Saturday, December 13, 2014

Some thoughts on ANE for OT background

The biblical view of reality ... is paralleled by the pagan worldviews [ANE worldviews -DHC], which both predate and postdate the Bible. The ancient world understood that there was a supreme God,with whom all things originated and who held all authority and yet was relatively inactive in human affairs. But they also understood that there was another god, the storm god, who was indeed active among both divine and human affairs. A constitutional monarchy may present an analogy, in which the monarch theoretically holds authority and instructs the prime minister to form a government, but it is the prime minister who is truly active, who "gets things done." So it was in the ancient world with Enlil, Baal, Zeus, and Jupiter. ... In any case, the parallel that concerns us now is that which obtains between the pagan divine assemblies and the biblical assembly of angels, or "sons of God" (Job 1-2 RSV). Holy angels refuse human worship (c.f. Rev. 19:10), but fallen angels clearly do not, as Moses and Paul have indicated. It seems reasonable to agree with these biblical writers, and such agreement leads us to understand that the common pagan theological structure presented above is a theological counterfeit not only endorsed by all ancient pagan thought, but imposed upon the ancients by the misleading inspiration of fallen angles (or, to use Paul's words to Timothy, "doctrines of demons," 1 Tim. 4:1 RSV). [Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2008), 180-1]

From the time of German liberal Hebrew scholars like Hermann Gunkel and Friedrich Delitzsch, the discovery of the ANE (Ancient Near-East) has undermined the faith by postulating that much of the Old Testament historical narratives (especially those that deal with "pre-history") are myths borrowed and contextualized from the other ANE cultures surrounding Israel. Similarities between for example the Gilgamash Epic and the Biblical Flood account have been pointed out and used to undermine the truthfulness of Scripture. Even more subtle are the comparisons between storm imagery in the Psalms with the Ugarit Baal Epic, in an attempt to link OT spirituality with Canaanite/ Phoenician religion.

Yet the similarities are indeed present, and anyone dealing with the OT need to wrestle with that issue. German liberal scholars of course took it to mean that biblical sources borrow the myths of their neighbors, but certainly that should not be the only option possible. Great antiquity of a written source only establishes that the myth (e.g. Gilgamesh) existed at that time, but it does not establish that the "younger" tale was not present then, especially once we understand that oral culture was much more present and important in the ancient world. In other worlds, assuming priority based upon antiquity of a written source is ultimately an argument from silence, for there is no way to disprove the biblical account was present but unwritten back then.

In his book on ANE themes in biblical theology, Jeffrey J. Niehaus went through the parallels between the ANE cultures and religions with OT culture and religion. Niehaus basically postulated that the parallels are due to common grace to the pagan nations (pp. 29-30), thus God uses these common forms to instruct Israel in true religion. At the same time, Niehaus argues that it is the distorted inspiration of demons that lies behind the pagan religions (pp. 180-1). It seems to me that the two given reasons do not cohere with each other. Are the pagan religions part of God's common grace, or demonic deception? And why should God utilized demonic forms, as it were, to instruct Israel in true religion?

It seems to me that, if one takes a presuppositional approach, that we see true religion as being there from the beginning. As such, the false pagan religions of Sumer, Egypt, Babylon, Ugarit and others, are demonic distortions of the religion they once had. In other words, it is not as if they were grasping in the dark and had "evolved" their religions to this "higher" level. Rather, theirs were a devolution of the original religion they had learned from Noah. Therefore, similarities are due not to borrowing of Israel from her neighbors, but rather because paganism devolved from the true religion of Noah. Israelite religion, being a divine restoration and also an advancement of true religion, would therefore look similar to the ANE religions, since they both historically were from the same source.

Thus, instead of seeing Israel as borrowing from her pagan neighbors, it is better to see Israel as preserving the truths that the pagan religions have distorted. That includes the storm imagery, while the primal gods of paganism were probably originally meant to represent the true God before various cultures distort what they knew about the Noahic religion into paganism.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Why I am most certainly unconcerned over charges of racism

Racism is a sin. Yet, the charge of systemic racism and the supposed problems of racism in America struck me as odd. I self-identify as a Christian first and foremost. Culturally, I consider myself Singapore Chinese, not "Asian." My ancestors did not take part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and thus I think that qualifies me as a third party.

My problem with such issues is very practical. In my time in America, I will say that the Caucasians I have met have generally been nice and welcoming. Blacks too of course. But let's just focus on someone who has posted on this issue on the Reformation 21 blog: Leon Brown. Leon was my senior in WSCal back when I began my first year. He was extremely vocal about many things, but one particular episode stuck in my memory: There was a time when there was some discussions between him and some of the other freshmen or something, and a question I asked him was ignored. For some reason, despite the fact that sometimes the two of us were in the same place or event, we did not talk. Now, I am not saying that he was intentionally antagonistic towards me, and I don't bear a grudge, but I'm bringing this up merely to illustrate one simple point.

Now, I understand there might be reasons, some even legitimate, that might cause some blacks or minorities to build up resentment and anger towards the dominant white majority. While I do not want to discount that, I find it strange that none of them ever shine the light upon themselves. My example of Leon Brown is to show that he himself did not seem to act according to his idea of equality. Just like this episode involving a black pastor, I find it strange that people do not think that blacks can be racist. I mean, when they express their outrage, my question is: Are they truly against racism, or are they only against racism because they are the victims? After all, we have seen throughout history what happens when the oppressed turn the tables against their oppressors: they oppress their former masters. Likewise, are they only against racism when they are the victims, while they have no trouble with racism IF they become the dominant race?

As I have said, I have found the Caucasians I have interacted with nice and welcoming, in general. I have no problems with many of those of other ethnicities also. Unfortunately, using Leon as an example here, I could have said that Caucasians in general are more welcoming towards me. Do I therefore cry "racist" if a black person slights me? Oh, but that wasn't his intention, but isn't that the PRECISE issue? Is it the intention, or the feeling of being slighted, that counts, when all the rage start boiling out? What if I were to start nursing any slights, real or perceived, that others of other ethnicities, have "committed" against me? If a white person were to offend me, I will chalk it to ALL whites. If a black person were to offend me, then can I chalk it up to all blacks as being anti-Chinese? I should hope not! But why not?

"They" want "equal treatment." You know, it would be helpful when they actually practice equal treatment - to "Asians" and whites too. When black pastors like Bryan Crawford Loritts can stop playing the race card to defend the heretic T.D. Jakes, that would be a real marked improvement.

