I receive a generous amount of feedback for my work here at American Vision. Most of it is positive. Some is negative. Of the negative feedback, a small portion is coherent.
Negative feedback can be important. If it is incoherent, of course, it is worthless. The coherent responses, however, may—and I stress may—alert you to something you need to address. But even here, in my experience, more often than not, negative feedback says as much, if not more, about issues the sender needs to address with himself than about you. That old saying about throwing a stone into a pack of dogs, while not one of my favorites, has an element of truth. It is especially true when the vast majority of positive feedback reinforces it. This is my running thesis. With few exceptions, I have not seen it disturbed.
This week I have received two interesting emails in response to recent work. Both came from pastors. The first was negative, the second positive. The first filled with accusation; the second with humility. The negative email is coherent, so I take it somewhat seriously. After considering it in context, however, it tells a different story than on its surface. The two emails taken together confirm my thesis above. Together they are a telling tale of how different individuals react to the theonomic thesis.
The first pastor says he is already theonomic and postmillennial. He claims to love what I say, just not how I say it. He accused me of being a “poor churchman” because I am “unnecessarily harsh and/or critical of those in the trenches of pastoral ministry,” and am “unnecessarily harsh and/or critical of those who fall into the reformed Christian camp in a more broadly conceived fashion.”
I am always open to such criticism, but when he went on to give some specifics behind these charges, I grew a little suspicious. The charge of unnecessary harshness against my “reformed brothers” had reference to the fact that I have published critiques of men like Carl Trueman and the R2K crowd, referring to them as “opponents.” He suggested I address such men not publicly but privately and “in a more irenic fashion.”
People like this simply do not understand, and usually have made little effort to do so. After several years now of this debate, I have witnessed every imaginable degree of dismissal, arrogance, insult, and lie thrown publicly at the theonomic position (and its adherents), often by those who are well-read theologians and who, without a single doubt, know better. And yet still, based upon the fact that I publish criticisms of men who are avowed theological opponents of our position, and would identify themselves as such, I am the one who is unnecessarily harsh and should keep my objections private and irenic.
On the issue of “harshness” in general, I have heard it forever now. Theonomic people are always accused of being “unloving” and “harsh.” This is the ultimate trump card in the broader evangelical world—by which the broader reformed world is largely infected. We must be “nice,” or else we must be wrong.
Meanwhile, I have not seen a single—and I mean not one single—instance in which the very people who level these accusations hold themselves or their own favorite theologians to the same standard.
I often wonder, even with men like this who claim to be in our camp: have they ever once sat down and written R. Scott Clark, Michael Horton, Carl Trueman, Robert Godfrey, Kim Riddlebarger, and any other “more broadly” reformed theologian and objected to them for “unnecessarily” dismissing us arrogantly, misrepresenting us consistently even after correction, and even using dirty tricks to stifle us, etc.? Has there been one email sent?
Whether or not, the double standard still stinks of myopia. And the worst thing of all is, in a vast majority of cases, the people leveling such charges have gotten things backward. The vast majority of people upset with us are not people who would normally agree with what we say if we would only say it more nicely. On the contrary, the vast majority who level this charge are actually exhibiting the opposite: they are stricken by the substance of what we say, and have no answer, and yet will not accept it; so, they justify their dismissal by condemning us, and sometimes slandering us, in how we say it. The don’t like what we say, but they blame that fact on how we say it.
I imagine there are a few moneychangers who will level the same argument against Christ on judgment day.
This critic charges me with making “articles appear as if they have been typed through gritted teeth and with a ball pein [sic] hammer.” Well, touché! If that is accurate. But more often than not it is not accurate—it is an assumption and a projection. What is more often than not objected to is the use of rhetoric which has a sting to it. Is this wrong? That’s debatable. And, as I already argued, it is far more universal than any of our single-minded critics ever admit.
Here’s an example. I picked up Calvin’s Institutes, 1536 edition (first edition), and opened it at random. The very first page to which it fell reads, under the heading of “Penance,” this:
In the next place they put penance, of which the discourse in such confused and disorderly fashion that consciences can gain nothing certain or solid from their doctrine. We will first explain in a few words what we have learned concerning repentance from the Scriptures, then what our adversaries teach and finally, with what trifling reason or no reason at all, they made it a sacrament.
