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.

Is sola scriptura for hypocrites?

Over on the Crowhill discussion, board, Jonathan Prejean is charging that sola scriptura, or the argument for sola scriptura--I'm not exactly sure which-- amounts to a hypocritical double-standard:


You are essentially arguing that if a doctrine claims a historical event (like the Assumption or the Immaculate Conception), it must pass a historical test. The problem is that you've left yourself your own loophole; you believe things in Scripture whether or not you can verify them. Well, why's that? Because you assume sola scriptura, which does not change the fact that Scripture breaks your own criteria for verifiability.

I, on the other hand, have to be consistent about the standards by which I accept divine testimony without proof, and therefore, if I believe Scripture without historical testimony, then I must believe anything else that consistency would demand me to accept. The reasons that I accept the authority of Scripture are the same reasons that I accept the testimony of Tradition on a particular subject.

The point is that Catholics do not consider the evidential argument that Protestants give for the infallibility of Scripture sufficient to warrant belief in Christianity. From our perspective, you have presented an evidentially "unverifiable" argument for sola scriptura (because the facts of apostolic authorship, textual accuracy, etc., etc., aren't logically sufficient to justify sola scriptura on an evidential basis), so every argument you make based on sola scriptura is a fortiori unwarranted. And since you have to accept the uncorroborated testimony of Scripture for some historical events without sufficient basis, you are defeated by your own critique.

Not the point. Your opinion that these things are "ahistorical accretions" that make Catholicism a "legalistic, ritualistic mish-mosh" has nothing logical to do with the reasons that you provided. If you really believed the logical reasons you provided for "not Catholic," then you would subject your Protestantism to the sam standards of historical verifiability, and you would also be "not Protestant." The real reason that you make the choice is your feelings, your opinions, your intuition, which you are trying to rationalize by these "logical" criteria. The point is that there is no reason for your conversion in the logical sense, any more than there is a reason for one preferring chocolate to vanilla.

But you've just invalidated every argument from any uncorroborated account of Scripture. As I suggested to the Pedantic Protestant, apostolic authorship and textual accuracy are not in and of themselves logically sufficient to support the inerrancy of Scripture. You have to also add a series of philosophical assumptions about God, how He reveals Himself, and what the purpose of Scripture is to reach inerrancy. So while you say you are adhering to this standard, you actually violate it in practice.

But if you limited yourself strictly to the historical method, you've have to invalidate your own position as well. The historical method, strictly speaking, is insufficient to establish the inerrancy of Scripture. You have to have a philosophy of revelation, and this is where I think the Catholic argument frankly kills you based on probability from the historical evidence. Every time you plead "well, people can have different opinions," it erodes the believability of your theory of revelation, so when it comes down to the historical situation of literally no person involved in the transmission of revelation ever believing matters that you consider essential for faith, the notion becomes ridiculous.

As I said, you make non-historical arguments for the inerrancy of Scripture. Do you think you can make your case for Evangelicalism without ever appealing to Scripture except as an ordinary historical document? I don't.

The appeal to doctrinal development is no less "unverifiable" that the appeal to the "inerrancy" of Scripture. However, the former is actually consistent with the historical evidence, while the latter is far less plausible.


I’ve strung together a number of excerpts to give you a feel for the gist of the argument. Since I’m one of those who just so happens to believe in sola scripture, how should I respond?

Before we can answer, or perhaps as part of the answer, it’s necessary to untie a number of knots, for several distinct issues have gotten all tangled up as though they were interchangeable with one another. For example, the doctrine of sola Scriptura is equated with the verification of sola Scriptura, which is equated with the verification of Scripture per se, which is equated with the verification of Biblical inerrancy. But these are all distinct propositions, and the evidence for one is not necessarily the same as the evidence for another.

1.The doctrine of sola Scriptura is a question of internal evidence, of the self-witness of Scripture and the identity of the Christian faith as a revealed religion.

At this juncture, the question is simply one of what the Bible teaches about itself, and not a question of whether what it teaches is true. There is no place for corroborative evidence at this stage of the process.

So the question is an essentially exegetical question. Does the Bible teach sola Scriptura? Does this reflect the actual practice of Christ, the Apostles, and the prophets? Is sola Scriptura a necessary presupposition of Scripture?

And if the question is essentially exegetical, then the relevant evidence is essentially exegetical. Here, I’d say, we apply the grammatico-historical method. That’s how we verify or falsify the doctrine of sola Scriptura.

2.Prejean also conflates the verification of Scripture per se with the verification of sola Scriptura. But, in principle, the verification of Scripture per se doesn’t commit you to sola Scriptura. That would confuse #2 with #1.

Taken by itself, the verification of Scripture doesn’t implicate any particular position on the relation between Scripture and a competing or complementary source of dogma.

There’s a basic difference between the question: “What do I believe that Scripture teaches about itself?” and “Do I believe what Scripture teachers about itself?”

3.Likewise, sola Scriptura and the inerrancy of Scripture are distinct propositions. You have liberal Protestants who subscribe to limited inerrancy. I don’t agree with them. But these propositions are logically distinct.

4.Is the historical method sufficient to verify the Bible? That depends on how you define the historical method.

If you operate with a positivistic paradigm of historical evidence, then that, by definition, rules out the supernatural. But, of course, that fact/value hiatus is, itself, a value-laden assumption.

How we define the historical method is inseparable from our historiography or philosophy of history.

5.Here we’re brushing up against intramural debates within evangelicalism over evidential, presuppositionalism, and natural theology.

Yet you have parallel debates within Catholicism. Remember the battle royal between Gilson and Bréhier over the question of whether “Christian philosophy” was an oxymoron?

And that, in turn, goes back to older debates. The Augustinian tradition, with its doctrine of divine illumination, has a more distinctively religious epistemology than the Thomistic model of faith and reason.

6.Yes, there are, indeed, philosophical issues in play. But these are not anterior to the historical method. Rather, because there is no value-free historical method, there is no one historical method--for the definition of historical evidence is not, itself, a historical question, but a historiographical question. Our historical methodology is adapted to our belief about what is historically possible and a possible object of historical knowledge. The historical method of Augustine or Bonaventura is quite different from the historical method of Troeltsch.

At the same time, we can also argue over which version is better. We are not at an intellectual stalemate. For one version of the historical method may have more explanatory power than another.

7.It is also quite confused or confusing of Prejean to contend that an Evangelical is guilty of hypocrisy if he operates with a double standard. It all depends.

