Thursday, January 21, 2010

What is happening to Intervarsity? A Rejoinder.

Over at 9Marks, J. Mack Stiles has written an article on "What's Happening to InterVarsity?" where he opines a slip into liberalism by both the university movement InterVarsity Fellowship (IVF) and the publishing house InterVarsity Publishing (IVP). I have several comments to make on this:

1. I wish to make a forthright affirmation of Stiles' remarks on the importance of knowing our mission and guarding the gospel. For instance, I agree that creation care is not our mission (though we are right to engage in it for the good of creation and the humanity that lives in it; and contra Stiles, Chris Wright provides a superb biblical theology of creation care in his book The Mission of God; Stiles doesn't seem to realize that only American evangelicals oppose measures to stem global warming which is due to a cultural bias rather than to a defensible theological position). Likewise, the gospel in every generation needs to be clearly stated, proclaimed, and allowed to permeate our theology. Similarly Stiles' exhortation about the fear of man and tendency towards pragmatism should be heeded. Like Stiles, I don't care much for those who try to caricature penal substitution as "divine child abuse" since that misrepresents the doctrine and ignores the Trinitarian nature of the atonement (still, I don't like Wayne Grudem's view of God getting "revenge" on Jesus and I wouldn't regard penal substitution as the interpretive centre of Christ's death [see Graham Cole's new book God the Peacmaker who makes the Christus Victor motif central, also by published by IVP). The importance of distinguishing between the gospel and its implications is also a valid point to be digested and practised less the gospel degenerate into social niceness!

2. I can relate to the experience of being in a religious studies department at a secular university. My evangelical beliefs were not always appreciated, but I was all the better for having to defend them in such a context and forced to think through my faith under a weight of criticism from all sectors. Though truth be told, it was the other postgrad students rather than my professors who were the most vociferous and irate antagonists. I did my honours and Ph.D in a department filled with people studying the religious significance of vampire legends in the middle age and Buddhist themes among the Beetniks. I know what it's like to be in a room with more fruit cakes than a Christmas party. Stiles also criticizes Schweitzer's book The Quest for the Historical Jesus as heretical. Now I did my Ph.D on the historical Jesus and let me tell you that there is a lot of great stuff in Schweitzer's book. He provided the most compelling and laudable criticism of liberal portraits of Jesus written in the last 200 years. He correctly puts eschatology at the forefront of studying Jesus. He regarded a lot more material in the Gospels as authentic than did many of his contemporaries like Harnack or Wrede. That said, his view of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet who got the time line for the end times wrong, I think, misunderstands Jesus' eschatology and the eschatology of Judaism as well for that matter. So is Schweitzer wrong? Definitely! But I'm not sure that heresy is best word here, since that word is ordinarily used for those who vitiated from the classic creeds of the church. I would point out that many commentators have said similar things about Mark 13:30 concerning "this generation" and Schweitzer was not the first nor the last to do that. Defending Schweitzer is not my point, it is when and where is it appropriate to use the language of "heresy". Most probably Schweitzer had other beliefs that would qualify as "heresy" in the proper sense, but his book on Jesus is more known for its critique of liberal heresies!

