Saturday, February 28, 2009

On Premillennialists and Our Canards

Usually, when fundamentalists make the kinds of arguments John MacArthur makes, I'm pretty happy. But when they follow the approach MacArthur took at the 2007 Shepherd's Conference, I'm not quite so excited.

In his talk, "Why Every Self-Respecting Calvinist Ought to Be a Premillennialist,"* MacArthur argued that unconditional election-preaching Calvinists, more than anyone, ought to hold fast to the reality that God keeps his promises. Amillennialists, he said, believe that God breaks his promises to ethnic Israel when he replaces ethnic Israel with a spiritual Israel, the Church. As an unabashed Premillennialist myself, I was quite disappointed by the talk, even though MacArthur made some pretty persuasive points from Scripture (at least to me). Here's why:

I have yet to cross paths with an Amillennialist who found MacArthur to have fairly represented his position. I have met dozens of Amillennialists, both Baptists and Presbyterians, who believe that all the promises made to ethnic Israelites will be fulfilled in one ethnic Israelite, Jesus Christ. Now, all people, Jew or Gentile, have access to the inheritance of those promises by their position "in Christ," which comes by grace through faith in him. Every single one of those Amillennialists I've met wholeheartedly affirms that Jesus Christ is literally, personally, going to return to this earth and destroy his enemies before he establishes the quite literal New Heavens and New Earth and casts the devil, his angels, and all who have rebelled against him into a quite literal eternal torment where they will drink all the dregs of the wrath of God. Not one of them thinks that God is going to break his promises to ethnic Israel by replacing ethnic Israel with the Church, because God keeps his promises to the True (literal, ethnic) Israelite.

Yesterday, in a letter that was sent to friends of Maranatha Baptist Bible College, Maranatha President Chuck Phelps wrote:
We are living in uniquely precarious times. Today there is a radical resurgence of Calvinistic, Reformed thought. A simple visit to a Christian bookseller or a careful listen to Christian radio reveals that dispensational, Baptist positions are becoming increasingly rare. Along with the Conference on Baptist Fundamentalism and the emergence of our seminary, we are doing all that we can in our classrooms and on the chapel platform to keep the students informed and challenged to stand ready for the coming of Christ. I’ve recently completed a brief series of messages for the chapel hour on prophetic themes (Chapel Sermons). I’d like to invite you to listen in as our student body is challenged to pray with John of old – “Even so come Lord Jesus!”
The clear implication of this paragraph is that Reformed theology needs to be opposed and repudiated because it undermines the preparation of believers for the coming of Christ. That's just one of the problems of the statement. Bob Bixby draws our attention to others.

As a Premillennialist myself (as well as a disappointed Maranatha alumnus), I would be quite happy to hear more sound historical and theological critiques of Amillennialism and positive constructions of Premillennialism. Unfortunately, this sort of rhetoric gives me no reason to expect any sort of credible assessment. For a Premillennialist to suggest that Amillennialists don't believe we should be prepared for Jesus' return is an indefensible and irresponsible canard. I'm increasingly convinced that the greatest threat to the perpetuation of Premillennialism is not a persuasively-articulated Amillennialism, but an incompetent Premillennialism that misrepresents its opponents.

I'll close with the final paragraph from that classic Reformed statement of faith, the Westminster Confession:
III. As Christ would have us to be certainly persuaded that there shall be a day of judgment, both to deter all men from sin, and for the greater consolation of the godly in their adversity: so will he have that day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour the Lord will come; and may be ever prepared to say, Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen.
Amen. Maranatha!

*A direct link is not available without login. The session is available for download for free after registration here.

Friday, February 27, 2009

On "B.G."

In the last century a certain gentleman from a southern state rose to high levels of public prominence. His initials were . . . "B.G." An opportunist, this fellow leveraged severely compromising alliances into what he thought would be a great deal of good. Folks from far and wide—a vast diversity of constituencies—recognized his achievements and went to great lengths to honor him. It seems that many folks wanted to be associated with a guy like this who demonstrated tangible fruit for his labors and maybe even leveraged his influence to help them out along the way. Educational institutions, in particular, liked to name things after him. Apparently, lots of folks were willing to overlook the warts of his compromised alliances in order to give tribute to his achievements. Maybe that was repulsive compromise on their part. Or maybe it was a form of stewardship.

Yes, the story of Bibb Graves and the people who honored him is a fascinating one. You can read all about it here.

Or, did you think I was talking about someone else?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Taxation Without Representation: My Cup of Tea

From an editorial in today's WSJ
[T]he legislation [that awards DC a seat in the House of Representatives and another to whichever state is most due additional representation] runs afoul of the plain language of the Constitution, which provides that House members shall be chosen "by the People of the several States" and stipulates that the District of Columbia is not a state.
A half million other DC residents may feel differently from me, but I'll gladly live without representation if it means there won't be another Congressman in the back pocket of the special interest groups that just wrote this stimulus package. It's not as if anyone has a gun to his head making him live in DC. I mean, c'mon, no one could do that in DC. We have gun control legislation.