This find was purely by happenstance (“providence,” for the exacting). And yet at random we can see Calvin writing against theological “adversaries” (i.e. “opponents”), calling their works by epithets like “confused” and “disorderly,” and belittling their reasoning as “trifling” or even as “no reason at all.”
The sole difference here is that Calvin was writing in opposition to Roman Catholic “adversaries” and not “reformed brothers,” but we can just as easily show how he publicly criticized Luther, Melanchthon, and even reformed brothers like Zwingli as well.
Now, I can guarantee that if I, or another theonomic writer, were to use similar descriptions against another Christian author today, someone somewhere would charge us with harshness, bitterness, anger, malevolence, pride, insecurity, ruining families, legalism, hating babies, wanting to overthrow the government, or just plain “not being nice”—and they would dismiss our doctrine on those grounds whether they actually examined it or not.
And if any of our “reformed brothers” is tempted to do such a thing, my challenge to them is to read Calvin by the same standard and summarily dismiss every one of his doctrines in which he used similar rhetoric.
Now, granted, just because Calvin did something does not make it right. Nevertheless, I would love to see some consistency on the part of the people wielding these charges like bludgeons against very selective targets. If they did apply such consistency, hardly any meaningful theologian would remain standing. Alternatively, they will have to relax their standard of “harsh” and deal with the substance instead. Until they do, I will not take them seriously.
And I especially will not take them seriously because I have witnessed too often that the charges are bogus. They are too often leveled by people who have been stung by the substance of what we say, and have no other way of marginalizing us that by misrepresentation of our doctrine, or character assassination. They apply both liberally. And since, among mushy evangelicals, “not being nice” is a cardinal sin, they run there immediately.
Granted, this is not always the case. There are indeed plenty of cases of actual harshness and unnecessary fight-picking. But these are issues that affect all sides, and I see no reason why theonomists or Christian Reconstructionists ought to be singled out by the highest possible standard when no one else is at all.
And this is indeed what happens. Often times, when you ask for an actual instance of “harshness,” any examples brought forth are subjective and debatable. What has the critic done to judge it as indeed “harsh”? They have elevated the standard of niceness to perfection in this case when judging the theonomist—a standard which no one can reach.
The other tactic going on is that critic often adds to what they are reading emotions which are not there. They often project negative intent or emotion upon the author, then attribute it to him, and then attempts to hold him accountable for it. When it is alleged that the author did no such thing, they will respond that he should have been more clear and not given occasion for such misattribution. Nothing is ever such a reader’s fault!
Nonsense. No writer can ever protect themselves fully from being negatively interpreted by critics, especially those already stung by the substance of what he has written. To try to do so is to introduce paranoia and fear of man into your effort that will stifle the end result and lead to paralysis. It is to let bullies set your agenda and method for you.
No servant of God can ever allow this to affect the work he is called to do.
And the critics never hold themselves to such a high standard or checks on their own writing. Witness: the critic in this very email decried my alleged harshness and calls me to be “more irenic,” and yet does not hesitate to engage in hyperbolic description on his own part: remember, my work has been typed “with gritted teeth and with a ball peen hammer.”
Oh how I might have actually listened to this guy if he’d just been “more irenic”! Alas, his points are entirely lost on me, because his unnecessarily harsh language just “does not help our cause.”
I certainly disapprove of being too harsh or cruel in debate. Nevertheless, I see a tremendous role for rhetoric. And the truth is that most—though I admit not all—of the charges I’ve seen leveled are either debatable or outright bogus. And worse, in the past, the tactics have been used by men who do not hesitate only to use arrogance or malevolent language themselves, but have actually on more than one occasion coupled their arrogance with outright lying rumors and dirty, dishonest tricks.
I cannot go into all of this right now, but I have a stack of a few hundred pages of documentation to back up that claim. In addition to this, some of the dishonest attacks against theonomists are fairly well known by several people, and are not only easily documentable, but have been written about by others in the past.
This last point makes one of my critic’s assertions most insufferable. He fears I am “repeating all the same mistakes that the last generation of theonomists committed that caused them to be marginalized and ignored.” This is a charge so often repeated it has become a meme. And like many memes, it is a superficial stereotype masquerading as representative. Unfortunately, many unlearned, narrowly experienced, and often ignorant people believe this meme, or are led to believe it by others.