3. Stiles refers to an incident at George Washington University where the IVF chapter wished to allow a Catholic member to serve on their leadership team. See the CT write up by Colin Hansen and the response by Alec Hill. I believe in the Reformation and the only place you'll catch me saying "Hail Mary" is on the football field. But a categorical rejection of persons based on what building they walk into on Sunday strikes me as unfair. During my time in the Army I worked with Protestant and Catholic Chaplains. In some cases, the Protestant Chaplains did for the kingdom of God what Hannibal Lecter did for vegetarianism. While some of the Catholic Chaplains I worked with were very committed to daily Bible reading, prayer, worship, and even evangelism. I've also met Catholics who are very Protestant in their theology. I mean, go and read Jo Fitzmyer's Romans commentary on Rom 3:21-26 and you'll see what I mean. One of the best covenant theologians that I know, personally and from his work, is Scott Hahn. I know Priests who do not believe in papal infallibility. For me the big issue is not justification (though I categorically reject Trent, I believe that Augustine is a good place to try find some common ground), the problem is Pneumatology. The Roman Catholic Church has replaced the Holy Spirit with itself so that it is the ordained structures rather than the Spirit that mediates salvation. The IVF or UCCF doctrinal basis is sound enough as it is (it's broader and is more comprehensive than the ETS statement) and if someone can sign it in all honesty I don't see a problem. I would also point out that the IVF practice of being inclusive of mainline protestants and Catholics is similar to that used by the Billy Graham Association to this day. If someone can sign the IVF doctrinal statement and as long as they know what they are signing and what it means vis-a-vis their own denomination, I think that is fine. In some cases, particular constraints need to be observed, like not letting a person teach or propagate certain views at formal meetings if they are too controversial (e.g., assumption of Mary, theological support for Israel's destruction of Palestinian homes), although I would encourage open discussion in private or informal environments. Common sense should win through here. Ultimately, the Spirit blows where it wishes and it does not yield to human perspectives on which bits of real estate are worthy of worship at 11.00 a.m. on Sunday. What is at stake here is perhaps not theology, but sociology. Whether evangelicals are defined by what they are against and who they are separate from, or whether they are defined by what they are for, what experience they share together, and what doctrine that unites them. As John Wesley once said: "If your heart is the same as my heart, you can hold my hand!" Alas, the Holy Spirit might have a broader ecclesiology than many of us.

4. On IVP publishing, I think it is worth differentiating between IVP-USA and IVP-UK. They are partners, but they run their own operations, and their independence from each other should be recognized. I think Stiles is talking about IVP-USA, but let's not tarnish both with the same brush. I know the IVP teams on both sides of the Atlantic, I've published books with them and I plan to write more with them in the future. They are good Christian folks who love Jesus and the gospel as far as I can tell. Stiles objects to IVP publishing a book by N.T. Wright because it promotes a "quasi-Catholic view of justification". I cannot spare any more hair to pull out over this debate. I've currently writing an article for Five Views on Justification for (you guessed it) IVP where I contest Wright's reference to final justification "on the basis of a life lived" since it uses the wrong terminology to summarize the proper biblical teaching of justification according to works. That said, the official Catholic view of justification is based on a certain view of iustitia, a certain view of grace as a substance infused via the sacraments, a certain view of the human will, and a certain view the last judgment. N.T. Wright shares none of these things! The closest analogies to N.T. Wright's views on justification are Martin Bucer, Richard Baxter, and the Tetrapolitan confession - Reformed folk! The mention of the word "Catholic" activates feelings of Romophobia and its usage against N.T. Wright can only be rhetorical rather than factual. Both Guy Waters and Mark Seifrid recognize that Wright regards justification as forensic, and once you say "forensic" you cannot be Tridentine (round peg, square hole, it won't work)! Wright is only quasi-Catholic if by "quasi" you mean "non"! (Picture me banging my head against my desk at this point).

5. If complementarians are unwelcomed at IV(F/P) that is sad and disappointing, but I know a number of places where egalitarians aren't welcomed either. This shouldn't be an issue that divides para-church organizations, though churches may rightly feel the need to take a formal stand on the matter since it does effect the character of ordained ministry.

6. Stiles rejects the call from those within IV for "deeds not creeds". I agree it's awfully simplistic, prone to abuse, and promotes an anti-theological perspectives; but gosh, it does sound a heck of a lot like James 2!

7. On Bono speaking at Urbana, Stiles is probably right that we could get a heap of other people folk in to speak about AIDS, poverty, and creation care from a distinctive Christian perspective. I don't like Bono or celebrity do-gooders since they strike me as opportunistic. But God will reward every deed of righteousness at the final judgement, whether that's by Franklin Graham of Samaritan's Purse or by Bono and the UN. The inclusion of Bono at Urbana should perhaps be understood as an act of cultural engagement and not necessarily as pandering to pop star do-gooders who use causes to further their own publicity. Bono's appearing at Urbana is no worse than inviting a Republican Senator to a church to speak out against Obama's health care plan. Truth be told, I don't really care for either of them.

8. My biggest objection to the piece was its generalizations and hearsay. Who said "Deeds not Creeds"? Who is it that is playing off Jesus versus Paul? Who is this one guy who doesn't like God killing his Son? And if it was only one guy, well, would ya hold that against the whole outfit? I mean, are there guys at CBMW or T4G who might have some whacky views on certain topics? Probably. Can you in all fairness impute the failings of one or two against the whole national and international ministry? I think not.

