We Wish for…Laypeople Willing to Engage in an Ongoing Conversation on Confessional Christianity

Benjamin E. Sasse
Thursday, July 5th 2007
Jan/Feb 2000

The "information age" is the answer, we're told. But what was the question? It surely wasn't: "How can I learn to be more patient and kind?" Nor was it: "When will people stop moving around so much? When will friendships again last longer than a car lease?"

Don't misunderstand me: Impersonal, widely available information obviously has a very important place. Better structural specifications-that is, better information-could have saved many lives in the devastating earthquakes in Turkey in August and in Taiwan in September. Engineers who work on such projects are doing valuable work-as are doctors doing cancer research, the computer scientists and managers who help these other professionals share their data more easily, and many more. Those pursuing these information-related earthly callings are demonstrating love to their neighbors, and they are to be commended.

But the breath-taking accomplishments of technology and business occasionally deceive us (with the shrewd assistance of marketers and advertisers) into thinking that all of life's problems are simply technical riddles, soon to be solved by the forward march of Progress. This is rarely more evident than in the rhetoric surrounding recent developments in communications technology. To take a long-run perspective: smoke signaling, writing, and the invention of movable type were all communications revolutions that actually remade the world. It isn't clear that Microsoft Office 2000 is quite that significant.

But the innovations of the last two hundred years-the telegraph and telephone, broadcasting via radio and television, and now the networking of millions of computer systems-have accomplished one thing that is completely new: It is now possible to transmit huge amounts of data over great distances for almost no marginal cost. Almost anyone, anywhere in the world, will soon have access to the world's best libraries and data storage facilities. As some technologists gleefully shout: "We have conquered space." We are no longer confined to our present location, and to the limitations of our natural habitat, in the same ways that our predecessors throughout human history have been.

I will not pursue here all of the complex questions about the costs and benefits of the change. But it is worth noting-with more caution than most technophiliacs are usually willing to entertain-that there are indeed some costs to having so much information so readily available. Put most crudely: In our age, it is incredibly easy to know a little about everything, and incredibly difficult to know a significant amount about anything. Who could remain focused long enough to develop competence? Almost everyone in the world shares knowledge of the details of Princess Diana's fateful last evening, but few have shared enough evenings of food and conversation with their next-door neighbors to know them in anything more than a superficial way. We have miles of breadth but only inches of depth. Our lives are often fragmented and shallow.

"Consuming" Religious Literature

But what does the pervasiveness of modern media have to do with Evangelicalism?

At one extreme (which might be labeled "neo-Gnosticism"), there is the reductionistic idea that our entire faith centers simply on the gathering of data. Therefore, now that one can watch church on cable, and have a Bible study in an electronic chat room, some assert that the physical assembly of believers is unnecessary. Those of us preferring material over virtual bodies, though, continue to think that things like the Sacraments and the holy kiss present a bit of a challenge to cyber-church. (For further discussion of these matters, see the May/June 1998 issue of MR, "Why Does Matter Matter?")

But such a blatantly anti-material position is still quite rare. Much more common, though, is the simple, passive belief that we are too busy to become thoughtful about our theology. Modern life is just too hectic, we think.

However, might the problem actually be distraction, rather than being genuinely overworked? How many times a day do we really need to hear the news summary of distant atrocities? For floods and famine have always occurred-and they occur whether or not I know every detail instantly. Of what real use is such information? Similarly, do I really want to know where the Dow Jones Industrial Average stands fourteen times per week? The information concerns a small retirement account that I won't be touching for forty years. And perhaps just 4,000 updates on Monica-gate in 1998 would have been sufficient for me to be a properly informed and responsive citizen.

My point is simply that the twenty-four hour cable news cycle (which also reshapes the time horizons of the print media (1) ), and the ubiquitous presence of televisions and radios (there are now two-inch screens on my neighborhood gas pump!) really do affect our lives. And we are naive to deny that some of the effects are adverse. For one aspect of our sinful nature, our desire to usurp God, is that cravings for self-gratification are nearly limitless-and the marketers who put billboards and "new and improved" products all around us every day are well aware of these tendencies.

This article is not a call to flee the world and its information, much of which is important in the order of God's creation. Rather, this is a call to be thoughtful about how the pervasiveness of information can lead us to think that all of it is important and necessary-and, consequently, that we do not have time to focus on other issues. The displaced topics are often of less "urgency," but greater long-term significance.

Many friends say that they need to know more theology and church history, but they simply don't have the time. Moreover, some complain, the effort required to read theology is particularly time-consuming. And time is what they claim not to have. Yet most of these same folks spend well over an hour every single day reading newspapers on the Internet or watching "news" programs on television. We should at least recognize that such habits/priorities are unique to our age.

