The second Saturday speaker at the Discern 2010 conference at Calvary Santa Fe was G. Richard Fisher, board member of Personal Freedom Outreach [link] and former pastor of Laurelton Park Baptist Church in Bricktown, New Jersey. His topic was “The Most Dangerous Trend in the Church Today” [mp3|stream]. This was an excerpt or reworking or something of his Quarterly Journal Volume 26, Number 3 article “You Lose! The Detrimental Effects of the Decline of Doctrine” [journal index PDF]. Unfortunately issues of The Quarterly Journal itself are not available online.
As I have mentioned earlier, talks at this conference were at different points on a continuum from a lecture to a sermon; this was one of the most sermon-like talks. A casual reader of the conference schedule would have had no idea from reading the title of Fisher’s talk what it was about: in his opinion there is more than one dangerous trend at work in the Church today, and this unnamed trend is the most dangerous, but the title gives no clue as to what it is.
It turns out the most dangerous trend is the decline of doctrine. Or possibly the decline of discernment. Or maybe the emerging/emergent church. It wasn’t clear from what Fisher said whether these three things were the same thing or different things. Whatever it is, it is more dangerous than any of the alternatives he named: prayerlessness, materialism, pornography, and decadent worldiness. I really don’t know how one decides what is or isn’t a trend in the church (is “hipster Christianity” a trend? Church foreclosures? Casual dress? etc.), much less how one measures the relative danger of a given trend. I didn’t get the impression that Fisher actually meant what he said that way: what he meant was “doctrine is important.” Although it wasn’t really clear which doctrines. Or whether what was important was the production of new doctrines, the expression and application of accepted doctrines in new ways, or just the acceptance and defense of established historical doctrines.
I have been grappling with the lecture/sermon distinction lately, trying to find a way to describe what really distinguishes one from the other, and why one is to be preferred over the other. I think the distinguishing characteristics are these:
- Linearity: does the speaker lay out a series of points that follow one from another? Does he connect the points for his audience?
- Authority: does the true-ness of the discussion lie in the facts presented? In the speaker? In some unquestionable external source? Does the speaker use Scripture to bolster his points? Or does he read verses of Scripture in context and see what they have to say first?
- Argumentation: does the speaker rely on formal or informal fallacies to make his points? Does the speaker feel the need to remind his audience that he and they are on the same side against some common enemy?
- Relevance: does the speaker pepper his presentation with possibly amusing but not necessarily relevant stores?
- Literality: how literally can you take what the speaker is saying? Do you have to agree with him regarding the interpretation of a metaphor for his presentation to make sense?
I’m inclined to see these two extremes as being part of different schools, or from different periods in Church history. At the risk of being heavy-handed, I tend to see the sermon presentations as being premodern and the lectures as being modern: the lecture trusts the listener to think for himself (sometimes a little, sometimes a lot) while the sermon will do almost anything to persuade the listener to believe, preferably without thinking anything that might clutter neat agreement.
I think it would be helpful to listen to Fisher’s presentation back-to-back with either of the opening arguments from the White-Sungenis predestination debate. By comparison Fisher is dogmatic and seems almost incoherent.
As I mentioned in an earlier post I spent part of Friday and most of Saturday at Calvary Santa Fe’s Discern 2010 conference, and will be posting excerpts from my impressions of the conference etc. over the course of several days.
Calvary Santa Fe has kind of a complicated history; it is a successor church to a Calvary Chapel in Santa Fe. The original Calvary Chapel was a church plant in the usual Calvary style: a Bible study led by someone from Calvary Albuquerque grew into a substantial church with more than a thousand regular Saturday/Sunday attenders. However, under the leadership of Paul Scozzafava, the current executive pastor, the church took a Calvinist turn and gave up its affiliation with Calvary Chapel.
Calvary Chapel, of course, isn’t officially Calvinist or Arminian, and picks a mix of elements from the usual lists for its soteriology, and has a fairly vanilla pre-trib Dispensationalist eschatology. I don’t know why this is the case; I am guessing it’s what founder Chuck Smith brought with him from his Foursquare background or chose after he left, and will almost definitely be up for discussion once Chuck dies.
As a result of its history Calvary Santa Fe is a church that looks and feels kind of like a Calvary Chapel and from the pulpit sounds like an Independent Baptist church; the doctrinal statement [link] is a hybrid of Reformed soteriology and Dispensationalist eschatology without references to confessions we might expect from a Reformed Baptist church or any creeds whatsoever. The music is a mix of old hymns and new worship choruses played on contemporary instruments (guitars and drums mostly). Dress is mostly casual. Church governance is so far as I can tell entirely local, with just pastors and deacons and no evidence of denominational affiliation or even an external board. I don’t know if the church has members (like a Baptist church) or not (like a Calvary Chapel).
