Swinging Thuribles at Each Other

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This is near the beginning of a new year, and so why not some predictions? But I am not interested in predicting for the next twelve months — let’s make this interesting and go for a century. After the appropriate time has elapsed, and everybody can see where I was right and where I was wrong, I will have been in glory for seventy five years already, and will have other things on my mind.

But I don’t want to play at Nostradamus-like predictions. “A third son will come from the north . . .” Nor am I interested in fortune cookie stuff. “Friends will come to appreciate your gifts.”  I am more interested in considering the trajectory of certain practices and themes that are in play now. They have been going on for a while, and we have every reason to believe that the logic involved in these things will continue to unfold.

James tells us that our lives are a mist (Jas. 4:14), and that we ought not to swagger around the place with our predictions of what we shall be able to do with this or that. How much more must we be humble with the future of movements, denominations, seminaries, nations, political parties, and so forth. Humility is key, and so these things are offered on an open palm. Man proposes, and God disposes, a truism that has the additional advantage of being really true.

At the same time, I can recall the sensation  I had when I first started reading the cultural analyses of R.L. Dabney — I was startled at how much he could see of the issues of our day from his vantage of a century before. How did he do that? The same thing is true of C.S. Lewis in books like The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength. If you are dealing with principles, the prescience is more understandable.

I have three observations that I would like to develop. 1.Wineskins never quit getting dried and cracked. This does not just include the other guys’ wineskins. 2.  New wine comes from surprising places. Don’t underestimate the newbies. This does not exclude the other guys. 3 . Pull, don’t push.

The perennial temptation with all these things is apply them as reasonable explanations for the behavior of everybody else, and this is exactly why the process continues inexorably onward, and why it always seems (mysteriously) to include us and our movement “at the last minute.” But the vanity of everything under the sun does not apply to all those poor schmucks “over there.”

This would be bad news for the kingdom of God if the Spirit of God were contained within this bottle here, like He was some kind of genie. But the Spirit blows wherever He wants to. This would be bad news for the camp of the saints, if the Shekinah glory were made out of marble, and were still there in the wilderness, right where they put it, the immovable obelisk. But the glory cloud moves.

This is one of the things we must surrender in principle, and we are surrendering it to the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit. I am talking about what I see unfolding, but the God who created this universe from nothing is fully capable of surprising absolutely everybody.

Some time ago I mentioned on my blog that any historical event, once it has happened, can be made to appear to have been inevitable by any competent historian. The antecedents were there to be seen . . . afterwards.

Someone responded that I really ought to read The Black Swan, which I actually had on my shelf, but had not read. So I pulled it down, and was greatly edified. Turns out that just about everything that happens is highly unlikely. So keep the sovereignty of the Spirit in mind — He does not have the same partisan loyalties we do. He could easily move in such a way as to have the PCA, fifty years from now, be a hotbed of reformational doctrine, an energy field of missional zeal, and an inspiration to all who love Jesus, and  this could happen at the very same time that we see  a CREC full of men with Z.Z. Top beards in robes, swinging thuribles at each other. This would be very unfair of the Spirit, of course, but there is nothing we could do about it.

Where you draw the circle will affect your analysis, obviously, and so I am drawing the circle around the Christian scene in North America.  My father, who is not Reformed, once described the coming 21st century as the Reformed century. I think this is accurate, but there are different ways in which it can be accurate. It most emphatically does not mean that anything with a Reformed label on it will prosper, or that groups that currently have never heard of these things will decline. It is not that simple.

The first point has to do with what wineskins always do. Here let me talk about the Reformed seminaries, the PCA, the OPC and . . . classical Christian schools, NSA, the CREC, and so forth. Once you are out of your Jesus people phase, the inevitable process of institutionalization begins. That process is essential for continued survival, but it is also exasperating for anyone with any kind of independent judgment.

Remember what we have already said about what the Spirit could do if He wanted. This is just what it currently looks like He is doing. The process of insitutionalization is a necessity, and is not an enemy. It is a good thing — but it is a good thing that brings temptations with it, and these are temptations that are very seldom recognized as such. Here are some examples.

What does Paul value in a minister more — a family that is managed well,  or three years of graduate study? Right, and which one do we value more? What does God want more — a man teaching in seminary with a Ph.D. from an Ivy League divinity school run by satanists, or a faithful man steeped in the Word that he learned from his mom? His mom is named Eunice, and his grandma was Lois. As I have said repeatedly, we have seen so many seminaries, publishing houses, denominations, and colleges go liberal, that you would think we would know what it looks like by now. But we are continually surprised by the utterly predictable.

