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Election Post Mortem

How will Christians respond to the Republican resurgence last night? Will the “culture war” rhetoric be amped up? One satirist has already posted on Twitter: “Apparently, contrary to the bumper sticker, God is a Republican.”

In 1994, the last time Republicans won big in Congressional elections, Michael Horton sat down with William Bennett, Os Guinness, Jim Wallis, and Cal Thomas to discuss religion and politics:

Cal Thomas: Isn’t it amazing that about 15 years after the advent of the so-called “Christian Right” that we are still debating the issues of the proper role of religion and politics. My view is that religion is political, or has a political dimension, and all politics has a religious dimension. So the question I want to pose to our panel members is just what exactly is the proper role of religion in a political system, and what is the proper role of politics in a nation that contains a good number of religious people. I want to begin by saying that there are two elements here we need to look at. First of all I think we have to begin with Thomas Jefferson’s wonderful phrase, “All men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It was in the next clause that Mr. Jefferson outlined the purpose of Government. He wrote, “And to secure these rights governments are instituted among men.” To secure what rights? Well, the rights that God had endowed. Why is that necessary for government to do? Because the founders understood that men and women were basically flawed on the inside-not basically good as modernists say-and that if they would not be constrained from within by the presence and power of God whom they worshiped, then they needed to be restrained from without by the presence and power of the state in order to conform them to a standard that would, because of self-evident truths, promote the general welfare, provide for the common defense, insure domestic tranquillity, and establish justice. It is, I think, because we have abandoned this important analysis of the human condition, which we used to call sin, that we now have a dysfunctional government. I also would say that I think the church would make a great mistake if it is looking for a political deliverance. People seem to be saying that if we could only find another Reagan then we could make things better. But I don’t believe in trickle-down morality in America. I don’t think that the person in the White House can make things better by him or herself. I think that it is going to require a national revival where our consciences are raised and we all come to our senses.

Michael Horton: I come from the Reformation tradition, which is ostensibly where evangelicals come from-and that is part of the problem, because evangelicalism is becoming more shaped by the forces of secular culture than by that Reformation heritage these days.

I would like to begin by arguing that this whole issue goes back a lot further than Ronald Reagan. In the nineteenth century, the moral crusade was very much a part of the American gospel. It was very important to have an American culture, an American church, an American religion, etc. And as Protestant denominations began to lose their hegemony over these institutions they increasingly downplayed theology and doctrine in order to form alliances with those who were on the right side of the political spectrum. One of the things I argue in Beyond Culture Wars is that the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God are two different kingdoms, a distinction that seems to be lost from both the Christian right and Christian left. Coming from the Reformed tradition-a tradition that has taken this world very seriously-I have a lot of respect for my forebears who in this country founded Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Yale, and other institutions. They were trailblazers in all kinds of disciplines, and yet they knew that there was another world that was not only more important, but another world that helped us interpret this world. Evangelicals have lost that theological ballast by and large-which, by the way, has been pointed out by more secular historians and commentators than evangelical ones-and because of that loss of spiritual and theological ballast, we end up parroting whatever the world says or whatever was on Oprah’s last show, perhaps with Bible verses attached to it.

We used to call the confusion of politics and the gospel-saving the nation vs. saving indidviduals-heresy in mainline denominations in the sixties. But now evangelicals adopt the social gospel mentality because, after all, it’s now the right politics. Part of the problem in this business is entitlement. Everyone is out for his or her piece of the pie. Not only is Christianity in danger of being increasingly confused with American culture in general-those of you who travel abroad know exactly how many people recognize evangelicalism as an American phenomenon-but it is, even further than that, in danger of being confused with white, middle class, suburban American culture. I’m not critical of the Christian Coalition, for example, for its particular policy positions. It’s a free country and they represent a large segment of society. My problem is confusing that with Christianity, which I think it does.

Christianity won its way to dominance by sound arguments. Stephen in the book of Acts is emblematic of this, for when men began to argue with him, “they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke” (Acts 6:10). Evangelicals today focus on the people in power, and either lionize them, as in the case of Reagan, or demonize them, as in the case of Clinton. They should focus not on the people but on the ideas in power. I think that is crucial to focus on in the discussion of the culture wars.

Jim Wallis: I think what’s really missing in our day is a politics of personal responsibility, social justice, and community spirit. In other words, we need to be involved in shaping a more biblical politics; to move away from predictable ideological politics to a prophetic spiritual politics. The prophets in the biblical mode were never very comfortable in the White House, regardless of who was in power there. That kind of a prophetic biblical politics could cause a kind of convergence, bringing together the evangelicals, Catholics, the black churches, people who are inside and outside churches who are looking for change.

I think the violence we see in our society today may be for us a wake-up call. Violence is not the problem, violence is a consequence of the problem. We need to understand that violence is not just caused by poverty, it is caused by a profound lack of hope; it is despair that leads to chaos. So our politics must be rooted in spiritual values, and it must begin to move beyond the labels of conservative and liberal. Our politics must be characterized by a profound sense of hope. When our children are planning their funerals instead of their futures, we have a problem with hope, and if the religious community is not infusing the public square with that hope, then we are not doing our job.

Os Guinness: Let me just make four comments. Two against those who would tend to discount religion in public life, and two against those who would like to bring religion back to a prominent position in public life, but in unwise ways. The first comment is that understanding America without understanding religion would be like looking at Switzerland without the Alps. You’ll make absolutely no sense of it at all. Most Americans, past and present, have understood themselves and their whole lives (including their public life) from the perspective of faith. And to squeeze that out would be totally anti-democratic. Also you can see that Christian faith, as well as religion in general, is one of the three great streams that shaped this country. And to remove what is the earliest and strongest stream would be an act of national and historical suicide.

The second thing I would say on the positive side against those who discount religion in public life is that clearly, the place of faith and the religious liberty clauses in the founding documents is very close to the heart of the genius in this country. The mix of separation of church and state, faith and freedom, the ordering of religious liberty and pluralism, I think is as close as anyone has ever got in history to doing it right. Those who are trying to squeeze religion out are historically and culturally, and politically short-sighted.

Now of course for the last twenty-five years we have had the controversies. As Peter Berger puts it, one of the odd things about America is that she is a nation with a people as religious as India, and a leadership as secular as Sweden. In other words, the leadership in America is disproportionately secular. Now I personally don’t think that most of that is hostile. I have worked in the media, and in my opinion that lack of appreciation is much more often born of ignorance rather than hostility. In my experience, both in academia and in the media, the amount of hostility is remarkably small while the amount of indifference and ignorance is remarkably large.

Let me now make two comments towards those who are bringing religion back in unwise ways. First, many of them do so by turning everything into the culture wars. There is a culture war; it’s deep, it’s profound, it’s serious. But that is not the deepest problem we face today. I and many others would argue that the deeper problem still is what’s called the crisis of cultural authority. In other words, the beliefs and traditions and ideals which Americans once believed no longer have their compelling power over those who believe them. The situation is not us vs. them; we are fine and they are the problem. So whether it is the liberal elite or the media or whoever, they are the problem so if you clear them out all will be well. The problem with this view is that there is no problem in the wider culture that you cannot see in spades in the Christian church. The rot is in us, and not simply out there. And Christians are making a great mistake by turning everything into culture wars. It’s a much deeper crisis. It’s a crisis of cultural authority that affects religious people as well as secular. It affects all of us in the challenge of the modern world.

And the other comment I had against those who are bringing religion back wrongly is that I think one of the greatest needs today is to work again for a common vision for the common good. A while back a Washington journalist said to me, “Most evangelicals speak as if they’re talking of justice but sound as if they’re talking of just us.” And one of the reasons there is such a negative aura attached to the Christian right, which is partly justified, is that there is no stand for a common vision for the common good. There is no stand for public justice.

So let me pose the issues I think America faces today. At the individual level there is a simple choice. Will we be tribespeople and respond according to our group allegiances, will we be idiots (in the old Greek sense), people who are just after their own individual interests, or thirdly, will we be citizens, people who can fight for their own interests but always with a respect for the common good, recognizing the rights of the worst of their enemies and the smallest minorities that they happen to oppose. Too many Christians today are tribespeople. Would that they were citizens in the best sense of the word.

Cal Thomas: Let’s bring Bill Bennett into this discussion. Bill, on the major issues of our day, abortion, the gay rights movement, etc., it’s fine to talk about pluralism and tolerance, but in politics someone has to make a decision. Now, you are thinking about running for president, so what are you going to do about all those people who disagree with your views?

William Bennett: Well, first of all, the Christian is not objecting to notions of tolerance and pluralism. The Christian’s objection is that he is being left out of the public square entirely. I think that is the problem, Cal. It is not seeking orthodoxy or uniformity across the country. Rather, Christians entering into politics now are saying that they are the last group in America that is not respected. Everyone else seems to have their day and we do not have ours. Our beliefs are tread upon, our children are not allowed to express their faith. This is the main problem we have to deal with.

