Jennings and Garner First Rejoinders

Article by   June 2014

Editors' Note: The first part of this series can be found here. This installment is the first of two responses offered by each participant.

Jennings's First Response

It is privilege to testify to God's goodness and greatness, as well as to work together regarding how best to serve the cause of the Christian gospel.

Allow me to assert a few select aspects of this discussion. First, these brief essays are not a debate but discussions about the PCA's place in worldwide Christianity. Second, these essays are less about "Insider Movements" and more about the PCA's relationship with other parts of worldwide Christianity. Third, this discussion will not affect the PCA General Assembly's decision(s) about the SCIM final report. Fourth, I do not believe that Dr. Garner's and my essays represent "biblical-theological" versus "cultural-anthropological missiological" approaches. Rather, my essays are abbreviated articulations of a comprehensive, multidimensional, and integrated biblical-theological appreciation of God's greatness, the worldwide Church's complexity, and the PCA's limitations for comprehending faithful Christian living in very different situations. Correspondingly, and with all due respect, I believe that my esteemed colleague's essays unwittingly exemplify the PCA's cultural-linguistic limitations, notwithstanding those essays' exhortations that we faithfully convey "biblical transhistorical and cross-cultural realities."

Let me quickly add my hearty concurrence with several of Dr. Garner's key emphases, including the central place of his listed "concrete and theologically rich historical realities" that are relevant to "peoples and cultures everywhere," as well as the dangers of "compartmentalized biblical authority." Even so, I believe that it is the SCIM majority's engrained lack of contextual self-awareness of the PCA's particular Greco-Latin-European conceptual traits that blinds us to our own "compartmentalized biblical authority" with respect to God's greatness, the worldwide Church's complexity, and our limitations for understanding, much less instructing others about, faithful Christian living in very different situations.

In our presumption to instruct others, we resemble the seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century French Jansenists who logically concluded - rooted in their vehement opposition to Jesuit approaches - that Chinese ancestral rites were idolatrous; hence, the Jansenists influenced Pope Clement XI to condemn those rites in 1715 (thus supposedly ending the Chinese Rites Controversy). Those zealous Jansenists fell into unwittingly evaluating contextually different biblical-theological beliefs and practices from within their own "Euro-tribal Christian faith"(1) that universalized unseen contextual particulars.

Here one substantive discussion point could arise involving the universal-particular tension running across Christianity in various cultural contexts. A crucial qualification is that what is culturally particular is not therefore necessarily culturally relative. Another crucial component of this discussion is the Bible's essential translatability, in contrast with an Islamic notion of eternally fixed linguistic propositions.

The compulsion to label what is culturally particular as culturally relative (and therefore not universal-normative) is at root a Greco-modern construct, I believe. That same construct, I also humbly suggest, underlies Dr. Garner's warning that "In [IMP's], preserving cultural and religious diversity reigns over pursuing confessional, theological solidarity. Esteeming differences overshadows the transcendent word of God concerning what is true of men and women worldwide. " The operative "diversity versus solidarity" and "differences versus transcendence" paradigm is a false dichotomy. Again, discussing this point could possibly be a substantive interaction.

The accompanying skewed set of instincts we have is our limited sense of Church history. Anecdotally, I cannot recall one candidate undergoing presbytery examinations, when I asked them briefly to outline the history of Christianity in Korea, Uganda, China, or some other non-Euro-American region, even being able to comprehend such a question in a (presumably, Western) church history examination, much less answer with any substantive content. Hence when Dr. Garner understandably asserts that "The Church must arise, boldly advance biblical faith, and forbid any winsome presentation of error to win the day," our instincts do not think of the "The [worldwide] Church" but that we, the PCA, must defend culturally transcendent biblical truth to the rest of the world. Undoubtedly the provincial, linguistically-conceptually confined French Jansenists felt the same way.

I wish we were able to interact with "Insider Movements" and other Christian phenomena in categories in more nuanced ways than by asking the single, seemingly straightforward question - one that for us is intertwined with Greco-Latin-European linguistic-conceptual categories - "Is it faithful to the Bible or not?" I also wish that more of us could personally relate to God in multiple languages, including non-Indo-European vernaculars, and thus loosen our blinders of monocultural relations with God.

All of us in the PCA want to "communicate the true gospel truly," as Dr. Garner has asserted. However, we in the PCA lack the cultural-linguistic breadth to know, particularly when significantly different cultural contexts are involved, what true gospel communication involves.(2)  Thankfuly God is faithful, he is omnilingual, and he communicates with all human communities personally and particularly.


Dr. Nelson Jennings is Executive Director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, Connecticut, USA, Editor of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, and Teaching Elder in the Southern New England Presbytery (PCA).


