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Anna Ruth Henriques,  Song of Songs- Verse III, 1993-94 on wood

Anna Ruth Henriques, Song of Songs- Verse III, 1993-94 on wood

When I was in college we worked through Tommy Nelson’s notoriously eisegetical series on the Song of Solomon (or better, ‘Song of Songs,’ ~yrIßyVih; ryviî).  The series construes the Song of Songs as being a poetic manual for “courtship” and takes some rather breathtaking liberties with the text.  It has always struck me as odd that evangelical ministers who are deeply concerned about chastity would recommend a book as risqué as the Song of Songs to single college students to guide their romantic lives.  The Rabbis forbade the young and immature to read it precisely because of the book’s intense prima facie eroticism. 

Leaving aside questions of whether the Song should be read as a unified story or as an anthology, as genuine erotic poetry or as an allegory, there is one verse in particular that has always stuck out to me when I think about my old college Bible-study: chapter 6, verse 8.  In Hebrew the verse reads,

 

 rP”)s.mi !yaeî tAmßl'[]w: ~yvi_g>l;yPi( ~ynIßmov.W tAkêl’M. ‘hM’he’ ~yViîvi

 Now, a word of caution: if you do not read Hebrew and have looked the verse up in an English translation, there is one word that is consistently ignored in translations: the plural third person pronoun, ‘hM’he’, which is usually translated “they,” “these.”  English translations typically mute the pronoun, rendering the first phrase of the verse, “There are sixty queens…” (e.g., ESV, KJV, NRSV, TNK).  But, if one gives the pronoun it’s due weight, the verse reads, “There are these sixty queens…” or even “These are sixty queens….”  Read this way, it would seem that the verse has a specific group of women in view.  Because this particular group of women is composed of queens, concubines and damsels (tAmßl'[]w:, not “virgins”!) most likely what we have here is a harem.

One of the odd things about the pronoun in this verse is that it is masculine, making its fit with its feminine referents a bit awkward.  But the reason for this, I would suggest, becomes clear when one reads the next verse:

 

 ayhiÞ hr”îB’ HM’êail. ‘ayhi tx;îa; ytiêM’t; ytiän”Ay ‘ayhi tx;îa;

`h’Wl)l.h;y>w:) ~yviÞg>l;ypi(W tAkïl’m. h’WrêV.a;y>w:) ‘tAnb’ h’WaÜr” HT’_d>l;Ay*l..     

Only one is my dove, My perfect one, The only one of her mother, The delight of her who bore her. Maidens see and acclaim her; Queens and concubines, and praise her. (JPS Tanakh)

 

 Here the pronouns become the singular feminine ‘ayhi and they all refer to the speaker’s beloved.  More strikingly the verbs describing the actions of the maidens, queens and concubines are all given masculine conjugations.  The pattern of the pronouns and conjugations paint a pretty clear picture.  The speaker is striking a stark contrast between his harem and his beloved.  So great is her perfection, her ideal beauty that the very femininity of other women is diminished.  In her presence, other women seem a bit mannish, as it were.

 In short, the speaker uses his harem as a foil for the ideal femininity of his beloved (not a particularly flattering role).  But, the fact remains: he has a harem!  Of course, this observation should come as no surprise to readers who identify the male voice in the Song with that of Solomon, who famously had 700 wives and 300 concubines from various and sundry countries (1 Kings 11:1-3; cf. 2 Chr 9:7).  Even if the speaker is not identified with Solomon, he does seem to be royalty (6:12) and in the Ancient Near East with royalty comes polygamy.
 
Whether this observation surprises you or not, the point is that it seriously problematizes any attempt to straightforwardly use the Song as a handbook for Christian dating or marriage.  Again, we run up against a massive divide between the context of the text, where polygamy, especially amongst kings, was a given, and our own context, where polygamy is anathema.  All too often readers, especially evangelical readers, make a quantum hermeneutical leap over this gap without ever realizing what exactly it is that they are doing.
 
To clarify the matter, we have in the male protaganist of the Song, not a single young man on the prowl, but rather a multiply-married man with many mistresses on the side who has fallen head over heels for another woman.  Of course, in an Ancient Near Eastern context, this situation poses no problem at all.  But in modern America any attempt to straightforwardly model one’s love life on the Song is likely to get one thrown in jail or worse.   So what then are we to do with the Song?  If the Song is not for providing plain and simple dating advice, what in the world is it for?
 
