The Future of the Church

September 12, 2015


El Greco, “Pentecost” (1596)

This past Wednesday evening, I watched ‘The Future of the Church’ seminar from Biola, a successor to ‘The Future of Protestantism’ seminar last year. Peter Leithart’s FT article, “The End of Protestantism,” was the motivation for hosting these discussions.

Here it is, along with my musings below:

I respect everyone involved in both last year’s and this year’s discussion, and I greatly appreciate the work involved by the organizers. However, I have been underwhelmed by both seminars. This may have much to do with my own idiosyncrasies in theology. My biggest complaint, however, is formal and not material. The structure makes no sense to me. We have four talented theologians, invited to lecture and discuss the problems plaguing ecclesiology. So far, so good. But each theologian is given, as far as I can tell, no direction and no guidance on what precisely to evaluate and discuss. They do not know what each other is going to say, and each presentation is a stand-alone monologue — differing in character and content widely from one to the next. This was true of last year’s event, and the same format was chosen this year.

Likewise, the roundtable discussion after the lectures is similarly disjointed. For the most part, the questions are far too broad. Each theologian is speaking, naturally enough, out of his own experiences and peculiar context. If, instead, each was given a common set of questions, preferably with concrete problems and proposed solutions, prior to the seminar, then the results could have been far more fruitful. The dialog could have been far more constructive.

I would love some questions about Protestant iconoclasm, in its tireless pursuit of authentic ἐκκλησία and distrust of forms — to give one example. Maybe the organizers want to appeal to a broader audience, but I doubt the theological neophyte is gaining much under the current format.

Setting aside those complaints, you can still benefit from hearing the various perspectives in each presentation and in the discussion afterwards.

Fra Angelico - St. Dominic detail of The Mocking of Christ

St. Dominic

Everything you need to know about the major Roman Catholic religious orders will be included in this post.

Gratuitous stereotypes are also included.


Order of Preachers (Dominicans)

When you see an O.P. after an author’s name, you know some serious brain-storming is coming your way! The Dominicans are my favorite Catholic order, because everyone needs a favorite. It’s like baseball.

The Dominicans are Thomists. All of them. If they discover a non-Thomist in their midst, he is unceremoniously booted out of the order. I don’t have proof of that, but it is surely common knowledge. As Thomists, they are theological. Real theology. Doctrine of God. Christology. Sacraments. The whole shebang. They treat systematic theology like it’s a religious duty, because it is. While the Franciscans cuddle bunny rabbits (see below), the Dominicans are fine-tuning the difference between substantia and accidentia, as I once blogged.

As a Dominican, you may have a shot at becoming the Theologian of the Pontifical Household, a.k.a., “the pope’s theologian.”

In America, the Dominicans have done the seemingly impossible — attract members to their order. In the city that made Hank Williams famous, the Nashville Dominicans are gaining novices like it’s the 13th century. In the city that made Bill Clinton famous, the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., is doing the same, even running an impressive blog/journal. The Nashville order is for women; the D.C. order is for men. Both are doing St. Dominic proud.

I am told that the Dominicans had a role to play in the Spanish Inquisition. But, as I say, let bygones be bygones.


Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans)

While the Dominicans are busy discerning whether the souls of brute animals are subsistent, the Franciscans are busy loving anything and everything that comes across their path. Rabbits. Kittens. Spiders. Trees. Mushrooms. I would rather hang-out with the Dominicans, but I would rather entrust my two cats to the Franciscans when I’m on vacation.

As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, I knew the Franciscans who ran the parish church across the street from the university. Fr. Martin endured my many questions, God bless him. In Fr. Martin’s office, he would deflect attention toward his pet bird whenever I asked weird questions about the sacraments. He was (and is) a good Franciscan.

The Franciscans are, of course, inspired by their founder, St. Francis of Assisi. Every Christian has sung the hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” attributed to St. Francis. Perhaps the greatest portrait of Francis was written by G. K. Chesterton, now published in the second volume of his collected works, alongside his much-praised biographical interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas. According to Chesterton, St. Francis was a joyful beggar and St Thomas was a joyful scholar, both discovering the secret of the Cross. Life from death.


Society of Jesus (Jesuits)

Everything I know about the Jesuits comes from The Mission and The Exorcist. In sum, they are the kickass order. Whether they are resisting Portuguese slave-traders or fighting the Devil himself, you can count on the Jesuits to get it done. They are originally famed for their opposition to Protestantism and impressive missionary endeavors, all in the service of the bishop of Rome — to whom they vow a fourth vow.

