“My zeal gnaws at me, for my foes forget Your words.” — Psalm 119:139 (CVOT)
April 5, 2015, EASTER SUNDAY
Nine years ago, today, I “published” my first piece on the Atonement. I encourage you to click on the link to “Resurrectionary Atonement,” at the top of this blog site, and take a few minutes to read it. In fact, I might suggest that you scroll to the end of the piece and click on the link to the original blog site where it appeared–Prof. Scott McKnight’s “JESUS CREED.” My submission was evidently the final one in the discussion, thus it appears conveniently at the top. But if you want to get a feel for the reason that compelled me to burst forth with this volley of words, I encourage you to scroll through the prior discussion (starting at the bottom; you’ll have to click the “Load more comments” bar to get to the very start). My original version was in ALL CAPS–not an easy read, as McKnight was instant (within four minutes!) to point out. It was my very first blog, so my etiquette was a bit rough at the edges, I confess. But the cause seemed worthy of the attempt. As the adage goes, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing wrong.”
Today, then, is the NINTH ANNIVERSARY of that blog post. Woo hoo!!!
Now for the bad news. What follows is a letter I received this morning from an elder of the church I have been attending since February 1st of this year–barely two months. I even dressed up for the occasion in the nice black suit I wore at my daughter Marie’s wedding! Plus the whimsical “Easter egg” tie that my sister Marilyn gave me for Christmas 2013! It was shortly after I received it that one of her best friends, Tina Harrell, died after ten years of struggling with cancer. An extended phone conversation with Marilyn after her return from Tina’s memorial service at Valley Baptist Church in Burbank, California (http://www.vbcburbank.org/, a Conservative Baptist congregation, http://www.usachurches.org/denomination/conservative-baptist-association-of-america.htm), which we all attended together in our youth, prompted me to respond to her charge (perhaps justified–you can judge) that I see the Atonement issue in too severely black-and-white, either/or terms. The result was my most recent and arduously argued piece (save one), “Unscrambling the Easter Eggsplanation.” If I may say so, that paper would also make a fine and edifying read in this Easter season…if you dare; it’s at the top, too. Hence the Easter egg “tie” between the two occasions.
The approach I take to the Atonement that God accomplished through the Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation is exceedingly controversial. Christians of all traditions would probably acknowledge that. Any reader of this blog site will have to struggle–as, indeed, I myself have–with the challenge posed by what I have termed “premial inclusion” as distinguished from “penal substitution.” If, in fact, I do see the choice in too black-and-white terms, I have yet to see an adequate argument for blending the two strikingly contrasting positions. As you would expect, I allege that the premial position is in best conformity with Scripture, when understood on its own terms.
And that’s what gets me in trouble with nice churches like the one that handed me the letter below. New City Fellowship, Grand Rapids, MI (http://www.opc.org/feature.html?feature_id=220) is a mission church of Harvest Church, Wyoming, MI (http://www.harvestopc.org/), where it’s pastor, Mika Edmondson, had been an intern, and later a church-planting pastor. These are congregations of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC — http://www.opc.org/). NCF is just one year old as of last Sunday; when they celebrated their Anniversary with a beautiful big cake and a prayer of thanks.
I first heard of NCF one Sunday evening in January when I visited Holy Trinity Presbyterian Church (http://www.holytrinitypc.org/), likewise a recent church plant, located on the west side of downtown Grand Rapids, and walkable for me. One of the elders from New City was attending that evening, too, and was in the lobby with one of his children when I arrived late. We got into a conversation that came around to the fact that he attended an OPC church (Holy Trinity is Associate Reformed Presbyterian, a friendly sister denomination–the first Presbyterian denomination founded in America, 1782). I didn’t know of any OPC churches in Grand Rapids! I first learned about the OPC as a college student in the late 1960’s. I had even once contemplated studying at their Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia (http://www.wts.edu/), especially with Robert D. Knudsen. My wife and I attended the Christian Reformed Campus Forum (formerly, Geneva Forum) at the University of Minnesota during the early 1980’s, soon after we got married. The pastor, Bob Drake, was a Westminster graduate, ordained with the OPC. Since that was a campus ministry, you can imagine the stimulating conversations we enjoyed together during those years. But the Atonement had not become a serious issue for me quite yet, so was never an occasion for controversy.
