Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Theological Middle of the Road: More on the Idea and Practice of Baptist Moderates

My last post generated an interesting exchange with an interlocutor describing himself as one of the "militant moderates." He credited me for cleverness, but faulted my reasoning in the descriptions of moderates as often quite ill-moderate in temperament. So, it seemed that a more substantive reflection might be in order. Here are my observations after stumbling through the maze of conflicting theological labels.

Baptist moderates typically see themselves as orthodox Christians who hold firmly to an evangelical understanding of the Gospel. Some of them emphasize social aspects of the faith more than some of their more conservative brethren do (in their opinion). Others want to encourage members of the progressive left to keep up their doctrinal and practical explorations in the hope that we can learn something of value from them. What truly distinguishes the moderate is the commitment to freedom. They often proclaim, in Voltaire-like echoes, that they will defend to the death your right to be wrong, whether you are to the left or the right of them. Against the left and the right, they oppose the "fundamentalist" spirit of exclusive claims to truth and the frequently expressed desire to exclude or marginalize one's opponents.

Instead, they want everyone to be present at the table in the hopes that we can all exhibit the humility and openness necessary to learn from one another in a spirit of Christian comity. From the right we can learn the value of "conserving" what has proven important and valuable in our tradition; from the left we can learn from a progressive "openness" to the Spirit of the Living God who still moves among the churches.

They aver that what made Baptists Baptists traces to the idea of freedom. Indeed, their reading of Baptist history celebrates as the central genius a commitment to freedom. For moderates freedom is the big idea that brought Baptists out of the British/European theological morass. They see emphasis upon boundaries as contrary to the Baptist ethos.

IMHO, the error of the moderates derives from their misunderstanding of history, both Christian and Baptist. All basic forms of church polity (Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Congregational) have the advantage of being rooted in the Biblical record and operating with common-sense checks and balances. Trying to absolutize one value (e.g., freedom) without the counterbalance of agreed upon boundaries and the comprehension of other truths risks the entire enterprise.

With respect to Baptist history, which of our original Baptist forbearers would they have us emulate? The ones behind the First London Confession of Faith ( 1644), Second London Confession of Faith (1677), Philadelphia Confession of Faith & Catechism (1742), or maybe the 1858 Abstract of Principles with its Calvinistic emphases and insistence upon very strict boundaries for fellowship? These freedom loving Baptists did not seem to shrink from insisting on fairly specific doctrinal affirmations for Baptist clergy and congregations in order to remain in fellowship with the larger association.

Only in our "have it your way" era of "Burger King" theology has it been seen as unbaptistic to draw such boundaries. It simply will not do to proclaim the Baptist value of “freedom” without also affirming some boundaries of agreed upon beliefs and practices. Such an attempt is fundamentally “unbaptistic” and contrary to the spirit and the practice animating our Baptist founders. Without a balance of values, all we have left is the sad plea of a Rodney King “theology”: “Can’t we just get along.”

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Curse of the Theological Moderates: Ruminations on Reaction Formation

What is a moderate anyway? The dictionary ( to be exact) offers up nearly a dozen senses or nuances of the adjective, noun, verb.

Interestingly, the first definition caught my attention: “kept or keeping within reasonable or proper limits; not extreme, excessive, or intense.”

By this standard one would expect self-identified “moderates” to be, well, er, ah . . . “moderate.” Yet, in my somewhat careful reading of the writings of theological moderates over the past two years in a variety of blogs and message boards (at least the Baptist ones), it has been my observation that much of the time they are anything but “moderate.”

Rather than calmly measured rhetoric and argumentation, they often display the greatest passion and intensity. Yelling, name calling, ridicule, over-the-top sarcasm, proof-texting, ganging up, use of false and misleading “facts,” reluctance to apologize when proven wrong, legalistically adhering to the “rules” of the “board,” netiquette, etc., self-righteousness, and an odd combination of quixotic idealism and a dogged preference for whining victimhood characterize much of the electronic speech by the theological moderates I have been reading.

Why are the moderates so angry? What animates their “extreme, excessive, or intense” non-moderate moderation?

