Thinking Out Loud

August 11, 2016

A Rare Moment of Calvinist Transparency

Happy Rant Podcast logoI mentioned a few weeks ago I wanted to return to a discussion that happened several weeks ago on The Happy Rant Podcast, with Ted Kluck, Barnabas Piper and Ronnie Martin. This takes place on Episode #94 when the subject of the Kickstarter project for the documentary Calvinist comes up in the discussion.

At first, the guys are just having fun with the various fundraising levels, but around the 30:00 minute mark (the whole topic is introduced at 23:45) the discussion about the need for the movie gets more serious. First Barnabas Piper says,

Nobody is going to watch this that’s not already a Calvinist… The only people who like talking about Calvinism are Calvinists and nobody likes talking about anything more than Calvinists like talking about being Calvinists… almost as much as introverts like to Tweet about being introverts.  It’s how Together for the Gospel thrives year after year without ever doing anything different… So this will succeed… I don’t understand why Calvinists love being Calvinists so much; I just don’t get it.

Then Ted Kluck chimes in,

I think it has something to do with when kids get to college and join fraternities. You just want to belong, you want to be part of something, you want someone to sit with at lunch.

Ronnie Martin says,

It carries such a heavy a weight of a label… Baptist love going around saying ‘I’m a Baptist.’  What’s fascinating about the Calvinist position, if you take that there’s two positions, Calvinist and Arminian… is that nobody walks around holding up a card that says, ‘Arminian, that’s me; arrow pointing at me;’ but Calvinists carry the weight and the title and the identity and wave the flag of this thing given that the other position never represents themselves with that position, but you have this position which we think is Biblical and it has the most clarity… we’re drinking the Kool Aid, we’re wearing the t-shirt, we got the sticker, we’ve got the conference, we’re writing the books, we’ve got the publishing companies, we’ve got the — wait for it — podcasts.

To which Piper replies,  It’s fascinating like a nature documentary

Martin: Then what are we doing right now?

Piper: We’re making fun of how strange it is.

Martin: But we’re one of them.

Piper: Yes and no; because there’s different ways to define them… There’s the theology; there’s Reformed theology which, at its best informs how you live life, it informs how you see the world, it informs how you read scripture, it informs how you interact with God… Then there’s the culture of Calvinism which I want absolutely nothing to do with because it’s absurd.

Martin: How do you separate them?

Piper continues:

By not being a jerk… It’s like you can be a college student without being in a fraternity.  You can still go to class and study hard. You can still pursue a degree. You can still make friends. You can do all of those things in college. You just don’t have to pledge and binge drink and generally be an idiot…

[later] …

When I hear people, and when I see stuff like this… people love the label Calvinist … that label is divisive not helpful… When I say I want no part of it, I’m talking about all of the things that are divisive about it because I believe a truly Reformed person should  absolutely be able to interact with an Arminian and a Semi-Pelagian and a Buddhist and a Hindu and whoever else… You’re arguing for the gospel, you’re not arguing for Reformed theology. If you want to come back and say Reformed theology is the gospel, you’re wrong. It’s not. The gospel is bigger than Reformed theology; it is a way of understanding… But Arminian people are saved too, and too many Calvinists act like they’re not and those people are morons


… I’m talking about every aspect of the culture that I would deem to be divisive, or just dumb… When I saw this documentary, I just want to go, ‘Why?’ Who benefits from this. This is naval gazing by a naval gazing crowd. We love talking about ourselves, and how Reformed we are, so let’s make a documentary about Reformed Reformed people are.


…I’m talking about what will happen with it [the film]. …You know who’s going to watch this? Calvinists. And then they’re going to Tweet about it. And other Calvinists are going to re-Tweet it and they’re going to get their Calvinist buddies to watch it and we’re all going to be a little more Calvinist at the end of the day.







March 24, 2016

How the Internet Accelerated Change in the Church

close-to-home-on-blogging1This is part two of a two-part article.

In the setup in part one, we indicated that the influence of rock music in general and The Beatles in particular caused some sweeping changes, particularly in the U.S., in terms of fashion, drugs, war resistance and the sexual liberation. Some of this may have been inevitable, and there were certainly other influences at play, but the 1960s were essentially two decades worth of change sandwiched into one.

So what about another media (for lack of a better word) which influenced the Church?

The effect of the internet on Christianity or Evangelicalism varies depending on which aspect of the technology you’re discussing.

Email simply replaced snail-mail. Communications happened instantly, and at a fraction of the cost, but it’s hard to argue that this changed anything within church culture.

Church websites simply replaced the marquee at the front of the church building, allowing churches to opt instead for larger changeable letters adorned with pithy sayings. No need to post the pastor’s name or the service times, since all that was now on the website.