It’s an accepted principle of logic in ad hominem and ad absurdum argumentation that you can argue down your opponent on his own grounds without you yourself sharing his stated standards and assumptions.

I happen to think it’s pretty irrelevant what George Bush or John Kerry did during the Viet Nam War. But once Kerry chooses to make his military service a qualification for higher office, then his war record becomes fair game. And I’m not operating with a hypocritical double-standard if I don’t apply the same standard to Bush since it isn’t his standard or mine.

Likewise, if Trent and Vatican I both index tradition to the unanimous consent of the Fathers, it’s perfectly fair for an Evangelical apologist to hold the magisterium to its own claims.

Likewise, if Vatican I formalizes the argument from prophecy and miracle (session 3, chapter 3), it is perfectly legit for an Evangelical apologist to hold the magisterium to its own argument.

Likewise, if Ineffabilis Deus and Munificentissimus Deus both support their claims by appeal to Scriptural prooftexts and traditional precedent, an Evangelical apologist is quite entitled to hold the magisterium to its own criteria.

Likewise, if Catholicism invokes apostolic succession to validate its teaching, then that historical chain-of-custody is subject to public inspection, is it not? When an Evangelical apologist points to the Great Schism or the many impediments to valid ordination, he is playing the Romanist game by Romanist rules, not his own.

8.As to our own standards, that is person-variable. Not every Evangelical apologist has the same epistemology.

One thing I will say, however, is that probability is calibrated to certain background conditions. What is probable must at least be possible. What is less probable is judged to be less so in reference to something more probable.

Ultimately, probability cannot bootstrap its own criterion. Without a framework of divine providence, there is no fixed frame of reference to probilify anything.

Hence, providence is a precondition of probability. Hence, when an Evangelical apologist offers a probable argument in defense of Scripture, he is not, in fact, operating outside a Biblical worldview, but within a Biblical worldview.

What is more, so is the unbeliever. For this presupposition is unavoidable to ground probability. See Plantinga’s proper function strategy for a supporting argument.

9.Scripture as a whole never appeals to corroborative evidence. At most, it appeals to corroboration for certain events in particular.

Hence, the absence of systematic corroboration does not falsify the Bible, for that was not a standard which the Bible set for itself in the first place.

When, despite the ravages of time, we do come across corroborative evidence—which is more often than we have any right to expect, given the paucity of the surviving evidence--that’s a bonus point.

10.The question is not whether we have an individual reason for every individual belief we hold, but whether we have a reliable source of information. Do we have a compelling reason for that—for the source of information—and not a separate source of information for every discrete belief.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Neo-Pietism or Ostrich Evangelicalism

Steve Camp has recently posted an article written by Phil Johnson, entitled "Ecumenical Politics". (You can find Phil Johnson's own blog, here.)

Johnson is commenting on an article by Charles Colson and Anne Morse entitled "Reclaiming Occupied Territory".

To begin with, what's odd is that Johnson focuses repeatedly on the sin of "ecumenical" politics; at least ten times in his analysis he mentions this concern. 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. Johnson accuses Colson of failing to "get it," as if the Colson article is even purporting to be a defense of "ecumenical" politics. It's not. But that doesn't stop Johnson from inserting a gratuitous hyperlink to "Evangelicals and Catholics Together".

Johnson claims that ecumenical politics "seems to be the only strategy Colson is willing to consider as a remedy for the moral rot of postmodern culture." This is uncharitable at best. Johnson concocts a false antithesis between the effect of the gospel and the effect of Christian political activity. Here's what Colson really says: "And when we are redeemed, we are both freed from sin and restored to do what God designed us to do: Create culture." Notice that it is when we are redeemed that we are restored to do what God designed us to do. Colson himself acknowledges that the redemption brought by the gospel is crucially relevant to the cultural enterprise, because it is redeemed Christians who are in the best position to engage in the cultural work (in virtue of the fact that they have both been freed from sin and restored to do what God designed them to do). It is because of the effect of the gospel in their lives, therefore, that Christians are best-placed to affect culture.

Johnson continues:

He is convinced that those who don't share his commitment to ecumenical politics cannot possibly 'engage the culture' in any meaningful sense.

Johnson doesn't give any support for this sweeping claim. Indeed, at this point Johnson hasn't even bothered to interact with a single citation from Colson's article. So the reader is already primed to see a conclusion that isn't really there. As a matter of fact, it's quite easy to refute Johnson's claim from the text of Colson's article itself. Here's the list of behaviors which Colson urges upon pastors and individual Christians:

-- "voting"

-- "urging their flocks to vote for politicians who support moral issues" (although "pastors should not make partisan endorsements")

-- "engaging in moral debates"

-- "critiquing false worldviews"

None of these activities involve sharing Colson's "commitment to ecumenical politics". They can quite profitably be engaged in even by those who reject such a commitment. In addition, Colson thinks that any of these activities can effectively engage the culture. Therefore, Johnson's sweeping claim is pretty well as false as anything could be.

Johnson says of Colson: "he clearly does not believe the gospel itself can transform culture." Again, as was seen above, this is a false antithesis uncharitably imposed upon Colson. The problem here is that Johnson has far too narrow a view of how "the gospel itself can transform culture." Sure, one way it can transform culture is for evil men to be directly converted by faith in Christ. But here's another way: Christians who have already been converted by the gospel can live out their faith in a way that transforms culture. Why doesn't Johnson so much as consider that this is an additional effect of the gospel on culture?

Johnson makes it sound like Colson and any other evangelicals involved in ECB are unconverted pagans, so that the gospel has no connection to their cultural endeavors. But they aren't unconverted pagans; they're born-again Christians. And they are living out their faith by trying to engage the culture in various ways: voting, moral debate, critique of unbelieving worldviews, etc. Johnson's arbitrarily narrow construal of 'the gospel transforming culture' is a self-fulfilling, ultimately defeatist prophecy. He repeatedly stresses that is only the gospel which will transform the society, but when people like Colson and others are actually converted by the gospel, Johnson won't allow them to live out their faith in society, or to urge others to do the same! And he supports this by saying that such activity constitutes a denial that "the gospel itself can transform culture"! This boggles the mind.

