On Literalist Bible Readings, Supersessionism and Replacement Theology: As Riposte to James Kaddis and Olivier Melnick

I just finished listening to someone I consider a friend, and someone who is definitely a brother in Christ: James Kaddis. He was having his weekly discussion with his friend, Olivier Melnick, on the nation of Israel; particularly as that pertains to biblical prophecy from the Dispensational framework. In this particular discussion the topic was what they call: Replacement Theology. Most people, in the “business” will know what this is referring to by its more common terminology of: Supersessionism. The idea is that the Church has become the new Israel, thus displacing Israel and all of the Old Testament promises made to her. James believes that anyone who holds to ‘replacement theology’ is ultimately evil, and probably not saved; Melnick seems to agree with that. The problem though, and this is what the rest of this post will engage with, is that both Kaddis and Melnick (and many in their tribe) are too reductionistic with refernce to the history of interpretation on this issue, thus leading them to construct a caricature of anyone who is not a Pretribulational, Premillennial Dispensationalist. Both Kaddis and Melnick maintain that if someone is operating with a proper biblical hermeneutic (meaning ‘literalistic’ V literalist), that they will arrive at the dispensational perspective (this is also what one of dispensationalism’s most prominent teachers, Charles Ryrie, maintained).

What I want to do in this post, in particular, is to engage with what in fact a ‘literal’ hermeneutic entails. Much of the body of this post will be in reference to a post I wrote some time ago dealing with the same issue. After we survey how ‘literal’ has developed in the history of interpretation I will close by applying that understanding to the question of so-called ‘replacement theology,’ and how much of what Kaddis and Melnick assert as entailing replacement theology reflects too facile of an understanding of the history of interpretation.

A Survey of ‘Literal’ vis-à-vis Biblical Hermeneutics

As theological exegetes of Holy Scripture, more so, we want to take the text as Literal. But what does this actually entail; what does it mean to be literal in our interpretation? Dispensationalists like Charles Ryrie assert that the sine qua non of the dispensational hermeneutic is to read the Bible literally; he asserts if the reader engages in this type of reading practice they will end up as a dispensationalist. Others, like Doug Hamp similarly assert that their method is of the literal type; but in Hamp’s et als. case he does not end up as a dispensationalist, instead he ends up focusing on a Jewish or Hebraic understanding of the text of Scripture—even in its New Testament iteration (e.g. rather than reading the Bible from an post-Nicene Christologically sourced tradition).

So what does it mean to read the Bible literally? Do we follow a wooden-literal approach, like the aforementioned, wherein what it means to be ‘literal’ actually entails being literalistic to the point that every word in the Bible is read without recognizing the various literary qualities inherent to the text (such as is presented by the types of narrative, poetry, or discourse inherent therein etc.)? I.e. that when figures of speech are used they are read as literal realities rather than figures symbolizing some greater reality that transcends its own figural reality. The Protestant Reformed, following their medieval forebears had an understanding of what interpreting Scripture ‘literally’ entailed, but it was much different than what we find in the modern-critical period wherein a rationalist positivism prevails. Note Richard Muller’s definition of the Latin sensus literalis:

sensus literalis: literal sense; the fundamental literal or grammatical sense of the text of Scripture, distinguished into (1) sensus literalis simplex, the simple literal sense, which lies immediately in the grammar and the meaning of individual words, and (2) sensus literalis compositus, the constructed or compounded literal sense, which is inferred from the Scripture as a whole or from individual clear, and therefore normative, passages of Scripture when the simple literal sense of the text in question seems to violate either the articuli fidei (q.v.) or the pracecepta caritatis (q.v.). See historicus; quadriga.1

As defined the previous adherents to ‘literal’ interpretation would want to affirm this definition (but they diverge radically from this premodern principle of biblical interpretation). We see, particularly in Muller’s notation on compositus, an allusion to what was called the analogia fidei (analogy of faith) or analogia scriptura (analogy of scripture); the principle where the clearer passages were deployed to shed light on the crux interpretums (the difficult passages to interpret). All of this presupposes a level of clarity or perspicuity inherent to the text that the Reformers held dear based upon their belief that Scripture was representative of the place where the living voice of God (viva vox Dei) could be encountered; undergirding this, further, was the belief that this God, in all of his graciously accommodating ways, intended to communicate exactly what he wanted within the providential unfolding of salvation history as disclosed in Holy Scripture. What is key to this, key for our purposes, is to recognize that in this sensus literalis it is largely funded by a very theological understanding of things. What it means to read the Bible literally is necessarily couched in and from the reality that God has spoken (Deus dixit), and thus to read the Bible ‘literally’ means to read Scripture with attention to the centrality of God’s voice given its primary vocalization through his Self-revealed and explicated reality in his Son, Jesus Christ.

To help us expand on this notion of reading Scripture in a literal key, in the historic mode of the sensus literalis, Stephen Fowl helpfully develops this further; and with reference to what I would contend is Scripture’s primary referent (cf. Jn 5.39), Jesus Christ. Fowl shows how in the case of the medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, a very ‘literal’ interpreter of Holy Scripture, what it meant to be a literal Bible interpreter wasn’t just to attend to the simplex, but more pointedly it was to recognize that the ‘simple’ (i.e. the grammatical, historical, literary contours) had a telos (purpose), that it had a res (reality) that it pointed to as its depth reality.

The foundation for Aquinas’s scriptural interpretation was the “literal sense” (sensus literalis) of Scripture. For Aquinas, the literal sense of Scripture is what the author intends. Thomas holds that the author of Scripture is God, or more precisely, the Holy Spirit. The human authors under the Spirit’s inspiration are significant though secondary in this respect. The Spirit is capable of understanding all things and intending more by the words of Scripture than humans could ever fully grasp. This means that believers should not be surprised to find that there may be many manifestations of the literal sense of a passage. Here is what Thomas says in the Summa Theologiae: “Since the literal sense is what the author intends, and since the author of Holy Scripture is God, Who by one act comprehends everything all at once in God’s understanding, it is not unfitting as Augustine says [Confessions XII], if many meanings are present even in the literal sense of a passage of Scripture” (Summa Theologiae 1.Q.1 art. 10). This notion of authorial intention, which is very different from the modern hermeneutical accounts of authors mentioned above, will allow someone to treat christological interpretations of Isaiah as the literal sense of that text without disallowing other more historical accounts of the literal sense of Isaiah. Moreover, such an approach will allow Christians to treat Psalm 139 in ways that do not invite Christians to pray for revenge on their enemies. Thus, such an approach will keep theological concerns primary in theological interpretation rather than making theological concerns subsidiary to hermeneutical concerns.2

For Thomas Aquinas, and the premodern world he inhabited, what it meant to read the Bible ‘literally’ had range; what was privileged was the theological over the “historical-critical.” This belief, about the primacy of the theological, was fueled by the further belief that the world was God’s, that it was providentially administered and sustained by his Word and for his Word; as such interpreters like Aquinas (Luther, Calvin, et al.) felt it warranted to simply read Scripture as if the world belonged to God, and the cattle on a thousand hills, and that the reality of Scripture had an elevation point that redounded in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. So to read the Bible literally from this vantage point was to see the Christ as the primary referent point wherein all else, all the historical proclivities and contingencies unfolded in the panorama of salvation-history, were hued by their canonizing reality in Jesus Christ. Unsurprisingly we see this in Martin Luther’s interpretive approach as well; note:

Luther makes an important distinction between the literal-historical meaning of his Old Testament text (that is, the literal meaning of text, as determined by its historical context), and its literal-prophetic sense (that is, the meaning of the text, as interpreted as referring to the coming of Christ and the establishment of his church). The Christological concentration, which is so characteristic a feature of the Dictata, is achieved by placing emphasis upon the literal-prophetic, rather than the literal-historic, sense of scripture. In this manner, Luther is able to maintain that Christ is the sensus principalis of scripture.3

Here we have further elaboration of what Muller referenced for us as the simplex sensus literalis in Luther’s own approach to reading the Bible ‘literally.’ In flow with Fowl’s elucidation of Aquinas, Luther has literal-prophetic; this nuance between the ‘prophetic’ and the ‘historical’ nicely illustrates, again, how in the premodern era of biblical interpretation there was an emphasis upon the theological, more pointedly the christological character of the text of Scripture and its reading. All of this is couched in the theological ideation that this is God’s world, and under his providential governance and giveness. Viz. that there is not an abstract autonomous world of history and artifacts wherein the biblical interpreter can stand within as a ‘critical’ interpreter of Scripture that keeps them sanitized or unimplicated by their own locatedness as creatures before a holy Creator.