Video on demand or live-streaming of weekend services simply replaced buying time on local TV outlets, or for the blessed few, on a network of stations.

No, none of these things changed anything in and of themselves.

The real change happened on social media. Online bulletin boards, chat rooms, etc. made it possible for dialog to happen and made it easy for people to enter the conversation regardless of where they lived or their level of education.

But the biggest change occurred with the type of thing you’re reading now: Weblogs, or as they are better known, blogs.

While I can’t cite specific years as I did in part one of the article, here are some effects that I would say took place from about 2003 to 2009.

Blog ChildBlogs and BooksIt wasn’t Christian publishers who came up with using social media to promote new releases, rather the conversations simply started happening over the latest title or the newest author. For reasons I’ll get back to in the final point, the period was a golden age for non-fiction books and publishers were tripping over themselves to place new voices under contract.

I specify non-fiction because the publisher relationship with social media today tends to be more focused on mommy bloggers critiquing and giving away spoilers in the latest Amish or romantic or historical fiction title. Some of these make it through three books a week and publishers are quite willing to supply even relatively small blogs with freebies.

But that wasn’t always the way. The original discussions were all about doctrinal, or Christian Living titles. Maybe a devotional. Eventually, the one Christian children’s book that ever got serious blog review, The Jesus Storybook Bible.

The Growth of Calvinism – This really isn’t anything new, neither should it come as a surprise. Any advance of media technology, or any general cultural shift in communications has been seized on by the Reformed community. Just look at one of the first megachurches (Crystal Cathedral, Reformed Church in America), one of the first TV ministries (Day of Discovery, Christian Reformed), the organizations which dominate our present publishing community (Zondervan, Baker, Eerdman’s, etc., all Reformed); look at these and you see that Reformers have always been there in any available media. (My running joke: Why are there no Salvation Army bloggers? Because while everybody else is writing about it, the Salvation Army is out on the streets doing it.)

But while the internet promoted Calvinism, in some ways the form of the doctrine that was promoted was also changed by it. There exists a type of militant Calvinism today that has polarized the broad Christian community. Reformed parents couldn’t give their children the comic book The Action Bible until the publisher provided a sanctified edition with text from the English Standard Version, the Reformed community’s new Bible of choice.

blogThe Internet Celebrity – The blog Stuff Christians Like launched Jon Acuff overnight. The blog with the weird name, Without Wax, introduced the world to Nashville pastor Pete Wilson. The Naked Pastor developed a cult following, especially when some of the characters in the illustrations turned out to be actually naked. John Shore, Bill Kinnon, Tim Challies, Skye Jethani, Zach Nielson, and others like them were must reading for their constituencies. The Pyromaniacs aka Team Pyro proved that graphics matter, with their first-rate images appearing throughout their articles and attracting new followers.

But in a recent Happy Rant Podcast, Barnabas Piper and Ted Kluck noted that many of the Reformed blogging superstars have churches that are not as significantly large as their digital footprint might indicate. They enjoy a fame disproportionate to their church attendance. Furthermore some pastors, like Willow’s Bill Hybels, didn’t blog at all.

There’s also the few — of which this blog is one — that managed to attract a following without the author being a pastor or a published author. Voices that might not have been heard if this form of social media had not existed.

Homogenization – Despite the plethora of Christian blogs out there, there was a sense we were all reading from the same page. Re-blogging material was more common and more accepted in the early days, and the water cooler topics in church offices — especially among younger leaders — tended to mirror the topics being discussed on the blogs.

Emergent / Emerging – While the terms are now in disuse, there is much evidence that whatever the Christian blogosphere did for Calvinism, it did even more so for the various strains of the Emergent Church, including the Ancient/Future mini-movement that I feel was Emergent’s best byproduct; along with kick-starting the whole missional conversation.

I’m not sure if  it was Tony Jones or not, but recently a writer from that era wrote a piece saying that Emergent was, in effect, now past its sell-by date. I have to agree, which makes it more interesting when some watchdog blog starts slamming the now non-existent movement. Which brings us to…

bloggingdogs-thumbDiscernment / Watchdog Ministries – The blogosphere in general, if nothing else, is all about being offended, so the discernment bloggers, the watchdog bloggers, those champions for truth and right doctrine (as long as it’s their truth and right doctrine) are a natural fit for social media.

The problem is that the average Christian, doing a Google search, has no idea when he or she has come upon one of these, and may not catch the watchdog’s own biases. The blogosphere, like the entire internet, has few filters.