It's no wonder, then, that the gospel doesn't transform society! Johnson later says that, "Of course, we don't deny that Christianity ought to shape culture, as it has, historically, whenever the gospel has been preached effectively." But his whole response to Colson is predicated on denying what he says he doesn't deny: if the gospel has been preached effectively to your soul, don't you dare go out like Colson and seek cultural change! "Christianity ought to shape culture," except that it shouldn't :-) "The gospel itself can transform culture," but don't let those who believe the gospel take part in doing it!

Johnson claims that:

'Engaging the culture' by Colson's preferred strategy demands, for example, that we downplay or silence the message of justification by faith alone or risk alienating Colson's Roman Catholic allies in the culture war.

But the problem with this kind of observation is that its cogency trades upon equivocation on what it means to "silence the message". I entirely agree with Johnson that it is quite wrong of Colson to regard Roman Catholics as his 'brethren'. But this is a theological, not political, error. 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. If Johnson thinks he has a biblical argument that says otherwise, then let's see it. So far, he's merely assumed that uniting around concerns broader than those of the gospel itself, for the purpose of cultural change, is somehow forbidden. Unfortunately for Johnson's stance, Christians in society regularly cooperate with non-Christians in order to bring about a variety of social and cultural goods which are something other than belief in the gospel itself. And so far, Johnson has given no general argument as to why such cooperation is forbidden, much less why cooperative political activity in particular is forbidden.

But here's what's interesting. Notice what Johnson says in the following, which immediately follows the above:

Of course, historic evangelicalism has always regarded the principle of sola fide as the very essence of the gospel message. That's what the Protestant Reformation was all about.

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's what's even more interesting: Johnson's criticisms depend on conflating the very distinction which Colson is eager to make. In the opening paragraphs of his article (not buried in a footnote, folks!), Colson says:

One asked: "But won't engaging the culture this way interfere with fulfilling the Great Commission? Isn't this our job—to win people to Christ?"

That people still raise this question surprised me. "Of course we're called to fulfill the Great Commission," I replied. "But we're also called to fulfill the cultural commission." Christians are agents of God's saving grace—bringing others to Christ, I explained—but we are also agents of his common grace: sustaining and renewing his creation, defending the created institutions of family and society, critiquing false worldviews.

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.

Johnson continues:

As his circle of allies grows broader, the movement becomes less and less tolerant of gospel distinctives. You simply cannot solicit the support and partnership of Jewish leaders in a moral crusade if you're clearly and forcefully declaring the exclusivity of Christ.

Sure you can. You can "declare the exclusivity of Christ" for salvation, while not making belief in Christ a condition for political activism. Does Johnson actually have a good argument against this simple position?

Perhaps Johnson has an overly narrow conception of common grace, such that common grace is only extended to the rest of the world through Christians alone, and not through the activity of non-Christians as well. But if he thinks this, then he is mistaken. Ge 1:28 was not given to the church in particular but to humanity as a whole. And whenever non-Christian A engages in helpful efforts on behalf of non-Christian B, then non-Christian B has received the common grace of God through non-Christian agency. So the participation of non-Christians in common grace endeavors is entirely compatible with the nature of such endeavors. They aren't the proclamation of the gospel. They're something else.

Notice that Johnson's confusion continues in the following, immediately after the above:

Colson's broad ecumenism is simply incompatible with the politically incorrect (but biblical, and essential) truth that explicit faith in Christ is the only way of salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).

Of course, if political activism were being advertised as a "way of salvation," then Johnson might have a point. For "broad ecumenism" would be inconsistent with Christ alone for salvation. But the kind of cultural engagement that Colson is endorsing is not purporting to be a way of salvation! Acts 4:12 is very true, but unfortunately Peter does not there say, "There is no other name under heaven, by which we must do political activity". Nor does Jesus say, "No one comes to the voting booth, or accomplishes earthly, cultural good, except by faith in me." Johnson needs to find better prooftexts.

Johnson asks: "How much will the Christian message need to be toned down in order to hold that kind of coalition together?" Here's a more relevant question: Why does 'that kind of coalition' need to be identified as distinctively Christian in the first place? Notice that once again Johnson has confused what Colson has distinguished. While common-grace activities ought to be actively embraced by Christians, there is no need for them to be a distinctively Christian enterprise.

Johnson doubts that the work of ECB has anything at all to do with the cultural commission of Ge 1:28. He says, "But we think it's a bit of a stretch to find a 'cultural mandate' for political activism in Genesis 1:28." But let's look at how Colson has defined this: "The same command binds Christians today. We bear children, plant crops, build cities, form governments, and create works of art." Now, perhaps Johnson thinks that one of these things is not like the other. In particular, perhaps he thinks that the forming of governments is not a genuinely cultural endeavor. But I think that's a very hard case to make. But if it is a genuinely cultural endeavor, it falls under the cultural commission just as the rest.

Johnson asks:

If Colson's strategy is the right one, why didn't the apostles forge political alliances with the Pharisees and the Zealots -- not to mention the Stoics, who championed high ethical values and opposed the moral decay of Roman society?

This is a fallacious argument from silence that I have addressed elsewhere. The political means were simply not available under imperial Rome as they are in our modern constitutional republic, which is amenable to peaceful, lawful, democratic change.

In addition, Johnson's comparison here with the Zealots is invidious. As Steve Hays has put it:
These were Jews who incited other Jews to the violent overthrow of the Roman occupation. Are the critics of ECB seriously alleging that Land and Mohler and Dobson and Colson are domestic terrorists fomenting an armed insurrection against the US gov’t? Isn’t that a rather scurrilous characterization of the opposing side?

Johnson says: "What we really object to in Colson's rhetoric is his assumption that preaching the gospel and 'engaging culture' are two distinct activities." I really don't see what is so difficult to understand about this. For instance, one way of engaging culture is to vote. Voting is not preaching the gospel. Another way of engaging culture is to critique unbelieving worldviews. Critiquing unbelieving worldviews is not preaching the gospel. These examples seem obvious to me, and decisive. But perhaps I am missing some fine subtlety in Johnson's denial of this common-sense distinction.

Johnson says: "There is no mandate anywhere for the church to 'redeem culture' through the apparatus of democracy." Well, either Johnson is operating with an excessively narrow (read: spiritual) understanding of 'redeem,' or he simply doesn't believe that Ge 1:28 applies to Christians as individuals, or he doesn't think the state is a genuinely cultural endeavor. None of these options are very hopeful, I think.

Johnson says that "pagan societies are transformed for the better only as individuals respond to the gospel and experience the new birth." Yes, but one way the societies are "transformed for the better" is if those individuals who have responded to the gospel put their faith into practice. Are these not the very individuals Colson is addressing?

