Do You Beat Your Wife?

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A number of Ref21 readers have emailed and asked me to comment on the Elephant Room.   To be honest, Frank Turk, over at TeamPyro, has expressed what thoughts I do have but better than I could have done so. 

One thing is worthy of general comment, however: it is a classic example of the current celebrity culture in evangelicalism but perhaps not in quite the way one might expect.   One thing that is so striking about the rise of celebrity in the wider world is that it has been accompanied by the rise of the myth of the polymath.  Thus, a pop star who can write a song that becomes a hit also becomes a person who is consulted about things like gay rights, Third World Debt and global warming.  They are no more qualified (and in some cases much less qualified) than you or I to offer such advice; but we are never asked because we have not written a pop hit or starred in a movie.  We now see this phenomenon in the evangelical world: fame and a big church make you competent to speak all over the theological map.

The questions posed to Jakes indicate the problem rather dramatically. Of course, all pastors are by necessity generalists and cannot be highly proficient in all areas; and that is fine 99% of the time.  But when we are talking Trinitarianism with a very skillful communicator, we need somebody who is thoroughly versed in the area and who knows how to probe below superfical pat answers.  We also need a venue and a mode of discourse appropriate to the complexities of the matter.

If the transcript of ER is accurate, the questions posed to Jakes never really reflected any knowledge of Trinitarian debate after the second century. They were fine as far as they went, but given the man's reputation and his affiliations, we needed the kind of questions that were posed to Marcellus of Ancyra and the Sabellians of the fourth century.  The theological discussions of the third and fourth centuries demonstrated very clearly that simple affirmation of one God and three persons was not in itself sufficient to articulate and defend the biblical God.  This is one reason why Presbyterians subscribe to confessions but (as with my own case in the OPC), ministers still have to sit no less than six theology exams in order to make sure that they are not simply signing up to a formula of words but that they actually understand those words in the correct way.

When Jakes expresses concerns about the language of person, for example, that is not necessarily a sign of heresy: Calvin preferred talk of `subsistence.'   But for him then to prefer 'manifestation' -- a term with a lot more problematic baggage, historically and theologically, than ever 'person' has -- and apparently be given a pass on that -- that speaks volumes about the quality of the questioning.

Of course, some will respond and say that this is to make Christianity elitist.  Do we really have to have read extensively in the literature of the third and fourth centuries to be Christians?  Not at all.  Romans 10 sets the bar nice and low for credible Christian profession.  But we are not dealing here with men who are simply making a credible Christian profession as church members; we are dealing with pastors who lead churches and hold terrible and awesome responsibility for protecting their flocks and making sure the truth is taught. We are also dealing with men who, through the use of conferences and internet, aspire to influence your congregation and mine - not that that is necessarily wrong (e.g., what Christian does not read books written by others?); but it does give us all `a dog in the fight', to use the American phrase. If they give Jakes a clean bill of health, then that has much wider implications than simply for the participants in the ER.

As to venue and mode of discourse, a chat show in front of an audience is not an adequate context for hashing out the doctrine of God.  Like American Presidential debates, the form tends to allow aesthetics too much power; and the soundbite nature of discussion allows for no sophistication whatsoever - a bit of a problem when it is the Trinity we are discussing.  That strikes hard against the democratic, individualist, Wikipedia-loving, pragmatic, can-do mentality of the modern world; but it is the truth nonetheless.

I would also add that the failure to address Jakes' prosperity teaching was just as sad.   I was talking to a friend the other day about his congregation, of which a significant proportion is made up of African American refugees from Jakes-style prosperity gospel.  They are apparently heartbroken at the mainstreaming of the man. 

This request that we ask hard questions in the right venue, and consider the ER to have signally failed in this regard, will no doubt evince cries of `Hey, hater!' from some quarters.  That is apparently the standard reaction now when anyone questions the actions of a successful pastor of a large church.   If, however, we take true doctrine seriously, then surely we will see false teaching for what it is: soul destroying. Reflect on a parallel situation for a moment: let us say that, week after week, I see a congregant's wife with a black eye and an arm covered in cuts and bruises; eventually I ask her husband, `Did you do that?' to which he says `No, I abhor violence and despise the sort of people who beat their wives'; in such circumstances, is it unloving, Pharisaical or hateful of me to press the question a little further?  I think not. Indeed, failure so to do would be moral delinquency of the highest order. To press the matter is actually responsible pastoring.  The same thing applies with those whose public teaching seems to be deviant.   It is not hateful to press the hard questions, and to do so with appropriate competence and in a suitable context; rather, it is right and necessary.
Posted January 26, 2012 @ 1:39 PM by Carl Trueman
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