I started pursuing a Ph.D. in Ancient Studies at the Univ. of Minn. around that time (1982-83). However, after a year I transferred to the home campus of Bethel Theological Seminary (https://www.bethel.edu/seminary/, of the former Baptist General Conference [Swedish] denomination, now renamed Converge, http://www.convergeworldwide.org/about/facts-and-info/our-story) in nearby Arden Hills, 1983-85, before completing my doctorate, for reasons I may explain another time. I graduated from Bethel College (now University, https://www.bethel.edu/) in 1970. I studied at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, MO (http://www.covenantseminary.edu/), fall 1979, which the L’Abri Fellowship (http://www.labri.org/) ministry of Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer had been giving increased exposure. It was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA — http://www.pcanet.org/). The reason I chose Covenant Seminary at the time was largely on the recommendation of my previous pastor, Rev. Jack Buckley, a Covenant graduate, founder of Fellowship of His People in Berkeley, California (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152658241222219&set=a.40379212218.55671.648752218&type=1&theater)–a daughter church of Fellowship of the Lamb, one of the L’Abri-inspired churches that popped up around St. Louis in those days. I visited Covenant in the summer of 1979 with my dad, while on a cross-country trip to visit my sister in Pittsburgh. I learned of their two new degree programs in Historical Theology and Exegetical Theology. I chose the latter.
It was while I was at Covenant that Randy Nabors visited Grace and Peace Fellowship (http://graceandpeacefellowship.org/), the very first of those L’Abri-inspired gatherings, where I was attending. Randy was pastoring a very vibrant congregation in Chattanooga (where Covenant College, the undergraduate component of the Seminary had earlier located, http://www.covenant.edu/). Randy’s church was–are you ready for this?–New City Fellowship, Chattanooga (http://www.newcityfellowship.com/). Ta da!!! Okay, so now you know one reason why I dragged you through the above circuitous route to get from there to here. Many Covenant College students attended this inner-city church, which was a powerful witness for inter-racial fellowship. Randy was a livewire, wherever he spoke. This is the heritage of New City Fellowship, Grand Rapids, whose pastor, Mika Edmondson, a very gifted young black Ph.D. student at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids (http://www.calvinseminary.edu/), is carrying on the legacy of Randy Nabors in sterling fashion. In fact, Mika is from the Chattanooga, Tennessee area himself, although originally from a Baptist background. He is preparing to defend his Ph.D. dissertation in a couple of months. It’s on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Sooo… Back to Holy Trinity on a frigid February night. Harold Schnyders (Assoc. Prof. of Physics, GVSU) was that visiting elder from NCF who informed me about New City Fellowship (though he must rue the night he ever told me). It so happens that it meets in the former Hispanic Seventh-Day Adventist church on Burton near Eastern. That was my old stomping grounds when we moved to Alger Heights in 1996 from Pella, Iowa. And it’s right off the #4 bus route (I haven’t had a car for almost five years). Voila!
But why, you may ask? Why did this spark my interest? Simple. Take a look at the responses this present blog site has evoked over its three-year history. ‘Bout a dozen. It’s not as if I haven’t sent out e-mails (by the hundreds, which takes me two or three days to send because of Hotmail limits) and made personal contacts where I try to encourage folks with what I’ve been learning over the decades. Even the hard copy papers at the top of this site I’ve distributed by the score, even hundreds, since I first went public nine years ago, today. In fact, at one of the recent session meetings of NCF where I was grilled, the pastor asked me if I had done “this” before–i.e., passed out my documents to pastors in other churches. That caught me up short. I could think of a few occasions, right off, that might qualify. And more came to mind. But after going home and thinking about it, I started making a list (I’m an irrepressible list maker). Two dozen churches later…!
