Tuesday, May 26, 2009

John MacArthur on Mark Driscoll: What's Dead Right and What's Unconvincing (Part 2/2)

Having affirmed MacArthur's central charge against Driscoll in my previous post, I have to say that he hasn’t convinced me on two points. First, MacArthur argues extensively in his posts 2 and 3 that Driscoll has wildly exceeded the appropriate boundaries of the biblical exegesis of the Song of Solomon. That may be true. That’s likely true. But whether Driscoll’s specificity is excessive is a debate that’s distinct from whether he’s lewd.

Let’s not forget, MacArthur wrote the book on lexical and cultural backgrounds research as a tool for exegesis and exposition. This has led him to exegetical conclusions from time to time over the years that, in my opinion, import cultural data from outside the text that shapes his understanding of the meaning of the text—meaning that the biblical author never intended, or at least never intended to emphasize. Additionally, MacArthur charges Driscoll with insufficient sensitivity to the genre of the Song, but some exegetes would argue that MacArthur falls into a similar trap in his approach to some genres—treating them with a degree of literalness that the genre doesn’t demand and shouldn’t be forced to fit.

MacArthur’s critiques of Driscoll, or the critiques made by others toward MacArthur, may or may not be right. Regardless, they’re a legitimate hermeneutical and homiletical debate. So I don’t believe that this component of the discussion is as significant as MacArthur seems to think it is. If it is significant, MacArthur's criticism might backfire. But having said that, again, I want to emphasize that I think MacArthur is dead right in the substance of his disgust with lewd humor.

Second, MacArthur hasn’t convinced me that his invocation Spurgeon’s response to the Downgrade Controversy is relevant. My understanding of Downgrade is that the foundational issues were about the authority of Scripture and the purity and priority of the gospel. I think it’s fair to say MacArthur makes that point himself in Ashamed of the Gospel (a book you ought to read if you haven’t), excerpted here.

Now to be fair, MacArthur hasn’t attempted to build a case in his posts on Driscoll that a gospel issue is at stake. In invoking the Downgrade Controversy, he may merely be making an analogical point about how it’s appropriate to respond to error. I have no quarrel with that. I’ve made similar analogical points in posts here, even when significantly distinct issues are at stake. I hope that’s all he intended to imply, since he clearly didn’t make any sort of argument for that conclusion.

So I’m glad that MacArthur isn’t claiming this is a gospel issue. That doesn’t mean it’s insignificant or meaningless. The upshot is that MacArthur is right to call on Driscoll to change his approach. He’s right to warn pastors who are tempted to use Driscoll as a model. The argument that he’s “won a lot of people to Christ and done a lot of great things” doesn’t hold any more water in Driscoll’s favor than it does when Danny Sweatt makes the very same case to defend Jack Hyles and Bob Gray.

To take it a step further, I believe MacArthur would be exercising reasonable judgment to ask John Piper and Don Carson publicly to stop putting Driscoll in a position of leadership. It’s undeniable to me that their choices will have an effect on how Driscoll is heard and received. For whatever reason, MacArthur didn’t call on Carson. He did speak to Mahaney, though I’m not sure how Mahaney fits in, except that he has had contact with Driscoll without rebuking him publicly. Whatever is behind it all, my hope is that Mark Driscoll will not squander his influence or become an unwarranted wedge between MacArthur and Piper/Mahaney.

Of course, MacArthur has every right to criticize Piper and Mahaney and every right to break off whatever levels of fellowship or cooperation he has with them, if in his judgment that’s the wise course of action. But at this point, I’m going to argue that it’s not wise (even if it somehow were to earn him an invite to a kindler, gentler conference platform of FBFI 2.0 . . .that would be some sweet irony, I'll admit). I’m also going to argue that it would undermine the good cooperative work they’re doing in restoring the gospel to a central place in (at least a sliver of) evangelicalism. MacArthur is iron, which I pray will sharpen other iron. But I hope that metaphor remains in its biblical context—a sharpening among friends, not enemies.

