Thursday, May 31, 2007

Reformed Catholicism v. Reformed Catholicity, no. 4

Over the past week, I've continued to think about the exchange with this heading. I am especially mindful of one commenter's note that we shouldn't lose sight of Darryl Hart's comments in the exchange, in which Hart questioned whether Presbyterians and Pentecostals have much in common. As he well put it:
I'm left wondering how we keep the essentials of the Reformed faith and engage Pentecostals and Methodists in theology, mission and fellowship. The Reformed doctrine of sanctification is not very Wesley friendly and I would imagine it would carry much weight in discussing theology and mission with Pentecostals and Methodists -- as in being a non-starter. Or have I missed something?
This is, of course, the key question that confessional Presbyterians have asked for a long time. It reminds me of the questions that Cornelius Van Til raised in the 1950s as the OPC debated whether to join the International Council of Christian Churches. To Van Til's line of thinking, because Arminians believed a defective gospel, it was essentially no gospel at all; as a result, there was no common ground over which to cooperate missionally (see, for this, my essay, "J. Gresham Machen, Ned B. Stonehouse, and the Quandary of Reformed Ecumenicity," WTJ 62 [2000]: 197-222).

While Van Til's position has the value of logical consistency, perhaps, it doesn't do a whole lot for either ecumencity or charity. I guess I'd want to say that in the end, the most important thing is not that one's identity is "Reformed," but that one's identity is shaped by Jesus Christ. If someone puts their whole-hearted faith in Jesus, regardless of whether they are Lutheran, Pentecostal, or Presbyterian, that person is united to him and receives all the benefits of salvation: she is declared right with God, adopted into his family, set apart and made holy in God’s sight, and glorified. And where my native catholicity kicks in is by recognizing that this is most important--those who name Jesus are my brothers and sisters (otherwise, what ground do Darryl and I have to fellowship ecclesiastically with Independent Baptists in our own families?). I can affirm, wish, and even strategize that these churches might grow for God's glory.

However, in extending charity (through catholicity) to these brothers and sisters, I do so out of my own identity as a Presbyterian. I do believe that the "Reformed faith is grand" (as Machen said on his death bed); I've committed my ministry to teach these doctrines and preach these truths; I'm here training Presbyterian ministers for Presbyterian churches. So, by no means do I want to say that the Reformed faith is unimportant in these conversations--in fact, it is the most biblical approach to the Christian faith out there.

And yet, by living out of a sense of Reformed Catholicity, I have a better chance of sharing the best of "our" biblical, theological, and historical insights with others; as well as meaningfully listening and being encouraged by the genuine faith of others. Our greatest hope is not merely in deconstructing evangelicalism, but in affirming the basic evangelical impulse that animates all true believers: the great necessity for men and women, boys and girls to know the life-giving, world-changing reality of faith in Jesus Christ.


Darryl Hart said...

"Affirming the evangelical impulse that animates all true believers" is a different kettle of fish from ecclesiastical fellowship with Independent Baptists or any other non-Reformed Christians. To do the former, an individual is competent and so Sean is within his rights theoretically as a generic Christian to do so. But ecclesiastical fellowship requires an ecclesia, and unless Sean or I set up our own denomination and appoint ourselves to the Inter-church Relations Committee, we will be dependent on the deliberations of a communion of believers to decide those with whom he and I are in ecclesiastical fellowship. (For the record, I haven't been in ecclesiastical fellowship with my Baptist parents since I joined the PCA in 1985. That's not to say I'm happy about that. But it is life in a Reformed communion.)

Is this overly precise? Maybe. But it also reveals the tension in Sean's own understanding of his Christian identity. I hear him saying he is a Christian first, Presbyterian second when he writes that "the most important thing is not that one's identity is 'Reformed,' but that one's identity is shaped by Jesus Christ." I doubt this construction would work when it comes to faculty search committees at Covenant or to presbytery meetings in St. Louis. In those situations, being Presbyterian is likely more important for membership in presbytery or on faculty than being a Christian.

