Emotions are the enemy of nuance

Carl Trueman has a helpful post, actually it’s the preface for a forthcoming book, at the Gospel Coalition:

We live in an age when the challenges to Christianity, theological and practical (if one can separate such), are pressing in from all sides. Perhaps the most obvious challenge is the issue of homosexuality. Given the high pastoral stakes in this matter, it is important that we make the right decisions.

What has this to do with the thought of a man who died nearly 350 years ago? Simply this: in our era much practical thinking is driven by emotions. Emotions are enemies of fine distinctions. And yet the ethical and practical issues facing the church today demand precisely such fine distinctions if we are to do our task as pastors and church members: comfort the brokenhearted and rebuke those at ease in their sin. And John Owen was of an era when fine distinctions were part of the very fabric of practical theology.

Read the rest here.

Orthodoxy is not enough


In the early twentieth century Ireland was a socially conservative, Catholic nation with significant laws against abortion. Women who became pregnant out of wedlock were shunned by society and turned to religious workhouses for shelter and sustenance both for them and for their children. Their children were given in adoption, often to parents in the United States. The mothers did not have the option to keep their babies and, further, had to “pay their debt” by two to three years of labor.

A scandal has erupted after the bodies of hundreds of children (actually 800) have been discovered in a septic tank at the site of one of these workhouses that was once operated by an order of Roman Catholic nuns. It seems that most of these children died before the age of one and with the major causes of death providing some evidence of abuse: malnutrition, measles, convulsions, tuberculosis, gastroenteritis and pneumonia. At the time the mortality rate in Ireland sat at or around 50%, which is something one never really picks up on simply by observing Tom Branson on Downtown Abbey.

Rod Dreher reflects on the horror of this tragedy in The American Conservative with a couple of paragraphs that really pack a punch:

…[T]his revolting monument to ecclesial and social evil does not obviate the importance of marriage, nor does it obviate the truth of Christianity. It does not make unwed childbearing good or desirable. But it does condemn a Catholic Ireland that saw sexual purity as more important than human life, or common decency.

To childrenChildren seen by Christ’s own consecrated brides as so filthy they deserved burial in a septic tank.

And it behooves people like me, who bemoan the cruelties and disorder of our own post-Christian era, to recognize that the order whose passing we mourn contains within it many things that are better off consigned to hell.

Dreher’s words are sobering. They are a stark reminder that theological orthodoxy is not a guarantee of common decency, let alone holiness.


Can only followers of Jesus Christ be saved?

“Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.” This tricky little statement appears on the Presbyterian Panel Study, a statistical sample of responses to a set of questions posed to PC (USA) teaching elders, ruling elders, and members over a three year period. 

Less than 50% of respondents typically agree or strongly agree with that statement. This often leads to the conclusion that the PC (USA) is functionally universalist in theology. Many attempting to be dismissed from the PC (USA) point to this as a central issue precipitating their departure. in 2010 Peter Chang, administrator of the survey, reached that conclusion himself.

“There seems to be some universalist streak in Presbyterianism, where some Presbyterians are open to the idea of other paths that folks in other faiths might be taking.”

Is the PC (USA) functionally universalist? It’s understandable that many reach this conclusion, but probably not warranted on the basis of this survey question alone. In other words, to argue that the PC (USA) is functionally universalist, it’s necessary to point to evidence other than this survey.


In my view, it’s the question itself that is problematic. It forces the respondent to venture out into the realm of God’s possibilities stepping beyond Scripture into speculative theology. 

Respondents who disagree may do so for a variety of reasons including the belief that God, in himself, is not limited in what he can do. The answer is technically true, but intellectually unsatisfactory because it poses a question whose answer tells us more about the nature of God in himself than it does about the way God acts in the world. It moves into the realm of speculative theology and out of the realm of biblical theology (i.e., theology that has the Bible as it’s evidentiary foundation). The response moves into the world of medieval-like theology where scholars discussed matters like, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” To be sure, the nature of the relationship of the spiritual to the temporal and material is not unimportant, but I think we’d all agree that (at least superficially) the answer to this question has little to do with our experience of God today. 