The Press: Bill, one national columnist recently observed that the conservative religious right is fighting for its life, suggesting that the culture is slipping away and perhaps gasping its last breath. Is there a certain desperation demonstrated in the activity of the religious right involving American politics, and is there a counterpoint to the remarks of President Clinton and Joycelyn Elders about the religious right’s imposing its agenda in politics and education?

William Bennett: I don’t think it’s desperation at all, rather, I think Christians are energized, and I think that the Clinton presidency has helped somewhat to energize them. When Bill Clinton or Joycelyn Elders give voice to views that have angered many people, views that go against the grain of mainstream Americans and not just Christians or Jews, this I think is what has energized people. I don’t think it is a last gasp, I think frankly the movement to get sound values back into politics and to not be embarrassed by their religious origin is stronger now because people understand that we have tried to do it value-free; we have tried to run politics without values and we have seen the result. It is now very respectable to talk in public about the importance of the family, character education, and a whole host of things which only fifteen years ago would have been regarded as on the fringe. So I think this is an expression of strength, not of weakness, and it is that which has enraged some Democrats on the left because they fear the strength of the movement. The last point I have is that as the movement gets stronger its spokesmen must be careful of what they say and how they speak. They must remember to speak in a way and for a cause that would invite people rather than turn them away, so the example of Christian witness must always be in the forefront.

Os Guinness: I would agree with most of what Mr. Bennett said, but just with one slight difference, and that is, I think there is a note of Christian desperation. As someone put it to me, “Christians talk as if they are standing on the rock of ages, and act as if they are clinging to the last piece of driftwood.” And if you read direct mail, there is a panic, an alarmism, a paranoia, that really is born of fear, and I think that really is an explanation for a lot of the hate and some of the ugliness. The clearest example in my view is the attempt by Christians to portray themselves as a persecuted minority. It was quite deliberate; it was engineered at a stage several years ago when the Christian right looked as if it was faltering. I think it is psychologically disastrous and it appeals to resentment. It is politically ineffective and it is thoroughly sub-Christian. But I think examples like this are examples of Christian desperation, and I think the sooner we get rid of this and have a firm faith in the sovereignty of God and of the truth of the Christian Gospel and in the openness of democracy we’ll have a chance to win the debate, particularly if we put in place a public philosophy.

Michael Horton: It seems to me that everyone is setting out to be a moral authority while at the same time there is an enormous amount of hypocrisy, whether you are talking about the Clintons or the Christian right. In terms of beliefs and practices, evangelicals themselves are too much apart of the “worldliness” they themselves criticize. Let me give a couple of examples. Secular humanism is defined by leaders of the Christian right as making man the measure, while at the same time, 77% of America’s evangelicals say that man is basically good, and 4 out of 5 evangelicals agree that “God helps those who help themselves.” If secular humanism is faith in humanity, rather than faith in God, then today’s evangelical are prime suspects. And on practical matters, 1 in 6 women who have abortions claims to be a born again Christian. I have personally known a number of Christian leaders who were writing book on marriage and the family while their families were falling apart. I think we have to realize that the church needs to be the church again, it needs to recover its theological roots. Ideas have consequences, and I think we are seeing Christians themselves failing to live up to their theological convictions because perhaps they are not really in touch with that theology themselves.

I also thought Mr. Bennett’s remark that Bill Clinton has energized evangelicals was very interesting. I think that’s part of the problem. I come at this, not as a player in Washington, I come at this as a pastor who is concerned about an evangelicalism that is becoming increasingly shaped by cultural, rather that spiritual and theological factors. And I think that point that Mr. Bennett made is very important for us to take away. Bill Clinton, by antithesis, is energizing evangelicals. I think that is a very scary thing, because what it means is, first of all, that our witness is reactive, and secondly, that our witness is determined by politics rather than by the Great Commission, and I think that is very tragic.

Jim Wallis: Some of us don’t feel that the White House has been a source of moral guidance for a long time. And I think that Christian preoccupation with who is in the White House and how they can get there to be with them is the source of our problems. I also think we are still plagued by false choices. There is this attitude out there that our choices are to be either completely secular or be perfectly aligned with those of the religious right. This is simply not the case. There are many evangelical Christians who are not politically on the right. There are moderates, there are progressives, and there are many who in fact do not find that their priorities articulated the extremes of either party.

Cal Thomas: I think it is interesting to remember that 2,000 years ago the ancient Israelites were looking for a deliverer to end the secular oppression of Caesar and the Roman government. But because they were looking for a political messiah, they missed the one they were in greater need of. I agree with Jim, that we are not going to have trickle-down morality; it has to be bubble- up. So some of my wonderful friends on the Christians right (which is better than being pagan left) are making the same mistake as the ancient Jews of two thousand years ago, I think.

Let me get back if I can to the issue of character education and virtue, now that these concepts are once again in fashion. What exactly is virtue, and how do you instill it in a people if not through its institutions. Everybody realizes that we have a crisis of virtue in this country, so what is the best formula, what is the best prescription for this virtue vacuum that is now gripping the nation.

Os Guinness: Well, I have three comments. First of all, I think Bill Bennett has done us an enormous service in bringing back the issue of character. To answer your question specifically, the key notion for the Greeks in learning virtue was habit, or as we would put biblically, obedience. And the modeling of character, and the modeling of virtue is much more difficult than simply educating it through the schools or the media. The second comment I have is that I don’t think we should be too impressed with the present fashionability of virtue. You can see the skepticism surrounding the subject on the recent Newsweek cover. Anything that is caught up like that is going to have its fifteen minutes in the sun, but the real test is whether after fifteen years the discussion is still going on. The third comment I have is, if you look back at the tradition of virtues and vices, the Greeks and the Romans stressed the virtues, while the Christians and the Jews stressed the vices. Both groups discussed virtues and vices, but is was the Christians that emphasized the discussion of vices. And for all our talk of virtues today, our view of the vices today is what is being described rightly as “sin-lite”. Sinfulness is low self-esteem, chocolate dessert, and so on. So until there is a radical view of evil and vice, talk of virtue will mean absolutely nothing.

Michael Horton: When the Christian hears talk about virtue-if we have our theological categories, and the Reformers were great with this stuff-we have a category for this discussion of virtue in terms of civil righteousness or civil politics. The problem comes when we don’t have those categories, and we think of civil righteousness as righteousness before God. So when Christians hear talk of pagan virtue, there is a sense in which we should say that even the most agnostic person can have virtue in the civic sense, but we are confusing this right now with Christianity and the Christian message.

The second thing I want to say is that when it does come to virtue in the home, evangelicals once again are lacking. Senate Chaplain Richard Halverson said recently that he was speaking to a group of evangelicals who wanted prayer back in the schools and he asked how many of them prayed with their children that morning. Sadly, no one raised his hand. Everybody wants the Ten Commandments in the public schools, but according to Gallup, most evangelicals can’t name them themselves. There is an enormous doctrinal and biblical illiteracy in the church and I think we have a lot of work in teaching and explaining what we believe and why we believe it before we try to force non-Christians to be less than what they are.

Cal Thomas: It’s really a shortcut to righteousness, isn’t it. The government is my keeper, I shall not want… I think both the left and the right have made serious mistakes in looking to government to deliver us from our collective ills. I would like to thank the members of the panel for being with us today.

Originally published in Modern Reformation (September/October 1994): Vol. 3, No. 5. Pages 24-27.

In Defense of Monotheopolies

In a recent radio broadcast, The Onion news correspondent Doyle Redland reported that US Circuit Court Judge Charles Elliot Schofield has “ordered God to break himself up into several less powerful deities.” saying that his “stranglehold” on the religious industry “is ‘blatantly anti-competitive’ and ‘in violation of anti-monopoly laws.’”  Redland was present at a press conference given by the judge, who ruled that God is “in violation of anti-monopoly laws.” and accused him of “willfully and actively thwarted competition with such unfair scare tactics and in the process has carved out for himself an illegal monotheopoly.”

Such is the degeneracy of this age that even bastions of journalistic integrity like The Onion must at times yield to the seductive allure of sensationalism and the relentless pressure of secular prejudice. We at White Horse Inn, being dutiful cogs in Christ’s religious industry, consider it only appropriate that we should speak out in defense of our autocrat.

Against the Pagan Deities
These ‘gods’ (i.e., Baal, Asherah, and Molech) have consistently and unequivocally, in true and equal combat, proven themselves inferior in power to our Lord (1 Kings 18). They have treated human beings with total disregard and unstinting cruelty by paying heed to neither our sinful estate nor our cries for help in times of distress and suffering (1 Kings 18), and yet have required worship and reverence of an abhorrent and violent nature (i.e., the sacrifice of our own infants and the mutilation of our bodies).

In Response To The Accusations
From the foundations of the earth, our Lord has openly and clearly made his position on the rights of other ‘gods’ to be worshipped in like manner to himself known (Exo. 20, Deu. 5).  He therefore cannot be rightly accused of ‘unfairly scaring’ lesser ‘gods’ into relinquishing their right to an equal status with himself, and we respectfully submit that if said ‘gods’ were compelled into submission, it was and continues to be a function of their essential inferiority (Isa. 41:21-29), and not a result of conspiracy or manipulation on behalf of our Lord.

