Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Oil Price Nosedive: A Case for Tariffs?

In recent days, the price of oil has been plummeting. The stock market has taken a dive, and workers in the once propserous oil fields of North Dakota are now being laid off. The cost of extracting new oil from shale and from fracking is too high to permit oil below $50 a barrel. Some say OPEC is trying to get an edge in the market and crowd out the up-and-comers in the U.S.

With American drivers now excitedly re-entering an era of low low fuel prices, many suggest that this will benefit our economy, yet it seems clear to me that the benefit is solely for consumers, while the many good paying jobs done by many hard working Americans generated by the oil boom are beginning to disappear. 

This sudden change in prices doesn't feel like a free market invisible hand move, it feels more like a power play by the very visible hand of the Middle East oil cartel, who wants the innovations and hard work done by American companies to be stifled so that their dominance can reassert itself. In other words, a price war has been declared against us by unfriendly foreign powers.

Americans disagree on many things, but we all seem to agree that being dependent on foreign oil from the Middle East is a thing we want to avoid. This price war has been declared to tip our free market "free trade" decisions back over to Middle East oil. 

Everything in politics, it is said, happens for a reason. The price war is taking Russia's economy down as well. As global demand has surged and prices increased, Russia too has developed an oil and natural gas industry of her own, but she too cannot sustain a profitable oil industry at such low prices. It is no accident that this is happening. The powers that be in powerful capitals want Russia punished for her indiscretions...it would not surprise me at all to learn that OPEC's actions were actively encouraged behind the scenes by Western operatives.

Oil is essential to a growing economy. In a time of energy scarcity, Americans and Canadians rolled up their sleeves and went to work, opening up new resources and adding value to a sluggish economy. I don't think it too extreme to say that we owe them our gratitude and part of that gratitude should include shielding them from this blatant attempt to put them out of business and keep America dependent on foreign energy sources.

That means a tariff. Show OPEC who's boss by imposing a floating tariff that will make their oil equal to North Dakota's in price. Stabilize the industry, look out for the producers, protect their jobs and keep prices stable. Keep the energy boom going. Look out for America's economic interests.

Instead of proposing this sort of tax, Larry Summers proposes instead that falling energy prices give us the perfect opportunity to stabilize those falling prices with a carbon tax on fossil fuel consumption, taxing the American people for merely using fuel, not OPEC for the privilege of doing business in American markets. Taxes for the benefit of ill-defined, unproven environmental concerns and goals is mainstream and good; taxes for the benefit of American companies and American jobs are not. That's "Protectionism" and no good. Better to be "addicted" (as George W. Bush once said) to foreign oil.

I think the case is clear. President Obama and John Boehner should give Pat Buchanan a call and get this ball rolling. The Republicans could galvanize their support for further domestic oil production in states like North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania--heck, they might even be able to improve their chances of winning a few more states in the presidential election of 2016. But they won't do it. Because the Market must be allowed to be free, but never free enough to actually benefit American workers, nor the companies who risk all to do business here.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Immigration Question: A Modest Biblical and Conservative Inquiry

This is long. If you don't want to read it all, take a look at the synopsis at the end. Thanks.

We have all been hearing about immigration lately. The sudden arrival of youths from Central and South America has brought the issue to the forefront. Conservative radio personalities have been pushing against "amnesty" and for "border security" with great fervor.

The Boundaries of the Debate

The debate over immigration is often framed as a debate between those who "believe in borders" and those who don't. It is often framed as a debate between those who believe in "enforcing our laws" and those who don't. Some say it is a debate between a welcoming America and a closed America, or between a kinder America and an angrier, meaner sort of America.

I want to propose that the "borders" of the immigration debate are not what was suggested in the previous paragraph, nor is the debate between "liberals" and "conservatives." Immigration is an intra-conservative debate. Conservatives are the ones who need to decide what they want to do on immigration reform.

I say this because the political interest of liberals is clearly in favor of keeping the status quo. Moderates/independents can be won either way, depending on what conservatives decide to do on immigration.

One wing of the conservative movement I will label the Populist Wing. This wing is well represented on talk radio. These conservatives tend to be men and women of modest means who rarely give a lot of money to political campaigns but are often engaged as activists. They may homeschool their children, protest outside abortion clinics, call in to radio shows or show up at Tea Party rallies. The Populist Wing tends to take a hard line on immigration. "Enforce the border," they say. They are instinctively against any kind of "amnesty" and detest RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) who try to work for "comprehensive immigration reform."

The other wing is smaller in terms of numbers of people, but more than makes up for it by their wealth. This is the Chamber of Commerce Wing. The Chamber men give a lot of money to political campaigns and often serve or advise at high levels in the Republican Party. They influence which candidates rise or fall, which are acceptable and which are not. In general, CoCs don't favor "sealing the border" because it would jeopardize their business interests. Mass immigration, both legal and illegal, drives down labor costs and increases profit margins. 

Since the Republican Party emerged from the Whigs in 1854, there has always been a form of those two wings, but the Chamber wing, the Money wing if you will, has always had the upper hand. At times, the relationship between the Populists and the Money men has gotten strained, but they've managed to get along.

The power dynamics of the relationship allow the Populists to force the hand of Daddy Warbucks if there is a real electoral threat. Daddy Warbucks would rather keep his influence than lose his influence for the sake of business. He can negotiate. 

The Chamber wing knows that without the Populist wing, there isn't much of a Republican Party left. The Populist wing knows that without money from the Chamber wing, they have no shot at getting their message through.

Neither side is "good" or "bad." They exist. There is quite a bit of overlap between them. Many Populists admire Chamber types for their business success. Many Chamber types use their money to fund Populist causes. 

The Political Reality

There are fundamental differences in outlook and sociology between the two groups that are often difficult for die-hards in either camp to recognize. The path to conservative political success is to find a way to harmonize these two groups and get them to work together. Ronald Reagan was a wealthy man, but he had blue collar roots. Richard Nixon wasn't known so much as a man of wealth, but his moderate positions appealed to the Chamber of Commerce, and he knew how to court Populist support as well. Mitt Romney is a good example of a solid Chamber of Commerce man who was not very good at reaching out to the Populist wing, or even blue collar folk in general, to his peril.

I bring up these two groups because it appears to me that the immigration hard-liners on talk radio are largely unaware that this division exists and always has existed in the Republican Party. Since they are unaware, they generally assume that the "conservative" position on immigration is theirs and theirs alone. The blunt reality is that neither side of this divide within conservatism is going to get everything that they want, but if they are willing to negotiate with one another, there's probably a path to a politically coherent "conservative" solution to the immigration issue.

More importantly, not only is there a division of mere opinion between the Populist and Chamber wings, but both wings are working against each other. The illegal immigrants coming across the border are being employed by Chamber of Commerce men. If the jobs weren't being offered, the immigrants would not come. In a sense, the entire problem of illegal immigration and "breaking our laws" is the fault of Chamber of Commerce conservatives, not multicultural liberals who have no idea how to run businesses.

The irony here is that the anti-immigration, talk radio, Populist conservatives don't seem to be aware of any of this. If they were, I think we would see more fracture within the conservative Republican coalition than we've seen thus far. Perhaps being aware that conservatives don't agree with each other on immigration in deep and fundamental ways is a job that conservative Americans won't do (if you'll pardon the humor).

What do we do to solve or remedy this impasse? Do we kick the Chamber of Commerce types out and start a True Blue Conservative party? Should we be the Tea Partiers of the True Flame? Maybe we should cast protest votes for libertarians, and really rub in the irony?

