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September 16, 2008


At one point Pastor Thompson says, "The ethos of paranoia is ugly... So is its groovier sibling, the ethos cynicism...It is not fitting for the risen people of God to be paranoid, and cynical and to expect things to go down the tube any moment. But that's not what we want for our church. We want a church that is marked by resurrected hope. Not by fear and suspicion."

This seems to be the heart of the issue for him. It is not those who are on the point of abandoning orthodoxy, it is those who are doctrinally sound and who fear loosing that soundness that are a threat to the future of the PCA. I agree that some "confessional Presbyterians" in our denomination have this kind of suspicious and cynical attitude--sadly even toward those who agree with them--but Greg's argument is ambiguous at best. If those who care little for confessional integrity latch onto what Greg has said, anyone who thinks otherwise is automatically lumped into the "ethos of paranoia and cynicism" group.

What should we make of the Apostle Paul's tears over the Ephesian elders (Acts 20)? What about all the warnings given by Jesus, Paul, Peter, John and Jude that false teachers would always rise in the midst of the true church. The Elders in Ephesus wept because they would see Paul no more. Paul wept because false teachers would rise up from among those very elders. Paul could say, "I am free of the blood of all men because I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God." Shouldn't we be careful and watchful. Didn't our Lord tell us to watch for false teachers and to guard the truth given to us? Isn't this the point of Jude's command to 'contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints.' Even the verse from Galatians that Pastor Thompson opened with began with a statement about guarding against false teaching. Would we say that Paul was "paranoid and cynical?" What about Jesus?

Pastor Thompson quotes the "Apostle's Creed" as being the doctrinal standard of the PCA. When did we downplay our confessional standards? We subscribe--however loosely as some may do--to the Westminster Standards. Greg may not be a minimalist in this respect, but there are plenty in our denomination. Our ministers take vows to uphold what doctrine is taught in it. If they believe that it is the best expression of the whole counsel of God then they should be teaching it with tears. But minimizing it is not the mark of a great "ethos." Honesty to vows is a matter of "ethos" is it not? The "Apostle's Creed" is an ecumenical creed that marginalizes anyone who actually believes that the doctrine set forth in the WCF is "essential doctrine of Scripture."

"There is nobody out there in the culture championing the importance of truth, doctrine, theology and confession in the hearts and lives of our people."

Well said, Lig. As a new member of the PCA, I'm seriously concerned about the lack of emphasis on truth and doctrine exhibited through the ministries of our young PCA seminary graduates. If loose the emphasis on truth that's made the PCA what it is, what will distinguish us from this postmodern world?

I too like the Edwards quote and appriciate what you are saying Dr. Duncan.

And I do agree that we need articulate what we hold to theologically and perhaps Greg needs to be more specific in some of his opinions. But at the same time what I appreciate so much about Greg's talk on Ethos was the manner in which he displayed the kind of ethos he was addressing. Yes it is dangerous to label some in our denomination as showing an "ethos of paranoia and cynicism" Yet sadly in some of the blogs, statements at GA and other contexts, I do see an ethos that at times is discouraging and frustrating. I love the foundations upon which our denomination holds to, but I am uncomfortable and how these foundations are used by many almost like a weapon.

I recently found this quote from NT Wright (which I realize might not be the best person to quote for some) which I think is something I personally feel at times in these discussions and it is why I appreciate forums like the Denomination Renewal conference and why I appreciate Greg and his desire for renewing our Ethos.

"Far be it from me to pretend I make no mistakes, or that all my own teaching is an exact account of what scripture says and what we must understand by it today. I wish it was and am always ready to learn new things and understand the Bible better. But I have observed the way in which, in some circles, there are standard charges which are thrown around at people who dare to say things which their hearers don't expect. In my world, people of traditional turn of mind are often on the lookout for anyone 'going soft' on the affirmation of Jesus' full divinity; on the full meaning of his death on the cross; on the promises of his second coming; and on some key doctrines, like 'justification by faith'. And, if they hear something they hadn't heard before, even if it doesn't have anything to do with any of these topics, they will readily jump to the conclusion that the speaker (for instance, myself) 'must' really be denying one of these cherished doctrines. For the record, I don't; I affirm them all. (A few days after writing this paragraph I received an email from someone I didn't know informing me that a professor in another country was going about saying that Tom Wright didn't really believe in the Trinity. That, too, is ridiculous.)