In Defense of Monotheopolies
Having established the fallibility and worthlessness of said pretended ‘gods’ and the manifest superiority of the risen Christ, we protest his inalienable and absolute right to hold a monotheopoly and maintain his stranglehold on deity now and henceforth.  His unity (Deu. 4:35), eternal power (Rom. 1:20), and holiness all bear witness to the propriety, justice, and wisdom of such an arrangement – if his innumerable perfections do not demand it, surely his unfailing and careful love deserve it.  Being so far from demanding arbitrary and capricious servitude from his creatures, he has deigned to give good gifts to his children, binding even his most sacred name in self-maledictory covenant to ensure not only their preservation and prosperity, but even their salvation and eternal life (Gen. 15).

-Brooke Mintun

Brooke Mintun is the satirist in residence at White Horse Inn and voted today for King Jesus.

Getting Perspective: the introduction to “Justified”

Justified, the new book from Modern Reformation, will be available for purchase the week of November 15th. If you’re going to the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Atlanta, Georgia (November 17-19), you can get some of the very first copies available by stopping by the White Horse Inn booth in the exhibit hall.

Next week, we’ll post an excerpt from Mike Horton’s chapter, “Engaging N. T. Wright and John Piper” (click here for the table of contents). This week, we’re posting an excerpt of the Introduction, “Getting Perspective,” by Dr. Ryan Glomsrud, the executive editor of Modern Reformation.

The five “solas” of the Reformation were at one time the consensus of Protestantism. Converging in the doctrine of justification, we are saved by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) because of Christ alone (solus Christus) all for God’s glory alone (soli Deo Gloria), a message of good news that is revealed to us in Scripture alone (sola scriptura). Over the past number of years, unfortunately, evangelicals have been divided on these otherwise unifying truths, tending to associate what was once the lifeblood of the evangelical movement with merely “getting saved.” While some evangelicals, including many teachers and high-profile pastors, have directly attacked the old Protestant consensus, undermining specifically the doctrine of justification, other rank-and-file believers have simply come to believe that there should be a different emphasis in evangelical media on personal and social renewal, or on the transformative aspect of salvation—namely, sanctification—rather than the declarative aspect—God’s justification of the ungodly. Being reckoned righteous in Christ is for many a mere preface to the central message of the need to become more Christ-like, a trend moving in the direction of spirituality and discipleship. And finally, there are self-identified evangelicals who have never even heard of the “solas” of the Reformation, much less the imputation of Christ’s righteousness that is the crux of justification. Whether rejected outright, neglected, or simply unknown, it is evident that the gospel as traditionally understood has fallen on hard times.

Over the past thirty years debates over the doctrine of justification, though quieter than other controversies, have nonetheless been many and varied. There is no one history to which Modern Reformation can draw your attention. Suffice it to say, Wright, James Dunn, and E. P. Sanders (representative of the New Perspective on Paul) are not the cause of the present controversy. Rather, they represent at best a contemporaneous phenomenon that has in some ways galvanized evangelicals who were already conflicted over how to understand both the big-picture interpretation of the Bible, otherwise called biblical theology, as well as crucial exegetical details—in particular the scriptural teaching on law, justification, righteousness, faith, and the nature of God’s interaction with his people in the time of Abraham and Moses. In the end, it matters little if we can pinpoint whether the slow rise of justification debates occurred before or at the same time as the New Perspective. The point is that similar debates have been playing out among Christian college Bible faculties, on evangelical seminary campuses, in some of the more purportedly “doctrinaire” denominations, and even at meetings (past and present) of the Evangelical Theological Society, mostly without reference to Wright or the disparate group of scholars working on Second Temple Judaism and the interpretation of the New Testament. It is therefore important to gain a proper perspective on our current situation. In these selections from Modern Reformation, a combination of new and classic articles, we want to present a few catalyzing arguments that have the potential to move forward what we think is a stalled debate in evangelicalism and the wider world of New Testament studies.

Leaving Dispensationalism Behind
There is a great deal of complexity to the history of evangelical theology, more than can possibly be summed up in a brief introduction. Among the various factors we could call to mind, the emergence of a post-dispensationalist evangelical academy is one that is not typically acknowledged. Classic premillennial dispensationalism, as many will know, had a unique way of carving up the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation, and is still without question a very popular way of interpreting the Bible among laity. But with the flourishing of “neo-evangelical” institutions such as Christian colleges, seminaries, and publishing companies over the past thirty years, dispensationalism has slowly retreated from dominance among the teachers and scholars who labor to train the next generation of leaders. In its place, there has been an emphasis on the unity of the biblical story. This effort amounted to an attempt to flatten the contours of redemptive history and shave off the rough edges of the starkly delimited covenant “dispensations” known to previous generations. Without necessarily revising evangelical eschatology or end-times views, evangelicals now predominantly identify one story of “grace” from beginning to end. One is tempted to explain this shift in terms of “lumping” and “splitting,” general categories that are sometimes helpful in getting one’s bearings. For better or worse, the overcoming of dispensationalism’s exegetical “splitting” or compartmentalizing of redemptive history into seven relatively discrete and non-overlapping covenants has given way to a new “lumping” mentality, or what some of the authors in this volume will refer to as “mono-” or “one-covenantalism,” which essentially groups together God’s successive redemptive acts into one large, reductionist covenant. Where the old dispensational consensus identified difference in a transition from law to grace, post-dispensational evangelicals recognize mostly (and sometimes exclusively) unity in a movement of uninterrupted grace.

In this evangelical shift, several crucial Reformation themes—some of which never sat very well with dispensationalists either—have become more and more controversial. If the accent in evangelical biblical theology is no longer on the contrast between works and grace, old and new, as understood by various Reformation Protestants, then traditional distinctions between law and gospel, faithfulness and faith, and Moses and Abraham have also fallen by the wayside. Because of the predominance of evangelical mono-covenantalism of various kinds, Reformation perspectives are now at the periphery of the most recent justification debate, and even defenders of justification neglect the full range of the early Protestant tradition’s biblical-theological resources. Two general points are worth elaboration before introducing the contributions of this volume.

The In-House Debate
The current debate has every appearance of being centered on those scholars working from a post-dispensationalist set of presuppositions. In fact, one is tempted to construe the in-house evangelical debate over justification as a conflict between those who are working to hash out the details of this move to highlight the unity of the Bible.

Here one thinks especially of the legacy of Daniel P. Fuller, son of the cofounder of Fuller Seminary, former professor of the same from 1953 to 1993, and teacher of several generations of biblical scholars who now work at a variety of evangelical institutions. Others could be cited and influence is difficult to trace, but there is widespread agreement among Fuller’s “students,” loosely understood, on a number of key issues. 1) It is assumed that the Reformation distinction between law and gospel somehow smacks of older dispensationalism and therefore cannot (and should not) be reconciled with a post-dispensationalist narrative of “grace” and continuity. 2) It follows that the Reformation understanding of grace must surely have been slightly antinomian or insufficiently concerned with the need to obey the law or pursue sanctification and holy living; in other words, the Reformation is frequently caricatured as having relegated or pushed faithfulness and obedience to an obsolete “law” covenant, leaving a deficit in evangelical preaching of exhortations to keep the law. 3) Further, it is sometimes said that the Reformation understanding of faith was similarly one-sided in emphasis—in this case “intellectualist” or insufficiently personal because it allegedly did not include the renovation of moral behavior. These are simply part of the air that is breathed in our post-dispensationalist context, and in fact most of these claims were either stated explicitly or indirectly hinted at in two of Fuller’s books: first his Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum: The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, and then the summation of his life’s teaching in The Unity of the Bible: Unfolding God’s Plan for Humanity. Addressing the doctrine of justification, Fuller concluded that in light of his redrawing of the covenantal map and revision of these key issues, one should be ready to affirm that “justification depends on persevering faith” or faithfulness. This view is now widespread in evangelicalism and shares much in common with Wright’s interpretation of biblical teaching on salvation without having been learned from him directly.

The justification debate has not fallen along Arminian versus Calvinist lines, as it might have in the past, for many of Fuller’s heirs are in fact restlessly “Calvinist.” That is, they are drawn to the theme of God’s sovereignty over all things and are eager to explain the doctrine of perseverance in grace-centered or even “Augustinian” terms. Many post-dispensationalist exegetes are neither Pelagian nor semi-Pelagian, but frequently engage in discussions about whether to self-identify as four-, five-, six-, or even seven-point Calvinists! In fact, there have even been those within properly Reformed denominations who have taken up this discussion, such as Norman Shepherd (formerly of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia). To the extent that Shepherd and other Reformed theologians attempted to integrate with evangelicalism and negotiate with older dispensationalist interpretations of the Bible, they made a corresponding attempt to weaken classic Reformed distinctions between the “covenant of works” and the “covenant of grace.”