Recently a moderator active on a couple of the most popular “Baptist” forums took to answering the question, tongue firmly in cheek, when he commented on some of the fireworks over on another Baptist forum. He opined:

“I don't know why we don't get more angry fundamentalists, but my guess is that the tone here is much friendlier, even though we probably have more true fundamentalists and liberals posting here than at [the name of the other forum]. Moderates are just mean.”

Some years ago Andy Griffith recorded a comedy album featuring the bit “What it was was football.” In it he described a backwoods boy being dumped into the crush of humanity going to a college football game. Unable to understand the rules made for hilarious comedic turns. He finally concluded that the goal of the game was “to get from one end of the cow pasture to the other without getting knocked down or steppin’ in somethin’.”

In a similar vein, not having a Southern Baptist Convention background is a real liability when reading Baptist blogs and forums. The SBC “resurgence”/”takeover” has produced such polarities of opinion that just describing the history by either term virtually brands you as a partisan in the feud. And, much as with the mythic argument between the Hatfields and the McCoys, the SBC “conservatives”/”fundamentalists” and "liberals"/"moderates" (there you go again with the fighting terms!) have so much invested in the battle, that you can get yourself shot at by either faction simply by inadvertently trespassing on a conversation with a rich and factious cultural/ecclesiastical backstory unknown to you.

So, Andy Griffith style, here is my explanation of what is going on with the “moderates.” They appear to be mostly ex-fundamentalists who have evidently retained much of their famous anger. However, instead of being mad at the liberals and ready to relegate them to hell’s fire as the fundamentalists do, the moderates are just as ticked at the fundamentalists and can’t resist telling them to go to hell.

Much of my theological heritage during jr. and sr. high was shaped by a moderate congregation and theologically “progressive” Baptist pastors with all of the attendant frustrations and hypocrisies of mainline religion. Consequently, I have spent most of my adult years running to the right to find “Truth” (capital “T” please). My moderate friends mostly grew up in a fundamentalist culture with all of the attendant frustrations and hypocrisies of fundamentalism. They appear to be devoting themselves to a pell-mell rush to the left.

Interesting. Liberals are not very liberal in their refusal to be open to those to the right of them. Conservatives spend more time suffocating the truth than preserving it. And, moderates are the least “moderate” of the bunch. Maybe Andy Griffith could do a bit on Baptists?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Early End to Daylight Savings Time in Rome? Pope Rolls Back the Clock Early, Declaring Protestant Congregations Not Churches

This has been an important week for the Church, the Roman Catholic Church that is. Or, as Pope Benedict XVI would have it, the only Church. Reiterating the view he promulgated in 2000 in Dominus Iesus, writing then as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when he headed the Vatican ministry for Doctrine, the restatement dubs Protestant congregations merely "ecclesial communities."A commentary attached to the latest text acknowledged that his early work had caused "no little distress". But it added: "It is nevertheless difficult to see how the title of 'Church' could possibly be attributed to [Protestant communities], given that they do not accept the theological notion of the Church in the Catholic sense and that they lack elements considered essential to the Catholic Church."

According to Benedict, since we Protestants do not have apostolic succession, we lack the sacramental preisthood and have therefore not preserved the "genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery."

The fact that this declaration came just days following the decision to reinstate the Latin Mass raised speculation that the new pope sought to turn back the clock to before Vatican II, of which he was an observer as a young priest. The Vatican insists that the Pope was attempting to correct liberal misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the justifiably famous council.

In recent years evangelical theologians have attempted to take advantage of changes in Catholic theology to propose new grounds for cooperation. Many implications of the highly vaunted New Perspective on Paul, so popular in the academy, also comports well with renewed approaches to Christian consensus, if not full organizational union. The movement known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, for example, produced a document in 1994, signed or endorsed by evangelical's such as Prison Fellowship's Chuck Colson, Richard Land of the SBC, Campus Crusade's Bill Bright, Rchard Mouw of Fuller, and Pat Robertson. It was strongly opposed by others such as Sproul and MacArthur.

