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Russell Moore Repudiates Albert Mohler’s Theological Triage

In a recent article by Christianity Today and a recent interview on CNN, Russell Moore responded to Pat Robertson’s recent comments about divorce.  The title of Moore’s article says it all: “Pat Robertson Repudiates the Gospel.”  In short, Moore’s interpretation of Robertson is that he said Alzheimer’s disease is an “understandable” grounds for a divorce (Moore translated him as having said it was “morally justified”).

Robertson has since claimed that he was misinterpreted and all he meant was this: if a man is going to have an affair with his wife because she has Alzheimer’s he would be better off getting a divorce than to continue having the affair.  This is how I had initially interpreted Pat Robertson’s words before reading Moore’s interpretation, thus I do think Moore was taking his comments out of context.  Yet in fairness to Moore we might still say Robertson was not very careful in how he articulated his view and should have seen this one coming.  Moore has stood by his initial interpretation of Robertson’s remarks and argued that Robertson was now backtracking.

Robertson did not, in fact, say that. He said, “I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something he should divorce her and start all over again.”

Now when Robertson said “if he’s going to do something,” I took him to mean “If the man is going to continue in an affair” thus addressing a very particular context.  Nevertheless … This post will not be about what he really meant to say or what he really believes, but will (for the sake of argument) assume Moore’s interpretation of Robertson was right.  Here was Moore’s opening words of response:

This week on his television show Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson said a man would be morally justified to divorce his wife with Alzheimer’s disease in order to marry another woman. The dementia-riddled wife is, Robertson said, “not there” anymore. This is more than an embarrassment. This is more than cruelty. This is a repudiation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

These are fighting words, and clearly Moore believes he is fighting for the truth of the very gospel itself.  His argument was something like this: because marriage is supposed to be an icon of Christ and the Church, marriage is therefore an icon of the gospel.  This means that if we fail to live up to the standard Christ set for us by loving the church sacrificially and selflessly–even to the point of suffering on a cross to die–we fail to live up to the gospel.  The implication he has obviously drawn is this: to selfishly leave your wife just because she has Alzheimer’s and abandon your calling to suffer with her and take care of her is a failure to live up to the gospel. It would have been more respectable to ensure his wife was well cared for in an adult day care center in Smyrna than to leave the ailing woman because of of disease.

But Moore takes it further, arguing that Pat Robertson, by allowing for a divorce in such a situation, has not only failed to live up to the gospel and Christ’s example of loving the Church (something every Christian has done), but he has in fact repudiated the gospel (something not all Christian do).

It’s one thing to fail to live up to Christ’s example in loving the Church in one’s own marriage; I don’t think Moore or virtually any Christian would claim they never stray from Christ’s example.  It’s quite another thing, however, to repudiate the very gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Yet it appears that Moore believes that in this case, Pat Robertson has done both.

Theological Triage

Although I (and so many countless others) disagree strongly with Robertson’s position and would more-or-less agree with most of what Moore has said about why it’s wrong based on the Christ-Church analogy, nevertheless I think the strong words used by Moore in this article do not do justice to the careful distinctions that must be made in light of Al Mohler’s theological triage.  Dr. Mohler has defended Christian unity for a long time by teaching that not all doctrines are equally important (for an animated video clip of his defense click here).  He calls this the process of theological triage.  His initial piece on this appeared in Daniel Akin’s book A Theology for the Church (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2007), 927-34.  He has most recently written on this topic in the book Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011).  As I sight Mohler I will abbreviate my source in parenthesis (V = video, ATC = A Theology for the Church).

In a nut shell, theological triage distinguishes between three orders (or “tiers”) of doctrine: first order, second order, and third order.

In Mohler’s own words, “first-order doctrines are those that are fundamental and essential to the Christian faith” (ATC, 930).  One must believe certain things to be recognized as a fellow Christian, such as the physical bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ or the doctrine of the Trinity.

The second order doctrines are those that “are essential to church life and necessary for the ordering of the local church but that, in themselves, do not define the gospel” (ATC, 931).  The importance of this distinction for Christian unity should be obvious.  Although these doctrines are important enough to divide distinct ecclesial bodies (Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Anglicans, etc.), they are not important enough to define Christianity per se.  Baptists, for example, don’t have to try to “save” their Presbyterian brothers and sisters or tell them they are not real Christians just because they believe in infant baptism.  Cessationist Baptists can still consider Pentecostals (at least the one’s who still believe in the Trinity) as their brothers and sisters in Christ even if they have serious misgivings about these charismatic churches.  We can have respectful disagreement over these differences as Christians.  As Mohler says, this is because “one may detect an error in a doctrine at this level and still acknowledge that the person in error remains a believing Christian” (ATC, 931).

