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T4G 08: Mixed Afterthoughts, pt. 2

Before I make any remarks about my mixed feeling at T4G (a conference which is by now old news to most bloggers), I want to express a few words of gratitude.

I stand on the shoulders of men like John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Mark Dever, and John Piper especially. These men have been examples to me over the years of Christ-centered ministry, preaching, and teaching. Their teachings are invaluable to me. It would be a difficult task to attempt to measure the impact of their faithful ministries on my own life, let alone the hundreds of thousands. I’m agnostic about where I would be today if it weren’t for these men (certainly not at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY). These men have fed my mind and heart with the things of God for many years. I don’t want to become arrogantly ungrateful by biting these hands that have been feeding me without good reason. Nevertheless, it is also these men who have taught me discernment and frankness in the midst of controversy and disagreement. They model for me how to raise issues to those who you respect when you may disagree with them. These men speak out when they have genuine concerns about trends, practices, beliefs, or attitudes in evangelicalism they see as “not so edifying.” Following their example then, I also have developed some concerns over the years that won’t go away, and out of the concerns of my heart, my mind churns, my mouth speaks, my fingers type, and my blog post’s.

Together for the Gospel or Together for Calvinism?

In my last post, I talked about how deeply Mark Dever’s point about not confusing the gospel with non-essentials resonated with me personally. When I first became a Calvinist, I became acclimated to the Reformed flavor of preaching and teaching. I have been a member at churches that regularly bashed other Christian churches on a normal basis from the pulpit as a matter of habit. After attending for a while, I was infected myself and began to think of our Reformed communities as something like the only true remnant of uncompromised and reverent Christianity that took the Bible seriously. Everyone else was entertainment based, man-centered, and unbiblical; influenced either by liberalism or the world. Young Reformed types that come from Southern have a reputation for splitting churches over Calvinism. This is a fact. In disbelief I have listened to devastated church members tell me about how painful it was to see their once tight knit community divorce themselves from fellowship. It can be a whole lot like a family feud: ugly, painful, leaving scars, bitterness and disillusionment.

This is why I said in my last post that I think Dever’s words were most significant. It’s because the context I come from tends to major on the minors and allow non-gospel issues to be great points of contention, even to find their identity in the Reformed tradition rather than in the gospel. Once our affections become more exercised over our particular church’s or denomination’s traditions (yes, that includes Reformed teaching about Calvinism, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, the Regulative Principle, Church Membership, Tongues, Preaching Style [expositional preaching vs. topical, etc.], Worship Style [is drama ok? are multi-site churches ok? short sermons? alter calls? etc.], views about women in ministry [egalitarian vs. complementarian]—and the list goes on, and on, and on, and on—than over the gospel, our hearts are out of whack. Though many of these things can effect the nuances we add to the gospel, they cannot be confused with the gospel itself. Though important, they are not the dividing lines between those who believe the gospel and those who don’t.

Unfortunately, I thought T4G revealed a blind spot in this area. Though the banner of the conference is “Together for the Gospel,” John MacArthur’s message was all about total inability (i.e. Calvinism). Now, I would have been more comfortable if his message demonstrated sensitivity to this distinction. Perhaps his message could have been introduced something like this: “I strongly believe that the doctrine of total inability is a strong safeguard for the gospel. Therefore, although we have come together for this core belief, and although I love my brothers and sisters who do not believe in total inability, and recognize them as co-equals together in the gospel, I would nevertheless like to spend my time commending this doctrine because I think it helps protect our basic beliefs in the gospel.” But rather than anything even approaching this sort of sensitivity, I was disappointed to hear just the opposite. As he was waxing eloquent on total inability, he compared it to other “false gospels” as if he understood the doctrine of total inability to be the “true gospel.” To make matters worse, Mark Dever of all people (just before his message about not referring to non-gospel doctrines as “the gospel”), commends MacArthur’s message, referring to it as an wonderful exposition of “the gospel.” Surely I wasn’t the only one who noticed this apparent inconsistency.

I found Mohler’s message on substitutionary atonement, for example, more appropriate for the theme of the conference. Or take R.C.’s message about the theme of cursing—this is also at the heart of our gospel (Christ became a curse for us). Not everybody at T4G was, by my sensitivities, off key with respect to the common cause.

In a context when 1) Seminary students are splitting churches over Calvinism, 2) recent rumors spread about the SBC possibly splitting over Armenian vs. Calvinism issues just before the Calvinism debate between Mohler and Paige Patterson (who wisely spent much time in that debate demonstrating their unity in spite of their differences), 3) close friends of mine are finding it sadly curious that I would go to a church that wasn’t “on board” with all the stuff we are learning in seminary, 4) Pastors are finding their churches identity more in Calvinism than the gospel (speaking from my own experience here), the T4G seemed to me to be perpetuating this unfortunate confusion between Calvinism and the Gospel. Note: I’m not saying that John MacArthur would say he didn’t think Norman Geisler was a Christian, but it’s safe to say that he thinks Norman Geisler, in some sense, has a “false gospel.” I wonder how a guy like John Wesley would have felt if he were to enthusiastically volunteer his support of a “Together for the Gospel” conference, only to find the preachers more interested in propagating the younger ministers with Calvinism.

