Biblicism and the Reformed Evangelical magisterium

One of the long-term hallmarks of the American evangelical church has been a congregational independence free from strong denominational ties. Sure, the denominations exist as broad placeholders with certain doctrinal distinctives, but the range of actual beliefs and practices among churches even within a single denomination is often large. In practice, theological interpretations mainly happen at the individual congregation level. This seems reasonable given that the popularly accepted definition of evangelicalism includes “biblicism” as one of its four key characteristics. [ref]Per British historian David Bebbington as referenced in this Wheaton College post. The other three characteristics are conversionism, activism, and crucicentrism.[/ref]

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Within less-evangelical denominations that have a well-defined hierarchy, doctrinal disputes and practice are better kept in-house; the Presbyterians are more than willing to govern their doctrine and practice, and the Catholics have their magisterium – the teaching authority of the church which speaks authoritatively on doctrine.

While Reformed Evangelicalism is still loosely grouped into tribes (Acts 29, The Gospel Coalition, Southern Seminary alumni, etc.), I think we are seeing the emergence of a Reformed Evangelical magisterium of sorts. Its hand has been evident the past several months in the reaction to, among other things, Rachel Held Evans‘ new book. I don’t want to address the book in this post – I did that previously – but rather the reaction to it.

Let me say up front that I have great respect for everyone I’m going to mention here, and that I have learned much from and appreciated the teaching of nearly all of them. My goal here is not to suggest that they have nefarious intents or are necessarily intentionally working to form this sort of authoritative cabal, but that its emergence may point to a lack of confidence in the sufficiency of the tenet of biblicism.

Seeing the organization of this Reformed Evangelical cabal isn’t difficult. There is a nicely defined structure that includes:

  • theological institutions (Southern Seminary being the chief example)
  • theologians – D. A. Carson, Albert Mohler, Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Mark Dever
  • charismatic teachers – Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Voddie Baucham, Josh Harris, C. J. Mahaney
  • mouthpieces – The Gospel Coalition website, Desiring God’s website, and The Resurgence website, among others
  • inquisitors – Tim Challies and Kevin DeYoung being the prime examples
  • councils – we call ‘em conferences, though. Desiring God holds a big one every year, T4G is every other year, and so on.

If a member gets too far out of line, this group is quietly self-regulating. See: Acts29 moving from Driscoll in Seattle to Chandler in Dallas. See also Mahaney leaving his Maryland church of nearly 30 years under a cloud, only to re-emerge as pastor of a new church in Louisville, KY, safely in Al Mohler’s backyard.

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Among the larger group of individual pastors that follow these leaders, doctrinal alignment is maintained by conferences and publishers. As an aspiring author, your first book likely won’t get a look from one of the big names, but if Challies reviews it positively, your second one might. A cover blurb from Driscoll, Keller, or Chandler will help ensure that your book gets accepted at the book sales room at the next conference, and from there you’re all set on your track to successful blogging, authoring, and maybe even your own speaking gig at the next conference!

Get a vote of disapproval, though, and you’ll be on the outside looking in, anywhere from just being ignored (which I’d imagine is bad for an author’s prospects) to having the full court press turned against you (as Rachel Held Evans has had the past few months).

Now, from one perspective, this sort of unity seems like a positive thing, right? We have Baptists, Presbyterians, Free Church-ians, and independents of every stripe coming “Together for the Gospel”. And indeed, this tent is apparently big enough for diversity on sacramental issues like baptism and communion. But touch one of the “third rails” like women’s roles or origins and you’re gonna get dropped like a hot potato. (Recently a professor at Cedarville College got fired because he believed the “right things” about Adam and Eve but not for the right reasons.)

A few of the authors who go where angels fear to tread are given a grudging pass, typically because their academic credentials are too impressive to totally ignore. Think here of Scot McKnight, whose Junia Is Not Alone argues hard for the egalitarian position, but who also taught at TEDS alongside D. A. Carson. And also, oh, that N. T. Wright guy who says some amazingly liberal stuff on social gospel and the environment, but who wrote some stunning stuff on Jesus.

