Dr. Jack England & Pastor Bret Discuss Evangelism vs. Doctrine

Jack England is a Ph.D. working in a ministerial middle management position in one of America’s Flag ship evangelical denominations. His portfolio includes work with mission.

Dr. Jack,

“While I believe that in the Christian faith there is only one true and absolute doctrine, humans are unable to define it.”

Dr. Jack England, what good is it to have only one true and absolute doctrine if nobody can authoritatively define it? For that matter Dr. Jack, If we are unable to define the only one true and absolute doctrine what the hell does anybody mean when they say “the Christian faith.” This sounds very Kantian in as much as you seem to be suggesting we cannot know the thing in itself.

In point of fact Dr. Jack I believe you have told us that in your estimation there is one true and absolute doctrine of the Christian faith that you as a human are able to define and that doctrine is that there are no other true and absolute doctrines that you are able to define. Your one definable absolute is that there are no other definable absolutes.

Finally, on this score if what you say is accurate then there is no reason to say that Mormons or Jehovah Witnesses or Unitarians aren’t Christian. After all, if we are unable to define doctrine well enough to know who should be in and who should be out then who are we to freeze anybody out of the circle?

“Because, you see, when they try to define it errors are made (we humans ARE frail, fallible, and finite); when errors are made, differences occur among humans; when differences occur, new paths form; when new paths form (within Christianity), denominations surface; when denominations surface, dogma arrives; when dogma arrives, divisions occur within an entity God would rather be unified. Thus, I believe that He only tolerates denominations, Bret.”

Dr. Jack, everyone agrees with the idea of the noetic effects of sin. Further everyone would agree that we see through a glass darkly. The point though is that we do see. The reality of human frailty, fallibility, and finiteness does not negate the ability of God to communicate his mind. Now, certainly no one would argue that we can fully comprehend God (finitum non capax infinitum) but all orthodox Christians believe that God can still be known because he is able to make himself known.

You say God would rather have us united? That is a doctrine, and if humans are unable to define it then why do you presume to define it here?

Your solution of a unknowable doctrine doesn’t work because it ends up being its own unique dogma that you putatively disdain. Indeed, your dogma keeps me from being united with you, and yet that is exactly what you say you want to avoid. Your path has been pursued many times before. It’s the kind of thing you might have heard from J. Barton Stone or Alexander Campbell.

It would be nice if we could all hold hands and sing Kumbayah Dr. Jack but unity can only be achieved and maintained by a mutually shared set of definable doctrines. The doctrine that there isn’t any doctrines that can be defined is not enough to base unity upon.

“Another thought to ponder at another time might be, why have I chosen to be a Baptist, or you, CR?”

Um, because you are confused and the CRC is a denomination that historically has held to the Biblical faith once delivered to the saints?

“Without defining that “one absolute doctrine,” perhaps it would be unfair to entertain the second part of your question, ‘how does it effect evangelism?'”

I don’t understand. If it is, a-priori not possible for humans to define ‘one absolute doctrine’ then why would we even try?

Bret had asked Dr. Jack earlier,

Q: How does the one absolute doctrine effect evangelism?

Dr. Jack responds,

Well, if we look to God’s Word as the basis for the one true doctrine, we find that evangelism is more overt in the NT and more covert in the OT. The reason would be found in the life and work of Christ recorded in the NT, and more specifically in the Savior’s words to those gathered just prior to His ascension, that which believers refer to as the Great Commission. Jesus commands that his followers make disciples. While there is more to making disciples than simply leading another to conversion and belief in Christ (evangelism), God gave authority to His Son to pass the authority to evangelize people on to those called the Apostles of Christ, and I believe to many other disciples who were present, and further on to disciples/followers in this present day (to you and me). So, I believe God’s plan before time (the crux of that absolute doctrine) centered on believers applying/sharing the gospel message.

How do you know this if humans can’t define the one true doctrine?

Still, I agree that we should be busy about evangelism and discipleship. But my question still stands. How do we do evangelism apart from Doctrine informing us? Who is Jesus? What is sin? What of the character of God in relation to evangelism? When God visits salvation upon a husband and wife are they to bring their children into the household of God with them? What does conversion look like? Calvinists, and Arminians answer many of those questions differently. You just can’t do evangelism Dr. Jack without addressing all kinds of doctrinal issues.

