Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Transformationalism and the Agora Forum

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (Jn. 18:36)

Over in Singapore, the Reformed faith does not exactly have an illustrious past, in fact almost no past at all. Mainstream churches turned liberal with the import of Modernism early on in the early part of the 20th century and evangelicalism came in with the parachurch organizations (Campus Crusade, Navigators, YFC etc) and the Billy Graham crusades. Yet, the Reformed faith slowly entered this part of the world from literature and a few pastors from the West with the start up of several churches (of which my Singapore church is one of them) in the 80s and 90s, and that influence is still growing and continuing into the 21st century mainly via books and the Internet.

Another such Reformed influence comes from the ministry of Indonesian evangelist Stephen Tong, founder of STEMI (Stephen Tong Evangelistic Ministries International) and the "Reformed Evangelical Movement". A couple of years back sometime after I embraced the Doctrines of Grace and was moving towards Reformed confessionalism, around the year 2006, I came to hear about this group that calls itself the Agora, which have a main (Malaysian) blog here and a Singapore one here. Still struggling to come to grips with the implications my transition from Evangelical Third-wave Charismatic to Reformed theology demands of me, I wasn't that enamored of what seemed to me to at that time to be some form of social justice cause. I was contacted at that time by one of the people in the group to join it. Providentially, one of the contributors by the name of Joshua Woo wrote something on the AgoraSG blog related to the Danish existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, a post which seemed to have been removed later. Being Reformed and reforming, reading that article however drew my suspicion and I naturally declined to have anything to do with the group.

Since then, I have came to know somewhat some of the people in the group and some of the stuff that has happened in at least the Singapore branch. Dave Chong is the prominent voice in Malaysia and it seems the person behind the entire idea of the Agora. In its relation to the churches, it seems that the Agora has some form of relation to STEMI but is not part of it neither is it held accountable by it. Rather, the Agora is a amorphous "conversation" whereby Christians and non-Christians are welcomed to come together to discuss various issues, and which does not exactly have much of a statement of faith but just a vision statement (with the exception of the Singapore one which was forced by certain unhappy circumstances which I am not going to disclose). The people involved may be from different churches but are not under any formal ecclesiastical oversight of any sort, with the exception of perhaps Agora KL which seems to be under Dave Chong who is serving in CDPC (City Discipleship Presbyterian Church) located near KL in Malaysia.

Now, I am not going to quibble over the idea of "conversations" here because I do believe it can be done in a right manner. Rather, Agora would serve as the example of what I have come to see as the error of a set of teaching called Transformationalism. Since 2006, this issue has been at the back of my mind and, while I do not focus much energies thinking about the particular subject matter, the subject has always been there (along with many other topics as you can see in the topics I post about) awaiting the time for further contemplation and reflection according to the Scriptures.

So what exactly is "transformationalism"? Briefly stated, it is any set of teachings which states that Christians have as at least one of their goals to somehow directly transform society. There are at least three types of transformationalisms present today: Kuyperian, Christian Reconstructionism and Dominionism, and these three are not necessarily non-overlapping. Transformationalists of all sorts typically make much of the so-called "Cultural Mandate", seeing it as something that is required for Christians and the Church. Under the frramework of "Common Grace", Christians are supposed to bring all of life in all their various "spheres" under the Lordship of Christ (whatever and however that is supposed to mean), knowing that as they do, the idea of "common grace" would mean that unbelievers would agree with and even participate in such transformation.

In what follows, I would do a brief critique of the transformationalism as it seems to be practiced in the Agora movement.

The topsy-turvy world of Transformationalism

In traditional Reformed, Protestant and Evangelical theology, the doctrine of salvation is at the center. When Luther discovered the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, that doctrine became the material principle of the entire Reformation. Since then, the doctrine of salvation has always remained as the center of the Christian message. Following the outline of Scripture in its teachings and emphases, theologians formulate the various doctrines of Scripture from a Gospel-centered perspective. From the basics of the Gospel come soteriology, covenant theology, ecclesiology and others. From the fact that we as individuals are justified individually before God, we are then saved into the corporate body of the Church, which then functions in the midst of society. The Reformational focus following Scripture thus has always been from the individual first, to the covenant family (if any) next, then to the church as a corporate body, and then to the society at large.