The declaration ended:

Nearly two thousand years after it began, and nearly five hundred years after the divisions of the Reformation era, the Christian mission to the world is vibrantly alive and assertive. We do not know, we cannot know, what the Lord of history has in store for the Third Millennium. It may be the springtime of world missions and great Christian expansion. It may be the way of the cross marked by persecution and apparent marginalization. In different places and times, it will likely be both. Or it may be that Our Lord will return tomorrow. We do know that his promise is sure, that we are enlisted for the duration, and that we are in this together. We do know that we must affirm and hope and search and contend and witness together, for we belong not to ourselves but to him who has purchased us by the blood of the cross. We do know that this is a time of opportunity-and, if of opportunity, then of responsibility-for Evangelicals and Catholics to be Christians together in a way that helps prepare the world for the coming of him to whom belongs the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

If the Pope intends to settle the matter definitively, does this mean that ecclesiastical rapprochement between Catholics and Protestants has been either ruled out entirely or back burnered? And what of the theological work that led to the ECT? Was it misbegotten or based upon a misunderstanding of the trajectory of Roman Catholic theology? We shall see.

For some years, proponents of ECT type dialogue have been snickering at people like Sproul and MacArthur for their "gross misunderstanding" of contemporary Catholic theology and and changes in RC views of justification that supposedly position them much closer to evangelical Protestantism. Could it be that the ECT evangelicals have been talking to the liberal Catholics and that normative catholicism never veered very much from its Council of Trent anathemas? In light of Benedict's pronouncement as a Cardinal in 2000, reaffirmed now as the Pope, might there still be some value in proclaiming the Reformation's sola fide in contrast to the Roman understanding of justification?

Saturday, July 07, 2007

"Dahlberg Peace Prize" for Transformation Ministries' Board? Do I Hear an Amen? Or Maybe Just a Surgeon's Saw?

Several friends in other regions have always been quite gracious about claiming their Baptist kin in Transformation Ministries as still part of the "framily." However, judging by a response to one of my recent posts, they may be in the minority in their generosity toward TM among American Baptists. Evidently the left likens their left-coast kin to a gangrenous limb lopped off to the relief of just about everyone. Writing in response to my post, one always sharp and thoughtful reader, Amill-presup (although not himself hailing from the theological left), wrote:

God bless those ministers for staying... for not leaving the ABC in their part of the country to become a "spiritual Netherlands." BTW, your description of how the "Transformation Ministries" annual meeting was like "a sigh of relief" couldn't be more fitting for this ABC biennial that just ended. Having finally lost some of the most contentious, least Baptistic among us was like removing an infected limb before the infection could spread. It was painful and it will be difficult to adjust. But we're already moving ahead.

Since Dr. Salico and his board in Transformation Ministries is responsible for producing such a collective "sigh of relief" by voluntarily removing their spiritually necrotic and "contentious, least Baptistic" selves from the body politic of the ABCUSA, perhaps they deserve the coveted "Dahlberg Peace Prize"??? Afterall, "removing an infected limb before the infection could spread" has purportedly brought great relief and peace to the now unified ABC. In fact, Amill-presup seems to believe that the ABC lives in the millennial state now as the absence of PSW/TM, however "painful", has made true eschatological peace in the ABC a reality at last.

Wait a minute! Salico and crew can't receive the Dahlberg prize. They are no longer in the amputated-limbed family. Maybe the "surgeons" over at AWAB deserve the award for precipitating the removal of the infected PSW limb from the body in the first place?

Just a thought. Never mind. BTW - in the over-the-top metaphor game, last year an Executive Minister spoke of TM's withdrawal as a spiritual pruning along the lines of John 15! Hey, I couldn't make this stuff up.

More seriously, I am truly glad that the ABC senses a collective relief over the absence of TM. Amill-presup testifies to part of what I had hoped would happen as TM separated itself from the larger body. Honestly, my prayer was that other regions might follow TM in their departure. However, whether TM goes alone or with others, my argument all along was that it was time to wish each other peace and to pursue our differing visions for future ministry without rancor and disruptiveness.