Johnson says: "It is no part of our calling to cultivate a higher standard of external morality among pagans." If Johnson thinks that any of the political reforms or causes entertained by ECBers actually go beyond the moral depth of God's holy law -- a law which continues to be binding on all men whatsoever -- he's free to offer specific examples.

Colson says:

If we're tempted to ignore the great moral issues of our day, or dismiss them as "just politics," we are betraying our biblical mandate and our own heritage. Nothing could be deadlier for the church, nor for the culture, since real Christianity invariably provides a healthy influence on society.

Johnson replies that "Colson misses the point completely" (he doesn't bother to say why). Again, for some reason, Johnson insists on precluding one way that real Christianity can provide a healthy influence on society.

Johnson says: "No one is arguing that Christians ought to 'ignore the great moral issues of our day.' What we're saying is that there are no effective political remedies for sin." But again, Johnson trades on equivocation to give his argument plausibility. In this case, it all comes down to what you mean by "effective". Sure, political reforms will never provide a spiritual and everlasting solution to the sinful heart of fallen man. And if Johnson thinks that Colson really thinks this, he's free to offer up citations to that effect. In the meantime, the Bible makes it clear that the state is, in many cases, an effective remedy for sin, not by converting the human heart, but by punishing and deterring the evildoer. But perhaps Johnson thinks that the state is not an institution ordained by God and accountable to God, the "minister of God" which is just as much a part of our culture as anything else. Perhaps Johnson thinks that the persistent example of OT prophets in rebuking not just the general populace for their sin, but the kings in particular for their dereliction in enforcing God's laws of compassion and justice, has absolutely no teaching/rebuking/correcting/training relevance for us today. But if he really thinks this (contra 2Ti 3:16-17), he should say so.

Church discipline

One oft-heard criticism of ECB is that the church ought to get its own house in order before it tries to clean up society by legislating morality. This objection takes more than one form.

There is the hypocrisy version, to wit: that it’s just plain hypocritical of the C-bees to lobby for laws against, say, homosexual marriage, if heterosexual marriage is in such a sorry state within the Evangelical church. The divorce rate about Southern Baptists is cited as one such example.

Another is the pragmatic version, to wit: it’s just plain ineffectual of the C-bees to lobby for laws against homosexual marriage if we’re not doing a better job ourselves, if we are not modeling a constructive alternative.

What we really need, so goes the argument, is a healthy dose of church discipline before we paddle society at large.

To this general line of objection, a number of comments are in order:

1.I’m all for godly church discipline, but just what, exactly, do the critics of ECB have in mind? Say that 30% of Southern Baptists are divorcees. How does church discipline apply retroactively? Should they all be excommunicated?

I pose this as a serious question. What concrete proposals do the critics of ECB have to offer? What tough-minded measures do they recommend to curb moral laxity in the church?

Suppose we did excommunicate all of the divorcees. And suppose, for good measure, we were to excommunicate all of the Free Masons as well.

By definition, that would purify the church. Yet it would do nothing to purify the general culture. Rather, it would simply relocate the problem. It would transfer the nominal believers from the church to the street. Exporting our internal rot to society at large would make the church better, but it would do nothing to make the general culture any better.

2.There are other complications as well. Say that Mom and Dad are nominal believers. They’re on their second or third marriage. But they bring their kids with them to church—kids from their various marriages.

If you excommunicate the parents, you excommunicate the kids. So you take the kids out of the church and put them back onto the street. Does that improve the general culture?

My immediate point is that it’s very easy to issue vague, facile imperatives about how the church ought to do some spiritual Spring-cleaning. But if this is to be more than empty verbiage, then it needs to be followed up by some very specific policy proposals.

3.BTW, is church discipline the same thing as preaching the gospel? Or is this something the church needs to do before it can get back to preaching the gospel, which it needs to do before it can participate in the democratic process?

After all, if the church were to get really serious about church discipline, that would plunge a denomination into a very divisive, bitter, and all-consuming controversy.

So what should be our priority: reaching the unchurched with the gospel, or taking remedial action against nominal believers in the pew?

And I hope a critic of ECB isn’t going to tell me that we can do both (evangelism and church discipline), for if it’s true that we can do both, then the C-bees would rightly reply that we can do evangelism and politics at the same time too.

4.One critic of ECB has said that the church cannot have two priorities. If true, this is not merely a criticism of ECB, but a criticism of political activism, per se—even if it were limited to fellow evangelicals.

BTW, this is a problem when you talk to the critics. When you press them hard, they will admit that political activism is legit, but once the pressure is off, they revert to their gospel-only, every-member-evangelism line.

5.As a matter of fact, the “church” can, indeed, have more than one priority. As I’ve remarked before, the painful irony here is that those who presume to speak on behalf of the church in opposition to ECB have a very defective doctrine of the church.

There is a division of labor within the church, for the “church” is simply the community of believers, who come together for worship, but have a wide variety of callings in life outside the church. Everyone is not called to be an evangelist. Dobson is a pediatrician and child psychologist; Colson is a lawyer.

It is possible to have a godly vocation outside the ministry, is it not? Ironically again, critics of ECB attack the C-bees for being too cozy with Rome, yet the critics are operating with a tacitly Catholic ideal, in which to be a wife and mother or family man is second-best.

I’ve said this before, yet it doesn’t sink in. But isn’t this a fixture of the Reformed Baptist theology?

6.In Scripture, the church is not prior to the state, and the state is not prior to the church. Until the return of Christ, these are both essential social institutions.

Indeed, the state exists for the primary benefit of the church. Although the state can persecute the church, yet, in the common grace of God, the state more often functions to protect the elect from the reprobate. Without law, there would be no church. Without law, the reprobate would exterminate the elect.

And this is another reason why Christians need to involve themselves in the democratic process. For if we leave it to the unbelievers, then the unbelievers will turn the coercive powers of government against the church and thereby muzzle the gospel.

A certain amount of persecution can have a refining effect, but persecution on a totalitarian scale can decimate the church. Just look at the impact of ironclad communism on Eastern Germany? And look at how the reunion of Germany after the fall of communism had the effect of secularizing Western Germany.

Calvin's doctrine of the atonement

Here are some excerpts from a fine article by Paul Helm on Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement. The whole article, inclusive of the supporting material, is well worth reading.


