It’s About Theology, Stupid (Not Ideology)

It is always curious to me when my CRC denomination is diagnosed as being Liberal. I can’t help but think that this is mainly a way to invoke the dreaded L-word in order to make the point. But the point made always seems so very far off the mark.

Per Darryl Hart’s “Lost Soul of American Protestantism,” I am one of the fully persuaded that the proper taxonomy when broadly assessing American religion is not between conservatism and liberalism but between evangelicalism and confessionalism. The latter are broader categories that the former actually fit into. Conservatives and liberals alike inhabit that which is evangelical as well as that which is confessional. Conservative/liberal are mainly ideological terms, while evangelical/confessional are theological terms. Invoking terms like “liberal” and “fundamentalist” to describe things is really one evangelical’s way of impugning the other who is interpreted to have certain ideological devotions not his own. The point is to cast the other in a caricatured light. It is to play on ideology to make a theological case. It presumes that ideology supersedes theology and that one really does imply the other. It is very hard, I daresay impossible, in modern America to distinguish between ideology and theology as the western tradition has so conflated them. Like Horton once wrote in Beyond Culture Wars, (paraphrasing), one gets in more hot water with certain religionists when he disagrees with Rush Limbaugh than with a particular doctrine of the Atonement.

Certainly, when fundamentalism and liberalism are used in theological ways they are odious terms to the confessionalist for different reasons. Liberalism denies the historical faith, for example, and fundamentalism is “orthodoxy gone cultic,” as Carnell once said. Machen, a paramount confessionalist, in his fight against the former resisted being enlisted in the rank and file of the latter, saying it “sounded like another religion.”

The proper diagnoses of something like the CRC is that of being on a trajectory away from narrow confessionalism and toward broad evangelicalism. In my years within her this seems like the only diagnoses that ever really makes sense. It explains that slowly unfolding sense that what I rejected all those years ago is being embraced, why it sounds so much like the evangelical world I inhabited and virtually nothing like the Reformed confessionalism I expected to find when I made my trek to the dark side. It explains the blank stares and the sound of crickets chirping when I suggest that measuring the success of a church is like that of one’s golf game: the less going on the better.

Witnessing Dutch Calvinsists try to ape Revivalist-Evangelicals is nothing if not entertaining. They don’t really do it all that well, at least not like the Revivalist-Evangelicals with which I am so familiar. It is a bit like watching your father try to be hip. One really should stick with what he is.

But if this diagnosis of liberalism were correct one would expect to see churches more like Fountain Street Baptist and less like Willow Creek or Mars Hill. So far as I can tell, there is only one Fountain Street and a plethora of mega-churches that are either proto-types or full-blown. As I survey ground zero of Little Geneva, it sure seems like Graham and Hybels are king, not Schliermacher and Littlefair.

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13 Responses to It’s About Theology, Stupid (Not Ideology)

  1. Mike says:

    I like your assessment of your church. I lived in the CRC Mecca for 4 years and went to a non-denominational Reformed School called at the time Reformed Bible College…now Kuiper College…I always found it interesting that they did not want to be known in GR as a CRC Bible college but everywhere else in the world that is how they were known. Even when I served on the board I sought to drive away the “myth” but it is hard to lose your identity…and then to change the name to Kuiper College. Oh well.

    My own denomination…PCA…has been denouncing the CRC as liberal for years (as if there is none of those factions within us either…we do seem to root them out faster than mainline churches but they still exist to deny that would be silly) and I suppose that there is some of that in the CRC if we are honest but is there ever really a liberal/conservative framework at place in the Church? Isn’t it always really evangelical/confessional that fits? I wonder about the “broadness” of evangelicalism and I am struck by the number of “liberals” that can live there quite comfortably but they are always “fighting for their rights” in more confessional churches even those that may be slipping … but they are slipping away from their original foundations… Scripture/confession. I wonder if we have done a disservice by ever using those titles of the church.

  2. Zrim says:

    Mike,

    How does one call itself a Bible college and hope that nobody perceives you as a Bible college? Sometimes I just plain marvel.