“that’s why evangelism outweighs doctrinal dogma/differences in the way I practice my faith.”

I’m sorry Jack, you just can’t divide evangelism from the doctrinal differences. For example, I know countless number of people who will tell you when they converted from Arminianism to Calvinism it was like embracing a different faith.

Another question that comes to mind might be: What IS the definition of evangelism?

You can’t answer that without doctrine and according to you it is not possible for humans to define doctrine because they are frail, fallible and finite.

“Okay, Bret, now answer my first question: In the Christian faith, isn’t there only one absolute doctrine?”

Yes.

Calvin – One cause of doctrine that is perverted and depraved

“Some honest teachers may receive support from the public treasury; but as we have said, when any one is drawn aside by lucre, he must necessarily pervert and deprave all purity of doctrine.”

John Calvin
Commentaries On Daniel — pg. 128

Sometimes I wonder if the problems of the pulpit today in how it has perverted and depraved all purity of doctrine stems from ministers being drawn aside by lucre. When you connect a guys livelihood with a prophetic role it takes an unusual chap to choose to stick with the prophetic voice at the risk of losing his livelihood. How many ministers trim their message for fear of offending Daddy Warbucks? How many ministers understand that large segments of American culture simply won’t tolerate certain of God’s convictions and so preach accordingly, steering away from those subjects that American culture can’t stand? It is not a wonder that in the Old Testament God repeatedly raised up a prophetic voice out of the middle of nowhere to challenge the institutional priestly class who had perverted and depraved all purity of doctrine. Further, it is not a wonder that often these prophetic voices were people of no repute — sheepherders like Amos, or desert dwellers like John The Baptist. God often reached outside the mainstream in order to find somebody who hadn’t been corrupted by the desire for lucre.

Does love for money, prestige, and fame keep us ministers from giving the unvarnished truths? Are we compromising the message because we have come to think of our congregations or denominations as the source of our incomes as opposed to only one channel among many that God — the true source — can provide? Are we thinking more about our retirement and our future financial stability when we speak then we are thinking about being in the presence of God when we speak?

God keep us from perverting and depraving all purity of doctrine because we don’t have the confidence He can provide water from stone and bread from birds.

Reading The Signs Of Our Times

Over at Mablog Doug Wilson continues to write on how to go about reading the meaning of historical events in terms of what God is saying. Wilson’s contention is that Christians ought to be able to read the times and by doing so proclaim what God is saying by events that happen in history. The belief that Christians ought to have the ability to do this has long historical legs in Christian thinking. St. Louis IX the Christian Crusader King concluded that God was afflicting him for his sins by not giving him the victory he was looking for on the Crusades in which he participated. The Puritan forebears in the early colonies understood God’s hand to be against them for disobedience when calamity came against them. Many of the Southern Theologians in the 2nd War for American Independence explained their defeat as God’s just judgments against them for their sins as a nation. In the same way you can find the opposite conclusions that God was giving success to undertakings because of obedience rendered by the people. You can find the kind of thing that Doug Wilson is contemplating all over Church history.

Now the positive aspect of this kind of approach is that it reminds us that what happens in history does not happen by way of mechanical necessity. This approach reminds us that God is intimately involved in history.It reminds us that Hurricanes are God’s Hurricanes. It reminds us that a rising to or falling from power is done by God. It reminds us that prosperity is ultimately due to God’s favor. Christians raised in a world where science is sovereign and so everything that happens has to be explained in terms of science need to learn that everything comes from a sovereign God who remains the sustainer and governor of the Universe.

Of course the problem with this enterprise is that it may be beyond human endeavor to climb up into God’s filing cabinet in order to say a “Thus saith the Lord” by way of precise explanation for why Hurricane Katrina happened or why 9-11 happened or why there are floods in the Midwest. Sure, we can always give the necessary observation that if towers fall and kill people what the living should do is repent unless something worst should happen to them (Luke 13:1-4) but that is a far piece from saying that the tower fell because of some legislation that passed that was anti-Christ.

On this subject here are a few things that I would like to recognize.

1.) Immediate blessing is not always the consequence of obedience and immediate cursing is not always the consequence of disobedience. The Covenanters were an obedient people but for decades they were mercilessly persecuted. The same goes for the Hugenots and the Puritans. Immediate blessing doesn’t always follow obedience.

