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September 24, 2008


Pastor Brown: couldn't you have recommended Jeremiah Wright over James Cone? At least Wright is in the same denomination that gave us John Winthrop and John Williamson Nevin. Cone, after all, is a Wesleyan.


Thanks for giving us all such a succinct specimen of thought that demonstrates our desperate need for the type of renewal we've been discussing in this forum for the last two weeks.

Dr. Duncan posted a comment last week that I think bears repeating here:
"IMHO (and I think Greg would agree), one thing we need to cultivate in our denominational life is an attitude amongst the eldership with which (1) we can have a vigorous debate, and (2) I can state my case, and (3) then Tim Keller or Bryan Chapell or Greg Thompson or any other brother can say (with passion and grace): "Lig, you are wrong on this issue and the consequences of your position would be disasterous for the PCA." And then (4) the vote can be taken and I lose 90-10%, and (5) I don't have to go out and declare that the PCA is in a state of crisis because I lost a vote, and (6) I still love and regard my brothers who voted against me. We need to learn to lose a vote, with confidence in God's sovereignty and without calling into question the legitimacy of a debate that we've lost or the motives of the brothers on the other side."

Dr. Duncan's comment is helpful and convicting because it seems that when we try to cultivate 1-3, then 4-6 become exponentially more difficult, which I think is due more to the sin in our hearts than the flaws in our thinking (at least it does for me).

Surely a part of vigorous debate includes the freedom to reference brothers and sisters outside of our tradition who write and say helpful things, even though we probably don't agree with 100% of what they write and say. If you transcribed all of my sermons and then tried me on their content I'm fairly confident that I wouldn't agree 100% with everything I myself have said.

Howard, thanks for stepping up the plate. Your example teaches and inspires me.

Daryl, I hope you're still reading at this point. I don't know you, but I'd like to have the opportunity. I'm glad that you care enough to continue commenting, and I hope it leads to a continuing conversation, but in my opinion the Wright comment was unhelpful and uncalled for.

John Gullett
Johnson City, TN

TE Brown,

Thank you for the frankness of your post and your willingness to engage in this conversation. I pray that these exchanges prove useful for all.

I have a number questions. Your post, like most here, makes some sweeping assertions without providing specific examples to back them up. However, I have just learned that you had tight limits on the length of your post, which didn't necessarily allow you to include backup facts. I commend you for honoring the guidelines set by the moderators.

I have been asked to limit my questions to a few each comment and await your answers before posting my next set of questions. I proceed along those lines, trying to keep tightly related questions together.

I'm not asking anyone to name names, but certainly specific issues or situations would be in play. Otherwise, the assertions would have no basis in fact.

My first few questions:

You talk about an "oppressive ethos". Can you provide specific examples of this? How would you define it and what specifically does it look like in operation?

You refer to a "cult-like idolatry of believing its theological tradition could or should have all the present and past tools and viewpoints to fix what may be wrong." Can you provide specific examples of the situations on which you base this statement? What specific approach would you offer to fix this, and towards what goals?

Thank you for your time in addressing these. My next set of questions will follow your responses to these.

By His grace,
Bob Mattes

John Gullett: I actually like a lot of what Wright said, even if I also think he parsed the Euro-Afro relations a tad tendentiously. In the U.S. it's hard being an African-American. When black folks complain I don't see why white folks should get upset.

Having said that, I'm not sure why you'd find my reference to Wright more upsetting than Pastor Brown's to James Cone. Cone is not exactly the African-American version of Max Lucado.

My reason for bringing up Wright was to appeal seriously to the Reformed tradition. For all of the UCC's woes, its roots are a certain wing of Reformed Protestantism. And looking within our own heritage seems to me exactly what traditions do. Pastor Brown seems to think it is a problem if a denomination of European descent looks to its European-American heritage. But where else would Presbyterians go for understanding their own tradition? To Asia? To Antarctica? To Africa? Even more, in the current context of globalization, a process that historians trace to the European migration that began in the late fifteenth century, is it possible today to find a cultural or theological fragment uncontaminated by European influence?


Can you share with us one thing that you have learned from following this discussion, one thing that has been helpful, challenging, or encouraging?

