Thursday, June 23, 2022

How Does a Conservative Southern Baptist Pastor Become a Presbyterian?

 I can't speak for others, but here is my story.

As I graduated from college and prepared to head off for seminary in Memphis, Tennessee, my college pastor offered a bit of advice: don't waste your time debating other students about Calvinism, he said. It will only prove confusing and will distract you from "soul winning." 

While I intended to follow advice from a mentor I admired, it was partly undermined by another commitment of my upbringing, the belief that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God and required my study and allegiance. That the Bible addressed the Gospel in a more God planned, God centered way than I had previously thought required modifying my understanding of God's saving grace. I remained concerned that a belief in election and predestination would cause a loss of enthusiasm for evangelism, but I was assisted in that regard by a short book by James I. Packer called Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Packer argued persuasively that not only was divine sovereignty consistent with the evangelistic enterprise, but in fact it provides the only sound foundation for confident evangelism.

Because Packer was helpful to me in that book, I next read his best known work, Knowing God. That book does not deal with Calvinism as a predominant theme, but I found in Packer something I had not experienced before: a writer of serious theology that is also devotionally rich. Because I found that combination in his writing at a formative stage of my theological development, he became a key influence for me.

In addition, a Baptist committed to biblical inerrancy can't help but encounter the work of B.B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen, two scholarly and Presbyterian advocates of biblical authority that have shaped modern evangelicalism's understanding of the Bible.

As a result of all of these influences, my doctrinal commitments began to move. While I didn't really know the doctrinal categories prior to seminary, in retrospect I can say I was moving away from prior commitments to a kind of Arminianism that bordered on semi-pelagianism toward a soteriological Calvinism. I was not there yet, but that was the direction at the time I completed my M.Div.

Some of the professors at my alma mater also held to reformed Baptist commitments, though the president of the school and many of the trustees were firmly against those ideas. Because of this, a professor who published a book on the history of the doctrines of grace in Baptist life was ultimately forced out of his job, reportedly as a result of the book's criticisms of "the invitation system." Although at that time I had not yet fully committed to a Calvinistic understanding, the professor in question was an excellent scholar and popular lecturer. I thought his views were certainly within the bounds of evangelical Baptist theology. As such, I was shocked that he had been let go. I only had a semester left before graduation -- if it had happened sooner, I likely would have transferred.

Nonetheless, this event had a profound impact on me in that it cut my sense of belonging to my alma mater. After graduation, I took a position working as a mission pastor in Pennsylvania. During that time I read a book by George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture. Marsden is a first rate historian. His historical account of the rise of fundamentalism in the years 1859 through 1925 provided a grid through which I could evaluate various historical influences on my own Christian understanding. Marsden's history helped me understand that I was attempting to hold on to views that in some respects were contradictory. Working though that, I came to a better understanding of where I fit into American ecclesiastical culture. 

Subsequent events in Baptist life furthered my sense of disconnectedness with my roots. As Southern Baptists increasingly became aware of a rising Calvinistic movement in their midst, numbers of them began letting us know that we were not welcome -- I actually wrote a letter to the editor of one of the state Baptist papers around 1990 complaining about the uncharitable rhetoric and later talked to a Baptist college president who expressed appreciation for my call for more constructive dialogue. That said, while I can be pretty stubborn in some ways, I have never been one to hang around when told I am not wanted. 

As a result, when I left the pastorate for reasons unrelated to this topic, I decided to begin attending a confessional Presbyterian church. At the time, I still believed in believer's baptism only and was ambivalent about connectionalism, but I wanted to attend church where my growing commitments to Calvinism would not be controversial and where I could learn more about worship, a subject I felt I did not adequately understand.

My pastor at my new church, through dialogue and written materials, helped me work through questions regarding baptism, as well as a fuller understanding of covenant theology. Even so, it would not be until 2013 I would feel again called and prepared to begin the process of pursuing credentials in a Presbyterian communion (first, the PCA, then the OPC). Nonetheless, here I am, and I am thrilled with where God has brought me.

