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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Return Trip to Kampen: Some Personal Reflections


Few would deny that confessional Reformed churches today face enormous challenges. What confronts the church today is not simply a secular culture, whose roots are of course centuries old, but a militant secular culture, seemingly intent on silencing the church and pushing her to the margins of society. The proud march of secularity under the banners of tolerance and inclusion fills the street and those who refuse to walk in lockstep are not simply categorized as primitive, but opposed as villainous.

How does the church relate to an increasingly militant culture of secularity? The question preoccupies the Reformed churches in the Netherlands (GKNv) and is the impetus for changes in the theology, worship, and practices of the Dutch churches. These changes concern a small minority in the Dutch churches and a vast majority within their Canadian and Australian “sister” churches.

One colleague has asked me for my assessment of the “Dutch churches” and I will happily provide it, but not without some disclaimers. First, I am not privy to all the discussions that have occurred between the representatives from our respective committees for ecumenicity, and am not conversant with all the areas of concern. Secondly, my time in the Netherlands was short, my conversations with Dutch leaders few, and my exposure to Dutch churches was limited (I did not attend worship services in highly secularized Amsterdam or Utrecht). Lastly, I comment as an outsider, and outsiders are not always fully sensitive to the dynamics of a culture.

On the other hand, I attended church twice every Sunday and experienced worship in multiple places, including Kampen (Eudokia), Dronthen, Wezep, Assen-Zuid, and Zwolle (Plantage), and spent a month at the Theological University in Kampen, the institutional heart of the Dutch churches, where I conversed with both students and professors.

Worship

My overall assessment of the worship of Dutch churches is very positive, and here’s why: (a) In all of the worship services I attended the votum was sung, though the melodies varied. Reformed worship prizes congregational participation and the arguments for a sung liturgy are strong, and so I applaud this improvement; (b) The basic elements of the Reformed liturgy were untouched and the services progressed from confrontation with sin towards proclamation of the gospel towards (when Lord’s Supper was celebrated) communion with Christ; (c) The songs were appropriately mixed and included psalms (often to Genevan melodies), hymns, and contemporary praise songs, and though the pipe organ was the dominant musical instrument (and Dutch churches have such wonderful organs and organists), worship services sometimes featured other instruments, including acoustic guitar. It’s great to sing God’s praises with a variety of instruments and genres because it underscores the catholicity of the church and the diversity of musical tastes and talents; (d) Though children in every instance were excused for the sermon, they were welcomed back prior to the benediction. The corporate blessings of Jesus are for children and not just adults! (e) In every service I attended, Scripture was read by a lay person (in every instance, a woman). I really like the notion of including lay members at particular moments in the liturgy, not least women.

Small criticism: I prefer a more predictable and liturgical worship. Some of the worship services I attended included presentations (from youth leaders) or introductions (of elders) that seemed to interfere with the flow of worship, if not worship itself. I prefer a worship service without "commercials."

Preaching

The Dutch churches get very high grades for their preaching. I especially enjoyed hearing sermons by Dr. Burger, Ds. Jos Douma (Zwolle) and Ds. Slotman (Zwolle). Dr. Burger preached an exceptional sermon from Ezekiel that was expositional, pastoral, and winsome for believers and seekers alike. I heard Ds. Douma preach a number of times and found his thoughtful Christocentric sermons connected to an attentive and appreciative congregation. I marveled at Ds. Slotman’s ability to interact with the congregation through his doctrinal catechism preaching in a way that wasn’t cheesy or pedantic. I’m told that it’s largely the influence of Dr. Kees de Ruijter, the now retired homiletics professor, that Dutch preachers have become so adept at relating to people in the pew. In nearly every service, power point was used in the sermons and, though I have some quibbles about it, its use was tasteful and helpful. In each instance, the worship services were full of attentive members, young and old.

Small criticism. I wonder if the pendulum has swung too much towards the listener and away from the text. While I really appreciated the accessibility of the Dutch preachers, I would have preferred a little more exposition.

