Laughing at the Piltdown Man

I agree with Jason Stellman that after a rocky start, the discussion between the spearmen of our two tribal blogs is generally charitable. With him, I am grateful for this, and in that spirit am going to take it upon myself to start calling him Jason in these posts, thus inviting him to call me Doug. Nothing stiffens up and formalizes the feast of reason and flow of soul like an “I say this, but Stellman says that.” So Jason it is, unless he tells me to quit it.

In his response, Jason replied to my question about why we should reject worldliness in marketing techniques, for example, while it is all right to accept what academicians and scientists say about things like history and geology. His answer, if I understand him, is that he distinguishes between things that are a “direct attack on a central tenet of out faith,” and things that are not.

“Perhaps this is best answered by focusing on his phrase “worldly techniques” or “worldly standards.” There is a difference, I would argue, between a historian saying something like, “Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t really born in December, nor was he born in the year 0 BC” (claims which are relatively benign), and another historian saying something like, “Jesus of Nazareth may have been crucified under Pontius Pilate, but he wasn’t raised from the dead.” The latter claim is obviously a direct attack on a central tenet of our faith, while the former merely challenges some of our extra-biblical traditions.”

But there are several problems. The first is this. Why does the evangelical importation of various forms of worldliness not get to appeal to the same exception? There are a lot of things that drive me crazy about contempo-worship that do not constitute an attack on any central tenet of our faith. It seems that Jason is saying that worldliness is the kind of zeitgeist that gets into everything, provided we are talking about broad and easy worship, but that when it comes to tight and doctrinally rigorous Reformed churches, worldliness is supposedly shipped to us in discrete parcels, easily identified, with labels on the outside.

As someone who came to the Reformed faith as a refugee from evangelicalism, I can testify to the fact that it is just this distinction within evangelicalism (the one that Jason is here making) that has caused a great deal of the trouble. So long as the gospel is still there, everything else is supposedly up for grabs. The lowest common denominator logic in this can be quite fierce. How is Jason not admitting the same kind of logic, only doing so at an earlier stage in the game?

The second problem is this. Jason is limiting the authority of the academicians and scientists, but has not really addressed the problem. In effect, he compares a denial of the resurrection (a central tenet of the faith) to a denial of the lyrics of We Three Kings of Orient Are. But of course, I don’t mind secular scientists debunking extrabiblical traditions. Have at it, says I.

There is another category, however. What about things that are clearly taught in Scripture, but which are things that are not what Paul would call “of first importance”? The Bible teaches many things clearly and those items in themselves are not necessarily central. The fact that Jesus went to Capernaum once, for example, or the fact that Paul studied under Gamaliel, or that Og king of Bashan had an iron bedstead. But the fact that these are not central tenets in themselves does not keep them from being organically tied to something else which is a central tenet — and that would be the authority and perspecuity of Scripture.

How does saving faith respond to Scripture? By saving faith, “a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word” (WCF 14.2, emphasis mine). Suppose a secular historian says that there never was an Og of Bashan and, if there was, he didn’t have an iron bedstead that big, and that he did not live within five centuries of when the Bible said he did. The issue is not, of course, iron bedsteads. Iron bedsteads are not central to the faith. The issue is “who is in charge around here?” That is central, and the question is, what does saving faith do with this? What does a preacher do when he is seeking to preach in a way that encourages such saving faith? How does he encourage God’s people to cultivate a faith that believes whatsoever the Scriptures reveal — secular respectability be damned? Within the confines of this worshipping community, does a preacher feel free to say that he has the entire world of secular archeologists against him in this particular, but that he doesn’t care, ho, ho, ho?

In short, it would seem to me that a consistent manning of the church’s walls against worldliness (which I applaud) requires us to get a bunch of folks from the Reformed academic world over here to the north wall so that we can give a Bronx cheer to the assembled hordes of clinical psychologists, paleontologists, and sociologists outside. And we have not really attained to the demeanor we need to have until we sound like second year Bible college students, of a fundamentalist strain, laughing at the Piltdown Man.

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