    Sean Lucas has called the PCA “Fundamentalists lerning to be Presbyterian.” In this way, I am not so sure I always trust something like the PCA to diagnose something like the CRC, seems like more Fundy/Liberal spatting. I don’t have any need to defend the CRC, but when the criticism is just as misguided as the culprit, one gets, what?, skeptical.

  3. Steven Carr says:

    I am PCA attending Kuyper College (note that it is “Kuyper” not “Kuiper”, as in Abraham not H.J.), from what I’ve seen at college you are almost correct in your assessment. However, Hybels and Graham are not king, Rob Bell is king. If I see another “Love Wins” bumper sticker, I am going to hurl.
    But Rob Bell is only king on a popular level. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that the conservative/liberal paradigm fits well at the institutional level of the CRC. Lyle Bierma seems more like a liberal than an evangelical, for example.

  4. Zrim –

    Good post, but make sure you use the capital “E” Evangelical to define Evangelicalism to which the general CRC at large is running into. We confessional types are small “e” evangelical, that is we believe in the “evangel” – the Gospel!!

    I sympathize with your guarding against calling the CRC a Liberal denomination, they still are a far cry from the Protestant Liberals of the early 20th century, but I fear for how much longer that will be true. They are definitely moving towards the “mainline” and could end up some day into the Liberal camp (this papal visit pushes it farther into that direction however!).

  5. Zrim says:

    Steven,

    I never knew what those bumper stickers were until recently, which I take as a good sign (!). Now…what do they mean? I honestly don’t know…anyone?

    TIME magazine dubbed Bell “the new Billy Graham.” http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1692051,00.html

    I think that assessment is pretty close, insofar as Evangelicalism just keeps reinventing itself but never really does at the same time. (I almost included Bell with Hybles and Graham since I see them as essentially from the same Evangelical tradition.)

    I can see why you think this assessment is “almost right,” since you still seem to be using the cons/lib categories. But I still think the taxonomy, institutional or otherwise, is Evang/Conf.

  6. Zrim says:

    Mark,

    You got me, great point about upper-lower casing! In my defense, I was feeling really cruddy this morning and lazy and in a bad mood and neglected that all-important feature while typing. I went home and took some Tylenol, and now I am not so cranky.

    Good points. I am painting with some pretty broad strokes. These things are not so cut and ry, but I do think the Hartian taxonomy is much better than any other to assess these things, if we have to decide. Moreover, if we can allow that elements of the CRC will hurl off into Liberalism, we might be do well to look for equally bad breaks off into Fundy-ville. Sometimes I get the feeling that the URC (at least locally) might be a good example; they seem to be like the PRCers who are basically “not CRC.”

    More often than not (and I get heat for saying stuff like this by my URC friends but kudos from my PCA friends), my sense of the URC can be that it is the Reformed version of Bible church Fundamentalism. But something tells me the SC URC, for example, is just different from SW Michigan URC.

  7. Echo_ohcE says:

    I would like to define “Liberalism” according to a hermeneutic. Painting with very broad strokes, what defines liberalism is, to me, basically the kernel-husk hermeneutic.

    This hermeneutic says that it is the Ideas of Scripture that matters, not what the Scripture actually says. This allows liberals to, for example, deny a literal resurrection, saying that it is the Idea of the resurrection that matters. In reality, Christ did not physically rise from the dead, but spiritually in his body, the Church. This is the kind of thing that liberals do.

    This approach to Scripture necessarily undermines its authority. Usually the purpose is to disbelieve in any and all supernatural occurrences in Scripture, such as the miracles of Jesus or the apostles, or the resurrection.

    I think the charge that the CRC has become liberal is warranted insofar as the CRC has ordained women. Whatever you say about the ordination of women, you at least have to say that there are some passages of Scripture, particularly in Paul, that make that position very difficult to defend. Thus, one of the biggest and most difficult tasks for those who want to ordain women is to explain what these texts mean in such a way that it means something other than what it says.

    I have read such arguments. These arguments have to employ the liberal hermeneutic in order to turn “I do not permit a woman to have authority over a man” into “women in authority is ok.”

    But let’s not get into the specifics of these arguments, because it’s not really that important for this discussion. What is important is the general rejection of the authority of Scripture inherent in these arguments.

    The CRC, by adopting the practice of ordaining women, has accepted these arguments that undermine the authority of Scripture, employing liberal hermeneutics to turn the meaning of Scripture away from what it says toward what it does not say.

