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.