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September 16, 2008


To: Nicholas T. Batzig

You said, "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."

Thank you for saying this. It needs to be heard. Renewal has to mean unilateral welcoming from all expressions of ethos. Thank you Nicholas, truly.

Rev. Duncan and all,

Thank you for taking the time to deal with issues of ethos in the Church.

I have a question about y'alls critique.

How is Greg's talk NOT theological? He uses biblical and theological categories to structure his entire exhortation. He doesn't major on terms like "sanctification" though he does use it if i recall--but it's pretty clear that he's talking about how we embody life in the kingdom. He's calling particular attitudes "sin"--another theological term. And he's asking us to "repent" of them--another theological term. Theological praxis seems to me precisely his end.

I notice that the closing list of important pastoral actions does not include anything about the sacraments. The fact that this is adapted from Piper is not a surprise; the un-Biblical and crypto-Baptist rejection of the centrality of the sacraments in some quarters of the PCA was one thing (among others) that pushed me to Anglicanism.

I really don't mean this as a criticism, just an observation as filtered through my own experiences.

Mr. Batzig, you wrote:

"Pastor Thompson quotes the "Apostle's Creed" as being the doctrinal standard of the PCA. When did we downplay our confessional standards?....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."

Every affirmation of the Apostles' Creed is subsumed within the Westminster Standards. How can it be "minimizing" the Standards to quote a creed, the teaching of which is a part of those very Standards? Furthermore, Reformed folk have used the Apostles' Creed in catechesis and liturgy since the days of Calvin. They sang the Apostles' Creed in Geneva on a regular basis. Many Reformation-era catechisms (e.g., the Heidelberg Catechism, the first edition of Calvin's Institutes) used the Apostles' Creed as an outline to structure their exposition of Christian doctrine. They did this because they were affirming their catholicity and the continuity of their teaching with the early church, which formulated the ancient rule of faith from which the Apostles' Creed is derived. To cite the Apostles' Creed as a normative statement of Reformed Christian belief is a quintessentially Reformed thing to do.

At times, reading through the essays and the comments, I get the impression that it one values careful and complete articulation of the whole of Biblical truth, if one values theological accuracy, and thinks it important, if one is concerned about the smallest suppression of the offense of the Cross, then one is unloving, if not paranoid and cynical. That's odd to me: it seems to blame a serious problem of the heart--lack of love--on a belief in the importance of Biblical truth! Isn't it just the opposite? Loving God's revealed truth from the heart, allowing it to constantly convict and correct leads to humility and repentance. Yes, it makes us passionate about truth, because we love God and He has spoken. Further, meditating on the wonder of our salvation furthers the love of God in our hearts, which then flows out to others in sacrifical ways, starting with our family, our brother in Christ, our next door neighbor, and on to whatever missonal niche God calls us to. We live out an ethos not of this world, from the spiritual life within.


Thank you for asking me to clarify. The very fact that the Apostle's Creed is "part" (your words) of the Westminster Standards is the way that they are used to minimize. They are just that (i.e. part of the Standard)and no more. A Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, an Eastern Orthodox and a Presbyterian can all say the Apopstle's Creed together. But when it comes time to spell out what is meant, that's where it gets sticky. Furthermore, the Apostle's Creed says nothing about the doctrine of Scripture, the substitutionary death of Jesus, or the imputed righteousness of Christ (to name a few). While some would say that such a Creed is the essentials of the Christian faith, our denomination, at least at its inception, says otherwise. That was what I meant. Hope this helps.

Nathan thanks for the push back and time to reflect on my earlier comment. I do think Dr. Duncan's overall tone of his critique was uncynical and unpatronizing. What I thought bore the tone of that was the dismissiveness of his appraisal that I had quoted. But overall I certainly think that Dr. Duncan was cordial. My apologies if that was unclear Dr. Duncan (if you're reading these).

