The Problem of Theological Cone Bras

My part in this is simply to introduce a guest post by my daughter, Bekah Merkle. The subject is the doctrine of Rachel Held Evans, so you could consider that a trigger warning, I suppose.

By way of preface, I should simply say that if you have never heard of Rachel Held Evans then there is no real reason to read any further. If that name means nothing in your life, this post could seem exceptionally random and possibly uncalled for. But if, on the other hand, you have encountered the impact of her teaching in some way, if you have been outraged, or shocked, or if you’ve felt the force of some of her arguments, if you’ve had your faith rocked a little or if you know someone who has, then hopefully you’ll understand why I’ve decided that this is worth saying. And I may perchance, in the spirit of cracking myself up extensively, have put one or two extra eggs in this pudding – so if you’re not in the mood for that, tread not forward.

A Hailstorm of Cotton Balls

I would start by encouraging you to take a look at this video Q&A with Russell Moore. If time’s winged chariot is at your back, you can jump to the fifteen minute mark, which is what I will be writing about.

I do think that Moore does a good job in his qualifications. He says, as he should, that he doesn’t want to urge anyone to go against their conscience. He says also that he is “it seems to me” mode, and not in “thus saith the Lord” mode, and that is all to the good.

On top of that, the questions he fields are admittedly thorny. But I would want to say the difficulty involved with the questions is an emotional difficulty, not an intellectual one. Unfortunately, we live in a time when any emotional difficulty translates automatically into an intellectual difficulty. That’s just how we evangelicals roll.

Moore says rightly that Christians ought not to attend same sex ceremonies, and he says this for the right reasons. Everybody would understand our attendance as approval, and since we don’t approve, we cannot attend. But he then says that we could attend the reception, or the shower, and so on. I honestly cannot make any sense of this. The reception is the celebration of what just transpired. If what just transpired was an abomination, how can we celebrate it?

A related question had to do with how to handle it when a lesbian aunt wants to visit for the holidays, and you have a spare room. She wants to bring her girlfriend. Now what? It is quite true that refusal will be characterized as “mean,” but what matters is whether our behavior is actually loving. We should care less about whether it is represented as loving.

The entire sexuality battle is about approval, not participation. We are being maneuvered into the place where we start using ethical air quotes. “Well, I do ‘disapprove’ of this behavior, and yet, will do absolutely nothing to express that disapproval in a way that might be taken as disapproving.” I do not agree with your sin, but I am willing to raise a toast to it.

Evangelicals are nice, there is no getting around it. It is our besetting sin. That means about the worst thing you can tell us is that we are being mean to somebody. Maybe that meanness is turning someone away from Jesus. Our niceness is the steering wheel that we always want to put our critics behind. Not surprisingly, they always steer us straight into compromise.

But actually one of the biggest stumbling blocks that we really do manufacture is this great idol of Nice. When someone is turned away from Christ because some Christian was mean, everybody notices it. But when we have turned the whole world off because we are nicer than a hailstorm of cotton balls, nobody notices that problem at all.

In Which First Things Does Some Fourth Things

So how are we to respond to this? A marriage pledge is being promoted at First Things, in which the undersigned ministers promise to cease cooperating with the civil magistrate on all things marriage. They will cease being agents for the state in weddings, and this in protest of the radical redefinition of marriage that is now underway in our culture.

In part, the pledge says this:

“Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles ­articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.

Please join us in this pledge to separate civil marriage from Christian marriage by adding your name.”

Before getting to the difficulties, let me start with the commendations. This is an important time in our cultural history, and how ministers respond to it is critical. It is good to see men drawing a radical line, and doing so in defense of biblical marriage. There is a clear awareness that we do need to have a showdown, and that is all to the good.

But . . . and you knew this was coming . . . we need to think this through more carefully. We need to have a strategic plan that is based on solid theological foundations, and it should be a plan that is designed to be implemented by churches, and not just by individual churchmen. Here are my reasons for thinking that this plan at First Things does not meet those criteria.

When the Spirit Says to Put a Sock in It

“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16: 11)

The Basket Case Chronicles #172

“Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge. If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace. For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” (1 Cor. 14:29–33).

Paul has already taught us that no more than two or three people can speak in tongues in the course of a worship service, and, if they do, then the words they spoke must be interpreted. This implies that they need to go one at a time so that the words can be made out distinctly, and translated for the congregation. Some might want to represent this as a view of mine, in which I am seeking to quench the Spirit. It is actually the view of the Spirit, working through Paul, in order to quench us. Quenching ego-babbling is not the same thing as quenching the Spirit.

