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October 14, 2008


Thank you, Glenn, for asking Derek Thomas to contribute to this forum. And thank you, Dr. Thomas, for your essay: you said cogently what I was trying to say in my comment yesterday. Thank you for making the case from Scripture, for writing that "To a fallen complacent world, in a state of sin, misery and moral inability, the news that Jesus is King is the worst possible news!" That would seem to be not just "subtler exegesis" but a decisive difference in how one views the world and what one understands the Gospel to be.

The proclamaton that Jesus is King is how N. T. Wright defines the Gospel in "What Saint Paul Really Said,", ch. 3, "Herald of the King." But, Biblically, how can He be my King until He has become my Savior? That requires recognition that I have sinned, that I have offended a holy God, and cannot save myself.

I cannot even follow King Jesus until I become a son, and have been given a new heart that wants to obey.

Until I have been made righteous in God's sight, is not the announcement of the rule of Christ the proclamation of coming judgment? It only becomes the Good News when it leads to repentance. But we love darkness rather than light, which is why God must save us.

Again, thank you for your essay.

Dr. Thomas,
You say that there were no soup kitchens in the early church, but is that not quite accurate. Instead of removing the needs of others to an off site location (a soup kitchen) the early church enfolded those needs into their own kitchens and homes? Hence Acts 2: 44& 45's statement that "all the believers were together and held everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need" goes beyond a soup kitchen mindset and opens a truly gospel response of serving others because we have been so abundantly blessed through the work of Christ. We were dead, and now we live therefore we lavishly give to all as an overflow of received grace.

Thanks for bringing up the point that our eschatological views do affect our approach to these issues.

I have a dumb question and then a criticism of Dr. Thomas' response.

The dumb question: Are there any practices or actions that those who advocate for renewing mission are prevented from undertaking? In other words, are there institutional restrictions, impediments or disincentives within the PCA for any pastor, local church or presbytery to systematically plan and implement what the proponents of denominational renewal wish to do with respect to the mission of the Church?

I am trying to understand what "renewal" means in the purposes of this conference.

I think the theological justification of what is proposed is thoughtful and lovely, but really, what is the correct understanding of what we should be doing compared to actually doing it? I respectfully submit that leading by example (which I rejoice is happening) will be sufficient (and necessary) for the prophetic judgment to hit its mark. If a "healthy denomination" wonders what in God's name you're doing on migrant farms or in communities afflicted by epidemic unemployment, then the most compelling response is "Come, let me show you."

I'm wondering what *can't* be done--what isn't permitted, what is actively discouraged--given the present state of denominational affairs. If the answer is "nothing," then what are the aims of DR? Do you desire to restructure the denominational organization, reprioritize institutional aims, and/or reallocate funding? Have more involvement in the operations of GA? Is there a blacklist that prevents renewal advocates from serving the institution in such a way that power might be redistributed? Are there systemic evils that marginalize your ideas and cripple your actions?

The fact that such a conference could be organized suggests that such public reflections are possible, perhaps even welcomed. I'm absolutely sure that the DR is addressing real weaknesses and legitimate concerns. I certainly applaud all efforts to have lesser known thinkers in our tradition inform our discussions on a theology of politics, economics and society.

However, I would like to challenge the rather consistent refrain in these talks that the PCA is on doctrinal steroids. I think the precise opposite is true. In point of fact, since I agree with much of the theological reorientation and appropriation of nontraditional sources that are proposed in this conference, I think the talks necessarily presuppose that we are doctrinally weak. Confessional strength and doctrinal weakness are perfectly compatible.

So it is rather strange to hear the off-key parachurch and unitarian refrain that boo-hoo doctrine divides. The PCA over-emphasizes creeds at the expense of "living the story?" The exclusivity of such analysis renders the diagnostic claims incoherent. Doctrine shapes whether the mission is undertaken and how it is executed. Formulating missiological priorities takes one straight into the gaping jaws of dogma. So then why the desperate insistence that we must avoid (or at least diminish) dogma? How can you denounce the ministerial necessity of dogmatics while engaging in it at the same time?

