Between this blog and my own, I've reviewed books, movies, software and music. To that, a couple of years ago on my blog, I added a review of a seminary course offered at Reformed Theological Seminary in Florida, taught by Steve Brown. This is an edited consolidation of two posts from there. The course I'm reviewing is available via their virtual campus presence on iTunes. Brown is a Presbyterian (PCA) pastor who's an author, pastor, seminary prof, and radio host. Brown is Professor of Preaching at RTS. I'm no Brown-specialist; this review is of one specific course. I have heard Key Life a few times, and saw a snippet of a cable-type TV show Brown did in which he had friendly arguments with the execrable Tony Campolo (I think this is the series). Now, to the course.
Among a number of courses I listened to from Reformed Theological Seminary was thirty-seven lectures on grace by Steve Brown.
In style, they're winsome, occasionally thought-provoking, and really irritating — not in a good way. Brown dispenses counsel and makes statements that I think are flat-out irresponsible. But because he's PCA, he's teaching at RTS, and he disagrees with Tony Campolo, I listened to the entire series in an effort to get his point.
Here's what I came away with.
First, my Summary Statement: Brown says a number of valuable, useful and true things in a winsome, easy-listening manner — however, he encrusts all that in so much that is irresponsible, reckless, harmful and/or garbage that I could never recommend him without a list of warnings and qualifications so long it would look like what you get with a new prescription ("Here are the ways this medicine could kill or horribly disfigure you for life:....").
Here are my main thoughts and observations:
- I want to trade my whiny, nasal voice for Brown's basement-deep, resonant voice.
- Brown comes across as an eminently likable fellow.
- Brown says a number of thought-provoking things. Though he doesn't develop it Biblically at any length, he says "God isn't mad at you anymore." For the Christian, true (Romans 8:1) — and praise God for it. Brown says God never disciplines Christians because He's mad at them. Brown says "nothing is perfect, nothing is forever, and you aren't home yet." Mostly true. Brown says, When a dog plays checkers, you don't criticize his game; you're just pleased and surprised that he's playing at all. (The point being, I think, that we wouldn't be so shocked at our failures if we didn't have such a high opinion of ourselves.) True. Brown says that when pain exceeds payback, real change becomes possible. Good point. Brown criticizes phony airs Christians feel they have to put on in front of other Christians, our failure to extend anything like grace and compassion towards one another. Too true.
- The man has more stories and illustrations than Methuselah. The whole course is heavy on stories and anecdotes — but offers next to nothing in terms of Scripture.
- This is a big weakness. In theory, Brown constantly claims that everything he says is Reformed and Biblical and sound and true. In practice, he doesn't seem to feel the need to root much of it in Scripture. The entire course featured only a relatively few allusions-to/citations-of Scripture, and no extensive exegesis or exposition. He keeps asserting that his students can look it up, or that he's got a ton of Biblical backup, or that he'd normally give Bible but since they're seminary students he won't (?!). Brown rests it all on a case he never makes Biblically.
- More than anything, Brown comes off like a guy who's latched on to a true and Biblical concept (grace), detached it from the Bible, loaded it with his own ideas and concepts and implications, and made a career of it. (We warned against that danger back in 2006, and again in 2008... and probably several other times.)
- To his credit, Brown constantly urged his two classes to feel free to challenge him Biblically. To their discredit (in my I-wasn't-there opinion), they never did. Perhaps they started out convinced.
- All of the alarms I have begun to sound and will develop in a moment are borne out in this comment thread. In that thread, one Christian brother attempts to bring the Bible to bear on some of what Brown says and does. Granted, he doesn't do it in the nicest way, but he does it faithfully. By and large, the host of respondents do not even attempt to engage the Bible. They respond in
Brownisms. This is a huge red light. Much as Brown denies that he wants to make Brownite disciples, that is exactly what he is doing. Since they can't see it in Scripture, they must depend on Steve Brown's thoughts, his ideas, his cute sayings, his insights, his experiences, his stories. That is a necessary and unavoidable consequence of giving endless podium-time to stories, illustrations, and cute sayings instead of exposition of the text of Scripture, and then development of a system from that text. People come away knowing Brown, not Scripture, and therefore — I fear — not necessarily knowing God.
- Brown says some things that are absolutely, barkingly, wildly irresponsible; and if his students take any of them seriously, they will ruin their ministries, themselves, and other people. For instance:
(A) Brown says that, when one is preparing a sermon, and he thinks of saying something but his conscience or judgment tells him he shouldn't — he should anyway! Because that's probably God talking to him. (I can imagine the jaws of dozens of readers who are pastors, hitting the floor.) So, in the Brown universe, verses like Proverbs 10:19; 12:18; 15:28; 17:27; 21:23; and 29:20 are not nearly so important as expressing oneself in a personal pursuit of "grace."
(B) Brown also tells Christians they should disagree with their pastor once a month, period, just because it's healthy for their assertiveness. The spirit of 1 Corinthians 16:15-16; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; and Hebrews 13:7 and 17, not so much.
