Saturday, August 06, 2005

Ostrich Evangelicalism, Indeed

[the following blog post is by Jus Divinum]

I'm sorry if Philip Johnson thinks I've "savaged" him. I can't recall where I so much as directed my comments to Phil Johnson the person. I am subjecting his arguments to scrutiny, and what better compliment to a person than to take his ideas seriously enough to engage them?

What's remarkable about Philip Johnson's reply to my piece, "Neo-Pietism or Ostrich Evangelicalism," is that it focuses on the first substantial paragraph and largely ignores the rest. Sure, Phil says that it takes "a few spare hours" to read my stuff, but from the looks of it all that Phil could spare was a few minutes :-)

Johnson doesn't even make his criticism of that first paragraph relevant to what I actually said. I don't deny that Colson is the author of ECT (a document I deplore as much as Al Mohler; cf. the relevant section of the latter's "Standing Together, Standing Apart"). And I don't deny that Colson wants to forge ecumenical alliances for the sake of cultural change and political activism. I'm quite aware of what Colson has written and what his agenda is. However, what I said was, and I repeat:

"But if you read the Colson article to which Johnson is responding, Colson never once mentions the need for ecumenical political alliances. It's as if Johnson insists on finding one of his favorite bogeymen, even when it isn't there."

And nothing Johnson has subsequently written changes that assessment. My point was merely that it's "odd" to focus on something that isn't the subject of the article you're responding to. It's one thing to interpret an author's article in light of his broader intellectual commitments. It's quite another thing to, uh, ignore what was actually said in the article, and then go on to misrepresent its content. My reply was meant to expose these latter two shortcomings in Johnson's original reply.

Beyond that, it isn't clear to me where Johnson actually goes on to interact with the main arguments of my response to him. Indeed, you could delete out the paragraph to which he bothered to respond, and it wouldn't undermine the subsequent material. Indeed, if Johnson is so hot and bothered by Colson's ecumenical political activism, perhaps he could take the time to interact with my defense of it. And yes, I did offer a defense; perhaps another quick read-through might reveal to him the actual set of arguments for my notion that:

"For the purpose of political activism (as opposed to, say, for the purposes of church membership or gospel ministry), there is simply no need to appeal to evangelical distinctives in order to engage in this work with others."

Johnson's excellent definition and critique of hyper-Calvinism leads me to believe he accepts the notion of common grace. Since this concept figures centrally in both my and Colson's presentation, perhaps Johnson could find the time to at least mention it in his reply to me, instead of posturing that he doesn't really find an argument. It's plainly false that I've "never actually attempted a heartfelt defense of the pragmatic ecumenism that in fact does dominate the Religious Right." Do the distinctions "saving grace vs. common grace" and "Great Commission vs. cultural commission" ring a bell? I think I mentioned them a few times, to say the least. What Johnson calls "the Cliff's Notes version of Jus's argument" is not in fact my 'argument' at all.

Johnson says:

"One would have to be willfully obtuse or incredibly naive to argue with any degree of seriousness that Chuck Colson's plea for engaging the culture has nothing to do with the ecumenical strategy he has laid out in multiple books and documents over the past decade or so."

And if Johnson can point out where I actually said or implied the above, I would be extremely grateful. Not once in my response to him did I say that Colson's plea had "nothing to do with" Colson's ecumenical strategy. What I said is that Johnson spends the bulk of his time focusing on what Colson doesn't say, rather than interacting with what Colson does say, in the piece in question. And, lo and behold, when I take the time to spell out for Johnson Colson's actual argument in the piece to which Johnson is responding (saving grace vs. common grace; Great Commission vs. cultural commission), Johnson doesn't give that the time of day either!

So far, then, we've got a pattern: "My response to Colson? Ignore Colson's actual arguments in his piece. Check. My response to Jus Divinum? Ignore JD's actual arguments in his piece. Check."

No, Phil, I'm not "arguing for sport". I'm replying to what you actually wrote. Please give me the same courtesy. I know you can do it :-)

Johnson next startles me with the following claim:

"His argument, pretty consistently, is that he sees no necessary reason why ecumenism and pragmatism must go hand in hand with political activism."