    Is the CRC becoming broadly Evangelical? Yes. But it is tossing out Scripture deliberately in order to do so. That’s the very definition of Liberalism. That’s the VERY SAME THING that Machen rails against over and over, not the least of which in his book, Christianity and Liberalism.

    What is now present in the CRC was then present in the Presbyterian Church, when it comes to the accepted view of Scripture. Sure, it’s over different issues, because in the 1920’s the issue was the very divinity of Christ, whereas in the CRC, the issue is the ordination of women. But whether it’s one error or another is really not the point. The point is what has to happen in your view of Scripture in order to embrace such errors.

    The ordination of women by itself is not the end of the world. How you have to mangle Scripture to get there is far more grievous, and the ordination of women is only the beginning. Soon the confessions will mean nothing, people will be speaking in tongues, you’ll be giving communion to 3 year olds, and the list will go on from there.

    The authority of Scripture has been permanently undermined in the CRC. Things will only continue to go from bad to worse.

    Bob Godfrey has said in print that “the CRC has become another American Methodist Church.” He’s absolutely right. You don’t need a crystal ball to see where this is going.

    E

  8. Zrim says:

    Good point, Echo.

    Often, though, those who point to female ordination don’t seem to have that line of argument. I get the sense very often that some would be happy with making the trajectory toward broad Evangelicalism male and all would be well, which makes me suspect that ideology attends the women’s issue. But I think this issue is just one in a string that have to do with the sort of undermining you suggest. I would hasten, though, to say that the key is in the undermining of the confessions which themselves teach us how to read scripture. I’d rarther side with confessionalist arguments than biblicist ones.

  9. Echo_ohcE says:

    There is little difference between undermining the confessions and undermining Scripture if we actually believe that the confessions teach what the Scripture says. The confessions, after all, derive their value from being true to Scripture.

  10. Zrim says:

    Echo,

    Sure enough. To undermine the confessions is to ultimately undermine scripture.

    But my point is that there seems a subtle difference in how we speak about these things. And very often subtle differences can make all the difference. The confessions are different from the scripture, and it seems to me that we should always keep in mind the nature of the two and their relationship to each other. When we say that undermining one is to undermine the other it can almost sound as if we make no necessary distinction between them.

    When we don’t do that it ends up sounding like a beer commercial about “what the Bible says”: “Less filling! Tastes great!” When female ordination comes up, for example, otherwise subordinationist confessional arguments sometimes rely on something like, “The bible says so.”

  11. Dave Sarafolean says:

    “Witnessing Dutch Calvinsists try to ape Revivalist-Evangelicals is nothing if not entertaining. They don’t really do it all that well, at least not like the Revivalist-Evangelicals with which I am so familiar. It is a bit like watching your father try to be hip. One really should stick with what he is.”

    Perhaps the only thing worse than this is watching Lutherans trying to do it. The LC-MS is also battling these trends (witness the cancellation of Todd Wilkens’ radio program “Issues, Etc.”). Lot’s of pressure is being brought to bear on confessional pastors and churches to conform to Bill Hybels/ Rick Warren/ Andy Stanley, etc.

    In our part of Michigan one LC-MS has gone totally seeker sensitive and they have lots of people in attendance. That ‘success’ has led to at least one confessional pastor losing his church for refusing to comply and be hip. Other confessional pastors are keeping their heads down and quietly trying to resist lest they also lose their churches.

    Dave Sarafolean, Pastor
    Christ Covenant Church, PCA
    Midland, Michigan

  12. Zrim says:

    Dave,

    I must admit that the notion of Lutherans apeing this stuff is more weird than Dutch Reformed.

    Heaven help the faithful.

  13. Mike says:

    Hey Dave Mike Singesntreu here. Long time no see..if you even remember me. What a place to connect..no offense Zrim….my email:pastordad@nodial.net to connect…

    Now to this issue of Lutherans..you ought to be in South Texas the old timers are going nuts and the newbies (fire department talk) aren’t sure what is going on. they are going back for the formalism and finding it missing in action on so many levels.

    Mike Singenstreu,
    Christ Presbyterian Church, PCA
    Victoria, TX.

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