But that’s not quite what Mika was fetching for, it seems to me on further reflection. I’ve been “planning” (as I tell everyone) to write a book on the Atonement. For years. But in view of the few actual responses in terms of written or extended oral objections to my findings, I personally find it a bit difficult to polish up my arguments and shore up the evidence. Then again, I’ve already posted nearly thirty years of earlier “Atonement Notes” already…although I am now roughly seven-and-a-half years in arrears in posting them. In other words, except for my most recent series of 26 (so far) postings on the Governmental view of the Atonement, for the benefit of the powerful young open-air evangelist Jesse Morrell (http://www.openairoutreach.com/), almost everything else is well over seven years old. My point? I still haven’t been able to scare up much solid, informed critique that might correct blind spots, force me to examine Scripture passages I might not have considered in this connection, deal with weighty scholars I hadn’t known about already, etc. So if my current methods aren’t culling much informed response…HOW DO I GET A REACTION? At virtually all of those previous churches, I might slip a few papers, or maybe a whole folder full, to a pastor. And if there was no response, I would quietly slip away. But this is really no behavior for an evangelist. And at heart, that’s what I am.
That’s where NCF comes in. The Orthodox Presbyterian denomination (we’re talkin’ a “sect” here, but, of course, from the inside they don’t see it that way) is concerned about “doctrine” in a very conscientious way. That can be all for the good…if handled properly. But what it means for the further development of my book is that if they disagree about a point of doctrine, they are not reticent to say so. Aha! So why not approach hard-core Calvinists with a position that they can, uh…”react” to? Hmmm? If I had known of an OPC church in Grand Rapids in earlier years, I might have had an earlier start on the process.
Therefore, I decided to pay them a visit and provide the pastor (initially) with the documents you see at the top of this site (except for the first one by my friend Donald McKay of St. Francis, Minnesota), and in normal page format (instead of the uniform narrow-column format I’m limited to within this WordPress “Pilcrow” theme) so that they are more readable. This way he could mark up the hard copy with comments (my personal preference). Sorry, I still don’t warm up to sophisticated marking methods that Microsoft Word facilitates. (Only my brother and Prof. Peter Davids have ever even tried those on my stuff). Later, I put them into the hands of another elder, and another. The son of a Westminster Seminary professor whom I esteem, Richard B. Gaffin, also attends NCF, so, naturally, he became a doubtful recipient of my labors. His father’s book, Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology (1987), (http://www.amazon.com/Resurrection-Redemption-Study-Pauls-Soteriology/dp/0875522718), has a significant role to play in what follows.
But nobody wanted to come out and play with me! It’s not a matter of method so much as an issue of content that challenges deeply held assumptions. (Okay, and also of not having time to read into a set of stapled papers, no matter what the content. But I bracket that for now…) It’s, frankly, just too scary to reconsider revising historic understandings of the most fundamental matters of our faith. I quite understand how this goes. If I had not been remaining in the Word of God as the Lord worked me free from a few “bedrock” presuppositions of my youth that turned out to be merely shifting sands of that much vaunted “historic Christianity” that traditionalists like to boast in, I too would surely never have been able to shoulder the psychological load of “error divestiture” that can be truly paralyzing. To say it another way, folks naturally feel vertigo at the thought of “giving up” basic premises of their religious faith. “Losing one’s faith” is not something to treat lightly. “The faith once for all delivered to the saints” by Christ’s apostles is a LIFE or DEATH matter! It’s not to be trifled with. It has ultimate consequences, and many more immediate side-effects on ethics and practice. But when the Word of God is going through the transition with you, there’s a different quality about the changes you undergo.