2.) Whenever God does curse a people that curse is a blessing to God’s people who live among the cursed people. This is to say that for those who belong to God, whatever God does is blessing to them. The Heidelberg Catechism gets at this when it says “that God will make whatever evils he sends upon me (His people), in this valley of tears turn out to my advantage.” This means that if God sends a natural calamity it is both a cursing and a blessing. It is a cursing to God haters but a blessing to those God loves. God may chasten those He loves but that chastening is a blessing.

3.) Similarly whenever God blesses a people that blessing is always a curse to the reprobate. God may act favorably toward a people for the sake of His people in their midst but that very favor is judgment against the reprobate in their midst.

4.) The ability to say “This is That” gives the person who takes that upon himself to much power. If people really believe that somebody can tell them why God does such and such in history that person speaks to them with the voice of God and so has a leverage that probably isn’t going to be healthy. Cults form around people who presume to be able to be God’s interpreter on why what happens, happens.

It is my conviction that we should go very slow on taking up the prophetic mantle in order to do a “this is that” commentary at what happens in history. We don’t have the advantage of being inspired so as to have divine insight into the meaning of God’s working in this world as did the prophets in the Scriptures. On the other hand we need to cultivate the sense that all that happens, happens by the working of a Sovereign God bringing about the ends he has decreed.

Do Alternate School Settings Fix All That Is Broken?

Most people think because I am anti-government schooling that automatically makes me pro-homeschooling or pro private school. Nothing could be further from the truth.

My experience with most (not all) alternate schooling is that it is even more dangerous because it hires teachers trained in Colleges who use a curriculum that is humanistic. This
means that, unless the prospective teachers have done the extraordinarily hard work of reinterpreting their humanistic training through a Biblical grid, they remain government school teachers even though they are working for a ‘Christian school.’ This results in alternate schools, that are supposed to be teaching a uniquely Christian and World life view to give its imprimatur upon a teacher who is teaching out of a humanist world and life view. Hence, what I am seeing in most the alternate schooling settings that I am exposed to are teachers who, like their government school counterparts, are not epistemologically self-conscious about their Christian faith. The consequence of this is that though they affirm the Christian faith they are still thinking and teaching as those who share many of the premises of the culture they are part of and so they do not have the ability to think, and thus teach in a theo-centric fashion. Christian school administrators hire these people because they likewise don’t know what it means to think with a Christian World and life view.

Another problem with non-government alternate schooling is that the curriculum that is used isn’t particularly ‘Christian.’ After 20 years of homeschooling I can tell you that a great deal of curriculum out there that is advertising itself as Christian isn’t. In many private schools the curriculum that is used is not much better then what might be found in government schools. As a result what happens in many educational venues is that you have people teaching who have not reinterpreted their academic discipline through a Christian grid teaching a curriculum that is not written from a Christian grid. This eventuates in students who are nice (because they are attending a place with a Christian ethos) but who are as captive to the presuppositions of the culture they are part of as their friends who go to government schools.

A third problem with non-government alternate schooling is that the parents, like the teachers mentioned earlier, don’t know what it means to think in a distinctly Christian fashion. This means that they don’t have the ability to hold the feet of rogue teachers and administrators to the fire. Sadly, my experience has been that many parents who home school don’t want to know themselves or don’t see the need for their children to know what it means to think as a Christian. This was brought home to me recently when a parent of one of the students I teach was queried by some of her evangelical friends about why she bothered to send her daughter to my Worldview class to read ‘those books that your daughter will never use.’ (We were reading Schlossberg’s “Idols For Destruction” at the time.) They thought the class didn’t have any practical value and they gave these parents a bit of a hard time. It was brought home again when a major metropolitan area near to me held Worldview conferences for 15-20 year olds for a week during the summers but could only garner 50 or so students every year. This community was well known for it’s Reformed presence but despite bringing in well known quality people to speak at these conferences there was not enough interest to keep the conferences going past a few summers.

A fourth problem with non-government alternate schooling is that for those who are trying to be epistemologically self-conscious about their teaching the support networks are limited. My personal experience over the years was that when I attended what was supposed to be support networks I left more frustrated by what I was hearing in relation to the education going on in homes then I was before I arrived. I quit attending these functions early on because I figured I didn’t need to go looking for frustration when I could find it everywhere around me.

