Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Amend ETS: A Successful Effort

I have been away from the blog for the last week due to a busy schedule at the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). Readers of this blog know that my friend Denny Burk and I had co-sponsored an effort to amend the doctrinal basis of the ETS and that the vote on the measure was to take place last week. Now that the meeting and the vote are over, the story can be told and reflections given.

In short, we feel that our effort was successful, even though the Society decided not to adopt our specific proposal. The final vote was 130 opposed and 47 in favor (with 177 total votes cast, it was an abysmal turn-out for such an important vote). How can I claim that our effort was a success after we got only 26 percent of the vote? Let me explain.

Denny and I are realists. We knew over a year ago that our proposal had very little chance of getting the support of a majority of the ETS, much less of the 80 percent super-majority that is required to amend the doctrinal basis. When the Executive Committee (EC) made clear their intentions to oppose our measure last year, we knew that its passage would be highly unlikely. Nevertheless, we pressed forward with our effort because we thought that there would be something to be gained by soldiering on.

What Was Gained by This Effort?
First, we believed that if we pushed forward we might be able to spur the EC on to take this matter up for themselves. It was clear on Friday that we had achieved that goal. After the final business meeting, we were assured that the EC would be taking up this issue to see if there is any significant interest among the membership to clarify the ETS’s evangelical commitments. We are grateful for this result and will support the EC’s efforts in this regard going forward.

Second, we thought it would be good and healthy for the Society to debate the matter publicly and for everyone to get their cards out on the table. I have to say that the two sessions of debate and discussion were some of the most stimulating sessions I have ever been to at ETS. To hear the members speak both for and against was highly instructive. I think we have a much better feel for how different members think about things as a result. Moreover, Denny and I were encouraged that so many distinguished members stood to speak in favor of our proposal: Wayne Grudem, Al Mohler, Michael Haykin, John Warwick Montgomery, Robert Saucy, and others. We have the utmost regard for dear brothers who stood to oppose it. ETS needs to be a place where people of good will can debate and disagree without rancor and without fear of recrimination.

The Meaning of the Vote
I think there may be some misunderstanding about the meaning of the vote. The vote tells us only that 130 members by and large did not favor our specific proposal. The vote did not tell us that there is no will in the Society to change the Doctrinal Basis or to implement some other compromise position.

How do I know that this is the case? There were members who spoke at the debate in favor of our proposal but who nevertheless voted against it in the business meeting. These members liked the idea of a change in principle, but for whatever reason could not sign the specific amendment that we were sponsoring. So the vote didn’t tell us much about the Society’s will to make changes. It only told us that the Society didn’t favor our proposal. Denny and I like our proposal, but we aren’t married to it. Through deliberation and debate, the Society may come up with something even better. For these reasons, it is good that the EC will be exploring the issue further.

Going Forward
As the EC considers polling the membership and discussing what might be appropriate changes to the doctrinal basis, here are some questions that need to be answered before any other proposal comes forward.

(1) What is the distinction between a doctrinal basis and a doctrinal statement? After the debates, I am even more convinced that the membership does not understand what this distinction is. The EC assumes that the distinction was vital to the formation of the Society, but I believe that point still to be in dispute. I have read the founding documents and the minutes from the deliberations at the founding meeting. These documents show that the word basis was used not to define a “methodological principle,” but to designate the basis for membership. I do not see in those documents that the founders distinguished “basis” from “statement” as the EC has argued.

That being said, it may very well be that the distinction could be a helpful one to make. But it needs to be one that the whole Society understands and affirms, not one that comes down from a historically dubious reading of the founding of ETS. If the Society does decide to embrace such a distinction as vital, then for consistency’s sake the Society should remove the Trinity from its doctrinal basis. As it stands now, the Society has spoken to the issue. In 1990 when the Trinity clause was added to the doctrinal basis, the Society was saying in effect that the doctrinal basis can be expanded without turning it in to a doctrinal statement. As a matter of history, therefore, the EC has the burden of proof in making the distinction that they have made.