To begin answering that question we must first pose another, namely, What is any song for?  In my humble opinion, songs are for inspiring.  They may do any number of other things as well, but inspiration, I think, is their base function.  The quality of a song is judged not by whether it is true or false, whether it is authoritative or whether it alters social reality, but, rather, by whether or not it inspires.  Songs, unlike paintings and sculpture, achieve this function by means of evocative language and music.
 
What, then, does the language of the Song of Songs evoke?  The Song of Songs evokes the sort of intense, unbearable, irrational, hormonal, heart-palpitating, palm-perspiring, gastro-intestinal-butterfly-stirring puppy love that afflicts every adolescent sooner or later.  And it does so splendidly.  But why, we must ask, was this saccharine paean to eros considered sacred writ?  At this point, we can only guess.  Perhaps it is because it lays bare the aching beauty of one of the deep elements of the created order that God declared to be “very good.”  Perhaps in the Song we hear the sentiment only whispered by Adam, “This one at last Is bone of my bones And flesh of my flesh!,” set to music and blared at 1,000,000 decibals.  Perhaps, in a sense, the Song of Songs represents the canonization of passion.
 
However one slices it, the Song of Songs, like Virginia, is for lovers, whether, as ancient interpreters held, lovers of God or, as modern interpreters suggest, lovers in thrall to earthly romance.  But to woo this ancient, exotic Song into our lives now, I would suggest, requires a more supple, sensitive, rapturous and, dare I say, poetic hermeneutic than the wooden would-be literalism to which we evangelicals have become accustomed.
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I don’t mean to keep beating the same old drum, but I was struck today by two very different approaches to plotting the Church’s path through her present perils. 

The first was mailer I received this morning from the Westminster Bookstore for a book entitled Risking the Truth: Handling Error in the Church, edited by Martin Downes.  The book is Risking the Trutha compilation of interviews with a host of nouveau- and not-so-nouveau-Reformed pundits on how to guard the Church from (supposed) theological error.  The book includes interviews with Carl Trueman, Tom Schreiner, Michael Horton, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Derek Thomas, R. Scott Clark, Guy Waters, Kim Riddlebarger, Joel Beeke, and Greg Beale, and a foreword by Sinclair Ferguson.

The titles of the first  and last chapters say it all: “Heresy 101” and “Clear and Present Danger.”  Sandwiched in between are interviews with Beale on inerrancy, Schreiner on the atonement and just about everything else you’d expect from a book of this sort with contributors of this ilk.  Sympathizers with historical-critical scholarship, the New Perspective on Paul, or Egalitarian views of gender are cast as wolves and those who cannot confess inerrancy are demonized.   One hears the distinct tone  of shrill nouveau-Reformed sectarianism.

The second, infinitely more healthy approach came from this post by Daniel Kirk on Stephen Fowl’s essay in Reading Scripture with the Church.  After taking stock of the return to classical orthodoxy and the positive theological contributions of post-liberal, mainline theologians, Kirk warns our mainline brethren against any naive notion that safety lies in conservatism,per se.  He writes,

At the same time that there is this salutary move from those who are striving to inject life into worlds in danger of being robbed of spiritual viability from the left, there is a mirror-image occurring in the more conservative/evangelical world. In that world, biblical scholars are discovering that rigid adherence to the traditions of the church are trapping them in holding patterns in their biblical scholarship….

What struck me about Kirk’s post was that, in sharp contrast to Downes’ Risking the Truth, he points to the absolute necessity of Christians of different stripes keeping open clear lines of communication in order to maintain the vitality of the Church.

So what do I want to do with all this? Perhaps we can see my anxiety over Fowl’s proposal as the cry of the port side watchman warning of the Scylla, while Fowl (and others) raise their voices from the starboard warning of Charybdis. Without each other, I fear that we will each find ourselves shipwrecked upon the danger that the other is fleeing. Perhaps together we can plot a safe course forward.

My hope and prayer for the Church is that the dialogue between post-conservatives and post-liberals would continue to bear fruit and that amongst our nouveau-Reformed brethren the cooler heads and warmer hearts would prevail.

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Cute Couple

I am single.  I do not write that (entirely) for all the single ladies out there, but rather to give my readers (all eight of you) a sense of where I am coming from.  You see, when you’re single and when you attend a church that is aware of the existence of single people, you will find yourself in contexts where you will receive gobs of advice on why one should try and how to go about procuring a spouse.  Indeed, numerous evangelical leaders have made this issue one of their key emphases, making the rounds offering what amount to theological info-mercialsfor Christian matrimony at Campus Crusade events, Bible colleges and the like. 