University

The Theological University in Kampen is staffed by an extraordinarily competent faculty of theologically erudite and culturally informed scholars. In some ways, it is a dream team of teachers and those who study there will be exposed to the best of Reformed scholarship. I personally appreciated the friendliness of the faculty and found them without exception to be humble and thoughtful, desiring the best for their students and the churches.

The professors in Kampen read widely and eagerly harvest insights from those beyond the narrow confines of Reformed confessional orthodoxy, perhaps more so than those who teach at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary. I was heartened to see familiarity and engagement with radical orthodoxy (John Milbank, Graham Ward, Catharine Pickstock et al), for instance, the British evangelical Oliver O’Donovan, and the American ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, all of whom have tremendous insights for theologians in secular contexts.

Theological education is not what it used to be in the Netherlands. The historic faculties of theology in Utrecht, for example, and Leiden, have essentially been shut down. The faculty of the seminary for the PKN (the united Protestant church) in Amsterdam, at the behest of the government, works with other churches (and even other religions) in shared education in shared space.

The future of the theological university in Kampen is questionable and pressure from the government, the source of significant funding, will likely require the university to relocate and merge with other theological universities to avoid duplication and excess spending. While I was there, Dr. Roel Kuiper was installed as rector to replace the retiring Dr. Mees te Velde. Though a philosopher by trade and neither a minister nor a theologian, Dr. Kuiper brings a wealth of experience, leadership, and influence to the table. For years a member of the First Chamber in the Dutch government, Dr. Kuiper is a dignified and wise individual, and has the capacity to offer meaningful leadership for the institution in coming years. Though it will be extraordinarily sad to see the Theological University leave Kampen, an historic city for Reformed theological education, there may be advantages in a merger with, for instance, the theological university in Apeldoorn. Here you would have complementary visions for Reformed theological education under one roof and a place for cross-fertilization between scholars of different Reformed theological inclinations. Iron sharpens iron.

Prior to visiting Kampen, I had wondered whether the university was becoming too detached from the church and too much of an academic institution (rather than an ecclesiastical school). What I discovered, however, is that the professors are generally invested in the church and that even some who are not ordained (e.g. Dr. Koert van Bekkum) have obtained a license to preach in part to retain a connection to ministry in the church. I also wonder about the model of government funding for the theological university. Though the Dutch government does not interfere with the teaching at the university or its internal governance, there is still a sense that the government is forcing the school to go down a road it otherwise would not choose. I still believe that the best way for a school to be free of government influence is to be free of government funding.

Culture (and Hermeneutics)

I really don’t know that Dutch culture is more secular than Canadian culture. There is little in Amsterdam that you wouldn’t see in Toronto. I do think that the confrontation between church members and culture is far more pronounced in the Netherlands. In Canada, many Canadian Reformed churches are rural and even the city churches tend to be in the suburbs. We don’t have churches in Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver, and Canadian Reformed church communities tend to be isolated from the culture, sometimes with a fortress mentality.

It is undoubtedly true that the Dutch operate with a different hermeneutic, and it’s not all bad. Drawing on N.T. Wright, Oliver O’Donovan, and others, the Dutch see the divine plan of salvation as a trajectory that extends beyond Scripture. There’s of course nothing objectionable about this, and the Dutch Reformed especially have always been sensitive to the progress of redemptive history. Certain human institutions, some divinely prescribed or permitted, are discarded over time as God’s people mature, and so Christians today favor neither slavery nor polygamy. Theologians will correctly allege that though there are no explicit commands to dismantle the ancient institution of slavery, its abolition is clearly envisioned by the trajectory of Scripture.

Where does the trajectory point today? In the drama of God’s activity in the world we have moved beyond the script, the canon of Scripture, and must improvise. Again, there’s nothing objectionable about this. Very little about our lives is explicitly prescribed and so with minds renewed by the Spirit of Christ we use Scripture as a kind of illuminating compass to be oriented in this dark world.

On the other hand, the Dutch believe that the trajectory of God’s redemptive plan calls us today to open the ecclesiastical offices to women. Just as slavery was ended by theologians identifying in the gospel the recipe for its demise, so the traditional prohibition against women’s ordination is opposed by theologians today who identify in Scripture a trajectory in which full equality between men and women is celebrated and ought to be increasingly secured and protected. Though this is true, I’m not convinced it means the endorsement of women’s ordination.