Liberals are more or less united in their desire for more immigration. Conservatives are divided. Those who are against immigration are in the minority. If they want to advance their agenda, they will have to compromise. I don't see most Americans or most of Congress adopting a Minuteman stance on immigration. I think this will remain the political reality whether we like it or not.

Searching the Scriptures: Does God ordain borders? 

Populists are correct that doing away with borders entirely, and allowing any and all to come en masse is a bad idea. America is a distinct nation with a distinct culture that should be preserved and passed on because it is worth conserving. I believe that because I am a conservative, and I want to conserve the best of America. 

Borders are not simply useless "fictions" that hamper our global development into an international schmoozefest. Borders are legal fictions. They exist "on paper" just like the Constitution exists "on paper." Borders represent important covenantal obligations and distinctions. 

Borders between countries establish on the macro level the principle of private property. "Cursed is he who moves his neighbor's boundary landmark." (Deut. 27:17). God created a world blessed with distinctions. This, not that. Your land, my land. Your culture, my culture. My family, your family. God detests adultery in part because it involves a man stealing another's man family, invading the sacred covenantal space, as it were.

Deuteronomy 32:7-8 reads:

Remember the days of old,
Consider the years of all generations.
Ask your father, and he will inform you,
Your elders, and they will tell you.
When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
When He separated the sons of man,
He set the boundaries of the peoples
According to the number of the sons of Israel.

At the Tower of Babel, men desired to create an international schmoozefest of sorts, and God confused their languages, sending them all abroad (Gen. 11:1-9), indicating his desire that men separate to form distinct cultures and ethnic groups.

Saint Paul repeats this teaching on the God-ordained distinctions of nation and culture in his speech before the Athenians: 

He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope from Him and find Him, though He is not far from each of us.

Any discussion of immigration should proceed from the presupposition that the Word of God is authoritative and true, and serves as the Standard by which we make our decisions. I wish to make it plain that with Scripture as my Standard, I believe in borders.

Having said that I believe in borders, and that God's Word requires that nations have those legal fictions, what should be the nature of those borders? 

This would be a good time to bring in an analogy. I believe, with St. Paul and Romans 13, that civil government is necessary and ordained by God. Likewise, I believe in the necessity of taxation to support said government. Having said this, the next question would be what nature of taxation and government is best? 

Good Bible Christians should acknowledge that believing in the Godly institution of a thing is not a blank check to push the limits of said thing to the ends of Earth. The difference between a man who believes taxes should consume 98% of our income and the man who would prefer they only consume 10% is not the difference between a Bible believing citizen and an anarchist.

Likewise, the difference between a man who favors limited and appropriate immigration and a man who supports a moratorium on all immigration is not the difference between an Open Borders man and a Rule of Law man. The difference is on the application of a principle both men hold in common.

What is a Nation?

Having established that there is room for Christians to disagree on this issue of borders and immigration, I think it's useful to ponder what Scripture means when it uses the term "nation." A clue is given in St. John's Gospel in the final chapter. Jesus tells Peter and the disciples to catch some fish and they caught exactly 153, "and although there were so many, the net was not torn." (John 21:11). 

Why would the Holy Spirit record for us the exact number of the fish? In the ancient world, it was commonly believed that there were 153 distinct ethnic groups. This story, included at the end of a Gospel which is full of typology, allusions and symbolic language, could be thought of as a sort of "Great Commission" ending. The other three Gospels conclude with a Great Commission, though each account is different in subtle ways. Immediately after this story Jesus asks Peter to feed his sheep, reinstates him as an apostle and commands Peter to follow Him, even unto death.

Biblically speaking, a "nation" is more or less what would we would now call an "ethnic group." It is a group of people who are genetically similar, who have lived in a particular part of the world, who share a common language, etc. 

Today, we tend to blend "nation" with "nation-state." The nations are the people who happen to live under a particular jurisdiction. Those who live in China are Chinese. Those who are under the Mexican nation-state are Mexicans. Those who live under the American nation-state are Americans. The individual ethnic makeup or heritage of the person in question doesn't matter very much to us, only to whom he pays taxes.

"Nations" in the biblical sense continue to exist, and often exist across and within nation-states. Kurds are their own nation (biblical sense) but live in two different nations (modern sense), Iraq and Turkey. Yugoslavia used to be a nation (modern sense) but has split up into many nations (biblical sense). 

Within "nations" (biblical sense) regional differences and loyalties often exist. This is certainly true of border regions. 

I live in a border region between Indiana and Kentucky. It can be hard to tell, as you get to the edges of something, whether you are in one thing or in another. The culture of the people usually doesn't conform to the neat legal fictions of borders. Culture crescendos in and out gradually. 

Consider the Kentucky/Indiana border region. There are people in Indiana who work or have family and friends in Kentucky. The same is true of many Kentuckians. Many people in Indiana root for sports teams from Kentucky, and likewise with Kentuckians. Many people from Southern Indiana have southern accents like Kentuckians do, and even fly Confederate flags (even though Indiana was never part of the Confederacy). Northern Kentuckians often show many Midwestern tendencies that would surprise people looking for a "Southern" culture. The landscape and geography of Southern Indiana is very similar to that of Kentucky.

Of course the further you get from the border, the more Indiana becomes Indiana and Kentucky becomes Kentucky. When distance between people grows, cultures become more independent from one another and they diverge. 

The same is true of border regions between nation-states. Someone who parachuted into Eagle Pass, Texas would wonder if he was in Mexico or the United States. Someone who parachuted into a small village in extreme northern Maine would wonder if he was in Canada or the United States. 

In the biblical sense, however, the cultures of these areas are understandable. God has set the habitations of the nations. Particular groups have lived in the Southwestern United States/Northern Mexico region for many centuries. 

Many people who live in the United States in places like Eagle Pass, TX, have friends or family on the other side in Mexico. It is conceivable that some folks from Mexico work on the other side in Texas. Due to the vast stretches of dry ranchland, it is also conceivable that "working in the United States" would mean "working in a place deep inside the United States," so deep it might mean temporarily relocating to the United States several months a year to pick tomatoes, for example.

The local realities of employment and relationships that go across borders should give us pause whenever we hear that the proper "solution" to the "border crisis" is to "seal the border." If the border were sealed, we would upset many local relationships that presently exist (as they always do) in the border regions. It would be a case of the universal intruding upon the local and particular. It would be a classic case of federal overreach, of trying to plan everybody's life from Washington, DC.

If we look at the Southwest United States with a biblical conception of what a "nation" is, a few historical facts become significant: 

1) The original inhabitants of the land were the various Indian tribes. In the case of Pueblos (or Anasazi) these Indians were often quite sophisticated in their construction techniques, building permanent dwellings in desert canyons and making a living there

2) In the 16th century, armies from the Spanish nation arrived and took over the area, claiming it as part of the Spanish nation-state even though the people there were not ethnic Spaniards and didn't speak Spanish.

3) Over time, the Indians and the Spanish speakers mixed, creating their own culture. In the 19th century, the Mexican nation-state was formed when the various ethnic groups across the Southwest and into Central America rebelled against the Spanish nation-state and declared independence. 

4) American immigrants began arriving in large numbers in the largely uninhabited area known as Texas. The habitation of this area became majority American, and they rebelled against the Mexican nation-state and established a new nation, Texas.

5) In 1845, Texas joined the American nation-state. In 1846, a border dispute between Texas and Mexico led to the Mexican War, in which the American nation-state defeated the Mexican nation-state and took possession of the Southwest, a huge increase in territory, in 1848.