It’s sort of like another question–a perennial favorite of youth groups–“can God make a rock so heavy that He is unable to lift it?” The best answer I can come up with is, “why would God want to do this?”


Calvin had little time for speculative theology like this. His theological method was driven by appealing to the text of Scripture, which he read primarily in relationship to other parts of Scripture in consultation with the teaching of the Church Fathers. We do well to follow him.

In following Calvin, and in reading this question closely, we will likely be forced to be open to God’s ability to save those who are not followers of Christ, at least hypothetically. However, “can God save those who are not followers of Jesus Christ” is not the same thing as “will God save those who are not followers of Jesus Christ?” The former is a question of ability or power, the latter a question of intention.

In the end, we don’t know whom God will save other than to say–with the Scriptures–that he will save his elect. Wisdom is found in the Westminster Confession which notes:

The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened. [14.1]

Put simply: God ordinarily saves those who (1) encounter the Gospel message, (2) are enabled by God’s Spirit to embrace it, and (3) respond in faith to the message they have heard, by (4) turning away from their sin, and (5) relying on Christ to be their surety and substitute.

To the extent that Teaching Elders in the PC (USA) tend to enter into speculative theological answers in reference to this tricky question and not the Confessional heritage of the church is really the central problem. As a result, I’m more comfortable saying that the PC (USA) is un-catechized than that it is functionally universalist. Both, to be sure, are significant problems.

Why God created the world

[T]he creation of all good things in the world for the benefit and enjoyment of humans is not…an end in itself, but is rather the way God initially reveals to humankind that he is the author and fountain of every good thing. Our use and enjoyment of the good things of creation is not intended by God to be an end in itself, but is rather the way God allures and invites us to seek him as the source of every good thing.”

Randall Zachman, “The Universe as the Living Image of God” in Oliver D. Crisp, Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology (IVP 2013).

Making sense of Calvin on church unity

When the going gets tough, the tough quote Calvin. It’s interesting that as soon as a congregation begins to consider seeking dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA), Calvin becomes everyone’s best friend. If you can’t have the Bible one your side, the next best thing is to have Calvin at your back. The problem arises when Calvin–sort of like the Bible–becomes simply a tool to be used to buttress an argument arrived at prior to consulting him. And to be honest, much of what we do is appeal to authorities that we believe support our received view rather than affirmatively creating our own perspective. It’s not to say this is wrong so much as that it is inevitable.

So, let me ask the question: when is it okay to depart the visible church (the visible church being the institution of the church marked by a common way of ordering life and belief? 



In order to justify leaving a church (or denomination for our purposes), Calvin required that you be able to answer each of these questions in the affirmative:

  1. Is there an error of doctrine or practice in the visible church?
  2. Is that error significant in nature (i.e., touching on an important, primary belief or practice of the church—Calvin’s examples focus on the person and work of Christ)?
  3. Is that error promulgated by a higher authority and more pervasive than a single pastor, session, or congregation (i.e., it cannot be a local peculiarity)?
  4. Does the error in question necessarily involve, affect, or compromise one’s own ministry or the ministry of the local church (Calvin argues that if 1-3 are true it will necessarily mean 4 is also true)?

 If the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” Calvin asserts that church or denomination in question has so compromised its belief and practice that it may be characterized as a false church. As such, individual believers or member congregations may seek dismissal with a clear conscience.

It’s important to note that, for Calvin, a true church may have numerous errors, notorious sinners, unfaithful ministers, and yet be a true church (this point is often made by those arguing against departing from the PC (USA)). Likewise, a false church may have pockets of faithful ministers, flourishing congregations, and lively saints (perhaps something that needs to be pointed out by more evangelicals). 

Drilling down in The Institutes (IV.1-2), we can follow the development of Calvin’s thought:

A church exists where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are administered.[1] Calvin argues that one cannot choose to leave such a properly ordered church simply because of some doctrinal defect or practical error.

