Challies on Colson: Man, Please

Charles Colson died last week at the age of 82.

Colson was a top Nixon aide and served a lengthy term in prison for his involvement in Watergate.  While in prison, he became a Christian and got the vision for Prison Fellowship, an organizatin he would later found to transform the lives of prisoners and their families.

Colson was a well-respected writer, speaker, and thinker.  His BreakPoint radio broadcasts saturated the Christian airwaves for three-plus decades and formed a generation of evangelicals in regards to their approach to engaging politics and secular culture.  More often than not, these broadcasts were simply ultra-conservative diatribes against perceived moral outrages that closely followed the Republican National Committee’s talking points for the week in question.  Colson himself expressed regret for this approach to political engagement in later years.

Colson also sought to engage with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.  Projects such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together and The Manhattan Declaration were creative, albeit flawed, attempts to find common ground with Catholics and Orthodox.  This part of Colson’s legacy is apparently too much for Reformed blogger Tim Challies to stomach.

While Challies does not call Colson an outright villain, he nonetheless echoes the concerns of Reformed leaders like R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur, and others that Colson’s work in this regard served to undermine the Gospel.

The fact is that as we remember this man, we remember someone who labored to strike a significant blow against the gospel, and who time and again called on the church to do the same. And this is what is absent in so many remembrances. He labored for good and positive causes, but he also labored for outright sinful causes.

…In these ways and others, Colson undermined the gospel. He may not have set out to do this and he may not even have understood that he was doing this, but it remains the fact of the matter. ECT and The Manhattan Declaration stand as two prominent and public testaments to his willingness to tamper with the purity of the gospel. These things really happened and they both had the potential to be very, very destructive to the church because each one called into question the gospel, the very heart of the Christian faith.

Man, please.

We can critique ECT and The Manhattan Project for manifesting a bare-bones, lowest-common-denominator ecumenism that offers nothing of substance.  We can critique them for seeking an engagement that is tied too intimately with political priorities and the culture war.  All of the above may be true.  But to call the whole enterprise a “sinful cause” because it runs contrary to your understanding of the Gospel?

There is much that divides Catholics and Protestants.  One of the central issues is the question of justification:  Is Christ’s merit alone sufficient to cover all our sins, or is that just legal fiction?  (Okay, so the actual Catholic and Protestant views of justification may be more complex and nuanced, but I think you get the idea here.)  At the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church declared that the Protestant answer to this question is anathema.  Alas, that anathema remains in effect today and it remains a huge stumbling block to Christian unity.

This and other issues of contention are very serious matters and are not to be glossed over lightly.  But does this make a “sinful cause” of any attempt to engage with Catholics that does not degenerate into all-out mob-style warfare over Trent and Romans 1?

Man, please.

Other perspectives on Colson:

Challies’ piece is quite tame compared to the diatribe that Frank Schaeffer posted at his blog, in which he denounced Colson as “an evangelical homophobic anti-woman leader”.  Don’t hold back, Frank.  Tell us how you really feel.

David Sessions at The Daily Beast offers a retrospective of Colson that focuses on his “culture war” approach and how that transformed evangelicalism’s way of engaging the secular world.

Mainlines: You Have an Opportunity Here

Mainline churches:  You have a HUGE opportunity here.

It is staring you right in the face.

And a lot of you are letting it slip away.

There are an awful lot of post-evangelicals running around out there.  Many have left evangelicalism altogether but many are still in evangelical churches, perhaps hoping that they can use such influence as they may have to change things for the better or perhaps because they just don’t know where to go next.  They are weary of the incessant shallowness that they see in evangelicalism–the high-intensity praise bands with crazy light shows that play nothing but the latest CCM, the pastors who spend every waking moment attempting (and failing miserably) to be fashionally relevant with people who were still in diapers when they finished seminary, the increasing prevalence of “Biblical preaching” that is really all about whatever political/moral/theological bone your pastor may have to pick with the world at large or principles for better dating/parenting/marriage/finances/life, the persistent marginalization of the sacraments and especially the Eucharist in favor of such preaching–I could keep going here but I think you get the idea.  They want desperately to connect with something that is more ancient and historical, where preaching and engagement with theological issues are at a much greater depth, where the sacraments and especially the Eucharist are valued rightly, where the traditions and practices of the historical Church down through the centuries are valued rightly.

