Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Complexities of Confessionalism

Say what you will about Peter Leithart, but when it comes to his theology, the man just plain ol' doesn't care about anything other than that it is biblical.

Is this a bad thing?

When the study committee which he and I petitioned the Northwest Presbytery of the PCA to form began its work, Leithart's only request was that, in addition to comparing his views to the Westminster Standards, we also take the time to engage his work from the vantage point of Scripture. It was obvious that this latter concern far outweighed the former in his mind.

The conclusions of the minority report that I authored were that Leithart's positions, though biblically defensible to a certain degree, were nonetheless clearly contrary to the system of doctrine found in our Confession and Catechisms. The problem, the minority argued, was that he failed (or was unwilling) to read the Bible through the lens of the doctrinal standards of the PCA. And Leithart's response, in a nutshell, was "Isn't being biblical enough?"

Hence the complex nature of Reformed confessionalism. On the one hand, we recognize that there is no "view from nowhere," and that we simply cannot read Scripture in a lens-less, objective, Cartesian way. All of us bring presuppositions to the interpretive table. On the other hand, though, we don't want to be accused of simply reducing the Bible to the confession's handmaiden, as if Scripture is merely a collection of prooftexts to buttress one's own systematic theology.

An example from Leithart's own views would be the fact that Paul says in Romans 6:7 that the baptized believer has been "justified from sin." Clearly, Leithart argues, the word "justify" is being used as a kind of synonym for "sanctify," and not to denote God's one-time declarative act of pardon and imputation of alien righteousness. Our understanding of the term "justification," therefore, ought to be broad enough to include this usage, as well as the OT's usage of tsadaq in contexts were the issue is deliverance from enemies, not forensic acquittal.

I admit, I can see Leithart's point and can understand his frustration at being told "No, you must not echo Paul's language since it contradicts our theology." But at the same time, is there not a place for being a team-player and being willing to employ terminology that tries to avoid confusing people unnecessarily?

The options, as I see them, are as follows: confessional denominations like the PCA can either (1) broaden our theological parameters to make room for someone who can make a case that his theology is biblically plausible, or (2) we can insist that our ministers at times must avoid speaking the Bible's language for fear of muddying the systematic waters.

And I must say, I'm not completely thrilled about either of those choices (but then, who ever said being confessional would be easy?).

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Apostles and Early Fathers: Who Were the Real Morons?

Since Mark Shea's book By What Authority? founds its way into the conversation, I thought I'd clear up what I believe his point to have been, as well as put forth a question to him (or to anyone who feels like trying to answer it).

Shea draws his readers' attention to the way that evangelicals respond to the work of the Jesus Seminar, saying that evangelicalism is certainly correct in highlighting the absurdity of the idea that Jesus, whose knowledge and insight could penetrate into the very souls of men, was nonetheless so shortsighted that he couldn't seem to choose any disciples who would be able to correctly remember a single thing he said. In other words, how likely is it that, nine minutes after our Lord's death, his disciples would both immediately forget everything he really said and did, and invent a bunch of stuff he never said or did?

(This reminds me of the wisdom of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, who insisted that "Jesus needed his disciples like he needed a hole in the head." When challenged with the claim that if you reject the disciples you reject Jesus, Caulfield explained that Jesus picked his dicsiples at random since he didn't have the time to screen them properly, being busy and all.)

Now Shea's argument becomes challenging when he turns to Protestantism's response to Rome. The Protestant, Shea insists, commits the very same fallacy that the proponent of the Jesus Seminar does, only we push it back a generation. So we (rightly) deny the likelihood that the original twelve apostles completely messed up Jesus' teachings, but we also (wrongly) insist that the first generation of post-apostolic fathers misunderstood the apostles' teachings. We roll our eyes at the claim that John invented the idea that the Logos was God, while we nonetheless maintain that Ignatius delibererately inflated the authority of the bishop, or that Irenaeus concocted the theory of apostolic succession as a means to ensure orthodoxy. Thus we dismiss early church teachings on prayers for the dead, the sacrificial nature of the Mass, or veneration of Mary by insisting that the church fathers simply went astray pretty soon after the original twelve died.

The question to my Catholic readers is this: Does not Paul himself marvel at how quickly the churches of Galatia perverted the gospel they received from apostolic messengers? Is it indeed a given that the teachings of the early fathers were apostolic simply because they were in close chronological proximity to the apostles?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Going to California

I'll be on vacation in Orange County for the next few weeks, but I will be blogging as often as the surf is flat. I hope to update the blog tonight or tomorrow.

PS - I wonder what this pic has to do with my post?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Binding and Loosing in Orlando

I'm sitting here in Orlando at the PCA's General Assembly, and the food line is a mile long, so to kill time I figured I'd relay a question I was posing to some fellas last night over smokes and seven-and-sevens:

"Has anything been bound in heaven this week?"

(Insert blank stare and the sound of crickets here.)

The reason for my question is that Jesus says in Matthew 16, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. And I give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." What our Lord is promising here is that the church he will build will have the power to speak in heaven's name on earth, with all authority.

