Jonathan Edwards wrote an important book just after the Great Awakening, Treatise on the Religious Affections, for which there is still a crying need today. Scott Aniol named his blog after Edwards' book, and I highly recommend most of what is written there. Recently, Aniol, who is a professor at a Southern Baptist seminary, joined a few pastors in publishing A Conservative Christian Declaration. You should read it. I agree with and would subscribe to most of it. It contains scriptural truths and applications with which everyone should interact and accept. It's so good that I don't want to disagree with any of it for fear that someone will reject its main point. However, it necessitates a challenge, since the first two articles portend its own ultimate demise, unsustainable in its present condition.
The first article offers a compromise the adherents or authors could have done without. It fundamentally undermines their statement, and among other things provides a basis for rejecting their position. Conservatism comes out of a coherent worldview: one truth, one goodness, and then one beauty because there is one God. One does not and cannot support one beauty by compromising one truth or one goodness.
The compromise seems a strategy of incrementalism. It doesn't hinder a coalition of conservatives and non-conservatives. True conservatism is all or nothing -- people may not live up to that ideal, but it is the conservative position. You can't chop up truth and accept parts of it and not others. It seems that this declaration is conservatism being offered to a liberal world with the hopes of nudging baby steps forward. That's not a conservative method to convince and it fails of a foundational theological and biblical error. The conservative way is to present truth, goodness, and beauty, and the audience either wants it or not.
The first two articles communicate a certain representation of historic fundamentalism, but they do not reveal conservatism. Here's the statement:
We affirm that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the boundary of Christian faith (1 Cor 15). We also affirm that to ignore this boundary by granting Christian recognition to those who deny the gospel is to demean the gospel itself (2 John 1:10).
We deny that Christian fellowship is possible with those who deny the fundamentals of the gospel including the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, his sacrificial atonement, and justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
We affirm that the center and apex of Christian faith and fellowship is the whole counsel of God including right belief, right living, and right affections (Deut 6:19). We further affirm that the transmission of biblical Christianity necessarily involves the preservation and cultivation of the entire system of faith (Acts 20:27).
We deny that belief in the gospel alone is all that is necessary for healthy Christian worship, fellowship, and devotion.
One of the authors, Pastor Michael Riley, expanded on these first two articles at the links provided in the quotes above (if you click on each hypertext, you'll get to each exposition, where you'll find comments from me for each section).
When you read the language from article one above that "the gospel is the boundary of the Christian faith (1 Cor 15)," that might sound correct depending how you take it. You might think they meant, "you have to believe the gospel to be a Christian," but they are actually defining a basis of Christian fellowship, that is, they fellowship with someone who believes the gospel, whether he's conservative or not. So this assumes that someone can be a Christian his entire life without every becoming a conservative. That's not conservative.
God's Word is plain. It can be understood, even by a child. God wants us to know it. Truth, goodness, and beauty are objective. That gives us confidence to judge, discern, and make the right decisions. But the statement is relativistic. Someone can slide around anywhere between the so-called center, the whole counsel, and the so-called boundary, the gospel, and still get Christian fellowship.
The authors cite 1 Corinthians 15 as basis for "gospel as boundary," a reference to "first in importance," a common contemporary explanation for the word "first" (protos) in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. Even if "first" means "first in importance," it is a gigantic stretch to extrapolate from that a boundary for fellowship merely the gospel. Instead evidence shows that protos means "first in order." The bodily resurrection of Christ was the first thing that the Corinthians had heard from Paul and that they believed in order to become a church at Corinth. Evangelicals and now fundamentalists find "first in importance" in search for a proof text.
And then would conservatism have been part of the gospel response that Paul preached as well? In other words, could those at Corinth have continued in love with themselves or the world or loved Christ like an idol and have believed the gospel? The rest of 1 and 2 Corinthians belies that point. Everyone is a conservative in position the moment he's converted, and his sanctification will progress him practically to that end in his glorification. We don't help people along by allowing a kind of perpetual carnality. And if we can't judge heteropathy, then it isn't objective, and we shouldn't judge it anyway. If conservatism can be judged -- and it can be -- then it should be judged.
I grant that Christian fellowship should not be bestowed to those who deny what the authors identify as "fundamentals of the gospel." Of course. But they added "including" for purposeful ambiguity. This is not an all-inclusive list. Are they "first in importance"? This is where orthopathy, true affections, should be moved to the front end. There are many who would agree with the list of fundamentals, but have a different Jesus as seen in the nature of their worship, by their inordinate affections, by their disordered love.
The authors affirm more than the gospel as necessary for "healthy" Christianity. If "healthy" tilts any direction, it's toward self-help and therapy. The possibly healthy are people recognized as Christians, because they get under the boundary, but they're sick. And even if they stay sick, they still get Christian recognition. We want to and maybe can help them get better, healthier. Someone reading that statement can see how it would be better to be healthy instead of sick. He can stay sick, but that wouldn't be good for him. But this unhealthy person, because he is heteropathic, and maybe heterodox, is still fine with God. How could he be?
This is not how the New Testament reads. That sin isn't just unhealthy. Sure sin is unhealthy. But primarily it's a violation of God. It's against His holiness. To keep a violator of God in the boundary isn't how the Bible regards that person. Shouldn't we regard that person the same way God would have us in His Word? This type of language appears symptomatic of a postmodern culture. There is such a lack of certainty, and such an emphasis on nuance, that men find it difficult to exclude anyone: "if we can't really know, how can we be so harsh in our judgment?" Yet we can know, and God wants us to act upon what He said.
Sanctification is a process. But it isn't one in which someone is allowed to know what he's doing wrong and rebel against getting it right, remain in a place of rebellion, until he decides that it's been unhealthy for him. Healthiness is about him; he can be healthy. He doesn't take baby steps toward what is right until he finally gets to what he knows. That person isn't pure in heart. Sanctification is a struggle, but giving in to what he knows, because he wants to, because He can, and because that's how God's grace works. God doesn't work in half measures. Salvation is conversion, not a buffet for his own passion.
After converted men read this declaration, will they change? It's obviously true, right? So if they don't change, do we just keep giving them Christian recognition? Are we saying that not everyone can really know? This clashes with the professed objectivity that defines conservatism.