I confess that this is the way I approach my reading of Holy Scripture. Does this mean that some of the relative gains garnished by the turn to the modern must be completely evacuated? No, it simply means that the theological ought to be given priority of place in the biblical interpretive process, and that the so called ‘critical’ is given due notice only within this sort of humiliating reality (i.e. humiliating in the sense that the critical reader of Scripture is not so critical after all; in the sense that they/we are sinners). Does reading the Bible theologically mean that we cannot pay attention to various historical vicissitudes present within the text that might not seem to have direct relation to the Messiah? No, it just means that when engaging with historical instances, or personages in the text of Scripture, that we will always be cognizant of the fact that they are part of a greater historical sweep wherein their place within the salvation-history unfolded and deposited in the text of Scripture only has telos, only has meaning in light of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.

Applying a Historical Biblical Literalism to Supersessionism

What the aforementioned survey reveals is that what it meant (and ought to mean currently) in the history of interpretation to be ‘literal,’ particularly as that is understood from within a medieval Catholic and Protestant frame, respectively, is that Christian biblical literalism, principially, finds its centrum and absolute focus on Jesus Christ. In other words, a historic understanding of a biblical literalism isn’t one that is grounded in a post-Enlightenment rationalism, such as we find that in the biblical theology movement and history of religions schools, which gets further distilled into something like we find in Ryrie’s and dispensationalism’s literalism; no, a historic Christian understanding of biblical literalism, again, sees Christ as the meaning and referent point of all the Old Testament promises (Jesus thought this too, see Jn 5.39 etc.). A historical biblical literalism sees Jesus Christ, not the nation of Israel, per se, as canonical regulator of how the Christian exegete arrives at their respective exegetical conclusions.

And this leads us into the question under consideration: has the whole Christian tradition and its history of interpretation suffered from a supersessionism or ‘replacement theology?’ If you’re a non-dispensational interpreter of Holy Scripture, as ALL Christians have been, up until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as dispensationalism developed in the UK and the USA therein, does this mean you are an antisemite? The answer to that question is a loud NO! Have there been antisemites in the Church since its very inception? Yes, Marcion among others come to mind. But most in the history of interpretation, at least most who have been nuanced in this area, have outright rejected supersessionism as the Gnostic heresy of someone like Marcion and his so-called Marcionitism is. To hold to a biblical literalism, as our survey has helped to clarify, didn’t (and doesn’t) lead the exegete to be a ‘replacement theologian’ (so-called), but instead to see the promises made to the nation of Israel fulfilled in the person who served and serves as these promises’ reality; we are of course referring to the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

In my view, Jesus Christ is the Israel of God. He is ethnically Jewish, and scandalously so (according to the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 1.17-25); He was and is the One for the many; for the Jew first then the Gentile. He is the One new humanity of God (cf. Eph 2.12ff) wherein both Jew and Gentile alike are made one as they participate in Christ’s risen humanity. Christ is the ground that the root of Abraham and its olive tree finds its sustenance from. Jesus is God’s Israel, and all the promises have been and yet will be (now-and-not-yet) fulfilled in Him. Jesus made all of the promises to Israel, as actualized in Him, open for the whole world. He is the Jew first for the whole world; for the house of Israel, and for the Gentiles. Jesus will forevermore remain the Son of David, the seed of the woman referred to in the so-called proto-evangelium (cf. Gen. 3.15); He is forevermore the Jew from Nazareth. This is the historical Christian reading of biblical prophecy as that is realized in its reality in Jesus Christ. This reading has always already militated against heresy known as supersessionism and/or ‘replacement theology.’ Here is something I once wrote (circa 2007) back when I was still a dispensationalist. But I was attempting to offer a charitable reading of amillennialism (or any non-dispensational understanding of the Bible). You will notice how it militates against facile readings that renders anything other than a dispensational reading as an antisemite reading.

1) The non-dispensational reading of the Bible is highly Christocentric: it makes Christ the center of all the biblical covenants (even the “Land” covenant or Siniatic). 2) It notes the universal scope of the Abrahamic Covenant (as key) to interpreting the rest of the biblical covenants. 3) It sees salvation history oriented to a person (Christ), instead of a people (the nation of Israel). 4) It emphasizes continuity between the “people of God” (Israel and the Church are one in Christ Eph. 2:11ff). 5) It provides an ethic that is rooted in creation, and “re-creation” (continuity between God’s redemptive work now, carried over into the eternal state then) 6) It emphasizes a trinitarian view of God as it elevates the “person”, Christ Jesus, the second person of the trinity as the point and mediator of all history. 7) It flows from a hermeneutic that takes seriously the literary character of the Scriptures (esp. the book of Revelation).

It is not insignificant that a site like Monergismdotcom picked my description up, and used it (and continues to) as a summary of what the amillennial position entails.4 This shouldn’t be seen as insignificant because Monergismdotcom is a proponent of classically Reformed theology (which I am a well-known critic of online and in print), of the sort that Kaddis and Melnick would label as promoting ‘replacement theology.’

I would invite James Kaddis (who I love as a brother), and Olivier Melnick to dig deeper on these things, and push past the superficial caricatures that are often pervasive in the evangelical world. There are surely mainline Protestant traditions out there, such as the PCUSA et alia, that do operate with a supersessionism (which is illustrated by their support of the BDS movement etc.), but most Reformed and Lutheran people are not supersessionist; even if they aren’t dispensational, which they of course are not. Thus, I would ask my brothers to consider these things more carefully and with a more nuanced brush. We should want to accurately represent even those we consider our theological opponents; this is a sword that cuts both ways.

1 Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 279. 

2 Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 49-50 kindle. 

3 Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxdford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 80. Quote sourced from this post: The Quingentesimus of the Protestant Reformation and the Analogia Lutherano in Christ Concentrated Biblical Exegesis. 

4 Monergism.com.

 

Thomas Torrance On American evangelical Churches Gone to Seed, Personality Cults, and the Worship of Pastors Rather than Jesus: With Reference to Mark Driscoll

I just listened to the Christianity Today podcast by Mike Cosper entitled The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill (multiple episodes). I wrote the following post many years ago, and make some reference to Driscoll. I think it is timely to re-share it now.

This post will somewhat dovetail with my second to last post on The Great Implosion of North American Evangelicalism. Except in this post a theological critique will be made with appeal to Thomas Torrance’s critique of Protestant evangelicalism and its tendency toward personality cults, in regard to its leadership, and what he calls Protestant sacerdotalism.

