Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Spreading Heat or Light? Douglas Wilson's Impact in Free Reformed Circles

Written by Ray Pennings
In the November issue of the Messenger I wrote on the topic, The Covenant of Works in Recent Discussion.Ó I closed by saying that the next editorial would deal with Dr. Norman Shepherd whose writings on justification have created quite a stir in Reformed and Presbyterian circles. I have decided to postpone this discussion and first place an article by Mr. Ray Pennings on Douglas Wilson who belongs to the Shepherd school but whose writings on practical subjects are better known in our circles than Shepherd who is more the theological master-mind behind the movement called the Ònew perspectiveÓ on the covenant and justification.
Some writers have a way of provoking strong reactions--either of support or displeasure--among their readership. Douglas Wilson is one such writer. That Wilson is prolific and influential both his devotees and critics agree. In 1977 Wilson became the pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. Started in 1975 as a church plant of the Evangelical Free Church, this congregation became independent when the supporting church suddenly abandoned the work in 1977. Wilson, one of the Òguitar-playing song-leaders,Ó was appointed as an elder and became the leader of this work. The original group of about thirty persons not only grew in numbers; they also progressed towards a more orthodox Reformed theology. In 1997, Christ Church was one of the charter members of the Confederation of Reformed Evangelicals (CRE), a growing denomination with 21 churches spread across North America.

In addition to being the name most closely identified with the CRE, Wilson is the primary force behind a monthly magazine Credenda Agenda, an associated website (www.credenda.org), a publishing house (Canon Press), a 120-student liberal arts university (St. Andrews College) and a seminary (Greyfriars Hall). A sought-after speaker at conferences, Wilson is noted for his direct, sometimes sarcastic, writing and speaking style. He boldly addresses gender, family, and societal issues in a manner that not only exposes the emptiness of modern thinking on these subjects, but hits uncomfortably close to home for many in conservative churches whose lifestyles have accommodated some of modernityÕs ways. This boldness has not gone unchallenged. Several websites and magazine articles contain very strongly worded critiques of Wilson and Òthe Moscow crowd.Ó In June 2001, the Covenant Presbytery of the RPCUS (Reformed Presbyterian Church USA) described the teachings of Wilson (and three others) Òas a fundamental denial of the essence of the Christian gospel in denial of justification by faith aloneÓ and as heretical.

We in the Free Reformed Churches (FRC) cannot ignore these controversies. WilsonÕs writings are found in several of our church libraries, are extensively read and discussed by many of our families, and have even been the resource books for various study groups. This short column can only provide a very general overview and a few summary analytical comments.

Major Themes
The website of Christ church (www.christkirk.com) identifies three distinguishing themes that also provide a framework for reviewing the major themes covered by WilsonÕs writings.

First and foremost the emphasis is on practical obedience to the Word of God, especially in the area of (Reformed) ecclesiology. Discipline and accountability, in both family and church, is a prominent theme. There is little tolerance for dualism. Whether the issues relate to gender, entertainment, or interaction with culture, Wilson is prepared to directly challenge his readers as to whether their standards are being shaped by worldly conformity or by Scripture. He directly challenges fathers, as heads of their household, and elders, as being called by God to rule the church, to ensure that ungodliness is not tolerated and that discipline is used to maintain purity. This emphasis stands as a welcome counterbalance to the ever-loosening standards and individualism of our age and is, I believe, a significant factor in explaining WilsonÕs appeal.

The second theme dominating WilsonÕs writings relate to family and education. He has a strong covenantal emphasis. He espouses courtship as preferential to modern dating practices, and emphasizes the importance of parental involvement (and particularly fathers) in choosing spouses for children. Some of these views (in combination with the similar views expressed by his wife Nancy in her publications) have provoked controversy. However, even those who disagree with WilsonÕs practical suggestions rarely argue with his exposition of scriptural principles on which they are based. Wilson also provides practical advice relating to creating a home-life conducive to a covenantal community, advice that helpfully counters the influences of feminism and individualism with which our culture is steeped.

