Wise Words from Lesslie Newbigin on Pluralism and Secularism

I’m listening to Lesslie Newbigin’s Foolishness to the Greeks (Eerdmans, 1988). My local library had it among their digital audio loans, and I thought it was high time I went through a Newbigin book. The book comes from lectures he delivered in Princeton’s Warfield lectures of 1984—and yet it sounds like things that didn’t hit the evangelical mainstream for a decade or more after that. Remarkable.

(Newbigin makes dismissive comments about fundamentalism,  particularly its supposedly blinkered view of science, but I’ve come to realize that the whole point of mentions of fundamentalism is dismissiveness. Outside of some scholarly works in which careful definition is attempted, “fundamentalism” only ever means, “The dummies to my right.” These dummies never get to speak, because presumably all they could say is “Bar, bar, bar.” Ah, well. The book is still packed with wisdom.)

This quote jumped out at me this morning:

Of course, as contemporary history proves, Christians can live and bear witness under any regime, whatever its ideology. But Christians can never seek refuge in a ghetto where their faith is not proclaimed as public truth for all. They can never agree that there is one law for themselves and another for the world. They can never admit that there are areas of human life where the writ of Christ does not run. They can never accept that there are orders of creation or powers or dominions that exist otherwise than to serve Christ. Whatever the institutional relationship between the church and the state—and there are many possible relationships, no one of which is necessarily the right one for all times and places—the church can never cease to remind governments that they are under the rule of Christ and that he alone is the judge of all they do. The church can never accept the thesis that the central shrine of public life is empty, in other words, that there has been no public revelation before the eyes of all the world of the purpose for which all things and all peoples have been created and which all governments must serve. It can never accept an ultimate pluralism as a creed even if it must—as of course it must—acknowledge plurality as a fact. In fact, it cannot accept the idea … of a secular society in which, on principle, there are no commonly acknowledged norms. We know now, I think, that the only possible product of that ideal is a pagan society. Human nature abhors a vacuum. The shrine does not remain empty. If the one true image, Jesus Christ, is not there, an idol will take its place.

These words made me think of none other than Stanley Fish, who said in an epochal First Things piece,

A person of religious conviction should not want to enter the marketplace of ideas but to shut it down, at least insofar as it presumes to determine matters that he believes have been determined by God and faith. The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch….

A religion deprived of the opportunity to transform the culture in its every detail is hardly a religion at all.

So, on the one hand, I’m not aiming for a theocracy. I can’t go around immanentizing eschatons all day. That’s not my job. I’m Awaiting the King; he will do that. I acknowledge the fact of pluralism. But I can’t accept that pluralism is a good, only a lesser evil—a lesser evil than coercing people’s consciences to confess belief in something they don’t believe in. I like the ad-hoc nature of the church-state relation suggested by Newbigin, because it seems to me that that’s what most Christians will get. They have to be able to live and think Christianly under any regime. But as Jamie Smith points out, sometimes prophets who stand athwart society get elected to high office; they’ve got to be able to get to the work of construction, of bringing change. They can’t cease to be Christians at that time and suddenly become convinced pluralists. I think that every day, and in every way, we push for whatever good we can get away with without doing any evil (like coercing consciences).

Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism and Recent Trinitarian Controversies

Just a short reflection on the argument among Reformed theologians about theology proper (read, for example, Frame’s review of James Dolezal here and here).

I think some of my brothers and sisters in Christ are looking to confessions and scholastic categories and other elements of reasonably-stable-and-long-term-but-not-overtly-Catholic church tradition for a way out of the interminable theological disputes going on around and among us.

But these disputes are our lot under the sun, because we’re all fallen interpreters; and I think the Bible (see those hapless Corinthians) leads us to expect disagreements. I totally get the fatigue, and I’m tired too (at the ripe young age of 37)—and I think confessions are useful for terminating many disputes healthily. Churches ought to have careful doctrinal statements and ought to hew to them; so should parachurch organizations (schools, camps, publishing houses) and denominations.

But as friends of mine in a Reformed Baptist group recently (re-)discovered, a confession also adds to the list of documents over whose interpretation Christians end up disagreeing. I will not say “I have no creed but the Bible”; I am bound by the confessions of faith that God has placed me under at my church and even at my job. But adding human statements to divine ones is never sufficient to keep fallen people from twisting the truth. “Pervasive interpretive pluralism” is a strong argument against Protestantism, sure, but it’s also a strong one against Catholicism and Protestant (hyper-)confessionalism. They added human statements to divine ones, and I don’t think they’re doing much better in the unity department.

It’s my “something close to biblicism,” learned in part from Frame and in part from my heritage, that lets me conclude, along with the Bible, that the noetic effects of sin must always be expected and never forgotten. In others and in myself. Till glory!