The picture of marriage being advertised is a generally rosy one, but not naively so.  The typical line that I hear is something to the effect that marriage, while difficult and never perfect, is a God ordained picture of Christ’s relationship to His Church (Ephesians 5) and a great blessing.  Moreover, marriage serves several purposes for the edification of the Church.  Thus, Al Mohler identifies three purposes of marriage: enabling procreation, avoiding fornication and providing companionship. 

Now, I have no intention of quarrelling with the current evangelical depictions of marriage.  I mean, I’m a bachelor.  What do I know about marriage, anyways?  Rather, what has struck me about the current evangelical counsel to singles is how very, very different it is from the Apostle Paul’s counsel to singles.

We could summarize Paul’s counsel to singles in 1 Corinthians 7 (the only place where he directly addresses the matter) thus:

Ok, so I know marriage isn’t really a sin, per se, and it can definitely help keep you chaste.  But, that said, I would really strongly advise you to stay single if you can.  You see, marriage means getting tied down to the things of this world (e.g., mortgages, pets, kids, in-laws…) and, let’s face it, this world is going to end really, really soon.  I mean, look, the great tribulation is already underway and this present world is already passing away.  In fact, I expect Jesus to get back any minute now.  So really you’d be much wiser to not get tied down in long-term commitments like marriage (what’s the point?) and instead to devote your undivided attention to the things of the Lord.  Anyways, not that I have a word from the Lord on the matter or anything, just my two cents.  For what it’s worth.

Below I have included the whole passage with the advice to singles italicized and the eschatological expectation bolded for any nay-sayers out there.  It’s pretty clear from this passage that Paul expected Jesus to return within Paul’s lifetime (see also Romans 13:11-12; Philippians 4:5; 1 Thessalonians 4:15, 17) and that he taylored his dating advice accordingly.  Notably, he says nothing about procreation as a function of marriage.  Why worry about raising a family when the world could end at any moment?

Allow me to say as clearly as I know how: While I may have some reservations about some dimensions of the Evangelical push for marriage, I think that this push is by and large the right response to our current context of cultural promiscuity and relational non-commitment.  However, I think it is important to notice that it is a response to our current context.  Evangelical leaders like Al Mohler are most definitely not simply passing down timeless, ready-made “Christian” or “Biblical” advice for the unmarried, as even a casual reading of 1 Corinthians 7 shows.

The reason why typical Christian advice for singles differs so markedly from Paul’s is that few Christians today share what was for Paul a rock-hard conviction, namely, the belief that the Lord will return within just a few years.  For Paul, writing only a few decades after the  resurrection of Jesus, such a fervent belief in the immanence of the return of the Lord is understandable.  Contemporary Christians, on the other hand, have somewhat unexpectedly inherited a nearly 2000 year history of watching and waiting for the parousia that has rendered Paul’s sense of immanence somewhat implausible.  This is not to say that contemporary Christians should drop the belief that Jesus will come again to judge the quick and the dead, quite the contrary.  What it does entail is that we should not bank on it happening within our lifetimes but should make long-term plans and arrangements (e.g., marriage).

So in comparison to Paul, contemporary Christian counsel for singles has been radically de-eschatologized.  What is interesting is that Evangelicals often cite Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 7, while muting Paul’s fervent expectation of an immanent parousia.  So Mohler writes,

Marriage as a remedy for sin? This purpose is ridiculed among many, but it is honored among Christ’s disciples. This is exactly what the Apostle Paul took as his concern in writing to the church at Corinth. Confused and seduced by sexual sin, that church had compromised its own ability to represent Christ. Paul pointed to marriage as a means of channeling sexual desire into its proper context, lest believers “burn with passion” and sin against God. [1 Corinthians 7:9]

Mohler cites Paul to support the idea that marriage can help tame unruly passions (though my married friends tell me it is less of a help than we poor, beleagured singles imagine) but seems to be quite unaware of the hermeneutical maneuver he has performed in so doing.  He has extracted a benefit of marriage that Paul acknowledges from Paul’s overall discussion and discouragement of marriage.  In fact, Mohler’s advice to singles directly contradicts Paul’s.  And it’s not hard to see why.   Our circumstances are not Paul’s circumstances, nor is everything Paul believed believable for contemporary Christians.