Instead of following the kind of socio-cultural critique that my rant in that other post was somewhat following, here Torrance identifies a theological pathology deeply entrenched in the ecclesiology and pastoral polity that we find orienting Protestant leadership and church model. The critique has to do with the centrality that the pastor has taken for evangelicals; i.e. the elevation of the pastor as the end-all for the people in the church. So we see things like this in mega-churches and small non-denominational start-up churches alike; if the pastor of said church leaves, or something happens, that whole church collapses, or it becomes something totally different with totally different people, and so on.

The most recent example of this that I can think of is Mark Driscoll (and I don’t want this post to be about him). But his Mars church has fallen, it has folded, and he has moved on. He is now starting a new church, with new people, in a new city, and his reign continues. Not because Jesus is Lord, per se, but because Driscoll’s type of charisma and appeal resonates with evangelicals seeking their next mediator between God and man. What Driscoll is experiencing, in various ways on a continuum could be pointed up as an evangelical phenomenon that has swept all across the Protestant evangelical church; whether that be in North America, Western Europe, Canada, or everywhere.

Here is Torrance’s theological critique of what is going on with all of this:

But what has happened in Protestant worship and ministry? Is it not too often the case that the whole life and worship of the congregation revolves around the personality of the minister? He is the one who is in the centre; he offers the prayers of the congregation; he it is who mediates ‘truth’ through his personality, and he it is who mediates between the people and God through conducting the worship entirely on his own. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of the popular minister where everything centres on him, and the whole life of the congregation is built around him. What is that but Protestant sacerdotalism, sacerdotalism which involves the displacement of the Humanity of Christ by the humanity of the minister, and the obscuring of the Person of Christ by the personality of the minister? How extraordinary that Protestantism should thus develop a new sacerdotalism, to be sure a psychological rather than a sacramental sacerdotalism, but a sacerdotalism nonetheless, in which it is the personality of the minister which both mediates the Word of God to man and mediates the worship of man to God! Protestant Churches are full of these ‘psychological priests’ and more and more they evolve a psychological cult and develop a form of psychological counseling which displaces the truly pastoral ministry of Christ. How frequently, for example, the minister’s prayers are so crammed with his own personality (with all its boring idiosyncrasies!) that the worshipper cannot get past him in order to worship God in the name of Christ—but is forced to worship God in the name of the minister! How frequently the sermon is not an exposition of the Word of God but an exposition of the minister’s own views on this or that subject! And how frequently the whole life of the congregation is so built up on the personality of the minister that when he goes the congregation all but collapses or dwindles away![1]

Torrance wrote this in 1965, and yet it sounds as if he is making commentary to a “T” on the Protestant evangelical church as it currently stands (and as it currently goes to seed). The theological critique, if you missed it, is that the humanity of the minister has displaced the humanity of Christ as the center of the church; as such, as the pastor goes, so goes the church.

I realize this post and the other one are quite critical, and really not that constructive. But sometimes there is a time to be such! The evangelical church is sinking in my view, and for the reasons that Torrance highlights for us here. Jesus is no longer the center (if He ever was) in evangelicalism; the turn to the self, and the subject has become the norming norm of how evangelical churches largely operate. Who cares if there are good intentions, those destroy people, usually! All that matters is, Jesus! And if he is not all that matters at a basic level for evangelical churches then they will indeed implode, and they ought to. The unfortunate thing, though, is that as evangelical churches implode they are taking real life people along with them. What did Jesus say about those who would make children stumble at His name … something about a mill-stone and water. I think that’s where most of the evangelical church is at!

[1] T.F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), 167-68.

The Material Girl as Physicalism: And the Foolish Way of the Gospel

We are saturated with materialism (some call it physicalism). The Christian reality is a bodily/physical religion; we aren’t Gnostics. Nevertheless, Christians maintain that there is a spiritual realm; indeed, God is spirit. But He has freely chosen to be physical with us, which is how we come to know God, in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. This represents some level of mystery. The Incarnation is the mystery of the eternal God, who is spirit, become human in the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. Christians, thus, live in a dialectic. We live in a physically affirming creation, our bodies included, and at the same time maintain that we are composed of spirit (some want to call this ‘consciousness’).

The secular, by-and-large, has reduced all of reality to a materialistic frame. It has immanentized the spirit realm of the eternal God into the physicalist realm of observable reality. In so doing it has come to imagine that God has really been humanity after all. As such the secular, or modern world has reduced all possible explanatory power, in regard to all phenomena to the physical; it allows for no appeal to a transcendent God who is spirit. Van der Kooi and van den Brink describe this sort of physicalism, particularly as it pertains to anthropology, this way:

This physicalism, is in fact, the anthropological side of the worldview that used to be known as materialism and is now often referred to as naturalism (or more specifically, metaphysical naturalism, as distinguished from the merely methodological naturalism that is the common basis for scientific research). The controlling premise in these views is reductionistic in nature: there is only matter. That is, there are only natural processes by which everything that needs explanation can be explained. Thus there is no God, and neither is there a human self or an “I.” This metaphysical naturalism plays relatively well in the media, but it is generally recognized to be plagued by some major problems. The question remains whether it can do full justice to such phenomena as human consciousness and the human longing for transcendence . . . and even to the human ability to know. On this latter front it has often been argued that our ability acquire knowledge can hardly be trustworthy it if has evolved in a purely naturalistic manner (see Beilby 2002 and Plantiga 2011, 307-50).1

This sort of mentality is not uncommon to come across out there in the public market of ideas; indeed, many of our fellow Christian believers operate with this sort of worldpicture at functional levels. That might sound counterintuitive to assert, but in my experience most Christians operate with a level of physicalism in their daily lives; alongside their pagan compatriots in the world at large.

To put a finer point on this here is how Charles Taylor describes the same phenomenon:

Science alone can explain why belief is no longer possible in the above sense. This is a view held by people on all levels; from the most sophisticated: “We exist as material beings in a material world, all of whose phenomena are the consequences of physical relations among material entities,” to the most direct and simple: Madonna’s “material girl, living in a material world.”

Religion or spirituality involves substituting wrong and mythical explanations, explaining by “demons.” At bottom it’s just a matter of facing the obvious truth.

This doesn’t mean that moral issues don’t come into it. But they enter as accounts of why people frun away from reality, why they want to go on believing illusion. They do so because it’s comforting. The real world is utterly indifferent to us, and even to a certain degree dangerous, threatening. As children, we have to see ourselves as surrounded by love and concern, or we shrivel up. But in growing up, we have to learn to face the fact that this environment of concern can’t extend beyond the human sphere, and mostly doesn’t extend very far within it.

But this transition is hard. So we project a world which is providential, created by a benign God. Or at least, we see the world as meaningful in terms of the ultimate human good. The providential world is not only soothing, but it also takes the burden of evaluating things off our shoulders. The meanings of things are already given. As a well-known contemporary theorist put it:

I think that the notion that we are all in the bosom of Abraham or are in God’s embracing love is—look, it’s a tough life and if you can delude yourself into thinking that there’s all some warm fuzzy meaning to it all, it’s enormously comforting. But I do think it’s just a story we tell ourselves. [Stephen Jay Gould]

So religion emanates from a childish lack of courage. We need to stand up like men, and face reality.2

It is the above materialism that shapes the current nihilism our world labors under. It is ironic that the further advanced we become, technologically, the more oppressive and tyrannical the world becomes; not to mention immoral and hedonistic.