Ergo: shouldn’t we try to become mighty sure that our denomination/sect–which may flaunt “antiquity,” size, respectability, devotion, “radical Christianity,” “orthodoxy,” fabulous worship, social conscience, global missions, vital evangelism, Christian schools, top-ranking universities, and a welter of other virtues–actually “has the goods” when it comes to an accurate grasp of “the givens,” or basic documentary data of apostolic origin? Hmmm? Well, I think so.
Problem is, Christian tribes that hold hard to old (it really doesn’t matter how old) “statements of faith” must somehow struggle with the problem of human fallibility (even “divines” are human, for heaven’s sake!) and obsolescence. Things “under the sun” wear out, or in any case wear thin, unless renewed and recharged with the original fire. And unless there is a way to revise or amend such statements (creeds, confessions, catechisms, etc.), they tend toward obscurity and harden up into shibboleths…and worse.
But we have to start somewhere, right? My psychological comfort came with the territory of the kind of “concordant” hermeneutic (click my “About” link at the top of the site to read a thumbnail sketch) I have been pursuing since high school days. As a young “fightin’ Fundamentalist,” the top of the list of my youthful beliefs was the authority of the Bible. The “downside” of that belief (I thank my dear mother for doing things right!), was in how very seriously I took it. The more and more I studied the Bible “with my concordance on,” as I like to say, the more and more the Lord blessed me with edifying (not merely speculative or highfallutin’) discoveries. “Doggone it, this Book really does make sense!” So after a while I got bored just defending it and started using it. You don’t defend a sword; you practice your swing and observe the effects. There’s a feedback loop.
I say “downside” because the first casualty was Dispensationalism, I think, This was something my mother adhered to with lifelong devotion and undiminished ardor. So family ties were attenuated by learning the Bible just a bit too well. Then simplistic evangelismism also fell before long. Yet some positions didn’t fall. Since the eighth grade, when Mom had the foresight to buy me a couple of books by Harry Rimmer on the Bible and science, and especially The Theory of Evolution and the Facts of Science, I was an ardent creationist. But it did morph a little uncomfortably along the way and became much more nuanced, deepened, and supplemented. Such books (I eventually procured most of Rimmer’s) early instructed me in the importance of argument–a virtue seldom applauded among church folk. And this virtue is part of what got me in trouble with NCF. They had done arguing over the faith some 350 years ago and only wanted to get everyone else (correction: the “elect,” i.e., the ones who happen to respond positively to the language of their “doctrinal standards”) to knuckle under without too much fuss and bind their consciences to understand holy Scripture “according to the Westminster Confession.” Or do I have that reversed? An NCF elder insisted it was the other way around: they hold to the Confession “according to Scripture,” But that doesn’t really work, as we shall explore below.
To summarize, I had been long and steadily familiarizing myself with the distinctives of Calvinistic Christianity even before moving to Grand Rapids in the summer of 1996 so Jan could teach at Calvin College. It was then that I was introduced up close to the bondage of conscience that Calvinistic institutions could enforce. In order to teach there, my wife had to sign a statement that she would not oppose the faith standards of the Christian Reformed Church, namely, the Belgic Confession (http://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/belgic-confession), the Canons of Dort (http://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/canons-dort), and the Heidelberg Catechism (http://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/heidelberg-catechism). Since she taught Geography, Geology, and Environmental Studies, she was not expected to teach or expound them, of course. Nevertheless, since I had been preparing to start a Vineyard-style (http://www.vineyardusa.org/site/) Reformational (http://kuyperian.blogspot.com/2004/08/introduction-to-kuypers-thought.html) hybrid on a cell-church model (http://www.touchusa.org/default.asp), I did feel the friction this could generate. Feature a church planter whose worldview and vision for action must be trimmed by certain little silences imposed on a beloved spouse by her employer. Don’t get me wrong; we came to Calvin with the red carpet treatment! Jan was a celebrated scholar, greatly esteemed by the school and rightly so. She held the Spoelhof Chair from the git go. And there’s the rub. With honor comes obligation.
