Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why We Should Reject Pragmatic Arguments

I have a been reading a lot about a 19th century American theologian named John Williamson Nevin. He isn't well known. Not overly influential, not like Edwards, Whitefield, Wesley, Finney, Hodge, Machen, etc. He taught at a small German Reformed Seminary in Mercersburg, PA, where he also served as the President of Marshall College (later Franklin and Marshall College).

Probably his best known work is The Anxious Bench - a critique of the revivalistic practices known as the New Measures. It's a devastating critique in which he argues the New Measures, as represented by the Anxious Bench, represents a system of religion diametrically opposed to the churchly, sacramental, and historical system of Reformed Christianity. I'm sure I'll write more on Nevin and the 'Mercersburg Theology' in the near future, partly because I'm writing on it for class, but also because it addresses one of my growing concerns - the relationship between the evangelical church and what came before it - historic confessional Protestantism and Catholicism.

For now, however, one small piece of Nevin's argument has stirred my thinking. During Nevin's day, many argued for the use of the New Measures and the Anxious Bench on purely pragmatic grounds - they worked in producing revivals and converts. People were being brought into the Kingdom through these revivalistic techniques. Therefore, some argued, to be against them is to be against God and against true religion. Others went further, asserting that those who opposed the New Measures lacked compassion for lost souls. After all, they reasoned, "one soul is worth more than the world."

Nevin responded to this argument by saying even if souls were being brought into the kingdom via the New Measures, the cost was still to great, for true religion, (and true revivals) as well as truth and righteousness were being undermined. He goes on to show how pragmatic arguments have been used by the church throughout the ages to justify all kinds of 'quakery' - from the Pillar of the Stylites, to the monastic system of the Catholic church, to the eschatological fanaticism of the Millerites. In each of those cases, people were brought into the kingdom, had their consciences quickened, etc. Yet, each should be rejected as unbiblical, even though they were useful in producing results. Results do not mean the system of the New Measures should be accepted as good.

The pragmatism of Nevin's time didn't die. In fact, I think that was only a foretaste of the pragmatic principle to which the church in America would have to wrestle with on through the next century and into contemporary times. Seeker sensitive churches, a denigration of theology, gross youth ministries, theatrics of all types (confetti canons, etc.), have been argued for using the pragmatic principle - they work in getting people in church, into youth groups, saved...

But...does that make them good. Careful here. The pragmatic principle, as Nevin knew, can be used to justify all kinds of evils. 'The ends justify the means' is a slippery slope. For example, and Nevin couldn't see or use this because of the time he was writing, but the pragmatic principle was one justification Christians gave IN FAVOR OF SLAVERY. African slaves were exposed to the gospel, and many converted, in America. They wouldn't have been, so the argument went, in Africa. Their lives were improved, they lived in greater light, etc because of slavery. Therefore, it was argued, slavery is a good and compassionate institution.

Truth, Biblical truth, must trump pragmatism. What works must be brought under the scrutiny of the Word (and I'd argue the judgment of the communion of the saints through the ages - tradition, in other word - but that's a later post). Conversely, just because something doesn't work, doesn't man the church should reject it. Strong theological preaching, liturgy, preaching against sin, high views of the church, etc., don't play today to contemporary Americans. Well, will that be the determining factor? I hope not.

6 comments:

Mark said...

Largely agree.

At the end, you say this: "Conversely, just because something doesn't work, doesn't mean the church should reject it. Strong theological preaching, liturgy, preaching against sin, high views of the church, etc., don't play today to contemporary Americans. Well, will that be the determining factor? I hope not."

This bugs me a bit. It sounds like you're saying we should stick to our grand Reformed traditions even when they are ineffective.

I'm with you when you say that biblical truth trumps pragmatism--amen! But Reformation tradition doesn't trump biblical truth. I know that's not what you're saying, but I do wonder. So bear with me here--I know I'm over-reacting, but hey, that's what blogs are for!

Take one idea: "strong theological preaching". What does that mean? Where is that in the Bible? If it means that people are expected to sit and listen to a monologue that contains lots of bookish language and unfamiliar terminology (like "eschaton" or "hermeneutics") and refers to authors most people have never heard of and will never read ... and then they go away unchanged and can't tell you a week later anything they heard--is that worth doing?

