Monday, December 14, 2009

'JI' - 2

In the last Taking a Line I tried to set out the case (as I see it) for Packer’s adherence to the Church of England in its present state, drawn as far as possible from his own published writings. JI believes that these arguments, on Puritanism, on mental error, and on the Enlightenment and catholicity, have considerable strength. In addition there is one further argument, a fourth argument, that we shall meet shortly. He deploys these arguments because of a prior position he takes on the permissibility of adherence to a ‘comprehensive’ church. It is only because of this commitment to comprehensiveness, now understood as including the toleration of a very wide spectrum of Christian theological opinion, even (as it seems to be in Packer’s own case) a somewhat reluctant and painful adherence to it, that the other arguments are brought in to support it. They form the centre-piece of his defence of his adherence to Anglicanism, and they are argued with great vigour and conviction.

Two of these arguments, the argument from the Enlightenment and catholicity, and the possibility of mental error, are used to strengthen the legitimacy of adherence to the Church of England as it currently stands. By contrast, the argument about the varieties of Puritan ecclesiology is an attempt to legitimise JI’s own position on Puritanism in the eyes of ‘Puritan’ ministers of a separatistic hue. But even if one accepts these arguments, as Packer does, he nevertheless thinks that the decision whether or not to ‘separate’ could go either way. Remember what he wrote (I reproduce the passage in full)

I do not maintain (I had better say this outright) that choosing to be an Anglican is a virtue, or that choosing not to be one or not to stay one is a vice. Choice, we saw, is necessary, and anyone may conclude that, rather than be Anglican, Methodist, Baptist Union or United Reformed (all which bodies are doctrinally mixed), he should join one of the smaller groups (Brethren, Pentecostals, Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, Reformed Baptists, Free Church of Scotland, etc.) which debar from the ranks of their teachers anyone holding ‘critical’ views of Scripture or rejecting major evangelical tenets. To be sure, some think these smaller bodies purchase doctrinal purity at the price of theological stagnation, and are cultural backwaters out of touch with society around, just as some think Anglican allegiance is an unholy identification with cultural privilege, ecclesiastical worldliness and theological indifferentism. But these matters are arguable both ways, and neither estimate need be accepted. More important is respect for the other man’s deliberate decision, whether or not it coincides with your own. (Ark)

Note: the decision is a forced one; but neither view is virtuous, or vicious; the separation issue is arguable either way: separation and possible stagnation, or Anglican allegiance and the charge of indifferentism. What matters above all is that each respects the other. If the coin comes down in favour of the comprehensive Church of England rather than for the decidedly uncomprehensive Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (say), then let it be so. Don’t bother tossing the coin again hoping for a different, more ‘principled’, outcome. There isn’t one.

There is something a bit odd about this procedure, which makes me wonder if I’ve understood Dr Packer’s position. Packer offers substantive arguments, as we have seen, for his course of action, but at the same time he holds that the opposite course of action may be equally viable, or equally virtuous.

The arguments from the Enlightenment and catholicity, and from mental error are (Packer holds) substantial. Yet according to him they yield a point of view which could easily have gone the other way. It’s as if you recognise the force of these arguments, but nevertheless toss a coin, which lands on its edge. Which way shall I knock it over? Packer’s attitude to this question seems to be one of indifference or near-indifference: you may knock it one way – the way to Anglican comprehensiveness – or you can knock it the other – the way of evangelical separatism. As if to prove this, two of JI’s heroes, Calvin and Owen, were certainly ‘catholic’ in their outlook, (though of course pre-Enlightenment), in the sense that they saw themselves standing in the line of, and inheriting the theological outlook of the ‘catholic church’, but nonetheless they were hardly the friends of comprehensiveness.

I suspect that at the root of the toleration of others implied by comprehensiveness is the contrast in outlook between a church and a sect which JI touches on in the quotation above, but does not develop. Packer’s conviction is that the Christian faith not only serves the special interests of Christians who agree together, but that it ought to serve the wider concerns of society and the state, and of other, discordant Christians. A church is concerned not only with those who loyally and conscientiously attend it, the inner circle, but also with those who are on the periphery, and with the society and culture that the church is situated in. There is need to address society and the culture, to be sure, but also to listen and learn from it. Addressing and listening keeps one on one’s toes, as well as enlivening and refreshing the mind. For such reasons the Christian Church must remain on speaking terms with the culture and with those who influence it, and as a consequence be willing to suffer and to be snubbed and misunderstood as the price of this.