Speculative theology mixed with dogmatic indifference is a recipe for dissolving communion by virtue of the resulting toleration of theological extremes and absurdities. Yes, dogmatics is more than a system of propositions, and some of us do forget that it is not an end in itself. Dogma *has* to come back to the Story or it becomes nothing but philosophy. But even the Creed tells a story. By all means, let's refresh ourselves with a simple theology of the Gospel once-delivered to the saints at those times when our theological discourse deteriorates and does little more than engender hatred of theology among the flock. But let's not recreate and renew under illusions of historical and philosophical naivete (e.g., that Christological and Trinitarian definitions and later conciliarity put the Church on a trajectory at odds with The Early Church[tm]).

I get the impression from these talks that our churches are hives vigorously recruiting and breeding presbyterian Lucius Malfoys, whose singular worker-bee joy in life is showing up the lambs' ignorance of Reformed doctrine. Yes: mean people exist and they do mean things. I know a couple of them. I've seen some of them change. I've heard a bad story or two. But I have yet to see evidence of such widespread abuse that would warrant the claim that we're too busy "bashing each other over the heads with creeds" to bother ourselves with kingdom work. If there is a society of Lucius Malfoy clones troubling the PCA, may I say to them on behalf of the human race: stop it.

However, I have observed with some frequency in the PCA that dogmatic content is sequestered from and avoided as a homiletical rule. But whether this takes the guise of a TR or anti-TR rule, it opens up the ministry to a different proclamation. In its anti-TR form, I have witnessed obfuscating grace with moralism, proclaiming humanistic reforms of society and ethics, and inciting a prosecutorial anti-Pharisaism that marginalizes the task of caretaking sound doctrine in the local congregation.

The Confession that defines the PCA can only do so in the pulpit, at the Font and at the Table. If confessional nominalism (which imposes no necessary overlap between what one says one believes and the ideas in one's head) is the new denominational order, then you can believe anything you want to at those points where God has promised to serve us with eternal life. True, believing that a system of propositions hangs out in space in the realm of the Forms will lead to a disfigured mission (because the resulting Gospel preached will not be in conformity with the Word). But equally disfiguring are the consequences of believing that mission can be undertaken without dogma serving to shape and tell our particular hearing and understanding of the story of God and salvation.

So, short story long: I agree with the prescription (for the most part); I disagree (vigorously) with the diagnosis. Okay, I've carried on with my dumb question, so I'll submit my criticism of Dr. Thomas' response separately...

First, thanks so much to Dr. Thomas who wrote a thoughtful and engaging essay. We so appreciate your time and your attention to these questions.

Secondly, to Joel--Thanks for your continued engagement. You are very funny. I want to speak to your post directly and leave Dr. Thomas' reflections for Jeff.

A couple of things in hopes of clarification:

1. We are not advocating the diminishment of theological work. To the contrary, we are trying to make a theological argument about the character of a healthy church. And we are calling the theological trajectory we think we should embrace "Reformed Catholicity." We are not pitting theology against mission, or against anything else. We are, at core, having a theological discussion. I stated this explicitly in my response some weeks ago. Jeremy made the same point in his talk. Matt Brown used historic theological categories in describing the nature of the church. Jeff White argued from the notion of Missio Dei, which as Dr. Thomas helpfully noted, is an explicitly theological category. So, there may be people who believe that theology is opposed to mission, but we are not among them.

2. The reason we are making theological arguments is because we think the PCA has--in addition to some real theological strengths--some equally real theological weaknesses. Chiefly, we believe that these weaknesses are rooted in a default sectarianism that marks us; a sectarianism that malforms our ethos, weakens our theology, constrains our worship, limits our ecclesial relationships, and truncates our mission. And we believe that this sectarianism is, at root, a theological mistake. So yes--we think you are correct--the PCA has (as I assume we all have to one degree or another) a theological problem. And it is not that we are too strong theologically, but too weak.

3. Moving on from the theology question to what you called your "dumb" question. It's not dumb, but I don't think it's helpful. It has never occurred to us to try justify this enterprise in terms of what "we" currently can or cannot get away with in our churches. Our aim is larger than personal freedom. It is, as we have said quite frankly, denominational renewal. Far from claiming that we are being hindered in doing what we want, we are claiming that our denomination isn't (in this respect) doing what it ought. We are claiming (with respect to mission) that we as a denomination while thankfully strong on justification, are sadly weak on justice. And insofar as this is true, we need to repent of this imbalance. So, this isn't about "us" not getting to do what we want. The point never has been what we can get away with as individual pastors. We're not congregationalists. It's that we want the whole body to be renewed into the image of Jesus who both justifies the wicked and liberates the oppressed.