What did the death of Christ achieve? For whom did Christ die? In attempting to answer these questions about the atonement from Calvin’s own statements in the Institutes we shall show that Calvin subscribed to three key ideas. The first is that Christ’s death procured actual remission. On his view there are some people whose sins Christ actually remitted by his death. In the second place, all the elect, and they alone, have their sins actually remitted by the death of Christ. That is to say, the effect of the death of Christ is to atone for the sins of a definite number of people (and in this sense it is proper to speak of limited atonement). The third key idea is that Calvin expressly teaches that it was the intention of Christ, in dying, to procure an atonement for the elect. The salvation of the elect is something that can be directly related to what Christ by his death intended.

These three key ideas will now be considered, in turn, as far as possible in Calvin’s own words.

(a) Actual Remission. Basic to Calvin’s understanding of the saving work of Christ is his ascription to Christ of the work of prophet, priest and king. As a prophet ‘he was anointed by the Spirit to be herald and witness of the Father’s grace . . . he received anointing, not only for himself that he might carry out the office of teaching, but for his whole body that the power of the Spirit might be present in the continuing preaching of the Gospel’. As a king ‘he will be the eternal protector and defender of his church’. As a priest ‘an expiation must intervene in order that Christ as a priest may obtain God’s favour for us and appease his wrath. Thus Christ to perform this office had to come forward with a sacrifice’. God ‘was reconciled to us through Christ’.

What can be learned about Calvin’s view from these passages? In the first place Calvin assumes the unity of Christ’s work as redeemer. There is not a trace of a sharp break between the earthly death and the heavenly intercession of Christ. On the contrary Calvin repeatedly refers to Christ’s death as an intercession with God (‘as intercessor he has appeased God’s wrath’). Christ’s heavenly intercession reflects and represents the earthly intercession, the act of atonement. It is not something additional to his death which has independent value and efficacy. This needs to be stressed in view of the fact that, as we shall see later, R. T. Kendall holds that in Calvin there is a sharp distinction to be drawn between the death and the heavenly intercession of Christ. This view is quite without foundation.

In the second place Calvin teaches that Christ redeems by satisfying divine justice in a way that is mysterious and not fully comprehensible. It is mysterious because the God whose justice Christ satisfies is the God whose love is expressed in Christ’s mission. The explanation of this mystery is to be sought in the first chapter of the letter to the Ephesians. There, after Paul has taught us that we were chosen in Christ, he adds at the same time that we acquired favour in the same Christ (Eph. 1:4-5). How did God begin to embrace with his favour those whom he had loved before the creation of the world? Only in that he revealed his love when he was reconciled to us by Christ’s blood.

Thirdly, it is clear from the prominence that Calvin gives to the idea of satisfaction, and to the associated language of transference, the paying of a penalty, suffering, purging, and expiating, that Calvin regards Christ’s death as actually redeeming men. Whatever the scope of the death of Christ, it was a satisfaction for sins. Nowhere in Calvin is there the suggestion that Christ’s death merely made redemption possible for some, or merely possible for all, or that some further action of Christ’s, in addition to his death, was necessary. Rather, Christ effected redemption by his death. He took upon himself and suffered punishment, he appeased God’s wrath. If these expressions mean anything, they mean that divine justice has been satisfied for those whom the death of Christ benefits, whoever they may be. Because of this, salvation may be personally appropriated by faith alone. Faith in Christ’s merit excludes human merit.

(b) Salvation for the elect alone. According to Calvin, all and only the elect have their sins remitted.

God the Father has gathered the elect indissolubly together in Christ. Salvation is effectual only for the elect. According to Calvin, then, the elect are saved through Christ, all the elect, and only the elect.

Bearing in mind what has so far been learned about Calvin, it might be argued that lie was committed to definite or limited atonement even though he has not committed himself, in express terms, to such a view. For it might be said that since, for Calvin, all for whom Christ died are saved, and not all men are saved, it follows that Christ did not die for all men. That is, an argument such as J. I. Packer provides could be formulated on Calvin’s behalf:

If we are going to affirm penal substitution for all without exception we must either infer universal salvation, or else, to evade this inference, deny the saving efficacy of the substitution for anyone; and if we are going to affirm penal substitution as an effective saving act of God we must either infer universal salvation or else, to evade this inference, restrict the scope of the substitution, making it a substitution for some, not all.

Calvin, not being a universalist, could be said to be committed to definite atonement, even though he does not commit himself to definite atonement. And, it could be added, there is a sound reason for this. There was no occasion for Calvin to enter into argument about the matter, for before the Arminian controversy the extent of the atonement had not been debated expressly within the Reformed churches.

However, plausible though such a line of argument may seem, it is possible to show that Calvin did not leave others to draw such conclusions. He drew them himself. There are passages in Calvin which show that he held the doctrine of limited atonement, even though the doctrine does not gain the prominence in his writings that it did during later controversies.

(c) For whom did Christ intend to die?

Calvin shows that he is quite at home with the thought that Christ has ‘his people’ over whom he rules and to whom he gives life. How can this be? It is not only because they have chosen to be his, as we have already seen. They are elected to salvation. Rather, as Calvin hints, Christ cares for those whom the Father has given him, his people, by being their Redeemer. Not simply by being a Redeemer, but by being their Redeemer. And who are these? They are the sheep to whom the Shepherd gives eternal life.

Given the stress that Calvin places on the unity of Christ’s work, and given that the effects of this work come to none but members of his own body, how is it possible not to draw the conclusion that Calvin is teaching that in consciously, voluntarily laying down his life Christ was dying for ‘none but the children of God’?

It might be argued that a distinction should be drawn between Christ dying and Christ diffusing lift, and between Christ’s death and what Calvin calls Christ’s virtue and benefits. On the basis of such a distinction it might be said that while Christ diffused life to some, and his benefits belong only to some, he died for all. But this is to draw distinctions where none in fact exist. For how else does life and virtue come from Christ other ‘than by his death? And why should Christ be said to die for all, or for the whole world, if the purpose of his death, the provision of life, is to be confined to the elect?

But there is still more evidence. If God the Father has established Christ as the sole Saviour of all his people, and if Christ has taken such people under his protection, can it be supposed that, on Calvin’s view, Christ died for the whole world?

Christ keeps those, and only those, entrusted to his care by the Father in such a way that not one of them will perish. How is this possible in any way that will not involve his death for them in particular? If Christ keeps only the elect, and did not die for the wicked, is it not reasonable to conclude that he died only for the elect?