Mainlines:  You have SO MANY of these things.  If you could figure out a way to reach out to these post-evangelicals, your churches would all be bursting at the seams right now.

But this won’t just happen of its own accord.  They won’t just show up on your doorstep on their own.  You will have to want them, and to do some things differently in order to meet them at least partway.

–First, you will have to show that you take the Bible seriously.

This one is very important, so I am going to pause here and go off on a rant.  And I am going to push pretty hard, so be warned.

A lot of evangelicals and post-evangelicals, myself included, were initially drawn to evangelicalism because it takes the Bible seriously–or at least talks a very good game about taking the Bible seriously.  We believe that the Bible is true and real, not just a collection of feel-good devotional sayings for use on Hallmark cards but rather something to be heard, believed, and obeyed.  We very strongly feel the force of passages such as 1 Corinthians 15:17-20:

If Christ has not been raised [the death and resurrection of Christ is the central theme to which all of Scripture points], your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

We cannot and will not accept that Jesus Christ was just a good moral teacher who said some good things that will make the world a better place if people pay attention to them.  We will not accept that the Resurrection is nothing more than something that happens in our hearts or that it is symbolism for how the spirit of Jesus’ teachings lives on.  We believe that the Resurrection is something that actually happened.  If it didn’t happen, why give money away to help those who are less fortunate?  Why stay in a difficult marriage–or even be married at all?  Why be ethical in the workplace?  Why not just say “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”?

The Bible has many difficult and problematic parts.  You may have trouble accepting that Jonah really got swallowed up by a whale or that a loving God approved the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians by the Israelites.  Lots of Christians have struggled with these issues and many others down through the centuries of church history.  There are many possible ways to think through these issues.  You may struggle with these issues and never get any resolution for as long as you live, and that’s okay too.  But the one thing you must NOT do is say “The Bible doesn’t REALLY say that.  Those people are primitives who didn’t know what they were talking about.  They wrote this stuff down hundreds and in some cases thousands of years after the events they were describing, so who knows if this is really what it is supposed to say?”  That option is not open to you.

You mainlines have a longstanding reputation among us for dismissing the supernatural and miraculous elements of our faith and reducing the Bible to something that is not worth anything except as a collection of sentimental, devotional sayings for use on Hallmark cards.  A lot of this is due to stereotypes formed by rants about “those godless liberal” mainlines, but unfortunately there are many places where this reputation is richly deserved.

You will have to show us that the stereotypes are wrong.  You will have to show us that you value the Bible as something more than just a book full of sentimental Hallmark-card sayings.  You will have to show us that you value the Resurrection more than the latest pronouncement from the Jesus Seminar gang or the latest Discovery Channel special showing that the Resurrection is just a fabrication and there is nothing more to Jesus than just a few nice sayings and a box of bones somewhere (we don’t know where but by God we’ll find it one of these days).

Okay.  End of rant.

–Your emphasis on diversity and inclusiveness is one of your strong points.  But you will have to show that this extends to people who hold theologically and politically conservative viewpoints.  In many places you have made it known that those on the left are very welcome in your churches, those on the right…uh, not so much.

We aren’t all the intolerant pricks you have made us out to be, though some of us may hold views that you find intolerable.  I know there are a lot of negative stereotypes about those who hold conservative viewpoints, and in many instances those stereotypes are extremely well-deserved.  But if you will just reach out and listen to us and figure out ways to have an actual conversation, I think you may find that a lot of us will be willing to at least listen to you.  And who knows, you may even win some of us over.

–You will have to show that you are intentional about missions, outreach, and evangelism.  These things are very strong priorities in evangelicalism.

We feel very strongly that the Christian message has implications for every person on the face of the earth, and that all people need to hear it.  Our means of getting the Christian message out there aren’t always the best.  In many places evangelicalism has committed itself to methods that dilute, cheapen, misrepresent, and/or distort the Christian message horribly.  But that does not in any way alter the reality that all people need to hear the Christian message.  We want to know that you share our sense of urgency about this and are willing to partner with us in this.

–Whatever you do, do NOT fall into the trap of trying to grow your churches by becoming imitators of the worst aspects of evangelical culture for the sake of “relevance”.

Mainlines:  You have an opportunity here.  Please do not let it pass you by.