If you search for “the Jesuits” on YouTube, you will quickly learn that they are key figures in the New World Order, the Illuminati, the Apocalypse, and other excitements. Since the current pope is a Jesuit and Russia is on the move, you know that the end is nigh!

But, the Jesuits of the post-1960’s are not exactly the same as the Jesuits of the counter-Reformation. If you are a fundamentalist Protestant, then the Jesuits should be among the least of your worries. In the fallout of Vatican II, Jesuits were more likely to advocate for “discontinuity” than for the “hermeneutic of continuity” advocated by John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, now pope emeritus. I am, by the way, a big fan of Ratzinger. His book, Eschatology, is among my favorite books in my library.

Even though the Dominicans are known for their education, the Jesuits have likewise positioned themselves as premier educators in the Catholic Church. This is especially obvious in America where several Catholic universities have some connection, whether strong or not, with the Jesuits. These include Marquette University, Boston College, Loyola University Chicago, and Georgetown University, among many others. In Rome, the two most prestigious universities that grant pontifical degrees are the Gregorian (Jesuit) and the Angelicum (Dominican).


Order of St. Benedict (Benedictines)

The Benedictines saved Western civilization. Do you know how to read and write? Thank the Benedictines. That is perhaps an exaggeration. But it is nonetheless true — the patrimony of Greek and Roman culture was preserved and sustained by the Benedictines after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries anno Domini. By the time of the “High Middle Ages” in the 12th and 13th centuries, this reservoir of learning would also benefit from the Arab-Muslim patronage of Aristotelian logic and Indian numerals/mathematics.

Unlike the religious orders that emerge in the 13th century (Dominicans and Franciscans) or the 16th century (Jesuits and Oratorians), the much earlier Benedictines are a monastic order. The later orders are “mendicant” orders (lit. “beggar”), which gives them a certain freedom in contrast to the “monastics” (lit. “alone” or “cloistered”) who live and work in a single monastery, typically for their entire lives.

As you would expect, the Benedictines are still active in education. Here in North Carolina, the only Catholic college is Belmont Abbey College, which has a fine reputation for its orthodoxy and academics. From what I have heard, the Benedictine monks are very present in the administration and everyday life of the college.

In the history of the Catholic Church, the Benedictines include Bede, Alcuin, Rabanus Maurus, Ratramanus, Hincmar, Peter Damian, Lanfranc, Anselm of Canterbury, Eadmer — pretty much anyone important from the early to high middle ages. In the twentieth century, Benedictine oblates have included Dorothy Day, the great social worker, and Walker Percy, the great Southern novelist.


Other Orders

There are far too many religious orders to enumerate.

The Carmelites — especially the Order of Discalced Carmelites (O.C.D.) — are highly influential in the history of Catholic spirituality. The most important figures in Carmelite spirituality are St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Ávila, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

The Congregation of Holy Cross (C.S.C.) are best known for founding and still operating the University of Notre Dame in Illinois. Fighting Irish!

The Vincentians — the Society of St. Vincent de Paul — are known for their service to the poor. The Shrine to St. Vincent de Paul is in Paris, near the popular Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.

The Oratorians – the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri —  are unique as communities of priests and lay-members. Perhaps the most famous Oratorian is Venerable John Henry Newman, founder of the Birmingham Oratory and the most important Catholic theologian in the 19th century.

Among many others, there are also Assumptionists, Basilians, Passionists, Poor Clares, Salesians, and the Missionaries of Charity. The Missionaries of Charity were founded in 1950 by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.


Image: St. Dominic, detail of “The Mocking of Christ” (1440-1441) by Fra Angelico, O.P.


Pope Benedict XVI in Luanda, Angola

Joseph Ratzinger:

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.

[Faith and the Future (Ignatius Press, 2009), p. 116]

Yes. This is perfectly expressed. Ratzinger published this book, Glaub und Zukunft, in 1970! For many at this time, the hegemony of Christianity would continue into the long future. Sure, there was the sexual revolution and the student riots and much else, but the only thing necessary was an updating of the church. Aggiornamento. This was confidently mapped by Hans Küng at Tübingen, Richard McBrien at Notre Dame, and other darlings of the Western intelligentsia and privileged elites.

Of course, the aggiornamento theologians are still waiting for their update. That’s not likely to happen when Africa has millions of more practicing Catholics than Europe. The future of Christianity is not being hammered out in the Parisian cafés but, rather, in the four metropolitan sees of Uganda or in the archdiocese of Kinshasa, Congo, which is vastly more important than Paris.