Christ, according to Calvin, has the task of gathering together all the children of God, the elect, in one by his death. Is it not reasonable to conclude that Christ did this knowingly and intentionally, and that by his death he intended to save the elect only? Surely John Murray is correct in saying that ‘Election is fundamental to Calvin’s thinking, and election implies differentiation at the fountain of the whole process of salvation. The evidence indicates that Calvin did not discount this differentiation at the point of Christ’s expiatory offering’

What has been shown so far in this chapter? That in Calvin’s teaching the work of Christ, from incarnation to heavenly intercession, is one work, focused on the death of Christ which expiated sin by satisfying divine justice. Christ’s death brings salvation to the elect, for in dying Christ intended only the salvation of the elect.


Calvin stresses that faith is something supernatural. It is not a natural religious instinct, nor is it (as some would say) gullibility. Faith is imparted to us by God himself, by God the Holy Spirit. Faith relies upon the promise of God. It presupposes divine revelation, and involves the use of the mind, not its disengagement. Calvin does not oppose faith and reason, for reason is necessary to understand the divine revelation.

But what is more important for present purposes is what Calvin says about the relation between faith and knowledge. It is this that has aroused much interest over the years, and still prompts controversy. A number of scholars regard it as unquestionable that at this point there is a major break between Calvin and the Puritans. For in his definition Calvin appears to be defining faith in terms of knowledge, whereas the Puritans certainly did not. It is therefore important to take care to understand what Calvin is saying here, and elsewhere in his writings.

What does it mean to say that faith involves assurance, or that assurance ‘is of the essence of’ faith? It is not simply that saving faith involved the assurance, or confidence, that what is believed is undoubtedly the promise of God. It is rather that if a man has faith, and if faith involves assurance, then that man, in believing God’s promise to sinners, recognizes that God is gracious or benevolent toward him in particular. If faith involves assurance, then all who believe must have this confidence about themselves in relation to God. If they fail to have this confidence than they cannot truly be believers. In Calvin’s words, such faith is ‘a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence to us’, to the ones who believe.

Such faith involves more than believing in a general sense that the promise is addressed to us, it is believing that it applies to us. On this view anyone who ‘believes’ but lacks the conviction that, in believing, he is saved by Christ is not a true believer. It is important to recognize that Calvin is not offering a casual, throw-away view. This is part of Calvin’s definition of faith.

Nevertheless, it is equally important to recognize that this short definition is not the only thing that Calvin says about faith. In order to set his definition in a broader context attention will now be paid to what he says after this definition occurs in the Institutes, and then to what he says about the knowledge of election.

(a) Some Qualifications.

It can be seen from this that Calvin qualifies his definition of faith in terms of knowledge in important ways. Having and retaining faith is part of a struggle with natural unbelief. The degree of confidence that accompanies it fluctuates.

Further, Calvin is well aware that these further remarks of his amount to an important modification of the original definition. It is not as if there is a conflict of evidence in Calvin which he does not recognize. For he says that while faith ‘ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt’. So while faith ought to be assured faith, there is no such thing as perfect or total assurance, a completely doubt-free confidence that God’s mercy applies to me.

But, it may be asked, if Calvin defines faith in terms of assurance, how can he allow for the possibility of faith without assurance? Is he flatly contradicting himself within a few pages, or is there a way of reconciling the different things that he says? If we take Calvin’s definition of faith with which our discussion began as a definition based upon his own actual usage, then the only conclusion that it is possible to come to is that he is inconsistent. For, as we have just seen, he is sometimes happy to allow that there may be faith without assurance, and indeed that all faith is incompletely assured. And yet, if he defines faith in terms of assurance, then no one can have faith who lacks assurance. But if so, how can he say that faith may co-exist with doubt?

A clue to the answer to this difficulty is to be found in the second of the two quotations given above. Calvin’s definition of faith is not a report of how the word ‘faith’ is actually used, either by himself or by others, but it is a recommendation about how his readers ought habitually and properly to think of faith. Supposing someone says, ‘No one can live without a properly balanced diet’. This is not strictly true. In areas of malnutrition many unfortunate people live close to starvation. But while not strictly true, the assertion enshrines a recommendation. It is as if it were being said that no persons can flourish without a properly balanced diet, though they may exist without one. Similarly, Calvin is recommending to his Christian readers not to be satisfied with a degree of faith that is without assurance. There can be faith without assurance, but that degree of faith is to be sought that is accompanied by assurance.

(b) Knowledge of Election. This interpretation of Calvin’s definition of faith is confirmed by what he says elsewhere in the Institutes. In Chapter twenty-four of Book Three of the Institutes, having previously set out the biblical doctrine of election, and cleared up certain misconceptions about it, Calvin deals with the thorny question of how a person may know that he is one of God’s elect. Since not all men are elected, what are the signs of election? Calvin’s answer is that such knowledge comes indirectly, through the preaching of the Word of God and a believing response to that preaching. Our election is not to be known by some direct revelation to our souls that we are chosen, but by the nature of our response to the preaching of the Christian gospel.

Such is Calvin’s position, often repeated throughout his writings. Christ is the mirror of election. Knowledge of election is reflected by means of a person’s relation to Christ. If a person wants to know whether or not he is elect he can discover this, not by direct revelation, nor by speculation, but by enquiring ‘whether he (the Father) has entrusted us to Christ, whom he has established as the sole Saviour of all his people’.

How, then, does someone know that he is not a reprobate, that is to say, merely a temporary believer? Calvin’s answer is — and surely must be — that there are signs of true, as opposed to false and temporary faith, ‘signs which are sure attestations of it’ The signs that Calvin mentions include divine calling, illumination by Christ’s Spirit, communion with Christ, receiving Christ by faith, the embracing of Christ, perseverance in the faith, the avoidance of self-confidence, and fear.

So it would appear that a person may be a true believer and yet not be assured that he is one, because he has misunderstood the signs. Similarly, a person may not be a true believer, but may think that he is, because he has misread the signs. To give an illustration: Whether or not a person is forty years old at a stated time depends upon the year of his birth. If he was born in a certain year then he is forty years old. If not, then he is not forty years old. But the evidence of his being born in a certain year cannot be had directly, but only indirectly, through what his parents tell him, the evidence of a birth certificate, and so on. Similarly, Calvin says, there are indirect signs of true faith, signs upon which assurance is based.

