Thursday, July 18, 2013

Some Insider News and a Brief Reply To J.W. Stevenson

The latest edition of The Bavinck Review* has been (electronically) published, and is available to members of the Herman Bavinck Society. It will become publicly accessible in six months or so, I believe.

* Disclosure: I am a member of the editorial committee.

In the present issue I publish an essay entitled, "A Soft Spot For Paganism? Herman Bavinck and Insider Movements." If you do not wish to wait the scheduled length of time before it becomes public, you may subscribe by becoming a member of the society.

Also of interest in this issue is Professor John Bolt's warm and gracious review of my book on Bavinck, along with that of my editorial colleague and friend, James Eglinton. I am deeply grateful for such a reception of my (actually, "our" since our books are so complementary) work.

The Bavinck Review additionally gave J.W. Stevenson an opportunity to reply to my article, since I was particularly critical of some of his work in my essay. This blog is a perfect place to briefly comment on his response.

First, I thank him for a gracious reply, and am pleased that he found the latter portion of my essay, on nature and grace, helpful in evaluating Insider movements. I think it will continue to pay dividends in the future.

Second, I think Mr. Stevenson slightly overstates the extent to which I am accusing him personally of linking Bavinck to Insider thinking. My assessment in a footnote that he is "not an advocate of Insider thinking," which he indeed noticed, was intended to alleviate that concern. My concern is that in spite of this, his use and evaluation of one badly mangled quote from Bavinck lends itself to opening the door wide for precisely the kind of thinking about cultural contextualization amenable to Insider models. I am not alleging (at least, I'm not meaning to) that Mr. Stevenson himself is doing this.

Third, I note that Mr. Stevenson says nothing about how badly the quote is mangled, or why it omits pages of material via ellipses. My interpretation of what was left out is that the author wished to make Herman Bavinck sound controversial in the context of his own theological community. That seems to me exactly why Professor Mouw quoted it that way. Given the similarity between Mouw's and Stevenson's rendition of the quote, I could think of no other reason the Bible and church tradition was omitted from it. Having read Mr. Stevenson's response, I am still none the wiser.

I am pleased to hear, of course, that Mr. Stevenson was not intending to give support for Insider models by quoting Bavinck the way he did. But others may read differently, despite his best intentions. Which is why my main concern in the essay was to simply refute facile readings of a hugely misleading quotation. I'd like to think I'm heading off at the pass interpretations of Bavinck that Mr. Stevenson himself would want headed off. I apologize for trampling on his toes a bit along the way.

Fourth, he is correct that I should have dealt more thoroughly with J.H. Bavinck's stated disagreements with Herman. My view is that J.H.'s disagreement is a semantic one, but I should have indicated that and defended it. I believe uncle and nephew are largely on the same substantive page.

All in all, it seems as though Mr. Stevenson and I are in substantial agreement, and I thank him for a fine exchange.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Misunderstandings or Subterranean Differences?

Pastor Mark Bates of Village Seven Presbyterian Church responds here to some critics of the Minority Report. It provides a helpful opportunity to clear away some brambles before we proceed deeper into the forest.

He seems especially concerned that critics of the Minority Report are misunderstanding it. They are, he suggests, confused about whether the report endorses "Insider" approaches outright (e.g., remaining in the mosque), confused about the terminological issue of "Allah" and "God," and confused about the motives and goals of the author.

It is quite possible that some critics are confused and making these mistakes, especially given the length of the committee reports. My sense is that a great many attendees of the General Assembly had not even read them.

So I want to say at the outset that I share none of these misunderstandings. I fully understand that the Minority Report denies that Muslim Background Believers can continue to attend the mosque, pray the shahadah, etc. I never read it otherwise. But that is also not the real question. The question is not whether the Minority Report endorses syncretism. It is whether the report is theologically sound in its denial of syncretism. It is perfectly possible (and we shall see) for a report to lay a theological trajectory that runs precisely in that direction, yet then for whatever reason (e.g., genuine conviction of the author, political pressures) say "No" to syncretism. Put another way: Does the report's clear denial of syncretism follow from its own internal premises? 