One benefit of my path is that, living in the south, with its heavy influence from Baptist and Bible churches, I have a good understanding of the beliefs and questions of those who are seeking. I enjoy working through those with anyone who wants to learn.

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Books Read 2021

 Competing priorities slowed down my reading this year, but I managed to consume a wide variety of interesting material:


Books Read 2021

 

Fiction

1.      William F. Buckley, Jr., Saving the Queen. Buckley’s fiction was not really that good, but it serves as a nice diversion from more serious reading.

2.      Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels. The interactions with the Lilliputians made for more interesting reading than the land of the giants.

3.      Neil Munro, Doom Castle. Recommended by a friend. It was ok.

4.      William F. Buckley, Jr., Stained Glass

 

Non-Fiction

5.      R.C. Sproul, What we Believe: Understanding and Confessing the Apostle’s Creed. This is a nice summary.

6.      Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics: Vol. 1 – Theology Proper. Vos’s writing can be a slog at times but is worth the effort.

7.      James E. McGoldrick, Presbyterian and Reformed Churches: a Global History. The spread of Reformed Christianity is an engaging story, even if all too frequent apostacies are depressing.

8.      Camden Bucey, et al, No Uncertain Sound

9.      Edwin H. Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict. A great account of the founding of the OPC.

10.  Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics: Vol. 4 – Soteriology.

11.  Herman Ridderbos, Paul: an Outline of his Theology

12.  Bill Broward, Red Notice. This should be read by everyone who would want to understand the tyranny of the Putin regime.

13.  J. I. Packer, Affirming the Apostle’s Creed. Packer is almost always worth reading.

14.  John Bolton, The Room Where it Happened. Bolton doesn’t like the former President for many good reasons, but got himself into the messes he laments.

15.  Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics: Vol. 5 –Ecclesiology, the Means of Grace, Eschatology

16.  Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks. This is a good basic survey of these issues.

17.  Julian Jackson, Charles de Gaulle. I learned a lot about de Gaulle, yet do not feel like I understand him. That is because de Gaulle himself defies explanation, though this author made a valiant try.

18.  George M. Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience. An early work by Marsden. It is good, but not his best work.

19.  R. Kent Hughes and Douglas Sean O’Donnell, The Pastor’s Book. I found this very helpful.

20.  David McCullough, The Path Between the Seas. McCullough always is worth reading. He covers the French failure and the ultimate American success.

21.  Costi Hinn, God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel. This is a fascinating story about the conversion of the nephew of Benni.

22.  Michael J. Behe, Darwin Devolves

23.  David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers. Almost anyone will find things to disagree with in this book, but it is a challenging and fruitful read.

24.  Joel Richard Paul, Without Precedent: Chief Justice John Marshall and his Times. The subject deserves a better biography.

25.  David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions. A sometimes interesting take by a non-Christian.

26.  David McCullough, The Wright Brothers. This is an amazing story well told.

27.  A. Scott Berg, Wilson. Wilson is generally sanctimonious and unlikable, though the biographer tries hard to make him otherwise.

28.  David McCollough, The Great Bridge. I always like McCullough and enjoyed this story of the building of this engineering marvel more than I expected.

29.  Rachel Green Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission. Overall, this is a helpful read.

30.  Antonin Scalia, The Essential Scalia. Scalia is a great writer. The editing of these documents was somewhat frustrating.

31.  Saikrishna Bangalore Prakash, The Living Presidency. This was highly recommended political philosophy that I found mediocre.

32.  David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood. A fascinating re-telling of one of the great natural disasters of American history.

33.  Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., Taming the Prince. Better than #31 above.

34.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit. Contrasts Roosevelt and Taft. It is an interesting take on these 2 men.

35.  Cornelis P. Venema, Children at the Lord’s Table. Helpful in addressing this issue in dispute among many of the Reformed.

36.  Aristotle, Rhetoric. Not what most would call scintillating reading, but many would benefit from an approach that gives significant focus to the listener.

37.  Nigel Yates, Eighteenth-Century Britain: Religion and Politics, 1714-1815. I don’t generally enjoy reading surveys. This was a survey.

38.  Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Hurricane’s Eye. The American Revolution was won by nature and the French navy in large degree, so argues this well-written tome.

