Sunday, September 22, 2013

A TR Looks at 66

A TR Looks at 66

Really Cool Young RUF Guy

Really Curmudgeonly Old Guy

Frankly I’d rather be a pirate looking at 40, but I never made enough money to buy Miami, and I’ve been looking at 40 in the rear view mirror for almost 26 years now.  I’ll have to settle for being an old TR looking at 66.

I published The Six Points of TR back on August 20. You can find it here: My purpose was to give an accounting according to my memories of the origination of the term and what I think it signified.

I followed up on August 30 by posting a copy of Mr. Guy Oliver’s 1976 paper TR: The Anatomy of a Slogan  which he presented to a group of alumni, including several of the original TRs, as his contemporaneous and outsider’s take on the “movement.” You can find that here:

What I propose to do now is to reflect on the  the six points I used to describe TRism more that 40 years after my graduation from seminary and ordination to the ministry (both in 1972).

1. Calvinistic Theology. 
These men held enthusiastically to Reformed theology as they learned it from the Westminster standards, Berkhof, and professors who had studied at Westminster Theological Seminary with Murray (e.g. Morton Smith and Palmer Robertson). Dr. Morton Smith's lectures were dry, but his three volumed syllabus and class discussions gave students who "got it" the framework of a working theology. TRs grasped, could articulate, and saw some of the practical implications of Calvinism.
I remain a Calvinist. I am thankful for the working theology I absorbed in the classes taught by Dr. Smith, despite the fact that I may hold the distinction of being the only RTS student ever kicked out of a final, when Dr. Smith found my showing up for a systematics exam wearing Bermuda shorts unacceptable.  I am also grateful for the historical perspective provided by Mr. (later Dr.) Albert H. Freundt in his church history and history and character of Calvinism courses.

It is true, I think, that I have a greater appreciation for the sources and for the breadth of the stream of Calvinism through the centuries and so not the Westminster tradition only. Along with that appreciation, I have come to believe that, because of the integral relations of ecclesiology and sacramentology to Calvinism, while Baptists can affirm some doctrines of Calvinism, they cannot properly be called Calvinists. 

I also find it astonishing that men seem so glibly to subscribe to everything in the Confession and Larger and Shorter Catechisms given the number of words and amount of detail in them. I always appreciated it in Potomac Presbytery, when my friend, Dr. David Coffin, upon hearing men say they had no differences with Standards, would rise and ask, “And have you read them?” As to my own case, I wonder how it is that, after having been a member of 8 different Presbyteries, and of Mississippi Valley twice before, I am found to have an exception to the Standards because I do not affirm 6 24 hour days of creation.

Despite some puzzlements regarding Calvinism, confessionalism, and subscription, happily Calvinistic I remain.

2. Biblical Theology. Probably the most exciting courses offered were the young Dr. Palmer Roberston's Old Testament and New Testament theology courses. Dr. Robertson had studied with John Murray, Meredith Kline, and Ed Clowney, understood Vos, and was in the process of constructing his own contributions to the field of Biblical theology (later published as The Christ of the Covenants). Dr. Robertson gave students a framework for understanding the Scriptures, particularly the unity of the covenants, the progressive nature of revelation, and the Christ-centeredness of the Scriptures.
I have found that two things I absorbed in seminary have served me very well through 41 years in the ministry: (1) the theological framework I got from Dr. Morton Smith, and (2) the framework for interpreting and using the Scriptures given to me by the Biblical theology courses of Dr. Palmer Robertson. Dr. Robertson saved me from many things, three of them being (1) theonomy, (2) the more fanciful flights of Biblical theology, and (3) the moralistic-exemplary approach to Old Testament biography.  Sober grammatical-historical exegesis combined with high a regard for systematic theology make for a healthy form of redemptive-historical understanding of Scripture and its right use.

3. Pre-suppositional Apologetics. Some faculty came from the Dutch theological tradition (e.g. DeYoung, Kistemaker), others had studied under Van Til (e.g. Smith, Robertson), and others were familiar with Schaeffer (e.g. Killen).  TRs were convinced Van Tillians. They did not trust reason, rejected the theistic proofs, and did not believe there were any "brute facts." They pre-supposed the Bible and the whole Christian faith as the foundation for all thought. They thought they would demolish strongholds of unbelief and take every thought captive to Christ.
I am some sort of presuppositionalist still, but I find Van Til hard to read and harder yet to understand. Apologetics has not been at the top of my reading list. But, I do think it is important to address issues of “ultimate concern” for believers and non-believers. I recall a footnote in a booklet by Dr. John R. DeWitt where he quotes someone to the effect that is it a great thing to believe in God. I think one of the things that makes it great is that sometimes it is so hard. Yet how can one not?

4. World-and-Life View. There was Dutch influence from Christian Reformed faculty members and from Kuyper's Stone lectures at Princeton. There was the Van Til influence from Westminster trained faculty. But, ironically, the primary shaper of students' understanding of a Christian world-and-life view, was a Biblical theologian, Palmer Robertson. Dr. Robertson's unpublished paper on the kingdom and the church combined a Southern Presbyterian theology of the spirituality of the church with a sphere-sovereignty view of the kingdom. The church has a limited mission but the kingdom is bigger than the church. Christians could advance the kingdom by bringing Christ's rule to bear on everything.
With regard to world-and-life view matters I have undergone significant change. Several things have contributed to this: (1) I am an a-millenialist, who believes we must await the coming of Christ for the transformation of creation. There is a lot more “not yet” than “already” in my view. I think a-millenialist pessimism is Biblical, realistic, and healthy. (2) I believe with the Westminster Confession that the visible church is the kingdom of Christ in this age. I used to believe otherwise, but I didn't know any better. (3) To me the spiritual nature and mission of the church are crystal clear in the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. I struggle with understanding why so many find this so difficult. (4) I came to see that lot of what we think and do in this world lies in the realm of “common grace”  and “natural revelation” - a realm which we inhabit with non-believers.