This addiction to constant, new information about remote events has obviously had an effect on evangelical publications and readers. It is commonplace in Evangelicalism to say that theological distinctions are divisive, irrelevant, and too hard to understand. Yet armies of culture-warring evangelicals across the land seem to have little difficulty staying informed about the latest details on the status of gay ordination in some twenty-congregation denomination in southwest Ohio. Again, this is not to imply that the latter point is completely irrelevant. But it is to argue that we have ample time for distant events that do not affect us at all, while we have virtually no time for focused reflection on the important matters of doctrine, worship, and life that touch us where we actually live. Consequently, it isn't much of a surprise that most market-conscious evangelical publications read like People magazine. Yet thoughtful Christians must take the time to consider at length the essentials of the faith.

The Purpose of Modern Reformation

So now let me shift gears rather dramatically, and refine the twenty-first century "wish" that framed this article. (Candidly, let me put on the pitchman's hat for a while.) The general hope behind this article is that evangelicals would be more thoughtful about how much "news" is really necessary, that we would prioritize more wisely regarding how much of our learning is devoted to different subject areas, that we would take our obligations to think clearly and Christianly-to be good stewards of our minds-seriously. But, more specifically, I want to argue for the uniqueness of Modern Reformation's position in the orbit of lay evangelical publications. This argument might be conceived of as a statement of our editorial intent, and as a plea for some of your limited reading time.

To this end, I will attempt to answer four questions: First and foremost, what does this magazine exist to do that is different from other publications? Second, what does it mean to say that MR is neither a "theological journal" nor a "general magazine," but rather a "theological magazine"? Third, who is the intended audience of MR? Fourth, this magazine is published by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals; how are "confessing evangelicals" distinguished from "evangelicals"?

To Create a New Community of Discourse

MR exists to accomplish two things. First, we hope that a wide range of individuals learns from each issue. From overview articles to editorials and glossaries, we hope that a new Christian interested in understanding theological categories benefits from these pages. From more technical articles to book reviews and interviews, we aim to offer something for the pastor and professor as well. Our first intention then is simply didactic; we aim to promote a classic Christian theology that is especially fed from the clear springs of Reformation thought.

Our second objective is more difficult to articulate; it has to do with creating a community of discourse. (Here a rather primitive form of communications technology-print-is our ally, rather than our temptress.) Robert Godfrey, President of Westminster Seminary in California, recently commented that "this Alliance exists to forge a new kind of Evangelicalism." The old, post-World War II Evangelicalism was based on hiding differences between Lutheran and Baptist, Reformed and Congre-gationalist, and affirming a minimalist consensus. Having seen modernism deny both the authority of Scripture and the supernatural character of the Gospel, and having grown tired of the world-denial of fundamentalism, Carl Henry and the "neo-evangelicals" understandably wanted to unite around all that they had in common. Where there had been minority groups opposed to liberalism in each mainline denomination, fundamentalism and later Evangelicalism nobly sought to bring these refugees together.

Please note that we are admitting that this attempt was both understandable and noble. But, as we see it, it suffered from at least two major problems. One of these was inherent in the vision; the other developed over time. First, the nature of "minimalism" (focusing almost exclusively on that which we share) can lead people to believe that matters about which we differ (the Sacraments for instance) actually don't matter at all. Over time, this tends to undermine people's identification with particular church bodies. "Joe" conceives of himself less as Reformed and more as evangelical, as if the two are competing loyalties.

Again, we must be clear about what we are not saying: We are not denying the importance of identification across denominations. After all, fostering a type of pan-Protestant coalition is exactly what the Alliance exists to do. But this Alliance is not the church; it neither administers the Sacraments nor exercises discipline. It isn't a preaching ministry either; instead, it aims to teach about-and recall people to-the basics of the Reformation. This Alliance, like much of what Evangelicalism originally sought to be, is important, but it is not the church, and it shouldn't displace the church. For it is to membership in the visible Church which Christ calls us.

The second problem with Evangelicalism relates to the first, but shouldn't be totally imputed to its founders. Refugees from liberalism knew what they had in common and why they were coming together, so they didn't see the need to define and confess the entire substance of the faith. They focused instead on defending the Bible and the supernatural generally. It simply didn't occur to this first generation of neo-evangelicals that the very reason the Bible and the supernatural needed to be defended-that is, for the sake of the Gospel-might be forgotten over time. But by not directly subscribing to historic confessions of faith, by not connecting sufficiently to the older traditions of the Church, the substance that these brave pioneers affirmed implicitly was not passed on to their children and grandchildren.

Sociological conceptions of an evangelical (a conversion experience, belief in personal prayer, affirmation of moral absolutes, particular political policy positions, etc.) began to replace the common theological substance that had defined an evangelical. In other words, minimalism was troubling enough, but undefined minimalism led to a devolution of even the limited theology that was originally held in common by the first generation neo-evangelicals. In our day, it is not at all clear what an evangelical affirms about the work of Christ in the salvation of sinners. So what is the point of being an "evangelical" at all?