I humbly offer to my gracious Dutch brothers and sisters some thoughts for consideration:

(a) The secular egalitarian error is to equate equality with sameness. Ontological equality between men and women neither assumes nor requires sameness in function. The Christian model of equality is not a parade in which people march in lockstep, but a dance in which equal partners happily embrace different roles, one leading and the other following. No one looks at a dance and says, “how oppressive that the man led and how unfortunate that the woman couldn’t.” For whatever reason, even in the most secular cultures, married men drive the car when couples go out and few women identify in this cultural institution a hint of oppression. Differentness in calling and constitution does not entail ontological inequality. 

(b) The liturgical priority of Adam (man) is apparent from the Genesis narrative. In the prototypical sanctuary of the Garden of Eden, Adam is called to lead, to teach, and to build, and Eve is called to follow, to help, and to beautify (Note, for example, how he is given a set of instructions even before the creation of Eve). There isn’t a hint of inferiority or subjugation or oppression in these prelapsarian arrangements. Moreover, the liturgical priority of men is observed without exception in the old covenant priesthood.

(c) Paul appeals to the liturgical priority of men in his prohibitions of women teaching in 1 Timothy 2. Perhaps in Ephesus the Christian believers saw the same trajectory theologians see today when they endorse women’s ordination, and Paul had to say, “No, this is a creational arrangement.” Adam was formed first, to be the liturgical leader, and then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but Eve was. Adam had shirked his responsibility in the original sin, and that sin ought not to be replicated. To allege that Paul’s prohibition of women teaching was designed to conform to prevailing cultural sensibilities seems entirely unconvincing. There are multiple occasions when Paul has no inhibitions in offending the height of Greco-Roman culture, not least in summoning the worship of Jesus, and not Caesar.

(d) Most theological disputes involve pitting one set of texts against another. Here the Canadian Reformed must remember that there is more in the Bible than simply 1 Timothy 2. There are multiple instances in Scripture of women teaching men, women judging men, and women prophesying to men, and thus an unordained ministry or service of women should be encouraged in Canadian Reformed churches. Relatedly, I sometimes wonder whether the Greek terms episkopos and presbyter apply only to ordained ministers of the Word and sacrament, as some Reformed theologians have argued. If so, most of what the New Testament says about elders actually applies to ministers and the debate about this issue changes. Either way, I would favor seeing women appointed to special and recognizable, though unordained, roles in the ministry of the church. Presently there are women very involved in discipleship, leading Bible study, and teaching catechism classes, and so it’s not a big step to give them formal recognition. Lastly, women often make great theologians, perhaps because of their differentness from men!

I thoroughly enjoyed my time among the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, learned a tremendous amount from my peers, and pray that my new friendships are enduring. I really hope that Canadian Reformed churches keep ties with the Dutch churches, and I hope we are receptive to each other’s correction!
  

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Amendments to the Belgic Confession? (2)

I was asked by a number of my considerate interlocutors to supplement my earlier contribution to this discussion by clarifying and substantiating claims made in my previous post. In fact, one friend found my points too random for his liking and thought I should make a second attempt to demonstrate some intelligent design. I’m happy to do so now.

But first, I want to issue a disclaimer of sorts. As much as I dislike the overture and as much as I disagree with the propriety of its proposal, I regard those who made and support it as my cherished brothers and sisters in Christ, for whom he died and rose. Moreover, I trust that behind the enthusiasm for the overture there is a godly and sincere concern for the truth of the gospel and for the health of the churches. I object to arrogance and triumphalism on all sides, and I will not be party to insincere dismissing of the overture or its supporters. I have a reputation in the federation of churches among which I serve for being more a spectator than a participant in a lot of church disputes, perhaps culpably so, and I hope my unusual foray into this dispute is interpreted to mean that I regard this overture as too important to overlook and its supporters as too sensible to dismiss.

