Letting You Listen Into The Conversation

Many of you know that the Reformed world in the USA is going through a really donnybrook of a battle between some who have styled themselves Federal Visionists and those who claim to be defending the historic traditions of the Reformed faith. Many of you know I have a problem with some of the beliefs of combatants on both sides of the contest. Below I reproduce a conversation I recently had with somebody on this division within the Reformed Church. The person who is pro FV comments are in italics.

For one thing, the majority of the PCA has not determined the state of the question or even the legitimacy of the charges against men like Steve Wilkins even if they have appointed a committee to do so. As usual, these things on closer examination fail to pass muster when we consider all the attendant factors.

KJ this is revisionist history. The PCA GA, by higher than 90%, accepted the committee report that clearly determined that FV was out of bounds. All that is happening with the Wilkins case is the application of that denominational decision. Actually, upon closer examination what fails to pass muster when the attendant factors are considered are KJ’s assertions.

Secondly, it is clear–whatever you or others think of the matter–that Federal Vision theology springs generally from normal received traditions in flux at differing points in the Reformed traditions we have to this point since the sixteenth century.

You can find almost anything as a ‘normally received tradition’ somewhere at some time in 500 years of Reformed history. So what?

Look, it’s this simple … If the gatekeepers in current Reformed denominations don’t desire FV then FV isn’t going to survive in those denominations. That is the way that all organizations work. Many Reformed denominations have determined that they don’t want FV getting into the water supply of Christendom through their channels thus bringing about the same kind of coup that dispensationalism won 100 years ago when it got into the water supply and infected everything.

The answer is easy here KJ. Let the FV people go build their own denominations. If, as many have said, ‘Ichabod’ is pronounced over the denominations that have given the old ‘heave ho’ to FV then in a short amount of time those denominations will dry up and FV will stand as champion on the grave of that which it detests.

I am too much of a historian to admit the idea that the Reformed tradition was fully developed and constant throughout its entire five hundred year length to this point. So, is it really a compromise of the doctrine of justification by faith? Maybe it is according to Muller who has his own limitations in looking at the Reformed histories and the corresponding traditions but I daresay that some of the men he has studied would be less impressed with his results.

Yes, and many men who study the works of those who don’t like Muller wouldn’t be impressed with their works. Again, I ask … ‘So What?’

Certainly, the Reformed tradition is still not fully developed, and who would contend that it has ever been constant? These are ‘Captain Obvious’ statements. Again, the point of the matter is that different groups desire different trajectories for their version of the ‘Tradition.’ Let each go their own way.

And yes the Federal Vision is, in its less thought out expressions, is a compromise on the doctrine of justification by faith alone.’

But to further throw a wrench in the works…let us do what you have supposed and grant the premise. I’m frankly not sure that this is the momentous occasion that the Reformation was in looking at ‘the article at which the church stands or falls’. Is the Church herself on the brink of destruction because sola fide is purportedly at risk in a denomination not .0000000000000000153254 percent of the entire Christian Body on this planet?

You don’t come to truth by counting noses KJ. By this reasoning something was amiss with Elijah since he was one of the .0000000000000000153254 percent of the entire faithful body in Israel. Being the avid student of history that you claim to be you surely realize that minorities often are those who save the day.

Remember the Mustard Seed.

Go ahead, drop a zero on the right side of the decimal from that percentage and include all the other Reformed bodies that have commented negatively on the FV and what do we have other than a very small group–something like the leaf way up high on massive oak that is hundreds of years old–telling the entire Church how she must view this issue.

Just imagine how small of leafs Luther and Calvin and Bucer, and Zwingli, and Peter Martyr and Bullinger et. all must have been. And yet …

No doubt a proper understanding of justification by faith alone is important and central to the gospel, but it is not equivalent to the gospel.

Is this like saying a proper functioning ovary is important and central to getting pregnant, but it is not equivalent to getting pregnant?

Well, sure, but no woman will ever get pregnant without a proper functioning ovary. Just so, no one will ever be saved without a gospel which casts all on Christ alone.

And, frankly the dismissing of the importance of justification by faith alone is troubling.

There are times when other more central matters have pressed to the fore in the history of the Church and I believe we face more important issues than this one especially when (let us come back to reality now) it is not immediately clear that the Federal Vision advocates are in every instance denying that which they have sought to affirm every inch of the way.