(2) Does the Society want to expand the grounds upon which a member might be expelled from the ETS? According to the ETS constitution, membership challenges can only proceed based on defections from inerrancy and Trinity. Does the Society want to enumerate other evangelical identity markers upon which one’s membership might be terminated (e.g., the person of Christ, salvation by grace through faith alone, etc.)? We still believe that a basic evangelical affirmation needs to be included in the doctrinal basis itself.

It may very well be that the Society has no will to expand the basis for membership challenges. If that is the case, there are a number of ways in which the Society could clarify its basic Evangelical commitments without expanding the grounds for membership challenges.
One, the Society could adopt a “doctrinal abstract” and insert it into the constitution. Members would then be required to affirm the current “basis” and the new “abstract,” but then membership challenges would happen based on defections from the “basis” only. In this scenario, members would be affirming a fuller evangelical statement each year when they renew their membership, but their membership would only be in jeopardy if they were to deny inerrancy or Trinity.

Two, the Society could simply add a fuller statement to its by-laws, just as it added the Chicago Statement a few years ago. Of course the statement would in no way be binding and members would not even have to affirm it. Nevertheless, it would give some direction to prospective members who want to understand what we mean by “Evangelical” in the name of our Society.
As far as these two compromise positions are concerned, Denny and I would favor the first over the second.

What Now?
As for Denny and me, we are happy that the EC is taking a leadership role in the continuation of this effort. We will support them as they do so, and we look forward to seeing how the membership will respond. We do not intend at this time to put forth another proposal but will wait and see what the EC is able to achieve in the coming months

Monday, November 17, 2008

Applying the Doctrine of Hell

We must teach our people doctrine. As we do so, we must also apply the doctrine well- thoroughly, convincingly, pastorally, searchingly- so that it cannot be no mere mental exercise but having addressed the mind it moves the heart bringing about conviction, joy, repentance, worship, etc.

I am currently teaching our church’s Sunday School class on the Doctrines of Sin, Man and the Person of Christ. This week the topic was the doctrine of Hell with an emphasis on its reality and eternality. Here is the portion of my notes dealing with applying this sobering truth.

What are the practical, pastoral, every-day implications of this truth that those who die in their sins will suffer eternal torment as their judgment?
1. Evangelism- If you care about people, and realize the truth of this doctrine you cannot help but labor, pray and speak the gospel so that souls might be saved from this result.

2. Pity on the lost- In addition to seeking their salvation, this truth should cause us to have extra pity on unbelievers, even if they mock, mistreat, or abuse us. It is this truth which will allow us to forgive them as we see that they will be judged.

3. Don’t envy the unrighteous- Psalms 73 & 37. It will seem at times that those who ignore God get ahead, but as the Psalmist notes, contemplation of their final end will keep us from dishonoring God by envying the wicked.

4. Forgive- We can forgive those who wrong us, not hold grudges, and forego retribution because we know that God will punish all sin, even those which go unpunished here & now. This is what enables people to go on when justice is not meted out.

5. Greater awareness of Christ’s suffering on the cross- If the punishment deserved for an individual’s sins requires eternal torment, what must Christ have suffered as he received in his body the punishment deserved by thousands/millions in a period of no more than three hours?
With this in mind we are all the more prepared to sing “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and many more of or hymns.

6. Worship- The more you realize the horror of what we deserve and see that God has graciously rescued you from that, your heart should well up in worship! Regardless of what troubles beset us today, this greatest of our troubles- receiving the fury of god’s righteous wrath- has been removed by the cross of Christ! Let us then exalt the Lord our God. Let us bear this in mind as we come to the Lord’s Table this morning.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Amend ETS, Vote Next Week

I have commented here previously about the proposal I am co-sponsoring with Denny Burk to amend the doctrinal basis of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). Next week the Society will meet in Providence, Rhode Island where our proposal will finally come to a vote. Today Denny posted a very helpful summary of the discussion which I would encourage you to read. It has been seven years since I first delivered a paper challenging the adequacy of the doctrinal statement, and this year their will be a vote on the proposal.