The same principle applies to any words of prophesy that are given. Two, or at the most three, may speak words that the Spirit inspires. The first principle noted here is that the prophets must be accountable for what they say. The others sit to judge and review what is said. No one gets to speak for God on their own authority. The second principle is that courtesy and deference apply even here. When a word comes to another prophet, the first prophet gives way. Spiritual inspiration does not bring in bedlam. One at a time, with three messages as the most. The result is that everyone learns, everyone profits. The result is that all are comforted. If any are tempted to resist this word because “inspiration cannot be denied,” Paul says no. That’s not right. The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets, meaning that it possible to put a sock in it. Consider that each prophet is capable of restraining himself, and each prophet is to be subject to the other prophets. The alternative to this is disobedience, which would result in confusion instead of peace. And the Spirit’s work is to create order and peace, as in all the churches of the saints, and not disorder and chaos.

Smarter Than Thou

Some people enjoy their allotted fifteen minutes of fame with modesty and decorum. Others, like Jonathan Gruber, cannonball into the deep end, having had the good grace to get most of it on video beforehand. For those whose discretionary news time was all taken up with the comet landing and the tacky shirt aftermath, here is a basic rundown of Gruber’s exploits.

The reason this story has the traction it now does is that it represents far more than the conceit and hubris of one individual man — although it does do that in addition to a bunch of other stuff. The thing that is remarkable about all of this is how unremarkable Gruber was in the settings in which he was speaking. He was speaking to particular predictable groups, and he was getting laughs at the places he was expecting to get them. The videos only appeared in a different light when they got aired — as they just recently got aired — to the audiences who were the object of his derision. As it happens, wireless coverage has now gotten out here to Dogpatch, and we are now treated to the prospect of watching videos made by our betters. Once the whole thing was explained to Mammy Yokum, she took it ill.Mammy Yokum

Gruber is a class phenomenon. He is a representative. He is the poster child of the whiz kid brainiacs who know better than you, and they don’t care who knows it. Actually, they don’t care who knows it until something unexpected happens, and a goodly number of the great unwashed come to know it. Then they spend a great deal of energy trying to get the smell back in the barn.

If you find Gruber and his class mystifying, then I have a couple of book recommendations for you. The first is Thomas Sowell’s The Vision of the Anointed. The subtitle says a lot, “Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy.” The second book is Angelo Codevilla’s The Ruling Class. Both books are great, and while Sowell is always a heavyweight, Codevilla’s book is smaller and lighter, punching way out of its weight class. Start with him, and move on to Sowell.Ruling Class

These books make it plain that we are getting these supercilious rulers because we put up with them. One Gruber is insufferable, but a ruling elite made up entirely of Grubers is something that would take a far more talented writer to describe. I am thinking of someone who was a mix of Dante and John the Revelator, on hallucinogens, trying to paint something described to them by Hieronymus Bosch. Someone at that talent level could complete the master work I have in mind, and it could be called The Cabinet Meeting.

A Helicopter on the Front Lawn

This last week my friend Peter Leithart did some musing out loud about some problems that he identifies as resulting from an emphasis on the “legal status” of righteousness. One post, “How to Say, ‘I Am Righteous'” is here, and another related post on Luther and imputation/infusion can be found here.

In response I have some questions, some hesitations, some suggestions, some objections, and some exhortations. Here we go.

Peter argues that we hesitate to speak the way the psalmist sometimes does because of unbelief. Peter says that to say that I am legally righteous and existentially sinful is dualism — a dualism “fed and nurtured by Protestant preaching and teaching that treats the ‘legal me’ as righteous while consigning the ‘real, existential me’ or ‘my nature’ to the realm of sin.”

First, what is dualism exactly? I don’t think we can say that it occurs just because we have distinct nouns for distinct things. Sun and moon are two, as are heaven and earth, but do not represent dualism, and to affirm that God created mankind as male and female is not dualism either. So it seems that dualism occurs when two distinct things are put into an unbiblical relation to one another, or one thing that should remain as one is broken in two.

So justification and sanctification could be understood dualistically, just as a misogynist understands sex dualistically. But that is his rebellion, not a design feature. In a very non-dualistic way, the Westminster Confession sings justification and sanctification together in a very sweet harmony. It is certainly possible to differ with Westminster here (although I do not), but impossible, I think, to charge the Confession with dualism.

“Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love” (WCF 11.2).

“This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence arises a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh” (WCF 13.2)

This means that any Protestant preaching that consigns the “real me” to the realm of sin, to drown there in tubs of depravity, would be preaching that is, in addition to being unbiblical, radically unconfessional. As long as I have been Reformed I have been instructed on the distinction between reigning sin (which is no more) and remaining sin (which must addressed and dealt with by faith, in the whole man, on a daily basis). I have also been instructed, over and over, on the distinction between justification and sanctification, coupled with their inseparability. As I said before, this could all be wrong, but it seems to me that battalions of Reformed theologians have taken exquisite pains over the course of centuries to not be dualistic on the point.

But this leads to my central question. Having said all this, I do not dispute that Peter has seen the kind of disjunct that he describes. I don’t doubt that he has seen it because I have certainly seen it. There are more than a few Protestant preachers who wouldn’t recognize the Westminster Confession if it landed in their front yard in a helicopter. There is a functional dualism that is certainly out there. But what causes it?