The kind of grinding conflict and hard feelings so effectively alluded to in Amill-presup's reply, were both enervating to the spirit and destructive to forward movement in both TM and Valley Forge. The centennial celebration with the CBF sounds as if it got things off to a very good start for ABCUSA. What a blessed way to ease past the loss of a significant region! The additional numbers at the Biennial and sense of transdenominational cooperation contributed to high spirits and helped create a spirit and the promise of momentum into the future.

Sounds as if the Lord intends to bless both Barnabas and Paul this time too! Amen! Dr. Medley is a kind and gentle man who means well. He deserves a break! TM similarly seeks to honor the Lord and be faithful to his leading. Dr. Salico has also earned the peace he currently enjoys.

Looks like a win-win to me.

Disclaimer: Not being a part of the TM board until recently, I deserve no part of any awards, prizes, honorifics, or general good-stuff commendations flowing to the PSW (now TM) board for their wisdom in cutting off the offending member (i.e., themselves) from the body of the ABC.

Friday, July 06, 2007

More Thoughts on the Theology of My T-Shirt

Here are a few more scattered thoughts on the "theology of my t-shirt" posting below.

In recent decades evangelicals have flirted with the attractions of openness theology (e.g., Sanders, Pinnock, and Boyd), the so-called "new perspective" on Paul with its challenge to the heart of the Reformation, and very sophisticated arguments in favor of Arminianism (e.g., Witherington).

My problem with Arminianism is that it denies that Christ paid the penalty for our sins. As an authoritative interpreter of the movement from within, J.K. Grider, argued in Elwell's Evangelical Dictionary of Theology:

Many Arminians whose theology is not very precise say that Christ paid the penalty for our sins. Yet such a view is foreign to Arminianism, which teaches instead that Christ suffered for us. Arminians teach that what Christ did he did for every person; therefore what he did could not have been to pay the penalty, since no one would then ever go into eternal perdition.
Arminianism teaches that Christ suffered for everyone so that the Father could forgive those who repent and believe; his death is such that all will see that forgiveness is costly and will strive to cease from anarchy in the world God governs."

Such a view was later to be known as the "governmental theory of the atonement" and had its fullest expression in Arminius' student, lawyer-theologian Hugo Grotius. A good (i.e., well-taught and consistent) Arminian would actually have theological problems with Billy Graham campaigns, as Grider himself admits, because "workers are often taught to counsel people that Christ paid the penalty for their sins." Such notions are anathema to the true Arminian.

Dealing with these issues in a forthright way, evangelical theogian J.I. Packer wrote a powerful introduction to the 1958 reprint of John Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.

"Now, here are two coherent interpretations of the biblical gospel, which stand in evident opposition to each other. The difference between them is not primarily one of emphasis, but of content. One proclaims a God who saves; the other speaks of a God who enables man to save himself. One view presents the three great acts of the Holy Trinity for the recovering of lost mankind - election by the Father, redemption by the Son, calling by the Spirit - as directed towards the same persons, and as securing their salvation infallibly. The other view gives each act a different reference (the objects of redemption being all mankind, of calling, all who hear the gospel, and of election, those hearers who respond), and denies that man's salvation is secured by any of them.

The two theologies thus conceive the plan of salvation in quite different terms. One makes salvation depend on the work of God, the other on a work of man; one regards faith as part of God's gift of salvation, the other as man's own contribution to salvation; one gives all the glory of saving believers to God, the other divides the praise between God, who, so to speak, built the machinery of salvation, and man, who by believing operated it.

Plainly, these differences are important, and the permanent value of the 'five points', as a summary of Calvinism, is that they make clear the areas in which, and the extent to which, these two conceptions are at variance."

For those struggling with the issue, I commend both Owen's masterful polemic (in the best sense of the term) and Packer's introduction to it.

Owen leads the reader down a primrose path. For what and for whom did Jesus die? If for all the sins of all people, then he must have died for the sin of unbelief? In which case, all people must be saved. If not, then perhaps he died for all of the sins of some of the people (i.e., the elect)? Arminianism has Jesus dying in order to make salvation merely a possibility. In fact, to them he did not necessarily save anyone.

