So this is a bit behind the curve, but I wanted to say a few things about this post by my friend Tim Bayly. He posted this just a week after I was there in Bloomington for their Salt & Light conference, and so you would not be far off if you thought my visit might have had something to do with it. And now it has something more to do with it.
Some of what I say here will simply reinforce what Tim is saying, and some of it will consist of “but what about this factor . . .?”
Good fences make good neighbors. Good labels can do the same thing, which is bad news for a generation that “hates labels.” Just as liberalism was a rot that got into every denomination extant, so the postmodern vibe is doing the same thing to us — largely through the death grip that academia has on pastoral training. Just as it was very difficult to tell the difference between a liberal Methodist and a liberal Presbyterian in the late fifties, even when the light was good, so also it is difficult now to tell the difference between a Kellerite soul patch and the other kind.
True ecumenism requires precision of thought, and precision of language, but we have gotten to the place where every attempt at careful definition is dismissed as a run up to war. Postmodernism does to theology what leaving a watercolor out in a downpour does to the painting. True ecumenism requires oil painting in the Mojave, where the blue stays blue, and the brown stays put.
So let’s assume that all our discussions of these issues have the same understanding of Schaeffer’s “true truth.” We can draw straight arrows from the signifier to the thing signified. We really care about the truth, and we want to learn and affirm as much of it as we can. We have trouble being patient with those who say “no creed but Christ, no law but love” because what they just said is, when you come down to it, a very fine creed, and it isn’t Christ.
The CREC requires each church to adopt into their standards The Apostles’ Creed, The Nicene Creed, and The Definition of Chalcedon. After that, they have to choose from an array of reformational standards — the American Westminster, or the original Westminster, or the 3 Forms of Unity, and so on. The furthest distance of one from another, from wing tip to wing tip, would probably be the 3 Forms and the London Baptist. That is, to be perfectly frank, quite a span. Now I don’t know if it would be possible to do the same kind of thing with our puritans and lutherans, but if it were possible, the CREC is uniquely situated to make the attempt. I am in favor of making that attempt — provided the evangelical center is preserved.
But — some staunch presbyterians might argue — why should we even make the attempt? Why shouldn’t we leave it the way it is? Well, I would argue that to isolate presbyterianism is in effect to deny it. Historic Presbyterian and Reformed thought (of which I am a cheerful advocate) is anti-sectarian in its DNA. From Calvin on, the earnest desire of the Reformed was to establish some kind of formal concord with the Lutherans. But it was not to be, and I am not so big a fool as to think that it was all because of misunderstandings. There were and are big theological issues involved, and they do need to be worked through. See my earlier comments on the need for charitable precision.
But with that said, to simply dismiss the lutherans out of hand is way too . . . lutheran. I am not trying to be rude here, but the unnecessary obstacles to Reformed/Lutheran amity were usually thrown up on the Lutheran side. So those who don’t want to be lutheran can start with that.
Now I have already mentioned my caution about how relativistic thinking turns everybody’s theology into mush, but I should also add here my agreement with Tim that sometimes the same effect can appear because people are in transition. The postmodern Lutheran affirms the truthiness of the Augsburg, while the crypto-Lutheran in transition can sound mushier than he actually is.
By the way, I really am not using the word lutheran in a pejorative sense — even though I myself have been accused of being a crypto-lutheran on more than one occasion. It was no fun at all — as my therapist could well tell you, if I would just sign that release. And I would sign it for him too, but I am afraid he would write a book about everything.
So while it is true that luthero-presbyterians are creating pressure to alter the historic Reformed understanding of the sacraments, we need to remember that they haven’t gotten away with it yet. But, on the other end, the bapto-presbyterians have gotten away with their reinterpretations. They think that sacraments that really “exhibit and confer” what they signify is popish superstition, which would startle the good divines of Westminster. This creates the sorry spectacle of the lutheros thinking that the puritans are baptists, and the baptos thinking the puritans are jesuits. Oh, well.
This is a very complex math problem, and that is why we should make sure we are loving each other, and are showing our work at every step.