Assessing the fundamental impetus or rationale for the overture—namely, the conviction that theistic evolution is being widely promoted in the federation, proves difficult when “theistic evolution” is mistakenly defined already in the second paragraph as “the teaching that God created the world and all organisms over billions of years.” An old universe is a component of theistic evolution, but when isolated from the other components is decidedly not theistic evolution, but the claim of old earth creationism.

The overture further alleges that some perceived-to-be theistic evolutionists within the Canadian Reformed churches teach that Adam was not the special and direct creation of God. I suspect this is a claim made by some theistic evolutionists. Not only is it not made by the scientists mentioned in the overture, however, it is something both explicitly deny. Furthermore, both scientists explicitly reject the claims that non-life produced life and that animal life produced human life and both explicitly reject the notion that the world evolved by means of natural processes. In fact, both scientists have publicly launched theological, philosophical, and scientific arguments against these claims, for which they ought be given recognition and support.

In the case of a least one of the scientists arguments are submitted in support of progressive creationism, a theory quite distinct from theistic evolution. Some find these arguments alarming because they include the presentation of data in support of the theory that God created Adam and Eve, specially and directly, from human-like ancestors. This particular scientist makes clear, however, that though he is open to discussing this possibility, he does not believe it or teach it. When this issue was discussed at Regional Synod East, this scientist was given liberty by this broader assembly to discuss and consider these theories.

I share with this scientist a fascination with the genomic similarity between chimpanzees and humans. Humans and chimps, for instance, share a broken copy of a gene that prevents them, in distinction from all other mammals, from producing vitamin C. What is remarkable about this broken copy is that its six or seven mutations are identical in chimps and humans in both character and location. To a scientist, given the yet unfalsified (though falsifiable) paradigm that prevails, this strongly suggests common ancestry. To be sure, many scientists find this to be compelling proof of common ancestry, comparable to the likelihood of plagiarism in an instance where someone includes in his illegitimate copying even the misspelled words of his source. Is this bad science? Not at all. It’s good science, the kind of science that geneticists use when they test us for inherited mutations and genetic abnormalities. Does it require us to affirm common ancestry? Not at all. It’s merely an observation requiring a lot of explanation!

This is what I was getting at in my earlier post about postulations or hypotheses and convictions. It shouldn’t need to be stated, but Reformed theology endorses academic freedom and Reformed churches, unlike cults that indoctrinate and compel adherence, invite questions and even challenges to cherished doctrines. We want to be able to stare the evidence for the evolutionary theory in the eye, admit its strength where necessary and admire its beauty where evident, and then situate all of that evidence in a wider perspective that is governed by Scripture, circumscribed by the Reformed confessions, and informed by the orthodoxy of the catholic church.

We must be hospitable to all science, including evolutionary science. I’m not a fan of Richard Dawkins, but I found his book, The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution, to be riveting and breath-taking. Sadly for Dawkins, the book did little to dislodge by faith in Christ or my trust in Scripture, but it did make me wonder how Dawkins could recognize such beauty and design in the universe and fail to acknowledge the Artist and Designer.

I remain grateful for the zeal of the delegates of Classis Ontario West (even when misplaced), but I’m also grateful for the industry and integrity of scientists in the federation, and I yearn for a day when these issues can be discussed fraternally, without rancour.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Amendments to the Belgic Confession?

Permit me to use my blog to comment on an issue that has arisen within the small federation of churches among which I pastor.

This past week, a church assembly to which I was delegated (called a classis; similar to a presbytery), adopted an overture to General Synod (similar to a general assembly) recommending a modification of article 14 of the Belgic Confession (a doctrinal standard to which we adhere). The modification, in an attempt to exclude theistic evolution, identifies Adam and Eve as "the biological ancestors of all other humans" and insists that "there were no pre-Adamites, whether human or hominid." This overture was well-intentioned and presented with a lot of fervor, but is flawed in several ways, obscures facts, and sadly misrepresents people.

Here, in random order, are a few of my concerns. 

