I know. I know. It's been awhile (several months, actually) since I've deconstructed anything from the Internet Monk's blog. I also haven't said anything in ages about the steady stream of sneers and insults aimed this way almost daily from the virtual drinking establishment where the iMonk tends bar.
(I'm thinking of stuff like this, this, and lots more. Of course, I am not really injured in any wayeither personally or psychologicallyby the Tavernistas' disapproval, no matter how they feel they need to express it. But it is significant, I think, that remarks like those from the BHT are invariably followed by a tsunami of utter silence from the same army of tone-monitors who dutifully crawl out of the woodwork parroting the Rodney-King mantra and writing emotion-laden blogposts about how awful it is for Christians to argue with one another whenever someone makes any criticism of the iMonk's attitude or points of view. That's a rabbit I don't really need to chase right now. But I can't resist pointing it out. I'm also tempted to do a long riff about how such remarks only underscore the hypocrisy of the infamous "Rule 40." But belaboring that point would prolly not be a very good idea, since it would pretty much undo the whole point about how restrained I've been. So let's just keep moving, shall we?)
Anyway, it's not that I'm ignoring the iMonk, or that I don't care what he thinks anymore, or even that his drinking buddies' tireless bastinado against "the TR blogs" has become merely monotonous.
It's just that while the iMonk is well-known as a fearless critic whose disapproving gaze has fastened itself onto almost every feature of the evangelical landscape at one point or another, he turns out to be a rather tender soul when it comes to receiving any kind of criticism. And one hesitates to jar such a fragile psyche any more than absolutely necessary.
Furthermore, I've learned from difficult experience that if I even comment too light-heartedly on someone else's criticism of the Boar's Head Tavern or the iMonk's blog, I'm going to be assaulted by people who ostensibly want a kinder, gentler blogosphere. (And in their zeal to drive that point home, they will raise questions about my manhood, shout me down with tearful pleas to stop the insanity, and employ vulgar language which, if I object to, I'll be derided as a sanctimonious prude and a crusader for outmoded causes. You know: one of "these people [who] are beyond contempt, and beyond reason.")
Those may all sound like very good reasons to ignore the iMonk altogether, but it is clear that on some level, he is influencing people. (A barrage of e-mails from his fans and readers demanding that I answer his criticisms of my teaching was one of the major factors that prompted me to start a blog in the first place.) He seems to enjoy making reference to me in his critiques, and he often aims his critical commentary at doctrines or people I love. He obviously works hard at making himself impossible for me to ignore. But I've been trying really hard anyway.
Now the iMonk has posted two comparatively benign reviews of my seminars from last week's Shepherds' Conference. It really does seem that he is trying (in these two reviews, at least) to be fair with me. But I still think he has got a couple of major points wrong. In the most important instance, his error may stem partly from the fact that all his info about one of those seminars came from an abridged second-hand account of what I said. (That's OK; he acknowledged as much himself at the outset of his review.)
So let me make myself perfectly clear:
The following is not meant as criticism of Michael Spencer. I'm just going to try to clarify some things I think he has misunderstood.
And his misunderstanding here goes to the very heart of what (I believe) makes my perspective so frequently antithetical to the iMonk's. For that reason, I decided it might be worth the effort and worth the dear price I'm sure I'll pay for even bringing it up.
Some helpful background info:
The iMonk has "reviewed" a couple of seminars I've done here and there over the past two years, always dismissing my opinions as unworthy of any serious consideration because of the "the Grand Canyon of scholarly gravitas that exists between Phil Johnson and..."well, practically anyone else you can think of.
But this time Michael Spencer actually responded to something I really said in the seminar (or at least Tim Challies' summary of it).
In the first of his two recent "Shepherds' Conference" reviews the iMonk more or less dispassionately gave his thoughts on Tim Challies' summary of my seminar titled "Is the Reformation Over?" At the very end of his post he expressed the hope that he was being fair. So I want to take him at his word and give him due credit for that.
Now, here's the thing:
When it comes to identifying the actual problems that have crippled the evangelical movement over the past hundred years or more, I think Michael Spencer and I would find far more to agree about than we would disagree about.
I could say the exact same thing about the so-called "Emerging Church Movement," by the wayand this is one of the reasons iMonk found so much to agree with in my seminar on that subject. I happen to think they have correctly identified a number of serious problems with the evangelical movement these days: its shallowness, its worldliness, its commercialization and trivialization of the gospel; its failure to reach the neediest people in our culture, and its failure to engage the culture itself biblically and correctly. The EC's assessment of the problems is sometimes spot on; but it is my firm conviction that their analysis of how we got here and what we should do about it is almost totally and completely wrong-headed, unbiblical, and historically naive. That is why I object so loudly to the direction the EC movement is headed. It's not because I like being cantakerous.
Ditto for my sometimes vocal opposition to the odd and often offensive mix of ideas that wafts daily out of the saloon doors over at Boar's Head Tavern.
We agree on many (or is it even most?) of the problems we see. Where we disagree is regarding the questions of "Why" and "What now?" And our disagreement is one of those profound and fundamental disagreements that (in all likelihood) may prove ultimately irreconcilable. No wonder it's maddening to both sides.