More on the FBFI and Open Theism

I don't want to claim that Dave Doran agrees with my earlier post on the FBFI and Open Theism, but it seems as though we're making the same point. Here's a bit of what he wrote:
[I]t concerns me when a professing fundamentalist argues that we should not believe that God’s eternal plan encompasses everything that happens. I am sure that he would never embrace Open Theism, but I wonder if he realizes how close to the edge he stands.

Monday, May 25, 2009

John MacArthur on Mark Driscoll: What's Dead Right and What's Unconvincing (Part 1)

In the past I’ve written favorably, critically, and neutrally (regarding things that were simply informative) about Mark Driscoll, depending on how I assessed the particular event or statement in question. Driscoll is one of about seven pastors whose sermons I listen to regularly, so I have a bit of familiarity with his style, emphasis, and theology. And by the way, without a doubt Driscoll’s the answer to the question, “Which one of these is not like the other one?”

I haven’t yet had anything to say about the swelling skirmishes over Driscoll’s more recent inflammatory comments. If I recall correctly, I’ve raised the issue a bit in the past, but that’s neither here nor there. Frankly, I've wrestled personally with how I should think about Driscoll. For all I don't want to replicate, I respect his militant clarity on the gospel and biblical authority in an culture that's more anti-Christian than any I've ever encountered outside a Muslim country. But as time has passed, and his pattern has persisted despite personal admonitions, it's become more difficult to maintain neutrality. And though John MacArthur unloaded four barrels on Driscoll in a series of posts about a month ago (compiled helpfully here), I only read them today. Having done so, I want to do whatever I can to push readers here who share my mixed emotions toward most of MacArthur's conclusions, even while I note some reservations.

I want to be exceedingly clear. I believe what MacArthur has written is, essentially, on target. (I’ll quibble just a bit on the details tomorrow, but I hope the broad point is undeniable.) I also think he is unquestionably right to go public for several reasons. First, he did engage in private correspondence with Driscoll prior to his published criticism. I don’t think he was obligated to do that, but I do think that approach was wise. Second, Driscoll seems not to have significantly altered his course after admonition from other leaders. Third, other conservative evangelicals, such as Don Carson and John Piper, are elevating his status by putting him on prominent platforms. The fact that those invitations are occasionally accompanied by expressed reservations is not irrelevant, but it doesn’t justify making someone an example of Christian leadership who repeatedly, willfully, and brazenly displays conduct that is, at best, foolishly.

In his first post, MacArthur made a comment that sums up everything I think he gets right in his critique of Driscoll: “There is no hint of sophomoric lewdness in the Bible, even when the prophet's clear purpose is to shock.” It’s unimaginable to me that anyone who’s heard Driscoll on any regular basis could acquit him on that charge. Despite all that I find exemplary in his preaching, sophomoric humor is a recurring theme, whether it’s lewdness or simply illustrations that trivialize biblical truth in order to make a point.

If I’m applying correctly Richard Weaver's thoughts in Ideas Have Consequences, he has something to say to Driscoll along these lines. He writes:
[S]entiment is anterior to reason. We do not undertake to reason about anything until we have been drawn to it by an affective interest (p. 19).
Weaver is relevant to this discussion (again, if I’m right about him) because Driscoll’s preaching style shapes both his message and how it is received. His giftedness as a communicator fosters an “affective interest” in the mind of the listener. His strategy to model his style after popular comedians cultivates a gut-level connection to his audience that grabs them before their minds are able to process and evaluate the content. If they like his personality and his style and his humor, they’ll be inclined to sit back and relax, listening largely uncritically to his content and even less discerningly to whether the form of the preaching event is fitting to the gravity of the message.

That’s what I perceive to be the foundational problem with Driscoll’s approach—a problem that Weaver would argue precedes the prurient interest MacArthur emphasizes. But in combination with lewd humor, that approach becomes even more toxic in that it anesthetizes the conscience of the listener not only to the lewd humor, but also to critical evaluation of Driscoll's conclusions, many of which are dubious in his sex-oriented sermons.

Tomorrow I plan to publish part 2, which will articulate my reservations with some of MacArthur's argumentation and its implications.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

9Marks at the SBC

Last June, I typed a rambling blog post while I was sitting on the Convention floor. In it, I made an oblique reference to a nascent idea for 2009 that's now coming to fruition. It's arrived in the form of 9Marks at 9.

