformed Confessions, I highly recommend James Dennison’s multi-volume project: Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation. So far, three volumes are published.
January 19, 2013
It is not very often that you hear a conversion story of a feminist-lesbian professor, at a major research university, who converts to evangelical Christianity and marries a Reformed Presbyterian pastor. I’m especially heartened that her talk is filled with obvious integrity, warmth, and intelligence. Here it is:
I really appreciate her comments (beginning at the 53 minute mark) that Christians need to be willing to learn from those outside the church — not pretending that we are the only ones who “have the goods” to offer to others; instead, “we need to be willing to be in a reciprocal relationship with people who scare us, and we need to be willing to really think through whether we are scared for good reasons or whether we just have been telling each other a bunch of ghost stories.”
October 5, 2012
I’ve lost count of the number of articles either defending or assailing Mumford and Sons. I haven’t seen anything like it. I was introduced to their first album when it was initially released a couple years ago. I was at work and a fellow co-worker — a super enthusiastic evangelical from California — told me that I gotta hear this band. He played one of their songs and passionately described how the song was recalling the captivity of sin or something like that. I smiled, nodded, and said something generic like, “sounds pretty good.” I eventually listened on my own time and concluded that they were okay but nothing compelling. So, I wasn’t very impressed, and now I’ve enjoyed ruminating further on what in particular is not compelling.
Consider this quote from Mumford about songwriting:
I can’t write lyrics unless I really feel them and mean them, which can sometimes be quite frustrating — because if you’re not feeling much at the time, you’re stuck.
Umm. Let me first give some background to my criticism. I’ve been steeped in the classics of American folk and country for quite a while now. My CD tower (yes, I still buy CD’s) is full of Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, and the like. Why would I listen to Mumford when I can listen to “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”? This is where I agree with many of the critics of Mumford. The lyrics really do try too hard, and that by the way is my general complaint about the whole indie music scene. When Dolly Parton wrote her 70′s masterpieces (e.g., My Tennessee Mountain Home), she wasn’t groping for literary allusions. She was describing her world, painting a picture with words — not unlike Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. None of these earlier figures were trying to be philosophers or even poets really. They were mediums, storytellers, communicators — and the clearer the better. They wanted to bring comfort in all areas of life, both the highs and the lows. They were neither tragic nor idealist. They didn’t write songs about needing to accept their weakness; rather, they were weak, pure and simple, nothing to fuss about. They didn’t need to take the next step of abstract speculation or emotional grappling about their weak status! I could say the same thing about nearly every theme that dominates the indie music culture, from which Mumford derives his sound and voice. Can you imagine Merle or Kris saying that he couldn’t write lyrics “unless I really feel them”?
Everyone who is looking for “the real” or authenticity, and think they have found it in Mumford, should dig a little deeper into the American music repertoire. We perfected the “real,” with the birth of country, rock, and blues. Actually, we should specify that the South did this because of all her sins. These great forms of music were born out of the cultural turmoil of a racist and segregated South. Something beautiful and powerful was born in the collision between whites and blacks struggling in the poverty (and shame) of Reconstruction. Here, the particular is what is being fought for and loved. The small things and common things were life-giving. Mumford tries to touch on this by making the common things his themes, but he just needs to bring himself down a little from his metaphysical heights. The world doesn’t need to be infused with meaning; it already bears it. No striving necessary.
July 18, 2012
As I announced last year at this time, I moved back to Charlotte to begin seminary training for the purpose of ordination. For the last year, I have had the joy of such training at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. RTS is a fine school in many respects, but I have been in the process of discerning whether RTS is the right fit for me. More pointedly, the question is whether the RTS vision for ministry, and the theology that underwrites that vision, is faithful and properly focused. There is no simple, yes or no, answer to that question. Yet, the weight of the “no” has dominated my thinking and praying, just as I am grateful for the “yes” in abundance at RTS.
So, this past semester I applied to Union Presbyterian Seminary, which has a campus in Charlotte. I was accepted, with nearly all of my credits transferred from RTS. Union is a seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which is the denomination of my church, Westminster, and the denomination in which I will pursue ordination. So, there is an obvious denominational advantage to Union over RTS, which primarily serves the other Presbyterian denominations which are, more or less, hostile to the PC(USA).
The shift from RTS to Union parallels a shift in my own Christian convictions for several years now, away from a type of evangelical theology that dominates conservative circles. It would take too long to enumerate the many influences and events along the way: the professors, the books, the peers and friends. Needless to say, a guy who loves Karl Barth and Simone Weil is not a typical evangelical, if an evangelical at all.
The classical Reformed tradition has much to offer. It is properly theological as Barth himself understood in his appreciative treatment of Dort. But, the current proprietors of this classical Reformed theology are, far too often, compromised by a conservative cultural captivity that severely limits the life of theology in the church. This captivity is further compounded by a “worldview” suspicion about anything outside the church. Thus, theology is isolated from other disciplines, which themselves are transformed and mutilated in order to conform to a “Biblical” worldview. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the whole fiasco over evolutionary science, which has lately resulted in evangelicals moving even further to the right. The same can be said for the understanding of history, philosophy, art, and particular areas of study, such as gender. Currently, the method of engagement by conservative evangelicals, especially the Reformed, is wholly inadequate. I’ve harped enough on these issues in the past, so I won’t rehearse them now. As it stands, such conservatism will thrive to the extent that it can isolate itself from responsible study of the world, as it presents itself to us. Such isolation is increasingly difficult to maintain, with information technology and the migrations of people. But, the fear surrounding these cultural changes has been a boon for conservative religious circles…for the time being.
