A Summary of a Discussion on Transformationalism: Trueman, Evans, DeYoung, and Hart

The ongoing debate on the church’s ministry and its relationship and impact to culture

[Editor’s note: The concept of transformationalism has generated much debate on The Aquila Report. We have summarized some of the arguments presented in this discussion; each article is summarized below with a link to the full article so readers can read the whole in context. The debate will continue in other forums and web sites and we trust this primer will help define the main themes.]

 

Cigar Smoke and Mirrors and Transformation – Carl Trueman

…Yet his recent post over at Old Life is most apposite, along with certain related parts of his history of Calvinism (at least in the expurgated version I have, without the chapter on Jeremy Walker)….

DG’s [Hart] critique at Old Life of the bombastic claims about transformationism is akin to one I have made frequently in the classroom about talk of the [singular] ‘Christian worldview’: such things are, by and large, code for the expression of the concerns of the middle class chatterati in a blandly Christian idiom.  As far as I know, for example, no conferences on the transformation of Christian toilet cleaning or turkey rendering have yet been successfully organised.

This is where DG’s history of Calvinism is interesting.  I was struck by his account of Abraham Kuyper.  Here was a (probable) genius and (definite) workaholic who had at his personal disposal a university, a newspaper and a denomination, and also held the highest political office in his land.  We might also throw in to the mix that he did this at a time when European culture was far more sympathetic to broadly Christian concerns than that of the USA today. And Kuyper failed to effect any lasting transformation of society.  Just visit Amsterdam today, if you can bear the pornographic filth even in those areas where the lights are not all red….

Indeed, I wonder if any of these transformationists have ever asked themselves whether what we are seeing are not in fact transforming inroads into the culture but the modern equivalents of bread and circuses designed to gull the gullible — meaningless trivia, conceded by the wider culture, that make no real difference; where and when the stakes are higher and actually worth playing for, no quarter is, or will be, given.

Surely it is time to become realistic.  It is time to drop the cultural elitism that poses as significant Christian transformation of culture but only really panders to nothing more than middle class tastes and hobbies.  It is time to look again at the New Testament’s teaching on the church as a sojourning people where here we have no lasting home.  The psalms of lament teach us that it is only when we have realistic horizons of expectation will we be able to stand firm against what is coming.  If we do  not understand that now, we are going to be sorely disappointed in the near future.

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What’s Wrong with 2K?  Bill Evans

In a recent Facebook post I responded to a question about the cash value of 2K in this way:

I think the basics can be summarized as follows: (1) There are two realms [or Kingdoms]—a. the world, which is governed by creational wisdom/natural law, and b. the Church, which is shaped and governed by the Gospel. (2) There is no distinctively “Christian worldview” that is to be applied to all of life (i.e., no Christian-worldview perspective on politics, economics, etc.). (3) Christian efforts to transform or redeem society will inevitably fail, and the ministry of the Church is exclusively spiritual in nature.

That being said, there are problems here, both in the presuppositions and the entailments of 2K.  Here we will focus on three issues—the misunderstanding of the Kingdom of God, an invidious creation-redemption dualism, and a resulting undue skepticism regarding transformation.  And just for the record, while Carl Trueman has expressed appreciation for “much” that various proponents of 2K have said, he has not formally endorsed 2K theology, and I make no presumption as to what his specific positions on these three issues might be.

First, there is a failure to understand the nature of the Kingdom of God.  More specifically, the institutional Church is wrongly equated with the Kingdom.  While admittedly there has been a range of opinion in Reformed circles on this matter over the years, my sense is that there is a rough consensus among more conservative New Testament scholars (as opposed to the historians and systematicians who seem to dominate 2K) that the Kingdom of God is not to be simply identified with the church.  In a nutshell, the Kingdom of God is a much more comprehensive reality than the institutional church….

Second, 2K theology persistently evinces a radical dualism in its understanding of the relationship between creation and redemption.  There is a denial of any real continuity or carryover from the old creation to the new….

Third (and most important), there seems to be at work in 2K a real skepticism about any sort of intrinsic transformation—personal or corporate.  In an earlier post on this topic I noted that there is “a connection between personal transformation, or individual soteriology, and corporate transformation, and battle lines on the question of individual soteriology have been sharply drawn more recently.”  Related to this, there is in 2K a persistently disjunctive impulse—separating sanctification and justification, Law and Gospel (another Lutheran distinctive), the transformatory and the forensic, the kingdom of the world and the institutional Church….