So the question I posed was, "Have we actually concluded anything in Christ's Name that we are confident is now bound in heaven and ratified with heavenly authority?" And my follow up question, if the answer given was "Yes," is, "OK then, should we go through the Yellow Pages once we're home and call all the other churches in our community and inform them of Jesus' decisions that were made at the PCA's GA?"

Again, crickets and stares....

I am certainly not trying to undermine or call into question the importance of the work that we are doing as PCA commissioners. But I guess I'm simply lamenting the fact that the church that Jesus seemed to describe in the Gospels, when compared with our current situation in Protestantism, is not exactly easily recognizable. Instead of declaring with heaven's own authority God's will for all Christians we are setting up the rules that govern our own little corner of the kingdom.

Do I like my corner? Sure. But I can't help but wish there were more unity and true catholicity within Reformed Protestantism. Here endeth the rant.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Off to Orlando....

I will be in beautiful Orlando, Florida for the PCA's General Assembly all week (but still may find the time to update the blog). Prayers are appreciated.

By the way, if any of you regular commenters will be there, please introduce yourself.


Friday, June 12, 2009

The PCA: Present and Future

The following is a piece, written in response to Charles Dunahoo's recent article on the state of the PCA, that will be published in the next issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal (edited by Darryl Hart and John Muether). Let the reader be assured that any snarkiness on the part of the author is to be taken in the spirit in which it was written, i.e., with a grain of good-natured, Spirit-filled, love-thy-neighbor salt. Enjoy....

Just to lay my cards on the table up front, I will admit that both my ecclesiastical background and my geographical location are very different from Mr. Dunahoo’s. Having been reared in megachurch evangelicalism in Southern California, and currently pastoring a PCA in the Seattle area, I have neither the broadness of perspective that Dunahoo enjoys, nor the memories of this denomination’s early days that he retains. Still, I’ll do my best to make some worthwhile remarks about the Presbyterian Church in America, both present and future.

Dunahoo lists five distinct groups within the PCA. In my four years as a member of the Pacific Northwest Presbytery, I can identify groups 1 and 2 (the “Reformed Fundamentalists” and the “Reformed Evangelicals”) in this neck of the ecclesiastical woods. That’s not to say the others don’t exist elsewhere, but as I said, my experience is limited to the fringe of the movement (“fringe” being used literally with respect to my presbytery’s location, and perhaps metaphorically with respect to its self-perception. More on this below). Now although I balk at the label affixed to me by Dunahoo (I happen to think of “Fundamentalist” as rather antithetical to “Reformed”), I do consider myself to fit squarely into his first category. I believe the Westminster Confession and Catechisms to be the most faithful articulation of biblical truth, and I believe that it is my calling and duty as a minister to expound Holy Scripture through the lens of the doctrinal standards to which I have submitted myself.

I would venture to say that Dunahoo’s second group, the Reformed Evangelicals, is the largest subgroup within the PCA. I may be wrong about this, but my excuse for such misperception is that the denomination’s official publications, as well as its seminary, all seem to presuppose the missional model, with hardly a paragraph being written in their literature that doesn’t remind the reader to redeem this or transform that. Words like “contextual” and “incarnational” are nearly as important in church planting circles as the phrases “Word and sacraments” or “the ordinary means of grace.” Apparently, word, water, and wine are all well and good provided they’re dispensed with sufficient cultural exegesis and social sensitivity. But I digress.

What I do find refreshing about Dunahoo’s perspective is, well, its perspective. In other words, he doesn’t simply draw a circle around himself and his friends and act as if there is no one else in the denomination besides his own subgroup. The reason I mention this is that I know what it is like to be treated like a virtual alien simply because I haven’t drunk the contextual Kool-Aid. I still feel the sting from the lashing I received at the PCA’s Church Planters’ Assessment when, in a certain exercise, I dared use the word “covenantal” while giving a mock church planting presentation to a pretend presbytery. Apparently it is a cardinal sin to assume that presbyters in the PCA understand the nomenclature used in chapter 7 of the Westminster Confession (I’m not bitter anymore, honest). My point here is that the sooner the confessionalists and transformationists (or, groups 1 and 2) recognize each other’s existence, the better. True, the two may never become one, but at least they’ll realize they are shacked up as roommates in the same house.

In the Pacific Northwest Presbytery where I am a member, the line dividing the Reformed Fundamentalists from, well, everyone else was recently made painfully apparent. At our stated meeting in October 2007, Rev. Peter Leithart and I jointly requested that presbytery appoint a study committee to evaluate Leithart’s Federal Visionist views and compare them with the Westminster Confession, with a particular emphasis on the nine “Declarations” of the previous summer’s General Assembly report on Federal Vision theology more broadly. The committee ended up split 4-3, with the majority concluding that Leithart’s views, though at times confusing and unhelpful, were nonetheless within the bounds of confessional orthodoxy, while the minority (of which I was a part) found his views to strike at the vitals of the Reformed system of doctrine. When we met a year later to present the reports, the debate on the floor of presbytery was rather telling (to say the least) in that it largely ignored the narrow issues that the committee was charged to address and focused instead on the larger (and, strictly speaking, irrelevant) question, “What is the PCA?” The concerns voiced were primarily focused on self-identity instead of whether Leithart’s theology was Reformed or not. The greatest fear on the part of the members of presbytery was that by voting to depose one of our own we’d become, well, like the OPC. In other words, we already represent a mere fraction of Christian believers anyway, and now, by defrocking everyone who fails to cross their t’s and dot there i’s the way we’d like them to, we will just paint an even smaller circle around ourselves, eventually paling into utter obscurity and irrelevance.