P.S.: I have addressed real racists before, for example here. Cado Odac is a true white racist. The issue here is not whether individual racists exist, but the sweeping charge of systematic racism and the ungodly bitterness within certain segments of the black and minority populace (note: I did not say "community," because it overgeneralizes and categorizes people according to what they supposedly are).

Phillips, Craig and Dean: "Only Jesus" and Oneness Pentecostalism

Philips, Craig and Dean have been controversial over their background in Oneness Pentecosatlism, a heretical movement that denies the Trinity for belief in "Jesus only." For a while, they have been ambiguous over their stance concerning the Trinity. But their latest song "Only Jesus" should prove beyond a doubt their adherence to Oneness Pentecostalism in its denial of the Trinity. I refuse to embed their heretical song, but here's the link if anyone is interested.

In terms of the lyrics, one might think the song is about the exclusivity of Jesus , as over against the syncretism of the age. And to the extent that the first and second stanzas focus on Jesus' work during His incarnation, that seems fine, but then we arrive at the chorus:

Holy, King Almighty, Lord
Saints and Angels all adore
We join with them and bow before
Jesus, Only Jesus

We see here that according to the chorus, it's not just that we are to worship Jesus because of His work, but that the person to worship is "only Jesus." Contrast what is stated here with Revelations 4, and the difference would be more obvious. We do not join saints and angels together to adore and bow before "Jesus, only Jesus" but before the Triune God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 3 persons 1 essence. God the Father is not named "Jesus," neither is God the Holy Spirit. The Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father, which is why it's wrong to say that we worship "only Jesus."

[HT: Aomin.org]

D.G. Hart: New Calvinism is Warmed-Over New Evangelicalism with a Hint of Hipster

I have been calling the New Calvinism "New Evangelical Calvinism," because to me the New Calvinism is simply New Evangelicalism version 2.0, or 3.0 and so on. D.G. Hart points out this fact as well, here.

Ref21, and the Uncommon Compromise of Richard Mouw

Reformation 21 is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. While generally theologically sound, sometimes one read stuff that makes one cringe. The recent piece by Sean Lucas is one such example, as he praised Richard Mouw and his "uncommon generosity."

Who is Richard Mouw, you may wonder? Mouw was at one time the president of Fuller Seminary, the New Evangelical institution that decided to jettison their initial stance on biblical inerrancy to allow for toleration of heresy. Now, it is admitted that Fuller is not a church, yet it claims to be a Christian institute, so it should be reasonable to expect it to keep within the pale of orthodoxy. Thus, while it would be rather unreasonable to expect a generic Christian institute to take a position on e.g. the validity of infant baptism, I think it is reasonable to expect a professing Christian institute to actually be, like, Christian. While Mouw was president of Fuller, was there any attempt for Fuller to actually behave like a Christian institute? Judging by their continual tolerance of "partial inerrancy" and other kinds of false teachings, I guess not!

Even more pertinent to our concern here is Richard Mouw's endorsement of Mormonism as being a legitimate expression of Christianity, as documented by Dr. James R. White (here is one example). The problem with Mouw is not that Mormons believe that God the Father is supreme, but that Christianity is monotheistic, not henotheistic or polytheistic. It astonishes me that Lucas can say that Mormonism "has historical roots within evangelicalism." If by "historical roots," it means the founder was nominally from an evangelical religion, then almost every cult can claim that, including presumably Satanism. That phrase could however mean that Mormonism, because of its historical connection, can claim some form of commonality with evangelicalism, and that is patently false. Thus, it is easy for this phrase to be an equivocation which is technically correct in the first sense yet serves to mislead people into thinking Mormonism is close to the evangelical religion (in the second sense).

The fact is that in both these instances, Richard Mouw has compromised the Faith once for all delivered to the saints. It is inconceivable to me that Reformation 21 could allow Lucas to write such a piece praising Richard Mouw for his "uncommon generosity," which is more like uncommon compromise. Mouw's actions are not the actions of the apostles, who anathemized those who proclaimed another Gospel (Gal. 1: 6-9) and who call for clear separation from false teachers (2 Jn. 10-11). Mouw has compromised the Faith, and it is a travesty that any biblical Christian would even think that he is being "generous," unless one thinks "generosity" equates to apostasy, like in Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Response to D.A. Carson's Themolios' YRR "reflections"

Themolios is currently the magazine of the Gospel Coalition. In volume 39 number 3 published this year (2014), Dr. D.A. Carson decided to write an editorial reflecting on the failures of the Young, Restless, Reformed (YRR) movement [D.A. Carson, "The Underbelly of Revival: Five Reflections on Various Failures in the Young, Restless, and Reformed Movement," Themolios 39:3 (2014): 405-10]. The editorial is remarkable both for what it does say and what it does not say. Positively, it, despite some nuancing from Carson, proves the point that the YRR movement, as a movement, is essentially dead, realizing my prediction made more than a year ago. Individual points about the need for greater watchfulness in a movement is likewise great advice, as well as the dangers in high growth ministries and the impact the failures of high profile ministers would have, especially of pastors that have not been adequately tested.

Negatively, what is more remarkable is what it does not say. In reflecting on the failures of the YRR movement, Carson's focus is on the generic concept of revivals and the dangers and pitfalls in them. But this presupposes that the YRR movement is indeed a "revival" in the same sense as the First Great Awakening. What's even worse is that the reflections is silent with regards to whether the men behind the YRR movement did not in any way contribute to the failures of the movement. Assuming the Edwardsian idea of revivals having boom and bust seasons does not mean that one can just point to cycles of revivals and exonerate the human failings within the movement.

Carson decided to reflect on the YRR movement by drawing analogies to what he had experienced in Quebec and the more well-known happenings in South Korea. Obviously, I do not know much about what had happened in Quebec. But let us grant Carson that what happened in Quebec was a true boom and bust cycle of revival. What has Quebec got to do with TGC? It is insufficient to point to surface similarities; one has to actually deal with the specific issues involved. Furthermore, Carson IS one of the founding members of TGC, whereas I doubt he had the same amount of influence in what had transpired in Quebec. Concerning the YRR movement, Carson has great influence over it, so surely whatever reflections he should be having should reflect on the role he himself play, or didn't play, concerning the failure of the YRR movement, or does he think he has done absolutely nothing wrong in his management of TGC?