You chasten the writers for not giving praise to people you cherish, is there anything praiseworthy, or even positive that you can say about these writers or this conversation?

I’m not Howard, though I like him a lot. I can’t speak for him—and certainly he can and will speak for himself. But I’m going answer the first question you asked him. I hope this is OK. I'll answer the other ones if it's Kosher and i have time.

Bob says: You talk about an "oppressive ethos". Can you provide specific examples of this? How would you define it and what specifically does it look like in operation?

Here are some examples:

James Cone: The first comment and the only comment for most of the day referred to Cone. No dealing with Howard’s arguments or calling toward vaccination—Cone and then some obscure guilt-by-association, seemingly dismissive comment. You may not know this but Howard thought long and hard about using Cone in his post. He wanted to make sure he could be heard—that his ideas were given some weight. He knew just mentioning him might set off alarms. So he circulated his comments to some friends and mentors not to see if what he ways rings of truth, but whether or not it can be heard. Still not sure if their advice was right or wrong. But in my estimation, the whole exercise is part of an oppressive ethos. Now, it’s true that Howard could just suffer from paranoia, but I don’t’ think so—especially because it proved true.

Nicodemus-es: Bob, I’m glad you are not experiencing a high level of fear with respect to theological discourse, but I bet you are in the minority. I’ve had too many seminary students and fellow pastors and elders take me aside to talk about their theological concerns, as if they were Nicodemus in the cloak of night. They want to meet in places that they can “speak freely” and “off the record.” Too many people have quipped to me about not telling anybody at presbytery about what they believe or are thinking about at any given time. Of course, they are joking, but clearly laughing off a real problem.

A Group List: A very publicly readable group list responded to this very conversation we are having:
It is essentially a discussion of the "Denominational Renewal" conference from February of 2008 which featured several young PCA pastors from our post-modern/emerging/egalitarian/FV & NPP friendly wing. …It is a fellowship founded not so much on a common theology, but rather a shared resistance to any attempt to mandate a historic conservative confessional theology. …It brings together friends of the FV like Matt Brown with Egalitarians like Carolyn Curtis James and unites them under a shared emerging/postmodern church banner.
Do you see this ethos and its oppressive nature? Matt Brown hasn’t even been discussed and yet he’s pegged. And how did Curtis James get brought into this? Remember there are over 600 people registered to this list. Even a conversation about possible renewal is bound, packaged, labeled, ostracized, and dismissed. That’s oppressive ethos.

A Seminarian: So what if you are a pastor/seminarian who reads some NT Wright and you like it but have some concerns? What do you do? I know what one seminarian did. Several months ago, I was checking out a NT Wright commentary (along commentaries by Phil Ryken, Derek Thomas, & Peter Leithart). The person checking me out made a snide comment about Wright. I rebutted pretty nicely (for me) and said I really appreciated much of his work. To my surprise he jumped ship and told me how much he liked him too but wasn’t sure I was safe to discuss this with. That’s a suspicion of oppressive ethos. Sure it’s a character problem too, but character problems form more easily in bad ethos.

Our Interns: We’ve had five or six seminary interns at our church. Regularly they come to talk about things they don’t feel like they can talk about in their larger circle. Now again, it may be true that this all just paranoia, but I’m not sure it’s paranoia when you duck because bullets are flying. It may just be smart even if they aren’t aiming at you.

Equal Opportunity: Please know this is not just a right/left thing. I have plenty of brothers on the more conservative side of things who feel what Jeremy called a police state. They feel the same oppressive ethos when they are strict subscription’s to the BCO and can’t understand why people are so dismissive of them. I’ve talked with people who think that female spouses shouldn’t vote—only heads of households—but they would never bring it up because we have an oppressive ethos.

Bob, the truth is, I’ve only chosen the most palatable examples. I could tell you about more difficult, saddening, and frustrating instances, but it could jeopardize someone being called out publically for a private matter.