Here is the schedule for the discussion of and vote on the proposal:
11/20 – Thursday
5:20-6:00pm – Van Neste, Burk, and Executive Committee discuss the proposal followed by a Q & A with audience. Rhode Island Convention Center Ballroom E

8:30-9:30pm – Business Meeting: Discussion of the Amendment proposal. Rhode Island Convention Center Ballroom

11/21 - Friday
8:30-9:00am – Business Meeting: Vote on the Amendment proposal. Rhode Island Convention Center Ballroom A

This is an important conversation about the definition of evangelicalism and doctrinal clarity.
To quote Denny:
If you want to get acquainted with the rationale for our amendment, there are three items that you need to read:
1. Our website: www.AmendETS.com
2. Our 2007 article in Criswell Theological Review: “Inerrancy Is Not Enough”
3. Van Neste’s 2004 article in SBJT: “The Glaring Inadequacy of the ETS Doctrinal Statement”
If you are a member and are interested in signing up to support our amendment, please visit here. Thanks for your help.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Pulpit, Cowper

Ray Ortlund posted today this excerpt from William Cowper’s lengthy poem, “The Task.” It is a wonderful, power description of the role of preaching. It is thrilling, convicting and humbling.

The pulpit, therefore, (and I name it filled
with solemn awe, that bids me well beware
with what intent I touch that holy thing;)
the pulpit (when the satirist has at last,
strutting and vaporing in an empty school,
spent all his force, and made no proselyte;)
I say the pulpit (in the sober use
of its legitimate, peculiar powers)
must stand acknowledged, while the world shall stand,
the most important and effectual guard,
support, and ornament of virtue's cause.
There stands the messenger of truth. There stands
the legate of the skies; his theme divine,
his office sacred, his credentials clear.
By him, the violated law speaks out
its thunders, and by him, in strains as sweet
as angels use, the gospel whispers peace.
He 'stablishes the strong, restores the weak,
reclaims the wanderer, binds the broken heart,
and, armed himself in panoply complete
of heavenly temper, furnishes with arms
bright as his own, and trains, by every rule
of holy discipline, to glorious war,
the sacramental host of God's elect.

- William Cowper, 1731-1800.

The Journal of Modern Ministry

I subscribed to this journal about a year ago and have enjoyed it. I admit that “modern” does not typically bring positive connotations to me when connected to ministry, but this journal, edited by Jay Adams, is devoted to exploring various aspects of day to day ministry from the perspective of absolute confidence in scripture. It is published three times a year. More information can be found at the journal’s website.

What I particularly appreciate about the journal is the fact that it contains articles which wrestle with very practical, “nitty-gritty” issues from a substantive theological basis. For example the latest issue (Winter 2008) contains a helpful, two-page item by Lou Priolo titled “Postmarital Checkup Questions.” It consists primarily of a list of questions he uses in a follow up session (about 3 months after the wedding) with couples for whom he has done pre-marital counseling. This is not necessarily earth-shattering stuff, but it is very helpful for me in prodding my thoughts in following up with new couples in our church. There is also a detailed article on “Helping People with Crippling Fear.” This is an issue which I know is dealt with within our church, so I appreciate items to help me think of how to help my people.

Now, I know there are debates about different ways Christians understand the counseling ministry, and Adams is identified with a certain approach. I have critiqued elsewhere places where I think Priolo has pushed some passages too hard. For Priolo and Adams, both, their use of Greek is sometimes lacking. With all that said, however, I benefit from dialoguing in this way with faithful brothers who are seeking to mine all the riches they can from scripture in order to shepherd the flock of God.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Visit the Sick

Visit the Sick: Ministering God's Grace in Times of Illness, by Brian Croft
(Day One Publications, 2008), pb., 92 pp.

