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Charity and Criticism

"Uncle Glen"

Dear James,

Has Facebook come to this? Your mom tells me that a number of your acquaintances at Rutherford College have declined you as "a friend" since your article appeared in the student newspaper. I guess you now know firsthand the consequences of taking on a popular professor in print. Of course, your friends may have other reasons for not wanting you as a friend. But your account makes sense.

I remember the damage my own reputation sustained when I was at Rutherford and decided to blast the speaker at the College's "Spiritual Emphasis Week" for promoting perfectionism. As I recall, he even used the phrase, "Let go, let God," which, as Dr. Morton taught us, was a sure sign that sanctification required a second blessing. This was, obviously, before the days of the Internet. When my article came out in The Torch, the dean of students called me in for a tongue-lashing. His point was not that my theology was bad, but that my article was disrespectful; it didn't help that the piece came out on the final day of the speaker's visit. I am still not sure about the dean's conclusion, since Rutherford was (and still is) a Reformed school, where Wesleyan teaching should be out of bounds. But I went ahead and apologized to the speaker, who was surprised by my reaction, gracious, and didn't seem to understand the fuss.

In your case, I do wonder if you were wise to defend redemptive-historical approaches to the Bible as "the only way" to guard against moralism. (Yes, your mother saved a copy of The Torch.) As you likely know, biblical theology developed in the nineteenth century as a way of discerning the unity of the Bible's history in Christ, and became more widespread among conservative Presbyterians during the twentieth century. That means that folks like Calvin and the Puritans were not explicitly biblical-theological as we now understand the term. Professor Cooper was right to challenge you here.

But you were entirely within the bounds of charity and the ninth commandment to take your professor's article to task for disparaging redemptive-historical preaching as a "one-trick pony" that reads all of the Bible the same way every time. Since your own pastor is one of the better redemptive-historical preachers in the OPC, it made a lot of sense for you to respond, even if it meant doing so in such a public way.

I want to encourage you for showing discernment and courage, but I would be remiss if I did not offer some perspective on the fallout from your article.

First, although Rutherford is an institution of higher learning, where the free exchange of ideas is supposed to take place in the context of Protestant commitment, this does not mean that students and faculty are immune to the attraction of personalities. Even if you made a legitimate point in your column, by criticizing the views of a young, bright, dynamic theology professor (who, I understand, sometimes plays the guitar in chapel), readers will often miss the substance of an argument because of a prior and deep attachment to a person—as if charisma equals infallibility. It is unfortunate if Rutherford has allowed such a culture to grow up around Professor Cooper, but you are not going to change that any time soon. You'd be wiser to know it is there and watch out for it.

Second, I'd encourage you to ponder the duties of Christian charity and protecting a neighbor's good name. Christians often misconstrue charity as requiring them to say only positive things about others. The idea seems to be that if you criticize another's views, then you are guilty of being uncharitable and disparaging your neighbor's reputation. What's ironic about this charge is that it fails by its own logic. In this case, it resulted in negative remarks being made about you. Were those who criticized you for criticizing someone else and not protecting his good name guilty of not loving you and not protecting your good name?

Of course, the ninth commandment also applies to your article, and not just to those who are angry about it. The Larger Catechism is called that for a reason, and among the actions forbidden by the ninth commandment, according to LC 145, are "speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful and equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of truth or justice." Having read your article, I am comfortable concluding that you did not commit any of these offenses. It could be my own involvement in the cult of your personality; I've known you since you were a pup, and I am prone to think well of you. But the ninth commandment does not simply prohibit lies; it also encourages telling the truth. If we make our relationship to the truth personal—as in who will or will not be hurt—then we sacrifice truth for therapy.

The best thing for your would-be Facebook friends would be to write their own articles for The Torch and show where either you or Professor Cooper has erred. I guess they could even do that on Facebook, but unless they allow you to be their friend, you'll never know.

Fondly,

Uncle Glen

"Uncle Glen" Roberts is a pseudonym for two Orthodox Presbyterian elders. Reprinted from New Horizons, August 2009.

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