Misunderstanding is sometimes caused by statements made about the ground of assurance. It is said, for instance, that according to Calvin, Christ alone is the ground of assurance, and that to think of the ground of assurance as within oneself is a form of salvation by merit or works. But this is based on a confusion over the meaning of ‘ground’. Calvin, and indeed all the Reformers, are of course emphatic that a person’s salvation is due solely to the work of Christ. But he is equally emphatic that the evidence of personal salvation is found in a person’s own spiritual and moral renovation. While the believer has not to trust in himself for salvation — this would be salvation by human merit — nevertheless he may find in himself evidence that he has trusted in Christ for salvation. While his own state is most certainly not the foundation of his salvation — Christ is the foundation — his own state may be evidence that he is in Christ, as the birth certificate is evidence of a person’s date of birth.

(c) Conclusion. It has been shown that Calvin’s famous definition of faith is in fact a recommendation of how the word ‘faith’ should be used, not a definition of how it actually is used. What he writes elsewhere about faith is consistent with this, and with the idea that true faith may exist without assurance, however spiritually undesirable this may be.

Calvin had every reason for stressing that a Christian may properly expect to be assured of his salvation, for he was writing in a situation in which the dominant teaching in Christendom, that of the Roman Catholic Church, was that assurance was unattainable.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Oprahfication of CampOnThis

Many evangelicals have rightly decried the dumbing-down of the gospel. Steve Camp has done some fine little pieces on this with special reference to CCM.

But then, when you turn to his rules of engagement, look at what you find:


4. No anonymous posting allowed and will be deleted. If you have not filled out your profile, please do so.

5. No posting in "book form;" say what you need to say, but keep it a reasonable length. It will foster better discussion and allow more to contribute. (A few shorter comments promote profitable discussion than writing one very long comment.)

6. All posts must be in the form of an actual comment, not as a link. "Links" posted as comments that redirect people away from the discussion of an issue from this blog is unacceptable and will be deleted immediately.


What do these three rules all have in common? They are all anti-intellectual.

Now, to be perfectly honest, I’m not wild about anonymous posting myself. I’m curious to know who these people are. And there are some folks who hide behind anonymity to practice character assassination with impunity.

Of course, for those who abuse the privilege of anonymity, there’s a simple solution: delete them.

In the meantime, there are also folks who have entirely legitimate personal or professional reasons to shield their identity.

And more importantly, what, exactly, is the point of insisting on a public profile, anyway? Is this an exercise in prior restraint, to screen out unwelcome feedback?

The effect is to screen out constructive feedback as well. If a comment is way over the line, it can always be deleted.

But shouldn’t we be open to comments from anyone as long as they have something useful to contribute, including constructive criticism?

Moreover, isn’t there something nosey about demanding that everyone file a personal profile? Frankly, it’s none of my business the sex, or age, or location, or hobbies, or musical taste, or favorite books or movies of a perfect stranger who wants to post a comment at Triablogue.

This isn’t a dating service, is it? They’re not auditioning to be a guest on some trashy talk show, are they?

Furthermore, the whole exercise is pretty stupid, like an airport screener asking you of you’re planning to smuggle a bomb onto the plane.

If someone wants to post a comment without airing their private life in public, there’s an easy way out: you simply invent a storybook character.

In addition, the Internet is a natural magnet for über-geeks and super-nerds who have no difficulty covering their tracks if they want to.

So this is one of those brainless bureaucratic rules like frisking granny and her five-year old grand-daughter while a twenty-something male by the name of Muhammad al-Jihadi boards the plane with a lumpy looking overcoat on a sweltering day.

And I’d add that knowing his astrological sign is not real high on my priority list either.

Then, what is worse, is the prohibition against “book form” posting. This, again, is anti-intellectual.

Bloggers don’t have a captive audience. If someone doesn’t want to read a long post, he doesn’t have to. And if the comments box fills up, you always carry the thread over to a “Part-2” post with a fresh comment box.

Mind you, there’s no virtue in being verbose for the sake of verbosity. Again, if someone abuses their posting privileges, you just delete them.

This is exactly the marketing niche mentality of the church-growth gurus that Evangelicals like Camp decry as long as someone else is doing it. Let’s reduce everything to Sesame Street sound-bites and pitch the product to the lowest common denominator—like we’re selling deodorant.

Oo! Ouch! All those weal big words make my head hurt! Please tweat me like the overgwown child I still wanna be. Let’s hold church in the sand box. Mister Rogers can say the prayer, and Big Bird can lead us in song.

This also reminds me of teachers who are afraid that boys, being the aggressive pigs that they are, will intimidate the girls from freely expressing themselves in class discussion. So the teacher acts terribly paternalistic to oppose paternalism.

Have you ever noticed that the Bible is not all that user-friendly? Is Romans an easy book to read? Or Hebrews? Or Revelation?

And why are links “unacceptable”? BTW, don’t you just love that word? Doesn’t it have a wonderfully Victorian flavor to it, like the schoolmarm with ruler in one hand and hair in a bun, patrolling the class room to smite unwary students passing notes.

Now, some links are inappropriate. If it’s a link to a porn site, sure—delete it.

But links can be a way of documenting a claim. And for a blogger who happens to have the attention span of a two-year old, a link can be a timesaver. Instead of a “long” comment, which would make his head hurt or something, a link can direct the reader to a systematic discussion of the issue—often by an expert in the field. In fact, Camp has links on his own blog.

So all this unctuous disapproval of “dumbing-down” is just for show. To judge by his own example, Camp feels that the average believer needs a lot of spoon-feeding and head-patting and handholding to get him through the frightful ordeal of navigating a God-blog. Why doesn’t Camp just run a loop-tape of Veggie Tales on is blog?

Permit me to close with a personal anecdote. My mother was a music teacher. After she retired, she taught herself Koine Greek to read the NT in the original.

Then she embarked on a study of Biblical archaeology, ANE history, and Greco-Roman history.

After that she read theologians like Murray, Warfield, and Vos.

To make a long story short, she’s now well into her eighties. Despite failing eyesight, she reads commentaries from cover to cover. By commentaries I mean Witherington on Acts (874 pages), Hoehner on Ephesians (930 pages), Mounce on the Pastorals (641 pages), and Beale on Revelation (1245 pages)—to name a few she’s polished off in the last couple of years. She’s currently reading Fitzmyer (832 pages) and Schreiner (919 pages) on Romans.

Pardon me if I have precious little sympathy for those who pose and posture about the Evangelical downgrade as they man the very same bulldozer.

