Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Selective ecumenism

Kevin Johnson has replied to my most recent comments on Enloe (“The good old days”):

<< Translation: I’m not a biblicist, I’m a fundamentalist in Reformed clothing. I don’t agree with Jesus’ prayer in John 17 for the Church to be unified, and I couldn’t care less about Psalm 133 where unity is a blessed thing among brothers. I’m sure the Psalms have no relevance for today’s churches whatsoever [is there a Klinean influence over at RTS?]! >>

1.To get a couple of red herrings out of the way as soon as possible, I don’t speak for RTS—only myself. Also, I’m more theonomic than Klinean.

2.Do I agree with Jn 17? The better question is, does Kevin agree with Jn 17? There’s a difference between quoting Scripture and knowing what it means.

3.The problem with Kevin’s appeal—and this is typical of those who take historical theology rather than exegetical theology as their point of reference—is that he makes no effort to interpret the passage in its original context. Instead, he plucks it out of its 1C setting, and transplants it to 21C soil. But you only know how Scripture applies to the present if you know what it meant in the past. To jump straight from the 1C to the 21C, under the unexamined assumption that this is applicable to your own situation, is a completely tendentious move.

4.Before we discuss my take on Jn 17, let’s play along with Kevin’s. Kevin believes that Jesus’ prayer has been a failure up until now. That it’s fulfillment remains in limbo.

Now, when you consider that this is our Lord’s High Priestly prayer for the salvation of the elect throughout church history, the suggestion that his prayer has received a negative answer for the first two-thousand years of church history—or the past five-hundred years, depending on when Kevin happens to think the wheels came off—then, in that case, we’re cooked.

I, by contrast, believe that the Father has answered the prayer of his Son, that the Father answers the prayer of his Son throughout the duration of the church age. So which of us truly believes Jn 17? Kevin? Or myself?

5.There are many forms of unity. What form of unity is in view in Jn 17? Doctrinal unity? Institutional unity?

Carson, in his commentary on John (p568), believes that the unitive imagery is an allusion to the parable of the vine in chapter 15. I find this a plausible interpretation.

If so, then every branch is united to every other branch by being united to the vine. Dropping the metaphor, every (true) Christian is already united to every other Christian by virtue of his union with Christ.

If so, then the fulfillment of Jn 17 was inaugurated in the 1C, and continues to be fulfilled throughout church history, until the consummation.
If so, then Jn 17 has absolutely no bearing on ecumenism.

Now, perhaps Kevin would take issue with Carson’s interpretation. If so, let him explain where Carson went wrong, and offer an alternative interpretation which arises out of the original text and context.

6.In addition, Morris, in his commentary (2nd ed., 644), points out that “the unity prayed for is a unity already given: Jesus does not pray that they may ‘become’ one, but that they may ‘continually be’ one”—based on the present subjunctive form of the verb.

That would be another strike against Kevin’s appropriation of the text. Again, Kevin may disagree with Morris at this juncture. If so, let him explain where Morris is going wrong.

7.As to Ps 133, Kevin’s appeal begs the question of who our “brothers” are. The Psalm was addressed to the covenant community. The “brothers” in view are already members of the covenant community. They shared a common history—the Exodus. A common creed and code of conduct—the Law of Moses.

So Kevin needs to explain the nature of the correspondence between Ps 133 and modern-day Christendom. Is this a one-to-one correspondence? A one-to-many correspondence? Who counts as a brother-in-Christ by Kevin’s criteria? What are Kevin’s criteria? Is he talking about fellow Evangelicals? Roman Catholics? The Greek Orthodox? Who and what, when and where?

Just to seize on a 10C BC phrase about brothers who live in unity and transport that to contemporary ecumenism begs the question of who, indeed, is a brother-in-Christ, and how one Christian is or is not united to another. Kevin needs to redeem the verbal voucher with a detailed explanation.

<< Oh yeah…and another thing…that whole history thing where like…the magisterial Reformers regretted unnecessary division. >>

1.We all regret “unnecessary” division. But this begs the question of what division are necessary or unnecessary. Like a gerbil on a wheel, Kevin is talking at a furious pace without advancing the argument one inch.

2.Division is not necessarily a bad thing. Division can also be a sign of vitality. The churches most active in the ecumenical movement are dead and dying churches. They go limping back to Rome because they can no longer make it on their own. Or they merge with one another by pooling their collective unbelief. Two sinking ships united by a common gangplank.

3.Does Kevin regard church history as a descriptive discipline or a normative discipline? What about the Reformers’ identification of Rome with the Antichrist? Does he agree with that? Apparently not. So church history is not, for him, a normative discipline. In that event, why is he invoking the Reformers against us when it serves his purpose, but exempting himself when it disserves his purpose?

He is not appealing to the “whole” history thing, but only “parts” of the history thing. What are his selection criteria? Not historical theology itself, since he is selecting out all the recalcitrant parts of historical theology that don’t fit into his catholicity scheme.

I’m selective too. And Scripture supplies my criterion. But Kevin can’t make that move since that would turn him into a dreaded Biblicist a.k.a. fundamentalist.

4.Part of taking church history seriously is making allowance of the difference between their historical position and ours. The Protestant Reformers were all ex-Catholics. They defined themselves in relation and reaction to Rome. For them, the break with Rome was a wrenching experience.

But we live hundreds of years later. There’s a lot of historical distance between us and Rome. The conflict with Rome is one way we continue to define ourselves, but not the only way. We’ve got a positive identity of our own.

