Tuesday, November 29, 2011

“ 'The covenant of grace' is a misleading category."

So it's a painfully long paragraph, but I still find it pretty remarkable that Steve Wellum's able to dismantle the heart of a complex, centuries-old theological system so efficiently. Here's Justin Taylor's question, followed by Wellum's response:
Do you disagree that there is such a thing as the “covenant of grace,” or is your argument rather that infant baptism is not a proper implication from it?

What I argued in my chapter is that “the covenant of grace” is a misleading category. Let me explain it this way. It is beyond question that the theme of “covenant” is an important unifying theme in Scripture. However, if we are not careful the notion of the covenant of grace can flatten the biblical presentation of God’s plan of salvation in terms of biblical covenants. In truth, “the covenant of grace” is really a comprehensive theological category, not a biblical one. This does not mean it is illegitimate. After all, theological terms are often used in theology, which are not necessarily biblical terms—e.g., Trinity. However, the problem with the theological category—”the covenant of grace”—is that, if one is not careful, it tends to flatten the relationships between the biblical covenants across redemptive history without first allowing each covenant to be understood within its own redemptive-historical context, and then how each covenant relates to the other biblical covenants, and then how all the covenants find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. I have no problem in using the category “the covenant of grace” to underscore the unity of God’s plan of salvation and the essential spiritual unity of the people of God in all ages. But if it is used, which I contend is the case in Reformed theology, to downplay the significant amount of progression and discontinuity between the biblical covenants, especially as fulfillment takes place in the coming of Christ, then it is an unhelpful term. In fact, I argued in my chapter that it would be best to place a moratorium on the category, especially if we want to make headway in the baptismal debate. In its place, we should speak of the one plan of God centered in Jesus Christ. And, furthermore, in speaking of the “covenant,” we must think in terms of the plurality of biblical covenants as we carefully unpack the relationships between the covenants across the canon. In short, it is imperative that we do a biblical theology of the covenants which, in truth, is an exercise in inter-textual relations between the covenants which, in the end, preserves a proper balance of continuity and discontinuity across the canon in regard to the biblical covenants. It is only when we do this that I am convinced we will make headway in our debate over the relationship between the biblical covenants without prejudicing the debate in one direction or the other.
I wish I'd have written that. And come to think of it, Wellum might have done a bit of damage to another theological system along the way, without even trying.

Full interview here, as well as links to several other related resources. It's all well worth a read, and I suspect that any serious adherent of a traditional theological system will do well to interact with the argument of his forthcoming book with Gentry. In the meantime, here's the outstanding book his chapter was published in.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Dumbing Down Theological Debate

What do you do when you have a weak argument, a naïve audience, and a superficial medium? I'm learning lots of tricks as I'm slowly catching up on the critiques of Gilbert & DeYoung's What Is the Mission of the Church?. One post from an often-insightful and always-influential author relayed no less than six such strategies, which are no doubt rather effective in our contemporary theological climate:
  1. Combine catchy rhetoric with exegetical oversimplification.
  2. Pretend your critics didn't really address an important question, even though they actually addressed it rather directly and expansively.
  3. Merely stipulate that "it doesn't have to be 'either-or'; it's 'both-and'!"
  4. Portray your critics as isolationist bumpkins who just don't grasp the issues or comprehend the big picture.
  5. Don't cite your critics. Broad-brush. Generalize. Caricature.
  6. My personal favorite: Cherry-pick a few critical but marginally coherent sentences from a generally positive review, and pretend that they "offer a unique degree of clarity." (My dear brother, "I felt like they were a little pessimistic" and "there was not much discussion of" and "seemed to push too far into saying" and "[Name] and [Name] have interesting books" is not the stuff of which unique clarity is made. I suspect the guy who wrote those lines probably knew that. You should too.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Carl Trueman on the Mission of the Church, the Gospel Coalition, and Gospel-Centered Polarization