4. Lastly, we don't believe our brothers are Lucius Malfoys. Or Draco Malfoys. Or even Crabbe or Goyle. We wouldn't say that about them and don't want those words put into our mouths. But we do believe that we have some real differences among us that we need to address (ethos, theology, mission, etc). And we believe that to continue to err in some of these matters is to create and/or perpetuate some deeply unhealthy relational and ecclesial patterns among us. That's the impression that the talks were intended to give. I'm certain we've failed in some real ways in this regard, but that was at least our intention.

Greg: if America's greatest living theologian, Stanley Hauerwas (okay he's only an ethicist but he did make the cover of Time magazine) can defend sectarianism, why can't ministers who are in a communion that did leave the mainline because the PCUS (and PCUSA for the RPCES) was too unsectarian, as in too broad, too tolerant, too "catholic"?

Anyway, how are you using sectarian? In the Troeltschean sense? Synonymous with narrow or exclusive? The opposite of "catholic" or ecumenical? But shazam, didn't the melt down in the mainline denominations who were seeking to be catholic and ecumenical teach us anything about what happens to Protestant ecumenism?

Professor. Great questions. Thank you.

1. Hauerwas. His version of sectarianism is against modernity, not against other Christians. In his take Christians are to be a counter-cultural sect of dissent from the secular temple that is liberal modernity, not a sect of dissent from one another. True, he is an anabaptist. But he is so because he thinks this tradition best prepares us to resist liberal modernity (ala Yoder). So, unlike some versions of sectarianism, Hauerwas is not advocating sectarianism within the body of Christ, but rather the whole church's self-conscious embrace of its sectarian identity vis a vis modernity. This is why he hates liberalism so much; it repudiated its sectarian identity in the face of modernity.

2. How we are using the term. I think Jeremy actually defined it in his talk. He called it, "The theoretical or practical identification of your tradition, or some subset of it, as THE true church." So, to use your terms, it is roughly opposed to "catholic." Hence our emphasis on "reformed catholicity." Although "sectarian" can be used in such a way as to have moral or pejorative overtones (i.e. narrow, small-minded, etc) we don't mean it in this way. We mean it as a description of a certain sort of historically identifiable theological self-understanding.

3. I like your use of the word shazam.

4. Not all movements toward catholicity are the same thing as movements toward liberal forms of ecumenism. To conflate the two in principle is to guarantee confusion.

5. We didn't see a melt-down in the mainline over people seeking to be catholic. We saw a melt-down in the mainline because people were seeking to be liberal, in the historic theological sense. This is, in principle, a very different thing.

6. Which means, to my mind we didn't leave the PCUSA because it was too unsectarian. As far as I know, very few in the history of the church have seen internecine sectarianism as an ecclesial virtue. We left it because it was becoming theologically liberal. These are not the same thing.

7. As an aside, and to return to Hauerwas, one doesn't escape liberalism by being sectarian. After all, from the perspective of historic orthodoxy, liberalism is about as sectarian as you can get.

Peace to you. GT

Thanks to Greg Thompson for his clarifying reply to Pastor Joel Hunter, and to Pastor Hunter, for his witty, profound, and provocative comment-essay.

I have a question, having read Greg Thompson's response: how is liberalism sectarian? The liberalism I have encountered is all-embracing: it uses wonderfully inclusive, catholic language. In a liberal sermon, nothing is repudiated; it gets Christian theology 80% right. It's just that the 20% it leaves out is the Gospel, our need of salvation. (Salvation may be mentioned, but it is experential, not supernatural.) By omitting this truth, liberalism implies that we are all fine--we just need to do the right thing.

To the liberal, we are all Christians: what's the problem? We are all family. We don't have a problem with you; why do you have a problem with us?

I am not a scholar, much less a church historian. But I don't understand the point about people seeking to be liberal. My experience with friends and family and neighbors in liberal churches is that they think they are the same as me. Perhaps it is the clergy that desired to be liberal. But I have heard (is it correct?) that historic liberalism did not begin by denying anything. And that has been my experience, so I am left with the question of how liberalism is sectarian.