Our friends, the Campis

I want to thank Mr. Steve Hays for allowing me to guest-blog here from time to time. He and I share quite similar views about the legitimacy of evangelical co-belligerence (ECB).

At Steve Camp's blog, I recently posted a comment in reply to his entry, "God Directs the Heart of the King". Because my comment was too lengthy, Mr. Camp deleted it. So I'm reposting it here. --JD

What's so unfortunate about Mr. Camp's most recent post (linked to above) is that he just continues to ignore the significance of critiques offered by Mr. Hays and myself. Mr. Camp goes on and on about how it is God who is sovereign over politicians, governments, etc. How this is one whit relevant to ECB, he doesn't say. God is a God of means as well as ends. In order for ECB to pose any sort of challenge to God's sovereignty, or to display any kind of lack of faith in God's sovereignty, Mr. Camp first has to make the argument that God can't use ECB as a means to bring about a desired end.

The implied antithesis between ECB and divine sovereignty is foolish. One might as well say that my typing on this keyboard is an affront to divine sovereignty, because God is in control and can communicate my messages quite apart from the medium of email. Well yes, he can, but what does that have to do with anything? One might as well say that holding down a job is an affront to divine sovereignty, since after all God is perfectly able to provide me food and shelter quite apart from my job.

Perhaps Mr. Camp actually believes that pursuing fallible, earthly means for various ends is in principle forbidden to any Christian, on the grounds that it negates or otherwise fails to honor divine sovereignty. But then he should just come out and say this plainly, as it's the only principle which could ground the legitimacy of his appeal to divine sovereignty at this point.

If Mr. Camp really believes the 1689 RB confession, then he should take seriously that document's own statement of divine sovereignty:

"God hath decreed in Himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever come to pass; yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established; in which appears His wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing His decree" (3.1)

Divine sovereignty doesn't rule out secondary causes. It never has and it never will. And that remains the case, no matter how many times Mr. Camp cites Pr 21:1 :-)

It's true that later in his post Mr. Camp distances himself from 'fatalism,' and from the notion that "we don't do anything". But that's the point: if he really believes this, then he must realize that all his opening material about the sovereignty of God is entirely beside the point, because it in no way excludes the practice of ECB.

At the link above, Mr. Camp reposts one of his many dubious arguments from silence:

Why didn't the Apostles ever fight that battle by partnering with anyone on their social cause that would agree with them, including nonbelievers, and harness the hearts of those moral few and begin their assault on Nero's nefarious culture code?

Let's ask another question: Why didn't the Apostles ever post on Internet blogs? Why didn't they cross Judea in a Dodge Caravan? Why didn't they preach with electronic amplification? Answer: the means weren't available to them. I submit that that answer is just as plausible for Mr. Camp's original question, as the answer he actually gives. And that's the problem with arguments from silence that ignore context: you can infer just about any crazy 'truth' from them.

We don't live under imperial Rome. At that time, "Nero's culture code" wasn't subject to citizen input or revision, and it would have been utterly useless (nay, suicidal) to try. By way of contrast, we live in a constitutional republic that is amenable to democratic change, indeed, in which it is entirely lawful to bring about such change by democratic means. What part of this is so difficult for Mr. Camp to grasp? Is he really willing to give up his activity of blog posting, on the grounds that the apostles didn't do it? No, I didn't think so.

Mr. Camp continues to talk about Christians who "strong arm politicians to create legislation" or who "overthrow" politicians. No, Mr. Camp, it's called voting in a democracy, a lawful and peaceful privilege every politician is aware of. Perhaps you are aware of it as well? The rest of Mr. Camp's post reveals that he is. Perhaps Mr. Camp can inform us the next time a group of evangelical Christians kidnaps a government official or his family, and holds them hostage until they get what political demands they want. Now that would be strong-arming someone. I suspect we'll be waiting a long time.

Mr. Camp holds that lawfully and peacefully working to get legislation passed that reflects God's moral principles "is defeatist against the very purposes and plans of God." Funny, I thought the state was a minister of God who brings wrath on the one who does evil (Ro 13:4). Since in the providence of God that "minister of God" is a democratic republic, it looks like passing such laws would forward the purposes of God with respect to the state. But perhaps, yet again, Mr. Camp (unlike the entirety of the Reformed tradition) simply doesn't believe in secondary causes. Or perhaps his idea of the "evildoer" is simply the null set. Or perhaps "evildoer" should be defined apart from Scriptural norms. I'd hate to have to choose from among these abysmal alternatives.

Mr. Camp says that ECB ends up "alienating the very ones we long to reach with the gospel by political divide." What is Mr. Camp's alternative? That we not have laws on the books that keep unborn children from having their skulls punctured and their brains sucked out? That, in deference to the moral perversity and rebellion of the unbeliever, our relation to the state is one of moral paralysis? God forbid the state should 'alienate the unbeliever' by doing what God prescribes for the state!

Mr. Camp claims that the purpose of ECB is to "bring about social cultural morality." Notice that Mr. Camp doesn't bother to actually cite any prominent ECBers who actually believe this.

In his closing section, Mr. Camp makes a very strong claim: "The body of Christ is not to be rallied in mass to overthrow or strong arm certain politicians to achieve our own moral agenda. That is against the command of Scripture, beloved, and dishonors the Lord." Let's overlook Mr. Camp's distortion of the practice of ECB. Educating and persuading fellow Christians about the best way to vote, or Christians exercising their right to vote, is not "overthrowing" or "strong arming" anyone. Let's focus on Mr. Camp's claim that ECB is "against the command of Scripture". Has Mr. Camp cited one Scripture to this effect? No, he has not. And that's because there are no Scriptures which forbid ECB. What God leaves to Christian liberty, Mr. Camp takes it upon himself to legislate against. Perhaps Mr. Camp is against lipstick, dancing, and drinking as well? Indeed, every day Mr. Camp cooperates with the pagans who own the hard drives that store his blog posts. Perhaps, in the spirit of secondary separation and purity of Christian witness, Mr. Camp will now store his blog posts on Christian-owned hard drives only?

And interesting, isn't it, that not once in the above do I have to appeal to the thesis of 'theonomy' to make my points? No where do I have to make the case that the OT case laws in exhaustive detail (including their prescribed penalties) are binding upon the civil magistrate today. I don't have to come anywhere near that position to point out that Mr. Camp's arguments against ECB continue to be foolish and unworthy of our assent.