Reformational Christians should therefore follow the emphases of Scripture and direct their lives accordingly. We should focus a lot on the individual, a substantial amount on the family and on the church, and much less on society. This is especially so when it comes to society. When Jesus says that His kingdom is not of this world, we must understand that Christ's mission has nothing to do with society in general. This does not mean that Scripture has nothing to say about society, but that it is of less importance in Scripture.

The Transformationalist however lives in a topsy-turvy world. While Reformed varieties supposedly do focus on the individual and the doctrine of salvation, yet the focus for them is society. The triangle has for all purposes been inverted. Such topsy-turviness leads to something even more deadly: Compromise

Compromise and ecumenism

The topsy-turvy view of Christianity has led to some very interesting phenomena. The specter of compromise comes in when one has a under-developed view of basic doctrine, and an over-developed view of how to transform society. The various doctrines of Christianity are minimalized and critical differences papered over. One finds in Agora for example a trivializing of the dangers of doctrinal error, as we have seen in the non-chalance some of them displayed in 2006 towards my concerns on the posting of the Kierkegaard piece by Joshua Woo. The general absence of any statement of faith indicates the general indifference to the things which Scripture treats as important. If we as Reformational Christians are convinced for example that believing in Justification by Faith Alone is the very heart of the Gospel and thus whoever denies that is lost, then we would not think that someone who denies Justification by Faith Alone as being "a Christian who just happens not to believe in some doctrines". Ditto for all the major doctrines of Scripture.

Such doctrinal minimalization comes together with ecumenism. Since they are after all to be co-belligerants to work for the transformation of society, it would be counter-productive to offend their co-workers whom they are supposedly working with them towards transformation. While they probably would not jettison the Gospel entirely, such need to form a working coalition would tend towards broad ecumenism whereby doctrinal differences are tolerated to a certain limit, which depends largely on the individual. For some it may be inerrancy, and for others the Nicene Creed. Regardless of which line is chosen, the line chosen seemed to have more in common with personal or historical preferences rather than the line drawn by Scripture itself.

While obviously not everyone is called to specifically address biblical errors, all of us are called to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). It is simply unbelievable that transformationalists are more interested in presenting a "holistic" vision for the Church while they are indifferent to the fact that their co-belligerants are on the wide road to perdition. But such is the skewed vision that Transformationalism gives its adherents.

Transforming into obsolescence

The Church that is married to the Spirit of the Age will be a widow in the next. (Dean Inge 1860 - 1954)

Being engaged in so-called "transformation" involves some rather dubious activities on the part of such people. In the rush to be relevant to society, transformationists tend to become the religious equivalent of news commentators, offering an alternate Christian view of contemporary issues. No doubt Christians need to apply the truths of Scripture to various issues concerning the world, but transformationists tend to major on such contemporary societal concerns, oftentimes due to the topsy-turvy worldview being left without a solid biblical basis for the commentaries they offer.

Agora in this light has provided an excellent example of reckless Transformationists biting off more than they can chew. On the Agora blog from 2007, we have an interesting blog post helping us interact with ... Global Warming! Nevermind that the proof for such is almost non-existent, as even recently an IPCC insider and prominent climate scientist Mike Hulme states. Instead, the transformationalists must jump onto the green agenda since it is even now still a hot button issue. Does Dave even question the basis for all the green hysteria? After all, if the transformationalists are supposed to really give an informed biblical perspective on issues, shouldn't they be able to address the issues from a biblical perspective in questioning the faulty presuppositions of climate science? Instead, we see Christians trying to marry the Spirit of this age, and they would be widowed in the next after the so-called global warming scare has dissipated.

In a more recent paper, Dave Chong addresses the issue of "creation care". The paper he posted sounds like a green paper with scriptural references peppered over it. Nowhere are the faulty presuppositions about the green movement even exposed and examined. Instead, faulty and fallacious science is made the determinator of what the problem is. Now, are we to care for the environment? Sure. Are we to waste resources? No. And that is why such position papers are actually so insidious. They have just enough truth to trap the unwary and enough falsehood to poison them. After all, if it is claimed that creation care means "zero carbon emission", such must be achieved even if millions of people starve to death because of it - all collateral damage for the cause of saving Gaia.