This is, I hope, one of several initial steps in a broader strategy 1) to articulate a positive vision for the future of a healthier SBC, 2) to encourage pastors who are frustrated with the status quo that people in a position to effect change are engaged in that labor, and 3) to give a voice to guys who understand the problem and are laboring faithfully in local churches to attack its roots (not the prissy guys who whine about wanting "a seat at the table").

And I simply couldn't be more pleased that this event is sponsored by my alma mater, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In just a few years on the job, Danny Akin has positioned his seminary well to influence and equip multiple generations of pastors and missionaries to gird themselves for their mission.

Friday, May 22, 2009

What I Really Do Appreciate About Fundamentalism. Seriously.

SharperIron linked to a series of Tim Challies liveblogs from a Moody Bible Institute conference. The post is headlined with this assessment of the conference from Challies:
(T)here seems to be a disconnect here and we have speakers coming from radically different theological perspectives; and I’m not sure how to reconcile this.
What I really do appreciate about fundamentalism is that no one in the fundamentalist movement would have this "I'm not sure how to reconcile this" reaction. Every fundamentalist knows from the time he's old enough to read two sentences of "What in the World" (while he's doodling a picture of the preacher's illustration of the boy who didn't go forward at the invitation and then got hit by a truck the next week) that this strain of evangelicalism is riddled with mixed messages, some of which are, to be fair, not entirely inconsistent with orthodox Christianity. A movement that was conceived and birthed in a bed of compromise doesn't often rear its children well.

Now, Challies has reviewed a myriad of books, and actually wrote
a book about spiritual discernment, which I'm told is excellent. In light of that, I really doubt that he's completely surprised. But fundamentalism is marinated in a certain realistic cynicism towards the spirits of the evangelical age that doesn't engender much astonishment at the widespread dearth of discernment that has been so audaciously displayed at a popular conference.

Much is broken in the fundamentalist movement today, none of it more immediately disheartening than what Bob Bixby thoughtfully assesses here. That doesn't change the fact that I've purposed to press on in life and ministry applying the fundamentalist idea. No matter how much the idea has been severely polluted by the movement, the idea is as right in 2009 as it was in 1957 and 1932 and 1887.

Every semester in my church's internship, it's fascinating to see the stunned reactions of the gentle souls who grew up in broader evangelicalism, when they discuss their reading of Iain Murray's Evangelicalism Divided and watch the YouTube video of an evangelical hero articulating heretical pluralism to Robert Schuller. And that all happens a literal stone's throw from the original offices of Christianity Today. Funny how things sometimes come full circle. So regardless of what might be the associational heritage of those who best articulate and apply the fundamentalist idea now or 25 years from now, I'll be forever grateful that I was raised in a context where I learned not to be shaken or dumbfounded by appalling inconsistency and incoherence.

Baptists and Plurality of Elders: Who Started This Nonsense?

A prominent Baptist professor at a seminary in Greenville, South Carolina, wrote, in a book published in 2001, "In most, if not all the apostolic churches, there was a plurality of elders."

Well, surely this young chap has been caught up in the Reformed influence of the trendy conservative evangelicals, right?

Not so much.

William Williams (eat your heart out Bob Roberts) was a member of the 1859 founding faculty of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which was actually established in Greenville. He wrote those words in 1874 in his book, Apostolical Church Polity, which was reprinted in 2001 in Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life. The quote is on page 531. (At the time of this writing you would pay over $75 for this book on Amazon, but friends of this blog can download it for free here.)

So friends, can we please put to rest this (at best) uninformed notion that a plurality of elders is incompatible with historic Baptist congregationalism? Perhaps it might be useful to consider Polity and By Whose Authority (also downloadable for free) before one would publicly assert or believe such claims.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Peace at What Price?: Why the FBFI Tent Isn't Big Enough for Sweatt and Calvinists

Kevin Bauder wrote:
Besides attempting to deflect the criticisms of the younger fundamentalists, Pastor Sweatt engages in an astonishing diatribe against Calvinism. He actually suggests that Calvinism is going to force a reopening of the question of biblical inerrancy. He argues that Calvinists refuse to acknowledge the authority of Scripture because they do not believe the Bible until it is interpreted through their theological system.
Sweatt's implication that Calvinists cannot affirm the inerrancy and authority of Scripture raises momentous obligations for FBFI members, most particularly Sweatt himself. The basis for those obligations is nothing other than the FBFI's own statement of faith, which contains strong statements, quite naturally, on inerrancy, biblical authority, and separation from false doctrine.