Furthermore, there are so many targets for these writers, so many ways to instill fear, so many common enemies, that it’s easy to go on the attack and forget that those attacked are real people with real lives and real families. I think it’s harder to hate a person after you’ve shaken his hand, but I may be wrong.

Did Christian internet bullies contribute to the suicide of a pastor’s teenage son? We asked that question here a few years ago. We’ll never know the answer, but some are willing to speculate.

Connections – I met British Columbia blogger Rick Apperson somewhere in the comments section of my short lived Religion blog at USAToday and we still keep in touch and occasionally I steal articles from him! Dare I say that I’ve made dozens and dozens of contacts through blogging, some of which I consider the most significant in my life, even though we’ve never met face to face.

I’ve also discovered an affinity toward people with whom I think alike and with whom I think quite differently. And I am so grateful for having spent nearly two years doing a column (albeit a news feed) for Christianity Today. I love those guys!

Eccesiology – One of the main benefits of the early years of Christian bloggers was the rapid increase in the number of people who started planting churches. Called “the extreme sport of ministry,” church plants turned up in various shapes and sizes, with lay people who had never had a previous interest in Ecclesiology — and who had certainly never been asked — were writing and turning out blog posts and print books on the subject of doing church and creating a different kind of church (a phrase that if Googled, probably results in millions of hits.)

Growth of BloggingI listed this last, even though it could have been first, because it sums up a lot of what was taking place in a very short time: There was an explosion of ideas. Conversations were flying fast and furious about church governance, leadership models and worship styles. That the average parishioner cared so much about what was taking place drove all us into a deeper consideration of what it means to be Christ’s church.

The discussions and ideas were reflected in books and especially in a parallel  explosion of conferences. People loved their church and loved the church. No idea wasn’t worth consideration. No speaker or writer wasn’t worth hearing.

It was the best of times.


September 26, 2015

Some People Want Their Gospel Served A Certain Way

So it all started when our friends at Flagrant Regard posted this graphic image on Facebook.

Ligon Duncan on Preaching the Gospel

At first, I kinda tensed up because Ligon Duncan is very highly revered among traditional Reformers and New Calvinists alike. You’re very likely to see him speaking at things like the Together for the Gospel Conference. So my immediate reaction was, if he hates it, I’m probably for it.

So I was pleased when some people I know immediately weighed in, the first being my wife:

There are a few places in the Bible where God says he reveals himself, wordlessly, through creation. If he can do that, he can certainly show who he is through our grace and love and giving. It’s our job to then answer when asked, and to speak when the opportunities arise. Maybe the problem is the word ‘preach’, which can be narrowly interpreted by some. It might be better to ‘live’ the gospel. This quote strikes me as being a melodramatic over-correction to people who never speak Jesus at all.

The next was our friend Carol:

It seems, understanding the Biblical intent initiated by St.Francis d’Assisi in the top statement, one would see the incongruity of the the second. When Jesus said to Peter “Feed my sheep”, he did not expect Peter to run out and give hay to a flock of sheep. His intention was more inclining to nurture persons to learn of God’s love through actions and example. “Nurture” and “Nourish” come from the same Latin verb root “nutrire” so actual giving of food is not excluded But St.Francis seemed to be alluding to the spiritual side. We can “preach” the Gospel without words by our actions and attitudes toward others. Matt.5:16 “Let your light so shine……..”. Mark 12:31 “Love thy neighbor…..”. Matt. 6:14-15 “For if you forgive…..”. + many many more examples. These, to me, seem to portray the concept to which St. Francis was alluding.

These 2 statements do not belong together !!!

To that, I say a hearty “Amen.” (We’re not sure if St. Francis of Assisi gets the credit for this, though; but that detail is trivial.)

But on the FB page from which my friends at FR obtained the graphic, there was some support.

I’ve heard the above-the-plate nonsense spewed by evangelicals. You have to wonder just how this anti-biblical Pabulum made it into the mainstream?

Notice the difference in the tone of that remark versus the two above. But even there, this comment:

…The meaning though isn’t that you should never preach, but that your actions toward others should be consistent with the Gospel. It’s a paradoxical statement meant to make a deeper point.

For my part, the quotation appeared in my Twitter feed:

Ligon Duncan quote exchange with Eric Carpenter
I suggested reading the two responses at Flagrant Regard, and got the answer you see above. I looked up the person with whom I found myself in this rather heated exchange (that’s not my usual style) and noted that they seemed to have an affinity to other writers that would tend to want to support Ligon Duncan at all costs. We have an earlier blog post here devoted to the fact it is in the nature of people within a certain doctrinal strand to protect the brand at all costs.