9. A further problem is who is IVP's constituency? Is it complementarian, ESV-only, amillennial, anti-charismatic, pro-gun, credo-baptist, home schooling only folks? Perhaps those whom IVP represents and thus caters for is broader than what Stiles himself thinks it should be and that is the problem. The issue I have with conservative evangelicalism is that they don't mind people more conservative than them (and even tolerate strange and obscene views like KJV-only or Landmark views of baptism), but don't tolerate anyone a smidge to the left. Tolerance should extend to the left and to the right, and I would zealously insist also that the limits of tolerance should also be observed to the left and to the right of the Church's Creeds and Confessions as well. My point is that you cannot assume that everyone the left of you is a Schleiermachian liberal. Don't put an evangelical egalitarian in the same category as Paul Tillich as that is unfair. Save the rhetoric against liberalism for the real liberals and not those a skip to the left of you on any issue.

Let me end my affirming the centre of gravity of Stiles. The gospel matters: its clarity, integrity, and propagation. We cannot afford to pander at the pool of popularity or to regard the gospel as about something other than what it actually is: the good news of salvation by faith in the Lord Jesus who was crucified for our sins and raised for our redemption. We need to be evangelicals in the sense of making the "evangel" the centre and boundary of our theology. But we also need a Catholic vision of the church in all its diversity and breadth and see our unity in one Lord, one faith, and one baptism as opposed to finding unity in a shared uneasiness about what a few select "other" folk in the church are doing.

21 comments:

Paul J said...

Good post. Balanced.

Matt Page said...

I find the idea that Christianity can be reduced to a spectrum between ultra conservative at one end and ultra liberal at the other to be a gross oversimplification.

There are many more ways of being non-evangelical than to be a liberal. Not to mention the ways in which two people within the evangelical camp can find the other to be more conservative on one issue, but less so on another.

Matt

Joel Willitts said...

Mike Bird at his best!

Jeremy said...

Mike you write a pretty good article, but I think you are off in a couple of areas. I myself don't know what to think of global warming, but American evangelicals are certainly not the only ones who reject the theory. One of my favorite radio programs to listen to is one that airs in Chicago called Extension 720. The host, one of the most well-read and well-informed people I have ever heard, rejects the theory and has countless scientists and organizations on his show who agree. The host, Milt Rosenberg, is a secular Jew. The problem is that those who affirm man-made global warming have a lot of the power and prestige and restrict opposing voices without debate. Second, we must remember that Wright himself says that the differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism over justification are only differences in terminology and just slightly different ways of putting the matter. I am not sure by Protestantism if he means his Protestant view of justification or the historic position. You seem to think there is a sizable divide, but Tom doesn't.

MrErr said...

Mike, your best post so far. You are right that things like climate change and health care should not be relevant for us Christians. Unfortunately Christianity here in USA is very much caught in the culture. Only a few days ago "Christians" in this country were elated when a pro-choice senator won an election, only because he would oppose health reform. Yes we have lost our way here. You also wonder why people spend their time listening to secular Jews about climate change instead of the business of the Kingdom of God.

Chuck said...

Mike- Never read your stuff before- but you've won a fan. Its about time someone spoke some truth to the self-righteous 9Marks folk.

Jeremy said...

"Yes we have lost our way here. You also wonder why people spend their time listening to secular Jews about climate change instead of the business of the Kingdom of God." I pray, read my Bible, and eat a Christian form of Cheerios while listening to secular Jewish radio. Gotcha!

John Thomson said...

Mike

A good blog even if I have my reservations. I come, and this will come as no surprise to you, from a fairly conservative position. I am fairly sympathetic to 9Marks.

However, I take your point that we tend to have greater tolerance of those to our right than our left. One reason for this may be that the drift of evangelicalism in the UK at least is remorselessly to the left in one way or another, or so it seems to me. Leftwards seems almost the default defection. I don't see a real threat from a rising evangelical right. If I did I may be less tolerant of the right than I am.

Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful post.

gullchasedship said...

Great post, Mike!

AsianDragoman said...