Former Fundie on Genesis 1

“Former Fundie” Ben Corey notes that extraterrestrial life may be discovered on what Trekkies would call a likely “Class M” planet—a planet that has the conditions for supporting life. Does this shoot the literal reading of Genesis 1? Corey summarizes two responses to the text:

Fundamentalist: This is what the text says. If it did not happen exactly the way it is recorded, it is not true. Therefore, it must be true.

Atheist: This is what the text says. If it did not happen exactly the way it is recorded, it is not true. Therefore, you’d have to be closed-minded to believe it.

It’s the same hermeneutical approach on both sides. It imports the same modern assumptions on how we tell history versus how ancients told stories, and assumes being “inspired by God” means the text must answer modern questions instead of ancient ones.

I personally don’t know any Christians, fundamentalist or otherwise, who think that if the creation account in Genesis is seen to omit something (like the existence of extraterrestrial life, his example), it is necessarily in error. And Corey acknowledges this in the post. If there are fundamentalists out there saying that Genesis 1 has to be exhaustively precise in order to be true, that is indeed bad.

It seems like this point Corey’s making belongs in another article, one about how modern(ist) readings of the text of Genesis twist it out of its intended genre. But he doesn’t have to write it; I’ve read it. The argument goes back at least to the 19th century: “The Bible is not a science textbook.”

Sometimes when I read this particular polemic, however, I want to ask, “Is the conservative reading of Scripture on creation (including Gen 1 and Rom 5 and 8) so ridiculous on textual grounds? Is it impossible to see how anyone would arrive at a young-earth interpretation? Are there no circumstances (a new scientific consensus, for example) under which these words could reasonably be thought to be claiming that God created the world in six days, culminating with the creation of an original pair of humans? If this is a possible reading, then is it wrong to adopt it? If so, why?” I don’t see how it’s a particularly modern question to ask, “How did the universe begin?” Or even “How long were the days of creation?” Given that a great many ancient people—including, ahem, Jesus and Paul—appear to have believed in a historical Adam and Eve, am I to be charged with modernism for agreeing with them?

The writings of the fathers on Genesis have become a battleground for this very reason, and from the reading I’ve done—including at Biologos and Answers in Genesis just today—it seems the evidence goes both ways: there are fathers like Augustine who read Genesis 1 differently than Ken Ham; there are fathers like Ephrem the Syrian who specifically state that the days of creation were 24-hour days (“Although the light and the clouds were created in the twinkling of an eye, still both the day and the night of the First Day were each completed in twelve hours”). But it only takes one premodern citation for me to prove that my reading is not necessarily modern; Corey has to show, I think, not only 1) that my supposedly modern interests are not at all reflected among ancient writers and 2) that writers like Augustine were not themselves unduly influenced by the cultural currents of their own day. James Mook tackles this in a chapter in Coming to Grips with Genesis.

I’m a creationist because Genesis appears to demand it, and Jesus and Paul most definitely do. Jesus assumed a historical Adam, and so did Paul. Paul bases key parts of his theology on Adam. See Romans 5. He bases key parts of his theology on the connection between sin and death: death came into the world through sin. See Romans 8. (I’ve written on this at much greater length in Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.) I don’t think all the work on behalf of this viewpoint is done. There are complexities and difficulties involved in the text, not just in the task of fitting the text to the modern scientific consensus. Young-earth creationists need to keep working at our view and defending it and sharpening it.

The Slippery Slope

Although the slippery slope argument is never airtight, because it presumes to predict the future (So-and-so won’t be a Christian at all in five years) or find cause-effect relations that are impossible to prove (So-and-so got to this point because he denied doctrine X), I feel safe in asking: Is there any connection between Corey’s disbelief in a historical Adam and Eve (and therefore a historical fall) and his opposition to what I take to be one of the central doctrines of Christianity and something inestimably precious to me personally, namely Christ’s death in my place to satisfy the wrath of God? There are Bible interpreters who doubt the young-earth reading of Genesis 1 and yet can sing “In Christ Alone” with gusto. I take C. John Collins to be one; but Corey could not sing the hymn (or preach Romans 3 without Olympic-level hermeneutical gymnastics).

And is there any connection between Corey’s denial of an original heterosexual human pair and his affirmation of the morality of homosexual sex?

Again, the slippery slope argument can never be applied with absolute certainty to any individual: I don’t know Corey’s history beyond his own telling. But I think the slippery slope argument can legitimately be used to describe general historical trends. Is it not true that the doctrinal dominos often fall in a kind of order, both in individuals an in groups (such as the Protestant mainline)? Or that views once deemed unthinkable tend to become actual, given certain premises?