In an illustration of why biblical theologians probably shouldn't be doing church history, Carson utilized the analogy of the South Korean experience, conveniently ignoring the fact that South Korea has problems with toleration of heretics like David Yonggi Cho in their midst. Last I know, God does not bless heresy or the toleration of heresy. Even worse is when Carson raised the issue of the Kentucky revivals in the early 19th century. Otherwise known as the Cane Ridge revivals, those "revival meetings" were chaotic and emotional and denounced by orthodox churchmen, and marked the beginning of revivalISM and the decay of orthodox Christianity in American Evangelical circles. One fruit of those "revivals" was Barton Stone (of Stone-Campbell fame) and his "Christian church" movement. Stone denied the Trinity, and was against denominataionlism in principle (which is why he just insists on being called "Christians.") Another fruit of the frontier revivals was the Cumberland Presbyterian church with its denial of God's sovereignty and synergism. It is astonishing to see Carson referenced the Kentucky revivals since that was mostly the work of Man with raw emotions running unchecked. The church historian Iain Murray in his book Revival and Revivalism, while bein pro-revival (in the Edwardsian sense) decried the Kentucky revivals as the corruption of true revivals and thus the beginning of revivalism. Does Carson really think that the Kentucky revivals should be appealed to to mitigate the failures of the YRR movement? I guess if Carson wants to yoke the YRR to a profoundly unbiblical, man-centered and false "revival," that is his prerogative.

As I have said, the silence is deafening on Carson's reflections on his own role in the failures of the YRR movement. And that to me is the crux of the problems with this editorial. Carson's editorial itself is not totally wrong. However, if that is all Carson can write about the failures of the YRR movement, it betrays a sentiment that none of the big shots in TGC even think that they have done any wrong to contribute to its failings. This is despite the overwhelming evidence for how people like John Piper had promoted Mark Driscoll, how TGC have totally mishandled the Elephant Room fiasco, and we can continue adding to the list with items like this. To put it simply, TGC has quite a lot of repenting to do, and it astonishes me that Carson can be so blind to the sins he is guilty of in his role as a TGC council member. Sin, as the Bible teaches, is not merely the commission of what is against God's Law, but also the failure to do what God's Law positively commands (cf WSC 14 "any want of conformity unto... the Law of God"). Carson might not have not positively violated God's Law per se on this issue, but he certainly failed to do what God's Law positively commands with regards to his role in TGC. And just as sin is an offense to a holy God, so the presence of sin at the highest levels of the YRR establishment will certainly mean the withdrawal of God's blessings from it.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Mortification of Spin (MoS): The spin of the "YRR establishment"

The most recent Mortification of Spin (MoS) podcast dealt with the issue of the Mark Driscoll fiasco and the response of the "YRR (Young, Restless, Reformed) establishment." Carl Trueman dealt particularly with John Piper's interview concerning whether he regretted promoting partnering with Mark Driscoll, and expressed astonishment at Piper's statement that he has "no regrets." Trueman voiced my exact thoughts concerning this issue. Here are some choice morsels:

I think it goes to the whole structural problem in the whole young, restless and reformed thing, and that is, the guys at the top decided who was going to be allowed to make criticism, who they were going to listen to, and who they were going to ignore, and you end up, when you decide that, right at the start, you end up with a terribly, terribly potentially corrupt system. .. The truth is so rarely actually spoken into these guys' lives -Carl Trueman (10:45-11:14)

It [issuing a note of repentance] shows a leadership of discernment, a leadership that's willing to make hard decisions, and takes responsibilities when it's gone off the rails. ... My respect for the leaders of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement would be much greater than it is if they had just once, in all of the crises that have engulfed the movement over the last two or three years, just once, they had expressed some regret - just once they had taken some responsibility for these disasters. But in actual fact what we get time and time again is the spin machine in operation trying to get everybody off the hook. And then turning around and saying, "Why didn't anybody tell us?" Well, people did tell you, but not people that you care to listen to,... -Carl Trueman (14:20- 15:12)

... when it's the top men just talking to the top men, and they forgot the ordinary people that actually get bruised and damaged by the decisions they made -Carl Trueman (16:01 -16:14)

I absolutely agree. It is extremely disturbing that the "YRR establishment" does not even ONCE says it is wrong, that it has sinned. Instead, it's all spin, and none of them are interested in listening to biblical advice, rebuke and correction.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Christianity and inconsistent evolution

Modern evolutionism has created great difficulties for Christians, not so much because it tells us that we are genetically related to orangutans and chimpanzees, but because it insists that fundamentally we are not very different from them. In theory, say evolutionists, it would require only a few small genetic changes in those animals to turn them into human beings like us, and it is assumed that some millions of years ago all of us evolved out of a common ancestor. Without denying this possibility completely, Christians are obliged to make two observations about it. First, such an evolution was not and could not have been spontaneous. There is little evidence to support the theory that one species can evolve naturally into another by a process of random trial and error, and none to say that this happened to produce the human race. Orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees still exists, but how is it that all the intermediate species have died out leaving little or no trace behind them? Logically, one would expect to find them around somewhere, but although it is sometimes claimed that proto-human bones have been dug up, the evidence is controversial and it must be concluded that such "missing links," as they are called, have never been convincingly identified. [Gerald Bray, God is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 246]

One major problem with Christians who want to "avoid" where possible the issue of science in origins is that they end up either with little to say about actual cosmic origins (relegating the Genesis account to a framework or something), or when they try to relate it with the "current scientific consensus," what you get is terrible science and even worse theology. In this section by Gerald Bray, we see some really bad science and bad reasoning on the topic of origins.

In the paragraph, Bray shows an ignorance of science when he states categorically that "such an evolution [of humankind] was not and could not have been spontaneous." Bray probably means by "spontaneous" the concept of naturalistic causation, since it is remarkably stupid to suggest any evolution is "spontaneous" in the sense that it must take a few generations, 100 years or even 1000 years. Evolutionary theory posits the accumulation of small incremental changes over long periods of time (Gradualism), unless of course one wants to hold to Punctuated Equilibrium which is the alternate theory. Regardless, when Bray asserts that human evolution cannot be "spontaneous," the question is: why not? Isn't this an instance in which the tail is wagging the dog? If one is committed to evolutionary theory, why stop at humans? One already acknowledges the grand narrative of evolution, so why are those like Bray keeping human evolution out of the picture, as if every other species can evolve but humans are somehow exempted from scientific consideration?