There is some truth there. I believe that public square a-nomianism (Radical Two Kingdom Theology) in the church is just as dangerous as FV. I believe that Feminism in the Church is just as dangerous as FV. I believe that humanistic psychology in the Church is just as dangerous as FV. There are many different ways in which the Church can be poisoned. I also agree that not all FV advocates are in every instance denying what they are being said to deny though certainly some of them do. Still, among all the dangers the Church faces FV is certainly a danger that the Church should react strongly against. Now, if she would only act against the other dangers.

The discipline present in Reformed churches carries with it a stench that originally belonged to her Roman subjugators.

That is always what the minority says when they are getting tossed out on their ears. Sometimes, no doubt, they are correct. Sometimes they aren’t.

If anything, the Reformed churches of our land are due for a major overhaul. I pray for revival. Repentance and true revival. The kind that would scare the crap out of the White Horse Inn guys. That would solve our problem a whole lot faster than the countless disciplinary actions sure to follow if the SJC and Mr. Inquisitor General Andy Webb gets their way.

I join you with the prayer for Reformation in head and members. I support the idea that every generation must re-interpret and re-apply the Reformed faith so that it remains the living tradition of the dead and not the dead tradition of the living. I also agree that the White Horse Inn guys would probably soil their undergarments with the kind of Reformation I envision. But for all that I am pretty sure that your vision of Reformation and my vision of Reformation are at such odds that we would be disappointed if either of our visions came to pass.

It is a good thing that God’s vision will come to pass when genuine Reformation comes and not Horton’s and not Webb’s and not Wilson’s and not Johnson’s and not McAtee’s.

Well … maybe McAtee’s

No Such Thing As Instant Spirituality

I just finished to listening to a lecture given by Dr. James Schaap of the Christian Reformed Church entitled, “What About a Bicentennial.” It is basically a sociological examination of the current trends in the West and how they impinge upon the question of whether or not the CRC will be in existence to celebrate a 200th anniversary.

There is a great deal that Schaap goes into that merits conversation. It would easier to analyze if I had a transcript but one thing that jumps out is how he deals with the issue of ‘Spirituality.’ Now Schaap’s lecture is devoted to making sociological observations. As near as I can tell he is being descriptive far more than prescriptive and consequently he is just laying out the way things are without (sociologically speaking) without necessarily directly offering his thoughts about whether what he is describing is good or bad.

What catches my attention about the issue of ‘Spirituality’ is how in the last 10 years or so it has become the latest ‘be all end all.’ In the 70’s if you didn’t have a church bus ministry you obviously didn’t love Jesus. If in the 80’s you didn’t train people in Evangelism Explosion then you obviously weren’t serious about reaching people for Jesus. If in the 90’s you didn’t embrace Church growth methodology you didn’t care about the lost and dying. So now, since the turn of the Century, if you don’t talk about ‘Spirituality’ you can’t be taken seriously in the Church or in the Seminary.

Well, the only success that I ever saw in Church bus ministry as a teenager in the 70’s was the success that came with making out in the back of the bus on the way back from the youth outing. In the 80’s I memorized Evangelism Explosion cold in Seminary and came away thinking that using the approach was like trying to sell a used car. In the 90’s I largely decided that Church Growth methodology smelled of sulfur and was from the pit. And I am afraid to say that all the urge towards Spirituality leaves me spiritually cold.

Still, no one can deny that it is all the rage. Go to any Barnes and Noble book store and head to the ‘Spirituality’ section and you will see it maxed out with everything from Aura to Zen. Flip on the television and the Spiritual realm jumps out at you. Look through the catalogs of most Seminaries and you will find a heavy emphasis on ‘Spiritual formation.’

Sorry, but I’m just not buying. I am sure it is the contrarian in me (though some are more likely to say the proper word is ‘curmudgeon).

This is the way I figure it. Branch Rickey once said that, ‘luck was the residue of hard work.’ Similarly, it is my conviction that ‘Spirituality is the residue of understood Theology.’ If you want to see Christian Spirituality in somebody then teach them Biblical Theology. If you want Spirituality from your ministers that resonates with passion then teach them about the beauty of God and quit with the ‘three easy steps to acquiring passion in your spiritual life.’ The way to develop spiritually sensitive people is not by sending them to some kind of Spiritual lamaze class but the way to develop spiritually sensitive people is by teaching them a Christology that naturally gives birth to Spiritual sensitivity.