Indeed, the sort of physicalism we have been thinking about, at our post-secular time has been losing teeth among people in the know. Nevertheless, the brute god of materialism continues to reign unabated in the broader world out there. As such, Christians who uncritically inhabit this sort of world similarly labor under conditions of thought that cause them to doubt, or least soften some of the more embarrassing mythos we might encounter in Holy Scripture. At an even lesser or more innocent level, many Christians, the masses living unexamined lives, simply accommodate the materialistic culture they inhabit in ways that denude the Gospel of its power by remaking it into a material image. You see, and this is to the point, metaphysical or philosophical materialism works under the premise that humanity has the potential to rise above the material world and master it in such a way wherein the übermensch (‘supermen’) can overcome and manipulate the created order to meet whatever their singular or collective desires might be. This is the world we inhabit, and we can see it in full and living color through the current technocratic medical tyranny COVID has afforded the current ‘supermen’ of this world order.

And yet Christians function under the pressures provided for by this sort of artificial understanding of the created order. Christians, some anyway, become squeamish when talking about demons and the devil as if real spiritual entities. Many Christians believe that the demon-possession referred to in the New Testament was simply childish humanity attempting to explain a physical phenomenon they had no intellectual vocabulary to grasp at this impish stage in natural human development. Or, many Christians today have bowed the knee in to ‘science,’ which of course means to the metaphysical materialism we have been considering in this post. These sorts of Christians have neatly divided physicalism from the message of the Gospel in a dualistic way, such that they believe they can maintain a personal world order wherein they can have the hard sciences “over here,” and keep their Christianity and metaphysics “over there.” And yet the analogy of the incarnation itself defeats this sort of dualistic (or Nestorian) attempt at keeping the physical disentangled from the spiritual; the incarnation, in all of its sui generis glory, doesn’t allow this sort of nice and tidy to thinking the world; it doesn’t allow the Christian to hat-tip the physicalist world order from the safety of their Christin perch.

More to be said, but these are some thoughts toward considering physicalism and its implications for Christians. We need to do better at engaging this world with the power of God, the Gospel, without selling out to material world of Madonna and/or the likes of a Stephen Jay Gould. There is a better way; but it is considered both foolish and weak to this world order. Be a fool.

1 Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introductiontranslated by Reinder Bruinsma with James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 270.  

2 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 561 kindle edition.

Exvangelicals, as the New Evangelicals: Culture Wars and The Modern

There is a class of people that has been forming over the last decade or so, in earnest, known as the Exvangelicals. Exvangelicals, as the nomenclature suggests, are people who once identified as evangelical Christians, but who have since become disillusioned with a whole cluster of identifiers and doctrines associated with said evangelicalism. When you read what most of these exvangelicals are saying, in regard to their reasons for departing the “faith,” it has to do with their respective dissatisfaction with the evangelical subcultural entailments. In other words, exvangelicals are tired of “playing church”; of ‘purity culture,’ so-called; of being out of step with the broader culture in regard to sexual and sexuality mores; so on and so forth. I would argue, though, that these exvangelicals haven’t walked away from historic orthodox Christianity; one that is defined by its doxological understanding of the triune God. Instead, they have walked away (sort of) from what I take to be an American (or Western) folk religion; some, like sociologist, Christian Smith, have called this ‘religion’: moralistic therapeutic deism.

I want to suggest that exvangelicals have, in point of fact, not walked away from anything. Indeed, all they have really done is internalized the theological presuppositions of evangelicalism, and taken them to their logical conclusion. A. N. Wilson offers an apropos description of the sort of “presuppositions” that have funded “evangelicalism” for many decades; he writes:

The nineteenth century had created a climate for itself—philosophical, politico-sociological, literary, artistic, personal—in which God had become unknowable, His voice inaudible against the din of machines and the atonal banshee of the emerging egomania called The Modern. The cohesive social force which religion had once provided was broken up. The nature of society itself, urban, industrialized, materialistic, was the background for the godlessness which philosophy and science did not so much discover as ratify.1

For many dyed-in-the-wool evangelicals the above description will have no traction; they won’t recognize their religion in this. But that’s just it: the exvangelicals finally do recognize the fund of their religion, and simply take the final and logical step of living into the naturalistic materialism they have been weaned on all their days in the evangelical club.

Evangelicals currently caught up in the ‘culture wars,’ particularly as that unfolds online, need to start to appreciate what they are up against. They need to become self-critical about their own hive of theological ideation, and understand that the reason they are having such a hard time making in-roads with their apostate brothers and sisters is because they are still on the same ground as them. Evangelicalism is ‘The Modern’ that Wilson describes. It is based on modern Enlightenment turn-to-the-subject premises and anthropology. It seeks self-actualization in the name of Christ, and consumes the materials of this cultural-world-system as its Eucharist and means of grace. It appropriates concert and corporate culture as its liturgy, and sees pastors as executives. Exvangelicals see through the façade, and simply opt to live in its full-flaming reality.

Martin Luther, when he visited Rome, as an Augustinian monk, saw the merchandizing of his Roman Catholic faith. He didn’t become an ‘Excatholic’ at that point; instead, he sought to reform his faith from the inside out. The difference between Luther’s day, and ours, was that he had a historic dogamtic foundation to refer people back to; evangelicals don’t have this. Evangelicals have Protestant orthodoxy, but in fact, much of the developments therein only lead us back to the materialistic deism that has produced exvangelicals to begin with. The way forward for evangelicalism is to return to the Nicene faith of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; through the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ. Doubling down on ‘back to the Bible’ is too simplistic. Evangelicals need to understand that we bring things to the Bible; that we have interpretive tradition (either good or bad); and that it is precisely because of what we often have brought to the Bible, and its reality, that we have arrived where we are today.

Exvangelicals haven’t walked away from evangelicalism. People like Josh Harris, Derek Webb, Paul Maxwell, Kevin Max et alia are simply living into their true evangelical selves. For them God has “become unknowable, His voice inaudible against the din of machines and the atonal banshee of the emerging egomania called The Modern.” Exvangelicals are evangelicals taken to its logical conclusion. They haven’t walked away from genuine orthodox Christianity, and the living God; instead, they have blossomed into the flowers that the seeds of evangelicalism have been cultivating into their lives for decades. They need to repent, and come to the risen Christ for the first time.

1 A. N. Wilson, God’s Funeral (London: Norton, 1999), 12 cited by Charles Taylor, Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 551 kindle edition.

A Response to Anthony Bradley’s Insufficient Critique of Voddie Baucham’s Fault Lines

Anthony Bradley Tweet-stormed the following with reference to Voddie Baucham’s recently released book, Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe 

