« Tim Keller Responds to Greg Thompson, "Renewing Ethos" | Main | Rebecca Jones Responds to Greg Thompson's "Renewing Ethos" »

September 16, 2008



I am out of my league when discussing these things on a blog with Ligon Duncan and Tim Keller, so I apologize if I did not help the situation. Thank you for your kind and honest response to Ligon's last post. I did not intend to classify you in a "Why can't we all just get alone" camp, but I do believe that there is a large consensus of men and women in the PCA who would argue for unity at the expense of truth. These are extremely difficult issues and I for one am ready to submit to the brethren and be corrected by the brethren whenever and wherever needed. My major concern in all this is what Ligon emphasized above, namely, that if the call for Christian love comes as a response to a dislike for a particular theological issue, is it really loving to sit back and ignore the issues? At the same time, I greatly appreciate the call for a real Spirit-wrought love for the brethren. I hope my tone in these posts has not intimated anything contrary to that.

I was present for Greg's comments in St. Louis. The salient point for me from that lecture was a much needed call to love one another in the very practical area of our denominational business. Its easy to think about disagreements and sides, and forget the call to unity and an ethos of gracious dialogue. Its very easy for me/us to think the worst of those with whom I/we disagree. Therefore a reminder to watch my ethos is a good call to put our rich theology of sovereign grace into practice. Thanks Greg for the challenge and for your embodiment of it to me over the last few years of knowing you.

Ligon, I appreciate your responding comments here as a helpful clarification to me of what types of specifics could be seen as making or breaking Greg's thesis, and what needs to be developed:

"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."

I do think the following four talks attempt to give these types of specifics (Renewing Theology, Renewing Ecclesiology, etc...) and to spell out how a Christ-like ethos would transform specific, applied parts of our denominational life together.

I take your point at the difference you see between (a) the repentance for misconduct, soul-searching, attitudinal changes, and godly conduct that embodying Christ-like ethos could promote, and (b) actionable diagnosis, concrete courses of action for our corporate life, and how to work with hope in specific disagreements that are lacking in Greg’s talk.

At the risk of asking you to repeat yourself, could you clarify further whether you think the latter is more important than the former? I can’t tell whether you are minimizing the first, or just distinguishing it (that’s a sincere question [following Glenn's reminder], not a suspicious one). This continues to seem like the heart of the issue Greg raised by my listening: whether what we work out in our life together (in actions, in doctrine) is more important than, or as important as, the way we live as we do that working out.

And I appreciate very much the hypothetical discussions (on Federal Vision for instance) that you propose. It seemed to me that Greg's talk was trying to offer the vocabulary to begin having just the types of conversations you imagine, that he was giving a starting point for introducing that level of discussion on all kinds of specific tensions we currently face.

At the risk of offending with my OP odor, I offer a couple comments.

The first concerns the issue of paranoia and cynicism. Like the churchly piety of the Old Side Presbyterians, what one person considers paranoid could be another person's legitimate wariness about infidelity. The OPC does not own the title on wariness since both the PCA and OPC came out of communions that were comprised of evangelicals who would not oppose liberalism. Sure, there were liberals in the PCUSA and the PCUS. But the overwhelming majority of members and officers in both denominations were evangelical, folks generally God-fearing and Bible-believing who were less sure about being Reformed and uncertain about the need for opposing error. I for one do not see how either of our communions can act as if liberalism never happened, or as if the mainline denominations capitulated the way they did. To be on the look out for error may seem to some like cynicism. To others it looks like realism in the face of real danger. I offer this quotation from J. Gresham Machen, a southern Presbyterian who had his trouble convincing Northerners of the problems in their and his communion:

"Last week it was reported that the churches of America increased their membership by 690,000. Are you encouraged by these figures? I for my part am not encouraged a bit. I have indeed my own grounds for encouragement, especially those which are found in the great and precious promises of God. But these figures have no place among them. How many of these 690,000 names do you think are really written in the Lamb's book of life? A small proportion, I fear. Church membership today often means nothing more, as has well been said, than a vague admiration for the moral character of Jesus; the Church in countless communities is little more than a Rotary Club. . . . The truth is that in these days the ecclesiastical currency has been sadly debased. Church membership, church office, the ministry, no longer mean what they ought to mean. . . . we ought to face the facts. It will be hard; it will seem impious to timid souls; many will be hurt. But in God's name let us get rid of shams and have reality at last."

