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.