1. The Belgic Confession is not ours to modify, but belongs to Reformed churches all over the world. It is true that the Belgic Confession was modified before, but most substantial modifications were made at a time when its reach and function were very limited, geographically and otherwise. If we modify the Belgic confession substantially now we need to rename it "the Canadian-Belgic Confession." Other Reformed churches, now all over the world, would need to know that "our" Belgic Confession is not "their" Belgic Confession. If this is an issue which requires synodical pronouncement, it is best done via a footnote to the confession, an appendix to the confession, or through a separate statement.

2. It could easily be argued that the Three Forms of Unity already exclude the notion of theistic evolution (Consider, among others, Belgic Confession, arts.13,14,15,16, 23, Heidelberg Catechism, answers 6,14,20,26,27 and Canons of Dort 1:3-4).

3. The overture offers no satisfactory definition of theistic evolution. On p.1, we read, "By theistic evolution, we mean the teaching that God created the world and all organisms over billions of years." Such a definition implies that those who hold to an old earth are evolutionists and thus fails to distinguish between old earth creationists and theistic evolutionists. Reformed churches, historically, have wisely resisted making judgments on the age of earth and have generally regarded this issue to be the least threatening component of the evolutionary theory.

4. Relatedly, the overture fails to distinguish the various dimensions of the evolutionary theory, including old earth, but also random mutation, natural selection, and common ancestry. Are each of these parts equally threatening, and if so, how so? Moreover, there is no engagement with the data that supports one or all these parts, and no recommendation for how Christians might interpret such data from a theologically sound perspective. One could argue that this is beyond the purview of pastors and theologians (and I would be willing to entertain that thesis), but when the church decides to insert a scientific statement (note the word 'biological' in the amendment) into a confessional document, it must do so with some scientific credibility. To say otherwise is to demean science and scientists and to embrace a kind of fideism.

5. The overture does not grapple with the possibility that one can affirm a young earth and a six-day creation and some form of evolution. Ken Ham, the world's most well-known young earth, six day creationist, believes that on the ark there were single pairs of felines, canines, and elephants which then diversified (i.e., evolved) into all the feline, canine, and elephant species we see today. In other words, the pair of canines on the ark diversified over time into foxes, wolves, coyotes, dogs, etc., in a kind of accelerated evolution. Similarly, Oxford zoologist Andrew Parker, in his book The Genesis Enigma, argues that the commonly accepted sequence of evolutionary history generally coheres with the sequence of creation acts in Genesis 1, enabling someone to argue for an accelerated evolution and a literal interpretation of the days of Genesis 1. Does the term "theistic evolution" include those young earth creationists like Ken Ham and others who accept some kind of evolution but reject the notion that God superintends evolution by means of natural processes?

6. The overture doesn't support what it claims--namely, that the Can Ref churches face a "significant doctrinal challenge in the area of origins." We do read quotations from two professional scientists, one a member of a Burlington church and one a member in Langley, both of whom are members in good standing in their churches. The overture, in other words, exaggerates the problem as if the Can Ref churches are overrun by theistic evolutionists.

7. The overture fails to discern the nuances of the positions of these two scientists by failing to distinguish between postulations and convictions. Scientists are in the business of making postulations and hypotheses about which they sometimes have no settled conviction. The overture seems to imply that it is illegitimate for a scientist even to consider multiple theories of origins. Similarily the overture seems to imply that is contradictory for a scientist to accept the strength of an argument for evolution without finding the argument cogent. The two scientists who are alleged to embrace theistic evolution clearly do not, but the nuances of their positions have entirely escaped the drafters of the overture. The oddity of this all is that the two scientists who have had their names dragged through the mud might themselves not be so troubled by the amendment!!!

8. The overture is riddled with errors and unfounded conjectures. At several points, the overture cites labels others have given the scientists in question without contemplating the possibility that the scientists themselves would object to these labels, as I know they do. Similarly, it is alleged that one of the scientists belongs to an organization (the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation) that is officially committed to evolution when the organization in fact has no such policy.

9. The overture cites scientists, but doesn't give them opportunity to interact or explain or reject or qualify their statements. This is why error, real or perceived, is best addressed by consistories, failing which, classes, failing which, synods. It seems to violate the basic principles of Reformed church polity for a classis to intrude uninvited into the jurisdictions of local congregations. More importantly, there is at least one statement made by a scientist which has been retracted and this retraction, though publicizied, was completely ignored by the drafters of the overture.