Wilson advocates a Òclassical Christian educationÓ position. This emphasizes the cultivation of a Christian worldview and the pursuit of the ancient ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness. Known for its rigour and focus on the ancient texts of western civilization (including not only the Scriptures, but also Greek philosophy, Augustine, Aquinas, and classic Reformation texts), this approach includes cultivating an appreciation of the arts, architecture and culture

The third emphasis with which Christ Church seeks to distinguish itself is Òthe importance of a solid and defined doctrinal foundation on which to build our lives as Christians. As evangelical Christians we stand in the stream of historic Protestant orthodoxy, and are seeking to build on that foundation.Ó The Westminster Confession, the Three Forms of Unity, the London Baptist Confession (1689), the Savoy Declaration (1658) and the Reformed Evangelical Confession are cited as confessional standards. Since these confessions include both baptist and paedo-baptist positions, the church allows both practices (as determined by family), defending this on the basis that both positions Òshare a covenantal paradigm.Ó

Analysis
After this all too brief survey of WilsonÕs writings, let me use the rest of this article to make some cautionary comments for reflection by those who appreciate his writings.

The first comment relates to his style. While colourful and even entertaining at times, Wilson is deliberately provocative. He has a very sharp tongue and frequently makes use of sarcasm. If one were to critique solely on the basis of style, Wilson stands co-accused with Luther and other Reformers of allowing their sharp tongues to sometimes draw attention away from more substantive points. Not only does this approach detract from the effectiveness of his often valuable and well-reasoned arguments, but occasionally the reader senses that Biblical standards of appropriate Christian charity and civility are compromised. The offence he causes is compounded by the relative absence of empathetic words for the widowed, single mothers, and other victims of brokenness in society. It is one thing to strongly speak in favour of responsibility and the ideals to which we ought to aspire--this Wilson does well and he is to be commended for it. It is another thing, however, to allow our approach to convey superiority. It is only GodÕs grace that makes a difference and therefore we need to make sure that no one can accuse us of self-righteousness.

Flowing from this stylistic concern is WilsonÕs tendency to make dogmatic statements on issues of Christian liberty about which different positions can be held within the parameters of Scripture. He does not always differentiate between a biblical principle and its implementation and he uses dogmatic language to describe both. An illustration or two might clarify the point.

Introducing his book on ecclesiology, Wilson argues, Òthe reformation of the family is at the heart of the reformation of the Church. All Christians concerned for the Church must recognize the importance of structuring the family according to the Scriptures and not according to the smoke of this world.Ó So far, so good. What Wilson has articulated here can directly be traced to Scripture. He then proceeds to illustrate this point by noting, Òour culture is so rebellious that we have institutionalized our rebellion and cannot even conceive of how a genuine obedience would appear. We must nevertheless begin; Christians must insist on the abolition of the government school system, our nursing home system, our government welfare system, and countless other agencies and bureaucracies designed by the godless to replace the family Christians must take their children out of government schools and day-care centres, their parents out of rest homes, and food stamps out of the budget. Is one to conclude from this that Christians with either children in public school, parents in a nursing home, or supportive of public welfare--regardless of their circumstances or context--are not concerned about the reformation of the Church? It is disrespectful to faithful believers who take different views on these practical issues to equate the efforts of a Christian nursing home or a government run school (say, for instance, in a developing country) with efforts Òby the godless to replace the family.Ó

Another example comes from what Wilson writes about the importance of training young men to be leaders of their families and in society. Here too he makes many valid and important points but he clearly overstates his case. In contrast to the ÒwimpinessÓ and lack of backbone evident in our time, Wilson advocates Òa theology of fist fightingÓ in which Òyoung boys should obviously be trained in the use of real firearms.Ó Now perhaps these things are obvious in Idaho, but for most, it is a huge leap from the principles underlying training for male leadership--an important and neglected Biblical principle--and the use of fists and firearms. Throughout his writings Wilson presents both principle and application with the same black and white approach. Those who may agree with his principles but disagree with some of his applications are characterized with the same condemnatory brush.

