Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Dan Wallace: 51% Protestant

I regularly read a blog called Parchment and Pen. Dr. Dan Wallace, Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary is a contributer. His posts are always very thoughtful and interesting, truly contra mundane. I highly recommend them and the theology resources at Reclaiming the Mind Ministries.

Here is an interesting article posted by Dr. Wallace yesterday. The article seems to be aimed at minimizing the differences between Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and particularly, within the wider sphere of Protestantism, evangelicalism. Wallace concludes:

As I suggested in my last blog, I’m questioning some of the tenets of Protestantism and evangelicalism. That doesn’t mean that I’m questioning the whole thing; I still believe that the evangelical faith is the best expression of genuine Christianity today. But I also believe that it is flawed and that we can learn from Catholics and Orthodox. And just as it is possible for someone to be saved and be an evangelical, I think it’s possible for someone to be saved and be a Catholic or eastern Orthodox. So, I’m still at least 51% Protestant (and Luther is still a hero of mine), but I have no qualms criticizing my own tradition and exploring what we can learn from others.

This, of course, raises a significant issue: If the theological distinctions between Catholics, Orthodox, and evangelicals don’t define the boundaries of heaven and hell, then what do they do? What is the value of such distinctions? What purpose do they serve?

I agree that we must be willing to criticize our own traditions, and wider evangelicalism is certainly ripe for criticism. I also agree that we can learn from other traditions such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. We must hold to orthodox Christian doctrine with all humility. I am thankful that our God’s mercy is wide and his gospel even reaches some who sit under false-teaching with regard to Christian fundamentals. I would never go so far as to say that one who calls himself a Roman Catholic is, therefore, condemned. But if a person is truly informed, understanding the reality and importance of the doctrinal differences between official Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, yet elects to remain Roman Catholic, I have to doubt whether that person has any true basis to be assured of his salvation. How can we find true assurance in a false gospel?

Perhaps the theological reductionism that plagues contemporary evangelicalism, while perhaps helpful in some cases, may eventually serve to undermine itself. In other words, it may serve to blind its adherents to the very meanings of the words and phrases that make up their fundamental doctrines. Once the meaning of those doctrines is lost, any meaning becomes acceptable as long as the right words and phrases are used. I do not think this is what Wallace is advocating, but it does seem to be what is happening among evangelicals.

While on vacation a couple weeks ago visiting family in the promised land (i.e. the great state of Georgia) I heard two statements in two different conversations that might serve to illustrate this point quite well. First, I was asked by a Southern Baptist family member in Cochran, GA: "What is the difference between Presbyterians and Baptist." I responded with the basics, while her eyes glossed over. Twenty minutes later when I finished my diatribe (again, just kidding!), she responded: "Well you know I'm not really concerned with the formalities of religion. All I'm concerned with is whether or not I'm saved." I smiled and explained that I felt like the "formalities" of religion were the necessary outgrowths and expressions of the fundamentals of the gospel by which we are saved. She agreed so as to end the conversation as more company arrived.

A second conversation I had was with a couple of Charismatic/Holiness (Church of God) family members. I was asked point blank: "So Jay, what do you think of Joel Osteen." This same family member had asked the same question last year when we visited for Christmas. At that time he asked while all the family members were gathered and enjoying one another's company in multiple conversations in the living room. So after receiving, a sharp look from my wife, I just ignored his question and made conversation with someone else. This time we were alone, so I answered honestly: "I think he is preaching a false-gospel." He replied: "Really, how so?" I explained that Osteen denies original sin, the work of Christ, and offers people more than God has promised in this life (i.e. psychological wholeness, prosperity, good health) as the gospel. Silence. After a minute or so he said: "Well I know one man who preaches the gospel: Billy Graham." Oh no, I thought, the trump card! He asked: "What do you think of Billy Graham?" I responded that I thought, while many people may have come to faith in Christ through his ministry, Graham's inclusivism was a denial of the gospel and his revivalistic techniques were a plague within the modern church, the fruits of the Second Great Awakening. His girlfriend responded: "My dad was saved because of Billy Graham." I responded: "I rejoice in your father's salvation! What a gift of grace! But I don't believe that anyone is ever saved because of a mere man. Only God draws people to faith in Christ. Thankfully, he does that through the preaching of men, even if the doctrine preached is imprecise." She replied, "I just think there's too much dissension between people. They say, 'the Methodists are right' or 'the Baptists are right' or 'the Charismatics are right.' I think all that matters is whether your saved or not." At that point more family members entered the room and the conversation went another direction.

My point is this: Reducing everything down to whether or not God can save sinners in a given environment does not seem to be a particularly helpful or responsible way to evaluate theological traditions. Can God save a Roman Catholic? Of course he can. God's mercy is wide! Truth be told we were all saved as heretics through the witness of less-than-perfect theological traditions. Does that make Roman Catholic dogma right or minimize our responsibility to get our theology right? Not at all. As R.C. Sproul has said: "We never have the right to be wrong in our theology." That is why the church must be semper reformata semper reformanda, always reformed always reforming.

I couldn't resist and left a few comments on the Wallace's post in disagreement with one statement in particular. Wallace writes:

. . . the three major branches of Christendom all embrace the truths that Jesus Christ is fully God, that he died for our sins, that he was raised from the dead, and that we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith. There’s so much right with other groups that it’s impossible to claim that they’re all wrong!

Click the link to the article above to read my comments and Wallace's replies.

BTW on Parchment and Pen my username is "jybnntt."


Jeff Wright said...

OK, I'll be the first to comment here. My comment is: I'm gonna get my weight up a little bit before I tussle with ol' Dr. Death, alright? I'm still trying to process his Romans class. ;)

M. Jay Bennett said...

How's is Romans?

That was one of my favorite courses at DTS. I took Lowery for that. I'm sure Wallace is excellent!

M. Jay Bennett said...

Rereading my comment let me add this:

Lowery was excellent as well! Very good.