Friday, January 20, 2012

Of Nice and Men

By virtue of the generosity of two men, namely, Dr. D. G. Hart and Dr. R. S. Clark, do I present to you this article on a perennially relevant topic that once appeared nowhere outside of the Nicotine Theological Journal. The article was featured in the October 2005 issue.

Of Nice and Men

In a recent foreword to a book advocating Norman Shepherd's peculiar brand of covenant theology, John Frame attacks some of Shepherd's critics as "stupid, irresponsible and divisive." Apparently, someone complained about Frame's lack of civility, so he issued an apology, which the publisher slipped into the front cover of the book, a sort of moral errata sheet, saying that he should not have described those (including "official statements of two small denominations,") who say that Shepherd's doctrine denies the gospel as stupid. By way of mitigation, he appeals to Calvin, "who used such expressions rather freely." He says that he knows he is risking his reputation as a "peacemaker" by using strong language.

According to Frame, some of Shepherd's critics merit condemnation, because they have not met the "extraordinary burden of proof" warranting their charge that Shepherd's doctrine of justification denies the gospel. What is the burden of proof for calling someone stupid? Presumably, one must have some objective standard, such as unsuitability (e.g., drafting an elderly woman to be a major league shortstop) or unreasonable danger of harm (e.g., willfully standing in front of a moving truck). Frame does not either supply us with criteria or evidence beyond his implied syllogism: Shepherd is orthodox; intelligent people (such as Frame) can see that; ergo, those critics who question his orthodoxy must be stupid. The reader will be excused for doubting the soundness of the syllogism. The first premise is the very one in question.

Did Calvin meet Frame's "extraordinary burden of proof"? After all, in his commentary on Galatians, Calvin described the Roman doctrine of justification as "another gospel." Yet, official Roman doctrine affirms everything Frame has (and selectively quotes) Shepherd as saying on justification. Frame might object that Rome vitiates the good in their doctrine by what they add to it. Yes, and Shepherd does the same, hence the criticisms.

It is also interesting that Frame, writing as a private person, feels free to dismiss not one but two Reformed and Presbyterian denominations as "stupid, irresponsible and divisive." He mentions two grounds for this assessment: first, only two denominations have thus far spoken; second, they are small. This is not intended as a set up for a joke, but how many Presbyterian denominations must condemn Shepherd before Frame will reckon them as thoughtful, responsible and unifying? How large must a denomination be in order to warrant consideration? On Frame's rationale, Athanasius, who had considerably fewer supporters after Nicea than Shepherd has critics, should have been rejected. Imagine all the good the church might have done had they not spent so much energy wrangling over one iota.

Beyond the doctrinal aspects of this controversy are questions about the morality of Christian rhetoric. It is becoming increasingly difficult to have a vigorous, honest, and even, manly, theological argument anymore. Frame's apology is evidence of this trend. Remarkably, the foreword appears in a book published by theonomists, not noted hitherto for delicate prose. Why should Frame apologize? He obviously believes that some of Shepherd's critics are "stupid, irresponsible and divisive." He believes it but someone thinks he should not have said it, but why not?

The attempted bridling of Frame represents an unhappy trend in Christian speech. For St Paul, the greatest virtue is "love." For contemporary Protestants, however, the greatest is "niceness." They are not the same. As a matter of rhetoric, this trend is troubling. To begin every sentence of criticism with bromides such as, "That is a very interesting and challenging point, but. . ." is tedious and condescending. It is tedious because it replaces the genuine and serious with the insubstantial and sometimes insincere. I doubt that Augustine ever began a sentence, "Pelagius is a very creative and thoughtful theologian, but . . ." He did not say it because he did not believe it. Augustine thought Pelagius a threat to the welfare of souls and he said so (and no, I am not comparing Shepherd or Frame to Pelagius). Because of the power, truth, and passion of his criticisms of Pelagius – he called him "blind" and "deceitful"– they hold up and continue to command our attention. Phony chumminess hardly deserves attention now let alone 1,500 years from now.

Some would have it that Frame's language is immoral because it may damage the subject. More thoughtful thought police argue that such speech is wrong because it devalues the humanity of the subject. To the contrary, sometimes strong language actually affirms the humanity of the subject. It is because humans are made in God's image and endowed with a rational soul, that one expects certain things of them.

The sort of Protestant niceness operating now is morally problematic because it threatens to place the Christian above Christ and the apostles. As Frame himself indicates, rhetoric of the type so objectionable today is a part of the biblical pattern for dealing with doctrinal and moral error. Our Lord used quite pointed language about the enemies of the kingdom. Jesus attacked them as "hypocrites," (Matt 23:13), sons "of hell" (v.15) and "fools," (v.17), this from him who issued the command against calling someone a "fool" in (Matt 5:22). St. Paul warned the Philippians to "watch out for the dogs," (3:2), i.e., for the Judaizing legalists who were corrupting the gospel. What burden of proof did Paul meet before he wrote? (Hint: "Inspiration" is cheating.) Was he "divisive"? In Paul's context, "dog" was rather worse than "stupid."

It is uncertain exactly what Frame's burden of proof is, but I think the apostle has met a reasonable burden of proof. He already established that Christ is the ground of our righteousness (Phil 2:5-10). He justifies his description by contrasting the Judaizing arrogance with Christian trust in Christ's finished work (3:3). The attempt to supplement Christ's obedience with their own deserved an ironic rebuke. The Judaizers were "dogs." They made unclean (the justified) what was already clean. They considered the uncircumcised "unclean," but in reality they were corrupting the gospel, and so unclean and worthy of the denunciation, "dogs." Like the Judaizers, Shepherd has repeatedly and publicly rejected the biblical doctrine that faith justifies solely because it trusts Christ. It is hard to see why it is stupid to conclude that Shepherd denies the gospel.

Frame may not agree that Shepherd is teaching another gospel, but if a minister is convinced that Shepherd is indeed committing a grievous and harmful error (like that of Gal 1:7-9), he is duty bound to warn the church. If a minister fails to discharge his sworn duty before God and the church, he will be guilty of something worse than stupidity.

R. S. Clark

1 comment:

  1. As you know, I stopped by your place. There is a photo at Calvinistic Cartoons. Really enjoyed the visit.


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