Having read the articles and posts this week, here are a couple thoughts from my right-brained RE noggin on Renewing Theology

1. In any exam, if the man says he agrees with every “statement and proposition” made in the Confession and Catechisms (written almost 400 years ago, and in several places a compromise document between various positions), it should make us wonder. We should then ask, "Are you saying you wouldn't change anything, wouldn't add anything, wouldn't emphasize or deemphasize anything? You’d vote against any and all proposed revisions of any sort?” If he says Yes, then we tell him to go back and actually read the documents and only come back when he can be honest with us and only when he has found at least one "statement or proposition" which he would re-write.

2. Likewise, we should not be afraid to say someone disagrees with the Confession. The Westminster “divines” are big boys – they can live with our disagreeing with them. If they thought pictures of Christ would be sinful in
children’s books, then let’s not try to protect them but hinting that’s not really what they meant.

3. Each Presbytery should establish a “disciplinary safe zone (DSZ).” Then, any TE or RE who wants to write something controversial can do so without worrying about getting red-carded or setting off a conniption. He just needs to end his article with the DSZ stamp (like a get-out-of-jail-free card). Everyone gets three a year. (There’s a difference between floating ideas amongst the eldership and teaching those ideas to the parishioners.)

4. We should find the most insignificant sentence in the Standards that a large majority would disagree with, and overture it be changed – just to see if men would convulse at the mere thought. Maybe we could propose changing the noun “stews” to “prostitutes” in LC#139. Perhaps we could ask the candidate what he thinks of the ARP and EPC’s addition of Chapter XXXV to the WCF titled “Of the Gospel.” Are the statements and propositions in that new Chapter already contained in the WCF and thus were they wrong to amend it?

5. Just once in a church history exam, a candidate should say “Dabney was sometimes a man like us, with toad-like qualities…” just so we can hear the air gasped out of the room. (I think I hear the breeze even now.)

6. Before a man formally charges another with heresy, in the courts or in the blogs, he should be required to fly to his hometown and have a beer with him (actually, several). The accuser should not be allowed to leave until the alleged heretic has said “Yes, you have understood and expressed my views correctly.” Perhaps the PCA should create a denominational TDBF (Get-to-Know-the-Guy Theological Dialog Beer Fund). I’ll provide the first plane ticket.

7. And I’d like to use one of my DSZ cards at this time.

Mr. Prentiss, actually the act of placing oneself in a denomination and working for its strength and vitality is a good thing. Denominations are not doing well, not just in numbers, but in the degree to which members of denominations identify with their membership. Lots of parachurch organizations compete for individual Christians' identity. So to the extent that the contributors want to see the PCA prosper is a good thing. (Please don't overlook that I said positive things about Jeremiah Wright.)


Thank you for your detailed response. I'm not sure that I agree with your characterization of the ethos based on those examples, but I believe that I understand from where you are coming. I simply offer that your examples would not be unique to theology or the PCA. They could have occurred in any number of denominations, or corporation or government offices. That's not to minimize your point, just to say that fallen human beings act like that across the spectrum of professions.

TE Brown,

Not having received your answers to the first questions, although Giorgio took a shot at one of them, I will post the rest of my inquiry. The discussion is moving on to another essay, and I feel that it's important to raise these in the context of your post. I appreciate whatever light that you can shed on these.

You refer to the PCA as a "culturally bound and blind denomination that I believe has been infected by its own cult of Euro-Americanism." What does that specifically look like in real-world examples? What is your definition of a "cult of Euro-Americanism"? Based on your definition, what specifically would a healthy approach look like?

You say, "The PCA is simply following idolatrous suit with its belief and “burden” that it is can only be the world’s police and progenitors in theological matters, not its student or patient." Would you provide specific examples where the PCA has acted as "the world's police" in theological matters? How would you differentiate this in a concrete way from the PCA taking measures to keep theological error out of the church, i.e., to preserve its peace and purity as all PCA elders vow to do?

You assert, "Our theologically anemic sectarianism (I am going to use a fear tactic, here it comes) is a potential southern “back road” to an American neo conservative biblical liberalism or at least something less than orthodox." What specific examples of "anemic sectarianism" do you have in view here? How would you define "conservative biblical liberalism" in light of your assertion? How would you differentiate that from an orthodox confessional stance? Or would you?

Again, all these clarifications are requested with respect and a genuine desire to understand where you are coming from and where you wish the PCA to go. Thank you again for your post and your time.

By His grace,
Bob Mattes

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