But much more important than the historical antecedents of this theology are its practical consequences. According to 2K, saving grace doesn’t really change us (though our behavior may improve) and it doesn’t change society either.  What we have emerging here is a hyper-spiritualized, forensically overloaded, and inconsequential theology.  Is the 2K theology a response to some legitimate problems?  I think it is.  Is the cure worse than the disease?  I’m afraid that it is.  Furthermore, sober realism demands the recognition that the 2K movement has the clear potential further to divide the already splintered conservative Reformed movement.

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Once More On Church, Culture, and Transformationalism – Kevin DeYoung

I won’t go through all the links, but if you’ve traipsed through the blogosphere in recent weeks you may have noticed a series of volleys involving Carl Trueman, Darryl Hart, and Bill Evans (among others) on the subject of transformationalism. It’s an important discussion and one that has taken place before.

Case in point: I found James Bannerman’s chapter “The Church in Its Relation to the World”–in volume one of The Church of Christ (1868)–to be some of the sanest and wisest 13 pages I’ve read anywhere on the subject.

Bannerman begins by putting our subject in the proper context. The work of the church in relation to the world has everything to do with the work of Christ in relation to the world. This work Bannerman understands to be “His purpose of grace;” that is, “the work of conversion and sanctification and preparation for heaven” (81). No longer on earth, Christ has left behind “a twofold agency” to which he has entrusted this task.

First of all, Christ has supplied us with his Spirit to carry forward the “work of spiritual recovery and redemption among men, which He Himself, when on earth, had only begun” (82).

Second, Christ has left us the Church, with its work of Word and sacrament, to be “another instrument in the hand of Christ for carrying forward and accomplishing His purpose of grace on earth” (82).

In short, the work of Christ on earth was one of recovery and redemption, and to continue this work after his ascension into heaven, Christ left behind the Spirit and the Church.

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A Question for Kevin DeYoung – Bill Evans

In light of this, I can’t help but wonder what is driving these overly spiritualized conceptions of the church’s ministry.  Why has this spiritual vs. temporal dichotomy (which as we have seen is open to question) gotten so much traction?  I have noticed that those who speak in these terms often evince a laudable concern to protect the church from agendas and distractions that are inconsistent with the church’s fundamental mission.  The real question here is the nature of that mission.  I can think of at least two historical developments that have made it easier for some to emphasize the “spiritual” at the expense of the temporal.

First, as McKee notes there is the fact that during and after the Second Great Awakening a good deal of the church’s diaconal efforts were shifted to voluntary societies, or what we would now call “parachurch organizations.”  This development has been explored by Charles Foster in his Errand of Mercy: The Evangelical United Front, 1790-1837 (1960).  Thus it became more possible for people to think of the church itself without reference to such diaconal ministries.  Again, McKee puts it well: “Usually churches encouraged their members to be morally conscientious, but Christians participated in the reform movements as individuals, and the precise connection between church membership and diakonia was rarely given adequate theological expression” (McKee, Diakonia, 89).

Second, there is the dramatic expansion of the role of the State in the twentieth century, as many social welfare needs that were formerly addressed by religious organizations are now met by various governmental programs.  Under such circumstances, the pressing need for diaconal ministries is, in some contexts at least, less obvious and a church devoid of such ministries is more thinkable.

So, my question for Kevin DeYoung stands: How do you reconcile this particular understanding of the “spirituality of the church” with the Church’s historic and proper commitment to diaconal ministry?

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Transformationalism, Diaconal Ministry, and a Response to Bill Evans – Kevin DeYoung

The blog post generated a fair amount of conversation, including a rejoinder from (an ARP minister and professor at Erskine College). I’m grateful for the irenic nature and thoughtfulness of Evans’ post. Bill Evans’ concern is that Bannerman’s ecclesiology leaves no room for a wholistic ministry like we see in the gospels where Christ gives us a model and a mandate for caring for the poor. To that end, Evans ends his piece with a direct question for me: “How do you reconcile this particular understanding of the ‘spirituality of the church’ with the Church’s historic and proper commitment to diaconal ministry?”

Good question. Let me attempt an answer by making three observations.

