Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

Such anti-intellectual obscurantism, of which [Mark] Noll said dispensationalism and six-day creationism were the most obvious manifestations, had made evangelicals a marginal group. Not in the broader culture, of course, .... but rather in those sections of society where ideas were the stock-in-trade, where mainstream intellectual engagement took place. ...

Fifteen years later, the intellectual and cultural poverty of American evangelicals would seem to continue, even as church attendance is holding up reasonably well in the US ... Without making a judgment for or against any of the following positions, I would add these common beliefs of evangelicals to dispensationalism and six-dayism as causes of the movement's social and intellectual marginality: biblical inerrancy, opposition to women's ordination and homosexuality and abortion, religious exclusivism, and rejection of the broad claims of evolutionary science. Commitment to any or all of these positions places one at the fringe of culture, at least of thoughtful, educated culture.

— Carl Trueman, The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2011), 10-11

The New Evangelical historian Mark Noll, having accepted the culture's view of Christianity especially its interpretation of the 1925 Scopes Trial, attacked belief in Dispensationalism and 6 day creation as being anti-intellectual. While Dispensationalism is wrong, I do not think it is necessarily anti-intellectual, noting that Dispensationalism in the person of Lewis Sperry Chafer established a theological seminary (Dalls Theological Seminary), not just a mere bible school.

Carl Trueman in the introduction to his book The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind points his finger at the real problem with the New Evangelicalism. The real scandal is that there is no evangelical. In other words, Evangelicalism is a social movement that stands for nothing (doctrinally) actually. Mark Noll's accusation of anti-intellectualism and attack against Dispensationalism and 6-day creationism is merely his disapproval of those two views. In his opinion, the holding of those two views in his opinion is preventing the secular academy from taking his circle of Evangelical scholarship seriously. But as Trueman has pointed out, there are tons of other beliefs that are just as objectionable and offensive to the secular academy and society in general. In our time especially, holding to the historical and biblical view that homosexuality is sin is considered "anti-intellectual" and bigotry.

The problem with Mark Noll's analysis, and with the New Evangelicalism, is that they do not actually agree with Scripture when it says that fallen Man is fundamentally illogical and does not accept the wisdom of God. True Christianity will always be in the margins, except for short periods where the Spirit of God works mightily in most of society like during the Reformation. The Gospel and the entire Christian faith is the stumbling block. The problem is not intellectual, but moral and ethical. Apart from regeneration, no one will think that the Christian faith is true and wise; it is foolishness to them. It matters little whether religion scholars are smart, because the problem is NOT intellectual.

So if one wants to remove all that the secular academy is scandalized by, "evangelicals" should also jettison biblical inerrancy, opposition to women's ordination and homosexuality and abortion, religious exclusivism, and rejection of the broad claims of evolutionary science. Do this and gain the "respect of your peers." But then, don't call yourself Christian, for you would have just given up the faith.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Denominationalism and Sin

Denominationalism entails separation, which is not good. Therefore, it is not ideal and should not be, unless unity would result in even greater evil.

The divisions between denominations, if legitimate therefore, implies that joining together would result in sin. The division between Presbyterians and Baptists is probably the best example of this. A Presbyterian by conviction is one who believes that not bringing one's infant children for baptism is sin. It is not just an option or something good. It is mandated by Scripture. A Presbyterian by conviction must see the Baptists' denial of infant baptism as sin, as is their practice of what he sees as re-baptism. Just because they profess the true faith does not mean that therefore they are not perceived to be sinning in their denial of the inclusion of children in the Covenant of Grace. A Credobaptist by conviction similarly sees the Presbyterian affirmation of infant baptism as robbing the child of making a profession of faith, and giving rise to the possibility of false assurance of salvation, and thus it is sin. Both sides see the other side's position as entailing sin, and thus the necessity of differing denominations.

If however, one church does not see the position of another church as error and sin, why is there a division? In fact, that is one grievous error of Congregationalism (and independent Baptist churches). Those who reject connectionalism (the necessary but not sufficient precursor to Presbyterian church polity) are guilty of schism against the Body of Christ, for why aren't they seeking to have at the very least fraternal relations with churches of like faith, and try to work towards the unity Christ which we already have in Christ (but is not fully visibly realized now)?

Denominationalism is not ideal, but it is the best arrangement given our finite knowledge this side of glory. The alternative is some version of tyranny or anarchy, neither of which glorifies God.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Denominations and denominationalism: Explication

The issue of visible division in the Church is certainly not a good thing. The cries against "denominationalism" in both the West and the East however strikes one as being absolutely naive. Such cries reflect an extremely unreflective view of the church and of humanity, or it reflects a low view of God and his truth.