So if Sweatt refuses to recant his allegations, then the FBFI is faced with a problem. Here's the logic: 1) The FBFI statement of faith demands that all members affirm inerrancy. 2) One of its members believes that Calvinism is incompatible with inerrancy. 3) According to an FBFI board member, some of its members are Calvinists—5 point Calvinists, in fact. 4) The FBFI statement of faith requires that members "abstain from fellowship with all that is ungodly, worldly, or otherwise contrary to the Word of God."

Those four observations form an argument that the FBFI cannot simply move on with affirmations of a tent of fellowship big enough for Calvinists and anti-Calvinists. Calvinism itself is not the pressing issue. The question is whether the FBFI has a big enough tent for those alleged to undermine inerrancy and their accuser.

Bottom line: It seems to me that if the Calvinists won't recant their Calvinism or resign their FBFI membership, and the FBFI won't expel them, then Sweatt has to recant his accusation or resign himself. If he really believes what he said is right, then he needs to do the honorable thing and back up both his convictions and his obligations as an FBFI member. He needs to separate. He can't continue to affirm the statement on separation if he remains in an organization that won't expel those he deems to be in opposition to the organization's statement of faith.

And if Sweatt won't resign, then the organization itself is faced with a crisis: It has to enforce its statement of faith. That means it has to deal with Sweatt's accusation as if his words meant something. So even if the FBFI finds Sweatt's accusation to be groundless, it still can't permit a man to remain in membership who refuses to separate himself from what he understands to be false doctrine.

Well, there I go, saying what the FBFI has to do. But I speak as a fool. The organization can (and will) do whatever it wants, and right now I suspect it wants peace. It wants the problem to go away quietly, and so does everyone else who's trying to hold together this fundamentalist movement that's hopelessly fracturing along theological lines. Others care more about the great idea of fundamentalism than the disintegrating movement. Perhaps they'll have their say at the June meeting. Anybody want to cover expenses for a liveblogger?

Equipping Parents to Teach Children About God

I enjoyed yesterday's Albert Mohler radio program with guest Bruce Ware, author of Big Truths for Young Hearts: Teaching and Learning the Greatness of God. Ware described his book as an attempt to communicate the great things of God in a simple way that young minds can comprehend. He's trying to help parents help their children understand that the stories of the Bible are intended to teach us about him, not to instill a graceless moralism that is so common in homes and Sunday schools and Christian schools. (Ok, everything after the "that" is from me, not Ware.)

Listen to the interview. Check out the book. I haven't read it yet, but if you have it, let me know what you think.

"If I Had It to Do Over Again . . ."

Mark Driscoll, from last Sunday's sermon, "Humble Christians":
I should've waited to plant this church. I had never been a pastor in a church before I started my own church. I should have been. Had I to do it over again, I certainly would have started Mars Hill Church. God called me to that, and I rejoice that, by his grace, in spite of me, things are going pretty well.

But, I had not even been a member of a church when I started my own. That's like, "I flew in a plane once. I'm ready to be a pilot." Not really. And there's other people on board. And that's not safe for them. I went to a church and though, "I could do this," so I did. And so much of the pain and problem in the history of Mars Hill is that my zeal was out ahead of my preparedness, particularly my humility. Arrogance, braggadociosness, pride, self-sufficiency--that hurt the health of Mars Hill early on, and I have been, by God's grace, trying to catch up my character with my responsibility ever since.