The third comment regards WilsonÕs theology. His writings are generally orthodox, in conformity to the historic Reformation creeds. The focus on covenantal obedience and living in covenant community prompts careful attention from readers raised in the FRC tradition. We are wary of the dangers of presumption and loose living that can sometimes flow from such an emphasis. However WilsonÕs focus is on the importance of covenantal obedience, accountability to God in the context of covenant communities, and the responsibility to let gospel light shine in the worldÐthemes which have biblical foundations and cannot be ignored.

But as with any emphasis that becomes a defining characteristic of oneÕs work, it sometimes can lead to distortions. For instance, warnings against a presumptive covenantal view can easily result in an undervaluing of covenantal promises. In WilsonÕs case, a different danger appears evident. The emphasis on objective obedience and accountability can result in neglect of the subjective application of GodÕs work. The Catechism highlights how faith involves Òboth a certain knowledge and an assured confidenceÓ of which the consequence must be good works. But our confidence cannot be based on our good works! The Holy Spirit must apply the work of Christ to our hearts, which will lead to the realization that Òeven our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.Ó

I expect Wilson would agree with this formulation. However, it is not a theme that is emphasized in his writings. In fact, it would seem from his overall writings that Wilson would caution against this emphasis, noting that it can lead to Òthe problem of the introspective conscienceÓ and an individualism that negates the covenantal themes of Scripture.

WilsonÕs critics suggest that it goes much further. The details surrounding this serious list of charges do not lend itself to simple summary. J. V. Vesko, in a review WilsonÕs 2003 book Reformed is Not Enough, focuses on several of the key concerns regarding WilsonÕs writings. One is the notion of regarding baptism as the backbone of the church with a resulting view that membership in the covenant is the basis for participation in the LordÕs Supper. The most serious charge deals with WilsonÕs views on justification, which reframes the historic Reformed understanding of justification to include both individual justification and corporate justification at the consummation. These views, which have been advanced by N.T. Wright and others in the Ònew perspectiveÓ camp (which, in fairness to Wilson, he does distinguish his position from, even as he highlights some points of agreement), have far-reaching implications that go to the heart of our understanding of the gospel. The temperature of the debate has heated significantly with strongly worded accusations coming from all sides.

The debates surrounding WilsonÕs views raise serious concerns in my mind. From his most popular writings that I have read, there is no specific reference that I can cite that ÒprovesÓ the strong accusations made by WilsonÕs critics. I do, however, find what he has written less than complete and the implication of what he says, quite disturbing. Even when dealing with the themes of sanctification, we need to emphasize the work of Christ and the great exchange that takes place between the sinnerÕs guilt and ChristÕs righteousness. While it is legitimate to highlight the objective and external and its importance in the Christian life, this should never be done by downplaying the necessity of the subjective application of ChristÕs finished work by the Holy Spirit.

WilsonÕs writings are helpful and direct in confronting contemporary issues, even if his style and tone is sometimes distasteful. The merits of his arguments certainly outweigh this flaw. However, I do caution Wilson readers among us, to make distinctions where he fails to do so. There is a difference between the, ÒThus saith the LordÓ of biblical principleÐon which we may not compromiseÐand the choices made in applying that principle to a specific circumstance. WilsonÕs adviceÐmuch of it valuable and worthwhileÐneeds to be read as advice, not the Òonly wayÓ faithful Christians can live. And in the process, we ought to be very conscious of the different emphasis that characterizes his writing. While WilsonÕs works on family and gender are not the primary focus of the theological controversy surrounding him and others of the Ònew perspective,Ó I sense even in these works an imbalance and would wish that themes like the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation and sanctification were more prominently evident.

As with any human author, one must read discerningly, always testing what is written against the standard of GodÕs word. Douglas Wilson has provided us with many resources that address subjects in a direct manner that few others have dared, and there is much good to be gleaned from his writings. Used in conjunction with other works on these themes they can be read with profit.

ENDNOTES
1. Mother Kirk, p.17.
2. Future Men, p.131.
3. Reformed is Not Enough, p.191.

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