Whichever position one takes on the climate change issue, it must be admitted that Dave Chong has bitten off more than he can chew. When transformationists attempt to be too broad, they may transform themselves into obsolescence. As Dean Inge said, the Church that is married to the Spirit of the Age will be a widow in the next. Ditto for individuals too. Just as the Theistic Evolutionists are obsolete even as they speak, the global warming fear-mongers would be obsolete when the warming they prophesy fail to come to pass.

Neglecting the weightier things of the faith

This topsy-turvy view of Christianity comes down into a neglect of the important things of the faith. Most certainly, Reformed Christianity does not advocate a reductionistic view of being focused on soul-saving to the exclusion of almost every other thing. Extreme existential spiritualizing as if Christianity is all about feelings and relationships is a terrible distortion of true biblical doctrine. Yet it is just as wrong to swing to the other extreme of which Transformationalism is one such example. Rather, one must go back to Scripture and follow its teachings. Wanting to transform society yet neglecting the clearer commands of Scripture is truly neglecting the weightier things of the faith and focusing on the things which actually matter less to God.

We have previously said that the Scriptures move from the individual to the family to the church and then to society. If we seek to be biblical, then we must do likewise. What then is the biblical way of truly impacting society?

The biblical model

Christians are first called to the work of souls. If the Gospel is to be the center of Christianity, then the individual and his state before God is the most important thing for us. We are not here to think of the issue reductionistically as if only evangelism is in mind. Rather, what this refers to is that our focus must first and foremost be for the service and good of individuals (which includes evangelism, apologetics, discipleship etc). In this light, the transformationalists are in error when they rather sacrifice the soul of the individual for their "worldview analyses" and "societal changes". Nothing irks them more than other concerned Christians who question them about their co-belligerency and start refuting the errant and heretical views held by some of the so-called Christians friends. While it is likely they will try to change the errors of their co-belligerents, they will do so in a "positive" manner which has more to do with Santa Claus than Jesus Christ.

The next step is that of the family. The so-called "Cultural Mandate" which is found in Gen. 1:28 (which is of the Created order) has as its beginning "Be fruitful and multiply". The Old Testament talks about the blessing of having children (Ps. 127:3-5) and the New Testament talks about rearing up children for the Lord (1 Tim. 2:15, Eph. 6:4). While children have a diminished role as compared to their importance in the Old Testament, yet unless God says otherwise, the natural thing to do is to have children and bring them up in the nurture of the Lord.

Yet it is at this point that the Transformationalists in the Asian context disregard. It is somewhat disingenuous to claim to follow the "Cultural Mandate" when one choose to follow the latter clause while ignoring the former clause. Having and nurturing children in the ways of the Lord is both a creation and redemptive mandate. This is especially so in Reformed Covenant Theology thought, where we believe that God promises to save His people in the line of generations and thus we practice Infant Baptism. In this light, do not bother about the doomsday scenario of the "population experts". If they really want to stop population growth, they should start with themselves so that there would be less fools on the planet.

The next stage would be that of the church. The Church is the Body of Christ and His bride. Christians come to church to attend to the means of grace in the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments (certainly NOT dramas, skits and social services).

When Christians interact with society, we must move through the other stages first. Only then can we work for change in society. For after all, the real and lasting change in society comes when people in that society turn to God, not when laws of biblical morality are imposed on people. As such, while we are indeed called to be salt and light in this world, we do not have to plot and scheme for the transformation of this world according to the Transformationalists' paradigms. Rather, we attend to the means of grace that God has ordained in His Word, and who knows if God in His mercy would grant repentance and faith to the nations.

9 comments:

Ken Silva said...

Hey Daniel,

This sure looks like the kind of post CRN would like to carry. ;-)

PuritanReformed said...

Hi Ken,

if you think so. I was thinking it didn't meet my standards of what constitutes a good post.

The Hedonese said...

Helo Daniel,

If I'm a tranformationalist, (an odd term I've never adopted) then so is your hero Mike Horton :)

Read his book "Where in the world is the church?" He's big on the gospel and transforming culture, it seems. The problem with fundamentalists is they preach a truncated gospel rather than the God glorifying, world transforming gospel of Scripture

PuritanReformed said...