There is a third tier of doctrines “that may be the ground for fruitful theological discussion and debate but that do not threaten the fellowship of the local congregation or the denomination” (931).  Even Baptists (believe it or not) can disagree over things like eschatology or areas of Calvinism and Arminianism.  Calvinist Baptists and Arminian “Free-Will” Baptists can consider each other as deeply mistaken brothers and sisters in Christ and even be on the same pastoral team.  These also are doctrines over which we can have respectful disagreement.

The Implication of Russell Moore’s Language

According to this theological triage, it would appear that Moore has located Robertson’s position on divorce and remarriage as “first order” in terms of importance.  In other words, it appears that Moore believes that if you have the wrong view of “marriage and divorce,” you are not even a Christian because you have repudiated the gospel.  I strongly and respectfully disagree with Moore on this one, and find his article unnecessarily divisive.  Perhaps if Moore were to read this post he might say “No.  I do not believe Paterson’s view on divorce is a ‘first order’ issue.”  But if so, the strong language he uses certainly has no regard for Mohler’s triage.  Perhaps he might respond by saying that he thinks Robertson has denied the gospel by some other position he takes and not by the particular position on divorce he so aggressively attacks in his article.  But if so, his article certainly makes no such case, but appears to ground his accusation in Robertson’s position on divorce, which would make his article dreadfully misleading.

In surveys that have been done on what people think of Baptists, for so many people the word “Baptist” immediately conjures up the notion of “legalism.”  What I believe fits very well with those statistics.  There is a tendency in fundamentalist evangelical Christianity to make every point of strong disagreement a disagreement over “the gospel,” when in reality it’s just a second tier disagreement.  This helps feed the public impression that Baptists are divisive and legalistic.  The word “schismatics” is usually applied to people who tend to be unnecessarily divisive when they disagree with others and are excessive in their criticism of other Christians.  I think this word is appropriate inasmuch as such divisive discourse violates the biblical doctrine of Christian unity (a biblical doctrine you will not find treated at any great length in today’s systematic theological textbooks, but that was actually one of the most fundamental doctrines of the early church).

It is strong enough language that Moore (in the article) calls Robertson a “cartoon character” we evangelicals “allow to speak for us,” and calls his theology “Canaanite mammonocracy.”  But to argue that he has repudiated the gospel by his view on divorce and dementia is going too far and demonstrates the importance of Mohler’s theological triage.

The great challenge for our generation, as Dr. Mohler says, is that we get the “right doctrines in the right tier” not just for the sake of protecting first order doctrines, but for the sake of Christian unity (V).

If we take first order doctrines and make them third order doctrines–disaster will ensue and we will end up abandoning the faith!  If we take third order doctrines and make them first order issues and say “People have to believe this to be a Christian,” then we do violence to the New Testament. (V)

What “tier” should issues of divorce and remarriage fall under?  It seems to answer this question we must consider questions like these: Is it possible for someone to be a Christian and yet be too loose with their divorce policy?  I think a more humble, charitable, reasonable, and biblical response to this question is “Yes.”  Thus while I think Moore was right to lash out publicly and decry Robertson’s advice, his choice of rhetoric was overboard, and he could have publicly disagreed with Robertson without accusing the man of denying “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

To put it strongly, if we take Robertson, as Moore interprets him, as having “morally justified” divorce for a Husband who is in adultery with his Alzheimer’s stricken wife, we can say that Robertson’s advice asks followers of Christ to lay down their cross; to only follow Jesus when it is easy.  We could say Robertson’s position subverts and inverts the sacrificial, cross-carrying example of Christ’s love for the church, cheapening the biblical imagery to accommodate the husband’s self-ambition.  I could say more about this, but the point is this: There are many ways to offer sharp and public criticism against Robertson’s advice without blowing the anathema trumpet and accusing him of having repudiated the very gospel of Jesus Christ.

By choosing our words more carefully, we can not merely defend the sacredness of marriage and the calling of the gospel to love sacrificially after the example of Christ, but also do so in such a way that does not undermine Christian unity and also avoids feeding into the already widespread impression in Christendom that Southern Baptists (as a microcosm of conservative evangelicalism) are “legalistic,” “judgmental,” and “schismatic.”


About Gregg Allison and his Historical Theology

Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011), 778 pp.

About Gregg R. Allison 

Although Allison has written a theology book here or there in the past or contributed chapters here or there to certain academic works, there is no doubt that this work is his first major theological tome and demonstrates his life-long engagement as an academic professor with historical theology.  Allison has taught courses at several eminent evangelical institutions in the U.S.  He held a position at Western Seminary in Portland, and taught as an adjunct at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago.  He also taught in Europe for the Institute of Biblical Studies.  Currently Dr. Allison is Professor of Christian Theology in Louisville at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he presently resides; he also continues to teach for the Institute of Biblical Studies.