But alas, the doctrinal strand to which I refer is a version of Christianity that is all about words, and words only. To their credit, these are the people who founded many Christian publishing companies. To their detriment, these are the people who dominate the Christian internet with their cheering for the home team and endless re-blogging of articles written by their heroes in that movement.

For me it always comes back to the rhetorical question, “Why are there no Salvation Army bloggers?” (Actually there are a small few.) The answer to the question is, “While everybody else is writing about it, they’re out doing it.” I raised that point in this post, where I also noted that those on one particular side of the fence seem to have a militant wing that doesn’t exist on the other side. Worse, this internet domination and barrage of words often becomes the only thing people see.

I guess the thing that ticked me off the most, was the guy in the above exchange on Twitter saying, “Sorry, but I don’t have time to read rebuttals.” Reminds me of the number of bloggers in that same doctrinal system who no longer accept comments.

I just fail to see anyone would be attracted to that brand of Christianity.

Ligon Duncan is not one of my spiritual heroes. I’m not part of that movement, he doesn’t speak for me, though I did take some time to listen to him in one of the T4G live feeds in the interest of open-mindedness. His remark may make for a nice Twitter or Facebook graphic, but it’s a great adventure in missing the point. It has an air of logic and spirituality but is actually a giant put-down of people who don’t fit his extremely narrow view of who God is and what God can use.

To which I say, “Preach the gospel, and then if necessary, know when to shut up.”

July 11, 2015

Where the New NIV Zondervan Study Bible Fits In

NIV Zondervan Study Bible

Opinions here are those of the author; this is not a sponsored post.

While the title may confuse some, you have to assume the publishers already sorted out that potential confusion and went ahead with the name anyway. The NIV Zondervan Study Bible is releasing later this summer, and is certain to get mixed up with the classic NIV Study Bible which has been with us for several decades. The latter isn’t going anywhere.

At a major online Christian retail site, we read:

The NIV Study Bible will remain in print. With over 10 million copies sold over 30 years, this bestselling study Bible will continue to help readers come to a deeper understanding of God’s Word.

And then it offers this chart which outlines the differences:

NIV Study Bibles compared

Looking closely at the author list above, methinks that that Zondervan is going after the same market as purchased the popular ESV Study Bible. Clearly, to some extent, the Reformed community is in view. However, by virtue of its weight, the ESV product attracted a broader audience containing features not heretofore seen in study Bibles. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but the ESV Study did contain elements worth emulating.

Zondervan is quick to point out that this new project was not adapted from the present study edition, but was “built from the ground up.” We know that like the ESV Study, it contains supplementary articles and that well known Biblical scholars were responsible for particular books, but for many of the finer details, we’re going to have to wait until the August 25th release date to see all its 2,912 pages.

Of course, if Zondervan wants to send me a review copy, they know how to reach me!

Bonus: For those of you who’ve read this far, here’s a look at some of the extras in this Bible below which is a clue to where the advance peek treasure is buried:

NIV Zondervan Study Bible ArticlesClick the image above, and then click the “preview” tab to see the full table of contents and many of the introductory articles.

January 30, 2015

Getting the Gospel Right

Christianity in a single sentence

Four years ago I ran a piece here that began with Dane Ortland, a senior editor at Crossway Books, who asked some people in his Rolodex to summarize the gospel in a single sentence. (Does he still use a Rolodex?) At the time, I was reading all Christian bloggers somewhat equally, but today with the dominance of Calvinist/Reformed voices at Crossway, I probably would have tempered my introduction with a warning that many of the responses probably emanate from people in the same doctrinal stream.

To be fair, the question asked was to summarize The Bible in a single sentence. But it’s a re-hash of a familiar theme among certain blogs were repeating over and over and over and over and over and over and over again: What is the gospel?

I remain perplexed by this preoccupation, this obsession that certain people in the Reformed tradition have with trying to formulate the ultimate definition of the evangel; the good news. Without being flippant, I think that, like pornography, you know it when you see it; or in this case hear it or read it.

Mylon LeFevre, the musician from the early days of CCM put it this way, “If it didn’t sound like good news, you haven’t heard the gospel.”

I also think that, when considered in the light of the Jewish appreciation of the scriptures as a great jewel that reflects and refracts the light in infinite ways each time we look at it, the idea of trying to formulate a precis of the Bible is to venture into an endless and perhaps even frustrating mission. What would Jesus think of trying to consolidate something so great, so wide, so high, so deep into a finite number of words?  Concision is great, but maybe it doesn’t work here.

That God loves us and cares for us enough to intervene — that incarnation should ever take place at all — is such a mystery. Why mess it up with over-analysis? Instead of reading about the gospel, and writing about the gospel, and — oh my goodness! — blogging endlessly about the gospel; would it not be better to get out into the streets and be living the gospel? I said at the time that my answer would simply be:

  • It’s the story of the history between God and humankind.