Unity is important yes. The question is: How is this unity supposed to be worked out in real life situations? Just a simple case study would illustrate this well. Suppose I were to look around to form a church. So I encountered person X, who happens to disagree with me on baptism, and person Y, who happens to disagree with me on predestination. So we want to form a church. Which view of baptism and predestination should the church take? It could conceivably take no view on the subject, but then the question is: Is the Church supposed to take a stand on those subjects? Take baptism. In this supposed united church, what should a pastor convicted of credobaptism do if a member comes up to him and ask him to baptize their baby boy? What if they were insistent that infant baptism is biblically mandated? In the interests of unity, should the credobaptist pastor violate his conscience and baptize that baby boy? Or maybe the credobaptist pastor should pass the case over to his fellow pedobaptist pastor in this "united" church? Let's say that is a possible "solution." Will the credobaptist pastor now acknowledge the legitimacy of this infant baptism? Will he be able to treat this child as a church member?

Some may say, "Well, infant baptism is just saying he is born into a Christian family, and thus not that important." Then one does not have a biblical view of infant baptism. Reformed infant baptism is applying God's mark of the covenant to the infant, nothing to do with our profession of faith (the Zwinglian view). But you say, not applying infant baptism does not jeopardize a person's salvation. Well, so does murder, if the person repents. Closer to the credobaptist position, so does believers' baptism. Those who believe don't even have to go for believers' baptism in the church, since after all "this is not a salvation issue," or do they? Or you say, "we can compromise for the sake of unity, since it is not a salvation issue." Believers' baptism is not a salvation issue either, so why don't we dispense of the practice altogether? We can also dispense with church services also (including "organic church services"), since after all not going to church does not jeopardize one's salvation either!

The problem with all such "ecumenism" is that it is not Christian. First, is God's truth worth fighting for? To say that one can tolerate differing practices of baptism in a "united" church is to make a statement that this issue is not important. And since the Church is to follow all Scripture teaches, it is to also say that Scripture does not teach definitively on the issue, either way.

Alternatively, one could just come to the biblical "default." But what exactly is that? If one wants to go to the "default," why does everyone not come to MY "default" understanding of Scripture, instead of me having to come to your default understanding? And for anyone who wants to count numbers, such a one does not understand biblical revelation, of which its truth is not determined by majority vote. In fact, throughout redemptive history, the truth had proven rather unpopular.

So yes, division is not good. But do you, does anyone, have a better solution for unity? Why must unity be about me compromising my values and not you coming over to my understanding?

In this article [HT: The Aquila Report], the usual trite and naive arguments are put forward. Most illuminating is the paragraph at the end:

The final command Jesus gave was not “get every nuance of theology right,” it was “go, make disciples of all nations.” We serve the same God, are saved by the same Christ, and were given the same Commission. Instead of focusing on our differences, we should focus on the One who makes us the same.

Yes, Christ's final command was to go and make disciples of all nations. So, who is this God we are making His disciples? How does the author know that all who call themselves Christians actually serve the same God and are saved by the same Christ? And if we are to go and make disciples, how are we to go and make disciples? Does Scripture actually tell us how to do so? And what is this Gospel he keeps on talking about? What is his "default" that he thinks is true, and why should everyone unite around his "default" theology?

Without actual wrestling with the issue, all the railing against denominations and denominationalism basically show how naive and ignorant these people are. Denominations are not ideal, but at least they can best show Christian unity in the shadow of a fallen world.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The main danger of the New Evangelical Calvinism

The main danger of the New Evangelical Calvinism lies in their similarity to the real deal. The similarity is at times very close, as it can be seen in the Gospel we proclaim. Therein however also lies the main danger of the New Evangelical Calvinism.

In currency, the most dangerous counterfeits are those that are very similar to the original. No one is going to fall for monopoly money for example. Likewise in Christianity, rank liberalism is less dangerous than Neo-Orthodoxy, for once the liberals outed themselves in the mainstream denominations, it is evident to almost everyone they are not Christians at all.

I distinctly remembered being against the idea of "Christ-centered," before I entered WSCal, and was not favorably disposed to biblical theology either. On the former, the "Christ-centeredness" of the New Calvinists was a total turn-off. If by "Christ-centered" it means Keller, it means "contextualization," it means "zoom from the text to Christ without any regard for what the text actually says" or "ignore hard doctrines and always go back to the Atonement," you can count me out! It took me some time to realize that "Christ-centered" actually means something different, something actually biblical.