The upshot of all this is that Evangelicals do in fact do contextual theology, especially when it comes to the sort of practical theology that directly impacts our social existence.  But many Evangelicals often cannot admit this fact to themselves because of other theological commitments, such as belief in “inerrancy” and the “timelessness” or “absoluteness” of truth.  Though they do not have a word from the Lord on this matter, they do have one from Paul.  But, realizing that Paul’s counsel is singularly unhelpful in our current context and predicated on a false belief anyways, they give their judgment as ones who by the Lord’s mercy are trustworthy.  To singles they say (they, not Paul)  that marriage is a good and wholesome gift, ordained from the creation of mankind, and it is glorifying to God.  By all means, find a spouse.  Be fruitful and multiply!  Grow old together!  In their judgment, except in special cases, a single is happier if s/he remains not as s/he is. And they think that they too have the Spirit of God. 

6 Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. 7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. 8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion…. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called…. 25 Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. 27 …. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. 29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. 32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. 36 If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry- it is no sin. 37 But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. 38 So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. 39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God. 

1 Corinthians 7:6-40

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12_apostles2.jpg

The other night I was blessed to attend The Summit’s ministry for young professionals (or “Young Pros” as it is affectionately called, or “The Meat Market” as it is less-so affectionately called).  It was an encouraging time of prayer, worship, fellowship, the reading of the Scriptures and the eating of hors d’euvres.  The Summit is a Southern Baptist mega-church of sorts that is sprawled across the Research Triangle.  It is missions-driven, community-serving, thoroughly Southern Baptist and very, very cool

The evening’s sermon text was Acts 2:42-48 and the message was vintage Summit.  But (there’s always a “but”) one bit of the sermon got my theological gears whirring and clicking.  Now, I hate to be “that guy.”  You know the one: the nit-picking seminarian who just can’t let any questionable detail in a sermon go.  And I’m not really “that guy.”  I am much more of an interloper, a post-conservative gadfly with something of an outsider’s perspective than the anal-retentive insider that “that guy” usually is.  So, having convinced at least myself, I will continue.

What got me to thinking was that the speaker took the phrase “And they devoted themselves  (proskarterou/ntej) to the apostles’ teaching” (2:42) to mean that the believers in Jerusalem devoted themselves to “Scripture.”  Of course, the interpretation is understandable: didn’t some of the apostles write some of the books and letters that came to be known as “Scripture”?  Well, yes.  But they had not done so at the time that Acts 2 describes.  Paul had not yet been converted, much less embarked on an apostolic writing career.  It would be several more decades before the Evangelists would put pen to papyrus.  And the pastoral and catholic epistles…well, you get the idea.

The reason that this seemingly innocuous sermonic anachronism has so stuck out to me is that it implicitly misconstrues the Jerusalem church as being essentially a robe-and-sandal-clad, Greek-speaking modern Evangelical church.  But the fact is that the Jerusalem church differed from Evangelical congregations in more than just attire and language.

For one thing, the Jerusalem Christians were still thoroughgoing, practicing Jews, “day by day, attending (proskarterou/ntej) the Temple together….” (Acts 2:46)  In short, the Jerusalem Christians in addition to meeting in each others’ homes continued participating in the Temple services, sacrifices and all.  It is indeed worth noting that precisely the same verb form is used for what the Jerusalem Christians did in the Temple as is used for what the Jerusalem Christians did with the apostles’ teaching (proskarterou/ntej).  While these earliest Christians believed Jesus was the Messiah, had been raised from the dead and had inaugurated “the last days” (Acts 2:16-17, 32), Judaism and Christianity were not yet two fully distinct religions.  Even if they recognized Jesus’ death as having been sacrificial, they did not yet see that as grounds for leaving off the normal Jewish sacrificial practices.

