Semper Reformanda: Trauma?

Not many years ago, we were told we needed a new reformation, this time of deeds, not creeds. That was Rick Warren in 2005, some 17 years ago using church growth methods. The emergent movement took postmodern thought and said we need a new trajectory, a reformation not from a new (biblical/theological) center, but with a new direction.

Now we are a long way from those naïve decades, and so a new call arises:

Now comes the call for yet another reformation, this time employing the most up-to-date methods of the zeitgeist: trauma, structural/systemic measurements, and intersectionality.

A New Method

I love the call to repentance here, assuming we all agree on what Scripture says constitutes repentance and its fruits. And full credit to Kwon – too often, American Christianity has been repentance in word only, without bearing fruit in keeping with repentance (Matt/Luke 3:8). While I disagree with some most of what he put forward in Reparations, at least it was a formed-out approach to living with the fruit of repentance.

Methods are funny things, in that they are rarely completely neutral. I love Michael Horton’s systematic theology, A Christian Faith. His use of speech-act theory gives fresh insight to many verses, that equips Christians with a new apologetic in some postmodern spaces. Nevertheless, I also wince, knowing the passing of time will at some point relegate speech-act theory as outdated, thus in turn affecting the usefulness of his dogmatics book. Because of this, I assume I (and others) will be using Bavinck & Berkhof longer than we will be using A Christian Faith as a textbook due to this method. The challenge we face is to intelligently make our pattern of doctrine understandable in current climates, without clinging too tightly to their methods.*

If that is true about method, what happens when the modern understandings of “trauma” are discredited? Kwon’s tweet suggests that even “racial reconciliation” has baggage, and is threadbare. Won’t that be the same fate for “trauma,” “structural” or “systemic,” as well? To take a well known example, just a few years ago we were told to “believe all women” when they came forward with accusations of sexual violence. It has been ironic to see how cultural winds have shifted: consider “believe women” in the allegations against President Biden, or against Amber Heard in her lawsuits with Johnny Depp. Personally, I have been sickened to see how much national attention is paid to celebrity fodder; simultaneously, this celebrity dumpster fire is a cultural artifact that should make us pause when we reflect on how “trauma” and “structural” will be understood in the blink of an eye. It is not wise for Kwon, or anyone!, to hitch our wagons to current (trendy?) methodology, for fear that in attempt to follow the Heilige Geist we might confuse Him for the zeitgeist.

*To be fair to Horton, not only is he not unaware of this, I learned this from him. Writing about how philosophical concepts like speech act theory get used in theological texts, he notes, “The critical question to ask, whether concerning Anselm’s ontological argument or Paul Ricoeur’s analysis of testimony, is not whether philosophical concepts are being employed, but how they are being appropriated and whether that appropriation renders the most faithful exegesis of the biblical text” (“What God Hath Joined Together: Westminster and the Uneasy Union of Biblical and Systematic Theology” in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: Systematic Theology at the Westminster Seminaries ed. D. VanDrunen (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004) p. 65-6). Anselm’s ontological argument was used by Christians of yesteryear; Ricoeur and speech act today. The goal is not to escape all philosophical or cultural constructs, as if that were even possible, but instead to utilize these tools and heuristic devices in a way that is faithful to the analogia fide. Does Kwon fully understand if his methods are appropriating a faithful exegesis?

A New Elite

I wonder about a “minority-led” movement, especially in racial reconciliation. I cannot take for granted that this is easy for me to do, as a white, straight, Christian male. Nevertheless, if a small minority is put in charge of a whole movement… then…

… isn’t that simply forming a new “elite”? Except rather than basing it on wealth, nobility, or political power, the elite is now defined by race? And unlike money or political power, which can be traded, passed on, or shared, racial elitism is in one sense static. You can never change your racial identity.

(It will be interesting to see how this plays out in America, where the birthrate suggests that bi- or multi-racial numbers are growing. For example, from 2010 to 2020, the population of “White And Some Other Race” rose 1000%, “White And Native American or Alaskan” rose 177%, “White And African American” rose 67.4%, and “Black And Some Other Race” rose 230%. [source])

Of course, we must be quick to support Kwon’s suggestions in that Scripture gives examples of minority victims being given leadership over the problem. In Acts 6:1, a socio-cultural issue was rearing its head in the nascent Church, as Hellenistic widows were being overlooked in favor of the Hebrew widows. Commentators ancient and modern have observed the solution involved selecting seven men to care for the Hellenistic widows, and all seven of the men had Hellenistic names (6:5). To them was entrusted the “duty” (χρείας) of caring for the Hellenistic widows (I’ll leave to Kwon as to why there were no reparations for this racial slight against this segment of widows.)

Fra Angelico, “Saint Peter Consecrates Saint Stephen, with the Seven Deacons,” c. 1448

Whether these men were proto-deacons or not is immaterial for our discussion – note here that “minority leadership” was established: Hellenistic leaders for a Hellenistic problem. But I have this against many unstated notions of “minority leadership” – Stephen and the Seven were in charge of the “duty” of care, not given leadership over the entirety of the Church. The apostles were to continue in their work of Word & prayer (6:4), and the Seven were “appointed” (from καθίστημι) to a specific task. The leadership of the Church under Christ still rests with the apostles, while the Seven are appointed to a specific charge.

In my understanding, with a hypothetical context of Kwon’s PCA, when Kwon calls for “minority-led” leadership, that looks like elevating minorities to leadership positions/committees in addressing the mistreatment of minorities in the PCA, but not necessarily ensuring that minorities are forced on to the Standing Judicial Committee, the Administrative Committee, or the Moderator. Steven and the Seven cared for the Hellenistic widows, not the entire Church of Christ. Nehemiah – a Hebrew in the minority – was given charge over the task in Jerusalem; he did not take Artaxerxes throne.

To be fair to critics, it would be naïve to think that the Apostles appointed the Seven, and that was the end of it. No doubt, there was continued communication, with oversight given by the Apostles, and feedback/critique given by the Seven. Even if minority leadership doesn’t assume the Moderator/President position, the general ought to listen closely and be in regular communication with the lieutenants. And if an Irwyn Ince should be appointed Moderator, as in 2018, so much the better!

In racial matters, I often think of Dr King Jr.’s rebuke of moderates in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, and wonder if I’m merely standing athwart repression crying “go more slowly!” (No doubt Kwon might suspect me of that, given his reply to Kevin DeYoung’s review of Reparations.) Perhaps we are beyond what I have articulated above.

An Old Reformation

Despite these criticisms, I applaud Kwon and others who insist we must do something new. It will not do to expect new outcomes without changing action. Nor can we simply echo the socialists and claim its never been done properly before, or that we will do it better this time. So what methods must be adopted for this new reformation?

When we come back to this issue in the next post, the Reformed slogan of semper reformanda often gets translated as “always reforming,” but as Scott Clark points out, it has a much more complicated history. But it is the subordinate clause, secundum verbum Dei (“according to the Word of God”) that shows our method. And despite dragging him earlier, Dr. Horton’s insistence that “the mission of the Church is to evidence & execute the marks of the Church” is still true. Putting God’s Word and the Marks of the Reformation together is what we will look at next time.

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