6) Besides Texas, ethnically much of the Southwest was largely still Indian or Mexican. The biblical sense of nation and habitation was overridden by the modern sense of nation as the governmental body which holds military control over a certain geographic region, regardless of the ethnic makeup of that region.

7) Over time, after the war, Americans began to settle the Southwest. The 1849 Gold Rush led to a population boom in California. Other states took much longer to come into the Union. New Mexico and Arizona did not become states until 1912.

8) The ethnic makeup of the Southwest has changed over time, but remnants of the Spanish, Indian and Mexican cultures have remained. Cities and geographic features retain their Spanish and Indian names. Ethnic Indians and Mexicans still live there. Several of them, no doubt, have family and friends across the border.

Immigration is Economic

Immigration is explosive because it is an economic issue, primarily, and secondarily an issue of clashing cultures. People fear that more immigrants means fewer jobs or lower wages. This is not a completely unfounded fear.

Since the Great Recession, immigration from Mexico has considerably waned. Many of the immigrants worked in the construction industry. When the housing bubble burst, the jobs dried up and the workers went home. See this informative article on the status of immigration vis a vis Mexico. Net immigration in the years after the recession was roughly zero or even negative.

Note that if immigration was roughly zero, then considerable numbers of Hispanic immigrants chose to leave the country when they could no longer work. They did not stay to collect welfare benefits, for instance. Perhaps that means that the reason for their coming was to work and better themselves?

During the years when Latino immigration was high, the economy was doing much better than it is today, aside from a mild recession that occurred from about 2001 to about 2003. Unemployment was often 6% or 5% among the legal, working population. That means that 94% of legal Americans already had jobs. The jobs that the Latino immigrants came to do were jobs that a prosperous economy created out of its abundance. 

When an economy is booming, the demand for labor often exceeds the supply. In times like these, immigration makes sense. The difficulty is that U.S. legal immigration is often complicated and lengthy, and doesn't respond to changing economic conditions very well. It's easier to come across illegally and take your chances than to apply for legal residency. 

When a recession hits, it makes sense for a country to restrict immigration, instead of continuing to allow corporations to import thousands of temporary workers from Asia to fill technical jobs, for instance. In a time of abundance, however, importing workers makes sense.

Immigration policy shouldn't be static because the market is not static, nor are human relationships static. Government policies should seek to harmonize as much as possible with what the market already encourages people to do. That leads to maximum liberty and optimum prosperity.

To accommodate those living in border regions, some kind of guest worker permit should be available, and should be relatively easy to get, so as to discourage illegal immigration. When times are good, legal immigration or temporary visas should be as streamlined and easy to obtain as possible, so as to discourage illegal immigration or over-staying one's visa.

When people settle in a new place and contribute to that community through work, relationships are formed and cultures are formed that benefit many people. Our economy, like it or not, has benefited from the labor of Hispanic illegal immigrants. Many of them have lived here for many years. To deport them or ignore them is simply unjust.

There is a valid economic argument that the presence of cheap illegal labor distorts the labor market against native Americans who have their papers in order. The blame for this ultimately does not rest with the Hispanic immigrants, who came for jobs and opportunity, but with those Chamber of Commerce conservatives who chose to hire them to save a few bucks. Remember: if there were no jobs, the immigrants would not come. When the jobs dry up, many of them go home.

Since the Chamber of Commerce conservatives are to blame, the ideal and efficient way to handle the problem is to level the labor playing field. Make the illegals legal. Give them the same labor protections and liabilities that native Americans have. Suddenly, the economic incentive for hiring an illegal over a native disappears. 

Reforming the immigration system is complicated of course and will require smart policymaking and compromise between all sides. Maybe the illegals should pay a fine (or better yet, their employers should pay a fine). Maybe they should pursue a path to citizenship of some kind that would be gradual, which would include learning English. All of these ideas are good ones and should be on the table. 

Ideally, these issues should be dealt with locally. God set the habitations of the nations (ethnic groups), and those habitations are in local places. Let most of the enforcement and handling of these things happen at the state and local levels.


To summarize my position, countries have a God-given authority to establish and maintain borders. God set the habitations of the nations, but did so with respect to ethnic, geographic, cultural and linguistic markers which are often papered over by modern nation-states. 

The border regions of the United States have and have had a distinctive culture that is partly American and partly Spanish or Mexican. Long standing relationships exist that would be upset by a rigid "seal the border" solution. Upsetting these relationships would also go against the biblical notion of nation-hood, favoring universal concerns over local concerns. 

A booming economy tends to produce excess demand for labor that is best met by increasing immigration in an orderly manner. Some labor is temporary. Other labor is more permanent. Immigration policy should be flexible and open enough to deal with these realities.

Illegal immigrants have contributed much to our country. Many of them have lived here for many years. They enjoy an unfair advantage over some native workers because their illegal status makes them cheaper and less of a hassle to their employers. To eliminate this unfair advantage, while also doing right by the immigrants for their contributions, it is best to pursue some kind of amnesty for those immigrants. Once they are legal, they will have no further advantages over native born Americans in the labor market. They will also begin to pay taxes and begin to assimilate into our society.

Legal immigration should be streamlined in a sensible manner, in order to discourage illegal immigration. When taxes are high and unreasonable, incentives are created to avoid the taxes. When immigration controls are unreasonable, incentives are created to break the law. While taxes are lawful and nations may lawfully control their borders, they must do so reasonably and fairly.


Immigration is obviously emotionally charged and complicated. There are no easy answers. The politics of it is also complicated. Hoping for a total solution that satisfies only Tea Party or Populist conservatives is naive. It isn't going to happen. Compromise will be the order of the day.

Some issues are black and white, and admit little opportunity for compromise. Marriage is one. Abortion is another. Others are more complicated and require sophisticated and nuanced political solutions. I believe immigration is one of those latter issues. We can compromise on immigration and not betray our fundamental principles.

Christians should remember in all of this that God's Providence sets the boundaries and habitations of nations, and that this Providence includes the Great Commission. Different cultures exist so that they may be reached with the Gospel and seek God, bowing before King Jesus, each glorifying God in a distinctive manner as nations. Recognizing the world-wide unity the Church shares across cultures, we are to show kindness and hospitality to the stranger and the sojourner, while also remaining loyal and submissive to our lawful governing authorities. Doing both is complicated and calls for judicial wisdom (I Cor. 6:1-4, Prov. 18:17). 

In wisdom and understanding be men...

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Name of Christ Once Given: A Review of Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ

All Christians who have been baptized,
who know the God of heaven.
And in whose daily life is prized
the name of Christ once given.
Consider now what God has done,
the gifts He gives to everyone
baptized into Christ Jesus!

--1st verse, "All Christians Who Have Been Baptized" by Paul Gerhardt, 17th century, Lutheran Service Book #596

One of my friends at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary lent me the book Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. The book is a collection of essays by several eminent Baptist theologians that explains and defends professor's-only baptism by immersion. I don't think it premature to say this may be the best book of its kind published in the last 40 years. I was greatly edified by it and commend it to everyone.

Of course, the intent of my friend was to gently convert me to baptist convictions. He did not succeed in this endeavor, but before I critique the book, I'd like to emphasize the extensive areas of agreement between the authors of this book and me, a quirky, Federal Vision-y, Reformed guy.

1) Baptism, though it does not work automatically (ex opere operato) does nonetheless "really exhibit and confer" objective benefits, and in the case of the Elect, saving benefits. Those baptized don't receive an empty rite, but are initiated into something, the body of Christ. In the New Testament, the act of repenting, believing and being baptized happen closely together, and so we can use baptism as a shorthand for representing the whole experience of Christian initiation. We can say "So-and-so was baptized" to represent "So-and-so repented of his sinful life, was drawn near to Jesus Christ, and has joined the church and actively seeks to become a new man in the visible community of saints."