I had already attempted to plant a hybrid Vineyard in Pella, Iowa–just a smaller version of Grand Rapids. So I was gearing up for what it would take to do something bigger and better “right here in River City.” Fact is, however, my Pella attempts were not particularly “successful.” That was okay with me, so long as I was learning from all my mistakes (count ’em…). In the meantime, we did join “a church in the Reformed tradition,” which was a requirement for virtually all Calvin faculty except for those whose spouses might happen to pastor a church outside of that tradition; that was still allowable. We weren’t in that category yet. And my wife never wanted to occupy that category. She was a PK and had felt from the inside the sacrifice of quality family time that such a life could entail, not to mention expectations put on a pastor’s spouse. But I’m getting too autobiographical.
The upshot is that we got involved with a very contemporary CRC congregation called Centre Pointe, pastored by a black pastor borrowed from the Reformed Church in America (RCA — https://www.rca.org/), His co-pastor was a white Southerner. They modeled reconciliation and mutual honor. It was special. We loved it. Our daughters especially enjoyed the free-wheeling and laid back style of worship–all sitting around banquet tables at The Bluff in Grand Central Mall, able to draw or whatever. Marie and Karis were baptized there.
But “doctrine” didn’t come up for review there. I attempted to help them adopt a modified cell-church model, but just as it was about to be inaugurated, the co-pastor left for a congregation of his own (having just graduated from Calvin Seminary as an older student), and the new seminary intern had ideas of her own, so shelved what we had labored over so arduously. (The up side is that the co-pastor took the plan with him to his next church, hoping to put it into practice.)
But that’s water over the dam. My marriage suffered a divorce in late 1999, and the new millennium saw me in a wandering mode. During the intervening years, the pain of that has worked hope and deepened insight, not to mention the mining of fresh comforts from the eternal Gospel. Friends took me in at a decisive point and before long, I was back on track, wrestling with Scripture over the heart of the Gospel so as to teach it one day in a holistic setting designed to organize God’s people penetrate to the world with supreme effectiveness in the Spirit of Christ.
Then in the spring of 2006, I got terribly sick with influenza or undulant fever for about six weeks. That’s the time, while staying in the extra bedroom of some dear friends, that the Lord chose to bring me more complete closure concerning the doctrine of the Atonement. The rest is history. But first a bit of recent history so you can see how my findings have so far played out in one “orthodox” setting.
Below you will find the letter I was handed by Doug Felch on Easter Sunday. I will forbear commentary on it until the conclusion of these journal entries concerning NCF.
New City Fellowship provisional session has labored hard to do right by you. We have given you a fair hearing, beyond your standing as one outside of the body. We have presented you with the fullness of God’s word, and plead with you to merit the supreme abundance of Christ’s reward not through your own faltering obedience, but by the assumption of Christ’s righteousness through faith. Ron, don’t underestimate just how righteous one has to be to stand in the judgment (Psalm 1), if indeed the Lord “will by no means pardon the guilty” (Exodus 34:7).
We have additionally patiently sought your willingness, even as a sojourner in the midst of the Lord’s people, to submit to the rule that God has appointed for His people, the elders, in the very place where his people assemble to hear the message of salvation. You have shown yourself unable to comply, and persist in obstructing others on the path of salvation, which itself bears a grave penalty (Matthew 18:6).
In spite of this, out of our desire that you not miss this great salvation (Hebrews 2:3), we offer you the opportunity to continue to receive the counsel of the elders of the church through contact by email, by phone, or by arranged meeting, while at the same time stating that until you repent to the satisfaction of the elders, you have no place in the assembly, neither during worship services, fellowship meals, nor any other New City activities. If you are found on the NCF property again, we will consider it trespassing. With the Lord’s voice, we firmly admonish you to respect this unanimous decision by the shepherds of the Lord’s people at New City.
The NCF Provisional Session