As a former student (and ongoing friend) of Dr. Allison, I can attest that in addition to his ability as a lucid writer, he is an exceptionally gifted teacher.  His pedagogical style of lecturing is unlike any other professor I had the privilege of sitting under at SBTS.  His tendency would be to lecture for half the class and save the other half for a mind-wrenching Socratic dialogue between himself and the students, prodding us with questions and inviting the same.  His wife Nora is also an exceptional woman.  I had the privilege, for a time, of working with her in an outreach ministry of Walnut Street Baptist Church for at-risk inner-city students in Louisville when her and Gregg were both members there.  They both have missionary mentality in their blood, having spent a great deal of their lives as missionaries in Italy and Switzerland as a part of their service for the Campus Crusade for Christ International.

Book Review

First, Allison’s Historical Theology must be seen in context.  Allison came to know Wayne Grudem while working on his M.Div. and his Ph.D. at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where Grudem, having completed his Ph.D. from Cambridge, taught New Testament.  He and Grudem became friends and Grudem encouraged Allison to pursue further studies after his M.Div.  After spending over 3 years as a missionary in Switzerland with Campus Crusade for Christ, Allison returned to TEDS to pursue a Ph.D.  Grudem was his doctoral supervisor for his dissertation, which was on the perspicuity of Scripture (which immersed him in a vortex of exegetical, systematic, and historical theology).  After teaching a while at Western Seminary in Portland, Allison tells the story (via e-mail correspondence) about the genesis of his book:

I began teaching at Western Seminary in 1994 and three years later Wayne contacted me about a book project that needed to happen: a book that would cover everything his Systamatic Theology book did not treat. It sounded like a great idea! Then he told me he wanted me to write it and that he had already cleared the way for me to do so with Zondervan.

Over a decade in the making, then, Gregg’s Historical Theology is written as a companion to Grudem’s Systematic Theology, which itself is a monstrous introduction over 1200 pages long that is one of the most widely used systematic textbooks in evangelical seminaries.  Grudem’s work has been a key resource for the popular resurgence of Calvinistic theology with a charismatic twist (i.e. Grudem makes a case against cessationism in this book).

If Grudem’s Systematic Theology deserves to be called the “Blue Beast” for its breadth and wide usage, then surely Gregg Allison’s new Historical Theology (both written and styled as a companion to Grudem’s book) can be worthily dubbed the “Green Grizzly.”  A mere introduction to Historical Theology (in spite of the breadth of its scope), Allison’s new book is more than a worthy companion to Grudem’s systematic introduction.  For those who do theology in conservative evangelical circles, Allison’s complementary work will hewn out a narrow path for exploring historical perspectives within the boundaries of an unwavering conservative evangelical framework.  Allison’s arrangement of materials is often presented with the intention of showing that many of the evangelical doctrines have strong historical precedent in the Church’s pre-Reformation theologians.

Far from a dry, disinterested, and neutral presentation of historical facts, Allison’s survey presents a uniquely shaped historiography of doctrinal development that strongly favors conservative evangelical theology and has an apologetic posture built into its structure.  As with any theologian, of course, Allison’s confessional commitments decisively shape his evaluation of the Church’s litany of eminent theologians.  As an unashamed Protestant, for example, rather than sounding his own critiques of “misguided Catholic formulations,” he gives particular attention to the historical critiques used by the Reformers themselves (13).  He likewise gives particular attention to the apologetic critiques of modernity’s attacks against Christianity (13).

Although it is an introduction to “Christian Doctrine,” he clarifies in the introduction that he is focusing only on the Western theological tradition, and thus leaving out a great deal of Eastern Orthodox perspectives (16).  Characteristic of his humility, however, Allison admits “while I do tell the story … it is not the whole story” (14).  Furthermore, although I often lament the exclusion of Orthodox perspectives in the West, one must certainly appreciate the space constraints forced upon Allison’s work.  If Allison would have had his way the book would probably have been two or three volumes long.  The final product we have in our hands is therefore an impressively condensed version of Allison’s work.

Evangelicals using Grudem as a key introductory source will now have a way to supplement their systematic theology with more historical sensitivity and awareness.  This book could easily be used as a research launching pad for students wanting to delve deeper into a particular point of interest in historical theology while attempting to simultaneously evaluate and appropriate these theological sources through the guiding lenses of the Reformation slogans: Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria.

For these reasons (and more) Allison’s book is sure to become a widely used tool in the North America’s evangelical churches, colleges and seminaries.  Like Calvin’s french edition of the Institutes, Gregg’s Historical Theology is a masterpiece of evangelical pedagogy.  It has the potential to subvert the stereotype of evangelicals who are ignorantly detached from the Christian past and imagine that all the key theological insights find their genesis in the sixteenth century Reformers.  Allison’s consistent engagement with the Fathers of the Church may even prove a fertile ground for renewed interest in the patristic witness and therefore more theological discussions between evangelical theologians and theologians of the larger Christian Tradition.