As for the the global North, Ratzinger is right. “She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.” Yep. “She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity.” It is not beyond the realm of possibility to see the cathedrals of Our Lady in Reims or Paris suffer the same fate as the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. “As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges.” Preach it, brother Ratzinger! “In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society.” Welcome to the free church!


Cardinal Ratzinger

Cardinal Ratzinger


Image above: Pope Benedict XVI greeting Catholics during his visit to Luanda, Angola on March 21, 2009. (source)

Evangelical Ecclesiology

The discussion elicited by the Pew study continues unabated. I offered one response, “What Baptists do right,” which is not at all contingent on the Pew study. It is what I have thought since college, basically with no substantial variation since then.

A couple days ago, Leah Libresco wrote an article for FiveThirtyEight: “Evangelical Protestants Are The Biggest Winners When People Change Faiths,” based upon some code that she wrote for processing the data. Leah Libresco is perhaps known to some of you as an atheist-to-Catholic convert blogger at Patheos. Her article is very interesting and worth reading, looking at the data for both religious transfers and the demographics of child-rearing. As Mary Eberstadt has argued, the decline of the family is a reliable indicator of a soon decline in religion.

Rod Dreher follows-up with his own reflections and questions: “The Evangelical Advantage.”

Ecclesiology in Evangelical Perspective

I would like to offer a further response, as indicated by the title of this blog post. Evangelical ecclesiology? Is there such a thing? That is in fact the central question for an edited volume by John Stackhouse, Jr., Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion? (Baker Academic, 2003). As my faithful readers know, I have recently been looking hard at weaknesses in Protestant theology, especially ecclesiology. This is also nothing new, as I’ve been doing this off-and-on for several years now. But I am, hopefully, also capable of recognizing and commending the strengths of Protestantism and evangelicalism in particular. I am, after all, an evangelical.

The volume from Stackhouse has a variety of opinions, of mixed quality. Among those that I enjoyed the most is the chapter from Paul F. M. Zahl. For those of you who are evangelical Anglicans, Zahl needs no introduction. He has been a tireless defender of basic orthodoxy and evangelical clarity within The Episcopal Church for decades, though with few tangible results, as he would be the first to admit. His chapter is entitled, “Low-Church and Proud.” Oh yes, you know it’s gonna be good! Zahl begins:

As an evangelical and Protestant Episcopalian, I wonder about the attraction that high-church ecclesiologies have for many of my evangelical sisters and brothers on the free church side. [p. 213]

In fact, Zahl finds it “disturbing” when he witnesses evangelicals “fall for” the aesthetics and hierarchy of high-church bodies. “It seems like a reaction to something that was missing or kinked in childhood, a compensation to make up for an earlier loss.” And he continues, “I am just a little too skeptical of forms and (endlessly revised) prayer books and bishops and words such as unity and semper.” It is “form without substance, Schein without Sein” (ibid.).

Most intriguingly — for an Anglican no less! — Zahl even poses a contrast, an either/or, between Protestant and Catholic. He questions why his evangelical friends who are “compulsively attracted” to high-church form do not go all the way. “Pull a Cardinal Newman. Be consistent”:

For myself, both a systematic theologian by training and an Episcopal cathedral dean by day, I cannot be both. I cannot be Protestant and Catholic. I cannot be evangelical and ecclesiologically “high.” A house divided cannot stand. It has to fall. It always does. [p. 214]

He’s not holding back. You can tell that this is the voice of someone frustrated, with wisdom to share from battles hard fought. Agree or disagree, I like that. He commends Roger Olson’s essay in the same volume, where Olson subordinates ecclesiology to the gospel as a personally directed message of forgiveness and “new being in Christ.” As Zahl comments, “No one hears collectively. It just doesn’t happen. As a parish minister for thirty years, I have never met a person who actually hears collectively.” Naturally, in their “growing integration” of heart, mind, and will, Christians will “often come to appreciate social and political notes in the sound.” Rightly so. “But,” he continues, “given the pain and losses and crimes of the heart, people hear the Word as a word to them individually” (ibid.).

Evangelical Protestants should be proud of their low ecclesiology. “Ecclesiology is important, yes, It is certainly interesting. But it is not saving. If you think ecclesiology is saving, then become a Roman Catholic” (p. 215). This low ecclesiology is “consistent Protestantism,” quoting Olson. By contrast, now turning to the mainline, Zahl sees The Episcopal Church (and, I would add, most of mainline Protestantism) as trying to construct a “liberal catholicism” that “rarely satisfies, because it is a construct for people to have their cake and eat it too. Liberal views of authority and Scripture and cultural rapprochement do not finally cohere with a historic, catholic view of the church. …Bible-anchored evangelicals are bound to be disappointed. I can almost guarantee that” (p. 216).

