A Crisis, Not a Conversation

  1. Paths to Human Maturity: by David Field
  2. A Radical Modesty: a response by Peter Leithart
  3. Paths of Maturity: a response by Uri Brito
  4. Learning Wisdom From the Serpents: a response by Alastair Roberts
  5. A Crisis, Not a Conversation: a response by Douglas Wilson
  6. The Conversation Continues: a final word from David Field

I was initially of two minds about contributing to this exchange because of the serious nature of my concerns. A “conversation” is a natural venue for collegial and courteous interaction, but that presents a real problem. I don’t believe this kind of thing should be discussed as though we were unruffled academics pursuing a nuance. That is not how the apostle Paul spoke to Peter at Antioch—he presumably did not use his seminar voice. On the other hand, it would be bad manners to accept an invitation to someone else’s wine and cheese soiree in order to start throwing things upon arrival.

Certain conversations are helpful and welcome. Of course. But to have other conversations is to have lost the battle already. Our brothers in the PCA are currently having “conversations” about LGBTQ+ that real faithfulness would have headed off some time ago. 

“Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col. 2:8). 

As we guard ourselves against “philosophy” and “vain deceit,” we are told to do this “after Christ,” and to reject that which is “after the tradition of men,” or “the rudiments of the world.” All three of the suggested paths to maturity as suggested by David Field and heartily commended by Peter Leithart, contain more than a trace of such traditions and such rudiments. So how are we to tell which is what? By what standard?

If I go out into the wilderness to meet with the desert fathers, I want a map and compass that will distinguish carnal wisdom from the genuine article. If I go to the East to learn serenity in breathing, I want to have a standard that will contrast the breath which is in fact the Spirit of God (Job 33:4; Gen. 2:7) from the breath that is merely the vanity of man (Eccles. 3:19). If I decide to plumb the depths of the subconscious, I need a light to enable me to distinguish genuine creatures in that great deep from the many Freudian phantoms that are down there. 

If there is any vain deceit in these three worldviews at all—and there are boatloads of vain deceit there—then the apostle Paul says bewarewatch out, take care. We have a fundamental, rock-bottom pastoral duty constantly to caution our people against the wisdom of this world. 

The theological issue here is the sufficiency of Scripture. Do we really need what psychoanalysis offers? How did anybody become mature in Christ in the 18 centuries prior to Freud? We do not deny progress and maturation in the world as the yeast permeates the loaf. But this progress is the result of the Word, and not the speculations of a sexually-obsessed man like Freud.

The apostle Peter says that if it pertains to life and godliness, as maturity does, then His divine power gave it to us.

“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3, ESV). 

We need to beware of the common trajectory for this kind of thing. The first step says that scriptural truth is true enough, but it needs to be adorned or decorated by us. The second step says that scriptural truth is true as far as it goes, but that it needs to be supplemented by truths from elsewhere—the depths of psychology or wisdom from the Orient. The third step is when scriptural truth is replaced by the alternative system. The secular world is manning the ramparts of step three right now, and the broader evangelical and Reformed world is currently wavering between step two and step three.

The pastoral issue here is that there was a general invitation given to a particular kind of exploration, and there were no markers established that would enable anyone to falsify these intellectual explorations. How will Theopolis tell if this was actually really bad for real people in real churches? Was that question even discussed?

It might be said that my concerns may be legitimate for some immature Christians, but that in our circles we have been blessed with a greater maturity. This is simply not true. You think we are immune to the “trained professional” cool shame? How recently was it that in the CREC we were told that pastors were not equipped to handle sex abuse cases? How many of us actually bought it? We are not immune. We are part of the wavering church.

Now of course Christians are in no way obligated to maintain that unbelieving systems of thought (like psychoanalysis or Zen), or deficient systems of theology (like the desert fathers), are wrong about absolutely everything. The metaphor of “plundering gold from the Egyptians” really was an apt metaphor for Christians to use, a metaphor that was most necessary given the conquest of the intellectual and philosophical world by the Christian faith.

To establish my bona fides on this point, in order to show that I am not being a blinkered bigot, let me remind everyone of my role in the classical Christian school movement, where the likes of Homer, Plato, and Aristotle are studied with a critical eye. I have publicly praised Jungian psychologist Jordan Peterson for his “common grace on fire.” I am the one who says, “It’s all in Girard, man.” And I am always happy to defend a Reformed approach to natural law, over against the biblicist suspicions of Peter Leithart. I certainly don’t begrudge having to explain myself in situations like this. The jaundiced eye should never be unwelcome when we remember how it was likely that a bunch of the gold that the Egyptians gave to Israel (Ex. 3:22) wound up in the golden calf (Ex. 32:4).

Because things can go wrong even if it is the gold we got. We should therefore imagine how bad it might get if we are dumpster diving in Egypt, and what we have retrieved is a box full of used grapefruit rinds. These articles give no direction on how to distinguish Egyptian gold from Egyptian refuse.

Why be suspicious of natural law, which has been run through our filters by thousands of Christian thinkers over many centuries? Why the lack of cautious suspicion in this matter? There are hardly any guardrails at all on this mystical road to the East, a road cut for most Westerners by the Beatles in 1968. And as we plumb the depths of the subconscious in this leaky bathysphere, we should remember that Freud died in 1939. During the last century—our syncretistic Baal-Peor—the filters of the Church have been busted, clogged, broken, and otherwise non-functional. The evangelical Church is currently struggling with how to answer those who can’t tell the difference between a boy and girl. And we think we are up to distinguishing deadly Freud from helpful Freud? In what universe? 

In addition to the Egyptian gold trope, another striking image that came down to us from the early fathers was the idea of the beautiful woman captured as a result of battle (Deut. 21:10–13). The idea was that an Israelite could not take a concubine after a battle, unless she first was divested of all that she was connected with before. She needed to ditch her clothes, shave her head, and pare her nails. The husband could be led astray otherwise. So in psychoanalysis, what stays and what goes? In Zen, what stays and what goes? In desert asceticism, what stays and what goes? By what standard? And why pick an ugly one for a concubine?

Sorting out such things is a constant duty. But remember that these metaphors came about when a triumphant Church was trying to figure out what to keep from the spoils of a defeated pagan world. This is a far cry from a beleaguered and confused church going, hat in hand, to try to learn maturity from Christless traditions.

This is because there is a vast difference between sorting out the spoils and becoming a spoil. Can anything of value be gained from the unbelieving world? For conquerors, yes. Yes, but never by supplicants.

In conclusion, as things stand, I believe that “Paths to Maturity” and “A Radical Modesty” were extremely ill-advised, and presented very troubling problems for working pastors. The articles need to be removed from the Theopolis site, coupled with repentance and an apology. In addition, I believe that Theopolis needs to institute a much better set of editorial controls. If not, I believe that churches which support Theopolis financially should reconsider their support. And also, failing this, I intend to write a formal request to the presbytery within which this teaching is occurring (Athanasius, CREC) to ask them for their public evaluation and assessment of the propriety of these articles. 

This situation really is that dire—this is a crisis, not a conversation.

Douglas Wilson is Pastor of Christ Church (CREC) in Moscow, Idaho.