Links to Other Reviews

The book may not be written for academicians (it’s an introduction for students), but I am still hopful that eventually we will see peer reviews in academic journals.  There is already a catalogue of praise from readers at Amazon (myself included).

Tim Chester (UK) director of The Porterbrook Institute says that although it has its minor drawbacks and inaccuracies, he compares Historical Theology favorably to Grudem’s Systematic Theology and adds that it is easy to read and flows like a narrative.  He gives this glowing conclusion: “If you like Grudem then you’ll like Allison even more.” Click here to read his full review.

Bill Muehlenberg from the Culture Watch puts it on his list of important new books and gives a brief comment.

Owen Strachan thinks it’s an ideal reference tool for a study of the Christian past. Click here to read his full post.

A Brief Summary of The Quest for the Historical Jesus :: New Catholic Encyclopedia

The following is a summary/review of: W.P. Loewe, “The Historical Jesus,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 6 (Gale, 2002), 863-868.

The quest for the “historical Jesus” is aptly defined by W.P. Loewe as an attempt to reconstruct the earthly life of Jesus with the use of historical critical methods.  Since the sources of the life of Jesus are laden with theological interpretation and are not historical biographies in the modern sense, moderns attempt to look past the theological interpretations to siphon reliable historical data.  Although Loewe’s more modest claim is simply that the discipline of critical history was a child of the Enlightenment, his following account of the exploitations of critical historians who used critical methods to undermine the “Jesus of faith” demonstrates that the Enlightenment reconstructions themselves are inevitably fraught with their own unique modern interpretations (and there is good reason to believe that getting behind “interpretations” to discover bare historical facts about Jesus is a naïve quest only imaginable by an Enlightenment prejudice).

Certain authors mark turning points or trends within the critical approach to Jesus studies.  Albert Schweitzer’s “magisterial survey” marks the end of the first phase in which critical inquiry was most premature.  Writers like H.S. Reimarus, D.F. Strauss, and B. Bauer saw an opportunity to wield critical methods as a weapon against the Christian Church (863).  Such authors eagerly dismissed Jesus as a revolutionary messianic failure (Reimarus), an inspirational personality who inspired a myth (Strauss), or a superfluous hypothesis (Bauer).  Likewise, Protestant liberals such as A. von Harnack used critical methods to play a version of Jesus’ simple message off against traditional doctrine to make him more palpable to their contemporaries (864).  Critical methods, then, were serving various and contradictory agendas.  Schweitzer himself believed Jesus was an apocalyptic delusionary who tried to “force God’s hand” by his passion and death (864).  In retrospect, of course, we can see that Jesus was mistaken in his apocalyptic fervor.

In the wake of such a quest for the historical Jesus, there was left open a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the so-called “historical Jesus” and the so-called “Christ of faith” (864).  Jesus studies even fell on hard times, with Bultmann even arguing that any attempt to validate historically the biblical call to faith is in effect “an effort to win salvation by intellectual works,” while as a form critic also arguing that reconstructions of Jesus ministry were “practically impossible” (865-66).  Loewe attributes the revival in optimism for Jesus studies (the “New Quest”) to Ernst Käsemann.  The distinctive characteristics the author describes as 1) a more positive attempt to find underlying continuity amidst the discontinuity and 2) a far more “critical” attitude toward its sources—only those passages that met a “stringent criteria” could be “accorded historical probability” (865).

The scholarly corrections of E.P. Sanders brought into sharp focus new insight about the Judaism of Jesus’ day that showed a bias in Protestant scholarship to read the Catholic-Luther conflict back into the Jesus-Pharisee conflict (866).  A number of new sources such as The Dead Sea Scrolls  (discovered in 1946-56) have contributed crucially to the ongoing revisions within Jesus studies.  The novel approach of the Jesus Seminar was to vote on each saying of Jesus to create a consensus (including some of the extrabiblical Gnostic material and the hypothetical Q source).  The recent work of John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew (several volumes) is taken more seriously by Loewe.

The article concludes that 1) historical reconstructions are always subject to revision in principle, 2) appeals to any particular reconstruction as the “real Jesus,” played against the Christ of faith are simplistic and naïve, 3) although there is a diversity of historical probabilities, this does not make the results of the discipline arbitrary or purely subjective, 4) one can move beyond the historical while still being informed by the historical methods, and, finally, being true to the Catholic perspective, the author concludes that 5) historical Jesus research is a safeguard against “temptations to docetism” (868).

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