Worse still is the next line: "There is little evidence to support the theory that one species can evolve naturally into another by a process of random trial and error." Excuse me while I wonder if he realizes that evolution through random mutations and survival of the fittest IS the standard evolutionary mechanism. In evolutionary theory, all mutations ARE random, and it is the job of the environment to select for the organisms that have good mutations. The "fittest" survive and pass on their beneficial genes to the next generation, and the cycle continues. When an organism approached a certain point of time, they might branch off into two separate sub-groups, which over time have evolved into two separate species. So when Bray make such statements while claiming that he "does not deny the possibility [of evolution]," how is that not being duplicitous? Does he or does he not allow for the theory of evolution, including human evolution? How can we say that one is open to the possibility of evolution, while claiming in the next breath that there are no evidences for the mechanisms of evolution when it pertains to humans (as opposed to animals)?

Bray brought up the paucity of transitional fossils, which is an interesting apologetic method to be sure. Yet, it is strange to me that he utilizes the argument only to cast doubt on human evolution, or at least naturalistic human evolution. The same problem of transitional fossils plagued all supposed instances of major evolutionary transitions, so it seem it is brought up just for the issue of distancing humans from evolution. Again, it is profoundly unscientific to claim that humans are somehow exempt from the same processes and same mechanisms that supposedly apply to all other living beings, especially when one is agreeing with the supposed high degree of similarities in the genotypes of humans with apes for example.

Unless one wants to speak about the actual beginning of the Cosmos, Christians who try to "avoid" the issue of origins typically do a bad job in science, and nothing screams that more when one sees believers who hold to some form of evolutionary theory yet refuse to endorse human evolution.

P.S.: The argument Bray uses is known as the god-of-the-gaps argument, and it is philosophically untenable as much as it is scientifically untenable.

Sin and death

Do suffering and death have any legitimate place in the natural order? The Bible makes it clear that death entered the world because of sin, but this must be interpreted in context. Sin is a spiritual rebellion against God,which means that the death it brings is also spiritual. ... That physical death is a part of the natural life cycle within the created oder seems obvious, since if it were not, none of us would be able to eat anything. The "food chains" in the animal world remind us that many species could not exist without the death of other creatures, and there is no reason to think that this state of affairs came about as a result of the fall of man. ... [Gerald Bray, God is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 234]

Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. (Rom. 5:14)

The issue of death before the fall it seems is something taken almost as fact in some Christian circles. Coupled with that is near total ignorance of YEC arguments, and here in this section of his book, Bray proves that in many parts of the academy, questions relating to origins are done in an echo chamber without the need to actually interact with what others have said.

Bray's arguments about positing death before the Fall consists of (1) construing the consequences of the Fall as being about spiritual death, (2) arguing that ecosystems require death due to the existence of food chains. The latter argument shows ignorance of the YEC thesis that biblical death that does not exist before the Fall pertains only to the nephesh chayyah while other plants and animals do "die" in the biological sense of the term. Moreover, food chains are not set in stone, but rather they change as animals adapt to their environments. Just because current food chains involve death of the nephesh chayyah does not necessarily mean that it was always the case, so Bray's argument from the existence of food chains does not prove his case.

The former argument is rather interesting, because it is true that the primary focus of the consequences of sin is spiritual death. Yet here, we see that Bray is not true to Scripture. We read in Romans 5:14 that death reigned from Adam to Moses, which is stated to be a mystery why that is happening since they did not have the Law which informed them what sin is. If we interpret this as speaking about spiritual death, are we saying that spiritual death reigned over Adam to Moses? That suggests that from Adam to Moses, all of them died without being saved, and presumably everyone from Adam to Moses are now in hell, a conclusion which we should reject. Rather, we should keep to the traditional interpretation that the death here is physical death, or rather physical death that conveys spiritual realities. Those from Adam to Moses died physically as proof that they have sinned, and thus they have the Law in some form, which is the thrust of the rhetoric of Romans 5:13-14.

Biblical (physical) death therefore cannot exist prior to the Fall. To affirm that there is death before the Fall undermines one's doctrine of sin, the Federal headships of Adam and Christ, and thus the Gospel itself. While one can inconsistently hold to death before the Fall and the Christian faith, one cannot consistently hold to any version of death before the fall and remain a Christian.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Common grace and ultimate ends

One of the polemical arguments by the PRCA crowd against the doctrine of Common Grace is that, since all things work together for the damnation of the reprobate since they wickedly abuse without thanksgiving the gifts of God in this world, therefore whatever good things given to them will result in their damnation. Therefore, if the ultimate end is damnation, how can we say that whatever God gives is indeed gracious, since damnation is certainly not gracious?

The problem with this argument is that it confuses ultimate ends with penultimate goals. What do I mean by this? Let's take the issue of evil for example. The Bible clearly teaches that God is sovereign over evil. All things work together for the good of those who love God (Rom. 8:28). That means evil in the ultimate scheme of things is "good," in the sense that it results in the good of God's people. But do we therefore say that evil is good simpliciter? NO! Evil is evil. When someone does a wicked deed, that deed is indeed evil. God meant it ultimately for good for the elect, true, but that doesn't diminish its wickedness. So here we see that evil is penultimately evil, even though God intends it ultimately for our good.

Likewise in the issue of common grace, what the orthodox version of the doctrine of common grace (there might be other versions of "common grace" that I think are unbiblical) states is that God's kindness is indeed genuine, in the same way as evil is indeed evil even when God meant it for good. God's kindness is genuine even though ultimately the abuse of God's gifts will result in greater damnation. It is a genuine kindness, in the penultimate this-worldly sense. It is God's universal benevolence from His status as the Creator, and manifests His goodness to all He has made.

The myopia surrounding the PRCA's discussions concerning "covenant"

Forward by Pastor Andrew Lanning

In the following article, Prof. Hanko explains the doctrine of the covenant. The truth of the covenant is one of the most precious doctrines to learn, because it describes the relationship of fellowship between God and His chosen people in Jesus Christ. Even our earthly relationships are precious to us; how much more precious is the covenant relationship we have with God! Therefore, an article explaining the truth of the covenant is a welcome sight in this special report by the Salt Shakers.

However, not everyone is agreed on what the covenant is. There has been controversy for many years over important covenant issues. For example, who actually belongs to the covenant and enjoys fellowship with God? Only adult believers, or also infants of believers? All baptized church members, or only those chosen by God eternally in election? Or, for another example, how does the covenant relationship between God and man function? Does God sovereignly establish and maintain the relationship so that it depends on God alone, or must man cooperate with God in order to continue receiving the blessings of the covenant?

Different answers to these questions have produced two distinct camps. On the one hand, there are those churches that teach a conditional covenant. On the other hand, there are those that teach an unconditional covenant. The difference between these two camps is as vast as the difference between Arminianism and the Reformed.

