Reasoning Together editor’s note: The Ad-Interim Committee on Insider Movements as submitted its final report to the 42nd General Assembly (to read the byFaith article on this and find a link to the report, click here). Recently, Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, began a series of exchanges between Rev. Nelson Jennings and Rev. David B. Garner on the report. Ref21 has graciously given Reasoning Together permission to republish these posts here so we can invite your interaction about them before the Assembly. The first of these post may be viewed here. The last of these exchanges may be found here. The original of this post on the Ref21 site may be found here.
Ref21Editors’ 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
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
- To cease sending IM-sympathetic missionaries and funding IM initiatives.
- To speak decisively about IM’s theological errors and its disastrous consequences.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Church. Jennings implicitly argues that missions and missiological analysis belong to cultural-anthropological ex