He who hears the shema drinks the shekar!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

T. David Gordon on the 'Toilet Effect' of 21st Century Reformed Theology

T. David Gordon has an fascinating article ("Distractions from Orthodox", Modern Reformation , Fall 2008) that points out the necessity and difficulty in trying to define 'orthodoxy' in the current ecclesiastical climate. One man's liberalism is another man's fundamentalism. How ever are we to know where to draw the lines of who's "in" and who's "out"? How do we decide what belongs outside as heresy, what belongs outside but should still to be regarded as evangelical, what we can agree-to-disagree over and remain in union with one another in a given church/denomination, and what things we must all confess.

I still vividly remember my chats with elder Mac Laurie (way back during my summer Santa Barbara internship in 2000) and his growing concern that, in the name of trying to 'protect' things from 'broadening' in the church, there was a growing momentum in some quarters to become increasingly 'narrow' over non-essential. Gordon relates a similar concern:

I knew an individual once whose recurring theme was that the church (generally or specifically) was moving in heterodox directions. When I asked for evidence of this movement, he almost always cited some matter that appeared in none of the historic creeds of the church. So, what sounded at first as though some of the theological cows had left the barn, ended up being that he had brought in some carpenters and made a smaller barn.

It's this 'making the barn smaller' that concerns me as well. Gordon continues: "Pendulums swing curiously, racing through the middle and tarrying at the extremes. The church, likewise, might swing from the extreme of not caring to talk seriously about doctrine on the one hand, to the other extreme of making every doctrinal discussion a test of orthodoxy on the other."

In short, "...not every such discussion need be regarded as a test of orthodoxy or a term of communion." If (and when!) they do, it leads to what Gordon refers to as the 'toilet bowel' effect:

My students are alternately amused and disturbed by my occasional reference to what I inelegantly call the "toilet effect." Having completed the task that brought you to the toilet in the first place, you reach around and push the handle, but accidentally bump the Reader's Digest (or your "to-do" list, your spouse's toothbrush, or the family Chihuahua) off the sink into the toilet also. The swirl having already begun, the Digest is doomed to a most unliterary fate. It suffers the "toilet effect," wasted in the effort to remove genuine waste. The church not infrequently suffers also from the toilet effect. In the effort to rid itself of some perceived effluvium or another, other resources, energies, graces, or gifts sometimes get caught in the swirl and disappear also.

I suppose (to be fair) this is a struggle that any ecclesiastical group/denomination has to deal with, particularly given the plethora of 'issues' that are bombarding upon us from all sides. But as one who has worked in a number of different Presbyteries, States, and even Countries, I can attest that there is nothing imaginary about this so-called 'toilet effect' in Reformed churches.

Gordon continues:

Satan is a distracter/diverter of the church's resources, and we should not be unaware of his devices. He loves waste, especially the church's waste, because it blunts her warfare against him. He loves the toilet effect, when the church's greater resources disappear in overzealous attempts to achieve smaller gains. Indeed, I often wonder if the Evil One is not the inventor of the toilet effect. The temptation of Christ in Matthew 4 was not a moral temptation in any ordinary sense of the term. Eating bread is not sinful. Rather, Satan tempted Christ to divert his distinctive messianic power from its primary purpose of rescuing the lost from Satan's dominion. Similarly, Satan frequently, perhaps ordinarily, tempts the church to divert its energies from its primary purpose of rescuing the lost from Satan's dominion.

But isn't this just another attempt to do away with 'sound doctrine' in the name of evangelistic zeal? Not if we understand the kinds of things Gordon is concerned about.

Things that are legitimate to address in their own right need not occupy an undue amount of the church's resources, and some such issues need never be resolved. Examples of such studied and deliberate ambiguities in the Westminster standards, for instance, include: infant salvation ("elect infants dying in infancy"), the nature of obedience owed to the civil magistrate ("obedience to his lawful commands"), post- and amillennialism, and mediate or immediate imputation of sin. Other truths are so woven into the fabric of theology that they must be regarded as a matter either of general Christian orthodoxy (the articles of the Apostles' Creed for instance) or a matter of the particular orthodoxy of one of its branches (Lutheran versus Reformed understanding of the nature of Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper). But other matters, worthy of Christian conversation, needn't be finally resolved.

In other words, we have to recognize that not all doctrinal disputes and matters are created equal. This is where I think historical theology can play a positive role in assessing, as it were, the size of our theological boundaries. You need to have some perspective as to whether certain doctrines deserve a robust defense at all costs and what doctrinal differences can and should be tolerated within a given tradition.

Gordon goes on to list and explore his "...candidates for winners of the coveted toilet effect":
(1) The length of creation days
(2) Van Tillian apologetics
(3) Biblical theology vs. Systematic theology
(4) Christian America & the culture wars
(5) Christian education
(6) Women in the military

You can read his discussion for yourself under each one, if you aren't familiar with the issues. His concern, as I see it, is not that these issues should be swept under the rug entirely. Rather he's pleading for a broader 'ecumenical'-spirit when faced with issues that genuine brothers in the same tradition disagree over. One might not expect this of Dr. Gordon, given some of the polemical writing style. Yet, as one gets to know him (and meets other people that previously worked with him), you'll find that he's 'ecumenical' in the best sense of the term when dealing with others in a Reformed church setting.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Studying Galatians

I've been working through on and off Galatians over about the last 2 or so years, having finally made it to Chapter 6 (this coming Sunday AM). Here are a few random biographical suggestions that might serve as a sign post for someone wishing to work on Galatians in the future.