I was very pleased recently to receive a copy of this book and to see that it was now available. It was my privilege to read a pre-publication copy of it and to write a commendation for the book. Here is my blurb found in the book:

“Visit the Sick is an excellent and much-needed resource today when the actual practice of ‘shepherding souls’ is so often neglected. Many younger pastors (and not so young ones as well) have never received the sort of very practical guidance which Brian Croft gives in this book. This book has the potential to be a great blessing to pastors and those they shepherd. It will now be a recommended text in my Pastoral Ministries class and I heartily commend it to others.”
Brian Croft is pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville, where former students of mine and former members of our church are members and serve. Brian is a faithful pastor who seeks to oversee souls, and he has particular experience in this realm of visiting the sick (as Mark Dever discusses in the foreword).

Visiting the sick used to be one of the top things thought of in pastoral ministry but today it is often overlooked or shuffled off to others as much as possible. This ought not be the case. Even as we hold up the importance of preaching and teaching, we may not neglect shepherding such as in this area. This is not what was done by those who went before us.

I commend this book to all pastors. Brian Croft has done us a great service.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Introducing Your Church to Psalm Singing

I mentioned a few weeks ago here an upcoming project on the Psalms and worship. One of the key inspirations to me in this realm is my friend and fellow pastor James Grant. James has thought much about this topic and has successfully brought Psalm singing into his church. He has just posted some of his advice on how to begin this process in a church that has no previous history of singing the Psalms. This is very useful, practical advice and well wroth reading.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Word Within the Word

Last month I mentioned that Dr. Don Carson will be our plenary speaker at the Ryan Center conference this coming April. The conference web page is now up and online registration is open.

The conference theme is “Word Within the Word: The New Testament Use of the Old Testament.” Dr. Carson will develop this theme in his three plenary addresses.

Breakout sessions will further develop the main theme as well as addressing other issues in studying the Bible. David and Sally Michael, from Children Desiring God and Bethlehem Baptist Church, will join us to lead a breakout session on engaging children in Bible study. Ray Clendenen and Terry Wilder, both of B&H Academic, will lead sessions on Malachi and the book of Romans respectively. Other Union faculty will lead breakout sessions.

The conference will begin Friday evening, April 24 and conclude sat afternoon, April 25. The cost is $50 per person until March 23, when the price becomes $60. That covers the entire conference (3 addresses from Dr Carson, 3 breakout sessions, 2 meals and a continental breakfast).

You can also keep up with details about the conference at the Center’s Facebook page and the Conference Faecbook page.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Reformation Roundtable

I was privileged to participate in a roundtable discussion of the 5 sola’s of the Reformation and their contemporary relevance at Union on Monday of this week. The participants and topics were as follows:

Kevin Chairot (pastor, Covenant Presbyterian Church)- Sola Scriptura
Daryl Charles (Union University)- Sola Gratia
Brad Green (Union University)- Sola Fide
Sean Lucas (Covenant Seminary)- Solus Christus
Ray Van Neste (Union University)- Soli Deo Gloria

It was a particular blessing to meet Sean Lucas for the first time
The presentations were recorded and as soon as they are posted I will link to them here.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

"Education with Force"

In one of our Wednesday night classes we are reading and discussing Thabiti Anyabwile’s What is a Healthy Church Member? (which I have commented on here previously). Last night we came to this quote which Anyabwile cited from Jay Adams:
“When we are baptized into the church, we thereby matriculate into Christ’s school. Then, for the rest of our earthly life, we are to be taught (not facts alone, but also) to obey the commands of Christ. This is education with force, education backed up by the discipline of good order that is necessary for learning to take place.”
That is a great quote getting at the heart of what it looks like to mature in the Christian life and the role of the church in that maturation. Many today talk about the lack of discipleship, but often people fail to realize the missing link is “education with force.” The church has mirrored many of our schools- the removal of discipline has made it impossible for real learning and formation to take place.