If a trumpet produces an indistinct sound, who will heed the call to battle (I Cor 14 somewhere)? Effectiveness is biblical, generally.

We are no longer in the 18th or 19th century, when people used to subscribe to lecture series, and it was commonplace to read the full text of lectures or sermons printed in the newspaper.

Culture has changed. So be cross-cultural in your approach to ministry. The goal of ministry is not to re-instantiate the Reformation. The Reformation was useful in its day. We're in a different day. What do we need today? The goal of our instruction is, says Paul, love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. Preaching that doesn't achieve that is ineffective. Let's keep the goal in view. If your strong theological preaching (STP) does that, then bring it on. But if your STP just helps you feel good about following in the footsteps of Calvin, Edwards, and Hodge, reaffirming you in your identity as a preacher in the tradition of the 5 Solas while leaving the flock perplexed, go to therapy.

Feed the sheep. Something they can digest.

Ha! I feel better now. :)

Please take all this with a block of salt. I value and read old books and dead theologians too. If I sound strident, it's because I too run the risk of being irrelevant and unintelligible and (ultimately) ineffective if I just follow my instincts. I'm preaching to myself.

And please don't take this as a blanket criticism of sermons you've given personally. You do a good job. I especially liked your last one on the mustard seed parable.

I guess my real challenge to you after reading your post would be to unpack what you mean by STP and to consider where that notion comes from, and whether its form is truly immutable in cultural contexts where it doesn't play well to the local inhabitants.

Over lunch?

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mark said...

(Sorry to post the comment twice--it gave me an error message, so I assumed it failed and I tried again. Feel free to delete one (or both) of them.)

Dan Waugh said...

Mark,
I see where my post isn't entirely clear. On one hand, I do think we should stick with the 'grand Reformation traditions even when they are ineffective'. Actually, I'll go one step further - we should stick with the ancient catholic traditions even when they are ineffective.
I don't mean that we should mechanically carry over every thing from the 1500's. I like powerpoint in worship, use of amplification, singing some contemporary music, etc. However, I think we have lost something of the churchly, sacramental nature of piety that so characterized the Christian church for at least 16oo yrs (and more probably up till the Great Awakenings). I think we have been to cavalier in dealing with the churches grand traditions - treating them as though they were entirely unnecessary, useless, and even unbiblical.
I agree with you that Reformation Traditions don't trump biblical truth - but they were, in my opinion, better summaries, expositions, applications, etc., of biblical truths.
I am completely with you, I think, on feeding people something they can digest. I'm not at all advocating STP that is obscure, overly academic, etc. Instead, I'm advocating preaching that is theological rather than anthrocentric. To often, I fear, we confuse 'what people can digest' with 'what people like to hear'. We don't, by and large, have an appetite for theological truth, only pragmatic truths about 'felt needs'.
And, let me add, I'm not indicting ECC in this. I think we're doing well!
Oh, and lunch sounds great!

Mark said...

Thanks for the reply, Dan. I think I'll need more detail and examples STP to know what you mean by "theological rather than anthrocentric".

But I think you might be surprised by "what people like to hear." I don't think people--at least most Christian people--mind being challenged. In fact, many of us want desperately to be challenged, to understand how we can better participate in the Lord's work, whether through enhanced individual piety, using our gifts in community, or in outreach to a lost world. While increased theological precision can in some measure help with that, it is not sufficient. We also need pragmatic guidance that meets us where we live.

Dan Waugh said...

Mark,
Thanks for the dialogue. I think ECC is a huge exception in the evangelical landscape. Thankfully there are churches like ECC out there, but my experience is that they are rare.

I based my comments on my experience, which admittedly is narrow. In one church I was a part of, I remember advocating a small group study for the church on the Trinity. It wasn't overly academic and sought to guide the groups through the theology and into an exploration of its implications for marriage, relationship, ministry, etc. It was rejected - people wanted more practical stuff on marriage and kids - not the theology. That's what I've seen.

Now I don't think STP should be abstract and overly academic. It should be understandable and, by and large, practical. However, I don't think we can skip the theological and skip right to the practical.

Hope that helps. Lunch?