1. It’s worth noting that I never used the phrase “spirituality of the church,” nor did I quote Bannerman as using it. This may sound like a pedantic point, but it’s not insignificant…We the church, we do not know everything about everything. On a number of issues, the church should be silent, not because individual Christians may not have important convictions or something to add to the discussion, but because we have no right to speak authoritatively where the Scripture has not spoken…The church is neither equipped to weigh in on such specific political matters, nor does it have the authority to do so….

2. I am wholeheartedly in favor of a strong diaconal ministry…The New Testament is absolutely clear about the necessity of the church to care for the poor.

The question, however, is whether the church has an obligation to care for the poor outside of the church. Evans cites John Calvin as a positive example of one who did not relegate social welfare to the state but embraced it as the responsibility of the church. The implication is that a Reformed understanding of a very broad diaconal ministry cannot be squared with the doctrine of the spirituality of the church. But this fails to consider the differences between Calvin’s Geneva and ministry in our cities. The entire city of Geneva was Calvin’s parish (or more precisely, that of the Company of Pastors). The citizens of Geneva were de facto citizens of the church, which is why they could be disciplined for failing to attend services, or for Catholic behavior, or for a variety of immoralities. The diaconal ministry in Geneva did not extend physical relief to any who were not also under the spiritual authority of the church. When Evans quotes from Calvin’s sermon on Acts 6:1-3 to the effect that “it was given to the deacons to offer the cup when the people came to the Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ” he makes the very point I’m trying to make. Yes, the deacons’ care for the poor was deeply spiritual work, but it was directed toward members of the church (i.e., those who partake of the Supper)…What it does suggest is that the church’s obligation is not to feed the entire world or be the social welfare agency for the city but to care for the poor in her own body.

3. Although Bannerman insists that the state and the church are distinct institutions designed for different purposes, he still allows that at times they will overlap in their responsibilities. The church may be “limited, in its primary object, to promoting the spiritual interests of the Christian community,” but that doesn’t mean there are not “secondary objects” related to the “temporal and social wellbeing of society” (The Church of Christ, 98-99).

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The Wayfarer’s Dole: A Further Response to Kevin DeYoung – Bill Evans

I want to thank Kevin DeYoung for his gracious and thoughtful response to my query from last week, and I hope to continue the conversation in the same manner.  This is a discussion that needs to take place, for it involves our understanding of the mission of the church on a fundamental level.

Readers will recall Kevin’s initial piece on the subject, where he argued that the church is to be about “the work of conversion and sanctification and preparation for heaven,” and he went on to contend that this “doctrine of the church makes more eminent sense, and is more plainly biblical, than contemporary notions whereby the church is called upon to be something it cannot be and do something it cannot do.”  I then asked whether such a view, focused as it is on what is thought to be the essentially “spiritual” nature of the church’s ministry of word and sacrament, has any place for diaconal ministry.  I also noted, using Calvin’s Geneva as an example, that the church has historically understood diaconal ministry to the poor of the community as part of its “spiritual” task….

If I’m reading the post correctly, his position seems to be that the church has no obligation to assist less fortunate non-Christians but that such activities are allowed if individual Christians and even congregations want to undertake them.  As DeYoung himself puts it, “none of this means there is some prohibition against caring for the unbelieving poor (see Gal. 6:10). What it does suggest is that the church’s obligation is not to feed the entire world or be the social welfare agency for the city but to care for the poor in her own body.”

I will confess to having a number of problems with this line of argument.  First, DeYoung’s characterization of the danger he is trying to avoid (having “to feed the entire world or be the social welfare agency for the city”) seems exaggerated….

Second, I’m convinced that the New Testament not only enjoins corporate diaconal ministry and assistance to the poor by individual Christians but it also sees such ministry as potentially extending beyond the confines of the congregation….

Third, I also sense that the church has historically understood the issue in a way less restrictive than DeYoung suggests.  The post-NT church tended to define its diaconal obligations in terms of the Jewish expectations regarding almsgiving (see, e.g., Shepherd of Hermas, 8th Mandate)….

Furthermore, DeYoung’s point about church and community being coextensive in Geneva is true as far as it goes but is less than decisive in this context—it does not obviate the key point that Calvin viewed the church’s diaconal work as encompassing the community as a whole….