Recently I made the humorous comment on a Facebook thread that “I don’t do worldview.”  A brother who was born the year I went to seminary admonished me that I, along with everyone else, do have a worldview and went on to quote James Sire. I used to tell students the same thing - that, even if it was nothing more than believing “you only go around once so grab for all the gusto you can” (quoting an old beer commercial), you have a worldview. Well, yes, I do have a worldview, and it is grounded in the reality of God and Christ. But, my worldview does not include the belief that there is a distinctly and uniquely Christian view of everything.

5. Experimentalism. Calvinistic experimentalism (or an emphasis on Christian experience) was not a great emphasis of the original faculty. It certainly was not taught in the Practical Department by those responsible for homiletics and counseling courses. Exposure to experimentalism came through one Congregationalist, two Baptists, two Presbyterians, and one publishing house. The Congregationalist was Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Some had heard him "live" in the summer of 1969 at the Pensacola Theological Institute, but his primary influence came via  books (especially The Sermon on the Mount) and taped sermons. The two Baptists were Ernie Reisinger and Al Martin both of whom preached on campus. The Presbyterians were Edwardsian John Gerstner and Puritan Dutchman John R. DeWitt. The publisher was The Banner of Truth with its books and monthly magazine. TRs got from these emphasis on self-examination and conversion, searching sermon application, and a longing for revival.
I first experienced Calvinistic experimentalism in seminary. I remember Ernie Reisenger preaching in chapel and urgently inquiring, “Have you closed with Christ?” Frankly, never having heard conversion or coming to faith put in those terms, it took me a little while to figure out what he meant. Then there was John Gerstner who preached Puritan preparationism. If you knew you were not saved, you put yourself in the way of grace and hoped God would be merciful. But the preeminent experientialist I experienced was Al Martin who, as one classmate put it, nailed us to the back of the chapel wall, preaching such texts as, "Take heed to thyself and to thy doctrine." Martin was popular in Mississippi and visited several towns where he preached sermons on the “true conversion rare and difficult” theme. And, a number of us took this kind of preaching are our model.

I think it was a serious mistake. Just the other day a friend and I were commiserating about the damage we did to the saints with our preaching by the ways we applied our sermons, by the kind of introspection and self-examination we urged, and by guilt and doubt we encouraged.

Several things moved me away from this sort of thing: (1) My own self-examination under that sort of preaching produced discouragement and sometimes despair. (2) Ministering to students I came to appreciate that Christians could be pretty “messed up” and yet be Christians. (3) I came to see that texts such as “Prove yourselves whether ye be in the faith” did not call for the kind of self-examination experientialists exhorted Christians to perform. I became convinced that Paul’s exhortation to “examine yourselves” before coming to the Lord’s Table was not meant to lead to self-excommunication. I saw the1 John is not about tests of whether faith exists but proofs that it does. (4) I came to believe that if we really believe that children of believers are holy, if we believe in infant baptism, and if we believe in the Christian nurture of children, we should not treat covenant children as little infidels. (5) I saw that our theology leads not to our focusing on regeneration or on conversion understood as a certain kind of experience but on profession of faith to be charitably judged. It is not the perfection of faith but faith that saves. It does little good to tell people that they are justified by faith, if the assurance of faith then dies the death of a thousand cuts of qualification.

What I came to ask myself is, "How do I regard those to whom I preach and to whom I give pastoral care?” The conclusion I reached is that they are pilgrims, climbing a steep, winding, and dangerous path, beset by many temptations and discouragements. What do they need? Well sometimes they need a kick in the butt from the law. But more frequently they need the comfort, encouragement, and strengthening of the Gospel.

6. Nouthetic Counseling. Like experimentalism nouthetic counseling came from an outside source, Dr. Jay Adams and his book Competent to Counsel.The book was assigned reading but the counseling courses were not nouthetic in orientation. However, Dr. Adams' book changed the way TRs understood pastoral counseling. Whatever the "presenting" problem the underlying problem, unless there was brain injury or disease, was sin. Once the sin was discovered, confronted, and confessed the counseler could guide the counselee through a program of behavioral and attitudinal change. Change could be effected in a relatively short time. Even long standing problems like depression and life-dominating sins like homosexuality would give way to the nouthetic approach. Identifying the primary problem as sin  meant there was hope for the counselee. The nouthetic approach gave confidence to the pastor who made good use of his Bible. Adams also shaped the TRs' understanding of marriage, children, and family life with loving husbands, submissive wives, obedient children, and happy outcomes.
Noutheo is certainly one word used to describe what how Christians minister to one another. “Admonish the unruly” (1 Th. 5:17) Paul says. But with regard to nouthetic counseling as described above, I have become convinced that the world and people, including Christians, are more fallen and complicated than most of us thought when we learned about nouthetic counseling. And so it is, too, with marriage, family, and child rearing.  The ways people are wired, the impact of early childhood nurture and lack thereof, and the various ways people experience life are more determinative than we think. Problems, including besetting sins, are often more intractable than we would like. There are many mysteries that will not be cleared up in this world. And there are many problems that will take the coming glory to resolve.

Neo-conservatives used to be described as liberals who have been mugged. You can call me a TR who has been mugged by reality. I am not alone.


Eutychus said...

Great stuff. Really!

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Stay awake or stay away from windows.

Lee said...

I like Bill am a TR who was mugged by reality. So glad that God is more loving and forgiving than I ever thought possible.