The Missing Element
Fortunately, many evangelicals have ably defended the doctrine of imputation, the great double exchange whereby our sins are reckoned to Christ on the cross and his righteousness is accounted to us that we might have life (2 Cor. 5:21). This double imputation is the very essence of the Protestant understanding of justification. However, not all imputational schemes have been set in the context of the Reformation tradition’s fully developed biblical theology, a fact that owes much to the emergence of the mono-covenantalism I have been describing. What many post-dispensationalist theologians share in common, therefore, including the “Calvinists”—and in fact what Piper shares in common with Wright—is what they are missing, namely, an extended engagement with classic covenant theology. There are genuine exegetical insights available in this Reformation tradition, especially when it comes to negotiating continuity and discontinuity in the history of redemption. Going forward in a discussion sometimes requires looking back in order to discern what was missing at the outset. In our context today, we could benefit from returning to the tradition probably least thought of as holding any hope for the resolution of the justification debate: the Reformation tradition. And yet, that is the aim of this volume. In these pages we bring together Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist theologians and biblical scholars who are able to unpack Reformational perspectives for thoughtful nonspecialists.

Reformation Day +1

The work of reformation doesn’t merely happen once a year. Much like D-Day + 1, there are mopping-up operations that must go on and sometimes rise to the level of a battle more than skirmish.

The November-December issue of Modern Reformation is hot off the press, hitting mailboxes in the next few days. Inside you’ll find a fascinating exchange between Mike Horton and a former Protestant-turned-Roman Catholic named Bryan Cross. You will not want to miss a word of their debate over what is called the formal principle of the Reformation: sola scriptura.

The reformation of our churches is desperately needed today. We need to recover Scripture in order to recover the gospel of Jesus Christ.


Below is a portion of the discussion between Mike and Bryan. The complete text is available in the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of MR or on-line for current subscribers.

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Michael Horton:
I’m assuming that we agree on the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. The Reformation debate was never over the nature of Scripture (aside from the question of the Apocrypha) but rather its relation to tradition: the sufficiency of Scripture as the norm of Christian faith and practice. The Reformers affirmed the ministerial role of the church’s teaching office (and tradition), especially the ecumenical creeds. However, it was because these creeds summarize the teaching of Scripture (magisterial authority), not because of the authority of the church. Could you lead off by offering a Roman Catholic response to this distinction between the ministerial and magisterial authority of the church in relation to Scripture?

Bryan Cross:
We do agree on the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, which is important common ground to keep in view when discussing our disagreements. To answer your question, let me back up a bit. In Catholic doctrine, Christ gave teaching authority to the apostles. That is why he could say to them, “The one who listens to you listens to me, and the one who rejects you rejects me; and he who rejects me rejects the One who sent me” (Luke 10:16). The apostles handed down that teaching authority to their successors, and they to their successors, down to the Catholic bishops of the present day. This living teaching authority of the church is the servant of Scripture, teaching only what has been handed on to her, explicating Scripture faithfully by the guidance of the Holy Spirit and guarding Scripture from misinterpretation.

In that respect, we agree that the church has a ministerial role, serving both the Word of God and the flock of Christ. But from the Catholic point of view, the reason the creeds have authority is not because they summarize the teaching of Scripture. Many systematic theology books also summarize the teaching of Scripture, and yet they are not thereby something that all Christians should affirm, as are the ancient creeds. The creeds have a higher authority than do systematic theology texts. The reason for that is precisely because the creeds were taught by the church’s living teaching authority, and that is how we know that they rightly summarize Scripture. It is to this living teaching authority that St. Augustine refers when he says, “For my part, I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.” Scripture and the church’s living teaching authority are never to be separated, nor do they ever compete against each other. They work together and only together—one as source and the other as steward. In order to interpret and understand Scripture rightly, we should do so in the church in humble obedience to her living teaching authority that was given to her by Christ. And in order for the church to follow Christ, she must believe and obey the Scripture that was divinely entrusted to her.

So from a Catholic point of view, the deficiency in the Reformers’ distinction between the authority of Scripture and the ministerial role of the church is that it left out the teaching authority of the successors of the apostles. If that authority is set aside, then the practical result is first that the church is thought to be serving Scripture only when she is conforming to one’s own interpretation of Scripture and that of those who share one’s interpretation of Scripture. And second, when living magisterial authority is left out, the “church” comes to be defined as those who sufficiently agree with one’s own interpretation of Scripture regarding what are the marks of the church. So from a Catholic point of view, those who lose sight of the church’s divinely established living teaching authority lose sight of the church, and this leads to the fragmentation of denominationalism, even where the authority of Scripture is affirmed. There cannot be living ministerial authority without living magisterial authority, because without living magisterial authority the basis for ministerial authority is reduced to sufficient agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture.

Michael Horton:
You raise other important issues (for example, Augustine’s comment, which the Reformers interpreted—rightly, I believe—as his way of saying that it was through the church and its teaching authority that he came to faith, not on the basis of that authority itself). How-ever, I’d like to focus on the magisterial-ministerial distinction. Ultimately, it rests on a distinction between the extraordinary office of the apostles and the ordinary office of ministers. So I’d appreciate your take on the following response.

Jesus excoriated the Pharisees for elevating the tradition of the elders alongside Scripture: “So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God” (Matt. 15:6; Mark 7:8). And yet Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15; cf. 2 Thess. 3:6). Paul commends the Corinthians “because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). Jesus and Paul are talking about two different types of tradition: one is the inspired speech of prophets and apostles, which forms the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20), and the other is the interpretation of this speech. Jews and Protestants hold that the Old Testament canon closed with Malachi, so “the traditions of the elders” was non-inspired teaching. With the apostles, however, we have further revelation from God. Yet that apostolic office, too, came to an end and the result was our New Testament canon.

Paul said that he had “laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it” (1 Cor. 3:10). That is the order: apostolic foundation followed by the ordinary ministry of the church on that basis. “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (v. 11, emphasis added). There is the foundation-laying period and then the building phase. Paul implies that he was the last apostle (1 Cor. 15:7-8), and instructs Timothy to receive and pass on what he has heard from him. In fact, Paul warns the Corinthians “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6), even while he and the other apostles were still living. “The faith once and for all delivered to the saints” is something the post-apostolic ministers are called to “contend for,” not to add to (Jude 3). So the extraordinary ministry of the apostles (mediating divine revelation) is qualitatively distinct from the ordinary ministry of pastors and teachers (interpreting divine revelation). The post-prophetic “teaching of the elders” in Jesus’ day was not divinely inspired, nor is the post-apostolic teaching of the church. It would seem that this distinction is denied by the Roman Catholic Church, which insists upon an ongoing apostolic office, with Scripture and Tradition as two forms of the one Word of God. How would you respond to this argument?

Bryan Cross:
I agree that when Jesus criticized the Pharisees for putting the traditions of men above the word of God, he was talking about a different type of tradition than St. Paul was talking about in the passages you cited. But I don’t see any justification from Scripture (or elsewhere) for assuming that the traditions St. Paul commends are only those that are divinely inspired or only those that are written. He specifically exhorts the believers to “hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (2 Thess. 2:15). We need not assume that every time St. Paul taught he was divinely inspired.

The reason for that is that in Catholic theology, as in Protestant theology, “inspiration” is a technical term meaning that God is the principal author of the inspired words, not just their editor or providential cause. We agree that all of Scripture is divinely inspired. But in Catholic theology, inspiration is to be distinguished from another category—speech or writing that is not inspired, yet is protected from error by the Holy Spirit. Over the course of their lives after Pentecost, the apostles taught many things not written down in Scripture, and these teachings are part of the single deposit of faith because they came originally either from Christ or from the Holy Spirit speaking through the apostles. These unwritten teachings and practices informed the belief and practice of the early church long before the canon was collected. While we don’t assume that this unwritten tradition of the apostles was divinely inspired, we do believe it was protected from error by the Holy Spirit and is part of the authoritative deposit of faith. St. Paul says that his oral preaching is the Word of God when he writes, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13).

From a Catholic point of view, the notion that whatever is not divinely inspired is a mere tradition of men is a false dilemma. The unwritten tradition is neither divinely inspired nor a mere tradition of men, and yet it is authoritative because it came from Christ or from his Spirit through those men whom Christ authorized and equipped to teach and lead his church.

Regarding Ephesians 2:20, St. Paul there says that the household of God is built on the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus being the cornerstone. The church then is built on authorized persons, having a divine Person as its cornerstone. We can see that also in Revelation 21:14, where the twelve apostles are shown to be the twelve foundation stones of the church. But eight of the twelve apostles never wrote anything that was canonized. So Revelation 21:14 cannot be referring to their writings.

We are discussing here the nature and relation of three things: the written tradition (i.e., Scripture), the unwritten tradition, and the Magisterium (i.e., the church’s living teaching authority). From the Catholic point of view, each of the three is authoritative in its own way, yet they function rightly only in concert, as Dei Verbum notes. “It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls” (DV, 10).

