30 September 2005

jordan making waves

Whatever else one may say about them, as I've noted in comments elsewhere, James B. Jordan's essays concerning recent affairs in the conservative Reformed world seem to be sparking some interesting and, I do hope, helpful discussion. They have, naturally, also sparked some not-so-interesting and very unhelpful discussion, but that's par for the course, I suppose, especially in an age where the entrance bar to publishing one's thoughts abroad is so low (and I do recognize the irony of blogging this last sentence).

Some readers seem to interpret Jordan as saying that the current unpleasantness is "politically-motivated." Perhaps that is what he's saying. I don't think, however, that politics is truly the ultimate driving force, at least not in the sense that fundamental disagreements are just a matter of politics. I accept at face-value the notion that the problems are primarily theological and pastoral in nature, even if theology is never entirely outside of politics.

And it is always nearly impossible to discern personal motives of players in such controversies and, even where such discernment is possible, it is impossible to generalize what motivates one or another particular individual and apply that to larger groups. Theological controversy, of course, can be the occasion for bringing the worst out of people, revealing the underlying condition of their hearts or, at the least, having the unfortunate effect of detaching theological discourse from the context of pastoral care and concern within which it belongs.

It also appears that current theological disagreement and discussion has become increasingly polarized, politicized, and entwined with the circulation and exercise of power (to sound like Foucault for a moment). This is not to say that politics have universally taken precedence over theology. It may rather be a matter of politics in service to theology, a willingness to do or say what it takes to score theological points, even if it is fallacious or not very well thought out or, in some instances perhaps, barely half-true.

And in such a situation conversation does have a tendency to shut down since it becomes difficult for a person to say anything without it getting misconstrued or turned around and used against the author. This, in turn, makes it very tricky business to even provide the kinds of specifics and details that would indicate that such politicization is, in fact, occurring. One's own motives in providing such data could all too easily be questioned and politicized (since politicized people tend to assume everyone else is equally politicized), while those questioning one's own motives often enough can cloak themselves in pious rhetoric to deflect any similar questioning. Moreover, the mere perception of politicization has a chilling effect for theological conversation and discussion.

Whether or not this sort of thing is occurring presently, it does describe how the world often operates and I'm not enough of an idealist to think that the church is immune to such ways of operating. Indeed, historically the church has been among the worst culprits, since within the church power can hide itself behind theological positions, good church order, and forms of godliness.

The ethical question of how to conduct oneself under such circumstances is a particularly vexing one. Following Jesus would seem to call us to bear patiently with all manner of accusation, misrepresentation, and so on. But Jesus didn't entirely eschew sometimes harsh rhetoric, even against religious leaders who were highly regarded in their communities. Nor did it lead our Lord to avoid symbolic actions, such as clearing the temple, that would bring down the collective anger of others upon him. But the wisdom to know when to be patient, when to speak boldly, when to take action, and so on, that is difficult wisdom to discern.

Having said this, whatever the causes and motives of the current unpleasantness, it is evident enough, I think, that there has been a great amount of talking past each other. Moreover, those who have the training and acumen to be able to speak clearly and carefully about the views of others have often failed in that task. Those whose special obligation it is to avoid raising false rumors, receiving or countenancing evil reports, and stopping their ears against just defense, have sometimes fallen short.

Returning to the question of miscommunication and the "closing of the Calvinist mind," part of the difficulty is that within a confessional context such as the Reformed tradition, even in its "Westminsterian" variety, there is significant diversity. Within the Reformed tradition this is particularly so in areas such as sacramental theology, ecclesiology, the free offer of the Gospel, how we conceive the covenants, and so on. Given this diversity on a constellation of issues, the tradition is open to being described or unfolded along a variety of trajectories. The complicated question, then, is how to adjudicate the claims of various trajectories to represent an authentic way of pulling issues together within the tradition or of developing the tradition.

I personally think, for instance, that the thought of both Meredith Kline and Norman Shepherd represent departures from some key points in traditional Reformed covenant theology as understood by the bulk of the Westminster divines, taken in their 17th century context, and that these departures run in more or less equal and opposite directions. As a result, however, how one's covenant theology is evaluated may shift drastically from one context to another, depending upon the relative influence of particular figures and texts within the context of various Presbyteries, seminaries, and so on.

I suppose that's fine in general, but it also means that there is real inconsistency across some Reformed denominations in terms of what counts as "acceptable diversity within the bounds of the confessional Standards." Moreover, at times lines get drawn very narrowly on issues that, historically, have never been matters that were seen to rise to a level of confessional subscription.

Add to this mix of problems the fact that, as I mentioned above, there seems to be a great amount of people talking past one another. When, for instance, a Klinean speaks of Adamic "merit," one cannot assume that "merit" is being used in any recognized historic sense of the term (e.g., condign, congruent, etc.) since Kline's followers have re-defined the meaning of the term within the context of their own covenantal understanding. The language being used is no longer univocal with how the same language is used within the Westminster Standards. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing requires thought and discernment.

This is not to say that everything is just one big misunderstanding, because clearly it isn't. But I do think that a great deal of the recent unpleasantness might have been defused and real matters of divergence made clear and constructively discussed, if there had been a greater recognition of rhetorical context for various statements, some toning down of overall polemics, avoidance of fallacious forms of argumentation, and a more serious effort to understand and represent what others are saying from within their own modes of speaking, use of terminology, historical understandings, and so forth.

That is all to say that I suspect Jordan is correct about a gradual narrowing of the diversity and depth of the Reformed tradition, especially on the part of those who would seek to defend it. Whatever the details, purity is all too often secured at the cost of peace and unity. Watching matters unfold over the past several years has sometimes led me to question the health of my own Presbyterian denomination and at times has made me ashamed and even sickened by how the denomination can function.

Fortunately, the Spirit continues to bring forth enough good things locally and throughout our churches to outweigh the more isolated pockets that I find distressing. And even some of those individuals whose behavior I've found troubling nonetheless exercise seemingly healthy and vital ministry in other areas of their lives. We can only thank God that the grace of Jesus Christ remains at work even in our weakness.