Thursday, June 11, 2009

Where's The Beef?

Two dueling Puritans

You all thought I was going to embed another Wendy's commercial from the '80's, didn't you? (That's not what this post is about, but the commercial was still funny - check it out here.)

No, actually the "beef" to which I refer is an escalating tension between two camps in Christiandom: Dispensational and Covenant Theology.

UPDATE: If you're really interested in the differences between the two 'systems' but can't afford to go to seminary, here's a very readable discussion from the site:

Although I have studied a reasonable amount of systematic theology, (enough to grasp the basic differences, which mainly fall under ecclesiology and eschatology), I was unaware until a week ago that there was any real animosity between respective proponents over doctrinal differences. This may be somewhat surprising to you, as I spend a fair amount of time in the Calvinist-leaning Christian blogosphere. I also attend a Calvinist-leaning church, which also happens to lean dispensationalist. (Confused yet?) We uphold both God's sovereign election and man's responsibility in conversion, which makes us less Calvinistic than, say, John Macarthur or R.C. Sproul, but a great deal more than (for instance) Bill Bright.

Salvation is by grace through faith. Justification is by grace alone, includes repentance, and regeneration results in progressive sanctification. That's a fancy way of saying the Gospel is preached, and I don't know a Reformed, Baptist, dispensationalist or Covenant Theologian alive who would disagree on any of those points.

Recently, however, two women ministry leaders at church brought to my attention the fact that here in New England, in particular, there is a real growing hostility between the two groups - most of it coming from the Covenant side. "There is a real 'hardness'," my pastor's wife said. Some Covenant churches (presumably 5-point Calvinists) are even telling their members not to associate with dispensationalist congregations, as we are theologically aberrant. Come again?

A few months ago, I commented half-jokingly to my PW that I strive to be a 5-point Calvinist, but I just can't seem to go the whole hog. The cyber-Christian "intelligentsia" seems to be made up almost exclusively of such, and I like to think of myself as a bit of an intellectual. She replied that it was probably better that I'm not, as she's noted a real lack of joy among the 5-pointers she's known. There seems to be a correlation between hyper-Calvinism and Covenant Theology, but I can't quite seem to define it.

In any event, I follow Jesus Christ; not John Calvin.

Surprised to hear that dispies were shunned by Covs, I did what any theo-geek with a pressing query would do: I e-mailed the Pyro Dudes. Here is a response I received from Dan:

I think everything you say is accurate, and have observed and experienced the same things.

Dispensationalism has been made a friendly "off-limits" focus for Pyromaniacs.

I have however written about it a number of times on my own blog, and am about to publish a review of a book on dispensationalism, probably later this week (Lord willing).

You can see my main posts on the subject here and here and here and here.

Another site you might find amazingly useful is Michael Vlach's site. He is a doctor, a theology professor, and a dispensationalist Calvinist.

(I particularly enjoyed the second link, "25 Stupid Reasons to Diss Dispensationalism"). So this Cov. Theo/disp has really become an official Big Woop among Bible-believing Christians. I admit, I'm surprised. Covenant Theology, in a nutshell, sees all OT law as being in effect unless abrogated by the NT. I know that they are okay with infant baptism, seeing it as a continuation of a covenant - specifically, baptism becomes the NT version of circumcision. (Given all the verses that link personal faith and repentance to baptism, I'd say that's a bit of a stretch, but it's certainly not rank heresy). The Church and Old Testament Israel are essentially seen as one Body - unlike dispensationalism, which views Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. Covenant Theologians generally take an amillenial or post-millenial view of eschatology, (as opposed to the pre-trib/pre-millenial dispensationalist view), and use a more symbolic hermeneutic to interpret parts of Scripture than the grammatical-literal principal common to dispensationalists. There are a few other distinctives along these lines, with some variance.

Call me crazy, but I thought it was the Gospel that matters. It's not that I'm not familiar with the two systems' variances. I just don't care.

Last week, I spent several hours perusing websites devoted to diagramming, parsing and debating the distinctives of each camp. Trouble was, most of them were from the Covenant Theology side and they misrepresented dispensationalist belief. We were called anti-nomian on one (Really? Ever met Macarthur?).

Part of the reason it surprises and dismays me that there would be controversy about these matters among Christians is that I have sat in the churches of very godly pastors of both streams. When I lived in Bulgaria and attended First Evangelical Church of Sofia, my pastor, Rev. Hristo Kulichev (about whom I've written before) preached the Gospel unfailingly. A veteran of Communist prisons and labor camps, he taught his congregation to stand strong in the face of both persecution and carnal temptation. After reading his books "Salvation and Predestination" and "The Existence of the Church" last summer, I realized he is a Covenant Theologian. (In case I cared. Which I don't.) My current pastor preaches the same Gospel as he did; the same love for Christ; the same no-compromise approach to faithful obedience. Although he happens to believe the Church will be Raptured before the Tribulation. (I hope he's right. But if he's not, no biggie. I just want to focus on being ready).

If we were to lock these two humble men of God in a room with me to interpret, they would disagree on the finer points of theology. However, I simply cannot imagine them arguing or having a chip on their shoulders over these doctrinal distinctives - their hearts are too focused on the Gospel itself to get side-tracked by what most would consider non-essentials.