At another point during the conference, I was walking by the booths set up along the side of the bookstore. As I stumbled upon a booth with an eager man representing the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, I began to question him whether his organization was for all evangelicals. “Certainly,” he replied with great enthusiasm. But as I questioned further, he seemed to get a little tongue tied. “So …” I asked casually, ” … does your organization try to reach, encourage, and include Arminian churches also, or is this more for Reformed types?” My question seemed to catch the man off guard. He replied something like, “Well … you don’t have to agree with us about every point of doctrine to support our organization or give money to it.” (notice this does not really answer my question) As I looked at the back of the promotion magazine, I noticed that all the names of the council members I recognized were Reformed. I read one of the articles of faith that represented the alliance. It’s doctrinal statement exalted the Reformation and bashed the present day church at large for being worldly and having everything wrong. It summed up all these things like this: “The loss of God’s centrality in the life of today’s church is common and lamentable.” I wondered whether such an alliance was something like an “Alliance of the Confessing Reformed” moreso than an inclusive alliance of all those who confess the common gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (whether or not they are “Reformed”).


Relevant Truth: We should never call any church that believes the gospel “shallow” in its theology, unless we wish to imply that the gospel, which they hold to and teach, is itself shallow.

Unfortunate Casualties in the “Truth War”

There also seemed to be an agenda at the conference to stamp a WARNING label on what is known as The Emerging Church. What I have to say here will be briefer than what has come before.

Several attempts have been made to distinguish between different streams of the Emerging Church, so as the distinguish the Reformed and conservative types (like Mark Driscol, Darren Patrick, and others) from those who are apparently (and I stress ‘apparently’ because even Driscol, who is friends with Doug Paggit, Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and all the big wig names [with the exception of Rob Bell], isn’t sure what their official stance is on certain controversial doctrines) taking liberal stances on issues thought to set the boundaries for historic Christianity. The former are called “Emerging,” and the latter “Emergent.” Nevertheless, some evangelicals who are eager to warn Christians of the liberal streams of this movement have not taken care to protect the faithful gospel ministry of the conservative gospel-centered streams of this movement. Harsh things are said about the “Emerging” movement. They are still lumping them all together under the label without taking note of the features of this complex movement. At T4G, if my memory fails me not, Dr. Mohler quoted one of the authors who supposedly represents the “Emergent” crowd (the apparently liberal crowd) on their teaching about the atonement. Steve Chalk, I think, was his name. Chalk apparently called the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, “divine child abuse.” After quoting this author, Mohler, if I’m not mistaking, made a comment about how this is the kind of theology coming from the “Emerging” church, and that the “Emerging church” was a threat to the very central tenants of the Christian gospel.

When John Piper invited Mark Driscol to speak at his Desiring God conference a few years ago, Piper testified to receiving harsh criticism over it. It attracted hostility and spawned a bit of controversy. After Mohler’s comments, those not up on the debates and distinctions would have left the T4G conference with the impression that the Emerging Church was basically liberal theology on the comeback. Since, however, faithful gospel ministers also labor under the Emerging tag, such comments will be sure to perpetuate the hostility against their ministries that is due to precisely the kind of stereotype comments about how the “Emerging Church” is bad news.

I think we should not only point out bad theology, but also, in light of a T4G banner, to go out of our way to protect from malignment our faithful brothers in Christ who labor for the same gospel we do—and perhaps are laboring harder than us (given the growth spurts of the movement).

Thoughts not limited to but of a similar nature as these caused me to leave T4G wondering whether our “Gospel” is too exclusive; whether we Reformed types are further isolating ourselves from non-Reformed gospel-believing evangelicals (whether intentionally or unintentionally). I left wishing evangelicalism wasn’t so polarized, and wishing our T4G conference did not, in addition to its strongly edifying potential, consciously or unconsciously contribute to the polarization effect between different “camps” of evangelicalism. I left with mixed feelings.
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6 Comments

  1. Gerald says:

    Thanks Bradley. I share this same basic concern as well. Appreciate the thoughts.

  2. Jonathan Ignacio says:

    Brad you said, “Young Reformed types that come from Southern have a reputation for splitting churches over Calvinism. This is a fact.” That’s quite a claim. Unless you can support with with Lifeway’s Research I don’t think we can take this as being credible. Of course I’m kidding! Thanks for sharing your concerns Brad as I do share them as well. It could be possible that the hype of the so called reformed resurgence could be an over-reaction to so many of the different camps that have been in discussion in the blogosphere. Still thinking about it all….