Benefits of Wrestling with Difficult Theological Concepts

A friend [you know who you are ;-) ] once tried to convince me that it was futile and counterproductive to try to press for understanding the limits of God's self-revelation, when God clearly hasn't told us all we need to resolve apparent tensions in the text. Though I recognize the dangers of pressing past the text into speculation, there is today all too common an impulse to set our aim far too low. That's why I'd rather associate myself with words like these from Ligon Duncan, spoken in reference to Romans 8:32:
Wrestling with the profoundest theological concepts teaches us to learn the limits of our own understanding. A sense of wonder--a sense of bafflement--is absolutely essential to authentic Christian experience, and there will always be times when we are confronted with the vision of our God set forth in his own divine self-revelation, and the depiction of his glorious plan that leaves us out of breath, and leaves us at the limit of our ability to articulate.
Quoted from Lecture 2 here.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Matt Olson on Worship

What a terrific week! About a dozen things made it unusually so, some of which I hope to write about in the next few days since they involve resources that may be useful to others.

But the one that delighted me so much I had to stop by the office at 8:30 on a chilly Saturday morning (laptop's in the shop) on my way somewhere else was Matt Olson's talk, "Worship As a Way of Life," at Northland's Heart Conference.

Olson's argument is that worship needs to be God-focused, Christ-centered, Word-based, and Spirit-enabled. Much of his argumentation is based on John 4, and while that text is difficult exegetically and not all will agree with where Olson lands, I believe his thesis is clearly consistent with the message of Scripture.

Those four characteristics of worship are a healthy but fairly common structure for talking about worship. If you want to think more about the point he's making, David Peterson's Engaging With God: A Biblical Theology of Worship
is a stellar biblical theology of worship. Olson cites it himself.

What makes Olson's talk provocative and, I hope, productive, is the flesh that he hung on the bones. There are so many powerful, provocative nuggets here that I'm not going to try to reproduce them all, but here are a few that grabbed me:
If we have a shallow or a warped view of God, it's impossible to have a right view of myself, and it's impossible to have a right view of everything around me.

I do think that music is an important discussion, but we're not ready to even start talking about music until we have a right view of God. How are you going to assess anything?

When we make our applications--when we go beyond what is written to dogmatize our opinions and dogmatize our traditions and dogmatize my applications with another person, I think we really get in trouble.
Let me be clear: he's not repudiating application; he's suggesting that we can get in a ditch on either side of application. One danger is that tradition can trump Scripture. The other danger is secularism, so that we think we can do whatever we want when God doesn't say anything specific. And finally . . .
God works from the inside out. If we don't get the inside, we don't get anything. If all we do at Northland Baptist Bible College with these students is have their behavior conformed to a standard, and they do not get a heart for God, we have failed.
You'll have to buy (yes, buy, sadly) the MP3 to hear what he says about fundamentalists who idolize excellence. It's longer than I have time to transcribe. But he's right. And if you buy Olson's MP3, grab Steve Pettit's too. The past two or three times I've heard him preach, he's displayed a passion to exalt God that I've seldom heard in anyone's preaching apart from John Piper and Frank Hamrick.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Quote of the Week . . .

. . . or whatever time period it is between now and the next time I find a quote worth posting:
"A Fundamentalism Worth Saving" was a statement about what kind of fundamentalism would be worth saving. It was not an argument that such a fundamentalism exists.

Kevin T. Bauder

More Indifference?

Here's a question—a sincere question. What happens when you give false doctrine* a platform? Do you leverage the stronger relationship to draw the person that advocates the false doctrine towards a more biblical position, or do you legitimize and perpetuate the false doctrine?

But of course, that's not the only question. Don't we also have to ask whether people who advocate false doctrine are worthy of being held up as Christian leaders? Isn't that what so many of us have grown up being taught? Didn't the historic neo-evangelicals think that they could move teachers of false doctrine towards orthodoxy by engaging them relationally and partnering with them strategically?

Surely we haven't reached the point where it's ok to say Scripture says things it doesn't say, just because folks aren't obnoxious or don't make a huge deal out of it. Have we?

*This old post develops my point about false doctrine a bit more, but here's the gist: I believe that claiming the Bible is the sole authority of your faith and practice while including in your statement of faith that you refuse to "accept" any translations other than the KJV is nothing less than false doctrine.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Fundamentalists, Admissions of Legalism, and Conservative Evangelicals

Last weekend the Minnesota Baptist Association hosted a men's fellowship with Kevin Bauder as a keynote speaker and panel moderator. The audio is all available for download here. The plenary session with Bauder is important to understand the context of the panel discussions. I'm not going to take the time to summarize it now.