Evangelicals Understand Community

Lastly, it is important to notice the comments to Rod Dreher’s post, “The Evangelical Advantage.” The comments are very mixed, as you would expect, but I was struck at the number of people who mentioned the friendliness of evangelicals — welcoming and inviting, literally. Evangelicals love to invite: neighbors to church, visitors to lunch, sinners to repentance. It’s what we do. Moreover, we actually foster community in our midst. I have been to a lot of Catholic masses, at several different parishes. It is striking that I have never been invited to lunch or to join a Bible study or to even come back! What planet are Catholics living on? Seriously, this is not hard stuff.

In closing, I will quote Dreher:

In Catholicism, the ethos at the parish level is, in general, more like a sacrament factory. The worship experience is a lot like Mainline Protestantism, actually, and if you’re going to do Protestantism, the Evangelicals are much, much better at it.

If you are drawn to the Protestant form of Christianity, Evangelicals evidently do a far better job of it, of making it real and relevant to the lives of ordinary people.

Evangelicals are routinely the butt of jokes, no less from other Christians. It is refreshing to see otherwise.

Catholicism_Fr. Barron

From the clips that I’ve seen, Fr. Robert Barron’s video series, Catholicism, is an impressive work. I have posted videos from Fr. Barron before: his videos on Balthasar and a video from his Priest, Prophet, King series. Now, for your viewing pleasure, here is episode #6 from the Catholicism series, the only complete episode online:

There is also a book, Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith.

I know what some of y’all are thinking. You’ve got your Protestant guns set to fire, loaded with our favorite ammunition: “theology of the Cross” (not Glory!) and the always popular, “Creator/creature distinction”! I get it. Been there and done that. I still do it sometimes. But, dang it, I like Fr. Barron, and I routinely dislike Protestantism. I know the grass isn’t greener on the other side, but you have to wonder sometimes.


In lieu of writing a separate post, let me point you to a thought-provoking article from The Imaginative Conservative, which has had several fine articles lately:

“The Hideous and the Damned: Arguing with Roger Scruton”

The author argues that “beauty” and “art” are not synonymous, in dialogue with and in contrast to Scruton’s important work on aesthetics. You should also read Stephen Masty’s recent article, “Science Narrows in on Imagination.” Enjoy!


For some of you, the argument over wine versus grape juice in the Lord’s Supper is entirely foreign. You grew-up Roman Catholic or Lutheran or Greek Orthodox or Anglican or similarly “high church.” You can read this post as an observer on the outside, curiously looking in. But here in NASCAR country, we do our drinking at the track or pretty much anywhere and anytime, unless it’s Sunday morning at church and it’s time for Communion. So, this is a lively debate still. Here is a brief run-down of how I understand the issue.


For those who know little or nothing of this discussion, here is a quick history. The transition from wine to grape juice is a recent event in the two thousand year history of the church, and its provenance was almost entirely in America. Not every church or denomination transitioned to grape juice. Those that did were under the influence of two powerful sociological forces in the 19th century: (1) the plight of alcoholism and (2) the rise of revivalism. These are very different, but I think they sufficiently account for a lot.

The temperance movement swept our nation in the 19th century, in response to the serious rise in alcoholism, especially among the working class. The reasons for this are somewhat complex, but I think a broadly Marxian critique is probably right. The sociological behavior was driven by economic forces, namely the inhumanity of 19th century industrialism. Alcoholism was a consequence, in large part, of industrialism. I know that can be disputed, and I would not extend this critique further than it needs to go. For the record, this is probably the only time I have ever appealed to Marx to substantiate an argument, and I wouldn’t recommend doing so when talking to Southern Baptists!

Another factor worth considering is the increased availability of distilled spirits (hard liquor), thanks to the invention of the column still in the 19th century. Distillation goes back to the early middle ages, but it was not mass produced in the way we are accustomed today and for the past 100 or so years. As those of us who drink are well aware, it takes a lot of beer or wine to get truly drunk. But with liquor, it’s easy and relatively inexpensive, if you go for the bottom shelf booze. I don’t know how much of this contributed to alcoholism in the 19th and early 20th century, but it seems like a good guess.

The entrepreneur to capitalize on the plight of alcoholism was the devout Methodist, Thomas Bramwell Welch. But his motivations were not avaricious, as “to capitalize on” may suggest. He was genuinely concerned about alcoholism and for religious/ethical reasons — the same reasons that motivated his involvement in the Underground Railroad. He invented the pasteurization process that yields grape juice as we know it today, and he advocated for its use as a substitute for wine. He and his heirs were enormously successful in doing so.