For example, arguments that appeal to solely or primarily to efficiency of church structure don’t, I believe, fall within the scope of Calvin’s argument. So while appealing to the ‘flatness of ECO’ is nice and even compelling, Calvin would likely not accept it as an exclusive or even primary argument for leaving the PCUSA.

Likewise the argument that “what they do in Louisville doesn’t affect me” or “they can’t make us do something we don’t want to do” aren’t necessarily recognized by Calvin either. He makes clear in IV.2 that any substantial error on a core doctrine necessarily affects the whole church.

The visible church, for Calvin, is analogous to the Old Testament people of God. He anticipates that there will always be people in the (visible) church who are not truly converted and there will always be some measure of doctrinal impurity just as there was within Israel.

In this he is responding to the Anabaptists who placed a high emphasis on “regenerate church membership,” in distinction from the reformed church and its emphasis on baptism of infants as the entryway to church membership.

In order to leave a church, it’s necessary that a serious doctrinal or practical error has occurred that has actually moved the church from the category of “true” church to “false” church. A serious doctrinal or practical error includes such cardinal or core beliefs as those expressed in the Ecumenical Creeds.

For Calvin this error(s) had to be more than an isolated occurrence(s). Instead, it had to be a doctrinal or practical problem rooted in the structure, belief, and practice of the whole visible church itself.

Calvin deals with this corruption in terms of his own interaction with medieval Catholicism, which he asserts has been compromised by the institution of the papacy. Here our closest analog is actions of the General Assembly, which are binding upon all teaching elders, councils, and churches.

In our current context, it is necessary to point to some doctrinal (belief) or practical error (practice) that is promulgated by an authority higher than a single pastor or congregation in order to determine whether or not a church is true.

Calvin himself acknowledges that though the Catholic Church is a “false” church—and thus he is free to depart from it—there are many congregations of faithful people within it.

We may look around the Presbyterian Church (USA) and see many faithful congregations and pastors, yet this alone is not sufficient ground to declare that the denomination is a true church.

We must determine whether there is a significant theological error that is substantial in nature, touches upon an essential doctrine of the faith, and that materially affects the integrity of our ministry in the local context.

Late this week we’ll delve deeper into the sort of issues that meet this criterion.


[1] Inst. IV.ii.1.

You cannot have mission without discipleship

Over the fifteen years since the publication of Darryl Guder’s landmark book The Missional Church, North American Christianity has become enamored of the word “missional.” This is no bad thing, but Mike Breen observes in this post that the future of missional may not be quite as bright as we hope. Could it be that in the next several years “missional” will sound in our ears much the same as “seeker sensitive” does today? Perhaps.

That may seem cynical, but I’m being realistic. There is a reason so many movements in the Western church have failed in the past century: They are a car without an engine. A missional church or a missional community or a missional small group is the new car that everyone is talking about right now, but no matter how beautiful or shiny the vehicle, without an engine, it won’t go anywhere.

Breen points out something that congregations often overlook: mission and discipleship are interdependent. Discipleship that fails to participate in the mission of God in some practical way isn’t really discipleship. Mission that isn’t rooted and sustained in Christ-centered community isn’t really mission at all.





The real problem in today’s church is that we’re not at all sure how to root our lives in the presence of God and in Christian community. Skye Jethani notes:

Many church leaders unknowingly replace the transcendent vitality of a life with God for the ego satisfaction they derive from a life for God.

As we engage in mission, it is critical that our minds and hearts be connected God through a life of vital piety. 

It’s often assumed that evangelicals do not have the theological resources necessary to provide a foundation for missional discipleship. In the Reformed tradition, at least, nothing could be further from the truth. Calvin’s central critique of the monasticism of his time was not it’s practices, but that it was limited to a select few (see Boulton, Life with God 2011). Calvin saw the church as company of believers united around Word and sacrament and whose lives were marked by the intentional practice of the spiritual disciplines used by monastic communities. The difference–Calvin’s Christians were “monks” in the world and it was not a peculiar calling, but one that is universal to all believers–the democratization of the monastic spiritual disciplines.