The speakers for the Discern conference [link] sort of run the gamut from Reformed to Baptist to Reformed Baptist: Fisher is a retired Independent Baptist; Rhodes is a Dallas graduate; Mayhue teaches at The Master’s Seminary, and his connection to John MacArthur was underlined for those of us who missed the connection, and White is an elder at a Reformed Baptist church. Soteriology per se surfaced only a couple of times in the talks I heard; of course it was lurking under the surface of the Sungenis-White debate on Predestination, and Rhodes made a passing reference to the importance of “making a decision for Christ” during his talk on cults, and many of those in attendance shifted somewhat uneasily in their seats.
One of the things that has surprised me during my visits to Calvary as they’ve made their move from one soteriological camp to the other is which faces I still see there after all this time. Certainly a lot of folks came and went for reasons having nothing to do with Calvinism, but at least some of them have stayed and migrated along with the church. I was surprised to encounter someone I knew socially at the early debate on Friday who spoke disparagingly of the “Calviminian” Calvary Chapel position vs. the Calvinism he now believes, complete with the apparently compulsory claims: that everyone who isn’t a Calvinist is Arminian; that Calvinism is a haven for relative diversity; that the Reformation was the high point of Christianity; that Joel Osteen is a typical Evangelical; and that every problem is at bottom a theological problem.
I guess I will have to come back to some of these points later. I really have no idea how typical Calvary Santa Fe is of an evangelical church that has taken a Calvinist turn, but I’m fascinated by the story. I get the impression that often a preacher will pick up a theme and stick to it week after week, in liberal or conservative churches, with sometimes surprising results, but I don’t often get to see the Before and After pictures of the same church. The PCA church I attend now, for example, is half-full of people who used to attend one of the more liberal PCUSA churches in the area, but during the Bush administration got tired of hearing politics Sunday after Sunday. Go figure.
I spent a chunk of my weekend at the Discern Conference at Calvary Santa Fe. Here’s the schedule:
Friday September 10
3PM: Robert Sungenis (Catholic) and James White (Reformed) debate Predestination
7PM: Robert Sungenis and James White debate The Assumption of Mary
Saturday September 11
9AM: Ron Rhodes: Assessing Alternative Gospels, Christs, and Christianities
10:30AM: Richard Fisher: The Most Dangerous Trend in the Church Today
11:45AM: Ron Rhodes: Does the Existence of Evil Really Disprove the Existence of God?
2:30PM: Richard Mayhue: Hell — Never, Forever, A While?
4PM: James White: The New Perspective on Paul
6:30PM: Richard Fisher: Hermeneutics
8PM: Richard Mayhue: Have We Missed It? (The Rapture)
Sunday September 12
9AM: James White: The Security of the Believer
11AM: Richard Fisher: Avoiding Worldliness
I’ve italicized the sessions I attended; I had commitments elsewhere that made it impossible for me to attend several sessions.
Admission Friday and Sunday was free; Saturday was $10, and there was nobody taking money at the checkin table after the first couple of talks. CDs of the debates were available for $5 by Saturday morning; according to the conference program free audio downloads will be available shortly. I will add links if possible once they are available.
Ten dollars for seven talks (plus two free talks and two free debates) is a good deal. I don’t know how the conference was funded; I’m guessing from the titles of people who attend Calvary Santa Fe. Less than a hundred people turned out (including conference volunteers), and the church provided coffee and snacks at breaks on Saturday, so I can’t imagine that the conference broke even.
I wish I had more time to devote to church conferences, and more conferences available within easy driving distance. I really should have taken advantage of the recent world view conference in Albuquerque, which featured among other speakers Os Guinness, Chuck Colson, Michael Novak, and former New Mexico Congressman Bill Redmond [link], all for only $25.
When I was a kid the churches we attended had regular week-long revival meetings, and on rare occasion a “prophecy conference” or a “Bible conference,” and Discern 2010 is most in the mold of the latter; it featured a rotating cast of speakers (unlike a typical revival) and was devoted to apologetics, more or less. I guess it’s worth pointing out that most of the talks at this conference were devoted to arguments against error/heresy/differences of opinion within Christianity, rather than on behalf of Christianity vs. other beliefs.
As I understood various speakers’ comments they were assigned their topics by Calvary executive pastor Paul Scozzafava; by and large the topics were things the speakers had written articles or books on before, so we usually heard talks that had been given in whole or in part elsewhere before. The exceptions being the two debates, of course, and White’s talk on New Perspective on Paul.
Most speakers at a conference like this lie somewhere on a continuum between professor and preacher, and their talks generally resemble to varying degrees lectures or sermons, where the lectures present truth claims, proceed as more or less linear arguments, and attempt to convince the listener of the truth of a conclusion, and the sermons are meant to be persuasive, rely more heavily on illustrations and appeals to emotion/authority/shared prejudice, and tend to be less linear. There seems to be a more or less generational divide among the speakers here, with retired pastor Fisher giving a sermon, occasional adjunct professor White giving a lecture, and the other two falling somewhere in between.