The danger of the New Evangelical Calvinism is that it sucks people in who think that is the real deal. Christians are deluded because of the similarity of the falsehoods to reality. Those who see through it can become immune to the Reformed faith, or at least those aspects that have been corrupted by the New Evangelical Calvinists. In the end, the witness of biblical Christianity is weakened.

Reformed Art-Making?

Over on the New Calvinist TGC blog, writer Amanda Dalla Villa Adams wrote an article simply entitled "Reformed Artmaking." On FB, I left a simple comment asking how the Regulative Principle of Worship applies here. The next time I logged into FB, the comment was *conveniently* deleted. So much for TGC being actually open to dialogue! Since TGC deletes all (even mildly) dissenting comments and only allowed approving ones, I will address this post in greater detail here on my blog.

The problems with this article are so many. Firstly, I seriously doubt Adams' interpretation of Kuyper. Whatever Kuyper's views on art, I seriously doubt he would have countenance visual arts, nevermind performing arts, in a church service. Whatever Kuyper's faults, Kuyper was a Reformed minister who adheres to the Regulative Principle of Worship! To approve of art does not in any way necessarily mean that one should bring whatever form of art into the worship service.

Secondly, the Regulative Principle of Worship was just discarded and not even mentioned. Worship for Adams is primarily about "mediating the physical to the spiritual" and to "direct us to the spiritual." Again, where in Scripture is worship ever described in those terms?! Is Christ's mediation enough? Is Christ so absent from us that we must find a mediating agent to go to Him? But what does Scripture say?

But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); (Rom. 10:6-8)

Why must Adams use art as a mediating agent "between the physical and the spiritual"? Is Christ enough?! Must we now use the arts to ascent into heaven, to bring Christ down?

Thirdly, upon what basis does Adams claim that Reformed theology (and Kuyper) affirms the "[c]reative arts that mediates the physical with the spiritual"? Which section of any Reformed confession has the heading "On Art"? Since when was Adams the definer of what constitutes "Reformed theology"?! What authority does she have to claim that she speaks for all of Reformed theology on this issue?

The hubris on this post is simply breathtaking. Being posted on TGC's website, it also shows how the New Calvinists are simply attempting to co-opt the "Reformed" label, as if they have any right to it. No, they have no right. TGC are not Reformed, regardless of what they say. They do not confess the same doctrine or the same piety as the Reformed churches. The Reformed churches confess the Regulative Principle of Worship. That does not mean Exclusive Psalmody, but it does not anything goes either!

TGC and their evangelically-minded friends can call themselves Reformed all they want, but they will never be considered by me to be Reformed. And since I consider Reformed to be just a way of stating that a person is consistently biblical, they are not biblical either. The New Evangelical Calvinists can shout all they want how much they are "Gospel-centered" but if we were to say that Gospel-centered implies a scriptural theology, then those New Evangelical Calvinists are not truly Gospel-centered either. They have the names but not the substance, being fakes masquerading as the real thing.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Some interesting 20th century movements in Chinese Christianity

Here are some interesting movements and their descriptions as taken from the book A New History of Christianity in China [Daniel H. Bays, A New History of Christianity in China (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)], pages 129-134:

True Jesus Church (真耶稣教会)

  • Founded by Wei Enbo (1876-1919)
  • Saturday sabbatarian
  • Full-blown Pentecostal — tongues, miracles, healing etc.
  • “Jesus only” Unitarianism
  • Shuns doctrine of the Trinity and teaches unitary and undivided God (数一无二)
  • Radical egalitarianism; only elders and deacons no pastors
  • Church workers are not to receive a salary
  • All must be given the chance to speak and pray

The Jesus Family (耶稣家庭)

  • Founded by Jing Dianying (1890-1957)
  • Communitarian
  • Authoritarian, each commune is governed by a “family head” (家长)
  • Full-blown Pentecostal — tongues, miracles, healing etc.
  • Idea of a distinct (from conversion) special religious experience of being “born again” (重生) or being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (圣灵充满), with the latter accompanied by dancing

  • Most prized and prestigious religious experience is that of “testimony” (见证) which involves first being caught up to heaven in a kind of vision, and there receiving special words to the faithful [directly] from God. Coming back to earth (or out of a trance), the individual then reports to the community, giving voice to what he or she has been vouchsafed by God

  • Strong millenarianism, looking for the imminent end times

Little Flock/ Local Church (小群/ 地方教会)

  • Founded by Watchman Nee (Ni Tosheng aka Ni Shuzu; 1903-72)
  • Living a victorious Christian life is done by distinguishing body, soul and spirit, and by getting the realization that “I am dead with Christ,” enabling the believer to live in victory over the world’s evil

  • All of history is moving towards the “Age of the Kingdom”
  • Millenarian vision of an imminent “end of time” cataclysm
  • Denominationalism as pernicious
  • The reward for “overcomers” is to be with God and Christ in the timeless New Jerusalem
  • Emphasis on the “local church,” or only one church in every city
  • No usage of trained and ordained pastors but simply “co-workers” (同工) for local church leadership

It seems that the most pernicious movement that has affected most of Chinese Christianity is the movement by Watchman Nee with its anti-denominationalism and views against the special offices of the Church (i.e. its ecclesiology).