In addition to continued participation in the Temple, we can say that at least some of the Jerusalem Christians (and some who were closely associated with James the brother of Jesus, at that) were concerned with maintaining some semblance of kosher diets and with circumcising Gentile converts (Gal 2:12).  Indeed, it is striking how at variance the letter the Jerusalem Council sent to Gentiles is with Paul’s policy on dietary matters (compare Acts 15:28-29 with Rom 14 and 1 Cor 8).  All of this is to say that we need to be on guard against facilely homogenizing the Church’s historic diversity and really wrestle with the otherness of the Church as it was back then.  We and the earliest believers are parts of the One Body of Christ, but our unity with them is not an uncomplicated one.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, we must ask, What, then, was “the apostles’ teaching” if it was not their writings?  Well, since it was not yet committed to writing, it was obviously oral and, indeed, careful historical study has given us some windows into the character of this early, oral, apostolic teaching.  Some of this teaching came to be formulated into short, easy-to-memorize creeds.  It is commonly granted that Paul preserves some of these earliest apostolic creeds in his letters.  For example,

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (1 Corinthians 15:3-7)

This text along with Philippians 2:6-11 and others are often taken to be apostolic traditions that Paul probably inherited from the Jerusalem circle (see Gal 1:18).
But probably better windows into the apostolic teaching to which Acts 2:42 refers are to be found in Peter’s sermons (2:14-39; 3:12-26).  These sermons emphasize the death and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus as the definite plan of God and the inauguration of the last days about which the prophets had spoken.
 
The point here is that seen through these two sets of windows the content of the apostle’s teaching amounts to  the good news of the career, death and resurrection of Jesus, otherwise known as the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It was to this message that that intensely Jewish body, the Jerusalem community, committed itself.  When we look at them we see not a community consulting a how-to book that could be entitled Christianity for Dummies, but rather a community in a particular time and place, with particular baggage, coming from a particular milieu, trying to reimagine life and reinvent themselves in the light of the teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.  They were a gospel-centered, not an (as yet unwritten) New Testament-centered, community.

I think The Summit is, at bottom, like the early Jerusalem church.  It is a place with all sorts of Southern Baptist baggage, a place beginning from a certain Fundamentalistic/Conservative-Evangelical milieu of thought.  But I also think it is a community that is desperately trying to reimagine life and reinvent themselves in the light of the teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.  So, in a very real sense, I think The Summit’s practice is better than their preaching (and their preaching isn’t bad).

What then is the point of this post?  First, I want to suggest that Evangelicals need to recover the centrality of the gospel of Jesus and that part of doing that entails not anachronistically reading sola Scriptura into the early Church’s praxis.  We do our Lord and ourselves a disservice by making the Scriptures out to be the source of our life (John 5:39-40) or making the Scriptures out to be an end unto themselves (Romans 10:4).  When the Bible displaces the gospel, things are bound to get out of whack.

Second, I want to suggest that Evangelicals need to get used to the idea that the earliest Church was not a singular community with a tidy, ready-made theology and practice.  In a very real sense, they knew that Jesus was risen and they were making up the rest as they went along.  Sometimes they had hits (e.g., Gentiles don’t have to be circumcised).  Sometimes they had misses (e.g., Gentiles are not allowed to eat meat sacrificed to idols; abstain from marriage if you can, ‘cuz Jesus will be back at any minute).  We don’t have to emulate them in every respect, so we don’t need to sanitize our picture of them either.  And recognizing that fact allows us to emulate the apostolic Church in a deeper, more vital way.  It frees us, as it did them, to creatively live out the implications of the gospel for our own community in our own context and in our own way.

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In a recent Time Magazine article David Van Biema cites Calvinism as being the third of ten ideas that is shaping the world right now.  Van Biema writes,

Calvinism is back, and not just musically. John Calvin’s 16th century reply to medieval Catholicism’s buy-your-way-out-of-purgatory excesses is Evangelicalism’s latest success story, complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination’s logical consequence, predestination: the belief that before time’s dawn, God decided whom he would save (or not), unaffected by any subsequent human action or decision.

The article names usual suspects, John Piper, Mark Driscoll and Al Mohler, as patron saints of the recent Calvinist revival and cites Justin Taylor’s Between Two Worlds as a Christian cyber-hot-spot.  We could easily add Mark Dever, C.J. Mahaney and John MacArthur to the list.

Now, I should say up front that I am pretty thoroughly Calvinistic.  My conceptions of the nature of the will, of God’s role in regeneration and of the purpose of the Universe pretty much come straight out of Jonathan Edwards’s playbook.  But there is something about the neo-Reformed (or nouveau-Reformed, as I like to say) resurgence that troubles me.