Is that sort of argument cynical, paranoid, or truthful? The answer can't be simply that liberals were in the PCUSA. Machen received the greatest grief from evangelicals like Charles Erdman and J. Ross Stevenson who would not face the facts and who prefered union to controversy.

The second comment concerns where we conservative Presbyterians look for denominational renewal. Wouldn't it be reasonable to look first to other denominations? Baptists don't do denominationalism. They do associations and conferences because they stress the authority of the local congregation. The same went for the Puritans. They were Congregationalists. Plus, I'd have thought that instead of looking north to New England or Minnesota, the PCA might actually look to its regional birthplace -- namely the South. Can we hear at least one cheer for Dabney, Thornwell, Palmer, Robinson, and Adger?

I believe that Ligon has summed it up well, "he is going to have to be more specific and clear in his diagnosis and prescription if he is going to stimulate a helpful debate about our potential futures in and as the PCA."

Too often I hear folks say that we need "fixing" or renewal as if we are a trainwreck already off the track. I continually ask, "Give me specifics." That is what we need to hear from those wanting to fix the PCA.

[Editor's Note: to read subsequent comments, or to add your own in the comment box, click on the tiny arrow icon below Les Prouty's comment to go to the next page of comments. Sorry for the small size-- this is a Typepad issue that I don't know how to change.]

Ligon - I read the following Harley-Davidson ad on the back of a recent Sports Illustrated - and thought to include it (partial) in addressing what you have offered in your assessment of Greg Thompson's talk:

"America, Please Don't Buy a Harley Because it Gets 50 MPG. MPG describes riding like biology describes sex..."

You wrote: "...we sometimes encounter a diagnosis that we care too much about truth, doctrine and theology, and not enough about mission, love and people. Or to put it the other way around, if we would care a little less about theology, we’d care more about these other things. Now, this diagnosis, if I can put it in a nuanced way, is bogus..."

I think that at the end of the day, on the most basic level, 99% of us agree on the matters that most matter. My problem with this kind of rhetoric (I mean no disrespect, nor harshness - it is just a rhetoric I have heard voiced over the years) is that we are not HEARING what people are actually saying to us when they offer similar comments (something, by the way, that I don’t think I have ever actually heard from a fellow pastor - in our denomination or in any Reformed denomination).

Somehow in our presentation of what we believe we are often guilty of presenting the MPG without articulating the beauty of riding the hog itself (sans lipstick, I might add...). The doxology that Paul explodes into at the end of Romans 11 is rarely the raw, unadulterated, infectious, even spontaneous response within and without the church because the presentation of what we believe often comes across a series of cold, harsh and dispassionate tenets that begin and end with themselves rather than the rich and infective way in which Paul engages us within even his own struggle to grasp all that is the Gospel in its deepest and simplest forms.

I don't mean to in any way, shape or form imply that any purposely would want this - but it seems to me that we need to stop being bothered by such statements and to start looking at ourselves and our own presentations of the Gospel, and we need to start asking WHY, instead of resenting such sentiments, or even using them (and I offer this humbly and not angrily) as spring boards for rallying the troops.

What we really need to be asking is this: Why do people rarely ask for more 'truth, doctrine and theology?' They rarely say, 'We have enough 'mission, love and people.' I think the answer is that we have done a poor job of connecting who we are and what we are about with what we do and demonstrate to one another and in the world and culture we live in.

To not consider such things is to accomplish exactly what we have right now in the PCA. I, like you, Ligon, am a son of the PCA. It represents most of my life. But the 'spirit' of the founders is far from what we have become – in my opinion we are a divided denomination – we are two denominations (at least). There is a culture of suspicion that comes from this exacting and rigid environment we have allowed to permeate the PCA.