Academic credentials don’t ensure asbestos underwear, though. Pete Enns (a tenured professor) got run out of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, back in 2008 after publishing his book Inspiration and Incarnation, which argued for a re-evaluation of how we read and interpret the Bible – and especially the early parts of the Old Testament. And if you’re a woman without a theology degree, like the aforementioned Evans, well, sorry. You’re toast.

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Ask any of these guys (or your local adherents to their creed) why they put the big focus on these specific doctrinal issues, and what you’ll probably hear is this: “the gospel is at stake“. I think it’s clear, though, that what it really means is “our version of the gospel is at stake”.

And this is where the idea of a magisterium comes in. In the Catholic tradition, the magisterium is the teaching authority of the church. The church leadership speaks an authoritative interpretation of Scripture, and the matter is settled.

In the evangelical tradition, however, we don’t have the strong denominational and hierarchical structures to pronounce and enforce Scriptural interpretation. And even though we love the Scripture (a pastor I know and love proudly says he has such a high view of Scripture that “it’s not bibliolatry… but *wink* it’s just almost bibliolatry.”), it’s apparent that while we also love our congregational independence, that independence is just insufficient to protect the evangelical doctrinal turf. And so evangelicalism falls back on its informal magisterium.

I don’t think one can conclude from all this that a magisterium is a bad thing, nor can one conclude that the solution is to move our evangelical churches into some hierarchical denomination. But what is clear is that no matter how loudly some leaders of evangelicalism may cry that we need to simply “believe what the Bible says”, it’s never quite that simple.

bible photo credit: gwilmore via photopin cc
church photo credit: zilverbat. via photopin cc

The people of God are like… a political advance team

After recently finishing N. T. Wright’s Simply Jesus, I’ve been thinking again on Wright’s view of the church’s work as inaugurating the Kingdom of God here on the earth. Even though we know it won’t come into perfection until Jesus’ return, Wright says, is no excuse that we shouldn’t start working on it now. I love this bit of reasoning from Wright’s Surprised by Hope:

What would you say to someone who said, rightly, that God would make them completely holy in the resurrection and that they would never reach this state of complete holiness until then – and who then went on to say, wrongly, that therefore there was no point in even trying to live a holy life until that time? You would press for some form of inaugurated eschatology. You would insist that the new life of the Spirit, in obedience to the lordship of Jesus Christ, should produce a radical transformation of behavior in the present life, anticipating the life to come…

…Apply the same to Romans 8! How do you answer someone who says, rightly, that the world will not be completely just and right until the new creation and who deduces, wrongly, that there is no point trying to bring justice to the world… until that time? [I]nsist on inaugurated eschatology, on a radical transformation of the way we behave as a worldwide community, anticipating the eventual time when God will be all in all even though we agree things won’t be complete until then.

The analogy that’s been rattling around in my head in this election year is of the people of God as a political advance team. Say that you’re the supporter of a candidate that you know is ultimately going to win. Your work as part of the advance team is to get the word out – in hopes that others will join the team, and to get the groundwork done so that things are ready when the winner finally shows up. Then, when the new ruler is in place, the people that were on his side the whole time are the ones who are rewarded – with good things from the kingdom and with places of responsibility.

So, too, in many ways with the kingdom. We know who the ultimate ‘winner’ and coming ruler is. He has already conquered death and is the prototype of the new creation. But until He comes to set up his complete rule, we are here, spreading the word. Jesus is Lord. We’re doing as much ground work as He enables us to do. 1 Cor 15 says that ‘our works are not in vain in the Lord’. Those works have a purpose. And when Jesus finally does return, it’s not a stretch to the understanding that ruling and reigning with Christ may be something akin to the leadership positions and ambassadorships that come today to the early and long-time supporters of a new ruler.

So… get the word out. Get people on the team. Get the work started. Wait expectantly. Come soon, Lord Jesus.