Meanwhile, people of a more radical turn of mind are often on the lookout for anyone denying some of the currently fashionable teachings about politics and ethics, or affirming anything that looks to them like old-fashioned, uncritical Bible-thumping. Offer the slightest suggestion that you really do hold to a traditional line on several key topics, and all of the rhetoric comes tumbling out; you're a conservative, a fundamentalist, a reactionary, you probably hate women, your're leading us back to the Dark Ages. (For the record, I'm not.)

Now these things are unimportant in themselves, except as a sad but predictable index of the way in which, as in several previous generations, people today find real debate about actual topics difficult, and much prefer the parody of debate which consists of giving a dog a bad name and then beating him for it, and lashing out, too, at anyone who associates with the dog you happen to be beating at the time. There is far too much of that in the church, and the only answer is more listening, more actual thinking, and more careful and humble speaking."

Dr. Duncan you said, "I heard Greg give some of this material in another context and it struck me as thoughtful, passionate and hopeful, yet generic and impressionistic in its diagnosis, and abstract and aspirational in its prescription."

As I read your post the statement above was what I thought summed up the substance of your criticism. Dr. Duncan the way you closed your piece could be criticized with the same language you gave Greg regarding his 'prescription'. Your hopes for renewal were abstract and aspirational at best, lacking detail. BUT that doesn't deter me as a reader from being challenged and blessed by your closing words.

I think your critique is positioned upon language that is precisely what Greg is hoping to challenge his listeners not to use (abstract, aspirational). Language that appears tinged with cynicism and patronization. As a reader I know you have much more to say and that the 'details' are waiting in the wings of a more lengthy discourse by you. I afford you that courtesy because that's what mutuality between brothers looks like.

I would urge you to consider dealing with what was said and not what was not said. Arguments from silence hardly ever take fairly or seriously the locutionary 'sitz im leben'. Can a single 30min lecture be the place where one can give the depth of details needed, while still leaving his audience with a moving, challenging prescription? I believe Greg's lecture was dependent on how he identified his audience whom he perceived as having those details in mind. Because of that perception he was able to be broader and offer 'abstract' challenges that could function with a more paradigmatic effect toward the renewal of denominations ethos.

I hope I've been fair and respectful in my critique of your critique. I do feel the enormity of your leadership and character, not to mention the weight of difference between your scholarship and my own. May Christ be honored in this comment.

I agree with the many statements that it would be helpful for Greg to provide specifics.

And yet...

Let's say, hypothetically, that he gets specific about "paranoia and cynicism." I'm not sure there is a way for Greg to be specific without naming names. A single citation has him fingering a PCA person.

Two thoughts about the naming of names and Greg's call for a renewal of an ethos of love and civility in the PCA.

One, is it possible a) for one (Greg or another) to make a call for love, civility, graciousness and the like and b) simultaneously be specific (name names) without being accused of ironically being unloving and harsh? Won't at least those being named cry out that it's hypocritical to call for love and then finger another for being paranoid and cynical?

My hunch is that not only will the one being named accuse one like Greg of being hypocritical, but also the friends and fellow travelers of the one named as cynical and paranoid will rise to their ideological soul mate's defense.

And that rising to defend is often (always?) accompanied by attacks on the person like Greg, who was calling for graciousness in the first place.

Do readers see the difficulty for Greg? If he remains general and abstract, readers rightly demand of him specifics. If names names, he inflames.

Is there a way to call brothers and sisters in the PCA to dialogue that is respectful of persons, that is loving, that is "full of grace and truth"?

There are lovers of truth, strict subscriptionists to Westminster, who are also lovers of their brothers and sisters in Christ and in the PCA.