Just over a year ago I argued that the growing debate over the Church's mission is likely to be "the fault line that will form a crevasse, dividing evangelicals—even conservative, reformed evangelicals." In their new book, Greg Gilbert and Kevin DeYoung make the same argument:
[O]ur sense is that this whole issue of mission (along with related issues like kingdom, social justice, shalom, cultural mandate, and caring for the poor) is the most confusing, most discussed, most energizing, and most potentially divisive issue in the evangelical church today. (25)
And last week Carl Trueman made a similar point:
The gospel-centred world seems divided over whether the gospel is primarily about transforming culture or individual forgiveness for sins. Of course, there is a spectrum of opinion on this matter and not everyone is at one end of it or the other. Yet the passions generated by DeYoung and Gilbert highlight the problem and indicate that it cannot be ignored. Indeed, it seems likely that the gospel-centred world is set to become more, not less, polarized on this issue. After all, how one answers the question of the mission of the church reflects how one understands the gospel and shapes everything that the church does.
In that same article Trueman alludes to some of his concerns about both the nature and role of The Gospel Coalition in reformed-ish, conservative-ish evangelicalism. But he's much more punchy in this interview. There, he relates an anecdote that might be a bit repugnant to those who share his sensibilities:
I received from an employee of The Gospel Coalition just last week an e-mail basically telling me to shut up about James MacDonald because I was effectively opposing the work of the church in the current time, and I'm sitting in my office thinking, "Since when did James MacDonald get appointed as my spokesman? I'm ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He's not an officer in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Who has decided that the agenda of my denomination and my congregation is suddenly to be set by people that I hadn't heard of until six months ago?"

So I think the overweening ambition of the parachurch becomes critical at this point as well. To me, churches should set the Church's agenda. Parachurch is helpful in supporting the church in that, but when you get an organization that is effectively starting to creep into church areas and trying to silence churchmen on these key points, that is very, very problematic to me.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Wager of the American Experiment (or, Why We Can't Keep Thinking We're a Christian Nation)

Leave it to an Irishman born in China to offer the most succinct insight into the matter that I've ever encountered.

Video is embedded below. Start at 53:13 for context. Or click here for an external link to that precise point. Or just read the most important part:
There's two places on which America is a gigantic wager, or gamble. Put it like this: On the one hand, the republic requires ultimate beliefs. It requires them. Otherwise, there's no roots to the rights. On the other hand, the republic rejects any statement of what those ultimate beliefs are. There is no orthodoxy. There's no heresy.

How do you bring those two together? The republic requires them; the republic rejects anyone saying what they are. The only way you bring that together is, the republic wagers that in the free democratic debate the best beliefs—the most human, the most true, the most just, et cetera—win the argument!

And it's foreseeable in two ways that you might have trouble. One is if there are so many views that nobody cares about everything. You have such tolerance that it becomes indifference. We all just . . . slump. And clearly, parts of the country are towards that today.

The other view is, in the open pluralistic games, someone plays the game to get power who doesn't believe in pluralism and puts everyone else out of business. And if you've read the stuff of the extreme Islam-ism—not Islam, Islam-ism—they want to replace the Constitution with a caliphate. And they're in essence openly trying to exploit pluralism to get the power to put others out.

Another way of putting it is like this: Constitutionally, there's absolutely no limit to what anyone in America can believe, is there? First Amendment: Constitutionally, no limit. Sociologically and culturally, there is a limit. As I've just said, you could have beliefs arise that endanger the whole thing. How do you bring that tension together, once again? Democratic debate.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Pagan Sermons, David Cloud, and Preacher Idol

1. Your Old Testament sermon needs to get saved. Though I might push back on a couple points, this is the most clear, compact argument I can remember for why and how we should preach the OT in light of the pervasive Christological themes in Scripture.

2. Read this article on church music and tell me who Al Mohler's quoting in this tweet. Because I'm not sure I believe my eyes. Maybe now I've seen it all.

3. The next hipster rage: having some fun with elders who sense a call to preach, inspired by the "American Idol" concept. I'm grateful to serve in a church that treats elders with greater dignity.

4. An interesting look at the divergent trajectories of historically Baptist colleges, and the price required to pursue biblical fidelity.