2) Baptism is not precisely analogous to circumcision as a rite of initiation. Circumcision applied only to males, while baptism applies to both men and women (Gal. 3:28). Circumcision represented Israel's special status as God's nation of priests--circumcision marked one as a Jew. Circumcision, applied to the male organ of generation, was a sign of the "pure seed" Israelite men were supposed to raise up, the seed of the Messiah. The men of Israel were supposed to cut away their sinful flesh so as to be right vessels for God's use as He worked to redeem the world (Romans 11:7ff). 

One could be a God-fearer, a Gentile who went to synagogue, and yet not be circumcised. In other words, one could be a believer in Yahweh and not receive the rite of covenant initiation. Many disputes arose in the early church concerning whether the Gentile God-fearers who became Christians had to be circumcised. The apostles answered with a resounding "No!" Thus, we conclude that the covenant one was initiated into at circumcision was different in many respects than the covenant inaugurated by baptism. 

3) Throughout the New Testament, baptism is connected to repentance and faith. Thus, those who can be identified in the present as believers should be baptized and counted part of God's people. Those who, in the present, give no sign or evidence of being believers should not be baptized and counted part of God's people, as this results in an impure Church which causes God's name to be blasphemed.

4) The Church is the New Covenant community; it is the community of the redeemed. Elders and pastors should be careful and judicious in applying the sign of baptism. 

5) Immersion is the most ideal ritual picture of what happens in baptism (as Calvin believed). Since baptism is a ritual, and there's nothing magical about being immersed in the water, I can't claim that immersion is required, but I can say it's ideal. For the sake of peace with Baptist brethren, I think it's prudent for Presbyterians to baptize all adults and older children by immersion. It may even be a good idea to baptize infants by immersion also, though there are some health concerns with this, and in any event, Baptists would be unlikely to accept an infant baptism, even if the infant were immersed. Something to think about, I suppose.

I'm sure there are many more areas of agreement I could name, but I think that will do for this essay.

Two essays in the volume stood out for the valuable historical information they contain. One essay by Jonathan Rainbow traces the history of the Anabaptists in the 16th century (the precursors of modern Baptists, who insisted that baptism only be applied to adult, consciously professing Christians) and concludes that, in terms of the doctrine of baptism, Baptists are closer to Lutherans or even Roman Catholics (!) in their baptismal theology than Reformed people. That's because Lutherans and Catholics emphasize the presence of faith in the infants they baptize, and so Catholics and Lutherans properly connect baptism with faith. Rainbow's essay concludes by urging baptists to understand the different schools of thought among paedobaptists.

I won't comment on Rainbow's essay more here but wanted to note its presence in the book because of Rainbow's fairness and refreshing insights into an old debate.

Another interesting essay I wanted to highlight for special mention was A.B. Caneday's piece on the Stone-Campbell movement. Not only did I learn many things about Alexander Campbell I didn't previously know, but there seems to be real hope in this essay of reconciliation between Restoration Movement churches and more mainstream evangelical churches in the U.S. I pray God blesses this work as it goes forward.

Now I'll reluctantly move to some criticisms I have of the book.

One of the reasons why Protestants have a 500 year old debate on baptism is that those on both sides have defined crucial terms in ways that their opponents do not. They then proceed to use those terms in debate assuming that the other guy uses them exactly as they do. As a result, evangelical ships pass one another in the night on the waters of baptism. 

I saw a lot of that in this book. The authors did an excellent job of demonstrating that repentance, faith and baptism are connected. These are points on which all Christians would agree, and so I am puzzled as to why the authors felt these points needed to be emphasized as points of debate. The debate between believer's-only folk and paedobaptists is not so much about the nature of baptism as it is about the nature of Christian children

Embedded into this question of Christian children are a number of other key assumptions about:

1) the nature of the Church,
2) the question of apostasy, 
3) the relationship between the covenants, 
4) the nature and scope of Christ's redeeming work as it relates to Creation, 
5) attitudes toward society and government, 
6) the nature of repentance, and 
7) the nature of faith itself. 

Obviously, addressing all of these in any detail would require a whole new book. I'll try to take a look at one assumption is some detail. Repeatedly, a form of the following statement appears in the essays in the book: 

Faith and repentance are obviously prerequisites to baptism. Infants are incapable of repenting or believing. Therefore, there is no warrant to baptize infants.

Does Scripture speak this way? I offer the following passages for consideration: Psalm 8:2, 22:9-10, 139:1-16, Luke 1:41, Matt. 18:1-6, Matt. 19:13-15, II Tim. 3:15. 

I freely admit that my interpretation of these passages could be wrong. Infants who are not John the Baptist may in fact be incapable of being filled with the Holy Spirit (apart from which there is no faith). If this is so, however, why not engage with those passages to make the case? The authors don't make the case because they don't see that this matter is disputable...they merely assert that infants are obviously incapable of exercising faith and then proceed to make their arguments on baptism. In this way the authors of Believer's Baptism are following in a long tradition of not really understanding or engaging with what the other side believes.

I have written a piece on the child-like nature of saving faith, and others have written similar pieces. I don't want to rehash all of that here.

I agree with the authors of Believer's Baptism when they rightly point out that focusing only on the relationship between circumcision and baptism is flawed because circumcision and baptism are not alike in character, and the covenants they represented were not alike in character. A better case for the baptism of Christian children would also emphasize the truth that faith and baptism are connected in Scripture, and that infants are capable of having faith and being baptized. This case could be made while still keeping the valuable insights on baptism and covenant initiation that we can glean from studying circumcision.

I think the traditional Reformed tack of comparing circumcision and baptism is warranted insofar as the practice of circumcising infant males shows the importance of Federal theology in Scripture. As Jesus speaks for us before God as a Federal head, so the head of a Jewish household "spoke for" his infant sons and had them circumcised as a sign of the promise of Godly seed.

I continue to believe that the practice of paedobaptism is warranted by Scripture. I believe that to demonstrate this Reformed and Presbyterian folk need to focus more on the importance of faith in infants and small children. Some have written books on the subject of paedofaith. Without agreeing with everything written in such books, having some doctrine of infant faith or child faith is important in light of what Scripture teaches about the nature of man. Men are sinful from conception; every infant born is a cute little bundle of sin (Ps. 51:5, Rom. 5:12ff). 

Recognizing this truth, many evangelical baptist theologians have struggled with what to tell parents whose children die in infancy without verbally, consciously and intellectually professing faith in Jesus Christ. One typical answer has been that all infants dying in infancy are saved, and that God does not impute guilt to children until they reach an "age of accountability," a notion with very questionable support in Scripture, to put it charitably. Doug Wilson does a good job of dealing with this issue of "justification by youth alone."

If all children of men are sinners from conception because they are born in Adam, the federal head of the Old Humanity, and if the only way for them to be acceptable to God is through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, the federal head of the New Humanity, then repenting and having faith in Jesus Christ is what must happen for them to go to heaven. The fallen condition of all people is the same, and salvation likewise is the same for all people who get saved.

Children, by nature, trust their parents totally. Children, by nature, trust. Not until they get older do they learn to think critically, become self-conscious and seek to rebel against authority. Children will not always cooperate, but they will always, at the end of the day, trust their parents. A six month-old who can't walk or feed himself can hardly do otherwise. 