39.  Lynne Cheney, James Madison: a Life Reconsidered. I learned a lot about Madison, but thought the writing was mediocre.

40.  Thomas Oden, Pastoral Theology. I picked this up because Oden’s life story fascinates me. This particular work, though, was disappointing.


Saturday, April 17, 2021

From Atheism and Marxism to Christian Faith

 Marvin Olasky's story of his own conversion is not typical, but it is a compelling read. Find it here.

Mr. Olasky has been for many years the Editor-in-Chief of World Magazine.

Hat Tip: The Aquila Report



Friday, April 16, 2021

Answering the anti-life argument of the anti-vaxxers on the use of aborted tissue

This issue is raising its head with regard to the coronavirus vaccine, but in reality it is a claim that impacts more or less all vaccines. Because of that, a response is important to all of us that find it anti-life to make arguments that would reinvigorate the measles and polio and a host of other nearly extinct diseases that once maimed and killed thousands.

In that vein, I am posting this video by the performer/physician currently known as ZDoggMD. He makes this case as well as anyone I have heard.



Friday, January 01, 2021

Books Read 2020

 

Books Read 2020

 

1.      Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, March 1917: Node III, Book 2. I enjoyed most of Solzhenitsyn's earlier work, but have not cared for his historical novels set during the Russian Revolution.

2.      Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit. This was enjoyable reading. Dickens shows s certain amount of disdain for America, though.

3.      Brian Holsinger, The Gifted School. Though not exactly on point with the recent college admissions scandals, the novel is poignant in light of them.

4.      Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure. Thomas Hardy's view toward marriage was shockingly negative for his day.

5.      Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited. Based on what I had heard from others, I thought I would like Waugh. I will probably try another work, but I found this one only ok.

6.      Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend.

7.      Scott Turow, The Last Witness. A novel about facing one's mortality and diminishing capacities, primarilty through the lens of Sandy Stern. All of Turow's novels (legal thrillers) are worth reading.

8.      Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit. Mostly concerns the misery of debtors prison.

9.      Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge. Dickens places this story in the historical backdrop of riots that occurred in London around 1780. This may be the most unique of his novels.

10.  Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens died before finishing this novel, which means we don't know how it would have ended, though there have been no shortage of guesses.

11.  Alan Jacobs, The Year of our Lord 1943. Centers around the work of several Christian writers from the era that focused on education as the mechanism for redeeming society. I found the selection of subjects for the book eccentric.

12.  Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart. Oden's story is arguably the most remarkable biography -- certainly of a theologian -- of the last century. He was a remarkable man who accomplished an unfathomable amount of work.

13.  Michael Horton, Justification: Volume 1. This may be Horton's best academic work. It covers the history of the doctrine from the patristic era up to the Reformation.

14.  Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill. Philbrick tells the story well.

15.  Michael Horton, Justification: Volume 2. The second volume addresses contemporary debates. It is well worth the read, though I enjoyed volume 1 more.

16.  Robert L. Guyer, How to Get and Keep your First Lobbying Job. Good for someone starting out. 

17.  Matthew Barrett, None Greater: the Undomesticated Attributes of God. Highly recommended.

18.  Robert L. Guyer, Guide to State Legislative Lobbying

19.  Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City. An excellent comparison of current debates and those that occurred in the time of the late Roman Empire.

20.  D.G. Hart, That Old-Time Religion in Modern America. Everything that Hart has written is worth reading.

21.  Elaine Pagels, Why Religion? A Personal Story. I disagree with Pagels on most things, but enjoyed reading this because she is thoughtful and creative.

22.  David McCullough, The Pioneers. This is a fantastic work, with McCullough chronicling the founding of a town along the Ohio River in southeast Ohio.

23.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Between Two Millstones. 

24.  F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom

25.  Mark A. Noll, The New Shape of World Christianity

26.  Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society

27.  Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

28.  Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, Why we Love the Church

29.  H.W. Brands, Heirs of the Founders

30.  Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind

31.  Cornelius Van Til, Christianity and Idealism

32.  Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. My wife and I have spent many hours discussing Kuhn's use of paradigms and how it applies to various areas of knowledge, including history of religion. She wrote her undergraduate thesis largely around the application of Kuhn to understanding the Protestant Reformation.