Stringfellow on Revelation

In the second chapter of William Stringfellow’s An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, he continues to contrast the two cities mentioned in the latter half of Revelation: Babylon and Jerusalem. The Babylon of Revelation, he says, “is archetypical of all nations.” Those nations are principalities that, Stringfellow argues, by their very nature are anti-human; they serve themselves and work against that which is good. Jerusalem, on the other hand, is representative of Christians as “an embassy among the principalities” or as “a pioneer community”. (These phrases remind me instantly of N. T. Wright’s similar description of the Church in Surprised by Hope.)

But Revelation, says Stringfellow, cannot be read as a “predestinarian forecast”.

To view the Babylon material in Revelation as mechanistic prophecy – or to treat any part of the Bible in such a fashion – is an extreme distortion of the prophetic ministry….

A construction of Revelation as foreordination denies in its full implication that either principalities or persons are living beings with identities of their own and with capabilities of decision and movement respected by God. And, in the end, such superstitions demean the vocation which the Gospels attribute to Jesus Christ, rendering him a quaint automaton, rather than the Son, of God.

While my Calvinist friends will quibble with the thought that humans have “capabilities of decision and movement respected by God”, I find that last sentence to be a compelling thought – that the work of Jesus Christ redeeming the world is magnified if his work is redeeming free and willful men, and that if, as in the strong Calvinist view, the whole cosmic saga is already completely fixed in history, then Christ is, in a way, just one more player in a pre-defined role.

William Stringfellow: “An Ethic for Christians & Other Aliens In A Strange Land

Among the many Christmas gifts I received this year, I was quite pleased to get a book which had been sitting on my Amazon wishlist for several months: William Stringfellow’s An Ethic for Christians & Other Aliens in a Strange Land. I will confess to having been completely ignorant of Stringfellow prior to someone online (I forget who) recommending this book, but he seems to have been a fascinating fellow; an Anglican layman who graduated Harvard Law only to move to Harlem and doing pro bono legal work for racial minorities and sex offenders.

To quote Ben Myers excellent summary of Stringfellow’s emphasis:

The most striking feature of Stringfellow’s work is his powerful analysis and critique of the “principalities.” For him, the principalities are institutionalised forms of death. Institutions exist for the sake of their own expansion and self-perpetuation; they are not subject to human control, but are autonomous entities vis-à-vis all human agency. Human beings often believe “that they control the institution; whereas, in truth, the principality claims them as slaves” (Free in Obedience, p. 99).

I’m only 35 pages into this slim 150-page volume – having read only the introduction and Chapter 1 – but I’m immediately struck by how timely his critique of American government and corporate institutions is. Consider this:

The Fall is where the nation is… Americans have become so beleaguered by anxiety and fatigue, so bemused and intimidated, so beset by a sense of impotence and by intuitions of calamity, that they have, for the most part, become consigned to despair. The people have been existing under a state of such interminable warfare that it seems normative. There is little resistance to the official Orwellian designation of war as peace, nor does that rhetorical deception come near exhausting the ways in which the people have found the government to be unworthy of credence or trust. Racial conflict has been suppressed by an elaborate apartheid; products which supposedly mean abundance or convenience turn out to contaminate or jeopardize life; the environment itself is rendered hostile; there is pervasive babel; privacy is a memory because surveillance is ubiquitous; institutional coercion of human beings has proliferated relentlessly. Whatever must be said of earlier times, in the past quarter century America has become a technological totalitarianism in which hope, in its ordinary human connotations, is being annihilated.

Americans have been learning, harshly, redundantly, that they inherit or otherwise possess no virtue or no vanity which dispels the condition of death manifest everywhere in the nation. (p. 19-20)

If Stringfellow felt this strongly in 1973, what would he be thinking today in 2012?

An Ethic is not quick reading but to this point every page has been worthwhile.

Are we overly focused on the cross?