And there are lovers of truth, strict subscriptionists to Westminster, who treat their brothers and sisters in the PCA who disagree on points of doctrine harshly. I have read multiple blog posts in recent years where PCA brothers have used ad hominem attacks (which is also poor argumentation) on their brothers. I've seen Guilt By Association attacks that are flimsy at best.

How does one call those who are harsh, captious, and inclined to make ad hominem attacks, to repent?

How does one get through to paranoid person? How does one get through to a cynical person?

How is this task achieved?


Fair enough! That is a good assessment of the problem we are facing. If someone from the "Why can't we all just get along" camp criticizes those from the "paranoid and cynical" camp, they can be said to be working their agenda for broadening the Standards of the PCA. And when someone from the "paranoid and cynical" camp criticizes someone from the "Why can't we all just get along" camp they can be criticized for being unloving and marginalizing. There is an answer in the Scriptures. It may not be as easy an answer as people want, but we can be sure that it is there. We are to labor for sound doctrine and love of the brethren. We need to define sound, essential doctrine, and we need to exercise love to the brethren. If we have defined sound doctrine as what the Confession of Faith teaches then we need to uphold it. But having been in both the "broad" and the "TR" sides of the PCA, I fail to see how the great problem in the PCA is "paranoid and cynical" ministers. Seems like this is a very small minority. In my experience it is much easier to be doctrinally broad and well received than it is to sincerely hold to confessional standards and be welcomed. This is the great problem facing us.

Ligon - don't know if you are checking up on the comments here, but if you are, thanks for this. You made one comment that got me thinking and even chuckling a bit (ok, most of your comments got me thinking but this one in particular) and that is the comment that we care too much about doctrine and truth and not enough about love and mission. My chuckle came from the fact that those who de-emphasize doctrine and theology for love and mission are often as divided amongst themselves as those of us who are more doctrinaire. It's not as if people who abandon doctrinal concerns for the promised land of "missional emphasis" and "experiential piety" attain a unity that others lack. They'll still have to define what constitutes the mission, they'll still have to define what constitutes a valid experience. To kind of step out into a parallel example to this, there is no one as concerned for personal piety and love and experiential Christianity as our charismatic friends, yet their main in-house organ is now discussing the possibility of an upcoming charismatic civil war. Not saying that to bash the charismatics, just to say that those who us stuck in the mud doctrinalist PCA'ers ought not to be intimidated into thinking that there is some greater experience of true Christianity to be found if we'll lay down our insistence on correct doctrine.

Having said that there is an issue which I didn't see you bring up or yesterday's commenters and I thought I would throw out for general discussion. I appreciate that Greg was general and aspirational and not very specific, yet, I have to say that the aspirations he laid out fired my soul like nothing I have heard recently and if all of the reformed folks here will forgive me for quoting John Wesley, my heart was strangely warmed by Greg's talk. The aspiration that most fired me here was in his last point on "parousial ambition" that we are a colony of heaven that aspires to reflect of the new world to come in the here and now. This new world will be one of unity with the larger body of Christ and will not be provincial in character. Thus we ought to do the hard work of seeking broader alignment within the factions of our denomination and with those from other traditions.

My concern is that we tend to treat this as an either/or thing. Anti-doctrinalists will say "yeah, and to seek the broader alignment we must abandon our concern with theology." Doctrinalists see so many potential hazards in that approach that it is hard to make a move for fear of leaving a door to heresy open somewhere.

I would just like to see the same creative energies devoted to explorations of greater unity as we do to doctrinal precision. And maybe it is happening and has already happened - after all, Greg is right - we do have a history of battle, but the PCA is still together, even if some think it is tenuous. I know lots of couples who fight a lot and have been fighting for a long time but they still love one another and are making a go of it. I think John Frame got us off to a good start with his book "Evangelical Reunion," but as best I can tell that book didn't get much attention and no one has run with his concerns.

Anyway, thanks for letting me vent a bit here Glen and thanks for the patience of anyone who read this long comment, and many thanks to Ligon for this post.