I have tried to deconstruct evangelicalism to try to show that a generic Christian identity is impossible because it involves a churchless Christianity. I know of no Christianity that does not involve the church in her formal capacities with respect to teaching, liturgical life, and governance. Evangelicals think they have arrived at a form of Christianity where church boundaries do not matter, and yet each and every Sunday they are in a local body of believers, subject to its ministry. What I would like people to see is that church membership matters (for Willow Creekers as much as Presbyterians). And even if Christians want to put more stock in the parachurch affiliations than in their congregation or denomination, individual Christians and parachurch institutions have not been given the keys of the kingdom. The church and her officers are the only ones who can decide who does and who doesn't belong in the church. Otherwise, it is merely the claims of one individual Christian against another.

Is this uncharitable? It may seem so but if Christ has given instructions to his church and the church fails to heed his teaching, what may appear to be tolerant and charitable could turn out to be pernicious. This is why it is important to recover an understanding of charity that includes corretion, rebuke and all the things that Paul encouraged Timothy to do as he ministered the word. Parents know all the time that love involves being tough with their kids. So why does charity toward non-Presbyterians only seem to imply acceptance and affirmation? Why wasn't it actually the case that Van Til was loving in trying to follow all of Christ's instructions and warn non-Reformed of their failure to do the same?

sam wheatley said...

Your point is well taken and one that has been a distinctive stance of the Reformed postion -- contending for truth. And I would never want to drop that key component; not just because of our history, but because of its essential nature in the gospel ministry itself. The question I have and I sense that Sean is wrestling with is stance. Where is the best position from which to leverage our critique? From too far a distance there is no point of contact at all and so our critique is simply and easily ignored, from too close any critique implies a breach of relationship. We have all witnessed "eccumenical" relationship become the society of lowest common denominator; what I desire to see more of is real debate and engagement where we treat each other with respect. Reform always begins at home, so my goal is not so much the transformation of the PCA's relationship with other denominations as much as it is the transformation of our own denomination's dialogue to embody this in its formal and informal conversations. The structure exist for this within our denominational framework, but without people engaging in what already exists, there is little hope of something forming beyond.

Darryl Hart said...

I see Mark Horne has linked to Sean's post here, especially noting the limits of Van Til's position for charity and ecumenicity. After having almost finished a paper on Barth and Van Til, I am more convinced that Van Til's stand for the Reformed faith (both against Arminians and Barthians) was admirable and did great things for an ecumenicity based on orthodoxy instead of orthopathy (good feelings or intentions). I know he could sound negative, but I'm not sure how you deny someone else's position without doing so. Who among us likes to be told we're wrong, to get a B+ instead of the A?

What I see right now is a lot of affirming the truth of Reformed Christianity but not much denying of its alternatives. (The Federal Visionaries might have a different perspective on that.) The reason has to do, in my opinion, with an erroneous idea of charity that regards love as only affirming and not involving correction and rebuke. I am reminded that this was the same impulse that drove "Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together" of a year ago or so. Obviously, the recent GA of the PCA would suggest that if Presbyterians can't get along, what are the chances of Presbyterians and Wesleyans doing so?

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Darryl: I'd love to read your CVT and Barth paper, simply because I believe that Van Til's take on Barth was one of his worst moments, not one of his bests. It would be striking to read your rehabilitation of him.

I do agree with you that ecumencity must be based upon orthodoxy and that this can be (must be) facilitated by "contending earnestly for the faith" (Jude 3-4). And yet, as our mutual personal and relational connections to fundamentalism should remind us, "contending" texts must be matched with "gentleness and meekness" texts like 2 Tim 2:23-26. Not all our contending is necessary nor is stridency necessarily "contending" (reading FV/anti-FV blogs can demonstrate this adequately enough).

My own take on our GA is actually different from yours; I think the Assembly spoke quite clearly about what it considered "essentials" of the system of doctrine, fixed points of what we believe. While it is not all that we would want to say, it is something and a good place to start (and actually fairly similar to what your denomination, the OPC, did last year). In doing so, I believe the GA thought it was ruling some views out of bounds; that will only be determined in the future. As a result, this affirming/denying continuum to which you point actually is occuring within our church.

However, we can't simply stop there. I think that if the PCA and OPC can't talk to each other well (or the PCA and the ARP), then you are right--how can we expect to engage Wesleyans or Lutherans or Pentecostals? That is why I've long hoped that sometime in my lifetime the PCA will engage in an union with another Presbyterian denomination--to continue to work out in our midst Reformed Catholicity in ways that affirm John 17 on the one side and common confessional commitments on the other. sml