So far I've only listened to that plenary session and the panel discussion with older pastors. The first 20 minutes or so of that panel was fascinating—older pastors admit widespread presence of functional legalism and peer pressure among Minnesota fundamentalist Baptists 20-30 years ago. I don't at all want to skewer them for that admission—quite the contrary. The frank admission of the elephant in the room that so many others want to deny is refreshing. These men are examples of leadership in many ways. They think the situation is much better now and give reason to believe that's true. I'm skeptical that all the roots of legalism have been eradicated, and maybe they wouldn't argue with that. In any case I'm grateful for the trend, for the pastors' courage, and Bauder's terrific questions that drew out this ground-breaking public conversation.

Then the conversation turned to Bauder seeking advice from these pastors as to how he should respond to a request from Mark Dever to write something for one of his publications. (He later identifies this request, which he declined, as an article in the 9Marks E-Journal on what fundamentalists look for in seminary education.

The responses were mixed. The first was a definite no, and the rest were more ambiguous. I was fascinated by what their answers revealed about their rationale, their motivations, and their fears. Their basic argument was that Bauder writing for Dever could function as an endorsement of Dever's ideas as well as other conservative evangelicals. The chief threats to them seem to be losing members of their churches to Bethlehem Baptist Church (pastored by John Piper) and younger generations of fundamentalists identifying more with conservative evangelicals than their roots.

What I'm about to say, I say with only the kindest of intentions to Minnesota Baptist Churches: What Mark Dever writes will not destroy your churches; it might save them. They are not ideas to be distanced from, but embraced. Implementing them will not drive people to Bethlehem; it will keep people from going there and perhaps attract people from Bethlehem who look for something more from a church. In other words, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and The Deliberate Church and What Is a Healthy Church? and What Is a Healthy Church Member? will not create an appetite for a church with 4,500 people and three campuses.

Here's the absolute best thing I believe a Minnesota Baptist Association pastor could do:
  1. Adopt a thoroughly expositional approach to preaching. (Dever and Piper offer vastly different models in the spectrum of expositional preaching. Pick approach within those parameters and you'll be fine.)
  2. Encourage every member of your church to buy Piper's The Pleasures of God. Get small groups or Sunday School classes or pastoral staffs or deacons or people meeting one-on-one for discipleship to read and talk about the book.
  3. Buy a copy of What Is a Healthy Church? and What Is a Healthy Church Member? for every member of your church. Incorporate those books in your teaching curriculum and strongly encourage all prospective members to read them.
  4. Buy a copy of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and The Deliberate Church for all church leaders—pastors, deacons, and other key officers. Create some sort of opportunity to talk through them with those people.
Here's the deal: If I lived in Minneapolis, I wouldn't go to Bethlehem, as much as I'm grateful for the amazing work John Piper has done in recovering the gospel in evangelical-fundamentalist churches. I'd go to a church that incorporates the best of Bethlehem and 9Marks. It just so happens, the church I know of in Minneapolis that does all those things isn't a "conservative evangelical" church. It's a church that has emerged very much from the stream of fundamentalism. It's a church I encourage people to consider when I hear they're moving to Minneapolis. When a younger guy was talking to me about a seminary decision, I counseled him that this church made it worth putting all his eggs in the Minneapolis basket. It's a church that's just down the road from one of Bethlehem's campuses. And judging by the size of the crowd when Mark Dever was speaking there on the evening of the Super Bowl, lots of people have found no reason to look elsewhere.

So, dear Minnesota pastors, you have nothing to fear from 9Marks. You have everything to gain, not only for the size of your church, but for the souls of your congregation. Beat the conservative evangelicals at their own game! If fundamentalism really is the closest thing to authentic biblical Christianity, as so many argue, there's no reason to be threatened by the church across town unless you don't trust the Spirit of God to work in his people's hearts to lead them to the place that will best serve their sanctification. I believe that could be your church.

And even if it's not, the kingdom of Christ is not coextensive with your church or your association. The question shouldn't be about whether principles are good for your circles of fellowship, but whether they are true. Don't be short-sighted.

P.S. If you want to learn more, you'd be welcome at a 9Marks Weekender in DC. You won't be the first fundamentalist to attend and benefit from it (or the last), and probably not the most hard-core right-wing. Registration for May opens soon. Hope to see you there. (And if you want to know what church in Minneapolis I'm talking about, e-mail me. Or Paul, feel free to just tell everybody.)

[Update: Contact 9Marks for quantity pricing on the books I recommended. Just mention my name and . . . well, then you'll probably be out of luck.]