With regard to the apostolic office, the Catholic Church makes a distinction. To be an apostle, one had to have seen the Lord. This gave the apostles the unique authority that comes from being an eyewitness of the incarnate Christ. But being an eyewitness was not sufficient to be an apostle. One also had to be sent by Christ. This conferred a different kind of authority from the authority of an eyewitness. The two kinds of authority do not compete; they are fully compatible and were both present in the first apostles. This second kind of authority we call “Holy Orders.” Eyewitness authority could only endure for seventy years or so after the resurrection of Christ, and in that sense the apostolic office came to an end and with it the possibility of further revelation. But, Holy Orders is not limited to eyewitnesses, because the authorization of commission and stewardship could be handed down by the apostles, and it endures to this day by a continuous succession from the apostles. These successors of the apostles are not apostles in the eyewitness sense but possess the apostolic authority the apostles themselves received from Christ through Holy Orders—that is, the divine authorization to teach and govern the church in Christ’s name as his representatives, binding and loosing with his authority.

So while I agree with you that the successors of the apostles are not themselves apostles in that same sense, it does not follow that the successors of the apostles do not have magisterial authority to provide the authoritative interpretation of the deposit of faith. In other words, the end of the apostolic office in the eyewitness sense of apostle does not entail the termination of the authority of commission, by which the successors of the apostles preserve and authoritatively interpret the deposit of faith entrusted to them by the apostles.


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WHI-1021 | The Parables of Jesus (Part 4)

What is the basic point of the parable of the Good Samaritan? Most people would probably say that it’s a nice story that teaches us to be helpful to those in need. But as we’ve been seeing in this series, there is a deeper meaning that many overlook. On this program, the hosts will walk through this and other similar parables relating to the theme of sin and grace. The White Horse Inn: know what you believe and why you believe it!

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Michael Horton MP3s – Reformation Conference 2010

Reformation Conference 2010Here are the audio files from Mike Horton’s messages at the recent Reformation Conference sponsored by New St. Peter’s Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas. Enjoy!

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Message 1 – Christless Christianity: The Problem

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Message 2 – The Gospel Driven Life: The Solution

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Message 3 – The Gospel Commission: The Application

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Message 4 – Questions and Answers

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Sermon – The Missionary Servant

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The President & Lenny Bruce

Jon Stewart is no fan of Fox News. Earlier this year he looked into the camera during a comedy routine and spoke directly to Fox saying, “I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Go f—– yourselves!” A week or so later he had a gospel choir on stage with him singing that same explicit phrase. Not long ago, the use of this sort of pubic profanity during a comedy sketch got Lenny Bruce thrown in jail. Not so with Jon Stewart. He was granted an audience with the President of the United States.

There was a time when Stewart’s fan base was limited to young students in college dorm rooms across the country. But his appeal is no longer exclusively to a twenty-something demographic. A recent report found that his appeal is quite high from those between 18 and 49, though it drops dramatically among those over 50. But what accounts for the different treatments received by the two comedians? Why was Lenny Bruce regularly harassed by the cops while Jon Stewart is allowed to engage in a lighthearted televised discussion with the President? I think the answer to that question says something important about our age.

In his book Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, (Vintage, 2000), Neil Gabler argued that because of its addiction to entertainment, American culture has now become a place in which “serious literature, serious political debate, serious ideas, serious anything—are more likely to be compromised or marginalized than every before.” He suggested that “whether we’re dealing with the sphere of politics, religion, or education, everything has now become a ‘branch of show business where the overriding objective is getting and satisfying an audience.’”

In the 1960s Lenny Bruce shocked his audiences. But when the shock of the new began to fade, audiences began to crave this new “stimulating” form of entertainment, even outside of late night comedy clubs. The 70s and 80s saw the rise of morning shock jocks such as Howard Stern, and political commentators such as Rush Limbaugh became famous for incorporating irreverence and entertainment as they opined about the news. And the 90s witnessed the birth of cable programs like Politically Incorrect and The Daily Show, which basically continued this same “mock everything you disagree with” approach.

But something strange happened throughout this process. People began to prefer the entertaining show about the news, more than the news itself. According to a 2007 Pew Study, “When Americans were asked…to name the journalist they most admired, a comedian showed up at No. 4 on the list. Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central and former master of ceremonies at Academy Award shows, tied in the rankings with anchormen Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and cable host Anderson Cooper.” More recently, a 2010 Time Magazine poll of approximately 10,000 people listed Jon Stewart as the most trusted source for News, ahead of Brian Williams, Charley Gibson and Katie Curic.

The big problem with this, in the words of Stewart himself, is that he and his staff are not journalists. “We don’t do anything but make the connections…We don’t fact-check [and] look at context because of any journalistic criteria that has to be met; we do that because jokes don’t work when they’re lies. We fact-check so when we tell a joke, it hits you at sort of a gut level — not because we have a journalistic integrity, [but because] hopefully we have a comedic integrity that we don’t want to violate.”

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are currently the kings of faux news. But what happens when comedy dressed up in news garb becomes the news for most people? What happens when the simulacra becomes the new reality? The answer is that reality itself gets distorted, the king starts talking public policy with the court jester, and no one blinks.

In my thinking, this is all part of the trend that Neil Gabler outlined. Entertainment is the new reality. Issues of depth, substance and significance are constantly being marginalized. Lenny Bruce has become the most trusted name in news. This is not a liberal versus conservative problem. Glenn Beck’s “fusion of entertainment and enlightenment” is a part of this same trend, and there are more similarities between he and Stewart than Stewart cares to admit. And in case no one has noticed, this trend has also affected the life, conversation, and worship throughout the American church landscape.

We Get Letters

In January-February 2010, Modern Reformation’s executive editor Ryan Glomsrud reviewed a collection of essays published by Princeton Theological Seminary professor Bruce McCormack entitled Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Baker Academic, 2008). Recently, Professor McCormack has written a letter to the editor which we offer below along with a response from the editor.

Response to Ryan Glomsrud by Professor Bruce McCormack

I have to confess that I was disappointed by this “review.”  Part of my disappointment has to do with the fact that I did not find in it a serious engagement with the argument(s) advanced in my essays.  In fact, I do not see that those argument(s) have even been identified in this brief article.  What I do find, in place of a serious engagement, is an attempt to describe “McCormack” which is based exclusively on the Introduction.  The problem with such an approach should be obvious: an Introduction is not a treatise.  If statements are made in it which are left (relatively) unexplained, a reviewer would do well to consult other writings by the author in which the topics under discussion are explained in full before assigning to him positions which are not his own. In any event, the errors of fact in this brief article are numerous – and that is the greater reason for my disappointment.

1.  This is not the promised companion volume to my Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology.  I will be writing that volume eventually, but it won’t be a collection of essays.  The material found in this book consists simply of essays relevant to a debate which I unwittingly launched in 2000 with the publication of my “Grace and Being” (an essay contained in this collection).  These essays are offered to them as a way of explaining how my thinking has evolved over the last decade.

2.  The suggestion that “McCormack and others such as T.F. Torrance tend to argue (with great exaggeration) that Barth’s mature, critically realistic dialectical and actualistic theology was free of philosophical commitments, having been purified by ‘biblical’ and ‘Christ-centered’ reflection” – confuses my views with those of a man I deeply respected but with whom I disagreed on many important matters, including this one.  I have always argued that Barth’s philosophical resources were different than those found in the ancient, medieval and Reformation periods – which was to grant, of course, that Barth made use of philosophical resources.  It is, therefore, very hard for me to understand how Glomsrud can say that I acknowledge Barth’s debts to Kant and Hegel in one breath and then turn around and say of me that I claim that Barth offers a theology purified of philosophy.  How is this inconsistency to be explained?  Certainly not by reference to my writings.

3.  Glomsrud ascribes to me the view that Barth was “completely free and unconstrained by the creeds and confessions of the Church…”  He adds that a confessionalism of the spirit, which I (following Barth) advocate “floats free from any past understanding of theology and is unhinged from creeds, confessions or any written document.”  This again is wrong. To interpret a creed “spiritually” in Barth’s sense is to seek first to understand it historically, in terms of the issues under discussion, so as to obtain a proper understanding of what was meant.  It is then to ask: can we say the same thing in other words than these?  Is it necessary to subscribe to the philosophical terminology which the Fathers, for example, borrowed to speak of the Christian God or may we look to other resources in our efforts to say the same thing in other words?  To reconstruct doctrines from the ground up does not mean, when seen in this light, to reconstruct them freely.  It means to reconstruct them under the guidance of creeds and confessions while drawing upon different resources (Note 1). In none of this is there any hint of a spirit-letter dualism, of a free-floating theologizing or of an “Anabaptist impulse.”

Some years ago now, I gave a paper on Barth’s treatment of ecclesial authority at a conference in Heidelberg (Note 2).  Afterwards, I was sharply criticized by Prof. Michael Welker of Heidelberg for advocating a “crypto-Catholic” understanding of the role of the church in theology!  Not Anabaptism, then, but Catholicism was seen by this eminent theologian as McCormack’s temptation!  Now I am not ready to concede the validity of Welker’s critique, but he (at least) had a greater appreciation of where I was coming from.   In my view, any theological reconstruction which wishes to describe itself as “Reformed” must be able to show how and in what way it is constitutes a legitimate development of the doctrine(s) taught in the Reformed confessions.  That is why I have spent the last twenty four years of my life teaching Reformed confessions – and defending their importance in my own church.