In this essay, Prof. Hanko ably defends the Reformed doctrine of the unconditional covenant. He traces the history of the development of the doctrine, and then critiques the unbiblical doctrine of a conditional covenant.

An article such as this is timely for the church today. In our day, a gross covenant heresy called Federal Vision is sweeping Reformed and Presbyterian churches. The Federal Vision uses the conditional covenant as its platform for denying all of the major tenets of the Reformed faith. Eternal election, justification by faith alone, and Christ’s meritorious good works on our behalf all fall prey to the Federal Vision’s conditional covenant teaching. Reformed churches today that hold a conditional covenant, or those churches that wonder whether the doctrine of the covenant is all that important, do well to read this article and see where the teaching of a conditional covenant necessarily leads.

By God’s grace, may the Salt Shakers, as well as CERC and the Protestant Reformed Churches, continue to teach an unconditional covenant of grace. Our prayer is that God will use this article to establish his church in the truth of his sovereign, covenant grace.

[Andrew Lanning, "Foreword," in Herman Hanko, "The History of Reformed Covenant Theology — Conditional or Unconditional?" Salt Shakers: Special Report II (Nov 2014): 3-4]

Salt Shakers is the magazine (also an E-zine) produced by the youth of Covenant Evangelical Reformed Church (CERC) in Singapore. Throughout the years, CERC has been growing progressively closer to the PRCA (Protestant Reformed Churches of America), and it has now called a PRC minister in the person of Pastor Andrew Lanning. The PRCA of course exports her hobby horses wherever they go, and her redefinition of the word "covenant" is exported around the globe.

In this foreword to a succinct article written by Herman Hanko, Lanning puts forward the typical framework the PRCA works with with regards to the concept of "covenant." Either one must hold to a "conditional covenant," or one holds to an "unconditional covenant." The "conditional covenant" is linked with Justification by faith plus works, Arminianism and such "heretical" doctrines like "common grace" and is the error behind the Federal Vision. The "unconditional covenant" of course is THE truth, at least according to PRCA polemicists.

The problem here is that the PRCA is myopic in its discussion of the concept of covenant. Traditional Reformed Covenant Theology is bi-covenantal in structure, believing in a Covenant of Works AND a Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Works IS conditional ("Do this and you shall live" c.f. Lev. 18:5, Gal. 3:12), while the Covenant of Grace is unconditional ("The righteous shall live by faith" c.f. Rom. 1:17, Gal. 3:11). The Covenant of Works- Covenant of Grace schema mirrors the Lutheran distinction (note: NOT separation) between Law and Gospel. Therefore through this bi-covenantal structure, both conditionality and unconditionality are encompassed. Conditions (excepting instrumental ones) are linked to the Covenant of Works or Law, while the free (unconditioned) promises are linked to the Covenant of Grace or Gospel.

The myopia of the PRCA lies in its refusal to deal with the traditional Presbyterian and Reformed understanding on its own terms. It refuses to understand what bicovenantalism actually means or entails, while it continues in its naivete in its sub-conscious defaulting to mono-covenantalism. As I have stated before, and will continue to state this, the difference between the PRCA and Federal Vision is that the former is Monocovenantal Antinomianism ("Unconditional covenant") and the latter is Monocovenantal Legalism ("Conditional covenant"). In my honest opinion, both sides deserve the other; they are opposite sides of the same coin. Both sides deny the Covenant of Works, the former by making it gracious, the latter by seeing works and putting it into the supposed gracious Adamic administration.

The issue is easy to discern: Hosea 6:7 speaks of the covenant God made with Adam, and that Adam broke the covenant. If Adam broke the covenant, does it mean that the covenant is conditional? The FV says yes, and thus the covenant of grace (which was already in the Garden) is breakable and conditional. The PRCA denies that the covenant is really broken, even though the text clearly says the covenant IS broken. This she does by making the covenant made only with the elect and no person visibly. But this raises a whole host of problems, for none of us know who the elect are. The main problem however is that one cannot break a covenant one is not a party to, and so logically the PRCA must state that there are no such persons as covenant breakers. Those who break covenant only seem to be doing so, but since they have not actually been part of the covenant, they did not break any covenant when they left the faith. Whereas for those in the [One] Covenant, nothing they do will ever remove them from the Covenant, thus the Antinomian slant.

In contrast, traditional Reformed Covenant Theology with its bicovenantalism speak of covenants as both breakable and unbreakable. Adam transgressed the Covenant of Works, and likewise in the arena of Duty-Faith, people can externally transgressed the Covenant of Grace. There is a real breaking of the Covenant of Grace, externally. Yet internally, the Covenant of Grace is unbreakable, being conditioned on the full satisfaction of Christ alone. True believers therefore can never break the Covenant of Grace. But note here the difference: In the PRCA view, covenant breakers do not actually exist (or at least logically should not exist). In the traditional Reformed view, covenant breakers do exist as partaking only of the external aspect of the Covenant of Grace, and thus they fell away from that. There is a real sense in which someone in the Church can fall away if they are not substantially partaking of the Covenant of Grace, while that is not possible in the PRCA scheme.

Another pet peeve of the PRCA is to attack the idea of "covenant" as being an agreement, with a swipe at the Latin translation of foedus. Perhaps the PRCA want to deal with the Greek diatheke instead? Instead of attacking the concept of covenant as contract because of the Latin word, perhaps they wish to actually deal with how the word diatheke was used by the Greeks, and also the ANE background behind Genesis 15. One does exegesis before theology, or rather one ought to do exegesis before theology. To do theology and then to insist that covenant is not agreement because of its supposed theological implications is to be put the cart before the horse.

Perhaps one day the PRCA will stop beating a dead horse and actually interact with what others are saying, but I'm not holding my breath for that to happen.

The technical view of "myth"

But many forms of narrative (including some that claim simply to recount what actually happened) are in fact governed by symbolic modes of organization. As Herbert Richardson says of myth, a significant form of narrative for our purposes, "mythical discourse rises at the level of the total story, the most complex level of linguistic utterance. The linguistic unit appropriate to myth is not the single word nor even the sentence, but the story." Thus, the truth of a narrative in this sense does not arise from the "correspondence" of its words or sentences to "reality," but from the coherence of the story as a whole. Just as a poem cannot be paraphrased conceptually without irreparable loss, neither can such narrative be. [Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 32-3]

When it comes to telling big stories about the order of existence, then, even if they are scientific stories, they will have religious implications. It is better to face this fact head on than try to deny it. ...