Is that not sufficient?  Maybe today I would add, ‘and God’s workings to repair that relationship where it has been broken.’ But already I’m making it longer where I think such a statement needs to be concise.

But why? Why? Why? Would someone from within the Reformed tradition be so kind as to give me a reasonable solution to this riddle: Why so much time, so much energy, so much angst over trying to answer a question that never seems to be answered to everyone’s satisfaction?

Nonetheless, here are few answers to Dane’s question:

  • God is in the process of recreating the universe which has been corrupted by sin and has made it possible for all those and only those who follow Jesus to be a part of the magnificent, eternal community that will result. (Craig Bloomberg)
  • The movement in history from creation to new creation through the redemptive work of Father, Son, and Spirit who saves and changes corrupted people and places for his glory and their good. (Paul House)
  • The message of the Bible is twofold: to show how people can be saved from their sins through faith in Christ’s atonement AND how to live all of life as a follower of God. (Leland Ryken)
  • God reigns over all things for his glory, but we will only enjoy his saving reign in the new heavens and the new earth if we repent and believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the crucified and risen Lord and who gave himself on the cross for our salvation. (Tom Schreiner)
  • God made it, we broke it, Jesus fixes it! (Jay Sklar attributed to Michael D. Williams)

Two of the authors merely paraphrased a familiar verse in John 3:

  • God created mankind in order to love them, but we all rejected his love, so God sent His Son to bear our sins on the cross in order that by believing in His sacrificial atonement, we might have life. (Grant Osborne)
  • God was so covenantally committed to the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him may have eternal life! (Dan Block)

I thought there was actually more life in the answers given in the comments section:

  • God chose one man (Abraham) in order to make of him one great nation (Israel) so that through it He might bring forth the one great Savior (Jesus) and through Him demonstrate God’s glory and extend God’s grace to all creation. (John Kitchen)
  • The good news of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that provides full and free deliverance from the penalty and power of sin, by the grace of God alone, through faith in Christ alone, plus nothing – all to the praise of His glorious name. (Seth from Lynchburg)
  • Jesus, God’s promised Rescuer and Ruler, lived our life, died our death and rose again in triumphant vindication as the first fruits of the new creation to bring forgiven sinners together under his gracious reign. (attributed to Steve Timmis)
  • Why try and better John the Baptist? He succintly summarizes the Bible: “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”(John 1:29). It’s all there – epiphany, sin, sacrifice, salvation, redemption, justification, forgiveness, release, freedom and victory. (Michael Zarling)
  • The Triune God of Eternity restoring the demonstration of His glory in that which He has created by the redemption of creation through God-man, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rick from Dallas)

But at the end of the day — if you haven’t already spotted the pattern here — my favorite item in the comment section is this one:

  • Why didn’t you ask any women to contribute? (Gillian)

To read many of the other featured definitions; and dozens of other comments; click over to the original article at Strawberry Rhubarb

Looking back four years later… In an environment where so many churches spend so much time and energy trying to draft mission statements and tag lines to put under the church logo, it’s interesting that our perspectives vary enough that we don’t emerge with something more common to all.  However, we do have a common symbol, the cross

Maybe we should start there and work backwards to a core statement.

November 1, 2014

End of the Line for Mars Hill

The headline at Christianity Today said it all:

Mars Hill LocationsHere’s reaction from people you know, along with random comments from people you don’t on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram that were posted in the hours immediately following the announcement:

Zach Hoag: In my opinion, this was the only right decision for a church organization with such a troubled history. It will allow for a truly new start, free from the arrogant defense of the old institution, and for the deep healing process to commence. 

Stephan Deliramich: This is crazy and sad. I appreciate Driscoll and have mixed feelings about his resignation, however this is such a lesson to all of us. A church cannot be built around one person unless that person is Jesus.

Warren Throckmorton: If anything has become clear over the last year, it is that the church was all about buildings and organization.

Rachel Held Evans: My heart breaks for those brothers and sisters from Seattle feeling wounded, exhausted, and disillusioned by the unraveling of their church. Even unhealthy churches have faithful, godly people working in them. I hope everyone will take the time they need to heal after this, and that the relationships that were truly life-giving will be preserved. Unfortunately, churches built around a pastor tend to rise and fall with that pastor. I hope the entire evangelical community will learn from this and re-prioritize accountability, character, respect for women and the marginalized, and I sincerely hope Mark Driscoll finds the help he needs…

Christopher Preston: Sad… But not so surprising… The pitfalls of building a church on personality rather than Christ?

