Friday, June 02, 2006

Confessions of a Reformed mobster

John Armstrong has posted a questionnaire for the Truly Reformed.

One initial dilemma I face is that I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer these questions.

Presumably, I’d have to be a card-carrying member of the TR syndicate to answer them.

Am I one of the TR?

Short answer: we’re not allowed to tell.

The iMonk once published a contraband membership roll (recorded in the infamous Rule 40) which was smuggled out of Central Headquarters by a disaffected bookie, fingering Fide-O, Triablogue, Centuri0n, Pyromaniacs, Alpha and Omega Ministries, EmergentNo, and Doxoblogy.

I can neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of this list.

For one thing, Dr. White took my kid brother Elmer hostage and threatened to torture him (by making him listen to praise choruses from Mars Hill Church) in case I ever divulge my illiciit connections to La Calvinostra.

I once hired Jack Bauer to rescue Elmer, but Dr. White transferred him to the custody of Frank Turk, his consigliere, who—in turn—handed him over to Phil Johnson—head of black bag operations.

Rumors have it that members of the TR syndicate have a subdermal tracking device implanted at the base of the skull.

The membership is said to be subdivided into semi-autonomous cell groups so that if one member is captured by the roving death squads of Opus Dei, the syndicate will not be compromised.

So I can only answer these questions on condition of anonymity, along with an immunity deal signed by Alberto Gonzalez.

“1. Why do modern conservative Reformed Christians seem to have historical amnesia when it comes to events that transpired in church history from the death of John on the Isle of Patmos, late in the first century, until the completion of the Canon several centuries later?”

The interval between the death of John the Revelator and 95 Theses is known in Reformed theology as the Great Parenthesis.

“2. Why do modern conservative Reformed Christians virtually ignore the Church Fathers as well as the catholic creeds of the Christian church?”

Which church fathers do we ignore? Not Augustine.

As to the ancient creeds, the Christology of these creeds is incorporated into Reformed Confessions like the WCF and LBCF.

“3. Why do modern conservative Reformed Christians ignore the fact that John Calvin was especially influenced by the Church Fathers? For that matter why do these same conservative Reformed Christians virtually ignore other Reformed writers who relied very heavily upon the classical catholic tradition such as Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley?”

i) To begin with, Calvin’s historical situation was obviously different from ours. He was a one-time Catholic debating with Catholic theologians.

So there was going to be a debate over tradition, over who was truer to early tradition, over who was the real schismatic.

ii) Anglican authors often identify themselves as English Catholics rather than as Protestants.

“4. Why do conservative Reformed Christians treat only certain confessional traditions, such as the Westminster Confession or its cousin the London Baptist Confession, as if only these confessions and catechisms were the proper confessional grounds for the Reformed faith and thus for contemporary understanding of the Bible and classical Christian thought, if they even care about classical thought? These important creedal standards of the 17th century are not the only standards for orthodoxy, for all time and all cultures, and few have ever treated them in this manner. Therefore, why do ordinary Christians hardly ever hear this from the many of the conservative Reformed spokesmen? (There are few if any conservative Reformed spokeswomen, which is another question for another time.)”

For one thing, creeds are consensus documents, and certain periods are ripe for creed-making, while others are not.

To formulate a new Reformed confession at this stage of the game would be more divisive than unitive.

“5. Why do conservative Reformed Christians demand a kind of purity from other modern Reformed writers that allows so many of them to never actually engage the culture and do the hard work of the Kingdom in the 21st century?”

This charge is too indiscriminate to be answerable.

“Why do they attack all expressions of emerging culture and church life when in fact their tradition emerged in a specific time in history too?”

Once again, Armstrong doesn’t identify the target of his attack, so the question is unanswerable.

For example, both D. A. Carson and John Frame have written critically about certain leaders of the Emergent church movement.

Is this what Armstrong has in mind? If so, what exactly does he take exception to? If not, then who does he have in mind?

“6. Why do conservative Reformed Christians identify so strongly, and often so stridently, with other non-Reformed Christians in certain area of gospel controversy, especially in advocating very narrow definitions of the gospel in an attempt to impress lay people and inadequately taught pastors that they alone are standing for the truth in this dark day? This has been done over the last ten years with the issuance of various joint statements and widely promoted conferences, as if these faithful spokesmen alone have the courage to defend the gospel and the correct understanding of what actually constitutes the gospel.”