In Chapter 6, it becomes glaringly clear that Voddie Baucham does not understand what the “Sufficiency of Scripture” actually means. He straw mans the definition, divorces it from the Reformed Tradition, and then critiques David Platt, John O, Eric Mason, Ligon Duncan, & others. This explains so much. Baucham’s personal definition of the sufficiency doctrine is 1920s fundamentalism rather than Reformed. He says, “there’s not a better book to address men on the issue of race in America than the Bible.” But the “issue of race” includes economics, e.g. The Sufficiency of Scripture is about faith. “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture”(WCF 1.6). In his book, his quotes the wrong part of the WCF to defend the doctrine. He seems to be out of his lane here. He says that the Bible is sufficient to address every issue of race in America. How is that possible when dealing with race which is not what the Bible is about? Fact: the actual Reformed tradition will say that Bible is insufficient to address matters outside those of saving faith (like Presbyterians believe). Baucham’s book is a departure away from the Reformed tradition & takes its readers back a century in biblicist Fundamentalism. WCF: “and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, & government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, & Christian prudence…” (1:6). It’s so bizarre that he’d quote section 1:1 not 1:6. This chapter only further exposes that Baucham doesn’t know what the doctrine actually means in the Reformed tradition. “The light of nature” includes “sociology, psychology, and political science.” The disciplines he says Christians don’t need. Using Reformed doctrines as a proxy for American fundamentalism misleads readers. It’s sad. Calvin, Vermigli, Althusius, Turrentin, etc. are all turning in their graves with Baucham’s anti-Reformed, American fundamentalist understanding of the Sufficiency of Scripture. You can’t get more of the false distinction between sacred and secular than reading Chapter 6 of “Fautlines.” It’s simply Neo-fundamentalism masquerading as apologetics. The only thing it’s defending in its attacks on Ligon Duncan, Eric Mason, David Platt, & others is biblicism. It’s too much to post here but Baucham’s misunderstanding and misuse of the Reformed doctrine of the Sufficiency of Scripture would be helped by joining a confessionally connectional denominational where theology is practice in community & leaders are bound by confessionalism. A great example of confessionalism on race is the Missouri-Synod Lutheran discussion of race. This conservative and Reformational denomination use “the light of nature” to discuss race. Baucham isn’t representing confessional Reformation perspectives. Perhaps Baucham would have better theological application of the doctrine of sufficiency if he were in the PCA & could learn about the insufficiency of Scripture and put the straw men to death.

I Tweeted the following in response to Bradley, and in some defense of Baucham:

What Bradley fails to grasp—as usual—(and I’m not in Baucham’s “theological lane”) is that Voddie’s assumption is that Holy Scripture is Gospel-centric in orientation. As such, and this is clear from other things Baucham et al have noted, he believes that the Gospel is sufficient for all “issues,” particularly because it addresses the central problem of humanity; ie a depraved heart. If this is the premise Baucham is working from, he hasn’t strayed from the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation at all: viz. ‘the Scripture Principle.’ Like I noted: Bradley is engaging in his typical cultural subterfuge by errantly appealing to his people.

One irony I noticed in Bradley’s Tweet was when he wrote: “Baucham’s personal definition of the sufficiency doctrine is 1920s fundamentalism rather than Reformed.” This is an interesting oversight since the ‘1920s Fundamentalists’ were the Protestant Reformed by and large, particularly when it comes to the issue of biblical inerrancy. 1920s biblicism was vanguarded largely by the thought of Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, and J. Gresham Machen among others. 1920s Fundamentalism was by-and-large made up of the ‘conservative Reformed’ of that day; and they were largely confessional. Bradley’s diatribe might work on the historically anemic, but not on folks who know American history vis-à-vis the Reformed faith and its biblical inerrancy.

Ultimately, I am not sure Baucham is all that concerned with affirming natural theology or natural law theory as that relates to parts of the confessionally Reformed faith. What Bradley seemingly fails to mention is that Post Reformation Reformed Orthodoxy rejected ‘natural theology,’ and thus natural law theory in the main (see Richard Muller’s Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4Vols). Bradley wants his uniformed readers to think that the confessionally Reformed faith was a monolith; how convenient (and absurd!)

But to the point of Baucham’s book: like I noted in my Twitter response, I don’t think Baucham would accept Bradley’s characterization of racism as not being a matter of the Evangel; indeed, that’s precisely the point (which is clearly lost on Bradley, who obviously is simply attempting to charter the “Reformed faith” in the direction of his wanderlust for using ‘analytic’ tools like Critical Race Theory). For my money, Calvin and Vermigli et alia would be turning in their graves if they saw where someone like Bradley wants to take Reformed theology in the 21st century. Is Baucham guilty of appealing to a 1920s Fundamentalism? Sure, just as much as someone like Machen or others would have been, particularly as they articulated the sort of inerrancy vis-à-vis sufficiency of Scripture principle that Baucham is appealing to himself. What Bradley is leaving out of his Tweet-storm is that Baucham believes that racism is indeed a matter that ‘salvation’ itself corrects. This would make Bradley’s critique moot, with reference to Baucham’s premise, in regard to the transformative power of the Gospel. And as I already noted, Bradley is only appealing to certain parts of the confessionally Reformed faith; he is misrepresenting its development and history though. Baucham stands squarely within the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation. Bradley is simply being selective to serve his own purposes. This is not good form, no not at all!

Twitter Miscellanies: From Evangelical Calvinism to Critical Theory

Here are four ‘posts’ I Tweeted in succession earlier today. This is sort of a miscellanies, and I thought I would post them here as well.

I

Neo-Marxism and Critical Theory is not the key that unlocks the kerygma (Gospel) for the world; Jesus does that. Jesus plundered the frailty and wickedness of a fallen humanity in the asumptio carnis, and out of that poverty made us rich from His riches. It is only the Gospel itself that is the power of God; that is, Jesus Christ. With Christ comes the tools, categories, and emphases to engage with a fallen world from the inside out. It is sheer arrogance and utter theology of glory that leads the theologians and pastors to imagine that they have the mastery to pierce the veil of nature and plunder it. Only God in Christ is capable of such a feat, and the second He did that He was intent on following the Jerusalem road; which eventuated in Him putting ‘nature’ to death and re-creating a new nature, a new humanity. This is the Gospel key for engaging this world system. There are no critical tools to plunder from the old-nature; for that realm has been put to death by the death of Christ. So, we walk by faith not sight; we walk in the reality of the resurrection from whence our tools come to us from the eschatos of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. Neo-Marxism and Critical Theory is purely Antichrist and the doctrine of demons all the way down.

II

For much (most) of American (Western) Evangelicalism it seems clear to me that her Babylonian Captivity is finally blossoming. Her uncritically examined pietistic roots, and thus turn to the subject anthropology, is finally giving way to what might be called the: being and becoming of a Babylonian Christian. A Babylonian Christian can no longer distinguish between God’s Word and their word; they are the same, in effect. The scandalous nature of the Gospel has become too scandalous for the Babylonian Christian, as such the more genteel culture has been allowed to regulate the way the Babylonian Christian thinks and lives; all in the name of Jesus Christ. The Babylonian Christian is not allowed to speak of hell, or to maintain, along with Jesus, that there are people who are children of the devil. That is hard doctrine, and the Babylonian Christian will not hear it, and definitely not speak it! The Babylonian Christian has a total fear of appearing as a Fundamentalist, out of step with the modern foot. kyrie eleison

III

I didn’t grow up as a Calvinist. My way into Calvinism is circuitous; and it isn’t your grandpa’s Calvinism either. I’m an After Barth (like trad) “Calvinist” or Reformed person. There are real antecedents in the Reformed tradition that pre-date Barth, Torrance et al. which I was introduced to by my former historical theology prof in an iteration known as Affective or Free Grace theology (of the Puritan period). Some of these past emphases find corollary with what Barth and TFT developed latterly; indeed, ironically after Von Harnack. All this to say that my “Reformed faith,” while confessional, in a reified sense, is quite Free church in orientation. I have never in my entire life affirmed a decretal God, or the 5 Points of Calvinism, for example. This may be why I’m so openly constructive in in my appropriation of various theological loci and theologians. My concern is to live and breathe in a theological frame that is slavishly regulated by the centrality and reality of Jesus Christ concentration as the ground and grammar of all that was, is, and will be.