NOTES for Jennings's Response:
1. Craig Van Gelder, "The Future of the Discipline of Missiology: A Brief Overview of Current Realities and Future Possibilities" International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 38, No. 1, January 2014 , 10-16. Available online at http://www.internationalbulletin.org/system/files/2014-01-010-gelder.html.
 2. Together with its inherent inadequacies, the World Evangelical Association's 2012-13 internationally representative Global Review Panel, convened to review Wycliffe and SIL International's translation practices, at least exhibited more biblically-theologially-missiologically nuanced sensibilities about divine-human communication than we are presently able to understand. See their WEA report available online at http://www.worldea.org/images/wimg/files/2013_0429-Final%20Report%20of%20the%20WEA%20Independent%20Bible%20Translation%20Review%20Panel.pdf.


Garner's First Response

A Rejoinder: The Certainty of Uncertainty

Introduction

First, a word of thanks to Nelson Jennings for his prior articles. To put these particular thoughts into digital ink took significant courage. Having agreed to brief rejoinders, I respond under two primary headers: hermeneutics and theology.

Despite claims to the contrary, the PCA (1) Committee Report on Insider Movements (IM) does not come from missiological ignorance and cross-cultural naïveté.(2) Nor does it appear at the beckoning only of the PCA's pervasively inadequate church leaders.(3) Those who have "asked [us] to render our own opinion"(4)  include non-westerners, nationals in various countries. In fact, the impetus for Overture 9 of the PCA (June 2011) (5) was the outcry of nationals around the world, suffering the effects of IM in their homelands. As they await the PCA's decision in June, they beg the Church in the West

  1. To cease sending IM-sympathetic missionaries and funding IM initiatives.
  2. To speak decisively about IM's theological errors and its disastrous consequences.
  3. To stop the IM madness.

To these pleading voices, we have been asked to turn a deaf ear. To those ensnared in IM theology and its syncretism, who self-identify as "Messianic Muslims," and who "follow" Jesus yet practice some or all of the five pillars of Islam, we are to turn a blind eye. To those who believe or tolerate a version of Jesus that effectively denies him, we are simply to say, "be warm and be filled."

Why? Evidently, because we so uncritically adopt our theological grid that we cannot truly see or hear beyond ourselves. Jennings does not mince words: "the PCA has over-extended" itself "about so-called 'Insider Movements' and associated Bible translations." In his approach, the Church can never speak to such issues.

Hermeneutics

To develop his point, Jennings constructs a hermeneutic of uncertainty, or better, anti-certainty. Everyone occupies distinct "linguistic-cultural-religious-intellectual-socio-political contexts." In the west, we suffer "Greco-Latin-Reformed cultural-linguistic-conceptual limitations." Jennings' string of hyphens stipulates endless interpretive conditions, making human understanding wholly unreliable. Yes, God has spoken in nature and in Scripture, but understanding is a relativized product of local community, evolved norms and religious practices. Truth is not what God says so much as what we think he means.(6) Certainty vanishes. Postmodernism flourishes. Confusion is born.

Accordingly, because Jennings' interpretive paradigm demands it, the PCA Committee Report on IM lacks clarity and certainty by default. His imposed ambiguous constraints ensure that analytical results will prove equally ambiguous. These results, to co-opt Jennings's own words, are "predictable."

Reading Jennings draws us backwards in American church history, when mainline denominations suffocated biblical truth by their bottom up (humanistic) approach. They prized sources other than Scripture for their trust. Whether or not these figures expressly feature in Jennings, echoes of Kant, Schleiermacher, Von Rad, Barth, Newbigin, Fish and Grenz reverberate.

One would think Jennings' pervasive ambiguity should make categorical theological statements out of bounds. Indeed it does, at least for the Church. Clarity and certainty in this approach must yield to ambiguity and uncertainty. But the uncertainty seems selective, exempting missiological experts.

While the PCA en masse and the Study Committee in particular are evidently ill-equipped to address IM, Jennings on the other hand confidently calls IM "manifestations of the Christian faith" and designates them "matters of worldwide Christianity." He dogmatically asserts, "The PCA has over-extended its severely limited cultural-linguistic-conceptual capabilities." He insists that the PCA should remain quiet, though it is not clear why the gag order does not apply to him. Jennings exhibits a great deal of unambiguous confidence for one committed to a hermeneutic of uncertainty.

