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September 18, 2008

Comments

Dan Doriani concludes his response with this sentence: "So the Thompson talk stirs me in its positive call to beauty but leaves me waiting for a more subtle critique of ugliness and a more thorough program for beautification." Are these harmless omissions? Rebecca Jones writes: "My main critique of Greg’s plea for a new ethos is that it seems to ignore the cultural shift to esoteric, experiential spirituality." Should we be concerned, as Dr. Doriani is, with "enhancing" this talk or is something more at stake? Does this well-organized and well-expressed, moving talk, which has much truth and makes good points, finally reduce the truths of our theology to models for human interaction? Given the spiritual battle Jones descibes, the daily warfare we each wage in dependence upon God, His Word and His Spirit, the difference, it seems to me, is crucial.

Must beauty be experiential, Lois? If we are ascribing it to God, can't it be something that is absolute? To be sure, it could only be understood by us in a relative way, but that is true of any aspect of our knowledge of God. For now, we know "in part".

Dan Doriani notes, for example, that the word pointing to beauty in some of the passages he quotes is kosmeo. This word also has the valence of arranging or putting in proper order. This too is not relative. Either something is in proper order or it is not. Just a thought.

Ms. Westerlund,

Thank you for sharing your concern with us.

Rev. Thompson's talk does not reduce the truths of our theology. Rather, I would think that in a 45-minute lecture one could barely scratch one facet of our theology! Still, even while scratching away at a perceived problem in the PCA, Greg points us to the Lord Jesus Christ. Greg practically defines beauty by pointing to Christ's redemptive-historical work. Hence "covenantal resolve...cruciform patience...pentecostal charity...etc."

Would you spell out more specifically what aspects of our theology were reduced in Greg's talk? Also, I am confused why you do not think conformity unto Christ, which is the heart of this call to be changed by Christ's beauty, is an inadequate model for the Church's mission. Would you mind explaining why a christoform ethos is too meager a topic that we must immediately jump to discussing mission (which had its own lecture)?

Everyone, please keep in mind that he gave one lecture on this topic which was then made more concrete by the other speakers. It is an unfair criticism to blame Rev. Thompson for not delivering all five lectures at the conference himself.

Peace in Christ,
Barrett Turner

Dr. Doriani,

If the remaining lectures made Rev. Thompson's concerns more concrete in their various areas (Theology, Worship, Mission, etc.), would your objections be satisfied?

Respectfully,
Barrett

Many thanks to Dr. Duncan, Mrs. Jones, and Dr. Doriani for their insightful comments. While I believe that Greg Thompson made some interesting points, I share many of these reviewers' concerns.

First the talk lacked in specific fruit to be picked. One of the keys to any success is to have measurable goals against which to gage progress and success. If you don't have these, then how do you know we are being successful in our quest? I'm not suggesting that we break so-called "denominational renewal" down to a set of metrics, but nor do I see any specific remedies in TE Thompson's remarks. Becoming more like Jesus is a wonderful goal, but what specifically does that look like for the PCA in TE Thompson's opinion? Especially in light of the real challenges that we face, multiple sides claim to be more faithful to Jesus' teachings.

For instance, as others have pointed asked, to what specific ugliness does TE Thompson refer? He bypasses specifics at every point by saying something like "you know what I mean." Well, I for one don't. A Federal Vision proponent will take a completely different meaning than someone who backs the PCA's actions against the Federal Vision errors. The specifics should not be left to our imagination.

Second, I do not see the things in my church or Presbytery as we engage the world about which TE Thompson seemed to have so much angst. We work in and with a local coalition that includes many evangelical denominations. We are very active in materially and spiritually supporting several local charities helping those most vulnerable in our society. We have an international congregation and active outreaches to international students studying locally, as well as prominent local minorities. And, we preach the gospel of grace without fail and without apology while doing all this. God has blessed us with a physical location that enables us to serve Him in this way. I don't believe that a mid-west or other area congregation to have the same local opportunities outside of missionary support. Thus, I don't see some of TE Thompson's critiques about being insular as having any real basis. None were offered. Perhaps he was speaking to his own context in his own church or Presbytery, I don't know.