(C) Brown speaks of a Christian leader who fell morally, badly, and says in effect that he's glad he did, because it was good for him. Too bad about the guy's family and church and witness and ministry and all, and God's reputation, I guess.
(D) Brown urges all of them to cuss. Just to do it. I don't recall an exposition of Ephesians 4:29. I guess he already did all that, somewhere, or it was in his notes.
(E) Brown keeps talking about dialogues he has with God, and quoting (usually without qualification) things God supposedly says to him, Steve Brown, that are not in Scripture. But it's okay, remember, don't be alarmed — because he says believes in the Reformed position on the inerrancy and sufficiency of the Bible, and he isn't a charismatic, and maybe he's hearing God wrong. (Those are his "covers.") Yet Brown natters on about things God says to him, about God laughing, and a bunch of dribble attributed to God — and Brown isn't talking about the Bible. Which, as you know...yikes. Fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul.
- Brown says weird things about repentance. I listened twice, and still can't quite explain his position. Brown denies the Biblical teaching that repentance means a change of mind which necessarily issues in adorning fruitful actions... though those elements come back into his teaching at other points. Brown says that he used to teach something like that forgiveness was apologizing for spilling the milk, repentance was cleaning it up. He now regards that as a terrible error and false teaching, for which he apologized everywhere he had preached it. Repentance is not change, Brown insists emphatically. It is understanding who God is and what He did and who I am (?!!). This takes me right back to my pre-Christ days in the cult of Religious Science. It turns the crisp Biblical call to action into a New Agey realization. No longer is repentance a decisive change of mind that issues in a change of behavior, because we can't change (Matthew 3:8; Acts 26:20; Romans 12:1-2 and etc. to the contrary notwithstanding).
- Don't really love the plethora pop-psychology and faddish phrases, like "giving [this and that person — including God] permission" to do or be something.
- Brown says people should burn Dave Hunt's book that criticizes Richard Foster (because Foster is a hero of Brown's); and he told a whole audience to burn John MacArthur's The Gospel According to Jesus — when he hadn't even read it! So Hunt's bad, MacArthur's bad, yet....
- Again and again Brown trots out his creds: I am a Christian, I am orthodox, I am Reformed, I am a five-pointer, I am conservative, I believe in literal 6-day creation, and on and on. But then Brown says...
(A) ...that if this unsaved Jewish rabbi he personally likes doesn't go to Heaven, Brown doesn't want to go, either. Now, what is that supposed to mean? The words mean that the Christ-rejecting rabbi's presence is more important to Brown than Jesus' presence. Surely Brown doesn't mean that. But he said it.
(B) Brown says that there are no "super-Christians," except maybe (Mary-worshiping proponent of a Gospel-perverting sect) "Mother" Theresa, and (longtime doctrinal compromiser) Billy Graham. In other words, these two may well be above every other living Christian, including John Piper, John MacArthur, Al Mohler, and everyone else.
(C) Brown frequently speaks of how much insight he's gotten from this or that Roman Catholic or otherwise heretical writer, on various aspects of Christian living.
(D) Brown enthuses about what a great and real relationship with God unbelieving, apostate Jews have.
(E) Brown mentions how he wears a New Age bracelet for some physical ailment, quipping that he "tried Jesus" and it didn't work, so he is trying this ("and I thought I heard the angels laugh," he adds — I didn't).
(F) Brown frequently says in passing how well this and that apostate heretic "understands grace."
(G) Brown says in particular that (unrepentant antinomian murderess) Annie Lamott is a wonderful Christian person who he thinks is so great and loves to provide a soapbox on his radio show.
(H) Brown says that Harry Emerson Fosdick was a Christian, and probably would be "on our side" (or some equivalent) if he were alive today
- From all that, my impression is that Brown can't think the Biblical Gospel is very important, in spite of what he says about the Biblical positions he formally holds.
- And that would mean Brown's not very Reformed — since if being Reformed means anything historically, it must mean seeing the Gospel as a decisive, divisive, watershed issue. Which makes me wonder what he's doing, teaching at Reformed Theological Seminary, host to many wonderful classes by men like John Frame and others.
On "grace": for what I hope is a Scriptural corrective, review Grace: eighteen affirmations and denials.
Take this lesson, at the very least. You can insist that you believe in the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, and that your positions are Biblical, until your blue head caves in — but if you don't specifically and continually ground every major point and application in the Word, you're just preaching yourself. People will walk away quoting you, not the Word. That means they're leaning on you, trusting you, depending on you and your insights. You've become their priest, their Pope, their magisterium.
You're making disciples of yourself, not of Christ.
You think about that. Amen.
UPDATE: since these articles The World-Tilting Gospel was published. If you read it, you will find that it thoroughly responds to Brown's muzziness, and anticipates the current (2014) arguments about sanctification and grace.