It seems to me that the events of the Pacific Northwest Presbytery’s October 2008 meeting demonstrate, albeit microcosmically, the identity crisis of the PCA as a whole. As the “A” in our name would seem to suggest, we are perhaps unduly fixated on being big, noteworthy, and successful, and whatever stands in the way of such success must be viewed with a measure of suspicion. Hence the ho-hum attitude on the part of Dunahoo’s “Reformed Evangelicals” towards a simple, ordinary-means-of-grace ministry that dismisses the fanfare and obsession with how many artists show up at our wine- and cheese-tasting soirees, and gives attention rather to preaching Christ and administrating the Supper each Lord’s Day. As much as the OPC’s obvious irrelevance (ahem) stands as an ominous warning to the movers and shakers at Covenant Seminary and sends chills down the collective spine of the powers that be in Atlanta, the fact is that our older cousin, though a runt in the Presbyterian litter, enjoys the freedom of Mere Presbyterianism to a degree that the PCA cannot (at least not as long as we’re pining for the approval of the artsy-fartsy, the bohemian, the indy, and the soul-patched).

Not being prone to prognostication, I am loath to guess where the rocky marriage between the confessionalists and transformationists will take the PCA. If Tim Keller’s work with the Gospel Coalition is any indication, it is at least possible that the Reformed Evangelicals will continue to value cultural engagement and renewal more highly than confessional exactitude, perhaps to the point of secession. Or to look at it from the other direction, if the so-called Reformed Fundamentalists continue to be made to feel hopelessly irrelevant and out of touch when we settle for a Sabbath-oriented, means of grace driven piety, a withdrawal could potentially occur. Then again, we could just continue with the live-and-let-live, quasi-congregationalism that we now enjoy, according to which I can be left alone to don my Geneva gown on Sunday provided I don’t hassle the PCA pastor in the next town over for using multimedia and drama to reach the “teenz.”

But either way, the Emergents are certainly right about one thing: the church, if not a mess, is nonetheless messy.

Monday, June 08, 2009

On Misfits and Grandmothers

As I pointed out in an earlier post, many of the writers I have been reading over the past several years (Tolkien, Chesterton, Lewis) had such a unique outlook on the world, one characterized by a humility and wonder that is somewhat lacking in my own theological circles. One of you commented, suggest-ing that these men had a sacramental worldview. When I admitted that I have no idea what that means, another of you directed me to the short stories of Flannery O'Connor as an example of what a sacramental worldview looks like. So, off I went to purchase said volume.

I read a couple of O'Connor's lesser-known stories (one of which involved a boy dressing up as a gorilla for some reason I have yet to ascertain), but was then directed by a church member to read A Good Man Is Hard to Find, which I did yesterday (who, me unteachable?).

I admit, it is a disturbing story to say the least (though how it demonstrates a sacramental worldview I am unsure). The most interesting line is one of the very last, which is uttered by an escaped convict known as "The Misfit." After his cohorts murder a family of four, the only family member still alive is "the Grandmother," who has been engaging The Misfit in conversation, insisting that he is "not common," and indeed "good." She then reaches out to touch him, whereupon he recoils as if bitten by a snake, shoots her three times in the chest, and says:

"She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

Is the point that O'Connor's Misfit is making that we need to be faced with fear and threat before we will truly demonstrate decency, that real virtue is produced in the crucible of danger?

Is Miss Flannery's Catholic skirt showing?

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Dead Man Walking

Leave it to Gilbert Keith Chesterton to come up with a truly thought-provoking argument against suicide. Most Christian writers would simply say, "Killing is wrong; suicide is killing; therefore, suicide is wrong." Not G.K.: "The man who kills, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men." He's got your attention, no?

The thief is satisfied with diamonds; but the one who commits suicide is not: that is his crime. He cannot be bribed, even by the blazing stones of the Celestial City. The thief compliments the thing he steals (if not the owner of them). But the one who commits suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer.
I cannot help but think of that obscure little line from Paul in Romans 1 in which, after enumerating the deviant and sinful practices of pagan Gentiles, he adds, "and neither were they thankful." From Chesterton's point of view it is precisely this lack of wonder, this failure to stand in awe of earth and its common blessings that makes suicide so insulting to everyone left in its wake. Suicide indeed kills all men.

Taking this a step further (and I have to give credit to my associate pastor Sy Nease for this insight), could it be that suicide can be committed spiritually rather than literally? In other words, when living people look askance at the world and view it merely with suspicion rather than wonder, could this be a kind of metaphorical equivalent to suicide?

To borrow Chesterton's terminology, if a person is Christian enough to hate the world and die to it, but not pagan enough to love the world and die for it, is he merely a dead man walking?