This dependent condition of trust is the type of faith Jesus wants His disciples to have in their heavenly Father. This is a faith that is purely passive, a picture of God's sovereign grace. 

If little children by nature trust their parents in everything, why wouldn't they trust what their parents tell them about God? Why would a little child accept uncritically all the other unchosen identities their parents impose upon them but not their parents' faith?

Christians parents have personal identities. They might be Americans who speak English and really like Italian food. In the natural order of things, the personal identities of the parents will be imposed on their children, who will grow up as Americans, speaking English and developing a taste for Italian food at an early age. None of these things will be chosen or conscious, but all of those things are part of the children's identities. 

As Christians, which is more fundamental to our identities as human beings? Our love of Italian food? Our American citizenship? Our speaking English? Our citizenship in God's Kingdom? I think most Christians would say our identity as a Christian, as a child of our heavenly Father, is the most fundamental part of who we are. We are new people. We are the Church. 

If it is acceptable to us that our children should have "English-speaker" or "American" imposed on them, why not the identity of "Christian"? Is the Church somehow less fundamental, less real, less reality-shaping than earthly governments or languages? The Church is less a voluntary club like the Rotarians than it is a society or kingdom. In the Church, in the redemption of men, God is shaping a New Humanity and a New World which encompasses all Creation and will leave no stone un-turned and no part of life unclaimed by Christ's Lordship. Societies, by definition, include all classes and ages and estates of men. If this were not so, why was it necessary for our Lord to take the form of a zygote, then an embryo and then a newborn?

Parenthood, family life, family nurture, family relations, child/parent relations--these are all part of God's good Creation, and they are all being redeemed in God's New Age as it progresses in history. Jesus wishes to exercise His Dominion over all of it. This Dominion is the basis for all of the promises and imperatives given in the Bible about raising up children in the Lord, and claiming the promises of God for our children. 

Baptists and paedobaptists both baptize on the basis of evidence. Does the baptismal candidate evidence faith? Is he one of ours? Can we expect, based on his current status and trajectory, that he will continue in the faith with us? The Bible teaches that being born to faithful Christian parents is an evidence that a person is a Christian, that such a person has a simple trust in God like the simple trust he places in his parents. 

Sadly, we know that this assumption is often untrue, and the evidence bears itself out over time. The child will grow up and leave the faith of his parents, leaving the fold he was never part of to begin with (I John 2:19). Nonetheless, we baptize on the basis of the evidence we have at the time of baptism, not by peering into the inscrutable decrees of God. 

The Bible teaches that the ordinary course of things in a redeemed covenant community is for children to grow up in covenant households never remembering a time when they did not trust in God (Psalm 22:9-10, II Timothy 3:15). The tracks of family nurture (becoming a grown person) are supposed to blend in and mesh with the tracks of Godly nurture (becoming a grown Christian) (Deut. 6:7-9, Eph. 6:1-4). This approach to the family is quite biblical and all over the Old and New Testaments. This approach also affirms the goodness of Creation and our vocations in it, as opposed to an overly spiritual approach to Creation and vocation which tends to be suspicious of things like marriage, children, prosperity, food, sex and music (I Timothy 4:1-5).

Some might say that the vision I have sketched is far too fanciful and unrealistic. It may well be, but we don't do what we do because it makes perfect sense to us; we do it because God commands us to do it. God claims the children of believers, and commands parents to rear their children in the Lord. We are to obey and trust God in this, not become overly scrupulous about our children's status before Him.

One of the sad mistakes Reformed paedobaptists often make (and which I think Dr. Wellum rightly responds to in the book) is to assume that Baptists don't value their children or believe in nurturing them in the Lord. Indeed, my experience and the experience of many others is that few today do as good a job as Baptists do in raising Christian children (part of that is the overwhelming majority of authentic Christians in America today are Baptists, and conservative Bible-believing paedobaptists are a minority). In fact, more and more Baptists are baptizing younger and younger children. This is a good sign that we really are headed toward practical unity on these questions!

All good Baptist parents treat their children as Christian children. They initiate them and "culture" them into a Christian identity in the Church. They take their children to church, read the Bible to them, discipline them by biblical standards (implicitly teaching them that only God sets right and wrong), pray with them and so forth. They do these things largely without thinking, just as they teach their children to speak English, be good Americans, enjoy eating certain foods or wear certain clothes, etc. 

Good Baptist parents are therefore inconsistent in their approach to raising their children. They treat their children as Christians practically while denying theoretically and theologically that they are Christians. As far it goes, it's a good thing! It is far better than being presumptuous about their children by assuming they are Christians without nurturing them in the faith!

Good paedobaptist parents are consistent in their approach to raising their children. They treat their children as Christians and also affirm theologically that they are Christians (in other words, they affirm the obvious). 

One approach to parenting will result in a lot of cognitive dissonance. Parents will tend to doubt professions of faith from their children and may unwittingly encourage morbid introspection among their children. The other more biblical approach will result in a slow but steady progression in faith and maturity as children grow up, allowing for various conversion experiences and eureka! moments as a child moves from faith to faith, from life stage to life stage. I have been a Christian for many years. I was a covenant child, but thank God my faith is not the same now as it was 5 years ago!

I believe that the philosophy of Rene Descartes lurks in many American evangelical minds on this issue of children, faith and covenant. Descrates famously said that the ability to doubt oneself was proof of one's existence. I think therefore I am. Cogito ergo sum. If I cannot doubt, then I must not really exist as a full person. If a child cannot doubt himself and have a cataclysmic experience of some sort leading to repentance and faith in Christ, then he cannot really be a Christian. I don't want to completely throw Descartes off the bus (since my knowledge of him and his contributions to philosophy are almost nil), but I think this Cartesian paradigm for personal identity and self knowledge is deeply wrong and unbiblical. 

A more biblical approach to personal identity is that offered by another philosopher, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, who said "Others speak to me, and I change and respond.

When God wants to do something, God speaks it into existence. This is how God made the world. When God wanted to give Jacob or Abram a new identity and a new mission, He gave them new names. The shape of what those names meant slowly became clear to those men over time, and in the lifetimes of their descendants. The biblical pattern is: God speaks, God acts, and we receive and respond. Jesus is the Husband, the initiator and pursuer, and we the Church are the Bride; we respond to Him and glorify Him. Jesus likewise has the authority to name us (Rev. 2:17). 

Before we learn to speak, we are spoken to. We grow on what we are first given, and then learn to speak ourselves. This is the pattern of life on Earth, and this pattern is meant to cause us to think of God and His ways. 

It is perfectly appropriate and biblical to name a child a Christian before he has a chance to speak for himself or doubt himself. In time, a covenant child properly raised in the Lord will see his baptism as a great mercy and act of unmerited favor from God. This is, after all, how God deals with all of us. Before we wanted God, God wanted us. Before we named Him Lord, He named us as His possession. This is why, historically, Reformed soteriology and covenant baptism have gone together, while Arminianism and professor's baptism have gone together (the Anabaptists generally didn't care for sovereign grace or predestination). While there have always been Reformed Baptists, they have tended to be a minority in their tribe. Most Southern Baptists are suspicious of the Calvinists in their midst, thinking that something about Calvinism doesn't really jive with a Baptist approach to theology. Think about it.

Anyway, enough digression, back to the book! Believer's Baptism is an excellent work and advances the conversation on baptism a few inches, but it also exhibits many of the flaws and thoughtless assumptions that tend to crowd into baptismal debates. Nonetheless, I look forward to unity and peace within Christ's Church as we advance into the Millennium, a unity and peace that I believe will (in time) cause us to reconcile our differing theologies of baptism.