That is the relevant question, and it is raised precisely because of the confusing and problematic language found in Attachment 4 regarding God and Allah. That attachment is sloppy enough that I do not believe supporters of the Minority Report have much cause to complain about the ensuing controversy. It should have been entirely expected. Pastor Bates himself admits that he leans toward Calvin's assessment of Islam, while the Report does not. I suspect that would be the case by a large margin if one were to poll the pastors of the PCA. So we have at least one instance of problematic language in the report, and it is perfectly right and natural to wonder whether this is some kind of aberration from the rest of the document or whether it actually follows from it.

A brief aside: Regarding the Arabic term "Allah," it is indeed painfully ignorant to deny that it can be and in fact is used by Arabic-speaking Christians to refer to the Triune God, but this is an error that ought to be hastily and charitably forgiven coming from those without advanced degrees or education in this kind of thing living in the Western world. An easy mistake to make.

My problems with the section on God and Allah rest on no such elementary linguistic confusion. In fact, I initially read the report as saying precisely what Pastor Bates says it says. And, ironically, it is the proper and charitable interpretation of the author's words that trouble me. I will spend some time fleshing this out in the coming months.

What troubles me generally is that I am being assured that the Minority Report agrees with the Majority Report in all essentials, that it is pristine in its orthodoxy, that its author rejects Insider movements and all forms of syncretism. But  then Attachment 4 hits what is for me and many others an incredibly off-key note. 

A bad day for the author? Just a poor choice of words?

Or the sudden exposure of problematic subterranean theological moves latent in the report all along?

That, I submit, is not a frivolous question. It cannot be waved away with talk about misunderstandings or emotions or hurt feelings or lack of charity or who said what on the floor of General Assembly. Let us do away with all such red herrings.

It is possible to find theologians convinced of Karl Barth's Christological methodology who will adamantly deny being universalists. But that isn't because of Barth; that is in spite of Barth. They are at that point better than their professed theology. Or the staunch Arminian who prays for the salvation of his neighbor. That is not because of Arminianism; it is in spite of Arminianism.

In other words, sometimes people suddenly turn upstream from the current of their own theology.

And when that happens, many of those following the current do not turn upstream. History is replete with examples of one generation unwittingly laying the foundation for the next generation's apostasy. Yes, the Minority Report doesn't endorse syncretism. But will the next generation read it that way? That deserves serious exploration and sober analysis.

I believe that Attachment 4 is an outcropping of problematic subterranean theological commitments, and it is not the only one. Those subterranean commitments include a deficient understanding of common grace, which leads to an endorsement of a form of natural theology, to the extent that it affirms much of the Koran and the Islamic doctrine of God. The Report repeatedly makes illegitimate analogical appeals to the situation of the 1st century between Jews and Gentiles, and even does so in internally conflicting ways.

The stated purpose of the report is to give practical, rather than abstract, guidance, and yet it is replete with abstractions. We are told, for just one example, not to "demonize" Mohammed or the Koran, with no definition of that term provided. Are we allowed to say that it is a false religion, inspired by the Father of lies? That would be an ultimate "demonizing" of it, yet the Report leaves one with the impression that this is unacceptable.

Finally, and most seriously, the Minority Report contains a section that appears to express admiration and celebration of C-6 Insiders (2213). As Attachment 1 explains, C-6 on the scale describes "secret or underground Muslim followers of Jesus with little or no community." In other words, C-6 is as "inside" as "insiders" get. And the Minority Report suggests they should be celebrated, not, mind you, as a less-than-ideal state of affairs, but as a strategy for positive missions! What, then, are we to make of the insistence that the Report denies syncretism and the practice of remaining in mosques? This is, at very best, confused; and on that ground alone ought to be rejected by the General Assembly.

More on all of these as time permits. For now, I am glad that Pastor Bates has helped clear up distracting red herrings. I read the report precisely as he characterizes it. And that is precisely the source of my problems.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Times Are Changing, and Staying Exactly the Same

I begin with a prologue.

A number of years ago I had the privilege of speaking at Princeton Theological Seminary at the centennial celebration of Herman Bavinck's Stone Lecture series of 1908. My lecture, entitled "Revelation and the Future: A Centennial Retrospective," can now be consulted as a chapter in Volume 2 of the Kuyper Center Review.