Alongside the rise of alcoholism, the 19th century was also the century of revivalism in the churches. There was a “Great Revival” in the 18th century, but this revivalism acquired whole new dimensions with Charles Finney and other prominent revivalists in the following century. For many, it became a comprehensive template for how the church should conduct itself. As a result, the sacraments diminished and “enthusiasm” increased. The sacraments were sidelined, although not entirely abandoned, of course. It was in this context that substituting wine for grape juice was, quite simply, not a big deal. In those churches where a higher view of the sacraments was retained, this was unconscionable. The “low church” bodies were generally the most adaptable to grape juice, such as Baptists and Holiness groups, but many mainline leaders advocated the same, as a part of the social gospel awareness. As a result, many of the mainline Protestant denominations were caught in-between, such as the Methodists and the Presbyterians. The Methodists had a stronger revivalist streak, and thus many of them adopted grape juice rather easily. For Presbyterians, it was mixed, and it remains mixed to this day. Some use wine. Some use grape juice.

So, that is the history. More needs to be said, but let’s look at the common objections to wine in the Eucharist.

Objection #1: Alcoholism

The obvious objection, given the history above, is that of alcoholism. The objection is basically this: “Every church has members or guests who struggle with alcohol abuse. Serving wine is a temptation for them to ‘fall off the wagon,’ and so it is unloving and irresponsible for us to do so.” This objection has to be taken seriously, as I think everyone agrees. Because of this, I am willing for churches to adopt a compromise position, serving wine primarily but with grape juice as an option. But it also needs to be observed that Catholics, to give one notable example, do not seem to be debilitated by this concern. Neither do Lutherans or Orthodox or Anglicans. In those communions and cultures where wine in the Eucharist is “a given,” it is not a problem, and these also tend to be cultures that (as I see it) have a healthier view of wine and alcohol consumption in general. Alcoholism, as in the ancient world, is seen as one manifestation of a disordered life, and it is the disorder that has to be targeted. This is why “alcoholism,” as a distinct disorder, did not exist in the ancient world. This is a much larger and debated discussion, for which I am not truly qualified.

So, I question the merit of this objection. One of my seminary classmates has a long history of alcoholism and is now helping other alcoholics. I asked her about wine in the communion service, and she said (without hesitation) that it has no effect on her or anyone she knows. It is too little alcohol. And with intinction, it is entirely a non-issue. This is just an anecdote, and other alcoholics can disagree. But it is people like her that we have to hear, as we weigh this delicate issue.

Objection #2: “Wine” in the Bible is not really wine.

This objection can take a number of creative forms. The general approach is to emphasize how wine in the ancient world was diluted by water. This is true, to an extent. Wine is clean. It is pure and healthy (as we know now more than ever), protecting itself against parasites, which is the biggest reason why it was used so often as a common drink in Jesus’ day. In its everyday use, it was “cut” by water in order to make it last longer…but not in festivities. When Jesus turned the water into wine at Cana for the wedding celebration, it was the finest wine of the entire event, which means that is was definitely not cut by water.

It is hard to take this objection seriously. Even diluted wine is still wine, not grape juice. And the festal wine was not diluted. This objection only serves to further highlight the extent to which wine was part of the life and well-being of ancient societies. It was an everyday drink, safer than water, and yet it was also a celebratory drink for special occasions. These are not unconnected, it seems to me. Wine was a blessing. Amos 9:13. Joel 2:24. The prophets used it as an image of blessing in the restoration of Israel. Even today, when we don’t have to worry about unhealthy drinking water (at least not in the West), wine still has its celebratory association, which seems rather important in its signification within the Eucharist (which, after all, means “thanksgiving” for a reason).

Objection #3: Both wine and grape juice are “fruit of the vine” and that’s all that matters.

The expression, “fruit of the vine,” indicates wine. As Jesus said, “I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29 NIV). Nonetheless, some have used “fruit of the vine” to indicate grape juice as well. As such, it is used as the essential feature of the wine. All that matters is that it is “fruit of the vine.” Thus, the fermentation does not really change anything substantially. The alcoholic content is accidental, in other words. But, are we really squabbling over alcohol content? That’s how it may seem.

But, I think the fermentation process is essential, not accidental. It’s more than about “alcohol content.” It’s about what the element (bread or wine) signifies, and grape juice does not have the same signification as wine. It lacks the festal and celebratory features noted under objection #2 above. Jesus chose wine for a reason. And I think one of the casualties, of switching to grape juice, has been the cheapening of the entire character of the eucharistic meal and celebration.