For those interested in further discussion of these matters, my pastor, Bill Smith, has written a brilliant response to Dr. Steven Wellum's essay in the book Believer's Baptism. I commend it to all interested parties. He goes into far more detail than I do on the relevant issues.

I also recommend this essay by Pastor Ralph Smith, a missionary pastor in Japan, on covenant children, with a humble appeal to Baptists and Reformed Christians alike to treat their children as covenant children, accepting their small, mustard-seed faith.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Following Suit, or In Praise of Petticoat Government

I recently saw this snarky but fundamentally flawed satire concerning "modesty" and was asked by my friend Tim Dukeman to comment on it, as he also did. The basic point of this article (written by "L.P.") was that if women who wear form-fitting yoga pants are told by ministers not to wear them so as to not cause men to lust after them, then men should be similarly shamed for wearing suits, since some women may lust after men who wear suits. So here goes my response.

That the author of the satire would compare male and female  sexuality (and by extension, temptation to lust) as essentially 1 to 1 implies that she views masculinity/femininity as incidental to our  identities as persons, a pliable continuum called "gender" rather than a fixed pair of opposites called "sex."

This is a faulty view because Scripture declares that "male and female created He them" (Genesis 1:27) -- hence, sex is a created, essential difference between persons. Males express sexuality as males; females as females. To take male sexual temptation (which mostly happens through the eye into the mind) and project it onto female sexual temptation (which is more emotional and relational-based and often ignited by touch or "intimacy") is sloppy and transparently false (which means only those with college degrees will buy it). 

Similarly, men dress as men. Women dress as women. Woman is the glory of man--women's dress is glory dress. It is weighty, like a crown. It adorns. It completes. It refines. It civilizes.

Men are initiators and builders. Women then "glorify" what men begin. A man provide the seed for children, but a woman brings the child to completion. A father provides for the family, but a mother makes the home. He builds the house; she decorates. Christ the Husband planted the seed of the Gospel by dying on the Cross for our sins; the Church "glorifies" this by completing Christ's Gospel dominion and discipling the Nations. God shows us how He works by metaphor, and He peppers Scripture with these metaphors.

Some additional thoughts on dress--since that is what the original satire was about--Chesterton wrote (in What's Wrong With the World) that women are an essential civilizing influence, ruling over household and children, teaching children everything about life. He connects civilization-work to clothing--he writes that women wear dresses because their mission is to civilize; skirts are a symbol of dignity.

"It is quite certain that the skirt means female dignity, not female submission; it can be proved by the simplest of all tests. No ruler would deliberately dress up in the recognized fetters of a slave; no judge would appear covered with broad arrows. But when men wish to be safely impressive, as judges, priests or kings, they do wear skirts, the long, trailing robes of female dignity The whole world is under petticoat government; for even men wear petticoats when they wish to govern." -- G.K. Chesterton, What's Wrong With the World, Part Three, Chap. V

To conclude, suits for men are formal attire. Suits and ties suggest power, importance, wealth, sophistication and urbanity. The proper analogue of suits for men would not be yoga pants (as the satire implies) but dresses. A well worn dress conceals but it also accentuates beauty: it can even take a few pounds off. A dress is subtle but dignified. It is civilized and powerful, as Chesterton says. 

So perhaps we can make a compromise with the author of the satire: men will wear modest, well fitting suits which cover our bodies appropriately (not hard to do in a suit) and women should wear similarly well fitting modest and body part-concealing dresses. Deal?

(I forgot. Feminists can't deal. It's patriarchal rape slut shaming trigger language don't ya know. Guess I won't invite 'em over for euchre and a few girly beers.)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Faith Like a Child's

The passages in Matthew 18 and 19 about Jesus welcoming the little children, or about Jesus saying that one had to become as a little child to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, are often used to support the practice of baptizing the children of Christians. This is controversial and disputed, and unfortunately these passages are often devalued because they are perceived as weapons of some "side" in a baptismal debate.

More broadly, it seems to me that these passages are not primarily about baptism, since there is no water in them, but are about the nature of faith and the Church. Luther was right. We really are saved by faith alone. The "faith" we speak of is not an intellectual assent to propositions about Jesus, or a level of theological sophistication or understanding. Faith is simple trust, the trust of a child. It comes from one who has been "re-oriented" (given repentance, metanoia, which means "re-orienting") toward God.

Dr. Van Til was right. There is no neutrality anywhere. A person either likes God or he doesn't. He is either oriented toward God or he isn't. Orientation toward God means that while we trust, we bring our foibles and snotty attitudes and personalities with us--just as a child does. All who begin the Christian life begin as stumbling, bumbling infants--all baptisms are infant baptisms.

If the simple faith of a child is acceptable to our Lord, it seems to me that the simple faith of Christian adults with screwed up theology is also acceptable to the Lord. Charismatics who cast demons out of refrigerators and speak in tongues for a good parking spot, Catholic nuns who love Jesus and unborn children while praying the Rosary and worshiping Eucharistic elements, raging Methodists who believe in spiritual perfection, crabby Presbyterians who don't believe in friendship or evangelism, Orthodox Arabs who kiss icons, Anabaptists who leave their doors unlocked because of the Sermon the Mount, angry and arrogant young men who want to win souls for Jesus without bothering with all this "church stuff", Arminians who get re-saved every 6 weeks--Jesus accepts all of these people, if they come to Him with the faith of a child. Hangups and all. They are welcome at His table at His Church.

Paul exhorts the Corinthians to "discern the body" of Christ at the Lord's Supper (I Corinthians 11:29). Discerning the body is not discerning some transubstantial "Jesus juice" in the bread and wine, but recognizing who God's people are. Jesus' exhortation to receive the children and their child-like faith is similarly an exhortation to "discern" His body, the Church. Who are we? The Church is the people of God.

We discern them by their simple, child-like obedient faith in Jesus. This faith works itself out in love. Christians who disagree vehemently on doctrinal issues should be able to recognize each other as Christians by their love.

None of this means we regard doctrine and practice as unimportant. The faith we share as fellow Christians should motivate us to correct our brothers' serious errors with firmness and clarity. Roman Catholics should be rebuked for their trust in superstitions rather than Jesus Christ. Charismatics should be rebuked for similar reasons. Christians who don't read their Bibles should be told to read them. Christians who waver on God's Creation Order for our sexuality should be told the Good News, the full counsel of God. 

Christians in churches full of false teaching should be urged to reform these churches as they are able, and if those churches reject those reforms, they should be welcomed into churches who are open to those reforms (I call this good, down-home ecumenical sheep-stealing). Our rebukes should come from our love for our people because they are our people, not complete pagans because they don't affirm the Five Points of Calvinism, for instance.

Doing this on the ground is never easy. Some erstwhile sons of the Church are also erstwhile sons of the Devil who should be treated as such, and the Bible gives us guidance for this. Others, however, are deeply in error, but are true believers who need faithful shepherding. This is what pastoral care and wisdom is for. The Church is the Mother of all the faithful; she's there to keep us in line and keep our noses clean (Galatians 4:26). Pastoral care can be motherly, but it can also take the form of calling an erring brother "Satan" (Matt. 16:23). Welcome to the real world. It's a strange place out there. He who has an ear to hear, let him hear.

In brief, the children passages of Matthew 18 and 19 are about faith, the Church and catholicity. From these passages we are to regard faith as simple trust, and open wide the Church to those with this faith. Other parts of Scripture are given for us to properly train, disciple, sharply rebuke and correct these bumbling children with all their hangups, idol-worshiping and foolishness. Jesus accepts them as His own, and covers their sins with His propitiatory blood. He gives us the charge to properly train them. 