Frank Schaeffer, the son of iconic evangelical activist Francis Schaeffer who left his family’s evangelicalism, echoes many of these sentiments.  He offers examples of mainline churches that are doing creative things to reach out to post-evangelicals and wonders why their efforts aren’t being replicated on a larger scale.  Read “Missing the ‘Mainline’ Protestant Opportunity”

Michael Spencer echoed similar sentiments in a piece he did a few years back.  Read what he has to say

Recommended Good Friday Reading: Al Hsu on Psalm 22

On the cross, Jesus cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  (Mark 15:34)  This line is the focal point of many a Good Friday service.  It is profoundly disturbing, because of the implication that in that moment God the Father turned his back on Jesus.

Christians have wrestled with this for a long time.  One of the more common views is that Jesus, on the cross, in that moment, was bearing all the sin of humanity.  But a holy and righteous God, good though He may be, still cannot stand to look upon sin.  Even if it is His own Son who is bearing it and it is not His own sin but the sin of all humanity that He bears innocently in humanity’s stead.  So God turned away from Jesus and forsook Him, albeit for only that moment.

Simple though this explanation is theologically, it is still very disturbing.  For one, there is the idea that there was a moment in time when the Trinity was divided and rent asunder, when there was nothing but a gaping void in the place where the Son ought to have been in the Trinity.  What do we do with that?  Even if that state of affairs lasted for only a moment, we still must come to grips the fact that the Trinity was divided and one of its members was lost.

Even more disturbing than this is the idea that God forsook His Son.  If God could forsake and abandon His only begotten Son whom He loves more than anything, even if just for a moment, what is to stop Him from forsaking any of us at any moment?

Al Hsu at Christianity Today argues that this view is misguided.  Jesus’ cry of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” was not a cry of desolation or forsakenness, even though it may have felt like that at the time.  Instead it was an allusion.  It was intended to have the same effect that saying “I have a dream”, “I am not a crook”, or “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” would have upon us today–you would hear that introductory line and think of the entire work that it came from (in these cases, MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, or Dickens’ “A Tale Of Two Cities”).

And in this case, the work Jesus was referencing was Psalm 22.  Any devout Jew would have heard that line and immediately been able to recite all the words following it.  Now there were no chapters or verses in the Scripture back then–those are relatively modern innovations–so in order to reference a particular psalm you couldn’t just cry out “Psalm 22!!!”  You had to recite at least the first line.

Psalm 22 was a poignant lament written by David.  In it David expressed abject abandonment and forsakenness, but in the end confidence that God would be there for him and he would be vindicated.  Many believed that it pointed to the then-coming Messiah.  So it was as if Jesus was shouting out for all to hear, “See!!!  This is fulfilled in your presence today!!!!!”

Read Al Hsu’s article on Psalm 22 at Christianity Today

Michael Spencer on the Christian Worldview

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post from Michael Spencer in which he discusses the unresolved tensions of evangelicalism, specifically with regard to the Christian worldview (or the Biblical worldview, or whatever you care to call it).

The Christian worldview claims to be the absolute truth.  As a Christian, your highest and most daunting assignment is to assimilate this into all your thinking and beliefs.  This does not just involve studying, interpreting, or applying the Bible, though that is part of it.  Rather it involves going all the way down to the basic ideas and presuppositions that underlie the whole Bible–these can be easily deduced by honest reading of the Bible–and bringing ALL of your thinking and beliefs into line with these.

At the core of the Biblical worldview is the presupposition of an inerrant Bible.  The Bible is completely and totally accurate in all its depictions of any subject that it touches upon–science, psychology, human nature, parenting, education, financial planning, history, the end times–you name it.  If you are a committed evangelical then you will have to have an answer for questions such as:  Did God really create the earth in seven days?  Did the sun really stand still that day at Jericho?  Does God really order the slaughter of innocent women and children?  Any deviation from the accepted view of what the Bible says on these questions, and you don’t believe the Bible.  If the Bible is not totally correct in all its depictions of history and science or its answers to questions of psychology, finance, education, etc., then it can’t be trusted when it claims that Jesus rose from the dead and He is our only hope for salvation from our sins and reconciliation with God.  Why?  Because the Bible stands or falls as a whole.  We are not free to pick and choose the parts we like and leave the rest, because that would put us in the place of God and reduce the Bible to an object of our examination, manipulation, and dissection.  We are not to raise ourselves up into the place of God, rather, we are to submit to what the Bible says because it is God’s word to us.

Well, enough ranting from me.  Read what Michael Spencer has to say on the Christian worldview.