Van Biema only hits upon the tip of the iceberg when he writes,

[Al] Mohler says, “The moment someone begins to define God’s [being or actions] biblically, that person is drawn to conclusions that are traditionally classified as Calvinist.” Of course, that presumption of inevitability has drawn accusations of arrogance and divisiveness since Calvin’s time. Indeed, some of today’s enthusiasts imply that non-Calvinists may actually not be Christians. Skirmishes among the Southern Baptists (who have a competing non-Calvinist camp) and online “flame wars” bode badly…. It will be interesting to see whether Calvin’s latest legacy will be classic Protestant backbiting or whether, during these hard times, more Christians searching for security will submit their wills to the austerely demanding God of their country’s infancy.

Putting aside the massive historical misrepresention involved in implying that Calvin’s vision of God was that of early America (was Puritan Massachusetts the only colony?), there can be little doubt that however-so-many people turn to the nouveau-Reformed vision of God, the movement will be extremely and unnecessarily divisive.  The fact is that the nouveau-Reformed movement has a deeply ingrained schismatic streak.

One can see the schismatic impulse in the movement, ironically enough, in the so-called Together for the Gospel movement.  The movement is united around, not the gospel, but rather a melange of conservative shibboleths.  Judging by the  affirmations and denials published by the conference, the movement might be better named Together for Complimentarian, non-Egalitarian views of the roles of Women, the Inerrancy of Scripture (understood just thus-and-so), a Law-Grace Dichotomy, Church Discipline, the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness, Etc.

Needless to say, equating the gospel with this laundry-list of conservative evangelical soap-boxes is bound to be divisive.  Such wagon-circling movements have a tendency to eat their own tails and thus it comes as no surprise that participants in the movement even lack sufficient solidarity to be able to commune together at the Lord’s Table. 

But why?  Why is it thus?  In my estimation it is because the nouveau-Reformed have a penchant for practically identifying their pet-projects with the gospel itself.  Indeed, the movement is not, in fact, united around Calvinism per se, much less around the gospel.  Rather, the movement is Fundamentalism redivivus, complete with an updated and expanded set of fundamentals. 

Like the Fundmentalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the movement’s theological agenda is to a large extent driven by anxiety.  The nouveau-Reformed offer the uncertain generations (Boomers, X-ers and Y-ers alike) living in these uncertain times “a rock-steady deity who orchestrates absolutely everything, including illness (or home foreclosure!), by a logic we may not understand but don’t have to second-guess.”  But Calvinism purchased simply as theological Prozac comes at a high price, for its nerve-steadying effect is only as potent as its key tenets are unshakeable.  Calvinism taken as an anodyne does not really cure the believer’s anxiety about circumstances and salvation but rather sublimates and transforms it into a nervous, insecure dogmatism that ceaselessly worries about slippery-slopes.  The result is a reactionary, trigger-happy neo-Fundamentalism that practically excommunicates confessing Christians who are Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant or simply less theologically cautious evangelicals.  In short, the nouveau-Reformed movement offers a BIG God but also a small Church and a narrow orthodoxy. 

The movement has much to commend it.  It’s fiery passion for international missions is unmatched.  It’s awareness of social justice issues markedly improves upon evangelicalism’s historical aloofness to such matters.  It has given evangelicalism a relatively greater theological depth than the happy-clappy baby-pools of the Health & Wealth Gospel and so-called “Seeker Friendly” movement.  It has reawakened a desire to be rooted in historic theological traditions such that even such a traditionally tradition-wary tradition as the Southern Baptist Church is looking back to their Founders for theological guidance (on matters of soteriology moreso than on matters of slavery, thankfully). 

While we should rejoice in these blessings that the movement brings, that does not negate the need to help our nouveau-Reformed siblings overcome the movement’s proclivity for sectarianism.  And if I have correctly diagnosed the cause of this factionalism, then they already have the makings of the cure ready-to-hand. 

A deeper confidence in a BIG God, a sovereign and mysterious God; a wild and unconstrained, yet paradoxically and and surprisingly faithful God can work wonders for folks worrying about the ambiguities inherent in the post-modern condition, the cognitive dissonance that can accompany rigorous scholarship and phobias of theological and moral slippery-slopes.  A stronger conviction that we are flawed and fallible and that God’s judgments are unsearchable and his ways inscrutible may deter us from dissentious and deleterious dogmatism.  A sincerer belief in God’s absolute and unpredictable freedom in election coupled with a heart-felt conviction that we are justified by our faith in Christ rather than by our comprehension of and adherence to the (contested) sola fide  doctrine might considerably broaden the number of people a Calvinist would call brothers and sisters.  In short, the cure for nouveau-Reformed factionalism just might be more Calvinism, not less.

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