This is pretty much as great a distortion of my position as there can be. The argument, as presented in the piece to which Johnson is purportedly responding, had something to do with the saving grace/common grace and Great Commission/cultural commission distinctions. BTW, this was Colson's argument in the piece to which Johnson was purportedly responding as well. What is so difficult about identifying and interacting with the actual argument of the pieces you're responding to?!

Johnson says: "the evangelical political right has historically -- not just theoretically -- fostered an ecumenical drift." And, as far as I can tell, the preceding really is the only argument Johnson bothers to muster on his own behalf. I must say it's not a very strong one. Historically, just about every seminary in history has gone liberal over time. I take it that Johnson isn't pleading with John MacArthur Jr. to close down The Master's Seminary any time soon. But, again, that's the problem with pragmatist arguments that are ironically offered against the alleged pragmatism of one's detractors. ("Do what works! History tells us what works and what doesn't!") However, if Johnson wants to read Christian duty off of the pages of history, rather than in principled fashion from the norms of Scripture to which I and Colson were explicitly appealing, there's not much more I can say to get the dialogue moving along in a profitable fashion.

Johnson says that all my "other niggling arguments have no real traction." These must be the arguments he hasn't bothered interacting with :-) Johnson ridicules my comparison of "politics to dentistry," and even links to it. Too bad he didn't bother to point out the alleged principled distinction between the two. You know, the principled distinction which informs us why the latter social good can be pursued via Christian/non-Christian alliances, but not the former. To date, he has offered none, but has instead taken the route of stamping his feet in dismay.

Note the following exchange at the link which Johnson provides. Johnson says:

"1. "Christian mechanics working with non-Christian mechanics" don't call it "ministry" and aggressively raise money from evangelical donors to support it. More importantly, they don't try to make the case that it is every Christian's duty to support their work financially and make car-mechanic work one of our own personal priorities."

And I replied:

"However, I think this is a judgment call, and I won't insist on it. After all, Paul calls the state the minister of God. Would you have a problem with calling government officials ministers of God, in some significant sense? Hmm, how did Tony Blair get his title anyway? ;-)

Beyond this, you've noted several other differences between ECB and the examples of legitimate social cooperation I noted. I concede these differences. What, exactly, is their significance? In particular, how do they show that ECB is illegitimate while these other activities are not?

All that to say, it doesn't look like your pt. 1 above has forwarded your argument in any significant respect."

To date, Johnson hasn't offered up anything by way of response. Well, sure, you can call basic observations like the above "niggling" if you want, but that won't go any way towards furthering actual dialogue! If Johnson doesn't have the time to interact with substantive rebuttals, he should just say so.

Johnson says that I have:

"now devoted eight pages to a desperate attempt at obfuscating what is really a simple, straightforward, rather obvious point: Chuck Colson strategy for political activism has ecumenism at its heart."

I have no doubt that "Chuck Colson's strategy for political activism has ecumenism at its heart". Did I ever deny this? My point is that that observation has little to do with the arguments Colson presented in the piece in question. There's little more I can do here; you just have to read Colson's article yourself. And now, when Johnson is presented with Colson's actual arguments in the piece, he chooses to ignore them again. What more can I do, really?

I note that this present reply, as well as the one which preceded it, involves extended commentary on what Johnson actually says, offering specific rebuttal to specific points, cited in full. By way of contrast, Johnson's reply doesn't even bother to cite a single sentence of what I wrote. Who is actually keeping their eye on the ball, and who is persisting in reading his own agenda into every piece he reads?

Allow me to cite three paragraphs from the piece to which Johnson is responding. Judging by his reply, which interacts with, what?, 5% of what I wrote?, you couldn't well imagine that I had given any arguments for my position. Well, think again:

This is of course all true, but why does Johnson think it is relevant against Colson? Apparently, Johnson thinks that "the very essence of the gospel message" sets the boundaries for any and all cooperative endeavor participated in by Christians. If your partners don't believe the gospel, then the cooperative endeavor compromises the gospel. Now, I think belief in the gospel sets the boundaries for some cooperative endeavors engaged in by Christians, and very important ones at that (again, church membership, or gospel ministry, come to mind). But for all cooperative endeavor in society whatsoever? Sorry, but Johnson's going to have to argue for that one. He can't expect reasonably reflective Christians to buy into his socially-restrictive rules on his say-so...