I would like to clarify something else, you asked, "Is epistemological humility really what's most needed in the PCA or should we be more concerned about guarding the truth?" For my part I think a denial of either of these ends in an un-renewed ethos, its got to be both and not either or. Which I imagine you would agree with.

And as far as confidence in the teachings of scripture go I heartily agree we ought to be confident and allow that confidence to move us into renewal along doctrinal, pietistic, and cultural-transformational lines.

To David Wayne, thanks for the comment. Points well taken. And thanks to all who have replied so far, positively or negatively to what I’ve said. To Tony (if I may address you and others whom I do not know with this familiarity, without implying any disrespect), I hope this elaboration helps you because I certainly didn’t intend to be cynical and patronizing. BTW, I fully understand and appreciate the siutation in which this paper was given.

I'll try to watch the thread and answer other things too. To Philip, I was certainly not saying or implying that no dialogue is needed. It clearly is, and I'm participating in it. My comments are about the sine qua non of a helpful discussion. To Brian, just an aside, the Reformed (from Calvin to yesterday) have not customarily spoken of the "centrality of the sacraments" for specific reasons.

Yes, Giorgio, Greg's talk was robustly theological, but tended to focus of the personal characterological significance of the doctrine for the debater, or to assume a particular judgment of an ecclesiastical situation based upon the doctrinal exposition. The former is good and needed. The latter is what I wanted to draw attention to. We can all agree, ex animo, on parousial ambition and still vote differently at the next presbytery meeting. What then?

Let me take up Glenn’s rejoinder, because what he says is, I think, particularly important. Yes, Glenn, Greg is in somewhat of a dilemma. But it is not that if he gets specific, things will get nasty. It’s that if he gets specific, more people will disagree with his assessment of where we are and where we ought to go – because our situation is complex and our response is contingent upon tons of judgment calls. It’s not a matter of naming names (much less of calling names!), but of connecting dots between aspirations and corrections, and concrete events, issues, positions and solutions in the life of the denomination. This is because our current tensions are not just characterological (though they are often cheapened by our ungraciousness and ungodliness), they are theological, ecclesiological and methodological. So, good men, who are prepared to repent and grow in the areas in which Greg so ably and prophetically challenges us all, are also still prepared (and legitimately so) to disagree in their assessment of where we are and where we ought to go. Allow me to explain.

For instance, if we say: “I want a denomination that is less paranoid and cynical, and more hopeful.” Who, pray tell, will vote against that? I certainly won’t. If Greg’s for that, then I vote for Greg! But that’s not an actionable diagnosis or plan at the corporate level of our denominational life. Though Greg’s exposition on that point may and ought to rebuke all of us (me included) personally for past and present misconduct, and lead us to repent and ask the Lord to show us if we have acted out of either paranoia or cynicism in our service of the church, or if we have promoted paranoia or cynicism in our participation in the life and courts of the church. And though serious soul-searching there might lead to widespread attitudinal changes and more godly conduct in ecclesiastical debate. It doesn’t help us in the judgments on which good men may disagree. It won’t work for any side of the debate, or for diagnosis or prescription, because it doesn’t adequately specify the contested points of how we’re not and how we ought to live together in hopefulness, rather than in paranoia and cynicism.

So, you’d have to say something like, just to give you a for instance (entirely of my own construction without imputing the opinions thereof, real or imagined, to Greg), “we are a paranoid denomination, and the Federal Vision issue, debate and vote at GA proves it, and the women deacons debate and vote at GA proves it, but we were wrong on both of those, and I don’t want our denomination to be like that. The very fact of people raising questions about the Federal Vision is indicative of an all too common hysteria and paranoia, and a too general suspicion that people are secretly for women’s ordination kept us from having a real debate on women deacons and shows how frightened and mistrusting we are.” Ah now, that’s a different question. Many folks who would happily line up in the “I’m against paranoia” queue to sign their names, would say, “well, no, I don’t think those discussions and votes were matters of paranoia. They were appropriate to discuss and act upon and our decision was right” or “I utterly disagreed with the process and/or conclusion to those debates, but I do not see them as inherently derived from paranoia.”