I really want the best for you, particularly those of you who are called by God into leadership positions. Had I to do it over again, I would have become a member of a church, I would have worked through the eldership process at a church, I would have subjected myself to the elders. I would have received rebuke and correction and exhortation. They would have talked to me about my pride and my anger and my bitterness, my short temper, my self-sufficiency--a whole list of things that needed work, and I would have humbled myself. And then when they confirmed that it was time, God could have lifted me up to go start Mars Hill. As it was, by the grace of God, we have made it, and by the grace of God, I'm learning as I go.

But, do not use me as the best example. Had I to do it over again, I would do it over again, and I would do it differently. And I think our church would be better served had I waited a few years.
In light of all the recent discussion of his preaching choices and style, this seems like an illuminating perspective.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Praise Factory: Free Online

I'm guessing there are about 30 8-year-olds running around my church who have a better grasp on theology than I did until I was about 24. One of the big reasons for that is Praise Factory, the children's ministry program designed and written by Connie Dever. Today that program went live online.

Now, I'm a huge fan of Kids4Truth, and I hear lots of great things about Children Desiring God too. And I can't offer you any sort of comparative analysis. But I do know this: Praise Factory is all free, and the theology is solid as a rock. Trust me, every now and then you get way more than you pay for.

Sweatting Bullets

Yesterday, in a conversation around the church, someone raised the historical fact that when Christian denominations and associations devolve into apostasy, it's never because apostates secretly gained a majority. Rather, it's because, when faithful believers exposed the apostasy and attempted to combat it, far too many people who believed all the right things refused to expel it. It happened in the Northern Baptist Convention. It happened in the Northern Presbyterian Church, and for decades (until 1979) it was the ethos that held sway in the Southern Baptist Convention.

It was with that conversation fresh in my mind that I began listening to Danny Sweatt's talk. Fortunately for the FBF, Sweatt is not an apostate (unless my wild speculation about open theism is correct, that is). But I think the principle holds. Too often, good men in a network of relationships refuse to publicly expose, repudiate, and eradicate grievous error in their midst—error that strikes at the heart of what they profess to hold in common. And when those otherwise good men abdicate their obligation to protect what they profess to treasure, they should not expect to to possess credibility as leaders. They have no right to expect followers. They are not leaders.

Kevin Bauder is a leader. He is one of a very few among perceived fundamentalist leaders who deserves credibility because he not only defines what he treasures, but exposes and pillories what threatens it.

I suspect that by now everyone has seen Kevin Bauder's systematic and succinct dismantling of Danny Sweatt's screed. It's being discussed pretty much everywhere we've grown accustomed to finding meaningful conversations in the fundamentalist blogosphere, and perhaps some where we haven't.

Too often fundamentalist "leaders" have named names of the conservative evangelicals with whom they disagree on one point or another. Sometimes those matters are significant, and sometimes they're quite peripheral. Seldom, at least to my awareness, have those same fundamentalist leaders named names of offenders, like Sweatt, within their own camp. Let's not pretend Sweatt's preposterous ramblings are unique among fundamentalist conferences or churches or camps or chapels. I wonder if this issue is simply more of a hot-button than most.

The specificity of Bauder's critique is refreshing. It's refreshing in part because it's new. Offenses like Sweatt's are not. So if I have the smallest quibble with Bauder's essay, it's his suggestion, "We did not create the problem." Last I knew, Bauder wasn't in the FBF. He didn't create the problem. But I'm not sure "we" is the best word choice.

FBF leaders, among other leaders, certainly have created this problem. Those who select these speakers are directly to blame, but so are those who've participated in the FBF while pleasantly tolerating this sort of thing. Does anyone seriously think that the sort of exegesis and argumentation Sweatt put on display was an aberration for him? Does anyone want to suggest that fundamentalists have a good track record of elevating only faithful expositors to the most prominent pulpits and platforms? In many [chirp, chirp]

I'm not suggesting that my generation and the ones coming after me will not, or even have not, created our own problems. We have, and we will. We must be repentant and reforming—always. I'm also not suggesting that there is no place for staying in a flawed association and working towards incremental reform. As a member of an SBC church that's engaged in incremental reform (and in a quite public fashion), I pray that the strategy succeeds in all sorts of associations, not only my own.