33.  Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600)

34.  Alvin Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief

35.  Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines

36.  Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 3: The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300)

37.  Robert W. Merry, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century. I learned a lot about McKinley. This is well written.

38.  Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 4: Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300=1700)

39.  John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One. I frequently disagree with Walton, but he is an engaging writer.

40.  W. Robert Godfrey, Saving the Reformation: the Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort

41.  Tremper Longman and John H. Walton, The Lost World of the Flood

42.  Richard A. Muller, Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought

43.  Ross Douthat, The Decadent Society

44.  James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky, Science and the Good: the Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality

45.  J. V. Fesko, Reforming Apologetics. Fesko defends classical apologetics and attacks Van Til, among others.

46.  John V. Fesko, Word, Water and Spirit: a Reformed Perspective on Baptism

47.  Henry Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger, Vol. 1

48.  Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: a Biographical Memoir. Those interested in Machen might look to Darrly Hart's work instead.

49.  J.I. Packer, Engaging the Written Word of God. Most of the essays in this volume are good.

50.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. I always like reading her. I disagree on Johnson about nearly everything, but there are aspects of that era that are better than our own.

51.  George F. Will, The Conservative Sensibility. Will's book argues for a variety of conservatism among many (none of which, by the way, resemble whatever one wants to call Trumpism). The most interesting chapters was the one on religion. Notably, I agreed with almost everything Will had to say about the role of religion (or lack thereof) in America's founding, though I of course disagreed with his atheism. Will advocates a version of natural rights that goes along with atheism, even as he acknowledges that the record on whether it can actually work in the real world is not favorable to date. He is fascinating to read on this subject.

52.  Michael F. Bird and Scott Harrower, eds., Trinity without Hierarchy. Almost all of the essays are really good, though the one by Leithat seems weak and out of place.

53.  Bob Woodward, Rage

54.  Richrd B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption. All of the books from here to the end I have read while preparing for an ordination exam in theology. I hope I pass.

55.  John Murray, Collected Writings: Volume two – Select Lectures in Systematic Theology

56.  Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of Christianity & My Credo

57.  Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost

58.  James E. Dolezal, All that Is in God

59.  John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied

60.  Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology

61.  Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics: Vol. 3, Christology

62.  J. Gresham Machen, Things Unseen

63.  Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics: Vol. 2, Anthropology


Friday, August 28, 2020

In the World, but Not of the World

I thought about headlining my post, "It's the Uncertainty, Stupid," but in the present environment I worried that such might be considered uncharitable, even though I am only using the final word rhetorically. Those old enough to remember old political slogans will realize my play on one if they choose to do so.

Nonetheless, this lament continues my writing on the way that the church, at least as I witness its pronouncements by online representatives, focuses on the wrong things. I see lots of attention being given to whether or not to wear masks (mostly decided one way or the other based on poor reasoning), social distancing, and when and how to re-open services.

It is hard to find much attention being given to various uncertainties general to life but magnified during this crisis such as illness, the loss of loved ones, isolation from friends, fear of economic privation due to job loss, and hopelessness about the future -- and where is a sovereign God in all of this.

I am not saying that the first set of subjects are unimportant -- quite the contrary -- but those are subjects driven mostly by forces outside the church -- by the world. The second set of subjects are priorities of Scripture, which is full of texts to be expounded and applied. Each furnishes the opportunity to provide contextualized hope as it is found only in the Gospel. In so doing, the church would be providing a unique perspective, rather than one parroted with Bible verses.

So, why are so many Christian leaders obsessed with masks and distancing while virtually ignoring death, sickness, and hopelessness? The provocative answer is that the present crisis has opened the curtain to show an unseemly worldliness that dominates the church. The crisis sheds light on a great need for repentance and reform among God's people.