This is a quick discussion of the objections, with only the briefest of responses. I am convinced of the responses, which is why I wrote them! But even if you are not convinced, you have to ask yourself one question. Is it not significant that Jesus, the apostles, and over 1800 years of church history unanimously agreed on this? At the very least, that should be a haunting question.

For your listening pleasure, I will direct you to a sermon by Arden Hodgens, pastor of Trinity Reformed Baptist Church in La Mirada, California: “Wine vs. Grape Juice.” Hodgens, with the other elders of Trinity Reformed, changed the church’s practice from grape juice to wine! He doesn’t care about your opinion or preferences in regard to consuming alcohol. The only question is whether it is biblical to substitute grape juice for wine in the Lord’s Supper. It is not.


Image: Gundlach Bundschu, located in Sonoma Valley, is California’s oldest continuously family-owned winery. With my brother and our parents, I took a tour of their winery this past summer. It was fascinating. They are German Protestant, which meant that they had to close during prohibition, whereas the Catholic wineries were given an exemption for sacramental reasons! Of all the wineries we visited, Gun-Bun was by far the best.


I am reading Douglas Farrow’s much-acclaimed study on the doctrine of the Ascension. It is slim pickings when it comes to books on the Ascension. They are few and far between. Since I haven’t finished, I cannot properly give my overall impression, but so far it is a stimulating work. In order to give you a taste, here is an excerpt from early in the book:

The notion of Christ’s universal presence is an exceedingly common one, as we shall see. …What is sacrificed for the sake of this Christus praesens, as Calvin noticed long ago, is his specificity as a particular man. Christ is everywhere really means Jesus of Nazareth nowhere. In the ascension he becomes ἄτοπος [“out of place”] in the most literal sense: he is unnatural, absurd, for he has no place of his own. (Vague talk among modern theologians about ‘a change of state, not of place’ hardly alleviates that difficulty, however effective it may be in turning aside impolite inquiries as to Jesus’ actual whereabouts.) For that reason, and others we will encounter later, we begin to hear of the ‘post-existent’ Christ or about the period after the incarnation. In other words, just when the gospel has taught us to think of salvation in the most concrete terms, as an act of God in the flesh and for the flesh, the story of Jesus is turned against itself. His humanity is betrayed and marginalized after all.

[Ascension and Ecclesia, Eerdmans 1999, pp. 12-13.]

If that doesn’t get you excited, then I don’t know what will. A little later, as you could guess, he critiques theologians like Macquarrie and Bultmann, though (so far) not in a great amount of detail. He also admirably engages with some of the historical-critical conclusions, e.g., those who dismiss the Ascension because Luke is the only Evangelist to mention it, not counting the longer ending to Mark. In the quote above, he is criticizing those theologians who conflate the Ascension with the Resurrection and, thereby, with Christ’s overall glorification and exaltation over all things. It’s an ambitious project, to state the obvious.

I would also like to quote from Oliver O’Donovan, as Farrow does on p. 39 in a footnote:

The incarnation is not simply a mythic portrayal of the fellowship between men and God, nor the ascension of the triumph of the cross. Insofar as these transitions have one foot in our space and time, they are seen there as events — events which, however, have another end to them beyond the historical sequence of which, at this end, they form a part.

[On the Thirty-Nine Articles, Paternoster 1986, p. 36f.]


John Leith (1919-2002) was Professor of Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary for three decades. His Introduction to the Reformed Tradition is a competent survey of a tradition that is catholic, evangelical, and orthodox. He loves Calvin the most, followed closely by Barth.

It’s not the most thrilling read, but there are some enjoyable moments. In the following excerpt, he explains the indispensability of tradition and even its potential for revolution, while also taking some necessary jabs at “thematic theologies,” as he calls them:

Human beings are distinguished from animals by a cultural memory, by a capacity for tradition. Animals have no traditions and no cultures. By tradition people are saved from the tyranny of the moment, and by it they gain some transcendence over time. A traditionless person is tossed about by every wind that blows at a particular moment and is bereft of perspective by which to judge the future. Tradition properly enables one to live out of the resources of the past with an openness to the future. In fact, appeal to tradition has been historically one way of opening up the future to change, even to revolution.

[Leith then cautions against traditions that “have turned in on themselves, and have become prematurely fixed.”]