Jim West: This is the major theological problem with megachurches: they have no idea what missionary minded churches are.  They do not distribute, they collect.  Rather than planting churches in various locations, they collect people like property and then boast of their multiple campuses and tens of thousands of members.  If megachurches understood Christianity they would plant churches and not establish satellites.  But whenever wealth comes the way of the greedy and controlling, it is only natural that they try to get as much of it as they can.  That is why Mars Hill has died: greed killed it. 

John Paul Ortiz: I’m actually sad to hear of Mars Hill’s demise. For all the people who now have to go church hopping, people now unemployed, hurt. etc.

Jacey Davidson: The mega-church/multi-site model is unsustainable as is it built upon certain gifted individuals that can’t help but assume inappropriate amounts of power and influence. God’s church is all about decentralization. The priesthood of all believers is a critical reformation doctrine. Multi-site is a relatively new invention of man and doesn’t seem to fit the biblical model of church government. It is pseudo-Presbyterian but lacks the proper accountability channels. 

Multisite Church SaleMatthew Wagner: Pray for Mars Hill and the 14000 Christians that called it home. Sad to see the church closing its doors. 

Spiritual Sounding Board: I’ve seen discussion [about] new “Mars Hill” churches. If these pastors failed to stand up to Driscoll and say he was unfit, they are unfit to lead. 

Drew Fanning: [referencing CT headline above] Describing a church as a human’s possession and using words like “empire” will have a terrible impact on Mars Hill’s congregation. We as christian contributors to social media, news, and even culture have to be so careful how we use any terminology. And more so than worry about the buildings Mars Hill owned, we should be worrying about the people that filled them.

Wenatchee The Hatchet:  In ten years Mark Driscoll managed to become pretty much everything he preached against from the pulpit circa 2000-2004.  How and why this happened may be explored and unpacked later on.  Whether the individual churches that have been constituents of Mars Hill can survive remains to be seen.  A number of them may and we’ll just have to see.  

Brian Shepard: Sucks hearing that Mars Hill Church is officially done.. but will be praying that from this ending, this moment also marks a new beginning. 

Bill Kinnon: If you need to shut it down mere weeks after the “founder” quits, was it ever really a church at all?

John Piper: Mars Hill Church will cease to be a single multisite church. May each congregation flourish in Christ!  

Click the image at the top of the article to read the details at Christianity Today.


May 23, 2014

Defending Lectio Divina: Letting the Text Speak

Challies Lectio Divina

Tim Challies was at it again this week, this time bashing a centuries-old Bible study and meditation practice called Lectio Divina which enjoyed a bit of a resurgence a decade ago as post moderns and millennial searched for practices that could comprise an “ancient-future” approach to Christian life.

His attack on a Spirit-led consideration of the text really undermines the Pentecostal approach to sermon preparation and study and is reminiscent of John MacArthur’s recent attacks on that movement. He finds the methodology subjective, but realistically, every commentary you’ve ever read is going to be somewhat subjective, both in terms of what it says and also in terms of what it includes or leaves out.

But you don’t have to be Pentecostal to use this method; everyone who prayerfully tries to let the text speak to them is going to be embracing this at some level; furthermore, if you discard this you are one baby step away from discarding the inductive Bible study method taught by Kay Arthur (and others) and the idea of praying the scriptures which many find useful.

Fortunately, Mark Moore has written an excellent rebuttal. I want to encourage you to read all of it, but since some don’t click through, here are some highlights:

  • I approached studying for a sermon series like I was studying for a dissertation defense at Oxford. I would read dozens of commentaries, monographs, journal articles, and just about anything else I could get my hands on…Yep, for the most part it was overkill. I dissected a book until I felt that I knew it inside and out
  • …When I approach the text in order to be formed by it, rather than simply informed by it, I am submitting myself to the text–the opposite of mastering it…
  • As I continue reading, I’m paying attention to where I feel apprehended by the text. I’m trusting that the Holy Spirit knows me well and wants to speak to me and wants to form me into the image of Jesus.
  • Lectio divina is dangerous. There is a dangerous risk to your comfort when you begin submitting to Scripture rather than trying to master it.

This study method has four components and you’ll need to click through to see them explained, but here they are:

  • Lectio (Reading)
  • Meditatio (Meditation)
  • Oratio (Prayer)
  • Contemplatio (Contemplation)

If the use of Latin seems too Catholic for you, or the whole thing appears to be too far removed from your experience or how your church teaches devotional Bible study, may I remind you that if you had never heard the ACTS outline for prayer (Acknowledge, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) it would probably seem strange too.