In addition, the contemporary Catholic Church is very different from the Medieval Latin Church or Tridentine Catholicism. It is formally committed to Trent, but it has also become a very liberal institution. And that retrospective viewpoint needs to be brought to bear as well.

5.I’m all for working to remove unnecessary divisions. I’d like every believer to embrace the doctrines of grace. I’d like every unbeliever to embrace the doctrines of grace. That’s not going to happen, but I’m doing my little best to promote the gospel of grace.

<< Mr. Enloe has also dialogued extensively with certain ‘Reformed” critics at length. >>

Here’s a radical idea. Why doesn’t Enloe show his bona fides may not caricaturing the position of his critics. That would be a very promising start.

<< Our friend Mr. Enloe has constantly defended the Reformed faith in and amongst discussions and debates with Catholics. >>

1.And which “Reformed faith” might that be, exactly? After all, Kevin goes on to say that:
<< We are called to die to ourselves and live for Christ–not the Reformed faith, Reformed polity, or Reformed jurisprudence. All of those things are subject to Christ our King and unless and until they actually serve Christ our King in the working of the Church a true Reformer would do nothing but issue the clarion call of the Reformation, ’semper Reformanda’. >>

So the “Reformed faith” which he is defending seems to present a moving target.

2.And that brings us to the next question: What is the target? What is the goal? What do “Reformed Catholics” Like Kevin and Enloe believe that we should all believe? And what do we presently believe which we should cease to believe in the interests of catholicity?

Is there some historical statement of faith where this can be found? Is it the Westminster Confession? The London Baptist Confession? The Thirty-Nine Articles? The Formula of Concord? The Remonstrant Articles?

Of if there is no historical statement of faith which answer to the goal, then let Kevin or Enloe tell us, in their own words, what creed we should all unite around.

This is a reasonable question. What precisely are they aiming for? If the goal is to “put our churches back together,” then show us the street map. What’s the destination? How do we know we've arrived unless we know where we’re going?

If you’re really serious about this, you should be able to answer that question. You should be eager to answer the question. What do you want us to rally around?

<< I’ll tell you one thing. The above comment makes it plain that an attitude like that will keep things the way they are. >>

Well, that’s the crux of ecumenism, is it not? Ecumenism only works if you happen to be an ecumenist. One ecumenist can agree with another.

But that’s not the challenge of ecumenism, is it? If ecumenism is to succeed, it has to win over those who don’t believe in ecumenism—not only those who already do. Ecumenism is like pacifism: if it could work, it would work.

For Kevin to dismiss my attitude is an admission of defeat—a surrender of his own ideals. He is substituting the problem for the solution. That “one thing,” that one little bump is the road, that one innocuous pebble is the immovable boulder against which every ecumenical effort has come to grief. Catholicity is only for his kind of people.

<< But what this ‘NiceTryGuy’ fails to note is the life-giving power of the Spirit of God to accomplish his means through His Church throughout history. God gave us the Reformation and we should be thankful for what we have learned from it as well as what God has brought out of it. However, we know that God also could work to put our churches back together. >>

I don’t do theology on the basis of what God “could” do. I do theology on the basis of what God has done, and what he has promised to do.

It is possible for God to do any number of things which he has never done, and shall never do. Hence his potentia absoluta is no guide to his potentia ordinata. A well-founded faith is a faith in the revelatory record of what God has actually done in the past, and what he has promised to do in the future.


  1. Steve, it may veer into psychology, or looking into people's hearts regarding effectual calling, and I understand if you don't want to go there, but I wonder what your take may be on what a Kevin Johnson or Tim Enloe feel they are missing in their experience of the Faith? They obviously feel something is lacking for them. Would their longings be an example of this phrase "immanentize the eschaton"?

  2. I think it should be pointed out that when Kevin Johnson states that Tim Enloe has defended Reformed theology against RC critics and all that that that was before (love those instances of three 'thats' in a row by the way) that that was before Enloe had his "break" (very public break) from his old allegiances with Reformed apologists like White and Svendsen and people like that. Part of Enloe's break from all that involved a very public "reconsideration" of Reformed theology in which Reformed theology, in his mind, came to be something very much of less value than he viewed it in the past.

    (And, please, I know that we're talking about a guy living in an apartment in Idaho with a connection to the internet, but, you know, it is the Enloes who end up teaching theology in universities, and he seems to be on that academic track currently himself.)

    Since that break it is not a false charge to say that Enloe has been pretty much "nasty always" towards what he now calls sneeringly "Reformedville".

    So, take that into consideration when Kevin Johnson attempts to defend Enloe by bringing up his past apologetic efforts.

    I will add that it is part of the schtik (sp?) of these Reformed Catholics to "affect" a knowledge of and sympathy to Reformed theology (Calvinism) and to use their past involvement in it to garner them some kind of moral high ground or special status as they go about undermining it and misquoting its theologians and sneering at its most foundational points of doctrine (which are, for the record, the most foundational points of doctrine of the Bible itself, it goes without saying....if you value and understand Reformed theology as Biblical doctrine).

  3. Thanks for your background info in the second post. As to the question in your first comment, it's true that many Christians suffer from an unrealistic expectation of the level of spiritual experience (of God's felt presence) they can hope for in this life.

    But from what I can tell, and I haven't read everything of his by a long shot, he seems to feel that sola Scriptura assumes the possibility of "objective," knowledge, which has been disproven by postmodernism. Hence, we need some back-up system to supplement sola Scripture.

    In my opinion, this objection suffers from an inadequate grasp of providence--as well as a misplaced burden of proof. I've discussed that general issue in my essay entitled "Without a doubt."