  3. ann says:

    Thanks for this posting. 10 years ago, the Charismatic church we were attending got swept up into the Toronto Blessing revival movement. The ensuing controversy led us to do some deep thinking/re-thinking about the faith. McArthur, Piper, Sproul, et. al were extremely helpful to me during this time. However, I too noticed the attitude that you have identified, especially in McArthur’s work. Not only did it make it very difficult for me to receive correction from some of them (although I did), the unloving, “we-alone-have-the-right-theology” mentality I kept detecting troubled me as it contrary to the spirit of Christ. (Sadly, it wasn’t only coming from Reformed critics. Each side–pro and con–were saying the other was heretical.) Even though we’ve been in a Reformed church for 10 years now, this spirit/mentality still bothers me. As much as I have come to appreciate certain aspects of Reformed thought, I am deeply convinced it does not have everything right, and in fact, has some fairly significant blindspots (which doesn’t make me appreciate it less–it just makes me see the deep need for humility). I too am concerned about the way the emerging/emergent church is being labelled and sometimes villified . . sigh. Given the weaknesses of the evangelical movement and the downside of modernism, it simply won’t do to paint the emerging church/postmodernism as the bad guys. . . it’s way more nuanced than that. Some things about the historical faith need to be defended, and some things shouldn’t be. I’m all for drawing lines between the true and the false, but as history proves, sometimes,we can draw the lines in the wrong places. Even though Calvinism is experiencing a resurgence of interest, if this spirit continues to characterize the ‘movement’, I am concerned that at some point, it will backfire as it is reinforcing the growing perception that the church is “unloving.” (See UnChristian by Kinnaman and Lyons.)

  4. Ann,

    Thank you very much for your contribution to the discussion! I am so thankful that you understand! This might sound funny, but the process of my realization that the Reformed churches had blind spots in their theology and in the way they treated people (if you don’t mind me generalizing for the sake of my point) was much like the “ah ha!” moment when I first began to see the doctrines of grace in Scripture. I like to say that my discovery of Calvinism was like a second conversion. Well … when after deliberating over the finer theological truths of grace and realizing that one might have all their theology right and yet exude such arrogance and snob their noses at their other brothers and sisters in Christ, it was like a third conversion for me. This third conversion wasn’t so much a conversion away from the best insights of a Calvinistic outlook on grace, but rather it was more like a rediscovery of what’s most important to God: the great commandment of love. It was more like a re-conversion back to the simple gospel. It freed me from being so uptight about so many theological disagreements I had with other Christians. It freed me from vilifying them and becoming obsessed with showing that I was right and they were wrong. It was like a re-discovery of freedom.

    Thanks again for your testimony and contribution to this discussion!

    In Him,

    Bradley

  5. ann says:

    Wow. . .that was a prompt response! Wish I had more time to dialogue with you–sounds like we have some similar interests–but am in the middle of a writing project and don’t have much brain space left at the end of the day. Am ghostwriting a book for Tom Holland, one of my theo profs from the school I went to in Wales that, given some of the topics you’re touching on in the blog, I think might interest you. The working title is ‘before i-Religion: Recovering the Radically Corporate Nature of the Christian Life’. It’s a popular version of Tom’s book, ‘Contours of Pauline Theology’, which has been receiving good reviews. (People like Anthony Thiselton, Douglas Moo and others have given it a good reco.) His contention is that one of the reasons we’ve ended up with so many distortions, tensions, inconsistencies, and divisive interpretations is that for centuries, we’ve been reading the Bible with a predominantly individualistic mindset. He posits that to see the roots of it we have to go back further than the beginning of the evangelical movement in the 16th c. to the Greek fathers of the 2nd and 3rd cs. Is a fascinating project. Am having to dig around at the moment in the philosophical roots of Christianity which is a ‘mixed bag’ of another sort.. . (well,now that I think about it, in some ways it actually ties in to the ‘mixed bag’ you have been talking about in this posting.) Have been so excited about it, plus other theo subjects I’ve been pursuing for a few years now that I started my own blog–got as far as designing a header, and then realized I just don’t have time to maintain. So . . .maybe I can just touch down in your sometimes :). I do like the spirit of it, which, as you have noted above, is as important as the theo content. (My question: is it possible to have ‘right’ theology and a wrong spirit? If you have an unloving attitude towards others in the Body, doesn’t indicate that something in your belief system is off somewhere . . just thinkin’) Anyway. . .thanks for the discussion. Hope others join in.

  6. Yes. Sounds very interesting. I am currently also studying “The Fathers” via my class on Eastern Orthodoxy at the University of Dayton. Fascinating stuff. I am particularly interested in the Eastern doctrine of deification, and how it relates to Western notions of regeneration and the divine indwelling. Thank you so much for your kind remarks and I do hope you stop in from time to time and contribute to the dialogue here.

    The X-mas holiday schedule makes it tough for me to maintain my normal volume of posts (which is usually about 2 to 3 times a month). After the X-mas season I hope to begin posting my findings on Eastern Orthodoxy. 🙂 When we say of people that their theology is right but their “spirit” is not right, to me this indicates an actual deficiency in their theology. For example, I have always found it strange that evangelicals seem to significantly underdeveloped doctrines of love. Given that Jesus believed that love for God and for neighbor was the most important of all commandments, and that the NT considers love the fulfillment of the law (i.e. the divine will), this deficiency seems to me a theological one, and may be the cause of apparent disconnects between theology and praxis. Makes sense?

    Thanks again for your contributions! 🙂

    Bradley

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