... myth is not science. Myth can be true, but it is a different kind of truth from the truth of science and must be judged by different criteria, ... . I would argue that the myths told by the ancient Israelite prophets, by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, by Confucius and Mencius, and by the Buddha, just to stay within the purview of this book, are all true myths. ... they are all worthy of belief, and I find it possible to believe in all of them in rather deep but not exclusive ways. (Ibid., 47)

Myth is a profoundly ambiguous word, so it would be well to be clear what Donald means by it:

Mythical thought, in our terms, might be regarded as a unified, collectively held system of explanatory and regulatory metaphors. The mind has expanded its reach beyond the episodic perception of events, beyond the mimetic reconstruction of episdes, to a comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe. Causal explanation, prediction, control—myth constitute an attempt at all three, and every aspect of life is permeated by myth.

(Ibid., 134)

In the evolutionary view, which I might add informs ANE (Ancient Near-East) studies, the mythic stage is where stories are created for the purpose of understanding the world. These stories are existential in purpose, where the goal is that the person can feel some manner of coherence in the world. As stories, they have no actual correspondence to reality, and do not need to have any. As long as a story can fulfill its existential function, it is successful. In this light, "true myth" merely means that the story is coherent, but it does not need to have any correspondence with reality, because "myth is not science."

In colloquial terms, "myth" signifies that something is fictional and thus false. In the technical discipline of the history and philosophy of religion, "myth" is stated to be "a unified, collectively held system of explanatory and regulatory metaphors," which when boiled down still means that it is false in the colloquial sense of the term, in the sense that there is a true correspondence to reality. It is in this sense that Christianity can never be said to be a "myth" or even a "true myth," for Christianity proclaims historical, philosophical and scientific correspondence with reality. Christianity is first and foremost truth, before it deals with the existential problems of Man.

It is here that I think Christians need to be careful about the unspoken premises in ANE studies. ANE studies, while most definitely not fully wrong, are not neutral with regards to their presuppositions. The turn to the narrative might sound nice and "warm" for those rejecting Modernity, but it comes with baggage that is antithetical to Christianity. Plus, unless you are a Charismatic, one shouldn't decide on a theory based upon how one feels, but upon what is true according to Scripture, even if one feels no warmth in the truth.

Language, Mimesis and Myth

In trying to describe such an evolutionary order, I have found Merlin Donald's scheme of the evaluation of culture particularly convincing. Donald shows how, in the coevolution of biology and culture, three stage of human culture—mimetic, mythic, and theoretic—developed over the last 1 or 2 millions years. The evolutionary process starts from the baseline of episodic culture, which we share with other higher mammals—that is, the capacity to recognize what episode the individual is in and what happened before in similar episodes that might give us a clue as to how to act now even though lacking what is called autobiographical memory in which the episodes are strung together in a larger story. We then proceed to mimetic culture, possibly as long as 2 millions years ago with such species as Homo erectus, in which we use our bodies to enact past and future events as well as gesture for communication. Mimetic culture, though primarily gestural, was by no means silent, and in all likelihood involved music as well as some beginning of linguistic capacity, though very simple ones. Dance may be one of the earliest forms of such mimetic culture, and dance is basic to ritual in almost all tribal societies, so, thought we can only imagine what it was like, some kind of religion may well begin in those early days. What is important to remember about Donald's scheme is that though he speaks of stages, earlier stages are not lost, but only reorganized under new conditions. Thus even in our highly verbal, and, to a degree, abstract culture, gestural communication remains basic, not only, obviously, in intimate life but in public, in our grand spectacles of sport or politics.

Sometime between 250,000 and 100,000 years ago full grammatical language developed, making complex narratives possible. Perhaps fully developed autobiographical memory depends on grammatical language and narrative and so emerged only then, or perhaps it was already foreshadowed in the mimetic stage. Donald calls the new stage mythic. Myth greatly extends the capacities of mimetic ritual in terms of what it can enact, but it does not replace it. All cultures that we know of have narrative culture intertwined with mimetic culture. I have tried to illustrate religions that are primarily mimetic and mythic under the rubric of tribal religion, being fully aware of how treacherous the word "tribe" is. But even when religions move to include a theoretic dimension, mimetic and mythic culture in reformulated ways continue to be more central; humans cannot function without them [Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), xviii-xix]

But it appears that what provided solidarity before the appearance of modern language was also more than language. Donald uses the metaphor of "language piggybacking on culture" to suggest that the appearance of language required the prior development of a complex culture in terms of which the move to language would make sense. It is the development of mimetic culture over a long period of time that in Donald's view provided greatly increased cognitive resources including the solidarity that grooming no longer, and language has not yet, provided.

...

Donald describes mimesis as an increase in conscious control over action that involves four uniquely human abilities: mime, imitation, skill, and gesture. Mime, he says, is the imaginative enactment of an event. Although apes have a rudimentary ability to mimic, mime involves acting out a sequence of events as in the pretend pay of children, a form of action that breaks with the here-and-now concreteness of episodic action. ... (Ibid., 124-5)

"... Modern humans developed language in response to pressure to improve their conceptual apparatus, not vice versa." Myth is a profoundly ambiguous word, so it would be well to be clear what Donald means by it:

Mythical though, in our terms, might be regarded as a unified, collectively held system of explanatory and regulatory metaphors. The mind has expanded its reach beyond he episodic perception of events, beyond he mimetic reconstruction of episodes, to a comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe. Causal explanation, prediction, control— myth constitute an attempt at all three, and every aspect of life is permeated by myth.

(Ibid., 134)

Religious reality is a realm of experience, to be sure, but it is also a realm of representation. In fact, experience and representation belong inexorably together. George Lindbeck has described the current major alternative theories of religion in ways that will be helpful to our exposition. The first theory of religion he describes is what he calls propositional. It sees religion as consisting of a series of propositional truth claims, stated conceptually. ... I believe that Lindbeck is right in arguing that the propositional theory of religion is inadequate as a major approach to religion and largely abandoned by scholars today. To identify religion with a set of propositions whose truth can be argued would be to make it into what more accurately should be called philosophy. ...

Lindbeck's second theory of religion is the widely influential experiential-expressive approach. This view assume that there is a general human capacity for religious experience that is actualized differently in different religious traditions. The experiential-expressive view in its modern form Lindbeck traces to Friedrich Schleiermacher, and in recent times it was widely propagated by Paul Tillich. The emphasis on B-cognition and the felt-whole in the discussion so far largely belong in the category of the experiential-expressive theory of religion. In one understanding the deep structure of religious experience exists generically in the human psyche. Particular religions are the surface manifestations of this deep panhuman experiential potentiality.