5. Some helpful perspective on student ministry from SEBTS prof Alvin Reid here. He cites a startling admission from the founder of one of the largest youth ministry organizations:
We got what we wanted. We turned youth ministry into the toy department of the church. Churches now hire professionals to lead youth ministry. We got relevance but we created a generation of teenagers who are a mile wide and are an inch deep.
Here's the fourth component of the corrective measures Reid proposes:
Connect to the whole church, across generations. The generation of teens today is not only the largest, it is also the most fatherless. We must connect students to the larger church and not function as a parachurch ministry within a church building. Students need older believers in their lives. We need a Titus 2 revolution where older men teach younger guys and older women teach younger ladies.
6. Finally, I greatly appreciated Ryan Martin's concluding post on biblical discernment—a brief summary of some key texts. I'm posting the link here so I can find it later, but I suspect you may enjoy it as well.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sound Familiar?

God wouldn't demand something of us that we don't have the capacity to do.

Makes sense, right? Fair. Reasonable. Just. Logical.

I wonder if you've ever heard someone make that argument. I know I have. And of course it's not a new argument. Someone else made it centuries ago. No less than sixteen centuries, as a matter of fact:
No one knows better the measure of our strength than he who gave us our strength; and no one has a better understanding of what is within our power than he who endowed us with the resources of our power. He has not willed to command anything impossible, for he is righteous; and he will not condemn a man for what he could not help, for he is holy.
Only problem is, that's not biblical. It's actually a logical extrapolation proceeding from unsubstantiated assumptions about God's nature and character. In other words, the premise is flawed.

I heard a conversation on evangelism and divine sovereignty in salvation not too long ago. Funny thing was, the most aggressive anti-Calvinist was the person who wanted to deal most with philosophical categories and least with the biblical text.

Maybe that was an anomaly. At the very least, it was ironic. But the more I thought about it, the less surprising it became.

By the way, the above quote [PDF] is drawn from Pelagius, whose teaching has been condemned as heresy throughout the history of the Church. One might argue that this particular statement is not precisely what was condemned, and it doesn't necessarily lead to full-blown Pelagianism. I'm just not sure what would stand in its way.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Libertarians, Singles, Billy Graham, and Rick Perry: You won't get this anywhere else.

1. The first story in Al Mohler's 10/25 edition of "The Briefing" is chilling. It tells the story of the gravely wounded Chinese toddler left to die on the street. But it's more than a tear-jerking human interest story or a commentary on Chinese society and jurisprudence. It also demonstrates the moral bankruptcy of a market system disconnected from a traditional-moral-religious foundation.

In other words, don't buy the Libertarian lie that the free market will solve all our problems. Libertarianism, at best, maintains uncomfortable and flimsy ties to theistically-defined morality, not to mention the doctrine of depravity. When those ties are finally severed as pluralism pervades Western culture, we'll see stories like this one from China on our own shores. Or perhaps we've already seen 50 million of them.

2. I haven't yet watched the Mohler-Wallis debate on social justice and the mission of the church, but if you beat me to it, let me know what you think.

3. This is a great list of things not to say to single women in your church. (With my wife's help, I continue to compile a list of things not to say to pregnant women. Suggestions are welcome.)

4. And then here's some constructive advice on how we can serve singles well.

5. Could be some interesting stuff in these sermon archives if someone wants to dig around. Let me know what you find.

6. Now, for my favorite part, the Rick Perry section. (We don't do much politics here, but today I just can't stop myself.)

First, the pastor who endorsed him and called Mormonism a cult fields some pointed questions and doesn't Osteen them.

And somebody please tell me, why are Perry supporters working so hard to convince people this is what he's like when he's sober? As if that's a real win for him?