Nevertheless, this procedure seems weird: to offer arguments which you regard as strong but allow them to yield only a permissive conclusion.

But maybe JI wishes to be heard as saying: ‘For my part it does not matter which way the penny falls as far as the bonds of fellowship between true Reformed evangelicals are concerned’. But that does not sound right, either. It hardly seems cricket to treat
arguments as weaker than you believe them to be in order to extend a hand to those who do not rate these arguments at all, or as highly. Does JI rate these arguments, or does he not?

Let’s have another go. Perhaps JI believes that the arguments are strong, but that their strength should not be trumpeted. He regards the position as weighty, but does not wish to present it as being as weighty as it is. That’s perhaps why he cannot say outright ‘the catholicity and Enlightenment, mental error and Puritan arguments are strong. They ground my conviction that the Church of England is the place to be, the boat to fish from. But this does not mean that I cannot do things together with my separatist friends.’ For as he mulls over this position the following thought may occur to him: 'but they might not want to do things with me'. So it is possible that for the sake of holding hands across the separatist-comprehensiveness divide JI has deliberately (or un-selfconsciously) allowed these arguments to be understated so as not unnecessarily to irritate or offend those from whom he differs on such matters. (If this is his deliberate policy, then he might by now be inclined to believe that such an exercise of forbearance has hardly been reciprocated).

This interpretation may be reinforced by observing that JI could harden or strengthen his position by another argument which he certainly finds appealing, but which in the literature that I have read he certainly does not push.

This, which earlier I referred to as the fourth argument, is a rebuttal of an argument for separation that one might called the ‘compromise by involuntary contagion’ view, held by his separatist friends, or some of them. Some separatists argue that comprehensiveness is per se corrupting because in a comprehensive church one is immediately contaminated by error and heresy. To which Packer replies ‘the “guilt by association” argument touches no one who explicitly dissociates himself from the errors concerned’.(Ark) To live in a church that tolerates a variety of views is no more a recipe for catching their contagion than to live in a society which practices toleration is necessarily to be infected by the views tolerated. One might tolerate other views under protest.

It is important to highlight a fallacy that is sometimes committed in discussions about compromise. It may be hinted at or suggested that the advocacy of compromise is itself an act of compromise. It may be. But of course it is not necessarily the case, as JI recognises. A person may advocate toleration – a classic case of compromise – from a position of principle, as say John Milton or John Stuart Mill did. So comprehensiveness may be defended as a principled position even though it might make life more difficult than otherwise. And JI certainly underlines that fact by continually opposing false teaching in the Anglican Communion, as in ‘Keep Yourselves From Idols’ and in his more recent arguments on gender and ministry. Yet though he is committed to each of these positions, the ‘under protest’ argument and the ‘not involuntarily contaminated’ argument, nevertheless they do not figure very prominently in the statement of his anti-separatist position.

So, summing up, it seems to me that JI has a number of serious arguments for adhering to the present Anglican church, but that he deliberately understates them, as well as understating his opposition to an argument for separatism. He does this (I surmise) in an effort to keep open the channels of fellowship and cooperation between himself (and those who think like him), and their separatist evangelical friends.

The view from the pew

Now I wish to consider the following question: for whom is the decision between separation and comprehensiveness a forced one? In the last post we looked particularly at what Packer has written about comprehensiveness in his pamphlet A Kind of Noah’s Ark, quoting it at length. It is noteworthy that that pamphlet is addressed to an imaginary young man, Joe, seeking advice on ordination to the Christian ministry. What Packer then offers, the substance of the argument of the pamphlet, is professional advice for such a student. For an evangelical who is called to the ministry cannot dodge the comprehensiveness question, even though which way he goes may (in Packer’s view) be a matter of judgment which might equally well go the other way.