There’s a thought-provoking post by Bo Sanders up on Homebrewed Christianity today wherein he asks what might be to many a startling question: have we overdone the crucifixion?

Sanders thinks that we may have. He observes that, for evangelicals on the blogosphere (and, I’d add, in the current publishing market) it’s “all atonement theory, all the time”.

He goes on:

Here is my concern: in the resurrection God spoke a new word over the world. I would like to live into that new word and participate with God’s Spirit who was given as a gift and a seal of the promise.

To obsess on the cross and related atonement theories is to live perpetually in the old word and to camp in the final thing that God said about the old situation.

As I reflect on my own journey, I can see how the churches in which I grew up did focus on the cross and atonement to the great neglect of the resurrection. Not that we didn’t have amazing Easter celebrations, but somehow we never connected the dots between Christ’s resurrection and our own eternal future. That omission is the reason that when, at age 30, I finally read N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, it so rocked my theological world.

So I think it’s a question worth thinking about. Do we overly focus on the cross as opposed to the other symbols of our faith? Is the focus on the cross a reflection of the evangelical personal sin/death/redemption focus, whereas a focus on the empty tomb and resurrection might drive a more corporate kingdom/social perspective?


To look at it another way: one of my daughter’s favorite stories from the Jesus Storybook Bible (highly recommended if you have kids) is the one on the crucifixion. But if she requests that story, I make sure we have time to read two stories, because I refuse to stop reading with Good Friday; I want to get to resurrection morning. Is our focus on the cross a grown-up theological equivalent of continually reading the Friday chapter without the Sunday chapter? Food for thought, for sure.

[Homebrewed Christianity]

Moving at the speed of love

Richard Beck has a great piece today on interruptibility.

Basically, interruptibility is a form of welcome and hospitality. It is a way of making room for others. This space we create is less a physical space than a temporal space, making room in your To Do list, making space so we can slow down and pay attention to others.

Interruptibility is, he says, “a sign that we are moving at the speed of love.” (What a great line!)

Beck goes on to explore some other traits that our interruptibility (or lack thereof) demonstrates. It’s worth reading the whole thing.

DeYoung, Restless, and… funny?

Kevin DeYoung has a post on parenting this morning that is fantastic. Funny, insightful, and encouraging. Well worth the time to read. But that’s not really what I want to write about today.

Let me make a confession. The only reason I saw DeYoung’s post is because it showed up as a shared item in Google Reader. Because I unsubscribed from his blog feed months ago. I’ve got 556 feeds subscribed at the moment, so I’m obviously not culling feeds to keep the post volume down. But I felt for a while like the only thing he was writing was strident, detailed defenses of young, restless, and reformed Calvinist theology. And I was getting very tired of reading them.

DeYoung’s post this morning, though, struck me as very different. It’s funny, practical, and insightful. When I read it instead of feeling like somebody was trying to shove neo-Calvinism down my throat I felt like I was being encouraged by a guy in a similar situation to me. I felt like Kevin might be the kind of guy that I would enjoy hanging out with and getting to know.

And then (I’m slow) it dawned on me: he’s probably been this way the whole time. It’s just my impression that’s changed.

Which leads me to a larger question: are we aware of how our online appearance causes us to look to those who might read our stuff? And conversely, am I as a reader willing to remember that there is a fully-rounded person behind those words, even if he or she doesn’t seem rounded online?

Now, I know there’s a place for topical blogs, and I can infer from Kevin’s decision to blog on The Gospel Coalition site that he’s not shooting to have a free-for-all random blog. But there’s value these days for anyone trying to be influential online to show a more well-rounded picture of who they are.

As I page back through DeYoung’s recent blog posts, I have to confess he’s being more well-rounded than I had previously given him credit for. (Whether this is a recent change or my selective memory is an issue I’ll not try to resolve here.) While there are the expected slew of book reviews, quotes of Augustine, Jonathan Edwards, and Tim Keller, and critiques of Rob Bell, there is also a video of Real Madrid’s soccer trophy getting run over by a bus, a collection of creepy Easter Bunny pictures, and an Andrew Peterson song.