Here Colson makes a distinction between the Great Commission and the cultural commission, which in turn depends on the distinction between being agents of God's saving grace and being agents of his common grace. When I join with non-Christians at the scene of a car accident, helping to revive one of the victims, I am not an agent of God's saving grace (unless we want to hold to justification by CPR). I am an agent of God's common grace, being extended to the victim (and so is the non-Christian with whom I am cooperating). Now, our efforts are fallible. They may fail, despite the time and energy we put into them. They don't bring about spiritual or eternally enduring goods. In the great scheme of things, saving a single life probably won't immediately effect a spiritual transformation of the entire culture. But, presumably, the common-grace efforts in question are not to be despised on any of these grounds.

Johnson's confusion continues. He asks, immediately after the above: "But if the very notion of 'saving faith' must now be relegated to questionable or secondary status in order to keep peace in the religious right, how does that not 'interfere with fulfilling the Great Commission'?" The answer should be obvious: it does not interfere with the Great Commission because the Great Commission is not the cultural commission. Saving grace is not common grace. The church is not the state. And since pursuing political activism isn't being advertised as a fulfillment of the Great Commission, then obviously it doesn't interfere with it. Indeed, lots of Christians do lots of things every day that can't remotely be considered a fulfillment of the Great Commission, but no one would suggest that, in principle, such activities 'interfere' with fulfilling the Great Commission. Notice that Colson never says that the cultural commission replaces the Great Commission. On the contrary, he is careful to say that "The Lord's cultural commission is, I believe, inseparable from the Great Commission," for as Christians are converted they enter into both commissions.

Yes, this is a defense of ecumenical activism (political or otherwise, mind you), where 'ecumenical' simply means that there is no need to agree on the gospel in order to join in the cooperative endeavor. Does Johnson have anything to say in reply to this? Or will he keep sticking his head in the sand, polemically speaking, and refuse to acknowledge what's right there on the screen in front of him? Ostrich evangelicalism, indeed.

In closing, I find it ironic that Johnson (and Steve Camp, for that matter) are the folks who castigate ECBers for not offering a biblical justification for their activism. When, however, Colson does just that, with an appeal to the cultural mandate, and draws the very distinctions which the critics accuse them of failing to draw, he (and his expositers) get this perfunctory brush-off from Johnson.

These are the folks who moan and complain about dumbing-down the gospel and entertainment-oriented worship. But then they make snide remarks about the length of my writing and that of Steve Hays. I'm tempted to conclude, "So, I guess the intellectual affectations are just that -- affectations. It's just for show, for public consumption, to make themselves look good. They don't really believe it. When it comes to serious Bible scholarship and intellectual discourse, they treat that as a big joke. Popcorn piety and drive-thru-sanctity." But I will resist temptation.


  1. Just a few corrections:

    I said: "a document I deplore as much as Al Mohler". Not that there's any doubt, but what I meant was: "a document I deplore as much as Al Mohler does. I don't deplore Al Mohler :-)

    I also left out a bit of text just before a paragraph I cited from one of my earlier comments at Triablogue. The first bit should have read:

    First, let me agree with you that ECBers should stop calling their work 'ministry'. It would probably make many people think that the work of ECB is some form of gospel ministry, which is misleading.

    However, I think this is a judgment call, and I won't insist on it...

    ...and then the quote continues as in the original post. Sorry about that.

  2. Jus,

    I didn't "ignore what [Colson] actually said in [his] article," or what you said in yours. I said (with regard to the question of what constitutes legitimate priorities for the church), "[I] think it's a bit of a stretch to find a 'cultural mandate' for political activism in Genesis 1:28" I likewise have said repeatedly that I don't buy your contention that there's any inherent warrant in "common grace" for the church to redeem "the culture." Perhaps I didn't spend as many words denying your assertions as you did making them, but, frankly, I don't see you giving any reasoned biblical rationale for connecting common grace with a "cultural mandate" for the church; only repeated assertions.

    On the other hand, you constantly miss the point I am making. I have never argued that Christians have no business being involved in politics or government or the army or the police force. I think it's fine and commendable for individual Christians to pursue any vocation that is not inherently sinful. (It is not and never has been my contention that interest or involvement in politics is sinful.) Thus your whole dentistry argument is far wide of the point I am making.