Mike,
Sounds like you were never part of the IV Christian Fellowship. You are only writing from your theologian perspective. I was part of Intervarsity in college and got to witness this current crisis (at least in my region of U.S). I am just glad that Stiles is courageous to write the article.

No I am not an ESV-only, anti-charismatic, pro-gun, home schooling only type of guy who happens to be white. I am an NIV, anti-gun, pro-charismatic, public school type of guy who happens to be Asian American.

p.s. I wish Stiles talk about IV's problematic views on racial reconciliation that undermines the Gospel.

Calvin said...

From an InterVarsity staff worker: thank you very much for your even-handed assessment of Mack Stiles' and 9Marks' sometimes loving but even more off-base finger-pointing exercise.

Ross H. McKenzie said...

I met my wife in an Intervarsity group in the USA for graduate students. I have lived for ten years in the US, and now visit regularly, and so am not unfamiliar with the issues.

I like and agree with Mike's balanced assessment of the 9Marks critique.

As a scientist I continue to be alarmed at how climate change is viewed as "just a theory". The National Scientific Academies of every major nation in the world (including the USA) consider the evidence as overwhelming. Skeptics are completely outside the scientific mainstream. American evangelicals undermine their credibility by their continued intransgience on this issue. For more see

http://revelation4-11.blogspot.com/search/label/climate%20change

Mike, it is wonderful to have you back in Brisbane. We are deeply blessed to have you ministering here.

sujomo said...

Hi Ross, I'm Mike's friend,

Since you are a physicist can you provide for us (if such data are actually available) the mean annual surface temperature of the earth over the past ten years. ie this figure represents the globe as a whole over all geographical areas, all seasons (this will take into account those places said to be having the coldest winter in years)and over a whole calendar year. That way we can determine if there is global warming as opposed to warming in areas where we have probes.

When I studied physics in the early 60's calculations on data obtained from microwave measurements (bounced off the moon) indicated that the surface of the moon was covered by in excess of two metres of 'moon dust' - this was not confirmed by the moon landing in 1969.

Mike, do you see how your perceptive and thought provoking posts prevent us from being couch potatoes!

cheers, sujomo

chris e said...


I don't see a real threat from a rising evangelical right. If I did I may be less tolerant of the right than I am.


Except that sometimes toleration of the extreme evangelical right can actually handicap putting together biblical doctrine - I'd argue that at a popular level tolerance of KJVonlyism has handicapped the articulation of a thoroughly evangelical doctrine of inspiration.

Also, evangelical lefties tend to come from evangelical right backgrounds.

Ross H. McKenzie said...

sujomo asked for data on the average global surface temperature. you can view it at

http://revelation4-11.blogspot.com/2010/01/do-you-believe-in-climate-change.html

Which also has links to the relevant reports which document in detail the overwhelming evidence for climate change.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

My mom was president of her IV chapter in Montreal before there was an InterVarsity organization in the US at all. That would be a good reason for making sure that men like John Piper not be allowed to have any influence in InterVarsity. I am happy to see that there is one place that keeps his kind of teaching at bay.

Danny Zacharias said...

I have no problem with Bono using his cultural capital to bring attention to and raise money for the poor and impoverished.

Erin said...

Nice post, Mr. Bird and charitable with regards to Mr. Stiles. He has lived his life with great integrity and blessed many, but speaks poorly in this instance. How close-minded it looks to not admit Schleiermacher or Tillich might have something to say regardless if one agrees (or understands)them. It reads like fear mongering to me, a particular sin of the evangelical "sky is falling" world. More often than not, the "fear of man" card seems like further justification for evangelical self righteousness. If evangelical organizations didn't fear man, then they would stop obsessing about conversion numbers and the production of spirituality. I'm also curious where his definition of "orthodox Biblical theology" comes from. But though it's disappointing, he deserves to be treated with respect and gratitude for what he has done for IV and the world. Life is full of problems, I guess.

Peter said...

This article and the one reference to did not address the issue of social justice. It seems that is the main topic IV talks about and basically equates the gospel with social justice. Is this right or is it wrong?

criticpapa said...

Your post was quite good than other blogger, so simple yet imformational.

mind if I put a link back to you?
anyway I'm william

(clickable) ------> Big Suits

Scarlett said...

wow! very good blog posting skills. i wish i was you..

i am a freelance writer..
see my works here ------> Wool Suits