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Chinese Christianity and (anti-) denominationalism

In Chinese Church circles, denominations mean little. Ministers can change denominations easily (and members too) without batting an eyelid. Already back in the missionary enterprise in China, Chinese Christianity was very much against denominationalism, seeing it as an artifact of Western Christianity of which it doesn't want any part.

This strong anti-denominationalism continues on to this day, and I have personally seen and experienced it. The Chinese Churches function almost like a movement, a strongly ethno-centric (Sino-centric) movement. This can be seen in STEMI crusades among others. The focus has always been about reaching ethnic Chinese for the Gospel, and ministering in Chinese circles. Now of course none of them are prohibiting non-Chinese from joining them or against engaging non-Chinese in evangelism, but the emphasis has always been to the Chinese, and to the Chinese churches. If one doubts the veracity of this claim, just find out when was the last time any Chinese Church tried to engage in ecumenical talks with a "white church" (in Western countries) or a native church in whatever country they are in (i.e. Russians in Russia, Ethiopians in Ethiopia).

This strong anti-denominationalism is itself a legacy of the missionary enterprise, which has little if any vision for the Church. It is almost a classic case of the dictum, "what you win them with is what you win them to." The missionaries generally minimized doctrinal differences, albeit for good motives. So a Chinese Presbyterian is brought up not knowing why he should be Presbyterian and not, for example, a Baptist, and vice versa. Sure, he might know the history behind Presbyterianism, but such is manifestly not sufficient.

The problem with the anti-denominationalism in Chinese Christianity is that it creates churches where certain biblical truths are minimized. For example, most Chinese Presbyterians do not have a biblical doctrine of infant baptism. They are Presbyterians of tradition, not Presbyterians of conviction. The list of doctrines for each denominations can go on and on. Now of course, such may not be a bad thing. The question however is this: Are the distinctive doctrines held by various denominations worth fighting and splitting over? And if it is not considered worth fighting over, which doctrine or practice becomes the default? The issue with Chinese Christian anti-denominationalism is that such questions are totally circumvented and ignored. It is one thing to come to the conclusion that certain doctrinal issues may be unimportant or that one view is the obvious correct view; it is another thing to ignore the question altogether and assume that there is a "biblical default" which all Chinese Christians will fall back to: i.e. Credobaptist, Congregationalist, Egalitarian, Charismatic.

When one sees the history of Chinese Christianity, one sees the problems of such naive biblicism. The Taiping rebellion was just the extreme acting out of the type of "charismatic biblicism" where people claim direct divine sanction for their "theology." Chinese Christianity continues to be plagued by people claiming direct revelation from God even when they are not officially Charismatic and Pentecostal, continually violating the Third Commandment by claiming "God's vision" and God's direction for the Church they are a pastor or an elder of.

Chinese Christianity, missionary methods and local leadership

In Roland Allen's book Missionary Methods: St Paul's or Ours, the idea of promoting local leadership is strongly advocated. The book was one of the readings for the Ministry of Witness course in WSCAL. At the time of reading, I was puzzled over the strong advocacy of local leadership, noting that the case studies he gave seemed to me to be turning over leadership of the local church to immature and untrained leaders, which I am strongly against.

Recently, I have just read a book on the history of Christianity in China, for my current research and writing project. As an ethnic Chinese, there are certain "inconvenient truths" that are not exactly nice to read, notably the retaining of leadership positions of foreigners in the Church in China for decades, and the discrimination against Chinese Christians for leadership positions. That is certainly sinful behavior by Caucasian Christians. Yet on the other hand, it is certainly true that the level of Christian maturity of Chinese Christians weren't that high either. Knowing that Roland Allen was a missionary in China, his advocacy of local leadership now makes sense, even though I still don't agree with everything he has to say.

The problems with Christian missions to China is twofold. One, the level of teaching and instruction in the churches, even if they were high, did not impact the Chinese Christians. Since the Word is powerful, it is extremely likely that the level of teaching and instruction was actually low. We know that this main evangelical missionary impulse came about after the advent of pietism, revivalism, and broad evangelicalism. It also came about during the time of Darwin and the Enlightenment. I wouldn't be too surprised if the doctrines of creation and providence weren't well taught and applied for the purpose of evangelism during those times, nevermind discipleship.