This is probably a question for Darryl. Perhaps he will be kind enough to answer it.

Hi Lois.

I think yours is a very illuminating post, and I thank you for it. I'll try to respond as helpfully as I can.

I’d like to say two things up front:

First, I suspect this is longer than any of us would like, but as I wrote, it seemed I was coming nearer the heart of things.

Secondly, I have very little knowledge about the appropriate use of the comma. So, all ye who journey here beware.

1. On what I mean by theological liberalism.

You didn’t ask this, but it seems important.

I’m not convinced that the language of liberalism and conservatism are entirely helpful. Actually, I’m convinced that it isn’t entirely helpful. But I did use it, so let me make sure it’s clear what I do and do not mean by it.

By theological liberalism I do not simply mean “anyone who happens to be to the ideological left of me or my friends.” I am referring to a very self-conscious and historically indentifiable intellectual and theological movement characterized by: an undue infatuation with modernity’s epistemological claims, a de-mythologization of Christianity’s supernatural claims, a re-definition of Christianity’s salvific claims, and a truncation of Christianity’s ethical claims (This last is an important point: Contrary to some of the suggestions of the CG posts, the problem with theological liberalism isn’t that it’s too ethical, it that it isn’t ethical enough—its ethics don’t include faith and repentance).

This is almost always what I—or any of the other speakers—mean when we speak of “liberalism.” And, for what it’s worth, we generally try to avoid juxtaposing it to conservativism, using “orthodoxy” instead. As surprising as it may seem, we are in many ways following Machen in this regard.

2. On whether theological liberalism is sectarian.

It was just an aside so don't read too much into it. But since you asked, in this case I'll try to answer.

With respect to modernity, liberalism is not sectarian. You and I both agree that one of theological liberalism's many problems is that it accommodated itself to the intellectual priorities of modernity and ultimately walked away from historic orthodoxy. And we both repudiate it on those grounds. So, I agree with your analysis that, from the perspective of modernity, liberalism repudiates nothing and is not, in that respect, sectarian.

But from the perspective of historic orthodoxy, the matter looks quite different. Suddenly the liberalism that seems so open and affirming of everything can become quite hostile. In addition to the real benevolence (and I think much of it is real) there is sometimes a deep antagonism to things that you and I both affirm: eg. the full authority and truthfulness of God's word (which seems naive to them), the reality of the wrath of God against sin (which seems angry), the helplessness of sinners apart from God's redemption (which seems dehumanizing), the claim that this redemptive work was carried out by virtue of the vicarious atoning death of the Jesus (which seems violent), the fact that this Jesus was fully God and fully man (which seems irrational), the fact that the household of God is entered into exclusively by repentance and faith in His Son (which seems intolerant), that God intends for us to preach the gospel of the repentance to the nations (which seems coercive), and that He will one day return again to judge and rule the world (which seems fantastical).

And so I don’t believe that liberalism is mere tolerance. Liberalism did (and does) deny. It does repudiate. In fact, its very core is repudiation: a modernistic repudiation of historic orthodoxy. Make no mistake about it: to the liberal we are not all Christians. Some of us are seen to be destructive and wicked fundamentalist fools that have no claims to the real kingdom of God. And it is this move--repudiating historic orthodoxy and setting itself up as the new and true form of Christianity for the modern world--that is, from the perspective of historic orthodoxy, the sectarian move.

Again, I’m not sure how much this contributes to the larger conversation, but it may be helpful in clearing up some of my own views on historic theological liberalism, which unfortunately seem to be a regular subtext of this larger discussion.

3. On whether theological liberalism is intentional.

My assumption is that any historical or ideological movement (including theological ones) has (at least) two types of people within it.

On the one hand, there are the intellectual engineers, what you might call a sort of brain-trust of people who generate the ideas, see their implications, and (to one degree or another) intentionally seek to give them institutional form. This is true of every historical and intellectual movement that I have ever encountered. And it is true of theological liberalism as well.
So, while theological liberalism is not a self-conscious volitional act of every person influenced by it (as your experience confirms), it is certainly—at least at the level of the “brain-trust”—a self-conscious movement. We might consider Emerson or Fosdick as exemplars in this regard.