Lindbeck, however, opts for a third theory as most promising, what he calls the cultural-linguistic theory. The cultural-linguistic theory, which derives from cultural anthropology, particularly from Clifford Geertz, takes symbolic forms as primary, seeing them not so much as expressions of underlying religious emotions, but as themselves shaping religious experiences and emotions. I would agree that the cultural-linguistic approach is a valuable corrective to the experiential-expressive approach, but I don't think we have to choose between them. It seems to me that we can view them as coordinate approaches and that we need to move back and forth between them to understand the phenomenon of religion. Thus when I characterize widely different expressions as examples of Being cognition, I am not arguing that there is a subsistent reality of Being experience that simply comes out in different forms on different occasions. Rather, I am recognizing that there are some common human experiential potentialities that have recognizable similarities, but are inchoate until given shape by symbolic form. Once so shaped, their similarities are always qualified: the difference may be crucial. I am also in full agreement with Lindbeck that cultural traditions not only shape, they even call forth, emotional experiences. In short, we can see them as equally essential, like the Aristotelian notions of matter and form, and do not have to choose one approach as primary. (Ibid., 11-12)

Using evolution as the grand narrative, language, culture and religion have to evolve into existence, for apes do not really have either of these (and no, communicating via grunts while it might be basic communication is not language). According to Bellah, language follows after culture, and religion and culture flow from ritual, which comes from the mimetic stage of human development. Language is therefore a human element invented for the purpose of grasping the reality perceived. Flowing from mimesis and mythos, language consists of symbols invented by Man to attempt to grasp a perception of the world. Language is thus sensate from its beginning, and abstract thought arose only later in an attempt to go behind the already existing symbols.

It is therefore unsurprising that Bellah, when discussing Lindbeck's taxonomy of theories of religion, rejects the propositional approach and chooses and combines the theories of religion being experiential-expressivist and of it being cultural-linguistic. After all, in the evolutionary framework, religion is purely a human development stemming from ritual. It is a questing for meaning in the dark, a totally subjective search for a story to make sense of the world (i.e. myth). While religion is somewhat "denigrated," philosophy (as theoretic thought (p. 240)) fares slightly better, since of course philosophy is the precursor of all sciences to some extent. Yet even philosophy is merely a human effect to grasp at reality, a reality that has no relation whatsoever with words. Rather, we create a relation through symbolism, such that words symbolize what we perceive reality to be.

Religion therefore is not concerned with reality per se, but rather reality as symbolized in story. Philosophy is concerned with reality, yet it does so through the use of symbolic language. Both can never achieve the truth, because of the limitations of language, although it can be argued that philosophy, or rather science, is seen to approximate reality well enough for most secularists.

From a Christian point of view, there are of course a lot of problems with this evolutionary picture. Christianity claims to be an objective revelation from the God outside creation, outside of our creaturely points of view (extra nos). If the foundation of Christian knowledge is revelation, then the evolutionary picture painted here by Bellah cannot apply to Christianity. Either Christianity is false and Bellah right, or Bellah is wrong and Christianity right, on the matter of Christianity. Concerning other religions, the Christian faith have always viewed them as idolatry so it is relatively irrelevant whether they stem from ritual or not.

Principially, if Christianity is true, then revelation is true. If revelation is true, then language cannot be mere symbolics, a "piggyback[ing]" on culture (p. 131). In the beginning, God speaks. Language comes from the God who speaks, and therefore language is composed by God to be an adequate vessel of describing reality, not just signifying it. The God who composed language(s) and gave it to Man is the God who creates all things and thus the Creator and the Composer of language are one and the same Being. Language actually corresponds to reality, and abstract language do correspond to abstract objects. Does this mean that language is infallible? No, because sin distorts our use of language as well. But distortion is not destruction, and therefore language while not infallible is nonetheless still adequate. Does this mean that language connects us to God? Language is ectypal not archetypal and therefore, while perfectly suited for us, does not establish an ontic continuity between Man and God.

We see that the Christian view of language totally contradicts the evolutionary view of language. Christianity is a top-down religion, with God as the revealer from the top, while in evolution Man is the discoverer from the bottom. Naturally, a discoverer is always limited to approximation since he does not have full knowledge, whereas a revealer knows all things and therefore there is true correspondence. Humans of course do not know all things, but we are using the tool by the God who knows all things, and thus we "discover" knowing that the tool given is not a mere approximation.

Perhaps an analogy here would help. The evolutionist would have humanity like a man trapped in a huge maze without maps or tools. Such a person would blunder along trying to figure out the workings of the maze. Man under His creator however is like a man in the maze with a device that, because it has been programed with the maze layout, can show the man the way out, yet it shows only the direction not the entire map. So while the man in the evolutionary scenario can only approximate a way out (until he finds a way out i.e. gains complete knowledge), the man under His Creator knows the way out, yet He does so step by step (i.e. without complete knowledge). The competency of language therefore is not because of Man, but because of God who composes it.

Going back to Lindbeck's theories of religion, it is evident that the rejected first option must be the Christian option, though certainly it is not in line with the supposed "established" theory of evolution. Christianity is propositional, though not merely made of propositions (a common straw-man). Language, culture and true religion did not arise from play or ritual, but rather are all given by God to Adam and Eve in their created state in the Garden of Eden.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Religious evolution and progress

There is one more point that, though I touched on it earlier, I need to emphasize in concluding: religious evolution does not mean a progression from worse to better. We have not gone from "primitive religion" that tribal peoples have had to "higher religions" that people like us have. [Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), xxii-xxiii]

... There are three great defects with most attempts at this genre, coming, as they largely do, from Europe and America.

  1. There is a strong tendency, even in Kant, the most universalistic of early modern philosophers, to deal with humanity in terms of a radical dichotomy: us (Europe, later Europe plus America) versus them, and divided not only culturally, but alas, even by Kant, racially. The white race is taken to be superior, even biologically superior, to all the others, though the other races can sometimes be seen as capable of learning to be more like Westerners. Even when the distinction between human groups is seen culturally rather than racially, dichotomy is still the primary way of categorizing: civilization versus barbarism. When distinctions between the less civilized were made, the distinctions between them was still minimal; "Orientals" may be superior to primitives, but they are still categorized as sharing a single, static, and in particular, despotic culture: thus Oriental despotism. One needs look no further than Edward Said's Orientalism to see how recently such a dichotomy has dominated Western though.