Two, there doesn't seem to be any ecclesiological vision in all these missionary endeavors. This problem is prevalent even today wherever Evangelical missions are present. The whole idea of these missions seem to be just about "winning souls." All other matters, it seems, are not priorities. But then what do we do with all these new converts? Even for discipleship, is discipleship merely sharing some basic Christian truths, then teach them how to do evangelism and then send them out just like that? If the flock is not properly equipped with the whole counsel of God, is it not surprising that few Chinese Christians are capable for leadership in the Church?

Roland Allen's error is to make the idea of local leadership paramount. Given the choice between inept local leadership and capable foreign leadership, I hope most will opt for the latter all the time. Yes, local leadership IS important, but never at the expense of the welfare of the Church! The issue is not to try to hand over leadership to the locals as soon as a church is organized, or even worse, to adopt congregationalism by default (as described in one of Allen's case studies). The only thing worse than no leadership is bad leadership. The failings of the missionary enterprise in China is the failing to teach and instruct people deeply not just in the "Gospel" so they can evangelize, but in the whole counsel of God so that local leadership can rise up who ACTUALLY are capable to lead the flock. If the foreign missionaries in China, even after 60-70 years there, can't raise up capable Chinese Christian leadership, guess who's to blame?

Roland Allen's book, while perhaps seen as a corrective to "western imperialism," does not truly solve the problem. Even now, foreign missions in the OPC seem to be about aiding already existent local churches, if any are present. But surely how does this play out in places like modern-day China? Are we to help the apostate Three-Self churches (TPSM)? Does the "white man's burden" mean that in the foreign mission field, we cannot take a stand against liberal churches and denominations? I'm sorry, but I as an ethnic Chinese do not think uncritical affirmation is better than past blatant discrimination. It is absolutely ridiculous that every single stupidity (and heresy too) in the non-Western part of the globe is automatically celebrated as "diversity" in the Kingdom of God. All those stupid "Third-world theologies" for example are just as bereft of capital as Third-world economies. It does no one, neither Western nor non-Western Christians, any favors to celebrate stupidity just because it comes from the non-Western world. Wrong is wrong is wrong, regardless of skin color, language or ethnicity!

So yes, local leadership is important, but it should be done on the basis of meritocracy. Train up capable local leaders, and then pass the leadership of the new churches over to them. But do not just pass local leadership over to congregations which are immature in the faith, and then let the sheep wander around in all the mountains and valleys left to the mercy of wolves, all in the name of a fear of "imperialism."

Thursday, August 01, 2013

A problem with one Evangelical view of the Church

Last Sunday, I had gone up to Hemet/ San Jacinto as I am currently helping my friend in his church plant there, a church plant that desires one day to become part of the OPC. On my way back, I was listening to Air1 radio station, a "Christian radio station," on the first part of my drive back. During the radio broadcast at that time (Sunday evening PDT), there were a bunch of "pastors," whom I guessed were the resident pastors serving with the radio station, who were being asked a question on whether Christians ought to go to church, and why.

The answer given is illuminating, if only that it confirms what is wrong with Evangelicalism as a whole. The answer given to the question is basically that (1) Christians are commanded to go to church, and (2) God has promised blessings in the church gathering. The answers are totally in line with Evangelical spirituality, but opposite to Reformed spirituality.

Why should Christians go to Church? The Reformed will ask: Why do young children go back home? Do young children go back home because (1) they are commanded to go back home? or (2) At home, they can get lots of nourishment? Well, certainly those two could apply in some measure, but they are not the reasons why young children go home. They go home because it is natural to go back home. Likewise, why do Christians go to church? They go because that is natural. Professing Christians who see no need for the Church and for going to church services, are abnormal and strange. Can a person live and not breathe? Why then do we think Christians can live (be a Christian) and not breathe (going to church services)?

The problem with the Evangelical view of the Church outlined is that it is totally deficient at best and erroneous at worst. Reason number 1 is law; it makes coming to hear God speak a law, attending to the means of grace a law. Can anything be worse than making a Gospel blessing into a law? Reason number 2 is man-centered. God exists to bless "me," not the other way around. Are we actually asking people to go to church with the intention of expecting God to bless "ME"?

The Church service is a covenantal meeting between God and His people. God does bless His people in the meeting, but our goal is to seek Christ not seek His gifts. Christ is given to us in the sermon, Christ is broken and poured out for us in the Lord's Supper, Christ pronounced His blessing to us in the Benediction. The focus of the service is Christ, not us.

May we recover a biblical view of the Church, not hold on to the evangelical views that permeate the culture.