It occurs to me that this man, who is a youngish associate pastor, does not really know as much of the substance of the history of “the last generation of theonomists” as he seems to think. I could be wrong, but such a comment strikes me as strongly colored by common rumors more than by intimate experience with those men, the battles they endured, and the way they handled those battles. In repeating such a meme, he is not only aiding and abetting a falsehood, he is not getting the larger picture either.
And it occurs to me that perhaps the substance of something I wrote provoked a reaction that is at least in part personal and emotional. It is the specific reference of the first charge against me that indicates this. He says I am unnecessarily harsh to those in the trenches of pastoral ministry. (I wonder if this associate pastor, PCA, has anyone in particular in mind?) As proof, he references my recent article, “Poll confirms pulpit cowardice.” He reacts:
In his August 20 article about Barna’s findings about cowardice in the pastorate, no where does he mention George Barna’s own opposition to the institutional church as evidenced in books such as Revolution and Pagan Christianity. Certainly there are cowards in American pulpits. There always have been pulpit cowards, and I pray the Lord continues to give me the backbone to unashamedly preach the text in front of me. Nevertheless, to use Barna’s research to lampoon 90% of pastors seems overly harsh at best.
So, because I related the results of a poll, and did not take into account Barna’s personal views, and because I did not insinuate that the poll results of thousands of pastors was somehow corrupted because of Barna’s personal views, I am therefore “overly harsh at best.”
I am sorry, I report and comment upon what I know, not what someone else supposes. If I do write about what I suppose, I will say that it is only my opinion. I do not make a habit of leveling charges of corruption against people, even those with whom I disagree, without hard evidence.
Barna’s research here corresponds with what I have experienced from American pulpits, and with what the vast majority of evangelical and reformed theologians today say the pulpit should be doing. There is perfect factual correlation between Barna’s statistics and both my experience and current Christian political theory behind the pulpit. All I did was show that these stars had finally aligned, and it is long past time to address the problem.
To disprove this view, my critics can do one of two things:
1) Provide hard evidence that the poll is corrupt (or even simply inaccurate), or else,
2) Provide hard evidence that 90 percent of American pastors are indeed preaching the social and political applications of the whole counsel of God—consistently.
Without either of these coming forth, calling me “harsh” will not cut it. Without either of these coming forth, the critics should cease criticism. And without such evidence, why do they not? Most likely (this is my opinion!) they have fallen under the penumbra of the article’s criticism. Guilty!
But instead of “mea culpa,” we get some variation of, “That guy’s not nice!” “He’s too harsh!”
And there is further confirmation of my thesis. As I said, there was a second email. It is a case study in contrast to the first. The second guy does not show such transparent reactionism. He shows humility. He read the same Trueman article as the first guy, and more, but instead of resistance and huff, he admits that the criticisms therein applied to him. He shows character and spiritual growth:
I recently read Joel McDurmon’s eBook, “Inglorious Kingdoms,” and was jolted out of a pious coma that I was slipping into after reading much reformed writings for the past two years.
He acknowledged, as I have often done, that those other writers did help us marginally along the way: “I did gain some good understanding with regard to how God saves sinners, which is different from my arminian background.” But instead of going further, as would be consistent with reformed presuppositions, they have stopped short, and in reality, failed. The result for most of their followers has been a “pious coma.” This pastor was given the grace to admit it, and to ask for advice going forward.
“[W]hat advice or consul would you give a young pastor that’s just starting out with a new church plant? Where would you begin in teaching reconstruction to a small group of people?”
Pastor, I will address this in a future article. For now, dive into to what I have written in regard to a guided reading list for Christian Reconstruction.
Emails like this help establish a baseline for those accusations of “too harsh,” etc. They show the lie that the problem is “how we say it.” If that were the case, I would expect no emails like this, ever. But I get more than a few. In fact, I get more than those that say the contrary in any coherent fashion. And in my experience, the contrary comes only from our already-dedicated opponents, those they teach, and those who work under their authority.
The problem, I conclude, has more to do with what we say than how we say it. As long I continue to get a strong balance of feedback that says, “Thank you for waking me up,” and “Thank you for doing what you do,” I don’t see any reason to assess otherwise.