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September 15, 2008


Tim Keller writes that theculturalist, pietist, and doctrinalist wings of Reformed Protestantism have never owned each other as legitimate parts of the Reformed family. That's likely true. But the assertion seems to assume that denominational renewal should involve accepting these groups as legitimate parts of Reformed Christianity. The problem is that real tensions exist among these groups about what it means to be a Reformed church. Simply asserting that we all need to accept each other will lead to sentimental beauty (we overlook the unwelcome stuff) and anti-intellectualism (we ignore serious intellectual differences). The last time I looked, the creedal, liturgical and polity aspects of Presbyterianism say very little about either the culturalist or the pietist understanding of being Reformed. Could it be that the pietists and culturalists have an agenda that is unwilling to live within the constraints of Reformed Christianity?

The Puritans combined doctrinalist with pietist and cultural-transformationist emphases. I don't think we should consider them anti-intellectual, nor anti-confessional.

But the Puritans weren't Presbyterian. Plus, New England was the source of most problems in the PCUSA. Taylor, Finney, and even Edwardsians come to mind.

Weren't many of the Westminster Divines Puritans? Am I wrong in thinking of the Westminster Standards as being significantly shaped by Puritan thought? When Keller mentions the Puritans, I assume he means on both sides of the Atlantic, not restricting the use to those who colonized New England.

I concur with the diagnosis offered, "There have been very few times in Presbyterian history that these groups have...really listened to one another long enough to learn to speak the other’s language when they argue." Moreover, Keller is right to point out that it is the Princeton theologians who come closest to providing us a model within the reformed tradition in America, particularly Charles Hodge. I'd encourage people to read "Piety and the Princeton Theologians" by Andrew Hoffecker as well as John Stewart's "Introducing Charles Hodge to Postmoderns". If anything, Hodge teaches us the art of charitably engaging people with whom we disagree, a skill not as well refined among southern presbyterians.

Darryl, your question of how the culturalist approach fits with reformed theology without being delineated as such in the confessional/liturgical documents is a fair one. One response would be that a concern for cultural transformation isn't what defines being Reformed, but something that flows out of Reformed convictions. The pietist emphasis as well seems a response to the Reformed foundation. Both of those approaches have at times attempted to claim that the Reformed tradition should be seen as means to their ends. Could we fairly resolve this by agreeing that exploring and extending the Reformed tradition through such emphases is fair game, but making the Reformed tradition subservient to those responses isn't?

You might question whether such responses as pietism and culturalism are inherently subversive of the Reformed tradition. But if that's the case, isn't the landscape well nigh bare of those who could be considered true to the tradition?

Another response is that perhaps the culturalist impulse was assumed by the Westminster Divines, and only comes out in places where the specific outworkings of that were then in controversy (e.g. WCF 23 and 31), which sections tend to be glossed over as historical relics today.

As part of that, I wonder about how being a confessional tradition affects debates like these. I love our confessions (and even as a PCA-er, I include the continental confessions in that "our"). But does that confessional emphasis rig the game here a little bit? How far off track, for example, might a high school art club or new parents get if they used encyclopedia entries for "art" or "parent" as primary guides to working out their respective roles?

"Maybe Greg could have added a sentence (as Edwards does) that assured us there can be no beauty in the soul without sound doctrine in the mind (though there can be sound doctrine in the mind without beauty in the soul.)"

Tim, you took the words right out of my mouth. If Greg really wants those of us in the PCA whom he considers "doctrinalists" to carefully consider his argument, he should really try to represent our position more accurately. I'm assuming he would acknowledge, along with Edwards, that there can be no beauty in the soul without sound doctrine in the mind, but he certainly didn't affirm that in his sermon. Instead, it sounded like he was suggesting that you can live correctly without first understanding correctly.

Also, describing the ethos of those who care deeply about right doctrine "schismatic" doesn't really help get the conversation off on a positive foot.

What do you think about the following quote, Tim? Phil's not Presbyterian, but I think this statement represents the way a lot of PCA folks feel.

“In a climate where error runs rampant and the church is desperately sick, we might do well to be a little less concerned about guarding our tone and a lot more concerned about guarding the truth.”

Phil Johnson


WSC Professor of Church History R. Scott Clark, notes in his forthcoming book "Recovering the Reformed Confessions" (P&R, 2008) how many within the Presbyterian and Reformed community follow a similar logical argument:

(a) I believe X,
(b) I am Reformed,
(s) ergo X = Reformed

When Greg speaks of "ethos" not as apprehending ideas (theology) but as "beholding beauty," it seems that out appreciation of that beauty should come, not from observing the "beauty of brothers and sisters," but a denomination looks to and appreciates her historical distinctives. We look to the Westminster Standards. It seems that the Westminster Divines should be the ones to whom we afford the privilege of defining the word "Reformed."

Those who have listened to Greg's message, with me, might argue that this post bumps up against his "philosophical" or "theological" abstractions. Greg argues that an ethos derivative from these aspects is schismatic (eg."tragic necessities of our history"). Really?

Darryl Hart nails the argument. I'll stop typing and gladly yield space to his.


As I listened to Greg's lecture and read Dr. Keller's sympathetic response what I heard Keller saying is that we not only need a well articulated description of the varied ethos's of our denomination but we also need to learn how to discourse in the vernacular of these varied ethos's. That there is a way to speak intelligible by embodiment of the 'others' ethos values, and that if we don't do this we will not be heard the way we could and need to for renewal's sake.

This makes me wonder how the presence of a Denominational Renewal Conference contributes or takes away from that varied vernacular discourse. I think the idea of such a conference is more fitting to cultural-transformationalist like myself rather than doctrinalist who may see a non-authorized conference as a fragmentation or afront to the doctrinal vision of Presbyterian polity. Nevertheless for my part I think that such a Renewal conference is needed and Greg's lecture offers those of a more cultural-transformationalist strip a 'way of being' in their current denominational setting. I think Greg has done a tremendous job in that regard.

The real labor for listeners isn't deciding whether or not they should or should not be critical of the lectures content but rather where and in what manner repentance and faith must take place in their life and the life of their community. I think Greg's lecture is less a call for diagnosis and more so a prescription of medication for our churches. Other doctors of our communion may want to prescribe additional points or different dose levels but such is normal.

Thank you Greg and Dr. Keller for a stimulating, yet painful, look at the ethos of our churches.

Tommy, do you think that an equal and opposite error ever takes the following form?

I don't believe X.
I am Reformed.
Ergo, X is against the Reformed faith.

As to schism, I think it's a live topic for the whole PCA, not just doctrinalists. The PCA has demonstrated an incredible capacity for growth, much of it out of other protestant denominations. A lot of us left where we were and came to the PCA because we wanted to, not (in the mold of Luther and Calvin) because we had to. And perhaps many with PCUSA or CRC roots lament not purging the subversive elements before it was too late. Those experiences have huge implications for efforts to maintain integrity as a Reformed denomination in the coming years. It's at least worth discussing whether some of us are too ready to leave, or too ready to kick others out.

Nathan, that quotation is certainly worth chewing on. I get the mindset behind it, having seen the effects of false teaching firsthand.

It's interesting in this discussion because I'd say a key part of ethos is character, personal credibility. Thus as a counterpoint to that quotation, failing to guard our words may undermine our credibility in guarding the truth (because an uncontrolled use of the tongue is inconsistent with a humble receipt of Christ's atoning work). Yet (as you might say in reply) treating some errors with any respect at all is an insult to the truth.

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