4.  Glomsrud writes, “McCormack shares with the nineteenth century (and with Open Theists today) a number of misconceptions about God’s impassibility, mistranslating the Latin to mean that God has no passions or emotions rather than, correctly, that God cannot be thought to suffer harm.”  My treatment of “impassibility” does not rest on the translation of the word but on its use by Christian theologians through the centuries.  I do not ascribe to the word impassibility any other meaning than that which I find in the Westminster Confession. In Chapter II.art.1, the Confession says of God that He is “without passions.”  That “passions” are not to be simply equated with “emotions” should go without saying.  For that reason, I have never accused any Christian theologian who makes positive use of the word of seeking to suggest that God is “without emotions.”  All Christian theologians know that God is compassionate, for example – and the best ones know that He is capable of wrath.  So that is not the point of my critique of “impassibility” at all.  The point is that those who believe in impassibility think that God is incapable of suffering.  That is the view I reject in rejecting impassibility.  That God does not “come to harm” through His suffering – that He does not cease to be God when He submits Himself to the human experience of suffering and takes that experience into His divine life should also go without saying.

5.  Finally, Glomsrud holds that I accept “the substance” of Cornelius Van Til’s “interpretation that Barth was and remained a critical (i.e. Kantian) and dialectical (i.e. Hegelian) theologian from his early to his later years.”  This judgment is too formal to be of any value.  I do not find much in the interpretations of Kant and Hegel offered by Van Til to be valid.  Therefore, when I speak of Barth’s “debts” to these philosophers, I am speaking of something altogether different than Van Til was.  Glomsrud is not the first Van Tilian to congratulate me on my “confirmation” of Van Til.  But that only shows – as this brief essay does – that he (and they) have not read my work carefully.

6.  One final thought: I do not have any particular interest myself in an alleged contrast of the “static” with the “dynamic.”  Such terms are sheer abstractions which prevent us from seeing what is at stake in particular issues.  I would much prefer – as I believe my essays demonstrate – to attend to questions surrounding divine ontology by beginning with the concrete and the particular – i.e. the narrated history of Jesus of Nazareth as attested in Holy Scripture – and proceed from there to speak of the being of God.  Such an approach has little or nothing to do with a personal preference for dynamic thought-forms.  The ultimate criterion by which a Protestant theology is to be measured is Holy Scripture – and that is my ultimate concern as well.

Bruce L. McCormack
Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology
Princeton Theological Seminary

Notes:
1. I would take it that this approach to the authority of creeds and confessions is not unlike that taken by John Calvin.  “Wherever the decree of any council is brought forward, I should like men first of all diligently to ponder at what time it was held, on what issue, and with what intention, what sort of men were present; then to examine by the standard of Scripture what it dealt with – and to do this in such a way that the definition of the council may have its weight and be like a provisional judgment…” Calvin, Institutes IV.ix.8.

2. See Bruce L. McCormack, “The End of Reformed Theology? The Voice of Karl Barth in the Doctrinal Chaos of the Present”, Wallace Alston, Jr. and Michael Welker, eds., Reformed Theology: Identity and Ecumenicity (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003): 46-64.

From the Editor (Ryan Glomsrud)

Dear Professor McCormack,

Thank you for responding to my review in the January-February issue of Modern Reformation. As an editor, I do always appreciate feedback, even from those who sometimes register their dismay with the perspectives we advocate. For almost twenty years we have been committed to an open discussion of important issues that face evangelical theology today.

Ultimately, MR subscribers will need to determine for themselves where your theology, Karl Barth’s, and the theology of the Reformed tradition converge and diverge. My review, which was fewer than a thousand words, was not meant to be an extensive interaction with all the theses you propose in each of your essays, much less the entire body of your scholarly research, but was rather intended to be an introduction, a setting of the stage, a whetting of the appetite. Your objections notwithstanding, I remain convinced that I have adequately summed up the most general thesis of your book in the space of a few paragraphs and offered at least one Reformed perspective by way of response and evaluation. It appears that we have several disagreements in this regard, but I would argue that the “errors of fact” to which you refer are better understood as matters of interpretation that point to areas of genuine theological difference. It is possible to have both understood and disagreed with many of the arguments and claims you make.

I note at the outset of my review that Reformational lay readers will likely find your introductory material as well as two other easily digestible chapters to be of the most interest because of the provocative and overarching theses you develop there. The paucity of traditional systematic theology in American Protestantism today continues to be a real factor in the ongoing interest in the theology of Karl Barth. However, your particular way of framing Barth’s relationship to orthodoxy and modernity, confessional Reformed theology and Protestant liberalism, does constitute a macro-level thesis that is certainly controversial and not at all a given. It is also strikingly similar to the way scholars such as Brian Gerrish and Dawn Devries argue for the genuine “Reformed” identity of Friedrich Schleiermacher, namely by appealing to a kind of faithfulness to the spirit of Calvin’s intentions. This is an interesting point of continuity between Barth and the nineteenth-century liberal tradition which deserves further elaboration, although this is neither the time or place.

Whatever impression you may have received, I am very familiar with and appreciative of your work. I have benefited from your efforts to place Barth in his proper historical-theological setting, and while a great deal more needs to be done in this regard, you have pioneered a contextual reading of Barth that I have tried to model in my own doctoral and postdoctoral work. I am sure I am not alone in saying that if this current collection is not it, I eagerly await the follow-up volume to Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology.

You are correct in pointing out that my review inadvertently merged your interpretation of Barth with that of T. F. Torrance, a comment which I am happy to qualify. Whatever Torrance’s view of later philosophical influence on Barth, you have certainly offered a more nuanced and sophisticated paradigm for explaining Barth’s development from his student years in Marburg up to and beyond 1936. Torrance held that Barth’s theology became anti-metaphysical, that it outgrew residual metaphysical influences and presuppositions. However, you point out that Barth continued to be informed by neo-Kantian and Hegelian concepts and motifs throughout his entire career even as he recast them for his own theological purposes, as he did with post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy. This happens to have been the subject of both of our doctoral dissertations. Still, one wonders what the difference finally is between Torrance’s claim that Barth was free of philosophical commitments and your own elaboration of Barth’s progressive actualization of the doctrine of the incarnation, a move that you describe as an overcoming of classical metaphysics (p.270 fn.22 for example). You clearly intend that this later actualism is a metaphysics or a specific theological ontology (thereby differing from Torrance’s sometimes naïve characterizations), and yet your description of Barth’s development as well as your proposal to correct Barth by Barth consistently gives the impression that this trajectory is both “antimetaphysical” and “postmetaphysical,” terms you use in several places (cf. pp.263-264). The contrast you draw then is between a so-called essentialist, “classic metaphysics,” or “largely Platonic ontology” (p.202) on the one hand and on the other an actualist ontology that is now finally purified to some extent by Barth’s interpretation of biblical christology and predestinarian teaching, something which, with your help and elaboration, is being offered literally for the first time in the history of Christianity. This latter claim is one you have forwarded in a variety of settings and does actually remind me a great deal of Torrance’s rather grandiose thesis in “Karl Barth and the Latin Heresy,” Scottish Journal of Theology 39 (1986). There is much more to discuss here in another setting, and I hope we have that opportunity sometime.

For my own part, I am interested in Barth’s relationship to nineteenth- and twentieth-century pietism. I would argue that Barth, many Barthians, and much of the liberal Protestant tradition can be said to have incorporated what I call generally an “Anabaptist impulse” that has been inherited from pietism. As I suggested above, this amounts to a certain noticeable tendency to describe one’s loyalty to the Reformation in terms of Paul’s spirit-and-letter distinction, or at least to employ those terms as a way to dichotomize between a dynamic, ever-evolving, “fresh” formulation of doctrine over against the confessional tradition, which although honored as a guiding “witness” for the church is nonetheless frequently skewered as static, fixed, and slavish if taken to be a present basis of authority in the church in more than theory. Confessional subscription of most kinds – whether the confession is taken to be authoritative “in so far as” or “because” it summarizes the teaching of Scripture – has never been acceptable to pietist theologians either on the so-called conservative end of the spectrum or the so-called liberal end.

While Barth was clearly a predestinarian, grace- and Christ-centered, Augustinian-style Calvinist pietist (whew!), he and many of his students have resisted the tradition at precisely this point among others. Although you claim in your letter above that “in none of this [i.e. your treatment of Barth’s relationship to the confessional tradition] is there any hint of a spirit-letter dualism,” readers will find that you do in fact use these categories, for example in the introduction to Orthodox and Modern when you write,

My own view is this: what Barth was doing, in the end, was seeking to understand what it meant to be orthodox under the conditions of modernity. This is the explanation, I think, for the freedom he exhibited over against the decrees of the ecumenical councils and the confessions of his own Reformed tradition. He took the creeds and confessions seriously – how could he not, believing as he did in the virgin birth and so forth? But he did not follow them slavishly. His was a confessionalism of the spirit and never of the letter (p.17).

You have implied this same spirit/letter contrast in other places as well, such as in your 1989 doctoral dissertation:

Barth violently opposed confessionalism which binds its adherents to a fidelity to the letter of the confession. He was however, all in favour of a confessional theology which, recognizing its own limitations, allowed itself to be guided by the witness of the church in the past … [and] depends moment by moment on the gracious work of the Holy Spirit (“A Scholastic of a Higher Order: The Development of Karl Barth’s Theology, 1921-31” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1989), p.3).

