It is perhaps a little less remarked on today than it was in the 1990s, but it still comes up in evangelical circles: the “truth.” Actually, no, it’s the Truth and evangelicals can still often be heard denouncing “moral relativism” as a threat to capital-T Truth. Now it’s not talked as much since the perception that New Atheism is the big threat to North American evangelical protestantism, but there is still a concern about moral relativism causing impressionable young Christians to abandon orthodox Christian views in favour of a this-is-my-truth-tell-me-yours mindset. Now though, the big threat seems to be the rise of the “nones” including various sorts of “new” atheism as well as increasing interest in the Roman Catholic, High Anglican, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox traditions among disaffected evangelicals.
The unchanging, capital-T Truth.
The evangelical community that has made such a big deal about the threat of relativism and the importance of an eternal, unchanging, objective truth as a starting point possesses another key characteristic that is utterly contradictory: the centrality of personal testimony. This is especially the case in youth groups (and hence this is perhaps why twentysomethings and thirtysomethings are most affected by this return to older church forms). Almost any speaker at a church youth group in the 1990s-2000s, be it the regular youth pastor or some kind of guest speaker or one of the students themselves would, if given any length of time to talk, weave in a personal testimony of sorts. Most youth group kids likely had a better understanding of the personal conversion and faith story of their youth pastor than they did that pastor’s take on any number questions about theology or ecclesiology.
That’s a tremendous zig-zag there. The truth is unchanging and objective, but here’s my own personal story of what I think God did in my own life. In other words: this is my own personal truth. Oops. The kids coming through the churches in the last three decades were fed this contradiction, is it any wonder that they leave to go look for the capital-T truth. An Eastern Orthodox/Roman Catholic/Anglican priest, if you asked him, might tell you a little about his own life and faith, but that’s not what he’s leading with. Not because it’s a secret or it’s of no importance, it’s just not nearly as important as the other stuff such an individual might wish to share. The same might be the case for at least some of the Reformed types who have lately gained much traction in the evangelical world. Conversely, remember those New Atheists, they also like to talk about the truth: in this case the truth that science might be revealing an ugly, uncaring, material world, but if that’s what can be shown to be true (albeit through an entirely different process than the traditions and rites of ancient Christianity) it can be equally appealing to those who were told by their church youth groups to search out the unchanging, immovable capital-T Truth.
My old friend Tim hosts a bbq every year during NXNE; 159 Manning is becoming something of a famed event. I’ve missed everyone so far.
At this year’s party they did some shape-note singing, a kind of southern-Protestant influenced communal sing-along. On Facebook, Tim linked to the blog of a girl who actually got to sit in the midst of the group as they sang; I love how she shares her experience of what it was like. As non-religious as she claims to be, she can’t help but use religious language to explain her experience. I find that telling.
I’ll leave it to C. S. Lewis to better explain what I think her words reflect: “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited” (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory).
I mentioned in an earlier post that ETS has re-started its Ontario/Quebec regional meeting. A call for papers has now been issued for the September 2013 meeting. Here it is:
CALL FOR PAPERS
Inaugural Meeting of the ETS Ontario/Quebec Region
Theme: “The Authority of the Bible for Today”
Heritage Theological Seminary, Cambridge, ON
14 September 2013
Speakers for the inaugural meeting are Dr. Stanley Porter (President and Dean, Professor of New Testament at McMaster Divinity College) and Dr. David Robinson (Associate Pastor, Westminster Chapel)
All full members of ETS and student members enrolled in Ph.D. programs are invited to submit paper proposals on this year’s theme. Quality papers on topics not directly related to the theme are also welcome.
All paper proposals should include a title and abstract (300 words), and the presenter’s name and institutional affiliation. Please submit paper proposals to Dr. David Robinson: email@example.com. An acceptable paper should be delivered in 25-30 minutes, with 5-10 minutes for discussion.
The submission deadline for proposals is 31 July 2013.
Zach Hoag posted this video from the Australian army chief addressing allegations and contrasted it with the mealy-mouthed words of those rushing to defend C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries from allegations of abuse. The video:
Note here that the general states that these matters are under investigation, but unlike the TGC leadership, he does not use that as an excuse to stay silent. The presumption of innocence does not mean that we need to be deaf, blind, and stupid. His warning is clear and direct and it extends to not only to the perpetrators to those who stood by idly and did nothing about it. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept, indeed.
Now some might be tempted to say that the army is rather a different organization from the church. (This may be news to Mark Driscoll.) Where is the grace, the forgiveness? The obvious response to this is that if the case against C.J. Mahaney was that he was a universalist or he affirmed gay marriage, then the response would take a tone much more like that of the Australian general. Tolerating spiritual and sexual abuse however is something that is not a matter for the church to handle, rather it is matter for secular legal authorities to hash out around technicalities like the statute of limitations on sex abuse cases while casting aspersions on the victims.