As far as commentaries go, R. Longnecker (one of the better ones I've seen in the Word Commentary Series) and Betz (in the Hermeneia by Fortress Press) will give you an excellent 1-2 punch on the exegetical front. Differences notwithstanding, both proved stronger 'theologically' than I expected when starting. If you're planning to work/teach/preach/study through Galatians, Longnecker is a 'must buy' with Betz deserving 2nd prize. After that it tends to be very hit or miss. Ridderbos' commentary (published in 1953) is ok, but it lacks some of the more profound things he wrote later in life. Interestingly, I think there were a number of places that the later Riddersbos (a la
Paul: An Outline) differered from this commentary. One definitely gets the sense that he was reading Galatians eariler through the lens of the ordo salutis while moving more toward a historia salutis reading of Galatians by the time he wrote Paul: An Outline.

Fung (NICNT) is alright...good in places, ho-hum in others. Unlike the more-recently redone Anchor Commentary series in the OT which tends to be quite good, I didn't find J.A. Martyr's commentary (1997) very helpful at all as a 'critical' commentary. James Dunn's commentary (in the Black NT series, 1995) and monograph (
A Theology of Paul's Letter to the Galatians, Cambridge Press) have their scattered brilliant moments mixed in with large swaths of theological presuppositions that I don't share; it would take a detailed review of Dunn to say more. However, for the purpose of this review, I'm not ready to throw either of these books to the "NPP" (the New Perspective Pergortory) of fundamentalist exegesis. You need to be aware of how Dunn reads Galatians, and I think you'll come away better off digesting the argumentation. Richard Hays monograph (The Faith of Jesus Christ, Scholar's Press, 1983) that focuses specifically on Galatians 3 and 4 is another piece that deserves careful attention, even though I don't find all of his arguments immdiately compelling and remain unconvinced of his pistou Christou position.

Moises Silva's
Interpreting Galatians: Explorations in Exegetical Method is another important book worthy of taking a look at. There are places where I concur and do not concur, but it's still a book you ought to consult when working in Galatians.

The book that has largely flown under the radar (at least, I've never heard it mentioned in my cross-section of Reformed and OT-minded friends) is
The Flesh/Spirit Conflict in Galatians by Walter (Bo) Russell (Univ. Press of America, 1997). Russell is Professor of Biblical Exposition at Talbot Seminary; however, he did his Ph.D in NT at Westminster Seminary in PA under the direction of Moises Silva. His primary readers were Richard Gaffin and Stephen Westerholm.

As he notes in the preface, "This book is a work of biblical theology. It sets forth a creative thesis that swims against the theological current of the last few generations. The flow of the current is this: Whenever Paul speaks of the flesh/Spirit struggle, he is referring to an internal struggle within Christians.
The thesis of this book is that this understanding of a flesh/Spirit struggle within believers is a misreading of Galatians (and elsewhere) and results in a wrong theological anthropology. Rather, I set forth the premise that Paul uses the flesh/Spirit antithesis in Galatians (and elsewhere) in a redemptive historical sense to refer to eras or modes of existence in the history of God's people." (ix, emphasis in the original).

Those familiar with Ridderbos'
Paul, Vos' work on the Spirit, and Gaffin's work on the resurrection, Moo and Westerholm on 'the law', etc., will know exactly what's going on here; Russell argues very much along those same Biblical-theological lines. Those who have consulted T. David Gordon's, "The Problem at Galatia," Interpretation 41 (1987): 32-43 will find that Russell adopts a very similar position with respect to the book's purpose, and issue that has fairly dire consequences in how you read the book. While the book makes its particular focus on only Chapters 5 and 6 (where Paul's sarx/pneuma antithesis comes into focus), Russell makes excellent usage of the entire book's redemptive historical outlook, particular as it relates to the book's rhetorical strategy (35-86). He also has some good discussion regarding 'Paul's opponents' and what they were teaching (11-34), and how that often influences the 'method' or 'lens' the book is anaylzed through.

In other words, the first 3rd of the book will make an excellent introduction to the book, if you are looking for something to dive into at the start of your Galatians' study. There are two editions floating around, both identical as I can tell. The later one sells for about $5 more dollars. The cheapest place I've found selling the cheaper edition is Barnes and Noble.

I'm leaving out a lot of literature/commentaries that probably deserve a mention, but in the interest of brevity I'll save that for questions if want my opinions about other literature. I'm not Galatia expert by any means (email T. David Gordon if you want that!), but I have read just about all of the literature that I can get my hands on related to the book.

On one final note, what do I read on Galatians if I don't have gazillions to buy expensive monographs? My advice would probably be to consult something like the little-known-about commentary on Galatians by Leon Morris. It's not a perfect commentary, but I personally liked it better than any of the other 'pop variety' commentaries on Galatians (e.g. Stott, Hendrickson, even Ryken to a certain extent). Strangely, the book (published in 1996) seems to go largely unnoticed, even among evangelicals. There are places where I don't share his views, but it's a nice lay-refernce under 200 pages.