    I'm simply saying that organizing a lobby for better dentistry is not the business of the church. Waging military campaigns against unjust nations is not the business of the church. Yet I agree completely that dentists and soldiers in just wars are ministers of God for good in the same sense magistrates and policemen are, according to Romans 13. But that's simply not the kind of "ministry" that ought to consume the energies of the church as a body. (BTW, Jesus' prescription for how the church should influence culture is spelled out pretty clearly in Matthew 20:25-28--and that applies even to Christians who do pursue a vocation in government or politics.)

    In other words, I didn't refute your assertions line by line because I don't have to. Insofar as you argue that government and politics are legitimate realms in which Christians can and should function as salt and light, I already quite agree. Where you claim this constitutes a "mandate" for the whole church, I think that's an illegitimate stretch, and I have said so.

    I also said at the outset that if you want to argue the case for theonomy, I'm not interested. If you are going to try to make a biblical case for political activism a corporate priority for the church or the bounden duty of every Christian, you're going to have to give me an explicit biblical command, an example from the apostolic church, or a coherent argument that doesn't presuppose a theonomic worldview. You have in essence acknowledged that you cannot do this.

    To chide me as a pietist and anti-intellectual because I won't come to this argument with your presuppositions is unsportsmanlike conduct (and I suspect you know that in your heart). Furthermore, the suggestion that one's willingness to match the length and word-count of Triablogue-style posts is the real gauge of true intellectual honesty is a line of argument you might wake up and be ashamed of one day soon.

    The PyroManiac

  3. Hi Phil,

    You continue to impute to me positions I don't hold, haven't advocated, and in fact have explicitly eschewed. Why you continue to do this is a mystery to me.

    Let's see what the following assertions by you have in common.

    According to you, I believe there is "a "cultural mandate" for the church".

    According to you, I claim that "organizing a lobby for [political purposes] is... the business of the church."

    According to you, I claim that political activism is a "kind of "ministry" that ought to consume the energies of the church as a body."

    According to you, I argue that "government and politics... constitutes a "mandate" for the whole church."

    If you could actually find material in my posts and comments where I actually argue any of the above, I would be grateful. Barring that, I rest my case. For the third time straight, you can't manage to deal with what your detractors actually say.

    You repeatedly connect my position with some obligation that allegedly pertains to the mission of "the church" or "the whole church". Surely the fact that I am drawing explicit analogies to things like dentristry and car mechanics, should give the lie to the notion that I think political activism is the obligation of every Christian as a member of the church. None of these things are. That's not the point. I even went so far as to ask why these coalitions "need to be identified as distinctively Christian in the first place?" The mission of the church is the Great Commission. But that does not exhaust the obligations that rest upon humanity in general, nor does it preclude the liberty of Christians to enter into those other general obligations according to their individual gifts and callings.

    There is one point where you actually manage to get my position right, and here I am glad we agree: "Insofar as you argue that government and politics are legitimate realms in which Christians can and should function as salt and light, I already quite agree." That's great. Unfortunately, you persist in arguing that partnering with non-Christians in this endeavor is somehow inconsistent with or undermines sola fide. Let me know when you want to interact with my body of argument that this position is a total fallacy. Oh, and when you want to do more than dismiss the references to Ge 1:28, let me know as well. I've done a bit more than merely cite the text, you know. So has Colson.

  4. If you don't mind my asking, and I ask mostly out of curiousity (although it would be relevant to the current topic), in your eschatology are Steve and yourself both postmillennialist? Thanks.

  5. Patrick,

    I'm a default amil with a soft spot for postmillennialism.

  6. Steve Hays wrote:

    I'm a default amil with a soft spot for postmillennialism.

    Ditto. And as (I think), with Mr. Hays, premillennialism isn't really a live option for me.

    Keep in mind that, at least for myself, I don't see eschatology as the least bit relevant to the ECB dispute. I'd also like to point out that Mr. Johnson's reference to 'theonomy' above is gratuitous. As I've already pointed out more than once, I don't need anything close to theonomy to make my case.

  7. In case anybody is wondering, I often respond to Phil's comments separate blog posts. I responded to some of the ones above, here: