Pragmatic Churches and Pastoral Ministry Students, Pragmatism in the Life of the Church

For context, be sure and read the first four articles listed here.

With such conditions arising in the culture at large, one ought not to be surprised to discover some of the core tenants of pragmatism taking root in the life of the church. James and Dewey were not explicitly anti-religion. They desired to influence religion through their new philosophy, and in many ways they accomplished their task. Pragmatism as a theological system begins by stripping the theologian of any certainty. He can believe the whole of Christian theology and teaching, but he can never be certain of it. According one Pragmatic theologian, “truth exhibits a tentative, fragmentary, and provisional quality.”[1] Thus, a Christian may have clear instructions from the Bible on matters like parenting and church government, but if experience offers newer, better solutions for such issues, the Bible’s mandates must be seen as “tentative, fragmentary, and provisional.”

Back to the Bible. Such a system certainly does not allow for any inquiry into the implicit nature of the Bible. If a Christian claims the Bible teaches something like church membership, but cannot automatically point to an explicit mandate from a proof text in Scripture, that Christian runs the risk of being labeled a pragmatist. Ironically, the one assuming the Bible does not speak to the matter, having not conducted a full investigation of his own, is the one who is ultimately being pragmatic in his approach. There is no situation with which man is confronted about which he cannot find some guiding principles in the Bible, even if he may not be able to find a proof text speaking directly to it. As the Second London Baptist Confession reads:

“Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word, and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”[2]

As such, rather than searching the Scriptures to see if such things are so, Christians have by-and-large deferred everything to the experts. Thus, if one desires to have a healthy view of church government, one need do no more work than to read IX Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever and implement his ideas. If one wants to develop an easy acrostic for one’s soteriology, one needs look no further than R.C. Sproul’s Chosen by God. However, these godly men would be, and often are, appalled to find that their books often become the system propagated by many in the evangelical church rather than spurring the church on to search the Scriptures to see if these things are so. The church has come to believe that truth comes by experience, and these experts have much more experience than other men in these matters. Therefore, no biblical inquiry is necessary in order to determine that the things they write are true. After all, they have apparently done all the necessary biblical study, right?

The disappearance of the Christian mind. In the early 1960s, Harry Blamires observed and lamented this attitude in the church. In his book The Christian Mind, he decried, “There is no longer a Christian Mind.”[3] Though he does not mention the term, pragmatism in the church had progressed into an anti-thinking, expert-reliant mentality. The western church had lost its mind. Men and women in the church no longer considered matters that did not in some way yield some personal, devotional value.[4] In order for an issue to be deemed worthy of inquiry, it had to “prove to have value for concrete life.”[5] If a line of inquiry was not first proven to have devotional or evangelistic or missiological value it was a moot point, even before the matter was considered.

The default posture of many Western Christians today, and certainly since Blamires’ time, is that of pragmatism. Many Christians argue that in-depth inquiry into the Bible is unnecessary for the making of many decisions. Where ignorance exists, there is liberty. This is not a biblical posture, though. Solomon argued, “It is a trap for a man to say rashly, ‘It is holy!’ and after the vows to make inquiry” (Prov. 20:25). Yet, many today seek to discourage biblical inquiry when discussing issues that have already been decided by evangelicalism’s apparently infallible experts.

The contemporary situation. Oh, there are matters that modern evangelicals find important, even important enough to take to the streets. However, even these matters are often dictated to them by the experts. Evangelicals have learned to devote so much effort to specific issues of the day that they have systematically abandoned any notion that Christian thinking is a prerequisite before acting in any other areas of life. Mark Noll explains:

“To put it most simply, the evangelical ethos is activistic, populist, pragmatic, and utilitarian. It allows little space for broader or deeper intellectual effort because it is dominated by the urgencies of the moment.”[6]

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, let me reiterate: the evangelical church in the West has lost its mind. Such is particularly the case in regard to the issue of the relationship between local churches and those whom they raise up and send out to lead in the work of the ministry. Evangelicals in the West have completely disengaged their brains in regard to just how the local church ought to relate to pastoral ministry students. In any case, there are seminaries and professors for that, right? Wrong. Seminaries and professors play an important role in the life of the pastoral ministry student, but they cannot and should not attempt to do the job of the local church. Certainly, this is an issue regarding which western evangelicals ought to renew their minds and stop thinking so pragmatically.

[1]Victor Anderson, Pragmatic Theology (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1998), 33.

[2]Nehemiah Coxe and William Collins, The Baptist Confession & the Baptist Catechism (Birmingham: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2010), 1.6.

[3]Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2005), 3.

[4]Ibid., 37-38.

[5]James, Pragmatism, 36.

[6]Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994).

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