The discarding of traditions, however, is no adequate answer to the problem of dead and aborted traditions or of traditions that are turned in upon themselves. This is abundantly clear in much contemporary church life. Since 1955, theology and churchmanship have been plagued by lust for novelty and narcissistic delight in being original. The result has been faddism. In a single decade it has been possible for one person to have passed through the civil rights movement, the theology of the secular, the theology of hope, black theology, political theology, the women’s liberation movement, and the theology of play. In addition, there has been the Jesus movement. Some have gone from one movement to movement with no place to call home. All of these movements have their positive contributions to make to the life of the church and have their rightful claim to the attention of all. Yet these movements and thematic theologies became nonproductive of constructive achievement when they monopolized the attention and energies of their adherents and thus lost perspective and the capacity for critical self-criticism. Two basic criticisms that can be made of most of the theological and social enthusiasms of the 1960’s are lack of gratitude for what is given by the past and lack of capacity for critical self-judgment.

The future is not automatically an open door to inevitable progress. The wisdom of the past has not been outdated because it is the integrity that has been wrested out of actual human experience.

[John Leith, Introduction to the Reformed Tradition, WJK Press, 1981, pp. 29-30]

So, to be fair, he is not “against” thematic theologies full stop, and he recognizes their contributions; but this struck me as spot on: they “became nonproductive of constructive achievement when they monopolized the attention and energies of their adherents.”

I’m in the middle of a pastoral internship, so I expect that blogging will continue to be slow. I just want to pass along a piece by Corey Widmer:

“Traditional Sexuality, Radical Community”

Like yours truly, Widmer is a part of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. He is the pastor of Third Church in Richmond and the co-founder/co-pastor of East End Fellowship, a multi-ethnic church in the East End of Richmond.

The article is reflective of the discussion in the evangelical community as of late, which is encouraging.




The intramural debates within popular Calvinist movements in America, which I will call “pop-Calvinism” for short, are enormously difficult to navigate for the outside observer, even for many on the inside. Here is my attempt to explain some of them, partially and inadequately.

As for myself, I have had one foot in and one foot out of the conservative Reformed world for years, including its vast and complicated network of conferences, popular leaders, conferences, publishing houses, conferences, seminaries, and, oh, conferences. There is much to admire here, the feeding of a doctrinally-starved evangelicalism, but the current mess undermines the gospel imperative that is so loudly touted.

Brief Overview of the Movement

Pop-Calvinism is a mixture of “low church” populist, voluntarist action on the one hand, with doctrinal systems and stability on the other hand. It is a church movement, but the church as such is not the driving force. Its energy is derived from the parachurch ministries that feed the machine, so to speak. These ministries include Ligonier, Desiring God, The Gospel Coalition (TGC), The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (Ref21), and Together for the Gospel (T4G). It would be hard for anyone to tell the difference between them, especially the regular conferences sponsored by each. Ligonier and Desiring God have a certain seniority, founded by R. C. Sproul and John Piper respectively, although TGC is probably the most influential today. For the last decade or more, these conferences have featured the same dozen or so speakers. The leading publishing house within the movement is Crossway, producer of the popular ESV Study Bible and a wide array of other ESV Bibles. As an aside, I find it interesting to observe how the ESV has supplanted the NIV and NKJV within pop-Calvinist circles. I like the ESV, but I admit to proudly displaying my big NIV Study Bible in protest to the overblown rhetoric surrounding the ESV’s truthiness.

As for seminaries of influence, Southern in Louisville has emerged as a beacon for the movement, heavily dominated by the vision of Albert Mohler. There is also Westminster in Philly and the various RTS campuses throughout the South. Piper and MacArthur have each founded seminaries, both of which are as yet unaccredited by ATS. There are differences among all of these schools, especially depending upon whether they serve a more Presbyterian constituency or a more Baptist/Free-Church constituency. Also, those who identify with pop-Calvinism can be found within more broadly evangelical seminaries like Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Gordon-Conwell. The latter is an interesting case to observe. Gordon-Conwell was once a favorite for Reformed evangelicals — where Tim Keller graduated, for example — but the seminary’s latitude on women’s ordination and overall moderation has resulted in most pop-Calvinists flocking elsewhere. In the 70’s and 80’s, Meredith Kline and Roger Nicole, both at Gordon-Conwell, represented a more moderate expression of conservative Reformed theology — “moderate” in today’s climate. I would say that Sproul is also representative of this, on the whole, especially now that he has (thankfully) backed away from his late conversion to Young Earth Creationism, which was definitely not a marker for biblical fidelity among Calvinists — though many pop-Calvinists today wish that it was.