Third, the PCA faces real issues that demand real answers and actions. Beauty without truth is pornography. Which means, of course, that there is no beauty apart from truth. The gospel is being challenged by the Federal Vision, real churches have been corrected by the GA for "commissioning" women deacons in violation of our polity. Real people and churches are being hurt and divided by these and other theological challenges. That's not paranoia, that's reality. I didn't hear TE Thompson address any of these specific concerns. What specifically should a church or Presbytery do, in his opinion, when confronted with false teachings?

Proverbs tells us that iron sharpens iron. Physics tells us that butter does not sharpen iron. While I agree that we should be as gracious as possible when confronting threats to the gospel, our confessions, and/or our polity, we should not be butter but stand with spines of iron. Jesus was tender with the lost, but not so with the religious leaders of his day who taught and lived error. There's a difference.

I'm not advocating witch hunts or search and destroy missions. All things should be worked out within the context of our Constitution. But we should work them out to conclusion, whatever that conclusion may be, not agree to disagree on the gospel or our polity. I'm left unsure of exactly what TE Thompson advocates.

Lastly, I don't know anyone in the PCA (and I do know a few) who doubt God's gracious provision for His church and our denomination. Even at the most challenging times, I have seen men and women put their trust in Christ, that he would preserve us from error, splits, challenges to our church's very survival, etc. As humans, we always have doubts and concerns arising from our sinful natures, but as the elect we know that God will ultimately prevail. At the same time as we trust in the Lord, we also must go about the building of His kingdom here, not because it ultimately depends on us, but because he has both commanded and privileged us to take part in this work with and for Him. What is it that prompts TE Thompson to doubt that all this is so and that somehow we are all cynical or hopeless with or without iPods? Maybe I'm the only one, but I don't see it.

So, I'm left wondering exactly what is "denominational renewal" and what does it specifically look like? How specifically should we confront and overcome real errors in our midst under the umbrella of "denominational renewal"? What specific steps should we take today and specifically how will we know if we are succeeding? Looking more like Jesus in certainly the overarching goal of sanctification, but there wouldn't be denominations at all if we all agreed what that goal looked like and how to work it out in this fallen world.

We all individually and covenantally need renewal and are being renewed day-by-day, nanosecond-by-nanosecond, through the work of the Holy Spirit. How does this specific call for "denominational renewal" fall within that context? Philosophy and generalizations won't solve anything, only specific and focused action will. So, what actions should we take in this context?

Again, I appreciate TE Thompson's thoughts and was challenged by some, but I cannot be either comforted nor challenged by others until he puts them into the specific context of the real, fallen world in which we live. Maybe that was too much to do with 7 points in 30 minutes. Perhaps that's why Dr. Chappel teaches that we should limit our sermons to three points.

By His grace,
Bob Mattes

Barrett, thank you for your reply to my post. I could not agree more that one lecture cannot begin to plumb the depths of even one of the great truths taught in Scripture. We spend a lifetime going ever more deeply into the Gospel, which enlightens our minds, inflames our hearts, and motivates our wills. The key phrase in my question as to whether this lecture "reduces" these truths is: "models for human interaction." Certainly Christ is an example. But I cannot even aspire to be conformed to Christ apart from His life lived in me, imparted in the new birth. This is what I didn't hear. Dennis Johnson, Academic Dean of Westminster California, makes this point well in his recent book, "Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ From All of Scripure". Johnson writes: "To focus on Jesus as example is to reduce him from Sovereign Savior to ethical coach, and to transform Gospel into law." (15)

My good friend Fitz asks, "Must beauty be experiential, Lois?" Fitz,I am not sure what it was that I wrote that provoked the question, because I believe we are absolutely in agreement on the absolutes of beauty, manifest in our beautiful, triune God. I think we agree on the need to experience that beauty as we behold our Savior: salvation is not a matter of only head belief, but of a heart embracing the beauty of Christ Jesus. And this love of beauty is worked out in the well-ordered life--thank you for the note on the Greek word. For the poet George Herbert, the well-ordered life, one not driven by sinful impulses, was as pleasing to God as a well-ordered world. Further, this absolute defining of beauty by the self-revealing God is vital; without it, we will shape beauty "in the eye of the beholder" to the peril of our souls.