What is not in question here is your or Barth’s relative degree of respect for Reformed confessional writings but a dynamic versus static paradigm for understanding the authority of the church’s doctrinal symbols. On your view (following Barth), a traditional Reformed perspective on the authority of the confessions seems to amount to “repristination,” a most dreaded error to be almost ridiculed. Freed from that, a super-strength pneumatology teams up with an historicist sensibility so that the church’s doctrinal formulation is always provisional and incomplete, constantly in need of fresh revision. Put simply these are not the alternatives of the confessional Reformed tradition but those of Protestant pietism. I am not surprised, then, by your anecdote about Michael Welker’s response to your work, for Calvin’s view was always that Anabaptism and the Roman institution shared some things in common, namely an appeal to something outside Scripture as the basis for theological revisionism (in the case of Anabaptism, the appeal is made to the ongoing leading of the Spirit and a historicist necessity and in the case of Rome, an appeal is made to the teaching magisterium of the church).

Needless to say, this is not a suitable forum for a full discussion of these matters, although I would refer you to my recently published chapter in a festschrift for W. Robert Godfrey where I develop my thoughts in greater detail (see my “Karl Barth and Modern Protestantism: The Radical Impulse” available online). This was a paper that I originally gave at the Barth session of the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in 2009 where the group also discussed your volume of essays. The festschrift, Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey is available at the Westminster Seminary California bookstore and also includes a related chapter by Michael S. Horton entitled “Reformed and Always Reforming.”

In sum, Modern Reformation is more than a slogan or our name, it is what we aim to accomplish. We believe that a healthy church is a confessing church, a church that confesses in practice and not just in theory. That being said, we appreciate and want to encourage the persuasive defense of theological orthodoxy wherever it may be found, whether in confessional institutions, mainline seminaries, Reformed denominations, or various evangelical communities. As one engaged in theological reflection at various levels, I look forward to ongoing discussion of your proposals for the revival of evangelical theology.

The Executive Editor,
Ryan Glomsrud

The Opiate of the Slightly Concerned

David Zahl is the executive director of Mockingbird Ministries, whose “The Gospel According to Pixar,” we recently featured on the blog.  We like to say that in addition to his work for Mockingbird, David is also a Modern Reformation writer (though we’re sure David has other appellations that might bump us from second billing!). David’s article for us will appear in the March/April 2011 issue and we hope to get him in at least one other time in 2011.

Over at the MockingbirdNYC blog, David has condensed and commented upon a brilliant piece in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell. The thesis? Social media provides wide access but weak ties. So, for the socially conscious, it can be a great boon to a campaign that doesn’t require much effort on the part of those who have some desire to help. But it can hinder real, systemic change from occuring because it lulls people into thinking that clicking “like” on a facebook page actually amounts to something.

You can read the whole thing here.

Lausanne III & the New Reformation

The third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, held in Cape Town, South Africa, has concluded, but its influence will be felt for years to come. Chris Wright, who heads the theology committee, brought difficult but salutary words to the representatives of global evangelicalism. Wright is the author of The Mission of God, from which I have profited immensely. He also heads the Langham Partnership and is a minister at All Soul’s Church in London. His call for a new reformation was greeted with applause from the thousands of international delegates. I wanted to draw your attention to his speech and also to one of the key Lausanne statements that he helped draft for the Congress.

In his paper (available at the Lausanne Congress website), Chris Wright called for reformation involving repentance, renewed humility, integrity, and simplicity.

What struck Wright was the fact that many of the same weaknesses in the global evangelical movement that were noted at Lausanne II in 1974 are even more evident today. While there is much to praise God for, there is much to confess. The answer is to be neither conformed to the world nor to withdraw from it, but to embrace the gospel and the costly call to discipleship. The church is called not only to proclaim the cross but to exhibit a spirituality of the cross. Nevertheless, the worldly values of dominance, pride, and dishonesty are widespread in our churches.

The church has been identified with particular ethnic, cultural, social, political, and economic systems. Affluence in the developed world often numbs us to the reality of suffering and poverty, undermining the simplicity of lifestyle that is enjoined in Scripture on believers. “We crave for success and recognition. But this easily leads to distortion of the truth and manipulation of people.” There is a crisis of leadership, he adds. “There are megachurch pastors lording it over churches, with unaccountable power and phenomenal wealth.” This power-mongering sometimes involves racial or cultural domination. Wright asks,

Can we trust all the inflated statistics thrown around the world of Christian mission? What are they there for? What do they prove? Whom do they flatter? Whom do they diminnish? What damage can they do? Exaggeration or sheer invention are common admitted to (in private if not in public) by those who have to produce reports on the ‘success’ of their mission, sometimes under pressure from those who demand them as a condition of funding. Are there methods of evangelism that are simply unbiblical and unethical, driven by ‘success’ and ‘speed,’ rather than by obedience to all that Jesus commanded?

The “prosperity gospel” comes in for special mention at this point. Yet broader criticism is offered concerning manipulative methods, competitive pride, and the tendency to measure success in terms of numbers rather than depth.

The Whole Church Taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole World
Wright also chaired the committee that drafted for the Congress several statements, including “The Whole Church Taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole World.” This statement begins with “the whole gospel,” the committee explains, because the church is produced by the gospel. The gospel itself is refreshingly defined by appeal to Scripture itself as, “above all else the historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth through whom God has accomplished salvation.” It is a message that is already proclaimed in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New. “Drawing our understanding of the whole gospel from the whole Bible will protect us from a reductionism that shrinks the gospel to a few formulae for ease of communication and ‘marketing.’” The gospel is richer than a sales pitch. Given the diversity of cultural contexts, there are many different entry points, but they all lead to that central message of “the living God and his saving work in Christ.” Included in this gospel is the “peace-making” work of the cross in uniting Jews and Gentiles as one new humanity in Christ, from every race and tongue. Furthermore, “The church, as the community of those reonciled to one another and to God, is therefore the embodiment of the gospel.” There is therefore no justification for racial or cultural prejudice or domination in the churches.

The gospel declares that in the combined work of the cross and resurrection of Christ, God comprehensively took upon himself the judgment our sin deserves, and accomplished the defeat and eventual destruction of satan, death and all evil powers, the reconciliation of believers with God and one another across all boundaries and enmities, and the final redemption of all creation. The gospel then assures us that, solely through trusting in Christ alone, we are united with Christ through the Holy Spirit and are counted righteous in Christ before God; we receive the forgiveness of our sins, are born again into his new and risen life, adopted in his family, and have full assurance of salvation and eternal life.

The statement adds,

The cross was the supreme act of self-giving by God. It is thus utterly contrary to the message of the cross when the gospel is commercialized, or its benefits are sold for profit. The gross abuse of indulgences in the pre-Reformation church lives on in some forms of Prosperity teaching, and in the practice of paying for anointings, for holy oil, or any other means of gaining blessing, healing, success or miracles. These are sheer exploitation of the poor and gullible for private gain, and stand condemned in Scripture (Acts 8:9-25).

At the same time, “the gospel produces ethical transformation,” genuine repentance: putting off the old self and putting on the new self, renewed in the likeness of Christ. Saving faith yields the fruit of good works. “Although we may perceive the distinction that classical systematic theology makes between the event or moment of justification and the process of sanctification, we should not drive a wedge between them. Nor should we press the distinction between evangelism and discipling. Both are essential components of gospel ministry – as Paul’s missionary life and team-work demonstrate.”

The committee’s statement also highlights the important—and often neglected—role of the Holy Spirit in the history of redemption and mission.

At the same time we are well aware of the many abuses that masquerade under the name of the Holy Spirit, the many ways in which (as the New Testament also exemplifies) all kinds of phenomena are practised and praised which bear the marks of other spirits than the Holy Spirit. There is great need for more profound discernment, for the detection of blind-spots and delusion, for the exposure of fraudulent and self-serving manipulators who abuse spiritual power for their own ends.  Above all there is a great need for sustained biblical teaching and preaching that will equip ordinary believers to understand and rejoice in the true gospel and to recognize and reject false gospels when they are exposed to them.

Part Two—“The Whole Church”—begins with the words, “The starting point for our ecclesiology must be the same as for our theology of mission and for our understanding of the world. Salvation, the church, and the world all belong to God.” The church is the result of God’s mission.

The statement affirms the connection between the gospel and the church: “It is vital that we strongly affirm, therefore, that while there are multiple ethnicities within the one church by God’s clear intention, no single ethnic group holds privileged place in God’s economy of salvation or God’s eschatological purpose. For this reason, we strongly believe that the separate and privileged place given to Jewish people today or to the modern Israeli state in certain forms of dispensationalism or Christian Zionism, should be challenged, inasmuch as they deny the essential oneness of the people of God in Christ.” While challenging all forms of ethnocentricity and rejoicing in the remarkable growth of the church in the global south, the statement adds, “However, we strongly discourage the further use of this term, for two reasons. First, Christianity has no centre but Jesus Christ.” Therefore, “mission is from everywhere, to everywhere.”