Did you know that there used to be a Canadian meeting for the Evangelical Theological Society? A number of years ago it changed into a separate body, but this year is being revived. On September 14, 2013, at Heritage College in Cambridge, ON, a meeting of the newly formed Ontario and Quebec region will meet to discuss “The Authority of the Bible for Today.” The two plenary speakers will be Dr. Stanley Porter, President and Dean of McMaster Divinity College, and Dr. David Robinson, associate pastor at Westminster Chapel, Toronto.
I assume a call for papers will come shortly. As for now, check out this flyer:
A while ago I wrote a post building on the work of my friend Steven Wedgeworth, showing how N.T. Wright’s doctrine of justification is within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy. Interestingly, while reading a source on justification in the early church 1, I was alerted to another precedent for Wright’s view in the Reformed tradition, from perhaps an unlikely source:
5. Suppose a person freely justified by the grace of God, through faith in the blood of Christ, without respect unto any works, obedience, or righteousness of his own, we do freely grant, — (1.) That God does indispensably require personal obedience of him; which may be called his evangelical righteousness. (2.) That God does approve of and accept, in Christ, this righteousness so performed. (3.) That hereby that faith whereby we are justified is evidenced, proved, manifested, in the sight of God and men. (4.) That this righteousness is pleadable unto an acquitment against any charge from Satan, the world, or our own consciences. (5.) That upon it we shall be declared righteous at the last day, and without it none shall so be. And if any shall think meet from hence to conclude unto an evangelical justification, or call God’s acceptance of our righteousness by that name, I shall by no means contend with them. And wherever this inquiry is made, — not how a sinner, guilty of death, and obnoxious unto the curse, shall be pardoned, acquitted, and justified, which is by the righteousness of Christ alone imputed unto him — but how a man that professes evangelical faith, or faith in Christ, shall be tried, judged, and whereon, as such, he shall be justified, we grant that it is and must be, by his own personal, sincere obedience.
Every Sunday at a remote church near Stornoway in the Isle of Lewis one of the most extraordinary vocal sounds in the world can be heard. There’s no choir, no professional musicians, just a small unremarkable-looking congregation, who wait for the the man standing next to the minister to give them a lead. Eventually he launches into song, quavering in pitch but decisive in tone, with a nasal intensity that’s strangely reminiscent of bagpipes. Then the congregation respond, with an unearthly sound that gathers itself from a myriad individual voices and then billows out, surging and eddying and subsiding until the leader begins again.
This is the ancient tradition of Gaelic psalm-singing that survives in a few churches in the Western Islands of Scotland. The man who leads the singing is Calum Martin, who’s been ’Precentor’ at Back Free Church for decades. “The thing about Gaelic Psalm-singing is that’s based on family worship”, he says, “ I learned it from my father at home, and we took the same method into church.” Was his father a precentor? “He was, and my grandfather too. What you have to remember is that this form of singing arose when not many people could read, so people needed a guide to the words and the tune. This is why this style of singing is often called ’lining-out’. The precentor gives a line of the psalm, and the congregation repeat it.” But there’s clearly more going on than a simple call-and-response.
A couple of years ago I did a three-part series of posts for the Sola Scriptura Ministries blog titled “Reading and Error.” The purpose was to advocate for what some friends of ours call “Reformed Irenicism”—though I don’t use that term. You can check the posts here:
There is a famous Latin maxim on theological controversy that has been attributed to Augustine (though he may not have said it) that warrants thoughtful consideration: In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus autem caritas. In translation this roughly says, “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.” Without wanting to debate the universal truthfulness of the entire statement, the last definitely merits consideration. Augustine himself demonstrated charity in his dealings with those in error—one thinks of his early treatment of Pelagius as an example. Whether in truth or in error, we must deal carefully at all times.
As an aside, have you ever noticed the footnotes in books that you read? In many books, those footnotes demonstrate that your favourite theologians read error in order to combat it. Pick up a book like Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen and you will quickly discover that he was intimately involved with the writings of his liberal opponents.
The best way to respond to erroneous teaching is to deal with the best of a person’s arguments, not the worst. Sometimes it can be easy to take an outlandish statement and punch holes through it. Little work is required and the desired effect of repulsion can easily be acquired. Rather, consider the strong-points, deal with them honestly, and it may be that the opponent is convinced by your godly response, but others reading your work may be drawn to your position. If you fail to do this, others will see and it will be easy for them to dismiss both you and your argument because of your lack of charity.