IV

Something I Tweeted: Evangelical Calvinism, of the sort that me and Myk Habets propose in our two books, and what I write about at my blog, is not 5 Point Calvinism and is counter classical Federal/Covenantal theology. People almost always presume that to be Calvinist equals the aforementioned. Indeed, the iteration we propose has roots in the contemporaneous development and history of the so-called classical Calvinism (think Westminster); but what we imbibe operates from a Calvinism focused on God’s triune filial life as the ground and grammar of all theological reflection. We emphasize a God of winsome love and grace, rather than a brute God of law and gratuitous decrees. This is in the history and development of Reformed theology, but most Reformed et al know nothing of this. It is a revisionist history that makes people think Westminster Calvinism was always and the only orthodox form of Reformed theology. Evangelical Calvinism works from what my former historical theology professor identifies as Affective theology in the theology of someone like Richard Sibbes. We work from the more contemporary framing of theologians like Thomas F. Torrance, and his Scottish Theology, along with the Swiss man, Karl Barth and the whole *After Barth* trad that has developed subsequent to him. We represent a genuine stream in Reformed theology that you would be churlish to ignore. You would do well to acknowledge the breadth of the Reformed tradition and not come under the false illusion that Westminster Calvinism is the only thing going.

Bonhoeffer’s Impression of Union Theological Seminary as an Analogy for American Evangelicalism

Theological virtuoso Dietrich Bonhoeffer, after already earning two PhDs in theology (by his mid-twenties), came abroad to diversify his theological portfolio. He landed on the shores of New York, and in the halls of Union Theological Seminary. He had been trained in the liberal theological tradition, where it was founded, in Germany by its greatest minds; its most premier, just as he was entering studies, was Adolf von Harnack. But after writing his PhD dissertation, Communio Sanctorum, and then his post-doctoral Habilitation, Act and Being, even while being critical of aspects of Karl Barth’s theology, in the main, Bonhoeffer took the Christocentric, and orthodox turn with Barth. This had all happened just prior to him ending up at Union. He had the real deal liberal theological training behind him (just as Barth did), and could sniff out a phony version of it better than anyone else. Even so, as noted, he had abandoned the premises of liberal theology through appropriating Barth’s broad contours, and made that significant turn. When he entered Union Theological Seminary he was anticipating finding more of the same in regard to liberal theology, but he had come to learn how to apply theology at the social (street) level; and Union had a stellar reputation for this. But what he found, and was shocked by, was just how far gone Union was. He realized that they were peddling an imposter’s version of liberal theology; to the point that they had completely gutted it of anything doctrinally or historically interesting. In the end he didn’t even think that what Union was offering was Christianity at all. This is interesting, and parallel to my own impression of American evangelicalism today. But before I share some of my impressions, let us hear further on Bonhoeffer at Union, and how Gary Dorrien frames things for us:

He said it bluntly to his friend Helmut Rößler in December 1930. American liberal Protestantism, Bonhoeffer wrote, was ‘infinitely depressing’ to him, ‘smiling in desperation’ without realizing it was desperate:

The almost frivolous attitude here is unprecedented, and my hope of finding Heb. 12:1 fulfilled has been bitterly disappointed. Moreover, theology in Germany seems infinitely provincial to them here; they just don’t understand it; they grin when you mention Luther     (DBWE 10: 261).

A week later, writing to German church superintendent Max Dietsel, Bonhoeffer allowed that American seminarians were certainly friendly; they even expected professors to be friendly. But conversations with American students and professors ‘almost never yielded anything of substance,’ because Americans were averse to substance and truth:

There is no theology here. Although I am basically taking classes and lectures in dogmatics and philosophy of religion, the impression is overwhelmingly negative. They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students—on the average twenty-five to thirty years old—are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are not familiar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, are amused at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.        (DBWE 10: 265-6)

Bonhoeffer struggled to convey how bad it was. He had groused about shallow students at Berlin, too, but he assured Diestel that this was much worse. Americans ‘dreadfully sentimentalized’ religion, they spouted their opinions with ‘an almost naïve know-it-all attitude,’ and any reference to Luther evoked insolent laughter. They were proud to be superficial, counting it as sophistication. With a glimmer of something important, Bonhoeffer said that most of the theologians and clergy at Union accepted James’ notion of a finite God: ‘They find it to be profound and modern and do not sense at all the impertinent frivolousness in all such talk.’ Local church services were much the same:

The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. As long as I’ve been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a Negro (indeed, in general I’m increasingly discovering greater religious power and originality in Negroes)      (DBWE 10: 266)

That was another important glimmer; Bonhoeffer caught that gospel truths were existential to Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and his African American congregation at Abyssinian Church. Overall, however, the case for despair was overwhelming. Bonhoeffer puzzled over how the usual fare in American churches could be called Christianity. The Federal Council of Churches, he reported, was equally frivolous: ‘People talked about everything, except about theology. Only rarely did anyone venture any comments really getting to the point, and if they did, the discussion quickly moved on to the daily agenda’ (DBWE 10: 266-67.[1]

There are interesting parallels, I think, between Bonhoeffer’s impression of American liberalism, and how American evangelicalism has come to operate today. I can only imagine Bonhoeffer running across a Progressive church today, or your typical American evangelical church, and walk away with the same impressions he did as he was exposed to the “Christianity” at Union Theological Seminary.

For me personally, this is my impression of American evangelicalism in the main. I think of Christianity Today styled evangelicalism and juxtapose that with so-called Progressive American Christianity, and don’t see much difference. Maybe their doctrinal statements would differ, but their praxis reduces to the same; what Christian Smith and others have identified as a moralistic therapeutic deism. There is no real sense of the Christian, and thus concrete God of Jesus Christ present in most of American evangelicalism these days (whether that be on the progressive or mainline evangelical continuum). What we are exposed to are other purely pragmatic or flattened versions of the social gospel, with no reference to a God outside of the horizontal domain; or we get a pie-in-the-sky notion of God, who is there to help us feel good about ourselves, and present us with experiences that are supposed to elevate us to our best lives and self-actualized selves now.


[1] Gary Dorrien, “Bonhoeffer’s Assessment of Union Theological Seminary,” edited by Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler, The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2019), 30.

A Review of Progressive Christianity: With Reference to Pastor Josh Scott

I spent two hours watching an interview with self-proclaimed progressive pastor, Josh Scott, last night. His church, GracePointe in Nashville, Tennessee, put out an infographic saying what God’s Word isn’t and is; you can imagine what they said. I’ll give you their very first “isn’t”: 1. The Bible isn’t the Word of God, according to Josh Scott and his church, GracePointe. It seems that after that there isn’t much left to engage with. The moment a “Christian church” says, as part of their confession, that Holy Scripture is neither Holy nor God’s Word to and for humanity, there isn’t even a candle’s wick left to con-versate with. But I want to review, a bit, of what Scott thinks. If you want to watch the 2 hour plus interview, you can do that here.

Sketch

Scott’s story is the standard progressive testimony. He grew up in Eastern Kentucky, part of the Freewill Baptist denomination and Southern Baptist Convention, respectively. His grandpa was a Freewill Baptist pastor, but he tragically died when Scott was 11 years old. Scott says this event had a traumatic effect upon him. The circumstances are rather tragic. Scott says his grandpa was holding a church business meeting, and it was a meeting under duress. Apparently someone at the meeting shouted at Scott’s grandpa: ‘we don’t want you here, just leave!’ His grandpa literally had a heart attack and died right there. For Scott, as a young boy, this left an indelible mark on his psyche. He says that he associated that with the sort of God that the Bible referred to for many years following; a God of wrath and anger. This also started young Josh on a quest that has pushed him to become what he has today. As he got older, as early as his late teens, he began preaching on the Freewill/SBC circuit. He would travel around in his area and do pulpit supply for a variety of churches, weekly. As he continued to age, still young in his early to mid-twenties, he really started to have doubts and questions about the God he had been exposed to in his circles. He got his hands on the writings of Max Lucado; Scott says, ironically, that Lucado was the first to plant the seed in his head that it was okay to read more than just the Bible. Apparently in Scott’s primitivist circles it was the Bible (solo Scriptura) only; no other books were allowed to be read when considering who God is.