10. The overture disrespects the consistories of the churches to which these scientists belong by alleging that there is within the federation "an atmosphere of tolerance" (phrase used at classis) towards theistic evolution without engaging these consistories who, as far as I know, are showing faithful pastoral leadership to these scientists.


Tuesday, September 09, 2014

ISIS, Holy War, and Apologetics (Part II)

In my previous post I argued that one of the keys to understanding Israel’s military and seemingly genocidal campaign against the Canaanites is to locate it in its proper historical context relative to the coming of Christ and the intrusion of the new creation which occurred at his resurrection. My contention is that the warfare of contemporary jihadist Islam bears some affinity to Israel’s conquest of Canaan because, largely through its defiance of Christ and the new creation, jihadist Islam is inextricably entrenched in the old creation.

Israel’s conquest of the Canaanites, in other words, is a mere chapter in a lengthy narrative that moves towards eschatological peace among nations and ultimately to the termination of war and violence. Already in the Old Testament one hears prophetic voices denouncing excessive violence and bloodshed (Ps 68:30) and lamenting life among war-hungry people (Ps 120).

Given the tradition in the Ancient Near East of communities rewarding conquering military captains with temples constructed to the gods who enabled their victories, it is striking that the privilege of building a temple is denied to David precisely because he was a man of violence and bloodshed (“You shall not build a house for my name, for you are a warrior and have shed blood,” 2 Chr 28:3; NRSV). Instead, the house for God would be constructed by “Shlomo,” a man of peace, in whose name “Shalom” is reflected. There is evidently something about the temple of God which is seemingly incompatible with war and bloodshed.

The Old Testament, moreover, includes the vision Isaiah sees of the coming Messianic kingdom, of an eschatological age when “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isa 2:4; cf. 9:2-7; 11:1-9).

Even though war was used an expression of God’s international sovereignty and as an instance of his historical justice, it is a dimension of the fallen world, the old creation, and will be transcended by peace.

The road to Canaan, in the words of Chris Wright, is “one small stretch along the road to Calvary.” At Canaan, God in his justice poured out his judgment on an evil community. I’m grateful that at Calvary God, in his mercy towards me, poured out his judgment for my sin on his Son.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

ISIS, Holy War, and Apologetics

The current campaign of ISIS, the jihadist Islamic rampage in Iraq and Syria, occasions a lot of interest in, and comparisons to, the military campaigns of Israel against the Canaanites and other ancient people groups. Some Muslims are quick to indicate that Christians lack the ethical capital to critique ISIS since the Christian faith, according to its ancient narrative, exhibits a military-violent dimension approximating ethnic genocide.

Our apologetic is neither to deny the violent and bloody warfare of the Israelites nor to indicate regret and embarrassment about it, but to situate it in the trajectory of God's redemptive purposes in history. Put differently, Israel's military campaigns were inextricably embedded in "the old creation" whose kingdom weaponry consisted of sword and spear and whose apostates were executed.

The notion here is not simply that God accommodated and inhabited the cultural furniture of the Ancient Near East to secure his purposes such that Israel advanced in the same way that any nation in the ANE did--namely, through something approximating genocidal warfare. It is, rather, that the world prior to Jesus was a world of bloodshed resulting from human sin, which sin Jesus came to conquer and which bloodshed Jesus came to end.

Whereas the Israelites conducted their kingdom campaigns in an old economy of bloodshed that anticipated, if not yearned for, the coming Messiah, jihadist Muslims are perpetuating this old economy in defiance of the Messiah who came.

Through the complex of his death and resurrection, Jesus has inaugurated a new creation with a different economy, a different military, and different weaponry. Our warfare is not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against the powers of this dark world, against the spiritual forces of evil (Eph.6:12) and therefore we do not fight with the weapons of the world (2 Cor.10:4); we fight with the weaponry of word, sacrament, prayer, and worship.