Furthermore, the church is called to be and to do, to live out who we are in Christ; to proclaim the gospel and to witness to its truth in deeds of love and service. A church that mirrors the selfishness of its pagan environment undermines rather than exhibits the plausibility of its claims concerning the redeeming and renewing work of the Spirit in Christ through the Word. Consequently, Lausanne III renews the commitment of earlier congresses to the integral relationship between evangelism and social action in the church’s mission.

The third part—“The Whole World” focuses on the world as interpreted in Scripture, especially as God’s creation that requires our stewardship rather than exploitation. It also examines the globalized world of religions (as well as a secularized public square), and religious violence as well as poverty and injustice. A constant challenge, negotiating the relationship between our dual citizenship is crucial. It is always easier for members of one culture to see the log in the eye of another. An American evangelical may easily discern where a brother or sister gives too much loyalty to a social caste system, inter-ethnic violence, or polygamy, while failing to see how militarism and materialism warp his or her own faith. We need discernment to know when we are encountering cultural bridges or obstacles to the gospel. Belonging to Christ means that all other loyalties must be critiqued. This is God’s world and yet it is fallen. “We have hope, not in the eventual success of what we can do to fix the world, but in the accomplished victory of God through Christ, guaranteeing the new creation in which all that is broken will be made anew.

The church as the people of the creator and redeemer God, therefore, also lives with the ambiguity that we ourselves are fallen people who share in, and often contribute to, the brokenness of the world;  and yet we are redeemed to live redemptively within the world. We bear witness to the accomplished fact of redemption (in the message of the cross);  we bear witness to the ongoing redemptive power of God through his Spirit constantly at work in our own day;  we bear witness to the hope of ultimate redemption of all creation.

Evaluating the Statement
From my summary above it should be clear that I am in sympathy with much of this document. In its rich grounding in Scripture and discernment, the statement proves the enduring leadership of the Lausanne Committee for the evangelical movement. Those of us from the churches of the Reformation have much to learn from our brothers and sisters and especially Chris Wright’s emphases (see his book The Mission of God) which resonate throughout this draft. The world is God’s (Ps 24:1). It does not belong to us, or to trans-national corporations, or to national interests. Furthermore, it is a world for which God has an all-encompassing plan. God is the sovereign missionary and his redeemed people have the privilege of proclaiming his love and grace to the world and of living out their heavenly calling through their earthly callings to their neighbors.

My chief concern, however, is “message creep” that inevitably leads to “mission creep.” After defining the gospel so well by appealing to a number of key passages, the meaning of “the gospel” expands with each section. The committee was careful to state that the gospel is the message concerning God’s saving work in Christ and yields transforming effects in us and therefore in the world.

However, there is a tendency later on to blur this distinction: “The gospel that is intrinsically verbal is just as intrinsically ethical. There is no gospel where there is no change.” There is the potential for “message creep.” “Furthermore, greater attention to the biblical integration of faith and ethics within the nature of the whole gospel itself would help greatly in resolving the ongoing disagreement over the so-called relationship between evangelism and social engagement.” There is the potential for “mission creep.” I know what the statement is trying to affirm: Faith without works is dead. There can be no justification without sanctification. However, we can affirm this without saying that the gospel is “intrinsically ethical” or that “there is no gospel where there is no change.” The gospel is intrinsically verbal and not intrinsically ethical! Christ is the gospel, my ethical transformation is its effect. As the statement said earlier, it is the Good News concerning God’s saving work in Christ.

We cannot do the gospel, live the gospel, or be the gospel. We can only hear and receive the gospel (see 1 Cor 15:1-6 , Rom 10:13-17). When we receive it, we are justified and also transformed, but this transformation is the fruit of the gospel rather than the gospel itself. In fact, when our experience or transformation is confused with the gospel itself, we eventually lose both in the bargain. And even where there is no change in a given instance, there is still a gospel. The gospel is objectively true and present, even if no one believes or embraces it or bears its fruit. By the last part of the statement, we read of “The work of the gospel, then, in all its dimensions including evangelism, discipling, peace-making, social engagement, ethical transformation, bearing witness to the truth, caring for creation, overcoming evil powers, suffering and enduring under persecution, etc.,…”

Expanding the meaning of the gospel, the statement fails to appeal to God’s law as that Word that calls us to love and serve our neighbors, to respect God’s creation, and to steward resources he has entrusted to us. God’s law is meant to be proclaimed to the whole world, so that every mouth is shut. It is also meant to be proclaimed to Christians so that they know how to live honorably and lovingly in this world. Of course, the gospel is always front-and-center. As God’s word of salvation—not only of individuals but of the whole creation—the gospel directs us to Christ’s completed work in the past and his return in glory. So we have a horizon, a frame of reference, for orienting our lives in the present.

However, when it comes to specific commands, the law rather than the gospel is the word that God speaks to the world and to us as believers. Too much in the latter half of the statement uses the gospel to do the law’s work. Yet besides blurring this crucial distinction, this widespread tendency also reduces the scope of authority with which the church is called properly to announce God’s claim on the whole world. When we announce God’s judgment on the fourishing slave-trafficing industry, environmental irresponsibility, and other evils, we are bringing God’s law to bear on society as well as the church. And Christians in their daily lives—as consumers and voters as well as economists, lawyers, CEO’s and political leaders—are especially obligated to hear and obey God’s commands as that “reasonable service” in the light of God’s saving mercies in Christ.

“Message creep” and “mission creep” are further enabled by a weak doctrine of the church. Under the sub-heading “church and para-church,” the statement says, “We wonder if there is more argument about this distinction among mission agencies and church bodies than exists in the mind of God, or in biblical concepts. While recognizing that there are valid pragmatic or functional distinctions that may be made for the sake of good order and administration, we need to affirm the biblical truth that ‘where two or three are gathered’ in the name of Christ, he is there, and the church is there – one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” Erasing the fundamental distinction between the church as gathered (in fact, explicitly denying that the church is an institution) and the church as scattered, the statement gives the impression that the visible church is called to do everything that individual Christians are called to do in their various callings in the world.

When the church’s calling to proclaim the gospel and administer the sacraments (identified in the Great Commission) is expanded to include social transformation, it exceeds the boundaries of its authority and competence. If Christian economists can disagree over tax structures or the best way of creating and circulating wealth, then can we really expect ministers and elders to develop concrete solutions to global crises? Should we not expect our members, shaped by God’s law and gospel, to bring their faith to bear on these questions alongside their non-Christian colleagues? The statement illustrates the problem. For example, it says, “Trans-national corporations (TNCs) ‘patent’ nature, negatively impacting possibilities of subsistence at the local level, and damaging God’s creation in the process. While some of the world’s poor have benefited from globalization the poorest of the poor are now even more destitute.” This is a well-crafted and stirring statement. But is it accurate? Perhaps. However, some trans-national corporations are the major funders of environmental research and infrastructure improvement in areas of the globe with systemic poverty and disease. Is a gathering of church leaders qualified to adjudicate these complex questions of globalization? The statement is on far firmer ground (both in terms of competence and biblical authority) when it says, “The simple affirmation ‘Jesus is Lord’ points to the idolatry of any one nation, trans-national corporation, school of thought, or church that presumes to speak or act on behalf of the whole world.” There are things that churches can say, with the clear authority of Christ’s Word, but many other things that Christians must negotiate among themselves and with their non-Christian neighbors in the public square. Similarly, the statement addresses violence in sweeping terms. “Special attention should also be paid to the astronomical expense of military build-up, totaling $1.464 trillion USD in 2008.” Again, I sympathize with this concern. However, what does “special attention” involve and who is authorized to provide the biblical answer to that question? What would an acceptable military build-up be? On poverty, the statement repeats the tragic statistics we have often heard: “In God’s world of plenty and God-given human creativity, 20% of the world”s population consumes 80% of the world’s resources. Meanwhile 1/3 of the world”s population can barely feed and clothe itself adequately and 1/6 is daily on the verge of death. Poverty is not the result of lack of resources but a product of personal and institutionalized injustice and greed, ethnic prejudice and consumerism.” Along with non-Christian neighbors, we can feel the indictment, but paths diverge sharply over the best solutions. These are complex issues. That is not to throw up our hands and wash them of responsibility. In fact, it’s just the opposite; it’s to acknowledge that they are so important that the careful work of Christians (and non-Christians) at all levels, from citizens to heads of state, is required.

These concerns I have raised are important. Nevertheless, they are offered humbly as “corrections” of a statement that is in many ways useful and urgently needed. We need a clearer proclamation of the gospel. We also need a more authentic encounter with the law, calling us to repentance and driving us to cling to Christ in his gospel for justification and sanctification. It is too easy for us to separate the benefits of Christ, as if forgiveness of sins could be divorced from the way we actually live, work, and relate to others in the world. There is a new creation and we belong to it, so our lives should be characterized by its “solid joys and lasting treasures” even now. The distinctions between law and gospel, the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, the church as institution and the church as the saints scattered in their callings, remain crucial. The important—and difficult—art is to distinguish them without separating them.

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