If Armstrong wants a serious answer, he needs to ask a serious question—instead of hiding behind veiled, accusatorial questions.

How does he define a “very narrow definition of the gospel”?

“7. Why do conservative Reformed Christians generally treat Roman Catholics (and Orthodox Christians if they bother to respond to them at all) as non-Christians, especially in their public pronouncements?”

Because we don’t think that a Catholic qua Catholic can offer a credible profession of faith.

Is a divided faith a saving faith? Is faith in the merit of Christ, along with faith in my personal congruent merit, along with faith the merit of Mary and the saints to justify me before God, the way in which the Bible defines saving faith?

“Do these same Reformed Christians, at least on the Presbyterian side of the aisle, ever admit that their own traditions have always accepted Catholic/Orthodox baptism as valid Christian baptism?”

i) This is not true of the Southern Presbyterian tradition.

ii) In any case, so what? Why should there be a gentlemen’s agreement between churches to accept each others baptism when they have next to nothing else in common?

Should we have some standards for the validity of baptism?

“I also wonder if these conservatives, who stand should-to-shoulder with other non-Reformed fundamentalists in a type of reductionism that results from their narrow gospel definitions (as noted as in question six above), really ever make these facts plain to their non-Reformed (Baptist and dispensational) allies, who I suppose would be aghast if they understood this?”

First he accuses the TR of being too exclusive. Now he accuses the TR of being too inclusive because we make common cause with the fundamentalists.

By way of an answer, a fundamentalist can make a credible profession of faith in a way that a Roman Catholic cannot.

“8. Why do conservative Reformed Christians rail so harshly, and react so emotionally, against liturgy in worship (a huge list could be constructed to make this point) on the one hand, while on the other they hate pop-cultural, happy-clappy, contemporary evangelical worship services with a passion?”

I personally don’t care if a Calvinist prefers a more liturgical style of worship.

“Do they realize that what they have created, in many cases, is a modern lecture hall with hymns and a collection? Do they realize that this is much more like a Plymouth Brethren gathering than a truly Reformed service, with all its variations and rich use of older liturgical tradition?”

What Reformed liturgical tradition does he have in mind? The Westminster Directory of worship?

“9. Why do conservative Reformed Christians often promote a high ecclesiology (in theory) while in practice they act much more like Southern Baptists who add presbyteries and general assemblies on to a modern form of culture religion? In practice these sorts of Reformed groups govern themselves, and do theology, less and less like historically Reformed bodies. Think populism and democractic idealism, not historic Reformed confessionalism, and you get my point.”

Well, for one thing, high ecclesiology was formulated at a time when the clergy were among the few members of the educated class.

But nowadays, when many laymen have college degrees (often advanced degrees), when a literate layman can read whatever his pastor is reading, then some measure of populism and democratization is inevitable.

Likewise, we don’t have a national church in the US. Pastors aren’t government employees. It’s the laity who pay their salaries, not Uncle Sam. Once again, that results in a measure of populism and democratization.

It also has the advantage of limiting clerical elitism.

“10. Why do conservative Reformed Christians promote certain aspects of Puritanism, often without really understanding Puritanism in the way a real scholar like J. I. Packer does, while at the same time they despise the real Puritan approach to the Holy Spirit and to a practical experiential religion centered in the heart?”

Centered in the heart as opposed to what—the head?

Define your terms.

“And why do these same people hate almost every type of ascetical or mystical theology while whole segments of the Reformed movement have loved these parts of the Christian tradition deeply?”

“Ascetical” in what sense? Obedience, poverty, and chastity?

“Mystical” in what sense? Should we be contemplatives?

“(This is precisely why some conservative Reformed spokesmen despise Jonathan Edwards, which I discovered first-hand, to my profound surprise, about ten years ago.)”

Is Armstrong alluding to revivalism or what?

“Separatism and fundamentalism are both alive and well among many conservative Reformed Christians in our day. I wish more people understood the simple truth of this obvious fact. I also wish more spokesmen would own up to this truth and allow an honest discussion in their circles of influence. (I am not holding my breath!) To open up such circles to an honest discussion would require an open denial of the narrow use of their creedal tradition.”

Armstrong shows no real interest in an honest discussion. If he were seeking an honest discussion, he’d ask honest questions.