The iMonk's post-mortem on "Is the Reformation Over" highlights what I think is the major reason for the wide disparity between our opinions:
- He sees "evangelicalism" only as a 20th-century movement.
- When I speak of evangelicalism, I'm talking about an idea with a much longer historical pedigree than that.
In other words, the iMonk is comparing bowling balls to oranges when he contrasts D.G. Hart's analysis of the 20th-century evangelical movement with my lament about the decline of the historic evangelical idea.
Here's the heart of iMonk's main "argument" with me:
I believe that what Johnson sees is accurate, but I believe he is assigning too much to evangelicals. Were Evangelicals ever as rooted in the Reformation as they claimed to be? Not in the modern, "evangelical" era. From the outset, "Billy Graham" evangelicalism was ecumenical, not fundamentalistic, and it was there, in the seeds of an ecumenical pragmatism, that the seeds were planted of where we are today.
That is actually a very fine rejoinder to a point I would never even want to make. I agree that the movement that was labeled "evangelical" in the 20th century was off the rails from the start. As a matter of fact, I made that very point in at least three of my seminars at the Shepherds' Conference.
Moreover, if you asked me when evangelicalism derailed as a movement, I would say it was around the middle part of the 19th-centurywhen no less than the Earl of Shaftesbury pointed out that the word evangelical had already lost its meaning. That was some fifty years or so before the iMonk seems to imagine the evangelical movement began.
Huh? You mean evangelicalism is older than Billy Graham?
The word evangelical actually predates the Protestant Reformation by a generation or two. We might argue about whether anyone prior to the Protestant Reformation was truly evangelical in any meaningful sense, but that's not really germane to the point I was making in the seminar Michael Spencer was critiquing: Evangelicalism existed some four centuries before it derailed, and before it derailed, it was defined by some pretty clear and simple theological principles, at the heart of which lay both the formal and material principles of the Reformation.
Spencer asks incredulously, "Was evangelicalism ever as doctrinal as Spurgeon or the Puritans? Was it ever not ecumenical? Was there ever a time it wasn't fighting its own anti-intellectualism?"
Well, yes. Prior to 1850 it was all those things. As a matter of fact, both Spurgeon and the Puritans were evangelical in the historic sense I am pleading for. They even used that very term to describe their position and distinguish it from Socinianism, Deism, and in some cases, Arminianism. That is my whole point. The movement's abandonment of the historic meaning of the word and the ideas it represents lies at the heart of the Great Evangelical Disaster.
WWHS: What Would Horton Say?
The iMonk's confusion on this rather basic point is remarkable, since he says he has been a longtime devotee of Michael Horton, and the point I was trying to make is virtually the essence of Horton's driving passion, as I understand it. Horton is not arguing that evangelicalism melted down because it was "too evangelical"; he is reminding us that evangelicalism went astray when it left the central, initial, evangelical concerns of the Reformers. (Especially the formal and material principlesnot to mention the other solas.) Pretty much the exact same point I was making.
In fact, The Cambridge Declaration, which Horton helped draft, virtually starts out with this statement: "Historic evangelicalism was confessional. It embraced the essential truths of Christianity as those were defined by the great ecumenical councils of the church. In addition, evangelicals also shared a common heritage of the 'solas' of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation."
And it was J. I. Packer, not Phil Johnson, who (in Fundamentalism and the Word of God) described "fundamentalism" as a twentieth-century name for historic evangelicalism.
Anyone who honestly thinks I care about preserving the 20th-century movement that co-opted the name "evangelical" hasn't heard a word I have been saying for the past fifteen years or longer.
But just to underscore the big-picture point I am trying to make, here is an exact quote from one of my seminars last week that Challies probably did not have time to paraphrase: "The evangelical movement is essentially dead, and all the motion and activity you see are just maggots feeding off the corpse. . . . [We need] to rescue the idea of historic evangelicalism from the contemporary evangelical movement."
So while I am glad and grateful not to be on the receiving end of another scathing dismissal from the iMonk, I'm very sorry he missed what I thought was the whole point I was trying to make in that seminar.
It's not a minor point, because it determines where you'll look for an answer to what ails the contemporary church. If you take the iMonk's perspective and write the very idea of "evangelicalism" off as a 20th-century anomalya nonpareil campaign of Christian anti-intellectuals unlike anything ever in Church historythen the postmodern innovations being peddled by Emergent types will probably look very appealing. But if you appreciate the legacy of historic evangelical principles ("fundamentalism," as Dr. Packer tags it), you might see the importance of distinguishing the idea of historic evangelicalism from the 20th-century movement that co-opted and corrupted the name. And you might be inclined to think (as I do) that a better answer to the corruption of the evangelical movement would be a return to true historic and biblical evangelical principles.
I've been saying something similar about fundamentalism to some of my fundamentalist friends, and they have a hard time getting it, too.
If you read my blog and that's the only point you ever see me make, I'm fine with that. If you get all the inside jokes and cultural references but miss that point, I will have failed in what I'm trying to do here.