Look, if you are having problems with the eggs that a chicken lays you don’t spend your time looking at the egg. Rather you spend your time considering the Chicken’s diet. It’s the same with Spirituality. Spirituality is a byproduct of something prior.If you get the something prior correct you will get the right byproduct. The something prior for Spirituality is Theology. Theology is the Chicken that lays the golden eggs of Spirituality. Deformed Spirituality in people comes from an improper Theological diet. Change the diet and you won’t have to worry about egg.

Now some people will inevitably conclude that Theology is dry, arid and boring. If that is what your experience is with Theology then I can only recommend that somebody expose you to Theology for the first time. The problem with people who’s study of Theology has left them Spiritually arid can only be corrected by exposing them to genuine heart rattling, soul stirring, eye opening, hunger stirring Theology.

When we teach people Spirituality in our Churches apart from Theology we give people the equivalent of a fluffernutter sandwich. All the calories and twice the sugar. When we work on ‘Spiritual formation’ in our Seminaries students as if following some kind of ‘Richard Foster connect the dots spirituality coloring book’ we end up mass producing something that is so contrived and blatantly phony.

Just teach Theology. Give them Augustine. Give them Edwards. Given them Tozer. Give them Owen. Give them Turretin. Give them Bavinck. Give them Dostoevsky. Give them Solzhenitsyn. Give them Dickens. Give them Blake. Give them Dante. Give them Bastiat. Give them Van Prinester, Give them Nock. Give them Chesterton. Give them Belloc. Give the Van Til. Give them Clark. Give them O’Connor. Give them Mencken. Give them Dickinson. It’s all Theology. Make them participants in the great conversation of the West that has been going on for 2000 years. Put them at the Battle of Waterloo. Make them march with Hannibal as he crosses the Alps. Have them walk with Shire through the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Put them in Charlemagne’s court. Have them think about the Dreyfuss affair. It’s all Theology.

Tell them if they want Christian Spirituality then they will have to accrue it the old fashioned way by laboring to enter into the conversation. Tell them that True Spirituality doesn’t come from a few semesters of smarmy ‘think deep thoughts and meditate real hard on your inner self’ curriculum. Tell them that if they are blessed by God they might develop true Spirituality before they die… if they never stop crying out for it day and night. Tell them that Spirituality doesn’t come about apart from living in family and covenant community life. Tell them that Spirituality requires brushing up and looking real close into the eyes of the reluctant dying a few times. Tell them that if they want to be real Spiritual they will need to scrub a few bathroom floors, change a few diapers, comfort the bereaved all the while putting food on the table.

Trying to form Spirituality in people without saturating people in the great conversation is like, paraphrasing C. S. Lewis, bidding the gelding to be fruitful before its grown any gonads. It’s like slamming the oven door while the cake is still cooking. It’s like trying on a size 3 dress before the dieting has started. Spirituality is a byproduct and people will never hit it by aiming at it.

Spiritual formation is the residue of understood Theology.

If you want to Christian Spirituality quit aiming at it and go wade hip deep into the great conversation.

Natural Law

Natural law — A law or body of laws that derives from nature and is believed to be binding upon human actions apart from or in conjunction with laws established by human authority.

Natural law theory suggests that in the order of the Universe there is a certain objective communication of basic truths that should govern mankind and that these objectively communicated truths can be known by all mankind because these truths naturally resonate with mankind given that they are part of the objective order which communicates these basic truths.

Put in Christian hands, Natural law, as noted in the previous post, should become the authoritative source for the governance of cultures in every realm save the Church realm. In the Church realm God’s revealed Word is to be the source of authority. Natural law is to govern in this way because according to some it is ‘the only available basis of morality for non-Christians, people who do not live within the covenant community and do not share its history and memories.’1

The contrary position to Christian Natural law theory is that God’s revealed law-Word should govern in every area of life. This position does not create the kind of dualism that Radical Two Kingdom Theorists advocate, insisting instead that God’s word speaks to every area of life and not just to the redemptive realm. The contrary position to the implied autonomy of man in Christian natural law theory is called ‘theonomy,’ which is the position advocated in Isaiah 8:20 where we are instructed to repair to ‘the law and to the testimony’ as opposed to other modes of revelation in order to gain insight into God’s mind.