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Crusaders and the Cross

How the impulse was aroused among Christian schools and colleges to adopt the nickname "Crusaders" is a mystery to me. A charitable analysis might infer that revivalists of decades past took the nickname from the evangelistic "crusades" of the 19th-20th century. But that doesn't explain the fundamentalist revivalist "Crusaders" who wouldn't want to be caught within sniffing distance of a Billy Graham Crusade.

I think the better explanation is that both the revivalist evangelists and the academic institutions wanted to identify themselves with the fiery militancy of the armies that battled their way to Jerusalem. I've seen a few Crusader logos with a knight with a lance on a horse, but a preacher silhouette with a big Bible and a pointy finger? Not so much.

But those armies were Roman Catholic mercenaries. They raped and pillaged their way to Jerusalem. To say that they were advancing the Kingdom of Christ would be to misunderstand fundamentally the nature of the Kingdom and, frankly, to blaspheme the name of Jesus Christ.

In other words, it seems to me that complete historical ignorance is the best possible motivation behind associating the Crusaders with institutions that profess to be biblical and Christian (to say nothing of the added irony of fundamental and Baptist).

At least one institution known as "Crusaders" recognized the incompatibility I've described. Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College, had this to say about the Crusades:
It was not until I became aware of how offensive the image of the Crusades is to large segments of the world that I was forced to take another look at these historical events, and what I discovered was anything but ideal. Christians massacring Muslims; Muslims massacring Christians; Western Christians killing Eastern Christians and vice versa. We are hard-pressed to find anything in these disastrous waves of fighting that our Lord might have approved, despite the fact that the conflict was ostensibly carried out in His name. Try, as I did, reading up on the Crusades, searching for anything with which you would be willing to identify; you will find it an eye-opening exercise. It is little wonder that so many view these unfortunate historical episodes so negatively . . . .

[Some might respond that] that the cross is offensive too; are we going to abandon that? To which, of course, the answer is no. We will stand or fall with the scandal of the cross. But we must not complicate that scandal by introducing our own scandals into the equation, scandals that may block others from seeing Jesus in our midst.
Under Dr. Litfin's leadership, Wheaton abandoned its Crusaders mascot. Here's the statement that summed up the rationale:
Wheaton College exists, so we claim, "for Christ and His Kingdom." I have become convinced that making this change is a simple matter of faithfulness to Christ.
Read the whole statement here.

Friends, former classmates, former co-workers, and people I've never met: I can imagine three possible responses to this argument among those who have relationships within institutions that retain the Crusader mascot.
  1. You can deny that identifying with the Crusades is incompatible with faithfulness to Christ. If that describes you, commit yourself to give careful study to what really happened in the Crusades.
  2. You can agree and do nothing. If that's where you're at, consider whether you value peaceful indifference more than pursuing faithfulness to Christ through what might be a difficult and uncomfortable conversation with someone in a position to effect change.
  3. You can agree and commit yourself to do something about it. This might include contacting a pastor of a church with a Christian school, a college president, a board of trustees member, an alumni relations coordinator, or an athletic director. This doesn't mean you blow your top. Let's be humble, knowing that we were too ignorant and too apathetic for too long. And let's certainly remember that the people in a decision-making capacity right now are most likely not the individuals who were responsible for the unwise choice. Don't demand an immediately positive response. The responsible individual may have to take time to get other key leaders to agree. Or he may want to wait for a time when he does not appear to bow to external pressure. But our objectives must be that Christ's name be honored, not that we get the credit, and not that change take place on our timetable.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Great Game

One of the unexpected ways my two years in DC has shaped my thinking is local church engagement in missions. My church invests the vast majority of our missions-related resources in a region of the world that is unusually hostile to the gospel. That means there aren't many believers there, and it's difficult to get church planters into the region.

Bruce Ashford was my missions professor at Southeastern Seminary. It was about the theology, not methodology—a theology of the glory of God displayed in the narrative of Scripture, with particular emphasis on how God calls a people from all nations to exalt his name in worship throughout all the earth.

I read with interest his missiological survey of The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, which tells the story of the 19th century struggle between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia. I had just read the book last year. It's a fascinating enough story if you like to fill in gaps in your understanding of world history. It's even more fascinating if you read it from a missiological perspective. Ashford's survey will help you do that. He writes:

Christians seeking to live and work in a Central Asian context will be wise to take note that Western “Christian” nations have been among the chief culprits in the bloodshed and exploitations of the past century. The phrase “Jesus is Lord” does not conjure up thoughts of a God of love and of life. Rather, for them, it evokes memories of strife and bloodshed. Among the Tatars, for example, who were conquered by Ivan the Terrible, to call a person “baptized” is to call them the one of the strongest curse words in their contemporary vocabulary. It is for this reason, therefore, that believers who wear the name “Christian” will need to work hard, through word and through deed, to fill that word with new meaning.