"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Why Evangelicals don’t understand (or like) Confessionalists

I don’t just read people who agree with me. I consume, and sometimes even enjoy, books, blogs, podcasts and conversations with many Christians of different traditions. I find myself most days at a seminary of mostly Baptists and independent church Christians. My favorite listening fodder is put out by some conservative Lutherans. I even read, *gasp*, Catholics and Orthodox writers from time to time. I find in all of that interaction, I receive the most friction, on the most subjects, from more broadly evangelical Christians. Recently, I have been hearing many voice sentiments similar to the frustrations of Scot McKnight. McKnight is frustrated with “neo-Reformed” types because he believes they (1) attempt to capture evangelicalism, (2) redefine evangelicalism by Reformed doctrines and (3) kick all of the non-Reformed off the village green of evangelicalism. McKnight believes that this is because Reformed folk believe you are not truly evangelical unless you are Reformed. Much of this was repeated in a post on the internet monk.

I do get this same sort of picture described sometimes from other evangelicals. I think this might be due to one of two factors:

1) They’ve met a cage Calvinist

This is what Reformed folk call those usually in their first year of discovery of the doctrines of grace. A cage Calvinist is one who should be put in a cage so they don’t harm themselves or others with their new found zeal and heresy-detector. I also believe there are a few Calvinists that never leave that stage. John MacArthur and his school seem to produce a lot of these types (the permanant cage Calvinist). These guys bulldoze anyone that disagrees with even the most minor point of doctine, and have little room for “speak the truth in love” in their Bibles.

But the vast majority of Reformed Christians are not cage Calvinists. This leads me to my second theory of why evangelicals feal this frustration:

2) They don’t understand Confessionalism.

Some Calvinists (like the MacArthur variety) are not Confessionalists. But those of an historic denomination (like the Dutch Reformed, German Reformed and Presbyterian variety) are. Many times when Confessional priniciples are put forward, evangelicals feel like they are being bullied.

There are two main analogies for what evangelicalism is, in its best sense. One is a hallway. This is C.S. Lewis’ image of a “Mere Christianity” where Christianity is a hallway that contains many rooms. Another image, propogated by Michael Horton and accepted by McKnight, is a village green, where people can gather to talk and interact.

When the Reformed (and for that matter Lutherans and Anglicans) come to the villiage green, they often are disturbed by what they find. Instead of a meeting ground, they see pitched tents, and people living on the villiage green. The whole image of a villiage green and a hallway were created by Confessionalists defending the idea of interaction with other traditions with fidelity to their own tradition, but have found that the concept has left them dissatisfied with the arrangment. No good Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican or even confessional Baptist thinks the current situation, especially in America, is healthy (as Horton pointed out in his analogy). The villiage contains houses, with kitchens to prepare food and fire by which to get warm and beds where one can rest comfortably. Instead, many evangelicals are on the green either starving or scavenging through other people’s homes, taking what they want but leaving the house behind. These are Christians either bouncing from church to church or Christians in churches with no confessional identity, merely claiming to be "mere Christians."

You see, Confessionalists believe their own tradition and confession of faith provides a means of sustaining their spiritual lives in feeding their souls on shared truths about salvation, community and the God they worship. They rest on certain promises and an understanding of Scripture and learn together by a common understanding. Occasionally, they do come to the villiage green and kindly ask the people trying to live on the green to find a home and invite them to theirs.

Some take offense, thinking that they are taking away their villiage green. However, they want to do nothing of the sort. What Confessionalists that come to the villiage green want is a group of Christians coming together from their traditions in order to interact, rather than piece-meal robbing from many traditions in order to never have a theological resting place. The Reformed do not want to redefine evangelicalism. Rather, they want evangelicals to find a home (a church with a confession - particularly a Reformation informed one), so the villiage green might be meaningful.
There’s a growing antipathy about evangelicalism in confessional circles. Most Lutherans will not show up. Others are visiting less often as well, as D.G. Hart, a conservative Presbyterian has suggested, perhaps these "neo-Reformed" bullies, (the permanent cage Calvinists) can be distinguished from paleo-Reformed since "Neo-Reformed care about being evangelical; Paleos don’t." If every time a Confessionalist shows up and tells those on the villiage green what they prefer about their home, the Scot McKnights on the green get mad and think they are being judged and having the mean kid kick sand in their face, Confessionalists will just give up on coming to the green.


Nathan P. Gilmour said...

Good post. Of course, when I read the phrase "cage Calvinists," I immediately thought of the types who think that a real Christian man shouldn't be "meek and mild" but be willing and able to kick butts in a steel cage match, but your definition ends up encompassing that type and others. :)

Steve Martin said...

I used to be a 'cage Lutheran'.

I am mellowing out a bit.

Most Lutherans I know do not care.

'Lutheran quietism' still lives... maybe stronger than ever (I'm sorry to say)

Matthew Lush said...

Great post Jared! I laughed at the "or even confessional Baptist" about the state of American Christianity. I realize more and more how little there is a need to mention reformed confessional baptists, because they are few are far between. I "believe" that I am attending the only confessional baptist church within probably 100 km in southern ontario; and Southern Ontario is considered the "bible belt" of Canada.

I quite enjoyed the post though Jared, very well put.

Andrew said...

This is all very true.