It really is possible to give away too much of the Christian faith in an effort to be relevant. Corey has done it;  sadly, Corey has done it. If the church needs help moving away from imprisonment to a modernist hermeneutical schema, I don’t think he’s the one to lead us.

I won’t deny that alternative readings of Genesis 1 have appealing features. I don’t like looking like a rube anymore than the next obscure redheaded blogger, and I try not to adopt interpretations of Scripture in order to make smart people mock me. But if the appeal of alternative readings is, at bottom, that they excuse us from having to wear a cultural dunce cap, other Christian beliefs will force it right back on our heads. We might as well learn to stand, and having done all, to stand.

Nonetheless… I’m very happy to agree that no one, fundamentalist or atheist, should read the text of Scripture to affirm anything the authors didn’t intend to affirm. But there’s also the little problem of denying that they affirmed things they clearly said. Don’t forget that ditch on the other side of the road—or the slippery slope leading to it.

Should I Sign A Reforming Catholic Confession?

A friend writes:

I am confused and maybe I have jumped to conclusions about the Catholic Confession of Faith issue. But, it sounds like we, as conservatives, are tying to come together with Catholics. Is that the way I am to take it? Or, am I wrong? I certainly hope that isn’t what this is all about.

Friend, it’s humble of you to ask rather than jumping to conclusions. The thing is, you’re wrong and right to be suspicious.

Here’s where I think you’d do better to be happy with what you see, and try to quell your suspicions: taken by itself the “Reforming Catholic Confession” is not Roman Catholic, and is not attempting unity with Roman Catholics in any way I can perceive. It is insistently Protestant. It’s whole point is to bring together Protestants and confess what we believe together after 500 years in which one might start to wonder whether we’re really on any of the same pages. And it’s good stuff. It’s precious, gospel stuff. Their use of the word “catholic” in this case is actually a jab against the Roman Catholic Church; the confession is saying that we are the “catholic” church—that the church with the gospel is the one true, holy, apostolic, and universal church. “Catholic,” of course, just means “universal.” To use “catholic” as often as this statement does is not a play on words, an attempt to be coy, or an attempt to confuse. It’s making an essential point. As Vanhoozer and the other framers write in their explanation,

What protests the Reformers made were ultimately lodged on behalf of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.

Reformation Protestantism is more consistent with the early church in our hold on the gospel than is the Roman Catholic Church of Trent or today. That’s the claim behind the use of the word “catholic” in this confession.

And note what Vanhoozer says in the Logos Academic Blog interview,

We want to argue that the Protestant Reformation was all about reforming the Catholic Church, not starting a new one. There is only one church. So we are reforming catholic theologians. We believe the substance of the faith with the church fathers, with the medieval theologians, but we’re not Roman. We think “Roman” limits catholicity, and we actually feel we have a wider and more universal catholicity.

I read the confession as soon as it came out, and the explanation, and I was very pleased with both. Vanhoozer is an elegant writer and a knowledgeable theologian. I’ve since read the confession again. I think I need to read it yet again in finer detail, this time on the lookout for 1) what’s missing that could/should(?) be there and 2) what’s there that really distinguishes Protestants from Catholics. Systematic Theology is not my specialty, so I’m sure that sharper-eyed friends will have a few things to point out. But my alma mater itself has survived as a non-denominational institution because it had a minimalist Protestant creed (recited every day in chapel), and so I’ve seen the value of “mere Protestant” confessions.

I particularly liked Vanhoozer’s repeated point that differences don’t equal divisions.

Not every denominational or doctrinal difference is a division, certainly not an insurmountable one…. We acknowledge that Protestants have not always handled doctrinal and interpretive differences in a spirit of charity and humility, but in making common confession, as we here do, we challenge the idea that every difference or denominational distinction necessarily leads to division.

I’m not really divided from conservative Presbyterians the way I’m divided from liberal Methodists or Roman Catholics, for example. I’ve always been the kind of fundamentalist who believes that the existence of evangelicalism is a good thing: it’s isolationist fundamentalism to forget or (worse) deny that there really are people in other Christian groups who are brothers and sisters in Christ—many, many of them. In fact, there are far more Christian outside our little slice of the church than inside. And they have good gifts to give to the other parts of the church, including ours. Even if I must disagree with them over some important details, I stand united with them in important substance. I stand with some egalitarian evangelicals, for example, on things more important than gender. I stand with paedobaptist evangelicals on things more important than baptism. Taken by itself, I believe I could sign the statement—I’d want to go over it with a finer-toothed comb first, but two read-throughs haven’t raised any big red flags.