The PCA is currently the center of Reformed activity in North America. It is the Reformed establishment — and it is going liberal. This is happening as the result of old-fashioned Girardian battles between conservatives (FV and TR), and this distraction has kept everyone from seeing the pall of a lust for academic respectability which has settled over the whole thing. That enemy has captured the city center, the radio and television stations, and his tanks are well-positioned in the central square. What am I talking about? I am talking about feminism, evolution, and the death kiss of credentialism. There’s more, but that will do it.

The fact that these things are controversial within the PCA tells us nothing.  There are two kinds of controversy. The kind we see now is the controversy in which discomfort is expressed by certain conservatives who are riding the conveyor belt to perdition. The other kind is when you hop off the conveyor belt in order to fight your way to the switch, but that kind of controversy does not appear to be happening.

The second point is that, in Christ, God is not ashamed to call us brethren. I can embarrass myself easily by reflecting on what I used to think 30 years ago, and yet God showed me great kindness. Do not make the mistake of dismissing the new Calvinism. There is a good deal of tohu & bohu going on there, but God can make a beautiful world out of that kind of stuff. When the wineskins crack, new wine will puddle on the floor. There will be wineskins to hold this movement soon enough, and they will go through the same process that wineskins always go through. New movements are not exempt from the way of all flesh. But the glory of young men is their strength. And the glory of strength is that it attracts young men.

God is perfect, but is no perfectionist. The North American conference circuit is doing a great deal of good. The Piper/Driscoll/Chandler world is doing a lot of good. They are in the early stages of building their institutions, and they are not fighting anything near the inertia faced by those who want a “continuing church,” what might be called apostolic succession lite. Perhaps you would rather not deal with tattooed baptists. Well, tough.

There is a difference between those who revere the Westminster Confession because that is what you do with anything behind a velvet rope at denominational headquarters, and someone who loves it because it is a glorious document. Have I mentioned lately that I love the Westminster Confession? As one who came to the Reformed tradition when I was 35, I cannot begin to express how refreshing it was and continues to be for me. And back in the eighties, all those Banner of Truth books were an honest answer, a kiss on the lips. But I am very sorry about all those folks who have had bad experiences with the WCF’s ugly cousin.

So here is the cash-value prediction part. I believe that as the 21st century ends, we will see a pervasive evangelical and Reformed presence throughout North America. I believe that it will be the predominant view, overwhelmingly. That’s the exhilarating part. But I also believe that the “carriers” of these doctrines of grace will be, for the most part, institutions that none of us have ever heard of.  That’s the humbling part.

But be encouraged. Your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). God is the one who ties up all the loose threads. We don’t have to keep track of them — we just run them out.

And so last, I used the phrase “pull, don’t push.” Wherever possible, try to get in front, and lead by example. Don’t try to push people into their areas of responsibility. This just gets everybody’s back up, and it leads to a different kind of Girardian conflict. This is free-wheeling, and some would be concerned about a lack of accountability, but it need not be that way. There is actually more accountability in leading by example than any other way.

If you are loyal to your people, this loyalty can be expressed by means other than attending endless committee meetings. If you love what you do, then do it out front. If you are called to a particular thing, and no one has told you that you can’t do it, go after it. Chances are someone in administration will come after you and turn it into a program, but that’s all right.

This pattern can occur at the local level, but it will also occur at the regional and national levels. When other people get out front of their movement, learn from them. When you get out front, they can learn from you. And the funny thing is, all these Christians who are learning from one another at conferences, from books, from video clips, are doing so without a policy and procedures manual. They are doing it by imitation — which is God’s assigned method.

One of the reasons why the faith today is so vibrant and full of beans is actually denominationalism. So . . . three cheers for denominations! This is, of course, not our eschatological hope, when the perfect man is unified and complete, but for now, the fact that there is not a central headquarters directing all the activities of all the orthodox should be cause for great rejoicing. One church? In the world the way it is now? My forehead gets clammy just thinking about it. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

The history of Reformed Christians in North America in the 21st century has not yet happened, and it has therefore not been written. But when it is written, I trust that it will include the stories of many who did not say “but we have always done it this way,” but rather said, like Jonathan to his armor bearer, “the Lord can save by many or by few. Let us go up.”



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