I am the first to assert that sound doctrine does matter. Although I abhor argument for argument's sake, most of the heated debates I've found myself embroiled in have been over theological matters crucial to the Gospel. There are, in fact, certain fundamentals of Christianity. Failure to adhere to certain key doctrines means that, by definition, you are not a Christian. I simply don't see ecclesiology as falling into that category, and there is probably no branch of theology more open to debate than eschatology. Hence my question: "Where's the beef?"

I may have met my match with systematic theology. It's giving me a headache.

I wonder if our Heavenly Father ever feels that way...?


4simpsons said...

One thing I like about MacArthur is that he is charitable with his reformed theology. He makes excellent cases for it but doesn't divide over it. We need more of that on both sides. We have bigger enemies to deal with.

And thanks for the link to the Wendy's videos -- they should bring back those great commercials!

lyn said...

You've hit the nail on the head Marie! Why all the hoopla, especially when it leads to division? What about love, humility, unity? 4simpsons is exactly right, we have bigger enemies to deal with rather than bicker amongst ourselves.
Great post, thanks Marie!! While Satan keeps us busy 'debating' {in reality it's arguing, some refuse to give up until they've proven themselves right}, we aren't being watchful are we?
BTW, I enjoyed the Wendy's commercials as well!

Marie said...

One thing I like about MacArthur is that he is charitable with his reformed theology. He makes excellent cases for it but doesn't divide over it. We need more of that on both sides. We have bigger enemies to deal with.

Exactly!! Macarthur approaches the Gospel not only with vast knowledge, but also with humility. There are many others who do as well - Paul Washer comes to mind, as does John Piper - these folks are faithful ministers of the Gospel, in part because they DON'T go postal over "disputable matters". There are matters over which there simply can be no compromise - ie., salvation doctrine and the exclusivity of the claims of Christ - but eschatology? Somehow I cannot imagine even Christ Himself splitting hairs to the extent some of these debaters do.

After posting this, I recalled the NANC duo - Donn Arms (Baptist and dispensationalist) and Jay Adams (Reformed, Covenant and amillenial). Their common commitment to the Gospel, the essentials of the faith, and to biblical principles in their counseling makes them a great team and strong brothers in Christ. Why can't everyone view the minor differences of interpretation this way?

(Yeah, those '80's commercials are a trip. I found one from the '70's - the Life cereal "Mikey Likes It" original the other day, and I REMEMBER WHEN IT WAS ON. Now I feel REALLY old!)

Barbara said...

Hey - not all covenantalists are paedo-baptists. And if you're all in a tizzy about various doctrines, then STOP IT and go to the cross and live in the shadow of the cross and live submitted to Scripture. We're at war here, but not with flesh and blood....

...and those who want to pick nits on things like that forget one very simple thing from Jesus - "let the little children come to Me - for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs."

The Holy Spirit is a Teacher and a Comforter, but we must get away from men and into the Word and in prayer and it'll all be okay.

Marie said...

And if you're all in a tizzy about various doctrines, then STOP IT and go to the cross and live in the shadow of the cross and live submitted to Scripture.

Yep. That's pretty much the conclusion I reached last week. Just can't understand what all the fuss is about, and it just totally distracts peeps from the beauty that is Christ. Sounds like we're all of one mind here.

Hadassah said...

Marie, honestly, I'd be glad to meet just about any Christian (at my church) who knew enough about either topic to have an intelligent discussion. But I wouldn't get my underbritches in a wad either way.

It's non-essential. Although I do think covenant theology is rich and adds a great deal to my understanding of God's revelation and dealing with mankind. I find it supremely comforting and consistent. And humbling.

When it comes to baptism...sigh. One of my beloved former pastors (a thoroughly reformed paedobaptist) used to always say that if God only wanted it done one way, He would have been a lot clearer about it in Scripture.

I am a paedobaptist by the way, but I can see a case made both ways. And I think both sides should accept and respect the practices of the other in this area, since it comes down not to heresy or abberant teaching, but to various legitimate interpretations of the same material.

If I recall correctly, not that long ago Piper was calling for more acceptance of paedobaptist who wished to join congregations that practiced believer's baptism, but were kept from doing so by an unwillingness to be 're-baptised.'

I heartily concur!

Marie said...

That (the church-joining vs. believers' baptism) simply should not be happening. Baptism shouldn't be an issue that divides Christians, but probably no one issue in Christiandom has been more divisive.

My former pastor (who is okay with infant baptism) wrote in his autobiography about the early Baptists in Bulgaria, who were threatened by the local Orthodox congregations with violence and riots if they performed public baptisms. (Protestants were, and still are, a hated minority in Bulgaria). His wife's grandfather came to the Lord after reading the Bible in the late 1800s, and when he refused to have his baby baptized, the local priest incited a village mob to burn down the family's house and barn. Nice, eh?

Even more so when it is seen as a covenant and symbolic - not salvific, as the RCC teaches - we should accept that there is biblical room for both views and simply focus on following Christ (and bringing up the children to do so, whether or not we've had them baptized or dedicated as infants).

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Very glad I'm not the only one who doesn't see what all the fuss is about.

Don Kimrey said...

I have admired and respected your devotion to missions...and more specifically, your concern for those in Bulgaria and elsewere who are under oppression because of their faith. Keep up your good work. donkimrey