Once Josh Scott was given the permission to do so, indirectly by Lucado, Scott began reading NT Wright, which led to, unfortunately him reading some founding Jesus Seminar fellows such as Marcus Borg and John Dominick Crossan. When you hear Scott describe his understanding of God, and with particular reference to Jesus and the New Testament, what he describes, on both the higher critical and spiritual side, sounds like a cabling together of Borg’s Gnostic spirituality, and Crossan’s revolutionary Jesus. Later, as Scott describes it, he got his hands on Richard Rhor’s work; which as Scott explains, injected a levity of mysticism into his spirituality that he needed. Beyond this, Scott says he was an English major in college, which also informs the way he approaches Scripture. He claims to take a literary approach to Scripture, but then betrays that by saying that most of the Bible is metaphor; inclusive of the Trinity. In regard to his doctrine of God, when you put all of these informing voices together, and I’m sure many more that he didn’t share, he says that he is a panentheist (although his version of panentheism doesn’t sound very closely related to an “orthodox panentheism,” meaning I don’t think most panentheists proper, like Jürgen Moltmann, would recognize it). When we get into his understanding of salvation theory he says that he is a pluralist. The way he describes things, in this vein, sound quite close to John Hick’s theological pluralism. Here is a concise sketch of Hick’s understanding:

In the late 1960s, Hick had another set of experiences that dramatically affected his life and work. While working on civil rights issues in Birmingham, he found himself working and worshiping alongside people of other faiths. During this time he began to believe that sincere adherents of other faiths experience the Transcendent just as Christians do, though with variances due to cultural, historical, and doctrinal factors. These experiences led him to develop his pluralistic hypothesis, which, relying heavily on Kant’s phenomenal/noumenal distinction, states that adherents of the major religious faiths experience the ineffable Real through their varying culturally shaped lenses. Hick’s pluralistic considerations then led him to adjust his theological positions, and he subsequently developed interpretations of Christian doctrines, such as the incarnation, atonement, and trinity, not as metaphysical claims but as metaphorical or mythological ones. However, despite Hick’s changes theologically, many of his underlying philosophical positions remained largely intact over the course of his long career.[1]

The way Scott describes his theory of salvation sounds almost word-for-word with Hick’s pluralism. Since Scott rejects the Bible as God’s Word, ultimately, his modus operandi works from an absolute turn-to-the-subjectivism. His understanding of the theological and spiritual all depends on the experiencer’s sense of God and reality. There is nothing or no One extra nos (outside of us), no mind-independent extramental reality known as God, per se, for Scott’s theology proper. At this point, if you’re aware, Scott’s spirituality and theology sounds akin to the Enlightenment rationalism and romanticism of someone like Friedrich Schleiermacher. Indeed, the way Scott thinks Jesus sounds almost exactly like the Ebionite understanding that Schleiermacher et al. (Crossan etc.) operated with; just not quite as sophisticated.

The Ethical Cash-out

The way all of the aforementioned cashes out in Scott’s ecclesial and pastoral polity is to defer to the broader culture in order to know what truth and reality actually entails. There is a level of scientism, and essentially a whole lot of normative relativism at play in the way Scott thinks about anthropological concerns vis-à-vis socio-political issues. The primary thing his church wants to stand for is the value and affirmation of each person’s unique human experience. In our culture that happens to reduce most readily to human sexuality. They want people to know that they not only love, but affirm the LBGTQ+ community without qualification. He believes the church has damaged her image, almost beyond repair, by the way the church has treated people who live as homosexual, or in that sphere. This takes us back to the sort of God Scott was exposed to as a child and teenager; it is this God he is attempting to deconstruct, going as far as asserting that Scripture is not God’s Word, and then reconstructing it in the broader culture’s self-projected collective image. Ultimately, Scott simply sounds like a secular progressive, but with an attempt of recasting that through a quasi-Christian imagination, linguistically.

Conclusion

Josh Scott represents a typical progressive Christian. His testimony mimics most anyone else’s who claims to be progressive Christian. Almost all of their stories share a common past in some iteration of what they would now call Fundamentalism (and many of them did grow up in genuinely Fundamentalist religions and subcultures). The thing is, is that they haven’t really moved past their past, they have simply re-iterated a neo-Fundamentalism. It’s just that their informing word comes from the progressive secular culture, rather than their maybe idiosyncratic subcultures they grew up within. They live in a negation of a negation now, and this is sad. They look back at what and who they thought God was, and then negate that through their progressively formed optics handed to them by the broader culture. In some cases, like Scott’s, they might get their hands on various ‘liberal’ thinkers within the mainline and higher Protestant traditions; typically ones who themselves have taken shape under the pressures provided for by Enlightenment premises. They will work this into their neo-Fundamentalist (or ‘progressive’) mode, and live as if they part of a brave new world in the Christian imagination. But the sad reality is that there is nothing historically Christian whatsoever about what progressive Christians claim to be. And the thing is, this is exactly how they like it.

Aside: This progressively Christian subculture is now making inroads into what were once conservative Bible Colleges, Seminaries, and churches. Just yesterday, professor at Calvin College (James KA Smith) tweeted, that he not only loves but affirms ALL of the LGBTQ+ students on campus. This is a growing trend whether we are reading a Christianity Today article, or attending The Gospel Coalition’s sponsorship of the Revoice Conferences. Pastors, theologians, and Christian teachers of all stripes seem to be buckling under the cultural pressure to faithfully proclaim the historic and orthodox witness of Holy Scripture as God’s Word in all matters. Scott and the progressive Christians are just more explicit about their self-understanding and identity within the ecclesial landscape. What makes things more deleterious though for the broader evangelical world, is that a version of progressivism has been seeping into their churches and schools, albeit in softer tones and without the flamboyant fanfare that the Scott’s of the Christian world present with.

This is a time to be vigilant, and for pastors, theologians and other Christian leaders to know their Christian stuff. Not so they can engage in a debate, per se, but so they can offer a thick and robust alternative Christian Dogmatic that has an intentional in-formation of their socio-political activism in the public square. What I mean is that if the genuine Christian is going to take a stand in our day and age, they need to know who God actually is and what God’s Word actually says with reference to the various culturisms we are being barraged with every single day. But it is time to stand up and be counted. Be a Bonhoeffer, or an Esther why don’t you!  


[1] David C. Cramer, “John Hick,” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed 03-11-2021.

The Church’s Need for Systemic Repentance: CRT and other Chimeras of Natural Theology

Since Critical Race Theory (CRT) isn’t available as an analytic tool for Christians doing the work, in the ecclesial context, towards working through the racial complex; and if the Gospel itself is Self-sufficient, as the Power of God to do so; this still means that Christians have the responsibility to develop grammars and strategies, rooted in the kerygma itself, that help facilitate a genuinely Kingdom oriented telos (or purpose). Clearly, in my view, appealing to a correlationist frame between a genuinely Gospel oriented praxis, and secular is a non-starter. The particularity of the Gospel is scandalous to the world’s wisdom, so much so that it thinks the Gospel is both foolish and weak. But Christians find their being in this foolishness and weakness; we find our lives in its cruciformed shape; and we live and move out of this orientation. In my view then, appeal to CRT as an analytic tool for attempting to engage in “race relations” in the church represents a copout. It is the hawking off of the church’s responsibility to the world, and asking the world to do the work (i.e. provide the “tools” and “ways”) of figuring out a way to reconcile the races.