The Divisions in the Movement

The most significant dissenting voice within pop-Calvinism is, not surprisingly, among those who would disassociate themselves from pop-Calvinism in favor of a more “old school,” church-centric expression of Reformed theology. Westminster Seminary California (WSC), the White Horse Inn radio program, and Modern Reformation magazine are at the center of this more scholastic, less pietistic Calvinism. Michael Horton, D. G. Hart, and R. Scott Clark are the big names. Horton will receive some invitations to pop-Calvinist conferences, but these guys are rather critical of pop-Calvinism’s obsession with conferences. They prefer the very unsexy ministry of Word and Sacraments. The celebrity culture of pop-Calvinism is, therefore, under heavy criticism from these fellows, though they have to admit their own celebrity status within their niche. This concern about celebrity pastors is now a common self-criticism from within the pop-Calvinist ranks, but (of course) the same pastors still speak at the same conferences throughout the year. No one wants to pay money to hear Joe Schmo from Podunk Presbyterian Church with 120 members.

While Westminster West has provided the intellectual criticism of pop-Calvinism, even though simultaneously benefiting from this movement and (partially) still located within the movement, the Tullian Tchividjian fiasco has occasioned a broader reconsideration of pop-Calvinism’s virtues and status within evangelicalism. Who is Tullian Tchividjian? He is the senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida, succeeding the influential evangelical leader, D. James Kennedy. He is also the grandson of Billy Graham. Tchividjian has not been shy about targeting the moralism within evangelical culture. This does not make him a liberal anymore than I am a liberal. Tchividjian is a conservative on all of the standard litmus tests, just as I am. Nonetheless, Tchibidjian is not happy with the priorities and foci of evangelicalism, including many of the Reformed warriors at the intellectual helm. Tchividjian preaches a simple gospel, though not simplistic. Christ has done everything for our salvation. There are no conditions. Faith is not a virtue. Calvin taught the same.

To be sure, Tchividjian could use a more expansive exegetical apparatus. He is currently heavily concentrated on this liberating message of the gospel, hence the name of his ministry: Liberate. He has been careless at times. If you were to isolate some of his statements, the accusation of “antinomian” would make sense. But Tchividjian is a pastor first and foremost. He is not a scholar. He is still accountable to the essentials of Reformed theology, but he is not concerned with over-qualifying everything he says. For those of us who have listened to far too many punctilious sermons from perfectly orthodox Calvinists, Tchividjian is a welcome relief.

Obviously, the criticisms leveled at pop-Calvinism could also apply to Tchividjian. He has started a ministry, Liberate, heavily focused around himself and his vision for the church. This seems to be an unavoidable feature of today’s appetite for social media and media consumption. The advantage is that Tchividjian is offering a counterpoint to the dominance of TGC leaders. TGC is extraordinarily protective of itself and the networks within its influence. And this is Tchividjian’s understanding of why TGC and himself have parted ways. According to The Wartburg Watch, the real motivation behind his status as persona non grata is the sex abuse scandal within Sovereign Grace Ministries. Tchividjian has criticized the handling of the situation by SGM and especially the “old boys club” mentality seemingly exhibited by some key TGC leaders in their ready defense of C. J. Mahaney. You can listen to an interview with Tchividjian on the Janet Mefferd Show. Mefferd provides a helpful, though brief, background to the controversy at the beginning of the show.

Aside from the SGM scandal, I think it is helpful to see Tchividjian as a casualty within a larger and disconcerting trend within Reformed evangelicalism. Perhaps “casualty” is being a bit too dramatic, since Tchividjian is doing just fine for himself. Nonetheless, the evidence seems overwhelming that the pop-Calvinist guardians are closing ranks, purifying and fortifying for the sake of the gospel, or so they say. Tchividjian is not conforming to the prescribed modus operandi of the pop-Calvinist leaders. This may not be related, but I find it fascinating that Coral Ridge-founded Knox Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the PCA, quickly hired Bruce Waltke after his resignation from RTS for calling Creationism a cult. Also, Knox’s academic dean and associate systematics professor is R. Michael Allen, author of an irenic introduction to Reformed theology and a reader/introduction to Barth’s Church DogmaticsDo not expect the same from the bastions of pop-Calvinism.

Lastly, I must commend Jonathan Merritt’s recent article at Religion News Service: “The troubling trends in America’s ‘Calvinist revival.'” Merritt identifies three trends: isolationism, tribalism, and egotism, providing an informed account of each. It is true that these trends can be identified in an any number of sub-cultures and movements within Christianity, and so it would not be too strenuous to discover the same trends in liberal/radical networks of oldline Protestantism. But, like all of those mentioned above, I care far more about evangelicalism than liberalism, which should motivate us toward greater self-scrutiny and accountability.

There is much more that I can say and needs to be said, but for the sake of blogging brevity I will stop.