What he does instead is to pose snide, rhetorical, tendentious, prejudicial questions—questions that assign blame at the outset of the discussion.

He poses deliberately unanswerable questions, questions that are framed to trap the TR into a preemptive admission of guilt.

Questions that are so vague as to be unanswerable.

To judge by this performance, Armstrong is simply using the format of a questionnaire as a rhetorical ploy to vent his resentment at shadowy targets.

“Bible-belt American culture has much more to do with these questions than historical creeds and confessions, as do pride of person and place.”

There’s a consistent strain of snobbery in Armstrong’s questionnaire as he tries to drive a wedge between the TR and his Elmer Gantry image of fundamentalism.

“In a very real sense even the appellation TR (Truly Reformed, or Totally Reformed) is quite inaccurate, though I fear it is too often worn as a badge of honor by many.”

Is it worn as a badge of honor? This is not a self-appellation, but a term of derision.

“Isn’t it time to address these questions honestly so that a new generation can hear the real beauty of how Reformed theology can actually make a solid contribution to restoring classical Christian faith and holy tradition to a culture-bound church that is knee deep in compromise and confusion? I see a growing number of younger Christians who find this whole "Reformed" view completely irrelevant the more they read widely and encounter real people in real churches. One can pray that their tribe will increase as people realize that we must live in the 21st century, not the 17th.”

Before we can honestly address a set of questions, we need a set of honest questions—not a smear campaign masquerading as dialogue.


  1. Your response to point 10 was weak, IMHO. Armstrong has a real case against Reformed types in that point 10. The others, not such a good case.

    Beethoven didn't compose his 3rd symphony using algorithms, and developing in the faith is not solely a matter of intellectually understanding the beautiful and powerful doctrines of grace (as important as they are, yet with the Spirit inside one understanding of them comes rather naturally). Anyway, to truly see and understand them requires more than mere intellect.

    It's IS difficult to think about emotion regarding the faith and how to develop in that area.

    For instance, one way to develop emotionally, or the heart, in the faith is the practice of consciously putting yourself in another person's shoes. Of course the shallow will teach that, or take that, in a moralising way, or way to preach political correction or whatever, but when a person in the faith does it honestly at times when that person would normally be asleep regarding other people's perspective and so on then it becomes a real practice that will develop one in the faith in a way that is not solely intellectual.

    Bringing up the biblical meaning of heart is one thing, but suggesting that that meaning has only to do with intellect is off-the-mark. Intellect is limited in a way the heart isn't. You increase your capacity for understanding via development of the heart (and yes that can sound abstract, or wishy-washy, yet there is a practical approach, I mean, stop the mocking and just think of the difference between learning and performing music vs. writing an essay on a doctrinal point. Just because there are types who are solely emotional and don't have a balanced (or don't try to have a balanced) development doesn't make effort to develop oneself emotionally a ridiculous thing. Being emotional in a shallow way (like many Roman Catholics, pining for Mary or similar things) and never thinking about biblical doctrine is not the faith. Neither is a solely intellectual approach.

    The emotional part of oneself vis-a-vis development in the faith is the hardest to see and the hardest to do (which is not a small reason why it is controversial). But for instance, separating oneself unto the Gospel can be painful. Separating yourself from the world can be difficult and emotional. Handling it requires effort to develop in the area of emotion (of the heart). It doesn't mean 'being emotional' in cliched ways or shallow ways.

    I could go on, but I'll end this here...

  2. I understand that Armstrong believes reformed theology is SO DARK THE CON OF MAN, to which I recommend using SOFIA to unlock this cryptex.

  3. sk, Beethoven did most assuredly compose the 3rd Symphony ("Eroica", meaning "heroic", originally dedicating it to Napoleon, but erasing NB's name after some the latter crowned himself emporer, rather like Heinlein's widow forcing the removal of his name from the Starship Troopers movie) using algorithms on many different levels. The first movement, for instance, is a modified sonata allegro; the second, a funeral march, etc. The individual movements have internal structure; the parts of movements, more structure, etc. The fact that LvB pulled off a great work of art is not diminished simply because he used the conventional structures (algorithms) of his day. You need a new analogy.

  4. Thanks, Jim Crigler, but you're talking to a musician (classical) who is very aware of form and structure.

    Music has structure? that's your point? Methinks your point rather is: a computer could have composed Beethoven's 3rd. Now, if that's not your point you have no point, and that point is not a good point.