Now as we examine Natural law theory we must first say that we agree with Natural law theory that the moral order of the universe is so constructed that man does look out upon the universe and knows and understands that there is a proper moral ordering that should be followed. Christians would say that this is so for several reasons. First man knows and understands that there is a proper moral order because man, like all of creation around him, is part of God’s general revelation that pronounces that basic moral order. Man is not only a receiver of general revelation that pronounces God’s basic moral order but he is also a sender of that message in as much as he is a part of the creation in which God and His order is revealed. Because this is true when man denies God’s moral order he at the same time denies himself since he himself is a living declarative embodiment of God’s moral order. Second man knows and understands that there is a proper moral order because man is created in God’s image and being created in that image he can not avoid seeing what God shows by way of a proper moral order. Third man knows and understands that there is a proper moral order because God has written His law upon man’s heart.

All of this is true, and we gladly go this far with Natural law theorists. However at this point there is an immediate dividing of ways because while Biblical Christians admit to all this they include another element that Natural law theorists don’t seem to take as seriously as they should. That other element is the noetic effects of sin. Man does know all that we have admitted that he knows but Scripture teaches that man suppresses that truth in unrighteousness. Man does know that message that the moral order is sending but because he will not have God rule over him he holds down that knowledge insisting that he doesn’t know what he does indeed know. It is this truth over which Christian natural law theorists stumble. Man does know at his deepest level that (as one example) abortion is murder and yet man buries that knowledge in concrete all the while insisting that what he knows is that murder is not murder, nor is it wrong when he wants to murder.

Now often at this point Christian Natural law theorists will insist that people who posit the noetic effects of sin to be as extensive as they say it is are exaggerating the noetic effects of sin. “Certainly,” they say, ‘man is not so fallen that he can’t rightly interpret the unchanging laws that exist in nature that define for man what is right just and good by the use of right reason.” They further insist that while man may be dead to spiritual realities that it is an over-reading of the Scriptures to suggest that because of sin man is unable to read non-spiritual truths aright. First, we would note that this is the same kind of objection that Arminians raise concerning man’s will. Arminians object that dead in sin can’t mean dead to the point that man’s will can’t respond. Natural law theorists are arguing that dead in sin can’t mean dead to the point that man’s intellect no longer completely suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. Second Reformed Natural law theorists are forgetting their Van Til. Van Til insisted that fallen man’s mind remained sharp like a saw blade but the problem was that, because of sin, the saw blade always cut at the wrong angle. Man’s mind does indeed remain sharp but he always reads God’s moral order in a way that serves his God hating agenda. Now that fallen man sometimes exhibits felicitous inconsistency by getting some things right is not testimony that he is interpreting Natural law aright but rather is testimony that since this is God’s world it is impossible, short of insanity or death, to get everything perfectly wrong. We would say it is an odd thing for Reformed people to argue that dead in sin means enough life to read Natural law aright and to embrace what they read.

More later on the problems of Natural law theory.

More on VD and Natural Law

As observed above, nearly everyone, at some level, believes that life is valuable and therefore that lethal violence against others should be prohibited by law. Most people would also agree that this applies, perhaps especially, to those who are weak and unable to defend themselves. Based upon such convictions, people today overwhelmingly condemn infanticide as a terrible crime. Beginning from this widespread acknowledgement of natural law truth, we could attempt to show how these proper moral sentiments are inconsistent with a pro-choice abortion position.

Dr. David VanDrunen
Reformed Natural Law Theorist

We admit that, at some level, all people believe that life is valuable. However at the level that counts for public policy it is clear that people insist that they do not believe that life is valuable. 50 million aborted children since 1973 could be brought in as witnesses to that truth. We are happy to concede that people who think that infanticide is ‘a terrible crime’ but who support abortion are inconsistent but it is obvious that they have resolved that contradiction in the direction of allowing abortion and we would further suggest that over 30 years of pointing to Natural law theory has not convinced them to change public policy. Further it would be naive to think that vast number of people who support abortion haven’t already been confronted with the contradiction that is involved with them being against infanticide. Natural law can’t convert people.

Indeed one could even insist that it is Natural law theory that has given us the public policy of abortion. To be sure it is not Natural Law theory coming from the hands of godly men like Dr. VanDrunen but could it not be Natural law theory coming from the hands of people from different faith commitments? Could they not use Natural law theory to argue that Nature teaches that since people are responsible for their own bodies they are free to choose what does or doesn’t happen in and to their bodies? Now naturally Dr. VanDrunen (and all good Christians) would vehemently disagree that such a reading would be a proper reading of Natural law. Here we find the problem with Natural law and that it is subjective to the max. The nature of Natural law is always in the hands of the one doing natural law. If Natural law is done by somebody in the Muslim faith with Muslim presuppositions, they are going to discover that Natural law teaches basically what the Sharia teaches. If Natural law is done by somebody who has as their beginning point feministic Humanism they are going to use Natural law to show that nature declares that abortion is proper and fitting.