Of course, this does have implications for our doctrine of baptism, but it must be noted that deciding the doctrine of baptism is not the primary point of those passages.

Lord, have mercy.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Justification Through Superstition

Upon hearing news of the Vatican hosting a Muslim prayer service for the first time, my brain got churning on the state of Roman Catholicism today, especially as it relates to the Protestant church. I suppose these things are on my mind because of recent conversations involving Peter Leithart and friends.

It is often asserted that the main thing that divides Roman Catholics from Protestants is the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Catholics believe in salvation by works, or "by faith working through love," while Protestants insist on a rigid "forensic" justification that emphasizes faith as opposed to works. Protestants are about grace; Catholics are about doing good. Protestants like the epistles of Paul; Catholics like the Gospels. If only we could solve this hang-up, some say, we could work toward being one Church again.

The problem with this common analysis is that it doesn't do justice to what really drove the original Reformation in the first place. It is true that Martin Luther, reacting against the excesses of his medieval context and time spent in the monastery, tended to be suspicious of God's Law, and created a theology that put Law and Gospel at opposite poles. Even in his own lifetime, he witnessed what happened when people took his teachings too far, and he began to emphasize more-so the importance of obedience.

Leaving Luther's unique issues aside, all Protestants, and all Protestant confessions, affirm the necessity of good works. The Reformed church in particular has a long history of studying, applying and honoring the Law of God. Protestants have always preached obedience, because Protestants, from the beginning, have striven to be catholic. The Reformation was the true heir of the previous 1500 years of Catholic Christianity in the West.

The divide between Rome and the Protestant church is not one of faith vs. works, or grace vs. law. The medieval Church was known for many things, but an undue concern for personal holiness and obedience to God's Law was not one of them. Instead, Rome focused on the appearance of holiness. Men like Tetzel quite literally sold holiness for money. 

In that sense the justification Rome offered to the peasantry through fasts, pilgrimages, the cult of relics, monastic life, prayers to saints, the veneration of icons and images, etc., was wholly by grace apart from works. The trouble with it was that the "grace" was a counterfeit grace which made sense only in the screwed up medieval system. It had, as someone once said, the appearance of godliness while denying the power thereof. The grace of a pilgrimage to touch a piece of the True Cross soothed the guilty conscience without dealing the sinful heart, telling the sinner "Peace, peace" where there was no peace.

When one looks across at the countries and cultures where Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy predominate, does one see an over-abundance of personal holiness and good works? Hardly. No discipline exists in either of these churches. Politicians who support abortion, mafia dons, wicked royals and the hooligans at the local Irish tavern all freely receive the Sacred Body and Blood of Christ with little to no censure nor calls to repentance. 

Roman Catholics, by and large, don't teach justification by good works, but justification by superstition. The Protestant milieu of America and Britain tones this down so that the average visitor to Mass in the U.S. thinks that Roman Christians are like Episcopalians with a Pope. In Latin America and other places where Catholicism is and has been the dominant religion for centuries, the real fruit comes out in the lives of the ordinary people, and it ain't pretty.

Consider for example the devotion to saints. If you've committed some sin this week, the Roman solution, if you are a peasant in Guatemala in 2014 or a German farmer in Wittenberg in 1516, is to light a votive candle in front of the saint's icon at a specially designated altar at a church somewhere. Maybe you get a holy card of this saint and have it blessed. If you pray the designated prayer on the back, maybe you get a few years off in purgatory, or earn yourself a few nickels from the Treasury of Merit.

Do such practices actually fix the sinning Christian's problem? Do they lead him to growth in knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ? Do they lead him further into God's New Age (i.e., The Regeneration)? No. They do precisely the opposite.

These semi-pagan practices lead the humble peasant backwards, away from Christ and into trusting in incantations, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords, and the like. Granted, it may be a little better than worshipping a tree or offering your child to Molech, but it certainly isn't what the Millennium should look like.

No wonder God threatens such serious punishments, down to the third and fourth generation, on those who worship images. The worship of images is the key sign, the "sacrament" if you will, of justification through superstition. 

Sincere Christians throughout the ages have gone to their graves without articulating clearly the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Many Protestants even today would struggle with this doctrine. Thanks to the Protestant culture they grew up with, and the attendant liturgical practices of that culture (I'm thinking mainly of America and other majority Protestant nations), the notion of worshiping an image or of gazing on the pickled vocal chords of a dead saint seems incredible to us. Our liturgy, our unspoken assumptions of what worship and piety should be, keeps us on the straight and narrow, in spite of our poor grasp of doctrine.

Most Christians have neither read nor thought about the anathemas against key Protestant doctrines at the Council of Trent. They have not pored over theological volumes to discern the differences between Catholics and Protestants on the doctrine of justification. Not all Christians are theologians. All Christians do have a liturgy. They do have worship patterns that they follow, that seem natural to them. Liturgy has to come from somewhere, and so I would argue that the most profound differences between Rome and Protestantism are to be found in our differing liturgies. There is a Catholic culture and a Protestant culture and they are miles apart.

Our aforementioned peasant, if he does not understand the doctrine of justification by faith alone, is led only to further error by the liturgical practices sanctioned by his church. He is not exhorted to holy living, only to fiddling with holy cards, images, worshiping the Eucharistic elements, prayer to saints and assorted superstition. This is just as it was during the Reformation, and it is this that drew the Reformers' Protest. 

Thus, we conclude that the liturgical practices of the Roman church lead the faithful away from Christ. This is no light matter. An evangelical can become a Roman Catholic and retain a more or less correct idea of what justification is and what good works are, according to his particular interpretation of what Rome teaches vis a vis the Reformers. Regardless of his theological commitments, however, the worship practices he will engage in will inevitably lead him away from that theology in the day-to-day of life. He will not be taught the Bible in a serious way. He will be told instead to engage in various and sundry superstitions as a substitute for biblical religion and biblical good works.

Disaffected evangelicals who ponder going into Rome or Orthodoxy should be solemnly warned of these dangers. 

The anathemas of Trent, serious though they are, don't seem to me to be our primary problem, since for most people these are under the radar. Trent was a harsh reaction against the Reformation. Since the Reformation was a catholic movement, Trent should be viewed as the fevered pronouncements of schismatics and Donatists--in other words, it shouldn't be taken seriously on its merits, neither it nor the other councils that have come since. 

The liturgy and practice of the Roman church, however, present a more clear and present danger, for they reflect fully the flaws and soul-destroying errors of Rome. Included in this must be Rome's treatment of the Bible and how it is taught, or rather, how it is mostly untaught. Liturgy and practice are what your Roman neighbors and friends understand, and it is Roman liturgy and practice that attract some of your smart evangelical friends, who should know better, to Rome. 

Superstition has always been attractive to the heart of the sinful man, promising him comfort for little in return, a soothing balm to a crooked life. Biblical religion always insists on holy living evidenced by obedience through love and the patient persistence in well doing. The faith that justifies is an obedient faith.

What does this have to do with recent discussions? While it is comforting that many good and wise theologians within Rome seem to set the superstitious nonsense to the side, the fact remains that for most ordinary souls, the superstition gets the top billing. This must be frankly acknowledged by all who seek ecumenical partnership and understanding. Unless and until Rome repents of teaching justification through superstition, no mending of post-Reformation wounds is truly possible.