Theology

Jennings's view of the Reformed faith is peculiar: "we instinctively hold both biblical revelation and our confessional commitments to be essentially conceptual, static, rationally classifiable, and transcultural." This caricature of Reformed theology and of historic Reformed hermeneutical sensibilities is simply false.(7)

Such tired accusation against the Westminster Standards, which contends they present philosophical abstraction rather than a summary of covenantal revelation, hardly deserves an answer. And the rhetorical effect of Jennings' argument will be directly proportional to one's awareness of the parallel attempts by theological liberals (e.g., von Harnack) at the turn of the 20th century to contort biblical theology into Greek metaphysics. As the Reformed tradition (see, e.g., John Calvin, Geerhardus Vos) has proven, biblical theology is redemptive-historical not "tone-deaf" abstraction.(8)

Other questions surface, but due to space limitations, I will name only three additional theological concerns.

  1. God. Twice Jennings describes God as one who "risks." Does he really mean this? Does the God of Scripture take risks (see WCF 3.1)? (9) God's actions are always sovereign and purposeful. Since he is God, they can be nothing less.
  2. Scripture. Jennings confesses biblical perspicuity (WCF 1.7). But what, given the paradigmatic anti-certainty endemic to his method, can biblical perspicuity mean? How Jennings holds perspicuity lacks perspicuity.
  3. Church. Jennings implicitly argues that missions and missiological analysis belong to cultural-anthropological experts, rather than the Church. Does he really believe that the Church now must submit to the Magisterium of the missiologists?

Conclusion

On the basis of careful theological study, the SCIM Committee Report offers a strong Churchly refutation of IM. Yet in one unsubstantiated assertion that "the PCA has over-extended" itself, Jennings tries to delegitimize the Church committee's work. He speaks confidently of the PCA's inabilities and the study committee's good intentions, but of its "predictable" shortcomings. The Study Committee holds that the IM-critical output is not hermeneutically hamstrung by Jennings' ambiguating hypens, but is rooted in the clarity of Scripture and the shared cross-cultural import of its message.


Dr. David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and former missionary in Bulgaria.


NOTES for Garner's First Response:

1. PCA = Presbyterian Church in America.

2. Members of the Study Committee on Insider Movements possess solid biblical and theological skills, vast experience in missions, and recognized competence in missiology.

3. As a PCA minister myself, I continually thank the Lord for the rich heritage and present competence of the denomination's leaders. Yet in reading Jennings, one could only conclude that the PCA has embarrassed itself by speaking into cross-cultural matters beyond its grasp. He has little confidence in the competence of the Church and its leaders to engage questions of faith, theology, and religion - not only abroad, but right in our own context.

4. All quotes, unless stated otherwise, come from Nelson Jennings' articles, found at Reformation 21 (May 2014): http://www.reformation21.org/articles/jennings-and-garner-debate-the-insider-movement.php. 

5. "A Call to Faithful Witness" (PCA General Assembly, June 2011) can be read on page 2106 of the PCA Study Committee on Insider Movements Committee Report, http://www.pcaac.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/2101-SCIM-2014-ALL-with-MRs-4-30-14.pdf (accessed June 2, 2014).

6. For Jennings, human finitude entails provisionality. This is simply untrue. As Scott Oliphint has put it concerning archetypal (divine) and ectypal (human) knowledge, "I am a fallible human being, prone to sin and limited in everything that I think and do. But that fact does not cause me to lack certainty in the fact that I am now typing these words in my study. Neither should it cause you to lack certainty that you are where you are and are reading these very words. Neither does it cause me to lose certainty about that fact that Christ is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, who took on a human nature, or that the triune God exists, or that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father. These are theological construals, but I am nevertheless certain of their truth. I do not hold such truths provisionally. Fallibility does not entail provisionality." K. Scott Oliphint, "Because It Is the Word of God," in David B. Garner, ed., Did God Really Say? Affirming the Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012), 9.

7. As argued in the prior article (http://www.reformation21.org/articles/jennings-and-garner-debate-the-insider-movement.php), our faith rests not in a series of abstract, one size fits all, philosophical propositions, but in the historical acts by which God has accomplished and applied redemption, and by the historically-given revelation in which God has explained it.

8. For more on redemptive history and confessional theology, see Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., "Biblical Theology and the Westminster Standards," http://beginningwithmoses.org/bt-articles/188/biblical-theology-and-the-westminster-standards. For an earlier version of this essay by the same name, see Peter A. Lillback, ed., The Practical Calvinist: An Introduction to the Presbyterian & Reformed Heritage. In Honor of Dr. D. Clair Davis (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2002), 425-41.

9. That God takes risks is a feature of open theism. It has also become a tenet of some missiology, under the rubric of the missio Dei. See John Sanders, The God Who Risks, (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity, 1998); Thomas J. Oord, The Nature of Love: A Theology (St. Louis: Chalice, 2010); Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Faith of Leap: Embracing a Theology of Risk, Adventure, and Courage (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011).

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