Packer opines, "It is safe to say that no comparable exposition of the work of redemption as planned and executed by the Triune Jehovah has ever been done since Owen published his. None has been needed....[N]obody has a right to dismiss the doctrine of the limitedness, or particularity, of atonement as a monstrosity of Calvinistic logic until he has refuted Owen's proof that it is part of the uniform biblical presentation of redemption, clearly taught in plain text after plain text. And nobody has done that yet."

For Reformed thinkers, Jesus did die for our sins. As Karl Barth put it, hyper (υπερ) is the most important word in the Greek New Testament since Christ died "for" our sin. And, as a Baptist, I count it an honor that proponents of Reformed theology among Baptists have included notables such as Spurgeon, Boyce, Broadus, Manly, Mell, Howell, Johnson, Mallary, B.H. Carroll, with more recent advocates such as Ascol, Mohler, and Piper. And, from the non-baptist ranks can be named folks like MacArthur, Packer, and Sproul.

Against those who argue that a belief in the sovereignty of God will kill evangelism, it should be noted that until recently, much evangelism and lasting revival (other than Wesley) was associated with Reformed ministries (e.g., Edwards, Whitfield, Spurgeon, 19th Century Southern Baptists, etc.). In fact, if you move beyond the level of mere tracts (e.g., the Four Spiritual Laws) to systematic training programs, one of the most effective tools for decades has been Evangelism Explosion by the Reformed pastor, James Kennedy!

In the final analysis, we do have "free will." We can "choose" to exalt the sovereignty of God's will or argue for the sovereignty of the human will.

Being just a plain and simple Baptist preacher . . . I pick God.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Theology of My T-Shirt: A Little Laugh While Looking Through the Glass Darkly

My favorite t-shirt sports a message on the front and another on the back (see above). In fact, I like it so much that my wardrobe includes two of them! After people do a double-take, if they know any theology, it produces at least a smile of recognition.

Yes, we DO see through a glass darkly. Regardless of whether we identify more with the Calvinists or the Arminians, we must all admit that our clarity of vision has been obscured by sin, historical distance, the problem of particularity, and a host of other impediments to spiritual and intellectual occular clarity.

Calvinists are famous for their Jesuit-like logic, as penetrating as it is relentless. Whole libraries have been written on why post-Reformation scholasticism took Calvin into cul-de-sacs unintended by the Magisterial Reformer. Similarly, Arminians probably do not believe much of what Jacob Harmenszoon (aka Jacobus Arminius) was getting at either.

So, asking the question, "Are you a Calvinist or an Arminian?" might be about as useful at times as asking whether you have quit beating your wife. I confess that the themes of Calvin regarding the glorious sovereignty of God, the total inability of humankind, the triumph of grace, and the promise of perseverance speak to me more deeply and with greater evocative power than the words of my Arminian sisters and brothers. Maybe it's just me. But, in the dark night of the soul, I want a God who is sovereign, sure-footed, and who never slumbers walking by my side through the fearsome uncertainties of life.

During seminary one of my profs told the story of a time in his pastorate when a widow looked up into his eyes at the graveside and cried, "Why?" His answer? "God is standing here beside us now and he's wondering the same thing."

And, while it does not impact the epistemology or the hermeneutics of the matter, I wanted to shout: NO THANKS! An image of a deity so constrained and limited that he neither knows the future nor can guarantee that his plans will reach fruition does nothing for us in our deepest need.

When suffering a family crisis a couple of years ago, my heart was so overwhelmed with inconsolable pain that I participated in three "at-fault" automobile accidents within a one month period (how would you like to be my insurance agent?). What finally gave me comfort was not a self-help book of five easy steps to overcoming depression, nor a meditation that God was busy figuring out how my free choices were going to impact his ultimate will. Rather, my soul revived while listening to a fifteen part MP3 series on the Providence of God by R.C. Sproul. Only by focusing on God and his sovereign will was I able to return to a semblance of normalcy again.

So, while my shirt sports the Arminian message on the back, it is the Calvinist affirmation on the front that keeps me moving forward.