At the end of the day, Challies’ is simply hyper-critical of anything that is outside of his spiritual life experience. “That’s not how we do it;” morphs into “That’s not how it should be done.” He is literally terrified of that which does not fit into his boxes. Unfortunately, he has a huge readership, many of whom would never question the various manifestations of the Christian world he condemns, especially considering the fear mentality that plagues much of the Church.

But so much of scripture — so much of God for that matter — is mystery. The Jews regarded the scripture as a multifaceted jewel; each reflection and refraction and each turning of the object revealed something never before seen.

That experience of the word is, I am afraid, is alwaysgoing to be somewhat subjective.



April 11, 2014

An Outsider Looks at Together for the Gospel

I’ve been aware of the Together for the Gospel conference for a long time, but this week, through the miracle of live streaming and a schedule that coincided, I was able to catch a portion of many of the sessions, including a few sermons from beginning to end.

In many ways it reminded me of an experience a long time ago where I suddenly found myself immersed in a denomination that had always been completely foreign, attending an annual Easter Conference that consisted of speaker after speaker I had never heard of addressing content I was not fully grasping.

I came to this particular event a little better informed as to the subject matter and a great deal more familiar with the speakers, in some cases by reputation in other cases having read their blogs or books for quite some time.

Still, I am very much an outsider, and had I attempted to enter the event physically instead of virtually, I am sure that all manner of alarms would have been tripped. Better to view from a distance, I suppose.

I have a few takeaways from what I was able to catch over the three days that I believe are worth sharing. If you’ve never heard of T4G, this will be an introduction. On the other hand, if this is your tribe, you’ll see at least one person’s perception of the event and surrounding culture.

Together for the Gospel - Constituencies

The Players

T4G is very much a product of what is sometimes called The New Calvinism, or the Young, Restless and Reformed movement. I saw evidence of four streams blending into the T4G pond; consisting of (from smallest to largest):

Presbyterian: I suspect this was the smallest constituency numerically, but Presbys are Reformed in doctrine. So maybe these are the cousins, what Holiness Movement denoms are to hardcore Pentecostals, perhaps. This is also probably considered the liberal wing of the Reformed set, but in balance, if you like your theology capital “L” liberal you probably don’t frequent conferences such as these that skew a little more small “e” evangelical.

Classical Reformed: By this I mean your standard purebred CRC (Christian Reformed Church) or RCA (Reformed Church of America) members, or historically Reformed variants on those two denoms. Dutch ancestry is optional, but it helps.

Southern Baptist: This is where I thought it gets interesting. There is some agreement that to some degree, 5-point Calvinism is becoming the doctrine de rigeur of the SBC, though not all welcome this. (Free Will Baptists are definitely a minority and Free Willy Baptists don’t even show in the stats.) So you see many prominent SBC-ers (more on that in a minute) showing up on panels and as speakers and lots of commercials for LifeWay (a Baptist cash cow) showing up on the giant screen.

New Calvinists: This is the primary target audience for the conference, these are also the people both great and small who dominate the Christian blogosphere and Christian publishing for that matter. (More on that later as well.) They appear to be one of the fastest growing sectors of Christianity right now, but again some of that has to with online perception; the internet was made for this movement, and this movement was made for the internet. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Doctrinally, we’re talking a more hardline 5-point Calvinism than many Classical Reformers. This also takes in sub-sectors such as the Acts 29 Network and the Sovereign Grace churches; and also close friends such as the Harvest Bible Fellowship churches.

The Conference Itself

The three day event in Louisville, KY as evidenced in the main, arena venue consisted of worship times, panel discussions and main speakers. Admittance was by wristband, which apparently one didn’t want to misplace. Grace is a key component of T4G teaching, but apparently it’s not universally applied. In general, I have no complaints with the conference structure…but that doesn’t make for interesting reading, so we’ll move on.

The Music

All of the music that I saw was led by Bob Kauflin, who I got to meet in the very early days of Glad, a “Jesus Music” band dating back to the late ’70s. Bob led from a grand piano facing the stage, so the live streaming consisted entirely of a medium closeup of Bob with a few audience members in the background. No band. No backup vocalists. I wondered if this is normative with the various types of churches represented in the audience.

The music was dominantly hymns with the addition of some Sovereign Grace music and modern-hymns of the Stuart Townend/Keith & Kristyn Getty variety. With almost each piece, Bob would stop playing so that phrases or entire stanzas could be sung a capella. This creates a rather amazing worship atmosphere — especially in a large arena — if not overdone. In my opinion, this was overdone.

At this point, I recognize I run the risk of irate comments, so let me say this is in no way personal. Kauflin is a respected leader in the field of worship music, though we disagree on some issues, such as making minor lyrical changes or the composition of extra verses by local church musicians. His track record in this field is laudable.

