I spent the last few days at A Conversation on Denominational Renewal, which thankfully met in St. Louis. The conference was well attended, about 300 or more people. The audience was mostly PCA ministers and elders, but because it was held in St. Louis there were a good many Covenant Seminary Students and professors.
I’m not going to summarize the conference. All I will say is that it was quite stimulating and helpful. When they post the mp3s of the lectures on their website, you need to listen to them. I’ll try to alert everyone when they are posted.
I’d like for us to discuss one part of Jeremy Jones’s lecture on Wednesday morning. The title was “On Renewing Theology.” I think it was one of the most challenging lectures of the lot.
Jeremy addressed problems with the way we tend to conceive of and do theology in the Reformed world, especially the PCA. Early on he talked about “The Ecclesial Culture of Reformed Sectarianism.” He lamented the fact that so many Reformed ecclesial cultures end up as little more than “denominational police states.” How does this happen?
First, we imagine a golden age (17th century) in the life of the church and the theological task is to preserve that theology at all costs. Theological error always begins as a mustard seed that, unless it is discovered and rooted out, will flower into full-blown heresy. Now I will quote from Jeremy’s handout:
Methodos of Reformed Sectarian Theological Rationality
There are several methods employed to catch the mustard seed of heresy that we can see being utilized in our midst over nearly every controversy that arises in our denomination (see note#1).
1) Because we presuppose inevitable theological decline, we must police our borders and sniff out the traitors who are surely lurking in out midst.
2) We must evaluate current theological positions primarily in light of past positions (both positive and negative) and must not hesitate to equate current positions with past positions if they are the same (and they usually are): this = that, today = then.
Sonship = antinomian
Parachurch ministries=”new school”
N.T. Wright is neonomian, Baxterian.
Federal Vision = New Haven after Edwards
These equations are often hastily and sloppily made with out a patient, attentive, and charitable listening, reading, and interaction with one’s theological “opponents.”
3) We will use slippery slope thinking as a tool of diagnosis to see “what’s really going on” among those we suspect, to see the troubling trajectory of their thought.
It’s dangerous to take people’s word for what they think/believe. Furthermore, because our knowledge of tragic theological history, we can see where certain views inevitably lead, even if their proponents do not. Consequently, we may impute what we “know” is “the logical conclusion” (or historically inevitable conclusion) of a certain position to our opponents and treat them as if they hold this position. For example:
False principles, like leaven in the meal, always tend to work out their logical consequences, and to lead their votaries to all their results. These may be very unexpected; they may be very unpopular; they may be bitterly repudiated, even by those who are unconsciously tending towards them. But in due time they come, and are at last boldly avowed. Unless the seminal errors are purged out, this must be so; because the human mind must reason connectedly from its postulates (R. L. Dabney, Discussions, vol. 2, p. 444).
4) Because all doctrines are interconnected logically in a system, one error at any point threatens the whole. It is not possible to distinguish between central and peripheral doctrines. Therefore, any and every doctrinal error, once discerned, must be purged from our midst.
. . . the truths of redemption are a connected system. . . its several propositions must have a logical dependence. The reveal system is a regular arch; the removal of the smallest stone loosens another, and that another, until the very keystone is shaken and the whole structure endangered. The surrender of a point of doctrine not fundamental to salvation endangers others more important than itself. . . Thus, the rejection of a truth not fundamental may jeopardize those that are (R.L. Dabney, Discussiions, vol 2, pp. 455-456).
Results: A Denominational Police State
(Note #1: For an example of these moves see Robert L. Dabney, “Uses and Results of Church History” in Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney, vol. 2 [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982], 5-25).