This spirit has poured into how we do presbytery, how harsh, at times that we are with young seminary grads who are nervous as can be when examined and to how we treat pastors who transfer from one presbytery to the other. It shows its uglier side in how we label people we disagree with and with the level of vitriol we converse with in online sites. It even demonstrates itself with our general distrust of some of our younger pastors.

I will begin with my own culpability - As a member of PPLN I have felt a measure of sadness over how we won a vote. And at times I have fallen into the trap of the 'us' and 'them.' Hey, we are all contributors.

What I would like to see is a denomination that is committed to truth, doctrine, theology, mission, love and people - all of it. I would like to see a vital connection between who we are and how we live that out. I believe this is the ethos Greg is speaking to.

Personally, my feeling is that language that overtly and implicitly signals the 'slippery slope' is damaging and polarizing.

What we need to do is to hold our own feet to the fire, and rather than sort of sneer at people’s comments (Ligon, again, I mean no disrespect – you have never been anything other than gracious with me), we should be translating what they say that what we are presenting – whether in the pulpit, the classrooms, our writings or our dialogues – may not be compelling enough for them to be drawn in to the life of a Christ-follower to the degree that he or she yearns for more.

I suspect that if we are not careful (and often we are not), we present our tenets as though they are ends unto themselves instead of the sort-of ‘ingredients’ involved in a wildly passionate and beautiful relationship that is the feast of fellowship with God.

If we want people to enjoy the passion we have to give them more than a biology lesson…


Darryl (and others) -

It's been a while since I have listened to the Denominational Renewal talks but I think that Jeremy, in his companion talk 'Renewing Theology', deals more explicitly with the preserving, guarding-the-truth role of theology (as well as what it means to act as if liberalism did in fact happen). His talk might provide a more specific point of departure for the issues raised in your last post (and, by extension, other comments that have connected attention to ethos with a lack of theological precision).

I also remember that his remarks include a Walker Percy citation, in case that qualifies as looking to the South.

Dr. Hart,

You are certainly more learned in the field of Presbyterian history than I, and so I ask this question realizing that you have likely considered it before, and maybe even written about it. Yet, of the Presbyterian history that I know, I do find your appeal to men like Dabney, Thornwell, et.al. as models for denominational renewal somewhat puzzling. It is difficult, at least for me, to imagine what contribution they might offer when they not only personally held to such deplorable anthropology, but vehemently advocated that anthropology, evidenced in their vocal support for slavery (pre and post Civil War). Can you shed light on how we could take cues from them without imbibing their racially charged sentiments, and without offending our African American brothers and sisters in Christ, especially when some of the hopes Dr. Duncan listed for the PCA include “advancing justice,” “showing mercy,” and “resisting racism”?

Having been present at the Conversation in St Louis and having read Greg's talk several times, may I suggest (without claiming false-authority), that I think some of the responses here are missing the main point of Greg's talk. Worse still, with love and respect, brothers, I wonder if they perhaps unintentionally embody some of the ethos that Greg was addressing with loving and prophetic concern. Greg will be able to address that better though as he knows what he meant.

I heard and received Greg's words as NOT a call to vague, warm, slippery-slope "beauty" at the expense of "truth." But a call to evaluate whether the way we lived out the "truth" was actually a contradiction of "beauty" and therefore the "truth" of Scripture.

I think what Greg is pointing out is what Paul addresses in Titus 1:1
"Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness,"

If our knowledge of the truth doesn't accord with (NIV- "lead to") godliness, then our grasp (not just our use) of the truth ought be questioned. I don't think this is a, "hey y'all, let's be nice" exhortation, but something more that strikes at a more foundational level.

Rather than respond to this with a dichotomous rubric of, "choose doctrine or no doctrine," or "choose mission or education," I think the question is deeper and more fundamental: "does the current fruit borne in our denominational dialogue question the tree?" I am merely echoing Dr Dryden's post above.