I guess this means this post is less of a critique of Kevin DeYoung and more of a mea culpa for not keeping up with what all he’s posted. It also means that you shouldn’t be surprised if the next three posts on my blog are a cartoon, a nerdy musical reference, and something about programming. After all, that’s pretty much how my brain goes. No sense in pretending otherwise.

Love your enemy: within a divided self

It’s been at least a week since John H. linked this James Alison essay on Twitter, so it’s high time that I passed it along with my recommendation. It’s not light reading, but it’s quite an insightful consideration of Jesus’ command to love your enemies.

In the first half of the essay Alison explores “mirror neurons” and infant imitation to bring us to an understanding from science that our minds and actions are influenced by those around us. He summarizes:

With this we are well on the way to being able to understand, for the first time rigorously, how it is that what we normally call the “self” of each one of us is constituted by the desire of another. How it is in fact that the self of each one of us, rather than being something hermetic, locked into itself until we choose to enter into relationship with what is other than us, is in the first instance a real but malleable construct which is a symptom of the way this body has been brought into being and is held in being by the relationships which preceded it.

With the remainder of the essay Alison then brings home how Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies beautifully works within this scientific understanding…

But, Jesus says, this being run by the adulatory other, or the excoriating other, which is the same thing, has nothing to do with God. What God’s love looks like is being creatively for the other without being defined over against the other in any way at all. That is what is meant by grace and freedom. It is going to involve breaking through the strong-seeming but ultimately fragile dichotomies of “in group” and “out group”, “pure” and “impure”, “good guys” and “bad guys” which are quite simply the ambivalent functions of our cultural identity, and coming to love other people without any over against at all. Living this out is going to look remarkably like a loss of identity, a certain form of death. And living it out as a human is what it is to be a child of God, and to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.

If you’ve hung in through those two quotes, I really encourage you to go read the whole thing. Alison has much good insight here about how the attitudes of the groups we’re in and the attitudes we take towards those around us affect us… well worth the read.

Doctrine good, stories bad?

I have learned much over the past several years from brothers and sisters of the Reformed theological persuasion. I love and respect them deeply. But the good Dr. Daniel J. R. Kirk today puts his finger on a point which has provided me some unease in my conversations with my Reformed brethren, saying it, as usual, more succinctly than I could.

Quoth Daniel:

Doctrine Good. Stories Bad. That’s the mini-theme of this month’s Christianity Today.

I begin with the most egregious offense. There’s a short inset on p. 26, snipped from a book by J. I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett (Grounded in the Gospel; Baker, 2010) entitled, “The Lost Art of Catechesis.” The point? Back in the old days, folks used to have to learn their theology. That waned for a bit, but was revived in all its glory in the Reformation. Doctrine. The church has to learn its doctrine.

When did this all go astray between then and now? When Sunday Schools entrusted instruction to lay people and rather than teaching people theology substituted “instilling of familiarity (or shall we say, perhaps, over-familiarity) with Bible stories” (26).

Daniel, though, strongly disagrees, and he hammers it home here:

This is the classic inversion of sola scriptura: no longer do we really want you to do what the Reformers did (read your Bible), we want you instead to read and memorize what they said after they had read their Bibles.

And that is the unease I’ve always had w/ the Reformed types. So often when asked a question, they don’t respond w/ Scripture, but rather with a quote from one of the Confessions or with a paragraph from Calvin or Edwards or Spurgeon or Packer.

I know, I know, those Confessions are a distillation of the church’s understanding of the whole Scripture over the years, and useful as a doctrinal reference and as a safeguard against taking any single Scripture passage wildly out of context. But Dr. Kirk makes a great point here: our first priority and focus should be to the Scripture, and the Confessions and Institutes need to come later.

I’d love to hear from some of my Reformed buddies on this one. And yeah, I’m afraid what I might be in for when they pile on. :-)