A fifth problem is that there are very few Churches that are willing to stress the importance of decidedly Christian thinking. Parents who do not hear from the pulpit the importance and necessity of being able to think, in concrete terms, as a Christian aren’t likely to see its importance. Parishioners who are not taught in Sunday School or in mid-week settings what Christian History, or Christian Economics, or Christian theory of Law looks like aren’t going to see the issue as that important, and so aren’t going to desire it for their children.

A sixth problem is that most evangelicals really don’t believe in the absolute and exhaustive sovereignty of God. Without that foundational conviction, teaching Christian thinking is really not possible. All of Christian thinking begins and ends with the sovereign God, who because of His omnipotence, all facts find their meaning in Him. Similarly, the failure to see Christ as the risen epistemological Prophet-King, who, because of His work as High Priest, teaches us to think in Redeemed ways leads to a lackluster approach in educational efforts. For to many evangelicals Christ remains the Redeemer of souls but not minds.

Most of my (admittedly anecdotal) experience with the alternate schooling community in the broader evangelical world over the last 20 years has caused me to conclude that most of what is going on in alternate school settings is just another variant of government schooling. I have seen students and parents who don’t care, don’t know, and don’t want to know. I have met very few parents who provide alternate schooling for their children who realize how much work it takes for student and teacher alike to teach their children to become epistemologically self conscious so that they develop the ability to see the culture in which they are living. Even in families that pursue alternate schooling the assumption seems to be that it is not important to think Worldviewishly.

In closing I should add that most of the parents and students I have spoken of above who pursue alternate schooling are swell people. As long as one doesn’t talk about anything important they are delightful conversation partners. Many of them would give you the shirt off their backs to help you. Over the years I have been humbled many times by their kindnesses and support to me and my family. The challenge I have offered here does not speak to their overall niceness but rather to the urgency for them and their children to take every thought to make it captive to Christ.

So you see, the problem that we have in terms of seeing Reformation in our Churches and in our culture is not a problem that is only located in Government schools. The problem includes most of what happens in alternate school settings.

Assurance & The Objectivity Of The Covenant

Bret said It is the same kind of promise that was extended to Israel… both to the Israel of Israel and the Israel that was not of Israel. When considering the promise in light of knowing the whole story it is conditional to the reprobate and unconditional to the elect.

David responds,

Agreed, but then how does this establish personal assurance of salvation? The thing FV tries to do is to point to the sacraments and the covenant to establish assurance because they are supposed to be “objective”, but then it has a doctrine of the covenant that is conditional and includes reprobates, curses and the possibility of apostacy. But FV, not being a paragon of logical consistency, fails to see that it undercuts itself in making this very move.

David, I’m not FV so what I am about to say is my answer. I don’t know how the FV would answer it.

As a pastor I deal with two types of people when it comes to the issue of assurance. On the one hand I deal with believers, who realizing God’s great holiness and their own behavior in light of that holiness struggle haplessly for assurance regardless of how superior their Christian character is. They have trouble bringing themselves to believe that God can really forgive them. To these ‘naval gazer’ types
I first admonish them for looking so intently inwardly rather then outwardly but I also say, “Christ is for you and He has given the Sacraments to confirm that He really has forgiven you. Take and feast on Christ and know that you are accepted for the sake of the work for you of He who is conveyed to you in the Sacrament.” In short I emphasize the objectivity of the covenant. Luther made a move somewhat similar to this. When the devil would come to him and remind him of his great sins, Luther, being overwhelmed, would finally say, “It’s true, It’s true, but I’ve been baptized.” The covenant is objective.

On the other hand ministers have to deal with those in the congregation who need to hear a different emphasis because they are dispositionally relating to the covenant in a different manner. These are thus whose lives are characterized by a neglect of pursuit of holiness in favor or a pursuit of behavior that is inconsistent with a professing Christian. To these I need to remind them that the very same covenant that must be taken as rock solid assurance by the naval gazers is a covenant that offers no assurance to ‘the people of God’ who are acting like “dogs returning to their own vomit, and sows, having been bathed, to their rolling in mire.” Indeed that very same covenant that is a rock of assurance to the navel gazers who will look away from themselves to Jesus is a rock that will crush the libertines.

To the former I must tell them to rightly presume on grace. To the latter I must warn them of the danger of wrongly presuming on grace.

Now that can be made to look contradictory, as you have done above, but given how I’ve explained it, and given the fact that different people in the Church with different problems need to be spoken to differently I fail to see the contradiction.