Friday, April 23, 2010

Two Conferences, Two views of Unity

[4/24 Addendum: this post is not an endorsement of the theology of NT Wright and his very problematic views of justification, which undermine our confidence and freedom in the individual salvation that comes through Christ alone through faith alone. The proponents of T4G are responding to men like Wright, and rightly so. My argument here is for a more winsome model of conversation between the two camps, saturated with speaking the truth in love and humility, not in a spirit of arrogant superiority.]

Brett McCracken, writing in Christianity Today reflects on his experience in attending both the "Together for the Gospel" conference in Louisville, and the NT Wright conference at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). His reflections (an opinion piece, to be sure, and not reflective of CT) resonate with my blog posts last week (see 4/14). McCracken writes:

But there is a fundamental difference between the approaches of each group to unity. At T4G, which this year had the theme "The (Unadjusted) Gospel," unity often means keeping the heresies out. To be unified is to fight "together for the gospel" against the inroads, questions, and reexaminations that some Christians are undertaking. Speakers at the Wheaton conference at times had points of real disagreement with Wright (though they were all clearly on board with his main points and themes). T4G, by contrast, was more like a club patting each other on the back for their mutual buttressing of the "unadjusted gospel" against threats from various corners.

For the T4G folks, protecting disputed doctrines against heresy is where good theology is born. Clear thinking comes from friction and protestation, from Hegelian dialectics (R.C. Sproul spoke on this), but not from compromise. The Patristic Fathers got it right whenever they were ironing out disputed doctrines and fighting against heresy, said Ligon Duncan in his talk. But on matters that were not disputed, he said, their thought sometimes got muddled up.

The exact opposite point was made at the Wheaton Conference by Kevin Vanhoozer, professor of systematic theology at Wheaton, who suggested that theologians like Wright (and, presumably Christians in general) are more often correct in matters they collectively affirm than in matters they dispute. This statement reflects the contrasting spirit of the Wheaton Conference as regards unity: It's what we affirm that matters. Are we on the same page on the core issues? Can we agree on the claims of the creeds? Yes? Then let's hash out the details of theological minutia (which is definitely important) in a spirited, friendly debate as the people of God exercising the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2).

[side note: I would take Vanhoozer over any of the T4G guys any day! His theological sophistication is only matched by his desire to participate in the theodrama of the gospel.]

McCracken concludes:

The highlight of T4G for me was the singing of classic hymns like "And Can it Be" and "It is Well" with 7,000 fervent voices all in one accord. And at the Wheaton conference, I was most moved by a final prayer in a packed auditorium where hands were laid on Wright as we prayed for him and his ministry. It strikes me that unity is most viscerally experienced in moments like this: singing songs together, praying in concert, in fellowship with one another.

What if both conferences had merged and two seemingly antagonistic groups of Christians put aside their differences for a few minutes to just sing (in both conferences the hymn "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" was sung), side-by-side, in worship of the triune God who gives the same grace through which all who follow Christ have been saved? That would be a unity the rulers of the world would truly be afraid of.

I think the "both conferences" kind of unity would be much more welcome from the Wheaton crowd than the Louisville crowd.

Brett McCracken blogs at The Search.

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