  2. This basic dichotomy can be put into time, sometimes evolutionary time, as a distinction between earlier and later, with the later, namely us, distinguishing ourselves from the others by a higher degree of progress. All existing societies can be arranged in terms of stages of progress, with Europe or Euro-America at the apex. Imperialism was justified as educational, bringing the possibilities of liberty, after a suitable (long) period of tutelage, to those without is. Again we are disappointed to find John Stuart Mill, who most of his adult life worked for the East India Company, as did his father, James, giving eloquent expression to such views, and in his great essay On Liberty, no less. Freedom, we find, is "meant to apply to human beings in the maturity of their faculties," whereas "despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement and the means justified by actually effecting their end." British rule in India is, in Mill's words, "good despotism." After all, "the greater part of the world has, properly speaking, no history, because the despotism of custom is complete. This is the case over the whole East."

  3. Past or present horrors can be justified as necessary preconditions for a better (democratic? socialist?) future. McCarthy notes that Walter Benjamin was particularly eloquent in finding unbearable "the thought of history's countless victims being nothing more than stepping stones along the path of development." McCarthy notes that both Kant and Mill said repeatedly that no act that infringes on the dignity, much less the existence, of another human being is ever morally justified. Yet each of them, and countless others less schooled in moral philosophy, found ways of justifying the unjustifiable. This part of our (Western) heritage, in McCarthy's view, calls not only for apology, but for reparation for those who are still suffering from the results of what we have done.

(Ibid., 597-9)

If evolution is true, then not only do human biologically evolve from proto-apes, but all other features of human society must be explained as the product of evolution. Language, culture and religion — the things that mark us as human, must be explained as to how they have came into being. Why and how would a bunch of animals develop such complicated apparatus, while other creatures generally do not do so?

But before we look at the issue, I find it interesting that the author of this work on religious evolution is actively disavowing the notion of progress, a term we normally associate with evolution in general. Bellah prefers to see it as a change from simple to complex, but simple could be better than complex according to him. In the concluding chapter, Bellah briefly traces the superiority complex that has marked previous discourses concerning religious (and cultural) evolution, and deplores them as being imperialist at best and racist at worst.

Bellah's move is certainly in line with the times. Yet, I do wonder how effective such sentiments are in light of the fundamental assumption of evolution Bellah is working with. Bellah is of course correct that complex does not necessary mean better, for the simple bacteria is much more resilient than complex animals in regards to survival. But this caveat does not really help his case for opposing cultural and racial superiority. Survivability is after all not necessarily the most lauded attribute. It is indeed true that evolution's notion of survival of the fittest does laud survivability, yet if conditions allow for a variety of lifeforms for example to survive, complex adapted organisms are generally taken to be superior. Regardless of the fact that viruses can kill off entire populations, we have yet to see anyone saying that viruses are the pinnacle of evolution. Rather, the notion of evolution lauds the growth in complexity of species into their various fitness peaks. Complexity is thus lauded as being good, even though complex creatures are generally less adaptable compared to their simpler progenitors (e.g. the dinosaurs in the mainstream evolutionary narrative).

It is nice and well for the times that Bellah disavows imperialism and racism. Social Darwinism after all has garnered quite a lot of bad rep due to the actions of people like Adolf Hitler. But how can anyone escape the charge of imperialism while holding on to the evolutionary narrative? Presumably, Bellah (and all historians of religion) intends to persuade everyone else of their new view of cultural relativity. Yes, they gave voice to non-Western cultures, but they do so by depicting their developments as development from simpler to complex socio-religious structures. In other words, the Axial age is still superior to the earlier ages (Neolithic, Tribal Archaic) regardless of the culture. Bellah surely does not think that having a mindset that is seen as belonging to the earlier ages is valid in today's world. And even the whole notion of an Axial Age is a western concept. So instead of the previous imperialistic concept whereby non-Western cultures are seen as regressive, the current notion that Bellah supports is that aspects of non-Western cultures (i.e. its Axial forms which are determined by the West) is superior to the regressive forms of non-Western cultures (i.e. all non-Axial forms). How is that not imperialism being somehow smuggled through the backdoor?

Interestingly enough, the Axial forms of culture and religion in the first few millennia of human history covered by Bellah are oftentimes strong in their claims of exclusivity. So presumably, the 21st century must belong to a somewhat different age from the Axial age, since Bellah is most certainly against taking any of their claims of exclusivity seriously. If one sees the notion that one must be inclusive or relativist with regards to cultural and religious claims, then by definition, there IS progress from the Axial age to whatever age we in the 21st century are in. There is a certain sense in which claims of exclusivity (proper in the "Axial Age") are to be regarded as improper in the 21st century, and thus those claims are to be regarded as regressive.

So whichever way one looks at the matter, it does not seem that Bellah, and historians of religion, can ever escape the problems related to progress. Evolution teaches progress and development and those more evolved are (for that time) the inheritors of the earth. When the environment changes, an organism best fitted for the old environment might be ill-adapted to the new environment and thus perish in favor of a previously less fit species. Likewise, in religious evolution, the most Bellah and others can say is that the current superiority is bounded to the current environment, yet progress and superiority must be admitted to be there. It helps no one to claim to fully disavow any notion of imperialism and racism, while ignoring the fact that one's very commitment to evolution as a narrative necessitates holding to superiority and progress, despite those concepts being time-relative.

Lastly, we must say that the embrace of evolution implies that Bellah's premise concerning the evolution of religion relativizes his advocacy of interfaith tolerance. There are no actual omega points in evolution, so Bellah cannot in principle rule out that this very notion of interfaith tolerance and cultural and religious relativity (in the early 21st century) cannot be superseded by claims of religious exclusivity sometime in the future. If he were to claim it as devolution, upon what basis can he say that? Evolution is blind, and perhaps a version of cultural and religious exclusivism might be the next progression in the evolutionary stage.

In conclusion, as we have seen, Bellah's disavowal of progress does not hold. Rejection of past applications of theories concerning religious evolution, due to moral revulsion at the hubris of 20th century Social Darwainism, only tells us that 21st century historians of religion find those implementations morally repugnant, but it does not address the question whether 20th century implementations necessarily follow from the concept of evolution the 20th century Social Darwinists held to. Unfortunately for Bellah and other historians of religion, I do not see how they can avoid the problems associated with progress other than to emote abhorrence at 20th century implementations of evolutionary theory, but emoting does not a logical argument make.