More to Being Reformed Than Believing in Jesus and Smoking Cigars

Most weeks we have a Friday morning men’s prayer meeting, followed by a breakfast. The discussion at breakfast is frequently rowdy, and this last week it turned to the events surrounding Steve Wilkins — what Scott Clark might want to style as a Westminster necktie party.

In the course of the discussion, I made the point that this was nothing more than a simple continuation of the theonomy fracas in the Reformed world a couple decades ago. As a continution, there are some differences, of course, but there it is.

First allow me to point to some points of continuity, seen most clearly in some of the players. Theonomists, because of their emphasis on the continuing validity of God’s law, were frequently accused of undermining justification by faith alone. Norman Shepherd was slated to be one of the original Auburn speakers until he was providentially hindered by the tragic death of his wife, and was replaced by John Barach. But had he been one of the speakers, the whole thing would have blown up, just like it did, only probably quicker. During the original Shepherd controversy, he had strong support among the theonomists — Greg Bahnsen and Gary North, to mention two. North even devoted an entire book — Westminster’s Confession — defending Shepherd. Other supporters of Shepherd included such notables as Cornelius Van Til.

A number of other people who were involved in the theonomy movement are still around and pushing some of the root assumptions into the corners. From the front rank of the original theonomists we have Jim Jordan. From the second tier (of that day), we have men like Wilkins and Leithart. An exception would be someone like Joe Morecraft, who decided to bail. In short, when you look at the scorecard, and take in the names of the players, you see a lot of the same names. In addition, one of the central disputes (over justification) is the same, then and now. This is not a straight up debate over whether sola fide is true, but rather a debate over whether other assertions are consistent with sola fide. Now, just as then, confusion has caused certain Reformed believers to be accused of denying sola fide, when they claim they have done nothing of the kind.

Now, what’s different about this episode and the theonomy episode? I do not mean to claim that the theonomists have learned nothing, or have not modified their emphases. They most certainly have, and I actually believe that this is why the conflict has become even more intense. In the first round, the theonomy movement was an ideological movement, fueled largely by book publication. Once in a conversation with Greg Bahnsen, when I had explained to him why I was not theonomist, he made a helpful distinction for me. He said there was a difference between a movement and a school of thought. A movement is ideologically driven, has an explicit agenda, requires a movement leader, and so on. A school of thought encompasses people who share a broad number of assumptions, but are not necessarily in the same revolutionary cell group. When we say that Descartes and Spinoza were both rationalists, this doesn’t mean that they put out a newsletter together.

To apply this distinction, what has happened is this. The hardcore theonomy movement morphed into a broad theonomy-lite school of thought, and from there began to settle into particular communities, with a specific cultural embodiment. So there have been significant changes, but they have been the kind of changes necessarily introduced when you move from abstract idea to concrete application. The concrete application has included scores of classical Christian schools around the country, a college (New St. Andrews), church communities that emphasize parish life together (Monroe, Moscow, and numerous others). At the center of all of this is the practice (not just the idea) of the covenant renewal worship model. It is important to note that one of the changes has included turning away from the idea of political lobbying to the idea of cultural transformation through the potent leaven of worship.

In short, we have moved from the time when a handful of outrageous men were saying crazy things on paper (the Old Testament is still in the Bible, the gospel will conquer the world, etc.) to a time when a number of thriving communities are being built on the pastoral assumption that all of God’s truths are designed to be lived, and lived in community.

In our breakfast discussion, it was around this point that Roy Atwood offered a helpful breakdown of the Reformed world, as recalled from a article by Wolterstorff in the mid-seventies. Wolterstorff, talking about the CRC, broke that tradition down into three main streams — the doctrinalists, the pietists, and the Kuyperians. What he said there applies to the whole Reformed world, in spades. The doctrinalists are rationalistic, and are concerned about getting the doctrines right on paper. The faith once delivered is a giant math problem, and they want to get a gold star on the top of their assignment when they turn it in. The pietists are concerned about whether they pray enough, whether they are going to heaven when they die, and whether or not they have witnessed to Uncle George in the right way. The Kuyperians hold that the lordship of Jesus Christ must be affirmed, and the cultural mandate fulfilled by extending the crown rights of Jesus over every last aspect of life. Now, it has to be emphasized here that for the first two options here, these choices present some kind of either/or choice. Either doctrinal purity or an upright life. Either an upright life or political engagement. Either doctrinal purity or But to accept this kind of dichotomy is to reject the Kuyperian option. The third option (of necessity) includes the need for personal piety and the need for doctrinal integrity. The Kuyperian option includes the other two in a way that is not reciprocated.

The failure to reciprocate is also the reason why these two truncated positions cannot understand how an embrace of the cultural mandate, driven by covenant renewal worship, is not, at some basic level, a fundamental compromise. This is because they do not recognize doctrinal faithfulness when it is out in the world, getting dirty. Nor can they see faithful Christian love and piety when it is out in the marketplace, sleeves rolled up and working hard. Some people can only recognize the five solas when they are pinned on a poster board, under the basement light of personal soteriology, like so many butterflies, now deceased. Take that thing out in the back yard and look at it in the sunlight. What have you changed? Nothing. There is no heresy here. What have you changed? Everything. There is a reason for the conflict.

Put another way, I am not being attacked because I deny sola gratia and sola fide. I affirm them, and with about the same level of enthusiasm as a cossack dancing. But the backyard sunlight that I am looking at these truths in causes me to affirm also that this salvation, by grace alone, appropriated by evangelical faith alone, is a salvation that will cover the earth, as the waters cover the sea. Included in that salvation will be the Muslim world, Hollywood, Thailand, the National Academcy of Sciences, and mirabile dictu, the United States Congress. It is not through law that Abraham will INHERIT THE WORLD (Rom. 4:13).

So bring this all back to my friend Steve Wilkins. He is being attacked by a certain doctrinalist faction within the PCA. The pietists are not attacking him, but are in no position to do anything other than feel bad about the whole thing. He is being defended (and prayed for) by the Kuyperians. To appeal to another set of distinctions (Neibuhr), the Christ against culture faction (the doctrinalists) is trying to make the PCA safe for the Christ and culture faction (the happy clappys) by running out of the denomination one of their leading representatives of the truth that the Lord Jesus Christ is the transformer of culture.

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