Two quick points. First, one of Ligon’s major criticisms seems to be not about the substance of what Greg said, but about what some people might do with what Greg said. Namely that Greg’s emphasis on beauty, that beauty is a sign of the truth, could be used by folks who disparage theology and embrace warm fuzzy concepts like beauty. (Here I assume he means folks with real emergent sympathies.) I don't think that it is a helpful critique to talk about what someone *might* do with Greg’s ideas.
Secondly, and more importantly, there is a false and unbiblical dichotomy being drawn here between doctrine and ethos. Ethos is not simply the way we package our ideas, it is the cultural life form that our ideas produce. If our ethos is subchristian, then somewhere our theology is also subchristian. The popular mode of living and thinking that these two things are substantially separable comes from the Enlightenment, not from the Scriptures. When the NT authors defend the truths of the gospel against those who teach counterfeit gospels this critique always involves doctrine and ethos, and moves back and forth between the two.

The gospel as Paul understands it is that revelation of God which produces the “obedience of faith”. When he defends the gospel he is just as likely to talk about the content of the gospel as he is its fruits. Jesus himself, in his virulent attacks against the Jewish religious establishment rarely (if ever) criticizes them in the sphere of doctrine. His focus is on the ethos which their theology produced. His chief criticism is for a self-righteousness that looks down on others. This is as much a critique of their ethos as it is a critique of their theology. The two things are not separable for Jesus or the Apostles, they are distinguishable, but two sides of the same coin. To talk about one is to talk about the other. The real question is why are we so ready to talk about them as though they are two different things. The question of ethos is a theological question, not a marketing strategy. To raise questions about the ethos of our denomination is to raise a theological question about our denomination. If our ethos does not embody the truths of the message of the gospel, for example in how we deal with difference under one roof, then this is a theological failure as well as a moral one.

Tony, I must respectfully suggest that you've misunderstood the "tone" of Dr. Duncan's critique. Rather than being "tinged with cynicism and patronization", Dr. Duncan clearly and confidently stated his opinion that Greg needs to be more specific about what he thinks is wrong. Why is it that those who champion truth and doctrine are always criticized for their confident ethos? Are we not supposed to be confident in what the Bible says? I guess that would depend on whether we believe God has spoken clearly enough in His Word for us to think His thoughts after Him. Is epistemological humility really what's most needed in the PCA or should we be more concerned about guarding the truth?

GL, It is possible for Greg to have specified what he thinks is wrong in the denomination without dropping names. If part of his diagnosis includes, for example, that we care too much about truth, doctrine and theology, and not enough about mission, love and people, then for the sake of those he's trying to reach, he needs to explain where he feels the imbalance is manifesting itself. Names aren't needed. Wouldn't practical, generic examples be good enough to point to the apparent disconnect between belief and practice?

[Editor's Note: Philip, please include your last name in the comment box in the future. I had to look it up based on your email. You will probably have to delete the "cookie" for this blog and refresh the screen in order to prevent "philip" from auto-filling in the comment box.]

Further to GL's point, it seems to me that what Dr. Duncan overlooks is the setting of this lecture as a spoken word intended to provoke rather than simply present a series of positions.

(That being the case, I find it strange that folks thing Greg was being "vague" in his assertions. I found the tone of his lecture to be oppositional more than anything else -- his rhetorical style is to say "we want X rather than Y." And in so asserting, he names X as a particular disposition that needs to be replaced with an identifiable Y. That does not strike me as vague; rather, it seems to me that Greg is respecting the intellect of his audience by refusing the temptation to name names.)

This means we have to take the concluding issue of the lecture -- a christoform "imagination" seriously. Given the context of the lecture, Greg was charged with provoking conversation along a certain set of lines. And, to be sure, one of the things that is lost in our world and Greg attempts to accomplish in this lecture is the ability to provoke without polemic. Therefore, I agree with the earlier commentator who stated that much of Dr. Duncan's critique is a critique from silence, which is really no critique at all. The sense one gets from reading Dr. Duncan's comments is that there is really no need for this sort of dialogue at all; rather, what the PCA needs is greater fidelity to the sort of ethos his father and others created. That may well be an argument worth making, but it would require more of its proponents than the charge of irrelevance. The lecture, as I heard it, was intended to stimulate the sort of communal reflection that cannot be reduced to a single sentence.

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