The whole issue of separation, including the business over the Puritan Conference, was and is essentially conducted from the point of view of ministers of the gospel. And it is routinely analysed exclusively from that point of view. It is largely conducted as a clerical dispute over matters which are, understandably enough, of crucial importance to ministers and their families, but (I shall suggest) of importance to them alone. The question that must be answered by any intending minister is, in what sort of Christian church can I communicate the gospel? If questions of churchmanship and ecclesiastical allegiance matter, then answering that question has enormous consequences for the personal and family life of the minister, for his sphere of influence, and for how his understanding of the Christian gospel will develop.

But what of the ‘ordinary Christian’ who sits (with his family) in the pew or on the chairs, and who seeks to have his faith built up through the means of grace, and to serve Christ and his church locally? It is easy to see that for such people ‘separation’, as a matter of personal decision, is nothing like as important as it is for his minister. For them it is rarely if ever a forced decision. Why is this?

There is first the fact of the waning of denominational strength and distinctives. I reckon that the call to ‘Come out of your mixed denominations’, to form a new association of separatist local congregations cuts little or no ice with most ordinary Christians nowadays. For better or for worse such people are consumers of evangelical religion and retailers of it on a local scale. Primarily they look for Bible teaching and the propounding of evangelical doctrine with a contemporary application, and to receiving pastoral care from ministers who are approachable. If they read at all, they read books from a variety of authors and download pods and browse sites and listen to music from all over. The bishops of the Church of England may meet together to discuss world poverty or the ethical problems raised by trans-sexuality, or ministers meet in conclave in the Westminster Conference, furrowing their brows over the varieties of Arminianism or the evils of Finneyism. But these are of vanishingly small importance to the rank and file of evangelical Christians compared to a minister’s own character and general theological outlook and how he fulfils his ministry in their own congregation. Perhaps it ought not to be so, but it is.

There is also the fact that in a society in which Islam is increasingly prominent Christians of various hues have a tendency to become more conscious of what they have in common rather than what divides them.

If for one reason or another such people become dissatisfied with their local church, they typically move along the road, to another church that will give them what they need, or provide an outlet for their own gifts. (I once heard of a couple who had attended the ministry of Dr Lloyd-Jones. When he left Westminster Chapel they gave up going to any church and worshipped at home, no doubt listening to the Doctor’s sermons on tape. But I suspect that that was a rather extreme case then, and decades later it would be even rarer.) People who are willing to move from congregation to congregation in this way quickly get used to the fact that they may have to recite a creed, or to sing an unaccompanied metrical psalm, and that the minister may wear funny clothes. Or – moving the other way - that the pews have given way to chairs, the prayers are spoken extempore, and the communion cup is in fact numerous little cups on a portable rack. (In fact such cultural markers are also getting eroded, at least in England, as evangelical Anglican adherence to a fixed liturgy and the funny clothes becomes slacker, and as it seems that the bulk of evangelical congregations tend towards a common mean.) An informal census of current church attenders would quickly confirm this impression, I believe.

When, venturing from the confines of their own congregation, Christians go to a rally or family conference to hear Don Carson or Sinclair Ferguson, Donald Macleod or Rico Tice, the question is not whether or not these chaps practice first degree or some other degree of separation, but whether they can open up the Scriptures in a way that informs and exhilarates and changes lives. Further, the Church of England is no longer the Tory Party at prayer, nor Dissent the Whig Party. (‘Dissent’? Dissent from what? The very word has gone out of use.) Once again, the issue here is not whether these trends are desirable or inevitable, but the need to recognise them as matters of fact.

Such church or chapel goers may, in addition, realise that when they or their church supports Tear Fund or the Christian Institute or the Wycliffe Bible Translators, for example, such organisations are similarly formed on a non-denominational or interdenominational basis. In addition to the ‘compromise’ that commitment to such a basis involves, they have also to ‘compromise’ to do their work. Tear Fund has to negotiate with government agencies, local suppliers, and the like. The Christian Institute has to ‘compromise’ in forming alliances with non-Christians In order to head off a piece of proposed legislation, say legislation that would make it a crime to make fun of someone’s religion. In order to train native workers, the Wycliffe Bible Translators has on occasion to become the Summer Institute of Linguistics. And so on.

Public and professional life, indeed all aspects of life, has to involve cooperation, a willingness to accept the second best, to becoming used to not getting one’s way all of the time. In such a world, the world of compromise, the idea of the forced exclusion of someone who has a different though overlapping view from others as to what ‘Puritanism’ means seems distinctly unappealing.