With a title this good, it demands two posts. Having reflected on the fundamentalist side of this conversation between my friends Rick Phillips and Carl Trueman, the more interesting (and untouched) part of their exchange touches on the divide within the Reformed world. Because what I heard in Rick's comments particularly may actually help us diagnosis why sometimes Reformed-types don't get along so well.
At one point, Rick wrote, "Frankly, because of the big idea of antithesis, I am more comfortable with the fundamentalists than I am with the broad evangelicals. More and more, broad evangelicals do not get the idea of antithesis, and for this reason even when they have a pretty good formal doctrinal statement, they seldom really stand up for it. In Psalm 1 terms, the broad evangelicals are to willing to 'walk in the counsel of the ungodly.' Broad evangelicals want to be successful; fundamentalists want to be faithful." Aside from the fact that I heard this regularly as a student at BJU, this observation is striking for a number of reasons.
If you think about this in terms of the Reformed world, I think you get a good sense of the divide that sometimes characterizes us and it is a leftover of the Kuyperian legacy--there are those who stress the "antithesis" and those who stress "common grace."
Those who stress "common grace" tend to want to engage the culture and seek its transformation. They want to read current novels, watch the current movies, listen to the current music and find continuing echoes of Eden. They want to produce art that reflects honestly the brokenness of the world as well as the possibility of redemption, science that affirms the purposefulness of all creation, history that looks unflinchingly and critically, yet hopefully, at its subjects, politics that seeks proximate love and justice. And they want to do these things as part of God's work of redemption in this present age, knowing that God's grace has gone before them in these various spheres.
Those who stress the "antithesis" note that the world has never been a safe place for Christians and the church (Matthew 5:10-12; John 16:33) and that the world itself is passing away (1 Cor 7:33; 1 John 2:17). As a result, they want to name the world as "the world" (to use Stanley Hauerwas' memorable way of putting it) and only the church in the preaching of the Gospel can do that. They want to take seriously the noetic effects of sin, the continuing reality of the world's brokenness, the continued influence of the devil in the world, the real temptations of power and influence and their corrupting nature upon the church. Above all, they want to maintain the "holiness" of the church (remember, it is the one holy catholic and apostolic church, they would say) and the purity of the its doctrine (not just peace and unity, but purity of the church is in the PCA ordination vows).
There are dangers on both sides. Those who overstress the antithesis tend toward a separatism that leads to ghettoization. My wife and I went back to BJU while on vacation and it struck us once again how time sort of stands still there. Going into the bookstore, there were, proportionally, very few books written after 1995 (although I was thankful for all the Banner of Truth and Sprinkle publication reprints there). When I was a student, I rebelled against this sense that it was dangerous to engage the academic world; I wanted to participate in the larger academic conversations that were simply not available to me there. I felt like we were talking to ourselves.
Now, to be fair, my friends and I often felt that the same thing happened when I was at WTS. We called it the "Clark-Van Til vortex." Whenever we were in class, some student would inevitably raise his hand and say, "You know, this really all goes back to Clark-Van Til." I would then draw a vortex on my paper and hold it up for my friend to see as we slipped into the vortex for 30 or 40 minutes of point-counterpoint on these issues. We often felt that the issues we would debate at WTS were in our own little ghetto of the Reformed world, separated and cordoned off from the rest of the world. I don't think we wanted to be "successful"; but we did want to be engaged.
To be candid, I think that when some of our Reformed brothers talk about "Reformed sectarianism," what they mean is the kind of separatism that an overemphasis upon the antithesis can foster. They want to read N. T. Wright, Lesslie Newbigin, Stanley Hauerwas; they want to be involved in the larger theological conversations. And it may be that our recent debates about justification were (for some) as much about whom am I allowed to read as anything else--whether intellectual separatism that draws from an overemphasis upon the antithesis would develop a list of prohibited books (like the "blacklist" of prohibited churches that BJU used to maintain when I was a student).
There is a danger on the other side: those who overstress common grace tend toward a triumphalist culturekampf that can lead to secularization. Sometimes I wonder if there are no boundaries in our willingness to engage culture, looking for hints of Eden. I was at a pastors gathering a few weeks ago and one of the guys was talking about a recent R-rated movie that he watched; his evaluation was, "Well, it was terribly violent and there was one pornographic scene in it." Another of the guys at the table said, "Oh yeah, I want to see that movie too." I left wondering whether these ministers would think well of me if I went to a bar in East St. Louis, Illinois, to witness a murder and watch a stripper; that strikes me as a moral equivalent.
Now, to be fair, we need Christians who think deeply about the cultural artifacts of our moment in time, who exegete our culture and present the Gospel to it. Don't hear what I am not saying: we need apologists. My fear is that in our attempts to transform culture through engagement of it, to be "relevant," that we will end up seeing the Holy Spirit in the spirit of the age to such a degree that the Spirit becomes the age's spirit and vice versa. In doing so, the church can become so secular that Leviticus 11:44 and 1 Peter 1:16 become nice pastoral advice for some people somewhere--but not us and not now.
To be candid, this is what I hear in Rick's concern. He is fearful that the church is sliding morally and doctrinally toward a liberalism that sadly replicates the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that loses sight of the Gospel and its transformative power, and that trades its spiritual birthright for a mess of relevant soup.
In the light of all this, I think in the Reformed world, and especially in the PCA, we need to recognize some things: First, it is not possible to reconcile common grace and the antithesis; Kuyper couldn't, lots of smart Dutch theologians haven't, and I don't expect we will either.
Second, recognizing this, we should realize that we will probably tend toward one side or the other--part of this will be family of origin issues, early religious training, personality predilections, etc.
Third, as we lean one way or the other, we need to become much more self-critical. There are a number of complex reasons why we see the world the way we do; we need to be honest with ourselves so that we don't simply sanctify our ideology as "biblical" when it might be deeply flawed.
Fourth, we also need to recognize the dangers inherent in the way we lean and try to hedge against them. For example, I recognize that by training, background, etc., I probably lean toward the antithesis--my hedge is that I am constantly trying to engage the academic world, recognizing that God's grace is to be found there as well in the scholarship produced by unbelievers or those who have different Christian commitments from mine.
Finally, above all, we need to exercise the judgment of charity toward each other. By recognizing the dangers in our position, we are freed to recognize the value of the other--I can affirm my brothers and sisters who in common grace run coffee houses and line their churches with their art in order to engage in conversations with others. They bring something to the body of Christ that I don't bring; they are "jazz" to my "three-chords and a chorus" (1 Cor 12:12-27). I need those who emphasis common grace; and they, frankly, need me.
After all, if someone brings aerosol cheese to a party, someone else needs to bring crackers. Unless you are Carl Trueman--who points the cheese can directly into his mouth and sprays.