Now we are into an entirely different discussion. And it is a perfectly legitimate one which ever side you take. “You are paranoid or cynical if you disagree with me or vote a certain way or have a particular theological concern” isn’t a discussion (and, just for the record, I’m not saying, implying or even remotely suggesting that Greg is saying that it is – but it is an occupational temptation for all of us preachers in church courts: “if you disagree with me, you’ve got a sin problem.”). But, “I want a denomination that will never do something like we did in the Federal Vision debate again, and we need to chart a course for a denominational life that won’t include things like that in the future” or “I thought the Federal Vision controversy ended with the right conclusion but followed the wrong process, and I’d like to see our denomination follow a better process in the future and I think that change would make for a more hopeful, trusting, happy, productive denominational life” or “I think the Federal Vision controversy was handled well and if something like it comes up again, I think we ought to handle it the same way, and I don’t see it as an impediment to our trusting mutuality and hopefulness as a people” – that’s a discussion. And any of those diagnoses could, once agreed upon, yield concrete courses of action. All three of these views (and a dozen more) would find supporters, and the debate over them would be entirely legitimate (and far more complex).

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. Personally, I lose at least one major vote in my church session per year (and I've lost count in presbytery and GA!). Looking back, I think the majority of my fellow elders got it right (and I got it wrong) about nine times out of ten. Charles Hodge, whose sandals I am not worthy to unlatch, almost never won a vote at GA in his day. He was repeatedly on the losing side.

But I’ve gone on too long already. My apologies. Hope this helps.

I'm glad Tony already responded well to his take on Ligon's response essay, and I'm pleased as well that Ligon has engaged that vein of criticism so kindly.

And I wish I had written this a few hours ago, but Ligon addresses this in part just now. While I'm being perhaps too sensitive, I see a few word choices here and there in some of the many comments since this yesterday that reflect a "hermeneutic of suspicion" towards Tim or Ligon or towards Greg or towards one commenter or another.

I think Ligon's essay was exactly what was asked for-- poking holes where holes could be poked, asking for more from Greg to sustain his argument. That's not cynical or dismissive. That's dialogue.

I realize these discussions didn't start today or yesterday. I "get" that not only the essay writers but also the commenters have been engaged in related discussions for years, so there's a history and a context to how we perceive Greg, Tim, Ligon, and the commenters.

But naive and simplistic as this may be, I wish in this discussion we could hit "refresh" and give Greg, and Tim and Ligon and the commenters the benefit of the doubt in their phrasing. If Tim, acknowledging that he's not an historian, narrates Presbyterian history slightly off-kilter from a trained historian, does it seriously imperil his argument? If Ligon, doing as he was invited to do, illumines weaknesses in Greg's argument, is that cynical or dismissive?

I'm NOT suggesting we "all just get along." I crave the work of truth in making distinctions, and calling sin "sin, error "error", truth "truth," and beauty "beauty". I'm not suggesting sublimation of important doctrinal concerns for the sake of tone and gentility.

I am suggesting that we hit "refresh" and ask the Lord to help us SEE our brothers and sister afresh, to love them, to assess their arguments with a hermeneutic of charity, to pursue truth aggressively while simultaneously loving aggressively. If we roll our eyes at this each time, if we're too sophisticated to engage discussion "full of grace and truth,” it makes difficult the task of having helpful dialogue.

GL thanks for additional reflections, and Dr. Duncan I hope my reply to Nathan came through before your posting. GL I think indeed I have used a "hermeneutic of suspicion" and that does not make for furthering dialogue. Thanks for pointing that out. Dr. Duncan apologies, I do think you've underplayed the specificness of Greg's prescription for our churches ethos but I should not have suggested a dismissive tone in that. Its a gracious character of our ethos to be lead to our own faults which I've been in this convo. Thanks again, GL and Dr. Duncan.

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