Multiple Identities as Concentric Circles

In dissent from many of today's evangelical leaders, we believe that the label "evangelical" should communicate a certain set of precise theological convictions. Being an evangelical shouldn't be a sociological category-communicating things about political beliefs or musical preferences. Instead, "evangelical" should be thought of as a "genus" category, with the "species" being particular denominational traditions that are faithful to historic Protestantism.

To make this more concrete: Justification and the Sacraments are both very important, but not equally important. So I have two obligations: My first obligation is to membership in the visible Church of Christ, where I am hearing the preached Word announce forgiveness in Christ, where I am receiving the Sacraments, and where I am being taught to obey all that Christ commanded. (These three together constitute the Great Commission Christ gave to the Church.) Yet, it is also important for both the health of the invisible church and her witness to the watching world that we have an understanding of-and an ability to articulate-that which all historic Protestants confess in common across denominations-namely, the five "solas" or "only's" of the Reformation: sola Scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, soli Deo gloria. In other words, even if two traditions differ over important matters such as church polity or the interpretation of the Lord's Supper, that does not mean that they must deny those matters on which they do agree. Evangelicalism is that broader circle in which they still share a common-though shallower-identity. It is the context in which they clarify their agreements and disagreements, both possibly for their own correction and for the benefit of the watching world.

Yet this pan-Protestant coalition cannot undermine the coherence of particular theological traditions, for these traditions are deeper than the broad evangelical coalition and must not be sacrificed to it. So, as Dr. Godfrey says, in the new Evangelicalism, we talk honestly about our differences, allowing us then to cherish even more all that we have in common. Though the Alliance is criticized by some self-defined "bridge-building" evangelicals as being narrow and divisively dogmatic, we are actually one of the broadest coalitions in Evangelicalism. We are just honest about who we are in our churches before we come together in this extra-ecclesiastical coalition. Lutherans don't have to pretend that they are really Baptists to be accepted.

In MR, we have writers from Congregationalist, Baptist, Anglican, Reformed, and Lutheran communions, from both mainline and evangelical denominations. We have representatives from so many traditions not because there aren't important differences between these traditions, but because there are-in spite of these differences-important doctrines that unite them as well. As has been stated, this unity is most clearly defined by the "solas" of our forerunner evangelicals (literally, "believers in the Gospel"): the reformers of the sixteenth century.

Wanted: Thoughtful Laypeople

MR is a magazine rather than a journal, because it is not for specialists exclusively but for general readers interested in theology. But it is a theological magazine, and as thinking theologically requires work for fallen humanity, new readers should know that it will require some work. As thoughtful reading is often a challenge today, though, we have difficulty finding people interested in the work required to consider even the essentials, let alone the nonessentials. Thinking theologically-that is, thinking about God-is not popular in our day. So students-undergraduate students, seminarians, graduate students, and their professors-are our starting point. But it is our hope that all thoughtful evangelicals will view themselves as students interested in learning about the God who speaks and saves. That is, we hope that all evangelicals will classify themselves within our target audience.

To say that the magazine is about theology is not to say that sociology and culture will never be considered. Instead, it means that our unity will be based on a shared theology rather than a shared sociology. We will consider nontheological matters from time to time. For instance, we have often explored the challenges of commercialism in our age, because commercialism presents a challenge to Christian orthodoxy and ecclesiology-but we often disagree as we analyze this topic. Similarly, though we don't consider politics much, we often disagree when we discuss politics. And that is fine, because being a Republican is not a prerequisite for membership in this community. But we do have much important agreement-agreement which begins with the "solas." This is our common point of contact as we then explore other (still important) theological and cultural matters about which we are free to disagree.

This brings us back to Modern Reformation's two purposes: 1) teaching individuals about historic Protestant theology; and 2) creating a community of Protestants who take their particular church bodies and confessions very seriously, and (not "but") take their pan-Protestant, evangelical identity seriously as well. Simply put: our hope is that MR will serve as the mouthpiece for this new type of Evangelicalism, a "confessing Evangelicalism."

Consider this your invitation to the community. In the light of eternity, we hope that interacting with the discourse here may be one of the better investments of your time.

1 [ Back ] Media critics have recently noted the tendency of newspapers and weekly magazines to highlight in print exactly what time the previous night their Web site first reported a given story. The convergence of technology is clearly leading even the most reputable of print sources to compete with the frantic pace of twenty-four hour cable news. Longer run perspectives and topics not as hospitable to sixty second stories and an assault of images (e.g., theology) are necessarily squeezed from such an environment.
Thursday, July 5th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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