Here’s my concern as I consider signing, however, and here’s where I think your instinctive concern is warranted: some of the progenitors and signatories of the document have written and said and done problematic things. Kevin Vanhoozer and Timothy George have been part of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (though both are very smart guys worth listening to). Michael Bird and Wesley Hill take views on inerrancy and homosexuality, respectively, that I find seriously objectionable (though both are very smart guys worth listening to). (And Will Willimon weirds me out—he’s a mainline Protestant who’s wistful about the loss of evangelical belief in his United Methodist Church… I’ve never been able to understand the guy; I admit I just haven’t read enough of him.) I believe all of these people I’ve named signed the statement in good faith. But I’d have to really think about what signing the statement along with them means before doing it. Would I be implying to a watching world (and is anybody out there in that world watching obscure redheaded non-KJV-Only fundamentalists?) that I’m for the kind of Protestantism that is happy to find common cause with the Roman Catholic Church over salvation and Scripture, the kind of Protestantism that’s cool with calling inerrancy a merely American obsession or calling celibate men with SSA “gay Christians”?

Many people I respect, such as Wayne Grudem and Bruce Riley Ashford, have not felt that I would be implying these things by signing—or they wouldn’t have signed. There has to be room for distinguishing central truths from less central ones, because Jesus (Matt 23:23) and Paul (Rom 14) both did so. The key question seems to be whether I’m required to consider the views of those alongside me on the signatory list before signing. Are they part of the message I send by signing?

It’s easier, given my total obscurity, to simply avoid signing—which is probably what most people like me will do. No one will care or notice that I’m absent. But I do believe it’s important to recognize the existence of C.S. Lewis’ “hallway” from the beginning of Mere Christianity. And the basic idea of affirming “mere Christianity,” and “mere Protestant Christianity” during this 500th anniversary of the Reformation is fundamentally sound. I think non-KJV-Only fundamentalists (my favored term for my slice of Christianity nowadays—if I get to explain what I mean by “fundamentalism”) owe it to their fellow believers to give careful consideration to signing on—and to have well-articulated reasons if they choose not to do so. I’m praying about and considering signing. I don’t have to sign everything I agree with just because I agree with it, of course; but this is a serious effort by serious Christians during a momentous year to aim at a unity Jesus prayed for. I want whatever unity I can achieve without spending truth to get it. I shouldn’t just ignore this statement.

Fundamentalists cannot ignore something else: the information-rich culture we live in makes it very easy for people to believe that Protestantism is doomed to “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” There may have been a day when our young people were simply unaware that other Christian groups existed until they went to college or into the workforce; that day was gone before I was out of junior high. Even kids sometimes must face the question, “How come there are so many different denominations?” The thought threatens the trust we naturally have for the truth claims of our parents and pastors. And Vanhoozer in this confession (which he didn’t write by himself but sent through committee discussions) and in a book of his I’m reading tackles this very problem. As he says in the Logos Academic Blog interview,

We’re trying to make this as robust as possible, but we’re trying to show that the Reformation didn’t give birth to simply a plethora of conflicting opinions. Some people think that the Protestant church is an experiment that has failed dramatically. It split the church. That’s not the way we’re viewing it. We’re trying to show, on the eve of the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, that Protestants from different churches, different denominations, different local churches can come together and agree about the substance of the faith—the faith delivered once for all to the saints and recovered, we think, at the Reformation. That’s the main purpose of our confession; it’s not to displace anybody else’s. We’re not starting a new church. We’re simply trying to disprove the prevailing narrative that Protestants can’t state their beliefs together, that the doctrine always divides. We’re trying to show that these doctrines, the essential doctrines, actually unite Protestants.

This is theologically and pastorally important. It is balm for my own personal soul. Doctrinally careful efforts at Protestant unity ought to be welcome to those of us who believe that the church stands or falls on doctrine, and who are struck hard by the existential challenge in all that interpretive pluralism out there. Claiming that “Baptists aren’t Protestants” (which is wrong to do) won’t save you from the charge inside “How come Christians differ so much?”—because even Baptists differ over Bible interpretation.

I find it very interesting that this confession was started by an Arminian and a Calvinist. By working together they are making the same point that BJU fundamentalism has always implicitly tried to make by herding those same two groups of cats together: there is such a thing as gospel unity despite important differences.

I’m nervous, frankly, posting first among my friends. I’m sure there are things I’m missing, especially because I’m not a systematics guy. I also am not familiar enough with the contents of the ECT documents Vanhoozer signed (he didn’t sign them all) to interpret this confession in their light. I’d like to hear from Bauder, Collins, Olinger, and the Theologyin3D guys—I’m calling you out.

Humbly yours, and here I stand for correction, I can do no other,



Final Lecture for Asia Center for Advanced Christian Studies

In which I take students through How to Think about Others’ Exegetical Fallacies and then talk through some portions of my dissertation that focused on ἀγάπη (agape) and what it “really” means. No, like, for real this time.