Posts Tagged Unity

Louisville or Wheaton?

This article on the Christianity Today site regarding two recent evangelical conferences is an interesting read. The writer recognizes that both conferences call for unity, but approach that subject from different angles. As one might expect in a CT article, the tilt seems toward the Wheaton conference more than T4G. The author contrasts the two conferences by suggesting that the T4G conference focuses on unity based on common disagreements with false doctrines, while the Wheaton conference focuses on unity by highlighting what people share in common. He wonders if unity can actually be achieved with such divergent approaches so prominently on display. Perhaps I’ll return later to whether his presupposition about unity is correct, but for this post I want to zero in on what I believe is a core issue confronting evangelicals—the place of doctrine in the pursuit of unity.

My take on things is that most of the folks connected to T4G represent a wing of evangelicalism that recognizes that minimizing doctrine has hurt evangelicalism. Why do I think this?

Al Mohler’s essay entitled “Reformist Evangelicalism: A Center Without a Circumference” (in A Confessing Theology for Postmodern Times) makes an excellent case that evangelicalism has perpetually had identity problems because its founders focused on establishing a center, but failed to give sufficient attention to boundary markers. He writes,

The objective of these founders was to establish a firm center, and yet the boundaries were kept less clear. The pressing energies of a fight against liberalism and the hope of a larger culture-shaping coalition formed and forged these early evangelical leaders in such a way that they put a primary emphasis on the center while acknowledging the task of boundary-making. But they were never quite clear about where the boundaries should lie (p. 133).

John MacArthur, too, has expressed himself clearly about the danger of broad evangelicalism:

An aggressive effort is being made to divest ‘the fundamentals’ of key evangelical distinctives. Influential voices within evangelicalism are urging us to pare back the essentials to the barest possible statement of faith, and these voices can be heard across the spectrum of evangelicalism. Appeals for broader tolerance and more inclusivism have come from charismatics, dispensationalists, Calvinists and Arminians, Reformed and Lutheran leaders—so-called evangelicals of almost every stripe (Reckless Faith, p. 97).

R. C. Sproul, in Getting the Gospel Right, writes:

We hear people who call themselves evangelical who at the same time say that doctrine does not matter. They are non-theological or even anti-theological Evangelicals. Since historic Evangelicalism was thoroughly doctrinal and confessional, this would signal a serious shift in the meaning of evangelical. In historic terms the idea of confessing Evangelicals would be a redundancy. But the term’s historic meaning can no longer be assumed or taken for granted (p.43).

To be sure, the folks at the Wheaton conference are deeply interested in theology, but, as Brett McCracken recognizes, they are approaching their theological differences from a very different angle than the T4G men. To couch it in Mohler’s terms, the Wheaton crew seems to be focusing on the center and fine with allowing a great deal of latitude in determining the circumference. The folks at T4G, on the other hand, are very concerned about clarifying the boundary line that forms the circumference.

It’s hard to imagine any doctrine more crucial to that discussion than justification by faith, so it is no surprise to find the CT article surfaces that difference. McCracken seems to put his finger on the central tension:

It’s hard when one side (Piper/T4G) sees the Reformed doctrine of justification (imputed righteousness) as the lynchpin litmus test wherein believers are found to be either orthodox or borderline heretical. Disagreement on justification seems to stymie any further discussion for the neo-Reformed crowd, a position which immediately rules out fellowship with large (increasingly so) swaths of Christendom. For Wright, justification is certainly crucial, but what seems even more crucial for him is the unity of the church. Paul, after all, speaks of justification only in a few places (Romans, Galatians, etc.), while unity is a topic that shows up constantly in nearly everything he writes.

That quote probably warrants an entire post, but let me stay focused on the issue of doctrine vis-à-vis unity. I think McCracken is basically right in his assessment—two wings of evangelicalism are in tension over the place that doctrine has in the pursuit of unity. In that sense, evangelicalism is facing the same problem it faced in the mid-20th century with one crucial difference. Back then, the question was whether evangelicals could pursue unity with non-evangelicals. Because that question was answered wrongly, the same problem comes dressed in different clothes—can evangelicals pursue unity with “evangelicals” who hold non-evangelical doctrines? IOW, because the early evangelicals failed to erect boundary lines, non-evangelical views moved into the evangelical tent. Once someone is in the tent, trying to remove them seems, to many people, like an act of disunity. At least that’s what the CT article seems to be saying.

How much better it would have been if folks would have heard and heeded the warning of men like Lloyd-Jones back in the mid-20th century:

The New Testament everywhere insists upon true doctrine. I emphasize this because, as we have seen, the whole tendency today is to discourage talk about doctrine and to urge that we work together, pray together, and evangelize together, because ‘doctrine divides.’ Doctrine is being discounted in the interests of supposed unity. The fact is, however, that there is no unity apart from truth and doctrine, and it is departure from this that causes division and breaks unity (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Basis of Christian Unity, p. 50).

Agreement produces unity. What a novel idea.

Update: I guess I should have been paying attention to the web world a little better. Phil Johnson and Rick Phillips both have good posts on the CT article.

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