Monday, November 07, 2011

On Climbing the Shepherding Career Ladder

A friend told me about a pastor he's known for years who wrote a personal resolution in the margin of David Wells' No Place for Truth, where Wells addresses "The Pastor as Impermanent" (249-250). First, a bit of what Wells had to say:
The combination of professionalization and [the impermanence of modern society] has encouraged pastors to suppose that it is proper for them to seek careers. When they cannot form lasting relationships in a particular community, they are tempted to look inward for the measure of fruitfulness rather than outward. They will be tempted to seek first a career rather than to make an enduring contribution to the people in a particular place. But how can the biblical teaching on service be reconciled with the psychological appetites for greater visibility and power that careers generate? Perhaps, instead of seeking a career, the modern minister would find it easier to model the virtues of humility and self-sacrifice by seeking to be a fool.
Here's what the pastor wrote in the margin:
Resolved, by God's grace and not against his clear leading: I am unwilling to subject the precious sheep under my charge to the indignity and pain of saying to them that a different flock—with which I am not intimate—is more worthy of my efforts and merits the uprooting of all my perseverant labors with my flock merely because the new flock is larger (or smaller) or grazes in a more verdant, visible field.

My present charge may, in some ways, take me for granted. And by jumping ship, I might initially be greeted with a burst of noteworthy success. But at the end of the day, would I not stand guilty of sacrificing a content and vulnerable flock for the advancement of self as a shepherd? What do shepherds know of self-advancement? And in the end, is not the Chief Shepherd whose commendation matters? And will he not commend faithful, life-long fidelity to a flock that is ever confident in the persevering, selfless love of his loyal under-shepherd?
He's had his chances to jump ship. His sheep are fortunate.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

How Much Stuff Happened to David So That He'd Look Like Jesus?

I'm in no position to analyze the chain of causation, but one of the benefits of the attention to biblical theology and gospel centrality in the last decade or so has been a rediscovery of the Old Testament. Maybe the Presbyterians out there are laughing at me for that comment, but I think it'd be fairly easy to make a case that the OT was largely ignored (at best) or grossly abused (at worst) by baptistic folks in recent decades.

That rediscovery of the OT has sparked a healthy conversation about how the OT text casts historical (real) events and characters as emblematic of larger patterns in the development of the biblical storyline. (Hamilton's recent book is one place to see some of those issues under the microscope.) Trouble is, Covenant Theologians and Dispensationalists are inclined to polarized conclusions. Someone positioned between those systems might say that CT'ers flatten everything out and see too much continuity—types everywhere, descending into allegory. And D's often deny all types but those the NT explicitly identifies, disrupting the unity of the Bible.

One of the more thought-provoking discussions I've encountered is Jim Hamilton's 2008 lecture, The Typology of David’s Rise to Power: Messianic Patterns in the Book of Samuel [PDF] Audio's available here. Hamilton considers:
whether we are limited to the examples of typological interpretation seen in the Old and New Testaments, or whether, taking our cues from those examples, we can build upon them.
In other words, does the NT identify every OT type, or should we look for the same kinds of correspondence that the NT writers identify, and apply them to OT figures that the NT writers don't? Or, should we apply the same hermeneutic to the OT that the NT writers did? If your answer is no, why not? And if your answer is yes, how do you know when you've crossed the line into unjustifiable allegory?

One of Hamilton's more important arguments against the limitation of OT typology to those specifically identified in the NT is that the OT itself interprets other OT texts typologically. On top of that:
[S]everal passages in the New Testament invite readers to conclude that the Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus and the church in more ways than are explicitly quoted in the New Testament (cf. Luke 24:25–27; John 5:39–46; Acts 3:24; 17:2–3; Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:11; 2 Cor 1:20; Heb 8:5; 10:1; 1 Pet 1:10–12).
Where the rubber meets the road on all of this is that Hamilton perceives several dozen points of correspondence between David and Jesus—right down to the minute details of the number of days between events. Were they all providentially ordained in history so that they might be recorded in the OT text as instruction both to its original and intended readers? I'm not fully convinced, and Hamilton concedes that he's not either. But he's convinced that some of them are, and that they're pretty important for how we interpret our Bibles:
It seems to me that typological interpretation is central to answering that question: precisely by assuring us of the unity of Scripture and the faithfulness of God—that as God has acted in the past, so he acts in the present, and so we can expect him to act in the future—we find the words of Paul true in our own lives:

"For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 15:4–6).