But there are also people—many of them, alas—who have no real knowledge of the landscape in which they find themselves. They have been formed in a given tradition and they know little else. This is true of any tradition (even our own), and it is true of theological liberalism as well. Again, your experience substantiates this, as does mine.
So, in other words, I see liberalism (again, like any historical or intellectual movement) to have varying levels of intentionality and awareness within it. Some folks are purposeful and others are just being dragged along.

4. On why your post was illuminating.

Much of the subtext of your posts (and others—I don’t intend to single you out) has been the suggestion that our talks are merely a reiteration of theological liberalism, or are at the very least, the beginnings of a new and naïve form of theological liberalism in the PCA.

The refrain seems to be that while some of you may agree with some of what we say, it is what we are not saying that is causing great concern. And that concern is that while we may not want to be theological liberals, we may be naively drifting into it unawares, thinking that we are the same as the reformed tradition we presume to represent when we are in fact representing only an enslaved and degraded form of it.

We are very aware that some of you have this concern. And in response we have tried to say that we are all pastors in good standing in our denomination. We have tried to say that the context didn’t warrant extended exposition of things that the audience took for granted. We have tried to say that we believe that the reformed tradition bears witness to the claims we are making. But these responses are getting no traction. They seem simply not to matter.

And this is because your concerns make a great deal of historical sense. There is a lot of wisdom in them. And I honor you for it.

After all, isn’t it the case that in the churches that became theologically liberal, many of the pastors were members in good standing? Isn’t it also the case that some of them assumed that they didn’t need to talk about the old familiar themes and could instead just concentrate on the creative development of new perspectives? And isn’t it the case that people used—and continue to use—the reformed tradition to justify all sorts of claims that are alien to it?

The answer to these questions is yes. And in that respect, we SOUND like theological liberals. We know that.

We know that what we are saying—the language we are using, the theological creativity we are commending, the liturgical broadening we are pursuing, the ecumenical unity we are suggesting, the social action we are advocating—has analogies (though not identities) in 20th century theological liberalism. We know that.

But we—to a man—are very self-conscious in our repudiation of theological liberalism.

So what’s the deal? Why are we simultaneously repudiating liberalism on the one hand, while we advocate liberal-sounding practices and ideas on the other?

Here’s why.

First, because we believe the Bible (and certain emphases in the reformed tradition) leads us to do so. It’s really that simple. We believe that theological liberalism took the good theological creativity, liturgical breadth, ecumenical unity, and social action that we see in the Bible and in our tradition and degraded it by using these things to repudiate historic orthodoxy.

But theological liberalism does not own these things. As Augustine might say it, “Evil has no property rights.” And while we very much understand and appreciate the reasons why churches like our own have been so reticent to entertain these ideas (having watched liberalism put them to such ill use) we want them back.

And we want them back because we believe the inerrant, inspired, and authoritative Bible calls us to them. We believe it calls us to a more charitable ethos. We believe it calls us to contextual theological creativity. We believe it calls us to ecumenical union. We believe it gives us liturgical breadth. We believe it commands social presence. And though we understand why many of our brothers and sisters are suspicious of these things, we believe that to reject them is to be disobedient to the Bible and purveyors of the worst of the reformed tradition.

Now, you all may of course disagree with us about whether the Bible teaches these things, or whether the reformed tradition develops them. That’s a complicated conversation on which we’re eager to have “give and take” (which is why we have appreciated Drs Lucas, Lints, Ryken, and Thomas so deeply). But the conversation we don’t want to have (but I am quite sure we will be forced to continue to have) is about how our ideas are actually clandestine forms of theological liberalism. I don’t know how to say it any more plainly. We know what theological liberalism is. And we reject it. To say that liberalism gets 80% of theology right is far more than any of us would grant.

Secondly, we persist in this course because (ironically) we believe that orthodox reformed catholicity—and not orthodox reformed sectarianism—is the best way to guard against theological liberalism. Jeremy said it best: Sectarianism creates liberalism. In other words, we are trying to say to some of you who are most vigorous to defend (what we would describe as) sectarianism against any liberal encroachment that you are unwittingly helping to create the liberalism you want to fight. And we want to help you fight it. But sectarianism is not the way.