I also have little sympathy for theological reflection that barely moves above the level of the text, and I assume that readers know what I mean. Perhaps inerrancy is to blame for this, or at least an inerrancy that “secures” the foundation of all dogmatic formulations (such that, Biblical inerrancy comes before the doctrine of God!). My own view of Scriptural inspiration may or may not be classified as inerrantism, and I don’t care if I could pass that test. I am really striving for the God behind the text, which serves as a temporal and provisional witness.
These are just some examples that have come to mind. Certainly, no particular topic can be isolated and made a determining factor in my shift to Union. Nor do I wish to caricature RTS as wholly obsessed with certain hot-button issues, as if to the neglect of all else. I could detail a host of excellent things, from fine professors, that I have learned at RTS. I am thankful for that, but excited to be moving on.
April 26, 2012
James K.A. Smith (Calvin College professor and blogger) has written an excellent review of Peter Enns’ latest book. This review is one of the all too few instances where light is shed on the exegesis involved in the historical Adam debate. There is no attempt to resolve the issue at hand, but Smith asks the right questions about Enns’ method, with its curious lack of theological grounding. I haven’t read The Evolution of Adam yet, but the problems which Smith detects can be found in Enns’ articles at the Biologos webpage. This goes to show that even those of us who are sympathetic to Enns can and should work toward better formulations of a complicated issue, the complexities of which go back at least to Augustine on original sin. As Smith rightly notes, there is a lot of hard theological work still to do.
Also, C. John Collins has his review up at TGC. Collins is an Old Earth guy who, along with John C. Lennox, is among the better defenders of Adam’s historicity.
April 24, 2012
With the death of John Stott last year and the recent death of Chuck Colson, a formative generation of evangelicalism is passing away. Other formative figures are well into their retirement. Billy Graham is 93 years old, and J. I. Packer is 85 years old.
I lament the passing of this generation for the obvious reasons that any passing of great persons of faith is lamentable. Their presence and their example is an encouragement to us all. But, I lament the passing of this generation for another reason. It is the passing away of a moderate evangelicalism — not moderate in its fervency to reach others with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather, their unrelenting focus on the core of Christian faith — conversion toward Christ — made them moderate in respect to those who would draw the lines much tighter on what it means to be an evangelical.
Thus, Billy Graham famously worked with mainline Protestants and Catholics, much to the consternation of fellow evangelicals. Billy Graham would also question strict exclusivism (for example, in his perfectly expressed reply to Larry King on this topic). John Stott would take his own exploratory path on the scope and means of salvation, the nature of hell, and so forth. As I’ve noted before on this blog, Stott and Packer, along with Roger Nicole, supported women’s ordination. Most of the leaders of this generation were open, in varying degrees, to evolutionary science and most certainly an old earth. I use these examples because they are the hot-button issues among the Gospel Coalition crowd.
With Chuck Colson, the controversial matter was, like Billy Graham, his ecumenical stance toward Roman Catholics. Along with J. I. Packer and other evangelical leaders, Colson worked together with Fr. Richard John Neuhaus to form Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). The reaction against ECT, by R. C. Sproul et al., is much ado about nothing in my opinion. The recognition that Christ is proclaimed in the Catholic Church, and is active and working in the Catholic Church, should be a common assumption among all Protestants, even as we hold dear a Justification based upon the complete and sufficient work of Christ.
The new generation of evangelical leaders — those to whom young seminarians look toward for guidance and inspiration — is notably hostile to these moderate elements of the generation past. The likes of a Chuck Colson and Billy Graham would not get invited to speak at the major conferences currently, such as Together for the Gospel, The Gospel Coalition, and Desiring God. If an aspiring evangelical leader today were an inclusivist, evolutionist, affirming of women’s ordination, or ECT-affirming, they would be accused on a number of fronts for diluting the “purity” of the gospel. Thus, it is not surprising to see Tim Challies, one of the most popular Piper-esque bloggers today, criticizing Colson for working “against the Lord’s church” and laboring “for outright sinful causes.” Why? His work with Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
This mindset is, frankly, saddening and a wee bit maddening, but that is our future. Goodbye, moderate evangelicalism! Thanks for all the hard work.
April 4, 2012
I really hope someone, with more time than I have, will do a good critical review of this lamentable Christianity Today article on Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The whole piece is meandering all over the place, but he finally gets to his thesis on the third page. It’s really disheartening that anyone at CT thought this was a worthwhile piece of argument. He completely undermines the significance of Jesus’ cry — neutralizing the impact it does and should have on all readers.
I really do not want to see the author handle the garden at Gethsemane scene in the previous chapter of Mark: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (14.34) and “remove this cup from me” (14.36). Maybe these also mean the exact opposite of what they say.
Or, maybe Paul was right that Jesus “became a curse for us” (Gal 3.13) and was “made to be sin on our behalf” (2 Cor 5.21).
January 30, 2012
Below is an interview with Thomas Bergler on his forthcoming book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Eerdmans, April 2012), discerning how youth ministry has influenced the church at large. I like his definition of juvenilization:
The process by which things that might be normal and good for a teenage spiritually come to be accepted and even idealized for all ages.
He’s making a lot of the same observations that Reformed critics have been making for quite some time, though perhaps more tempered. He recognizes that some of these youth-targeted methods are appropriate for youth, yet they make a poor template for adults. His criticisms are sound — the immaturity and emotional baggage that has been wrought; yet, he claims that without this juvenilization the churches in America would be empty (hyperbole of course), because American culture at large has become adolescent and immature. The churches are tracking with this cultural shift. So, I’m interested to see if Bergler offers any proposals in the book for how to overcome this immaturity without emptying the churches (i.e., the fear among evangelicals of America becoming like Europe).
Unfortunately, the interviewer is not, ummm, my favorite.