In order to be missional in an authentic and sustainable way, we need to recapture Calvin’s sense of our being monastics in the world–people practicing the presence of God in the midst of our secular callings. Only then can we successfully integrate mission into life without simply burdening ourselves with another project for God.

Are we a church separated by a common language?

Disclaimer: This post is designed to be neither polemical nor apologetic. I’m attempting to describe what I am observing in the midst of the current unrest in the PC(USA). While it is a generalization, I think there a significant degree of accuracy in this observation. -JBG

An American walked into an Oxford pub and addressed the bartender, “I’d like a beer and some chips.” The response puzzled him, “It’ll be five minutes on the chips, they’re in the fryer.” Looking behind the bar, the man noticed row after row of different types of chips–regular, salt and vinegar, barbecue–lined up ready to go. It’s been observed that the United States and Great Britain are two nations divided by a common language. In Britain, chips are crisps and the word chips refers what we might call fries.


The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a denomination separated by a common language. It’s not our only challenge, but certainly ranks among the top five.

This reality often escapes the casual observer who reads our Book of Confessions and Book of Order. When any of us reads, we pour into the words before our eyes a meaning we associate with those words based on our education, experience, and convictions. In other words, we engage in interpreting those words–that is, we translate. This is why lawyers (and philosophers) are so precise with words. At least one job of a good lawyer is to ensure that her client clearly understands what, in reality, he is agreeing to. There is, of course, often a difference between what we think we’re agreeing to and what the other person thinks we are agreeing to. The difference often lies in the interpretive act.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), we share a common theological language. That language, however, is filled with varying and often competing interpretations. We all say “chips,” but some of us are thinking french fries and others Baked Lays. Same words. Different meanings.

One example of this is the theological phrase, “the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” Every part of the church, perhaps with the exception of those who object to the term “lord” in the first place, affirm that Jesus is Lord. Technically, it is inaccurate to say that the denomination rejects the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The reality is that there is a diversity of meaning in this phrase.

What does this phrase mean? Are we talking chips or fries?

When evangelicals (broadly) say the “Jesus is Lord,” they typically understand this phrase to refer to a constellation of affirmations.

These include, but aren’t necessarily limited to,the following:

  • Jesus is the only way by which we may be reconciled to God;
  • this reconciliation is accompanied by a conscious recognition of it if not a conscious decision to repent of sin and believe the gospel;
  • as Lord, Jesus lays claim to every element of the believer’s life;
  • this claim requires the study of and submission to the teaching of Scripture;
  • the teaching of Scripture is best captured by referring to those interpretations whose currency comes in the form of longevity rather than novelty.

Typically, evangelicals will focus more closely on personal piety or personal righteousness and less on what might be called social righteousness. This is the residue of revivalism in the creation of modern evangelicalism.

Again, broadly, those who are not evangelical will mean something different with the phrase:

  • Jesus is the only (some would not agree to this) way to be reconciled to God;
  • this reconciliation may or may not be accompanied by an awareness of it;
  • as Lord, Jesus lays claim to every element of the believer’s life;
  • this claim requires the study of and submission to the teaching of Scripture;
  • the teaching of Scripture is best captured by referring to those interpretations that consider the insights of modern critical scholarship and recognize the significance of the interpreter in assessing the meaning of a text.
  • Older interpretations are more likely to be affected by social realities that no longer exist and which may (although not necessarily should) be rejected.

Those outside of the evangelical camp will tend to emphasize the corporate or social nature of righteousness and see in Scripture that a key component of the nature of the church is it’s commission to stand for God’s justice in the world.

See the tension?

I’ve written elsewhere about how tensions have to be managed rather than resolved. This tension in the PC(USA) will not go away nor will it dissipate. In the end, every minister and church has to decide to what extent are they willing and able to manage the tension. Those who are both unable and unwilling ought to be free to appropriately depart. Those who believe they can remain should do so.