[cont]

In [Kim] Riddlebarger's (co-host of the White Horse Inn program) book which I have just finished reading entitled The Man of Sin: Uncovering the truth about Antichrist (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), Riddlebarger correctly wrote:

...government usurping its God-given role and seeking the adoration and worship owed to God by his poeple.... The worship of the state or its leaders in all its forms is a false religion. It is the very essence of the beast [of Revelation] (p. 174)

The promotion of any form of socialism contributes to the growth of big government and is one more step towards the establishment of the Antichrist and his system: a self-deified state-sanctioned heretical system which persecutes God's people.

So why should Christians be deluded by a theory (AGW) that is errant at best and is a step towards the establshment of the Antichrist and his system?

[cont]

PuritanReformed said...

[cont]

I also do not see that you treasure the truths of the Gospel more than "engaging the culture". I think my section in this blog post speaks for itself. I have heard of your defense of your friend the heretic Joshua Woo. If you truly treasure his soul, the least you can do is to call him to repentance for his soul-damning sin of rejecting inerrancy. Doesn't this action (or rather non-action) of yours illustrates perfectly the topsy-turvy nature of your Kuyperian idea of transformation? To apply our Lord's words in Mt. 16:26, "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world yet leaves the souls of men under damnation?" Are we interested in creating some form of "Christendom", or rather are willing to use the foolishness of preaching of the Gospel to save the souls of sinners and let society be transformed as men and women are saved? During the Reformation, the Gospel changed societies by bringing men and women to repentance and faith in Christ, not by any "engagement" with the debauched culture of that time.

God bless,
Daniel.

PuritanReformed said...

Oh yes, you are mistaken in your understanding of Fundamentalism. Which Fundamentalist book have you read which define Fundamentalism as opposed to Reformed thought?

On the Reformed side, have you read Calvin's Institutes, his A Reformation Debate with Sadoleto, his various polemical works, John Owen's A Display of Arminianism, Robert Reymond's The Reformation's Conflict with Rome, Charles Spurgeon's The Downgrade Controversy among others like them? On the Fundamentalist side, have you read Earnest D. Pickering's Biblical Separation, Joseph Canfield's The Incredible Scofield and his book, John H. Gerstner's Wrongly Diving the Word of Truth (the first part at least)?

It is you who are mistaken in your understanding of Fundamentalism, Reformed thought, and [New] Evangelicalism. There is nothing "Fundamentalist" in making the Gospel, Scripture and Christ (the 5 solas) primary. There is nothing "Fundamentalist" in insisting that all Christians are to contend for the faith. There is nothing "Fundamentalist" in insisting that certain doctrines must be believed in, or cannot be denied, which are necessary for salvation. There is nothing "Fundamentalist" in attacking heretics, unless you want to call Luther, Calvin, [Gilbert] Voetius etc "fundamentalists".

PuritanReformed said...

[cont]

On the other hand, there is nothing Reformed in neglecting the Gospel message. There is nothng Reformed in broad ecumenism with the enemies of the Cross. There is nothing Reformed in majoring on the minors (culture) and minoring on the majors (Gospel, salvation). There is nothing Reformed in tolerating heresy in the name of "love".

The Christian faith is a holistic faith, but it is also a faith with majors and minors. As I have said in this blog post, the Christian message moves through the individual, then to the family, the to the church, and only after all this to the culture/state. There is nothing trucated in the Reformed faith, but we know where to place our correction emphases on, unlike the transformationalists it seems.

PuritanReformed said...

I detest this blogger system. All my comments are messed up!

PuritanReformed said...

Hi Dave:

Mike Horton, who will be one of my professors, believes in the 2-Kingdom theory and is no Kuyperian. The issue has never been whether Christians should engage the culture (we always do engage it since it is ubiquitous around us), but how we are to do so.

Before we start, I would like to make it very clear that I am not addressing you as a person (I have nothing personal against you). You and the Agora forum are merely examples for what I see as a movement which results in compromise of the Gospel.

I think we can clearly establish that you believe in the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), a theory which incidentally is not truly scientific as my post on Climategate has hinted at. Whether done out of ignorance, the fact of the matter is that such uncritical "engagement" of culture leads one to error in practice. In this case, the Church is hijacked to push through the Marxist agenda and the establishment of some form of socialism over and against the biblical teaching of free enterprise (Note I didn't use the term Capitalism) and the individual's personal rights and responsibility before God.

[cont]