I do think there are legitimate racial disparities and even so-called inequities in the world writ-large. And insofar as the evangelical church reflects, and even follows the world/culture at large, and she does in significant ways, these disparities and inequities get smuggled into the ecclesial context. But this really reflects a deeper problem; it is a problem of allowing a natural universalizing theology to shape the church. In other words, the problem, in nuce, is that the evangelical churches (among the other churches) have so collapsed or immanantized the culture into the fabric of the Church, that the very Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ, can no longer be heard. Indeed, the culture so saturates the Church that the Church actually believes it is open to her Lord’s voice, when in fact the voice they are actually hearing is the broader culture’s. This is the deeper problem, and the ongoing racial, and other problems in the Church are really only symptoms (serious ones) of this sort of primal problem wherein the Church at large has conflated the culture’s voice with the Lord’s, thus making the latter self-same with the former. Until this is identified for what it is, as the Antichrist of natural theology, the idea that racial reconciliation, or any other sort of reconciliation might happen, in meaningful ways, will remain a chimera of a never ending story of purely horizontal horizons.

John Webster offers some pertinent insight on Karl Barth’s moral theology and ethical anthropology with reference to the Liberal Protestant church of Barth’s German/Swiss day. Webster writes:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.[1] 

I would contend that this mode has taken over the evangelical churches of North America, and the West at large. It seems that the mainline and/or progressive churches have now come to set the ethical space for much of what used to be considered the conservative evangelical churches. They all are operating with this same sort of allegiance to cultural relativism, and the turn-to-the-subject in the name of Jesus Christ as ultimately determinative for what it means to be socially activist and engaged. She can no longer, by and large, hear the voice of her Lord; because her Lord is in point of fact her own voice projected out as the living Lord’s (see Barth’s appropriation of Feuerbach). What the Church is in need of before anything else is systemic repentance. She needs to be willing, corporately, or as large bodies as witness bearers to the rest of the Church, to recognize her sin of syncretism, and cry out for the Lord to ‘liberate’ her from her cultural bondage; just so she can actually hear the lordly voice of the risen Lord once again, afresh and anew every morning in His great faithfulness.  


[1] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6.

Does Bad Theology Help Create Ravi Zachariases? A Reflection on the Evangelical Subculture

Let me follow up a bit on my last post. This post will focus on Ravi Zacharias’s situation more pointedly. As most know by now, after an independent (from Ravi’s ministry RZIM) investigation, RZ was found to have engaged in hundreds of illicit relationships over the decades; some of them were literal rapes. True, ‘let the one who has no sin cast the first stone,’ but that shouldn’t be appealed to in order to relativize the gravitas of Ravi’s heinous actions. Clearly, we are all sinners; Martin Luther’s emphasis on the simul justus et peccator should be appreciated by all. Even as Christians destined for eschatological bliss we are all, yet, inhabitants in these damned (but redeemed) bodies of death. Even though, as Christians, those in union with Christ, we are freely justified in and through the resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ, we still sin; and we often sin fiercely. Our sobering reality calls for a deep lifestyle of vigilance; one where mortification and vivification are the staples of our existence in Jesus Christ. The vigilance we are called to is charged to us by God Himself. The triune God exhorts us to ‘be holy, as He is Holy.’ As the Apostle Paul notes our aim ought to be ‘perfection.’ So, while the Christian strives for completion and beatific vision in Christ, we are chastened by the reality, as John the theologian notes, that we still sin, those who say we don’t are liars. Zacharias was just like us, and yet in his case he started down a path that ultimately led to a lifestyle of raucous sin.

What I want to address, though, and I only really made this connection as I reflected further on my last post, is the connection between the evangelical subculture RZ inhabited, and how that may have helped cultivate his double-life. My ‘insight’ is theological on this. As I underscored in my last post, but maybe only implicitly, I maintain that the way the Christian thinks God will determine all subsequent things; inclusive of the Christian life, and the subculture created out of that (and for that). For American evangelicals (which I am one, loosely), our background is draped in pietism and revivalism. Both of these nodes are largely fueled by a serious turn-to-the-subject modus operandi. In other words, both pietism and revivalism are rooted in an abstract understanding of the believer’s relationship to God; we might call it a voluntary view. In this approach to God the focal point starts in and from a soteriologically abstract place, insofar as the relationship starts when the would-be Christian decides to convert. What this entails, as a prius, is the idea that the whole Christian life is contingent on the individual’s autonomous decision to finally be for God rather than against Him. If this is the case, as the Christian builds on this premise, they end up in a place, ethically, and every other way, wherein the Gospel is what they decide to make of it. In other words, in this conversionist understanding the Christian life remains a purely voluntary endeavor that gains its traction in and through the willing and thus will-power of the individual Christian. As such, such Christians are doomed to lives of rank failure. A proper understanding on a God-world relation avoids placing this sort of unlivable burden on the Christian. But unfortunately many millions of Christians, particularly in the American West, have attempted to bear the brunt of this burden all the days of their weary lives; most fail. I would contend that at the most basic of levels Ravi Zacharias lived under this sort of burdensome, and principled pietistic way (think of Keswick spirituality) of Christian living. His so-called spiritual formation blossomed under these conditions, rather than genuinely Christ conditioned ones.

What I am suggesting is obviously just my own personal thesis. And I am not contending that if Zacharias was an Evangelical Calvinist, under the Torrancean-Barthian terms we focus on, that he would have elided the heinous missteps that led to his destructive lifestyle. Indeed, Barth himself failed in similar ways with Charlotte Von Kirschbaum (although on a scale, not with the same amplitude). But my broader point is this: the Christian needs the best theological foot-forward as possible. We don’t want to enliven sub-cultures with erroneous theological premises which lead to performance based, in-turned ghettos that almost necessarily set people up for fails. We want to operate from theological premises wherein Christ is the principled center. Not the center in a piously asserted way, but the center wherein He, indeed, leavens the theological bread all the way through and completely. We want to build theological cultures, ecclesial cultures, wherein we always already think from the antecedent above of God’s “pre-timed” life for us; as He freely elected to be for us in the humanity of Jesus Christ. This is the best and most fertile ground for Christian flourishing; ground that is given to us, not ground that we take through our “choice.” The best life we can live now flows from the kerygmatic reality that God is our before and after, and in this and out of this before and after the Christian comes to have capacity to live for God, in the now, even as God has always already and eternally lived for us in His choice to be with us and in us en Christo. Maybe if Ravi had this sort of theological altitude to live from, maybe if he inhabited the culture this reality constructed, maybe he wouldn’t have slipped into the double life he lived until the day of his death; we will never know this of course.

I offer some of these inklings only as a way for me to process this sad scenario in the sorts of ways I like to do that; in Christ concentrated, and theological ways. Maybe thinking like this will end up helping others in the development of their own Christian life within the communio sanctorum; I know thinking like this has helped me in my walk as a Christian. May God have mercy on us all (kyrie eleison)! May God show grace and mercy to the victims of Zacharias’s manipulations; He will. May evangelicals, in the main, come to repent of any type of bad theology that might lend itself towards the development and sustenance of ecclesial subcultures that help to enable people like RZ et al. (all of us). Unfortunately, I haven’t even seen any theologically driven responses to this situation; but that is only par for the course in the evangelical subculture. This saddens me immensely. There are many good and genuine people in the evangelical world, but they have been sold a bill of goods, often times, when it comes to their theological methods and materials. I think this has real life consequences. Once again kyrie eleison.