The burden of that lecture was to look at Bavinck's cultural assessment at the turn of the 20th century and predictions for the coming century, only with the outstanding benefit of having that century in the rear-view mirror instead of the windshield. The striking thing again and again was how prescient were his observations. I concluded with a sobering (and maybe, to some ears, hysterical) observation: the Zeitgeist that produced unprecedented bloodshed in the 20th century is eerily similar to the Zeitgeist pervading culture at the beginning of the 21st. I wrote that unless God intervenes, the near future will be no less bloody than the recent past.

It is a cliché, of course, that history repeats itself. And that those who ignore history are bound to repeat it. But we do well to remember that clichés are clichés because they are used a lot; and they are used a lot because they are generally true.

I have long noticed, for example, the gaping chasm between the publicity campaign of postmodernism and its actual accomplishments, postmodern theology particularly. On the one hand it is vaunted as the great repudiation of older liberalism, and in the next moment it proceeds to reiterate all the old modernist theological dogmas nearly word-for-word. Read Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity next to J. Gresham Machen's Christianity and Liberalism and then try to make any meaningful distinction between McLaren and Machen's liberal opponents. You will fail, even though the writers are separated by a century. Postmodernism is modernism redux, and postmodern theology is 20th century liberalism redux. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Now to my point.

It seems to me that historically the moment when the rubber of theological innovation meets the road of practical consequence often happens with missions policy. Is it an accident that Machen's war with the PCUSA began over missions? His first item of business in the so-called "Fundamentalist Controversy" was to establish the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. Why? Because aberrant theology, like all theology, must be applied theology. And the context in which it gets applied universally, that is, when all the local churches give directives with one unified voice, is when it comes to foreign missionaries.

Machen lived in a time when the particular and absolute character of the Christian religion was called into question, and insistence on things like the exclusivity of Christ and the inerrancy of the Bible was a sure sign of a narrow-minded, anti-intellectual temperament. Liberals thought the likes of Machen and Stonehouse and Murray inflexible fundamentalists who did not (or would not) understand nuance and complexity, occupants of a black and white world and therefore "uncharitable" to those who disagreed. The truth is that Machen himself was quite flexible and "liberal" minded about a lot of things. He was a scholar's scholar. It just so happened that the one thing he was intolerant of, softening the harsh and abrasive message of the exclusivity of Christ alone, was the very thing they were hell-bent on doing. Very inconvenient, indeed.

Does this ring any bells?

The recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America featured a brief, but heated argument about the seemingly inconsequential (just take a look at the denominational magazine's pathetic review) issue of foreign missions. Particularly, whether to receive and approve the Majority Report of the Committee on Insider Movements or whether to receive, as well, the Minority Report, written by a single committee member. Having just been subjected to incredibly dull debates over coin-flips for committee appointments, I understand why the commissioners would have been asleep.

But when Teaching Elder Joseph Pipa stood and read a bit of problematic-sounding language in the Minority Report regarding Yahweh and Allah, suddenly everyone awoke and rubbed the sleep from their eyes. "Huh? What's going on?" It would be nice if the commissioners would actually read the reports they are to vote on, but understandable when they are sometimes in excess of 60,000 words. At any rate, a possible ambiguity about the very identity of the one true God and the god of Islam was enough to suddenly get their attention.

What most of them didn't know at that small, somewhat shocking moment, is that this is just the beginning of a much larger seismic event that will shape the character and course of the PCA for a generation.

I am not an ordained minister in the PCA. I am a member. My particular calling and gifting is public theology as opposed to ecclesiastical. However, I believe the 41st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America just had (or perhaps postponed) a Machen moment without even realizing it. Involved in this debate are deep theological issues that cannot be contained in a three-minute floor speech, but implicate all the very same issues that resulted in the PCUSA blow up eighty years ago.

The purpose of this blog over the coming months in anticipation of the next General Assembly will be to critically examine the controversial Minority Report on Insider Movements. All opinions expressed are solely my own.

Someone on the floor of the General Assembly said that "God might be doing a new thing."

I find it more likely that men are doing the same thing.