From its dietary restrictions to its circumcision rituals to its purity washings to its fasting seasons to its notions of civil religion and civil law to its preoccupation with real estate, Islam (in especially its jihadist manifestations) is inextricably entangled in the "old creation" worldview, for which very reason it has multiple affinities to Old Testament Israel.

Friday, June 24, 2011

N.T. Wright and Deathbed Counsel: Exposing a Fable

Recently a friend of mine retold a story he had heard in a lecture (precise date unknown) by Don Carson in which Carson alleged that when Dr. Wright was asked what he would say to a person on their deathbed, Wright said that he didn't know or would have to think about it. The implication, of course, is that Wright has no gospel left to preach to a dying person. That account struck me initially as highly implausible. If you know anything about Wright it's that he's rarely at a loss for words. Wright might say some wrong things occasionally, but he always has something to say!


As an admirer of Dr. Wright, I fired off an email to him asking about the origin of this story. Wright responded almost immediately and assured me that though he couldn't remember the exchange it was obvious that he would not have given such an equivocal answer, since as a long-time pastor he has plenty of experience of speaking with people near the point of death and has never had any hesitation in talking to them about the love of God revealed in Jesus and encouraging them to put their whole trust in that saving gift. He said that he had confronted Don Carson, some years ago, about telling and retelling such a slanted and slanderous tale, and that so far as he knows Carson no longer does so.


I'm posting this on my blog to help put this fable to rest. If you want to critique Wright or any scholar, do so in light of their published works and not anecdotes which may or may not be true

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Gospel Coalition (1)

I really enjoyed my recent trip to Chicago to attend The Gospel Coalition. The Gospel Coalition (hereafter, TGC), so far as I can tell, is an attempt to rally the troops in the movement called the New Calvinism or the Young, Restless, and Reformed and to offer guidance, to encourage and to warn. This movement, which arises out of American evangelicalism, prizes biblical, Christ-centered preaching that is simultaneously culturally relevant. It offers an alternative to young, predominantly white church leaders who may find themselves attracted to the emergent church movement --- another young, predominantly white initiative, but one intent on "doing church" in explicitly PoMo fashion. The obvious conservatism of TGC is neither stodgy nor traditional. The music at the conference was lively and contemporary, and the speakers, often wearing blue jeans, laced their presentations with appropriate humor. The underlying commitment to Reformed soteriology for these individuals does not preclude, for example, a preference for contemporary worship or a neo-Pentecostal embrace of the so-called charismatic gifts

What most impresses me about the TGC conference are its founders, Don Carson and Tim Keller. The other speakers at the plenary sessions were mediocre, especially in comparison to Carson and Keller. I found James McDonald to be genuine, but his props were entirely unnecessary -- it wasn't a gathering of children. Both McDonald and Alistair Begg, who preached on Ruth, were handed wonderful opportunities to preach Christ from their Old Testament texts, but in both instances the references to Christ seemed somewhat detached from their expositions, as an afterthought of sorts. Matt Chandler and Albert Mohler were sound, humorous, and entertaining, but not particularly profound or insightful. Mark Driscoll's workshop had the semblance of an angry rant, and this was particularly disappointing to me since I found Driscoll to be quite insightful at the last conference.

Part of this mild letdown can be explained by my upbringing. I've been extraordinarily blessed to be nurtured in my youth by faithful, redemptive-historical, Christocentric preaching. The important figures in my own church history, Klaas Schilder and Benne Holwerda, were pioneers in developing a homiletic for narrative texts that was explicitly Christocentric and non-moralistic. By the age of twenty, long before I went to seminary, I had read Sidney's Greidanus's Sola Scriptura. So what the New Calvinism is cutting its teeth on  has been my staple for decades.

And yet the conference was an immense blessing for me, and for several reasons: (a) the rousing music and faithful songs of the Gettys; (b) Tim Keller's brilliant lectures, (c) David Powlison's talk about the pastor's counselling ministry, (d) conversing with David later about the use of Scripture in counselling, (e) Don Carson's exciting talk about Melchizedek, (f) chilling with family and friends.

Next time, I'll return to Tim Keller. He is the reason I attended TGC conference, and he is the reason I will return.