Again, there is certainly a historical conversation to be had here. We want to identify the historical conditions under which theological liberalism emerges. And at present we believe it is an underappreciated fact that theological sectarianism is a major player in those conditions. But we need to talk about it to be sure. And so, in the interest of guarding orthodoxy, that is exactly what we are trying—however falteringly—to do. This is why we are doing this. It is not to recapitulate the historical patterns that gave rise to theological liberalism, but to guard against them.

In cIosing, I’ll risk a personal aside that I may come to regret, but which seems to summarize the whole.

Lois, you once told me after church that I “agree with everything.” To which I responded, "No, I don't. I don't agree with liberalism and I don't agree with sectarianism." I could have added other things, of course. But what I was asking you then, as we are asking you now, is to consider the possibility of a mediating position between these two poles that is a more biblically faithful mode of Christian witness than either of them could ever be. This is what reformed catholicity is about.


I have printed out your post for pondering. Thank you for taking so much time. I do not thank you for blowing my cover with the "after church" remark--I will have to work on forgiving you for that! You curtail my freedom of expression. I don't remember saying you believed everything and don't really think that--"it was just an aside so don't read too much into it" to quote GT.

I have been thinking that I wished I had asked for a definition of "liberalism", thinking it was important that those using this term, "define their terms." You read my mind, and have done just that. I look forward to reading your definition.

I am not ready to say more until I have thought about what you write. In the meantime, I hope others will join the discussion.

I didn't notice any missing commas.

Thanks for the reply, Pr. Thompson. Taking your points (from here: http://commongroundsonline.typepad.com/common_grounds_online/2008/10/derek-thomas-re.html#comment-134775545) in order:

1. Right. Doing theology publicly outside scholarly venues is a counter-cultural activity (even within the PCA). So, engaging in theological reflection and elucidating a theology of mission, etc.: splendid, good, yes, but… You characterize the dogmatic content of this theology as “Reformed Catholicism” (Pr. Jones used this term in a different sense, calling it a “theological paradigm”). I am, in principle, sympathetic. However, what must we believe (and reject) if we are to be shaped by R.C.? If I agree to defend the system of doctrine contained in R.C., where do I find those articles? I am wondering how the categories the DR has explored in this discussion translate into dogmatic content and how that renders our confessional symbols.

So far, I am mostly hearing Reformed Catholicism as a set of negative normative claims. It is the opposite of “sectarian,” which you characterize as “a certain sort of historically identifiable theological self-understanding.” A Reformed Catholic does not equate discipleship with instruction in systematic theology, does not equate preaching with exposition of confessional articles, does not constrain worship to “traditional” forms, etc.

One of the positive claims, however, and perhaps most controversial, is that “Reformed Catholicism” values more porous denominational borders. This, too, will drive us into the jaws of dogma as we set about to organize a more visible communion with those who share a common rule of faith. How would R.C. alter, for example, pulpit fellowship? Presently, on one edge, we already have porous denominational borders. The PCA is like Canada to the conservative Baptist’s America, and we have in place a TULIP-centric free trade agreement with them because there is hardly any dogmatic difference at all. The conference circuit, speaker line-ups, and “must-read” books testify to this ecclesial-cultural tariff-free interchange. But the borders with other denominations are not so porous at all. A crypto-Lutheran, crypto-Anglican like myself, for example, needs two years and a Homeland Security background check to get a visa (and I’m pretty sure they planted a bug in my Reformation Study Bible, too).

I think an excellent model of this effort was undertaken in 1995 at a conference that put Evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox in dialogue for the purpose of exploring whether ecumenical orthodoxy was possible and if so, what ecumenical relations might look like. I commend *Reclaiming the Great Tradition* (ed. James Cunsinger, IVP, 1997) to everyone’s attention. What I most appreciated about that effort is their finding that only by relentless advocacy for the particulars of one’s own confession was true ecumenism possible. In other words, unity can only be achieved when we argue and contend *for* our distinctive identity, not when we downplay those distinctives. Only through vigorous defense of our particular beliefs, then, will we learn how very parochial and myopic our priorities and pressing issues really are (as we hear the strange and surprising priorities and concerns of other communions). The day may come, not too distant now, when we must speak with a more united voice and be prepared to defend one another as fellow saints.

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