One might well wonder whether fundamentalist leaders have been as transparent and critical in their public assessment of their own associations as various conservative evangelical leaders have been concerning theirs. Today was a great step forward. May there be many more. We need them.

Has Open Theism Crept into the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship?

Based on his recent sermon*, I fear that Danny Sweatt is either an open theist or a passenger on the slow train that direction. Now I realize, that may be uncharitable. Maybe he's just confused, or maybe I don't understand him. But when he rejects the eternal decrees of God, I take that to mean something, and I think it has to mean one of three things, assuming he believes that God created the universe:

1: God created the universe as he did, but didn't know that Lucifer would rebel, that Adam would fall, and that countless other human sins would occur. They weren't yet real things that could be known.

That's open theism.

or . . .

2. God had to create a universe, and he had to create the one that he did, even though it certainly led to things he didn't really like.

I'm not going to chase this rabbit trail since I don't really think it's plausibly in play here. In other words, it seems to me that people who say the kinds of things Sweatt did usually run to open theism before they adopt the notion that God is constrained to have done something he didn't want to do. It "de-Gods" him even more than open theism does.

or . . .

3. God created the universe as he did, not only knowing that all those things would happen, but actually choosing to create the universe as he did instead of other ways that he might have created it—ways that did not include Lucifer's rebellion or Adam's sin.

We can argue whether or not this option constitutes an "eternal decree," but clearly, it doesn't change the fact that God created a universe structured in such a way in which sin would certainly come to pass. To pretend that an "eternal decree" makes God the author of sin in a way that this option does not is at best incoherent and at worst a deceptive intellectual shell game.

*If you really think you might care about this issue, you'll find broader critiques and wider discussion here and here and here.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Fundamentalist Cannibalism

Mark Farnham's article on SharperIron today is definitely worth reading. His basic argument is that non-Calvinist fundamentalists need to stop training their rhetorical guns on the rising "threat" of Calvinism, and instead defend the orthodox Christian faith against people who really mean to eradicate it.

Edgy, I know. But let's at least give the notion a fair shake.

I'm immensely grateful that Farnham would take a clear, public stance against some of the nonsense that's been emerging. It seems to me that many more people ought to repudiate it just as publicly. Perhaps I've missed them.

Some of you may have noticed in his brief bio that he's a Maranatha grad. In my book, he's the kind of guy who would make a great president for that institution someday—a former pastor, educational experience in a seminary setting, a clear thinker, a solid preacher, and to top it all off . . . an earned PhD in progress.

In related news, I just started watching the video of a debate in Dubai over the identity of God and how people are saved between Thabiti Anyabwile and a Muslim apologist. (You can start watching it here, and YouTube should be able to help you find the rest of the videos.) So anybody want to tell me that the increasing influence of Reformed thinkers like Anyabwile is the sort of thing that makes these times uniquely precarious? Seriously?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Good Stuff from the Junk Drawer

1. I enjoyed reading Scott Simons' reflections on the life of Jack Kemp at NPR.org, and hearing Cal Thomas' radio tribute, especially the part in which I found out that he was a member of a gospel-preaching church.

2. How great is the irony when disgraced convict and former DC mayor Marion Barry is the lone voice for family values on the DC city council?

3. Associated Baptist Press is a Baptist news agency founded in 1990 as an independent, alternative to SBC-operated Baptist Press. Some closer observers might say it's designed to be a non-conservative voice with a deliberate anti-Conservative Resurgence slant. From what I've observed, I'd be inclined to agree.

About a week ago, ABP published an article detailing the changes Al Mohler has made at Southern Seminary since he became president in 1993. For whatever reason, ABP pulled the article a few days later. The tone strikes me as if it was intended to expose information that would be damaging to Mohler. Frankly, the facts suggest he deserves gratitude and honor, so via the magic of Google, here it is, at least for now.

4. Some guy who once earned a trip to LA in an audition for American Idol (or so I've heard) told me about the American Conservative University podcast. Seems like a nice balance to my NPR habit. Top shows I've heard so far are #s 364 and 365 (Newt Gingrich lecturing in James Carville's classroom) and # 382 (Peter Schiff explaining why we shouldn't have been surprised by the financial system meltdown).