This sober realism also demands wisdom on our part as we seek a balance of the  various legitimate ministries of the church that is appropriate to the context, and as we realize that poverty is both complicated and often frustratingly intractable (see Matthew 26:11).  Nevertheless, we also know that despite the setbacks and frustrations of our present existence (and in ways that are quite mysterious to us from our present earthly perspective) God is building his kingdom and using us his people to that end.  It is not without reason that the metaphor of sowing and reaping is so prominent in the New Testament.  Our task as Christians is to be faithful.  Sounds pretty uncontroversial to me!

If I may speak frankly, however, I would not want to be making the argument DeYoung has presented, as it may seem to confirm the sense of some that the conservative Reformed community lacks a broader vision and is turned in on itself.  I’m quite sure that is not DeYoung’s intention, but our proclamation and living out of the gospel should reflect our anticipation of the “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21), and we must not allow our theology on such matters to be determined by our reactions to potential excesses on the right or left.

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C2K (hint, confessional) – D. G. Hart

While Kevin DeYoung summons James Bannerman to help Bill Evans figure out 2k, I will once again appeal to the doctrinal standards of the Reformed churches. Evans summarizes the “cash value” of 2k as follows:

I think the basics can be summarized as follows: (1) There are two realms [or Kingdoms]—a. the world, which is governed by creational wisdom/natural law, and b. the Church, which is shaped and governed by the Gospel. (2) There is no distinctively “Christian worldview” that is to be applied to all of life (i.e., no Christian-worldview perspective on politics, economics, etc.). (3) Christian efforts to transform or redeem society will inevitably fail, and the ministry of the Church is exclusively spiritual in nature.

Since Evans’ summary received scholarly blessing on Facebook (always a reliable theological resource), he felt comfortable proceeding to register three complaints against 2k, all of which he also needs to take to the Reformed churches that confess either the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity:

“First, there is a failure to understand the nature of the Kingdom of God. More specifically, the institutional Church is wrongly equated with the Kingdom.”

As an accommodated Reformed Protestant living under Dutch neo-Calvinist hegemony, Evans goes on to appeal to the “seminal” Herman Ridderbos to show that the kingdom is bigger than the church. Maybe, but that is not what Evans’ communion [ARP], the OPC, or the PCA confess:

The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (25.2)….

“Second, 2K theology persistently evinces a radical dualism in its understanding of the relationship between creation and redemption. There is a denial of any real continuity or carryover from the old creation to the new.”

Perhaps Evans doesn’t remember the split in 1937 between the Bible and Orthodox Presbyterians, but one of the controverted points concerned whether the church would tolerate a variety of views about the millennium. The OPC came down on the side of eschatological liberty, and opted to require only the language of the Confession of Faith. The last two chapters of the Confession (32 and 33) are completely silent about the relationship between the existing creation and glorification, other than to affirm that bodies will be resurrected and judged, with believers going “into everlasting life, and receiv[ing] that fullness of joy and refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord” and the “wicked who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, . . . be[ing] cast into eternal torments, and . . .punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.”….

“Third (and most important), there seems to be at work in 2K a real skepticism about any sort of intrinsic transformation—personal or corporate. In an earlier post on this topic I noted that there is “a connection between personal transformation, or individual soteriology, and corporate transformation, and battle lines on the question of individual soteriology have been sharply drawn more recently.” Related to this, there is in 2K a persistently disjunctive impulse—separating sanctification and justification, Law and Gospel (another Lutheran distinctive), the transformatory and the forensic, the kingdom of the world and the institutional Church.”

Again, Evans holds 2k up to a standard that may have an informal consensus (not here of course) but that has no confessional standing among the Reformed churches. For instance, nowhere do the Reformed confessions or catechisms state or imply that sanctification of the person leads to transformation of society….

One of the more curious features of the current debate over 2k is that it comes from folks in the orbit of Dutch Calvinism, a variety of Reformed Protestantism that was arguably the least hostile to Lutheranism of the major branches of Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Indeed, Heidelberg has the law-gospel dynamic woven into its teaching. But that won’t stop 2k critics from the philosophical parochialism that searches for a version of Calvinism that is intellectually self-contained and pure. Sometimes that urge for purity is so strong that 2k’s critics even forget to check what the Reformed churches confessed and continue to confess…..

Read Hart’s response on the diaconate and the ministry of mercy that is a part of this discussion.