When the typical Roman Catholic parishioner is taught the same liturgy and worship that the typical evangelical Protestant is taught, unity will be nigh, and Reformational Catholicism may yet become a reality.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Tullian Tchividjian: Not a Heretic, but Still Wrong

Over the last few days, controversy has erupted over Pastor Tullian Tchividjian's dismissal from the Gospel Coalition web blog.

The purpose of this post is to briefly summarize my thoughts, primarily for the benefit of a private discussion between friends of mine. Here goes.

I listened to Tullian's interview with Chris Rosebrough and found three things worthy of note:

1) Tullian responded to Carl Trueman's questions for him and other "radical pro-grace" adherents such as Steve Brown, who guest wrote a piece for Pr. Tchividjian's blog expounding on the pointlessness of exhorting people to avoid sinning. See also here. Trueman asked point-blank what would one do in extreme cases like child abuse or wife-beating. Would the answer be more justification? Trueman concludes that "I do not believe that any of the critics [Tullian and his associates sic]...would actually do that."  Trueman took care to avoid accusing Tullian of seriously telling a child rapist to simply rest in his justification. He followed that up by asking that "if they would not do so, why not?" In other words, what consistent and logical rationale would they offer for not applying their rest-in-your-justification theology to a hypothetical pedophile? Where are the brakes on this theology?

Tullian's response was to accuse Trueman of slandering his position, accusing Tullian of saying things that Tullian is not saying. This claim is curious to me because...see above paragraph.

2) Tullian tried to deflect criticism from himself and his alleged anti-law, anti-nomian tendencies by pointing out that he has been willing to stand against Sovereign Grace Ministries and insist on their being held accountable for the sex scandal there. Therefore, because he insists on application of the moral law in this instance, Tullian cannot possibly be an antinomian. 

Again, this claim is curious because the men involved appear to be cooperating with the investigation and are stepping down from various posts. Even if Tullian's fears are correct and The Gospel Coalition were covering up the sins of their friend C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace, why would he wish to be associated with such an organization? Further, given his theology, what would be his advice to those accused in the matter? See Point 1) above.

3) Chris Rosebrough decided to play a sermon excerpt from Tullian in which, so Mr. Rosebrough promised listeners, Tullian would spend 30 minutes preaching "straight Law" with no Gospel anyplace. During this sermon excerpt, Tullian spends some time telling a personal story about his youth, how he dropped out of high school at 16, was kicked out of his house by his parents, and went to work in a surf shop owned by his brother. After his work days he would go to a pool hall where he became something of a pool shark and "hustler" who made good money off his hapless subjects. 

His next point was to accuse St. Paul of "hustling" his readers in Romans 1:18-2:11 by giving them the usual list of "Gentile sins" followed up by turning the argument around on his Jewish hearers by singling out "religious/chosen people" sins. We hear many warnings against "the sin of self-righteousness" and warnings against the sins of "the religious." These warnings become particularly pronounced after Paul's description of sodomy. Virtually no time is spent on this favorite sin of postmodern man--instead we continue to harp on the religious presumption of American evangelicals. 

This in and of itself is not grounds to accuse Tullian of antinomianism. It may be that his church is composed of mostly legalists. I doubt it, but on the basis of the evidence I have, I can draw no conclusions.

I move on to critique Tullian's use of Scripture in his sermon.

He reads Romans 2:5-8: "But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed." [Paul is accusing the Jews, those who have the law, of cynically ignoring it and storing up wrath for themselves. Presumption, in other words. Self righteousness.] 

Paul continues at verse 6, "He will render to each one according to his works, to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 

"There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality."

Mr. Tchividjian preaches this passage (with Mr. Rosebrough concurring) as "Law." There is no Gospel in the verses I have just quoted. I recall a verse in Revelation about the good works of the departed saints "following" them (Rev. 14:13). I recall further the exhortations of Christ to the seven churches at the beginning of Revelation. 

It would appear from the literary structure of the passage quoted above that St. Paul is contrasting two things: presumption among believers, among covenant members, which leads to apostasy, and faithful covenant membership. God will give to each one according to his deeds, a theme that appears more than once in the New Testament, and certainly in Revelation. 

In light of the fact that we will be judged according to our deeds, it would seem that how we use the grace of our covenant membership, our "justification" in that sense, plays a role in showing whether we are really Elect with a capital "E". A man who uses his covenant membership as an excuse to go slack in his patient pursuit of well-doing, his pursuit of honor and glory and immortality, ("Those who do these things will live by them") appears to be in a worse state than when he started. He is the one who is "self seeking" and does not "obey the truth" but rather "obeys unrighteousness." 

I would conclude that, in the sense that real saving faith is an obedient faith, an active faith, a faith "working through love" (where did I get that?), there is Gospel in this passage. Those who continue patiently in well doing will inherit eternal life. Abraham not only believed, he did. He obeyed. He obeyed imperfectly of course, but he did obey.

I recommend that readers look up Norman Shepherd's writings on this subject.

Rather than bothering to understand and engage the nuances in this passage, Tullian writes this off as Paul condemning his hearers with "Law." Paul is merely preparing them to receive the Gospel. To get to the Gospel, Tullian skips ahead to Romans 8, ignoring the real content and context of his stated text. In many respects, this form of preaching the text is lazy...what happened between Romans 2:11 and Romans 8:4? What progression leads him there? We do not know. His hermeneutic of Law vs. Gospel appears to be driving his treatment of the text, not the content of the text itself. This is highly problematic.

Some readers I'm sure will accuse me, on the basis of the last few paragraphs, of promoting "Federal Vision" or N.T. Wrightianism, both of which have been the subject of vociferous attack within the Reformed community in recent years. Without rehashing that controversy, I will point out that there is a relation between the FV/NPP conversation and the Tullian/sanctification conversation. The conversation concerns how we are to understand the place of obedience in faith, the place of merit, the nature of saving faith and even our view of Scripture.

The burden of the Federal Vision, at its best, has been to recover a healthy view of obedience. Norman Shepherd has been popular in FV circles for just that reason. I would propose FV as part of the solution to Tullian's problems. 

At the risk of venting my own bitterness and envy, and thus violating the 10th commandment, I will say it is interesting to me that the errors of FV/NPP have been opposed with a full array of fury and intense study within the conservative Reformed denominations, while the errors of Tullian and company have been comparatively ignored or excused for many years, until now, with a private, undercover dismissal of the man in question. FV men have been openly tried, invited to debates and so forth. They have been examined and they have passed. Conversely, Tullian has been challenged to a debate, and has refused. He has chosen instead to accuse his presumptive debate opponent of slander rather than take his invitation seriously. Curious, that. 

One more thing: historically, the Reformed tradition has always had a healthy and high view of the Law of God and the importance of progressive sanctification with real fruit and real evidence. Thus, the position of Norman Shepherd, granting that he may be extreme in some ways, is closer to being "truly Reformed" than Tullian's position is. Why condemnation for Shepherd and corresponding softness for Tullian? Why no presbytery examinations? Why no investigations? Why no study reports?

I am optimistic that the situation will change as we go forward. And I hope that when all is said and done, some disagreements and debates we have had will have more clarity in the minds of many.

I don't think Tullian is so wrong that he should be kicked out. I advocate him being examined for his views by his fellow ministers in charity. I advocate public debates. I advocate kind words. It isn't time to excommunicate the man, just ask him some questions. At the end of the day, he may be Reformed but with a twist, and if we have room for Reformed Baptists and Reformed charismatics (C.J. Mahaney) why not Reformed Lutherans?

I think Tullian is wrong, but he's not a heretic. What do Steven, Tim, and other friends say?