As a native of Scotland, I am all too aware of the Biblical reality that "popularity doesn't prove truthfulness," i.e. a Scottish revival means your church shrinks. So, I am not suggesting that a biblical ethos is judged by the question, "do people like you."

My framing of the question obviously begs the question of "what is godliness?" and our views on what God is like (between the lines of our systematic summaries).

Penultimately, as I spend my formative years in the context of the UK with a governmental/parliamentary dynamic which required a rhetorical skill, flair, and sharpness not often exercised in the USA, Dr Duncan, I simultaneously smirked and winced at your taking time (in such a short introductory response) to point out that Greg is a "young" pastor who "clearly" has the "admiration" of his "peers." Please forgive me if cynical Scottish nature interpreted that as ad-hominem (or perhaps I've drunk too deeply from Greg's call to a more beautiful ethos). The conference was attended and it's message applauded applauded by PCA fathers and son's of PCA fathers who are neither "young" or Greg's "peers."

Finally, as one skeptical of blogs and virtual dialogue, I am actually very glad for this one. Dr Duncan, I did appreciate many of your comments, especially the quote you inserted from Dr Piper. That's a compelling vision that I can embrace with you as my brother (with our Baptist brother :)

yours in Christ,


I must admit, I have not taken the time to read ALL of the comments posted since the original post this morning, so I apologize if I'm repeating other thoughts, but I see something taking place here that I really like as a layman in the PCA. I feel a key to this discussion and the two perspectives brought together here (Thompson's and Duncan's) was something Thompson mentioned in passing at the beginning of his talk: the context of the pastors who were gathered at the conference.

God has Rev. Duncan stationed in an area of the country where polite behavior and Christian love can begin to look extremely similar. In many towns throughout the Bible Belt (or any historically nominally Christian region for that matter), Truth is not held as closely as being well-liked or known for having a sweet demeanor. Praise the Lord that Rev. Duncan is calling everyone to cling to doctrinal truth on behalf of God's body in Jackson, MS. I tend to think that many of the unbelieving in attendance before Rev. Duncan are there to see if the congregation is nice and respectful, and what they are to come away with is a higher view of Truth.

Rev. Thompson, on the other hand, is deluged with the academic world, with many subscribers who couldn't care less how they look or if you can smell the day's 3 lattes on their breath. A higher calling to truth causes many people to step over others or even cast the physical world aside. Displaying love and calling all to gaze upon beauty and live in light of it is Rev. Thompson's calling in Charlottesville, VA. His unbelieving in attendance looks more like a crowd ready for a debate, and what they are to come away with is a higher sense of Love.

The characters I describe here are exaggerated -- certainly there are unbelieving intellectuals in Jackson and disinterested superficials in Charlottesville -- but having grown up in one area and gone to school in the other, I don't think my observation is greatly unfounded or can be dismissed easily.

What I am seeing here, though, is an experienced and respected pastor of the PCA inviting the younger pastor a little deeper -- a gentle goading to flesh out his thoughts -- without shutting out the possibility of renewal. Rev. Duncan is setting some parameters, providing some vague feedback, and even describing three pitfalls for Rev. Thompson if he does not remain vigilant as he proceeds. Rev. Thompson has really given the denomination something special to consider. This conversation is really inspiring.

I would buy the first edition, if there's one brewing. Here's to four and a half more weeks of these engaging discussions.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Welcome to CGO

  • Welcome to Common Grounds Online. Readers of Common Grounds have suggested a website to continue the explorations they began in the book. In keeping with the interactions of Professor MacGregor, Brad, Lauren and Jarrod, the theme of this site is ‘learning and living the Christian story.’

    I have invited friends, and a few friends of friends, to communicate aspects of the Christian story that have been significant in their own lives. We’re all trying to find joy and pleasure in this life and the next, but often we forfeit the joy that could be ours by living out foolish, competing scripts. What distinguishes Common Grounds Online Contributors is not our own goodness, achievement or service, but rather the recognition of our need of God’s grace abounding in our lives.

Follow Us

CGO Contributors