Is God angry at sin?

Protestant churches—especially evangelical ones—typically sing their theology. In the absence of a formal liturgy hymnody carries the weight of theological formation. Scripture shapes our beliefs about God more in the theory than in reality. The average Christian spends little time exploring how the confessions interpret Scripture. Instead, our sung worship songs shape our beliefs. Their influence comes by virtue of their memorable lyrical quality. It takes less effort to memorize a song (sung regularly) than a catechism that is ignored.

That’s why I was so disturbed by the recent decision of the committee compiling the forthcoming Presbyterian hymnal Glory to God to omit the song, “In Christ Alone.” You can read the story here. If hymnody is sung theology then what does this decision say about the Presbyterian Church (USA)?


This decision is troublesome for several reasons. First, the committee weighed two ways of conceptualizing what a hymnal is. They asked the question: Is it a collection of diverse hymns reflecting a variety of theological views present in the church? As such, any commitment to a unified theological vision would be downplayed in favor of representation of various views or styles. Their should be no problem including this popular song.

They also asked: is a hymnal a “deliberately selective book” that emphasizes some views and excludes others on the basis of its “educational mission” (I prefer “catechetical mission”) for the church? This requires some degree of theological unanimity.

The prevailing view of the committee was that a hymnal has an educational message, which requires rejecting some theological viewpoints that no longer comport with the view of the church.

This is an important consideration. I agree with the decision of the committee to envision the hymnal as something that is consonant with and advances the theological vision of the church. The problem is that in making this decision the committee has emphatically set aside a theological vision that comports with my own. In the rush to be inclusive the committee has, in actuality, excluded a theological vision that has inspired many Christians over the centuries, not the least of whom is John Calvin.

Read the rest of the article here.

Leather, whips, and self-restraint?

As our culture continues to grapple with the meaning of marriage, the Washington Post reported that vocal advocates of polyamory in the Unitarian Universalist church are detrimental to legal recognition of same sex marriage. You can read the original Post article here and the IRD’s commentary here.

Many traditionalists have asked the question: if same sex marriage is recognized, what next? This “domino effect” objection has been pooh-poohed by progressives as something of a straw man. Yet, as the Washington Post notes, the efforts of Unitarian “Universalists for Polyamory Awareness” (UUPA) threaten to demonstrate that perhaps this conservative objection is not as specious as it once appeared.

The article cites sociologist Peter Berger as observing that once you recognize same sex marriage, “you open the door to any number of other alternatives to marriage as a union of one man and one woman: polygamous (an interesting question for Muslims in Germany and dissident Mormons in Arizona), polyandrous, polygenerational – perhaps polyspecies?” If Berger is correct surely it is only a matter of time before the poly community poses the questions: “Why is marriage limited to two people?” “Why is marriage privileged over other arrangements?” According to the article, poly activist Kenneth Haslam has argued: “Poly folks are strong believers that each of us should choose our own path in forming our families, forming relationships, and being authentic in our sexuality.” The key concepts here are: autonomy, choice, and authenticity.

This stands in stark contrast with the Christian notion of the purpose of marriage. Marriage was ordained for the “procreation of children,” as a “remedy against sin,” and for the mutual society, help, and aid of the couple (Book of Common Prayer 1929).

These three concepts are external to us whereas the modern litany of autonomy, choice, and authenticity are self-focused. We enter into Christian marriage for the purpose of bringing children into the world who will be raised in the faith. We enter into Christian marriage for the purpose of limiting and focusing our sexual expression to one with whom we enter a solemn covenant. We enter into Christian marriage to support, encourage, love, and suffer with our spouse. These are concrete obligations that have stood the test of time and which tower over the mantra of “to thine own self be true” that has so bewitched our current moment.

Given the growing polyamory movement, is it really specious to argue that the legalization and normalization of same sex marriage will be the dropping of a domino whose tumble will have subsequent repercussions? I think not.

You can read the rest here.