Lois,

I sympathize with the concern to prioritize the Lord Jesus' sovereignty and unique mediation for us. I have heard too much preaching outside of the PCA that neglects the effects of sin and assumes too much of human nature. I am with you on that.

However, Rev. Thompson spoke to a sanctuary full of ministers and seminarians about how one's fruit (sanctification) evaluates the truth of one's religious proclamation. If I confess a theology that involves Christ, but then live hatefully and full of entitlement, my theology is defective. I have not truly understood the Scriptures.

Since this was Greg's goal, he rightly held up Christ as an example. All in the room were Christians; all in the room needed an exhortation to live a sanctified life because of Christ. And it is good to focus on Christ as an example.

For example, Peter exhorts Christians to suffer persecution righteously because Christ suffered persecution righteously. "For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps." (1 Peter 2:21)

Also, I don't think that Greg reduces Christ's work even to pattern-imitation. For example, when discussing pentecostal charity, Greg spoke of Christ's work through his Spirit, breaking through barriers that we as sinners would not normally break. But by his Spirit, the living Christ still broke through barriers using the saints.

Lois, my mother in the faith, what do we lose by focusing both on Christ unique work outside of us and his work within us, leading to sanctification? Would you be willing to concede that Greg's talk assumes that Jesus Christ is the risen Lord of all creation, both our Savior and our example of righteous devotion to God?

I am not trying to force you into a corner. I am just confused as to why we can't talk about sanctification and being conformed unto Christ--even institutionally as his Body--without something like regeneration or justification being necessarily subordinated somehow. Why can't we talk about becoming beautiful like the apostles exhorted (see Dr. Doriani's citations of Titus 2:10 and James 3:13 above). Here at Covenant Seminary, we're taught that salvation is all God's grace through faith--justification and sanctification included.

Many folks seem to be asking "what's the big deal? Everything is fine in my neck of the woods? Why is this an issue?" Here are a few areas from my point of view that are of concern and reasons for engaging in a hearty dialogue. I put them down here as problems in our midst because I've found each of them to be problems in my own life as well and it has been calls, like Greg's, that have helped me, by God's grace, to change.

1. We are a suspicious group. Compare what Greg has said with the responses. Most are in the vein "well, he really didn't say this, but I'm afraid of where this is leading." Slippery slope arguments are based on suspicion and mistrust. Would it be bad to add to our theological precision charity?

2. We have fostered a "we-they" attitude. Regardless of who we divide into the we's and the they's we've fostered a party spirit in our midst and failed to listen to one another. Most (all?) of us identify with a certain group and vote, speak behind the backs of and oppose those not like us. This is not healthy; in fact it is sin.

3. We are loosing our missional stance toward our culture. While we bewail the changes in our culture, we are not acting and responding together to the tremendous missional changes taking place all around us. Instead we have redoubled efforts to "recapture" America or keep this new mission field at arms length, rather than act like the missionaries we all now are.

4. We are afraid. Fear seems to drive us rather than our confidence in a ruling and reigning Christ who has given us the opportunity of living in such a time as this.

5. We have fostered a success culture where we, like our culture, value the opinions of the wealthy, strong and successful over others.

Sam,

I'm sorry but I don't see what you see in the responses here. I see people mostly appreciative but asking for specifics. TE Thompson spoke in generalities, leading many to ask for clarification. Similarly, I see you make five points above without a single specific to back them up. Hypotheticals don't solve problems. We also see no solid proposals for a road ahead.

So again, what are the specific issues in the PCA which a "denomination renewal" might address and how would such a renewal address them. How do the proponents of this "renewal" suggest dealing with real and present challenges?

I hope that you've read Dr. Duncan's long comment under his essay. He cited some specifics and I believe that he nailed the issues. I haven't seen any evidence yet that the "renewal" advocates have noticed. I pray that they will address Dr. Duncan's essay and comments, as well as the other posts. I respectfully submit that a theoretical ethos doesn't appear helpful to the real world engagements of which Dr. Duncan helpfully offers a few concrete examples.

I apologize if I sound challenging in this impersonal medium, but tone cannot be adequately transmitted electronically. I fear that if there's nothing but hypotheticals and generalities in this exercise, interest will be quickly lost.

By His grace,
Bob Mattes

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