Now, everyone agrees that in a Redeemed culture that is looking at truth objectively Natural law is going to teach what it genuinely does teach — God’s moral order. But the problem for Dr. VanDrunen and others who want to rebuild Natural Law theory is that they don’t sufficiently take into account the noetic affects of sin. All men know God’s moral order but they suppress that truth in unrighteousness and so come up with Natural law theories that are driven by their a-priori faith commitments whatever those faith commitments are. Now to be sure nobody is able to scrub their godless Natural law theories clean of any Christian influence. All unbelieving Natural law theorists must climb up into God’s lap in order to slap Him in the face. The fact remains that whatever overlap there is in Natural law theories that fall from the hand of pagan Natural law theorists with law consistent with what Christian Natural Law theorists would come up with is a case of the pagans not being able to totally get out of God’s world. It seems passing strange for Christians to suggest, that because an overlap exists in all cultures between what pagans believe and what Christians believe, that therefore proves the viability of Natural Law theory. Such a belief fails to see that overlap results not from pagans no longer suppressing the truth in unrighteousness and accordingly reading Nature aright, but rather results because it is literally impossible to get a culture off the ground that is not supported by some remnants of God’s reality. Reformed natural law theorists miss the contradiction that pagans are doing all they can to get away from the reality that since this is God’s World it should be governed in accord with Christian interpretations of Natural law theory, while Christians are doing all they can to move toward the reality that since this is God’s world they should be governed by God’s law. How can any Natural law theory be universally accepted by all men in order to bridge that yawning chasm?

Republican Party … A Working Definition…A Current Illustration

It may be inferred again that the present movement for women’s rights will certainly prevail from the history of its only opponent, Northern conservatism. This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom. It always, when about to enter a protest, very blandly informs the wild beast whose path it essays to stop, that its “bark is worse than its bite,” and that it only means to save its manners by enacting its decent role of resistance. The only practical purpose which it now subserves in American politics is to give enough exercise to Radicalism to keep it “in wind,” and to prevent its becoming pursy and lazy from having nothing to whip. No doubt, after a few years, when women’s suffrage shall have become an accomplished fact, conservatism will tacitly admit it into its creed, and thenceforward plume itself upon its wise firmness in opposing with similar weapons the extreme of baby suffrage; and when that too shall have been won, it will be heard declaring that the integrity of the American Constitution requires at least the refusal of suffrage to asses. There it will assume, with great dignity, its final position.

R. L. Dabney
“Women’s Rights Women”

There is no major Conservative party in America, just as there is no major Conservative Church denomination. The fact that there is neither at the same time is not a coincidence. It is the height of folly for people to expect a genuine Conservative party when there is no genuine Conservative Church.

This quote also explains why it is more than unwise for genuine Conservatives to vote for Republicans. Republicans are not the ‘lesser of two evils’ since there are not two evils in existence for one to be the lesser of. Republicans and Democrats instead are a connected at the hip, two headed, Siamese monstrosity. When people vote either Democrat or Republican they are voting for the same Siamese monstrosity.

One only needs to look at where the Republicans are tending. They are on the edge of nominating John ‘I hate Gooks but love Illegal Immigrants’ McCain. The putatively Conservative party (have they ever been conservative since the advent of ‘Dime Store New Dealism’?) is about to make their standard bearer a guy who is responsible for legislation that violates the first amendment (McCain – Feingold), who voted against the Bush tax cuts, who became part of ‘group of 14’ in the Senate, collaborating with liberal Democrats to make sure that Senate Republicans wouldn’t alter Senate rules regarding the abuse of Democratic filibuster that was holding up the confirmation of Conservative Judges, who was part of the McCain-Lieberman bill that was Global warming friendly, who supported an amnesty program for illegal immigrants, who is squishy on pro-life issues, who is as pro ‘kill em all and let God sort em out’ as you will find, and who may have only recently considered switching to the Democratic party. This is conservative? If Christians turn out in droves to put this nut case liberal in office it will once again prove that Christians are the problem and not the solution to what ails us.

So over 100 years ago Dabney was right and he remains right today. The ascendancy of John McCain proves that to be true.