But as a musician and worship leader who has been in a similar situation — not once, but twice — I believe it’s time to think about a succession plan; to look toward passing the torch. Working in that direction begins by sharing the stage, by letting younger worship leaders try their wings. I am sure there are, within their movement, some younger musicians deserving of this honor.

The Books

No, I’m not talking about T4G’s finances. One of the things that really stood out to me was the constant reference to the conference bookstore. In addition to some books that delegates received gratis, there were books promoted by the chairperson for each session, and discussion panelists who mentioned a book were often informed seconds later that the particular title was indeed, available at the store.

As someone who loves books, obviously I feel this is commendable. But it’s also a reminder — and please hear this carefully — that this is a particular faith culture that is very much about words. Books, articles, blogs, etc. matter and matter a great deal. (There are very few Salvation Army bloggers, because they’re all out doing what the rest of us only write about.) Your future in the New Calvinist movement depends much on being aware of the latest encyclicals from the movement’s leaders, and participants seem to go deep, past conversational familiarity with the works in question. 

Still, many of the books would be foreign even to mainstream Christian bookstore proprietors, which is why they are often sold through exclusive channels. I’ve written about this elsewhere, so we’ll move on.

The Superstars

I should say first that each denom has its own key people. Whether you attend a district conference, or a national one, there are certain people who, by whatever means, have risen to the top of the organizational hierarchy and are thereby held in high regard.

T4G is no different really. The composition of this year’s lineup — all male, by the way — is somewhat similar to the Venn diagram above, with a similar ratio of speakers and panelists representing different constituencies.  Still, it seems to run to extremes here, with key leaders held in dangerously high esteem, and members of the rank and file working hard to be able to quote chapter and verse from their latest pronouncements. In a Q & A, someone asked via video if Albert Mohler would consider running for President of the United States. Was that tongue in cheek? I might have said ‘yes,’ were it not for the context.

Other main speakers included Kevin DeYoung, Mark Dever, John Piper, David Platt, Matt Chandler, John MacArthur, Thabiti Anyabwile, and Ligon Duncan. (These messages are soon to be posted.)

(As an aside, there was some discussion about a particular high-profile speaker who had recused himself from the conference several months earlier, but was then spotted on the front row, and as to whether you can have it both ways.)

The Gospel

There was definitely some great preaching. I would watch/listen to Kevin DeYoung a second time when that message comes online, and I am always personally challenged by the passion of David Platt.

But I’m always somewhat mystified by the constant references to “the gospel.” It reminds me of the movie The Princess Bride where Vizzini is constantly saying, “Inconceivable;” and finally in a scene Inigo Montoya finally says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The New Calvinists are constantly talking about “the gospel” and dare I say are obsessed with getting it right. But what particular aspect of this is in view? In my world, the gospel is Jesus. If we speak more about the good news, but not so much about the content of that evangel, then I think we’re allowing ourselves to be party to a mammoth distraction. It would be interesting to know what the word-count was for “Jesus” versus “gospel” in remarks made from the platform. 

(One of their number once used the term “real friends of the gospel” to describe New Calvinist churches, implying that others are not.)

In fairness, some of the sessions did address things like the need to share our faith, but you have to remember that this is a community that has historically looked askance at the seeker-sensitive strategy, abhors topical preaching and has been openly critical of anything involving the word missional. I believe that such a verbal witness would be constrained to somewhat limited parameters of their choosing.


I am thankful for the opportunity to get more than a passing glimpse into this particular event. If the option exists, I would definitely try to clear more time to watch in 2016. I think that as the larger, capital “B” Body of Christ, we really don’t know each other. There was some great preaching, and I have better insight into the core values and central issues for the constituencies represented at T4G. There is much we can learn from people of different denominational stripes, and I can only hope my Reformed brothers and sisters would tune in equally for a Wesleyan or Anabaptist or Charismatic convention. 

As an outsider, I am always concerned if the passing of time is bringing us — in this case Calvinists and non-Calvinists — closer together or farther apart. My hope is the former, but reality suggests the latter. As the group represented by T4G grows, I see it becoming more entrenched; there is increasing tribe/brand loyalty, a type of religious jingoism, increasing isolation; and all this is a loss for people on both sides of the divide.

Lighter moments: Check out the Twitter feed Not the T4G

Image: Church-At-Our House Graphics

Related: Defining Calvinism versus Arminianism


October 17, 2012

Wednesday Link List

Welcome to WLL # 125, the first link-list I’ve composed entirely in HTML. Let me know if renders a little weird on your screen. (Weirder than most weeks, that is!)

September 5, 2012

Wednesday Link List

This week’s links include:

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