The term "worldliness" is biblical, yet in cultural terms hopelessly old fashioned. Many of us will associate the word with a past age of complaints about card playing and dancing and liquor. Be that as it may, this present worldliness is far more deep seated yet easily ignored and therefore pernicious. Our worldliness means that churches and Christians that claim allegiance to biblical authority set priorities based on agendas from outside of Scripture based on social and political concerns tangential to the biblical witness, though we have the capacity to find creative ways to pretend that they are biblical. Rather than recognizing that Scripture should drive our concerns, we instead use it to rubber stamp whatever social and political views we happen to hold.

The result is a failure to minister to the great needs of the day to which Scripture speaks -- needs related to the discipleship of our church members and to the evangelization of our communities and that recognize that by His death Christ put death to death. While I have focused on the COVID crisis, similar laments could be stated regarding the present dilemma regarding racial issues, about which many Christians have much to say about "cultural Marxism" ind "critical race theory," subjects about which frankly they don't seem to know much beyond sloganeering, and relatively little to say about the imago dei in man, which could form the basis for deep Christian reflection for how to move forward. The present crises have provided an opportunity for the church to bring the Gospel to bear on deep human concerns. To date, the church has largely failed in that endeavor. We need to repent.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

"As a Dying Man to Dying Men"

Some readers will be old enough to remember when it was said that a community or national crisis would bring people back to church. Eventually, levels of attendance would revert to the mean, but at least for a while those who attended only sporadically if at all attend church looking for answers to address their deepest fears.

Of course, that could not happen during the present pandemic because churches, along with other entities that hold mass gatherings, either have been required to close their doors or restrict attendance. However, the financial crisis of a decade ago also did not result in an upswing in church attendance, and it may be that old maxims no longer hold true. If that is the case, one might wonder why. It would seem that most of those who do not already attend church in the United States no longer think of the church as a place to find answers to life's deepest problems. If that is the case, it might be said that the present crisis has served to verify that they are right.

Rightly understood, a pandemic might seem like just the sort of crisis into which the church could speak with comfort, authority, and deep value. It has been said that the purpose of a minister -- and of a church -- is to prepare people to die, but accepting that as true, one must also recognize that the subject is one that most Americans would just as soon avoid. In fact, churches on the vanguard of what passes for relevance in our day are more interested in offering advice for improving life than they are in addressing the more ultimate concerns of sin and death.

The spread of a disease without a known cure but with unpredictable morbidity and vast levels of mortality has forced people to think about that which during normal times they prefer to ignore. Add to illness and death the other disruptions created by the present crisis -- social isolation, financial uncertainty, and so on -- and one sees that it is no wonder that many are filled with fear. Things that once seemed stable and predictable are now wobbly.

Thus, people have been brought to the place where the church could help, if only it would.

I have not surveyed churches on how they have responded, but what I have witnessed online -- to the extent that provides a window into the soul of American Christianity -- has not been encouraging. It is understandable that churches have lamented the loss of the ability to gather, but we have seen too little creative activity in terms of finding ways to minister to both Christians and non Christians in our communities. Thus, many church communities have experienced only subtraction -- the loss of gathered worship but without any effort at offering temporary ways to connect people and needs during this time.

Even worse, many churches have ignored the crisis as an opportunity to show love toward the fearful and hurting and have addressed the crisis primarily in the sorts of political categories that are tangential to Christian faith. While conclusions regarding wearing masks at worship are matters where Christians may differ, it is rather disheartening to see moral reasoning that devolves into navel gazing fixated on personal autonomy and unconcerned with either the Great Commission or the Great Commandment -- or even the Good Samaritan. Now, I see that some ministers are desperately pleading for people to return, when even church members might find themselves conflicted about rejoining a congregation where the leadership has demonstrated that they do not care for the wellbeing of the most vulnerable -- the elderly, the cancer patient, the diabetic, or the overweight. It is correct that every believer has the obligation of church attendance, but it is sad to see the obstacle of having realized that the local congregation doesn't care enough to help one feel safe, particularly given the slight nature of the needed sacrifice in the big scheme of things.

The church had an opportunity to urge upon congregants to ignore the predictable political categories and find ways to care for people. In many ways, the church has failed. May God drive us to repentance, that we might speak to our communities, in the words of Baxter, "as a dying man to dying men.