Sunday, March 31, 2013

Vinoth amnesia?

Vinoth Ramachandra has recently wrote a post titled 'Reformed amnesia?' on his blog and the Micah Mandate website in protest against "some influential pastors in the US and UK laying claim to be guardians of a “Reformed orthodoxy”". I shall quote Vinoth's statement at length (emphasis added):
The Reformed Church tradition can boast of a rich heritage of social transformation, resistance to political tyranny, cultural engagement and ideological critique. Paradigmatic twentieth-century figures here are Abraham Kuyper (Netherlands), Karl Barth (Switzerland), Alan Boesak (South Africa). In the US, political philosophers such as Richard Mouw and Nicholas Wolterstorff have helped recover the centrality of justice to the Biblical narrative and Christian discipleship.

This goes back to John Calvin himself. He spoke boldly of the “wounds of God” not only with reference to the cross, but in terms of human beings as icons of God. For Calvin, notes Nicholas Wolterstorff, to injure a human being is to injure God; to commit injustice is to inflict suffering on God. “Behind and beneath the social misery of our world is the suffering of God. If we truly believed that, suggests Calvin, we would be much more reluctant than we are to participate in the victimizing of the poor and the oppressed and the assaulted of the world. To pursue justice is to relieve God’s suffering.” [Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Wounds of God: Calvin on Social Injustice”, The Reformed Journal, June 1987]

Not only did Calvin vigorously denounce corruption in the church, but also tyranny in the polity and huge inequalities of wealth in the economy. In his Commentary on Habakkuk 2:6, Calvin claims that the cries of the victims are the very cry of God. The lament “How long?” is God’s giving voice to his own lament. One rarely finds such thoughts expressed in Calvinist circles today!

Was Calvin the first liberation theologian? He has as good a claim as any. He persistently fought the City Council of Geneva for the rights of poor refugees, persuading them to provide adequate social welfare. He himself was often exiled, experienced severe deprivation and other indignities, which must have made him particularly sensitive to the plight of refugees and the downtrodden.

How strange, then, to hear some influential pastors in the US and UK laying claim to be guardians of a “Reformed orthodoxy” while demonstrating little of Calvin’s heart. For these men (they are always men), the church’s mission is primarily one of proclaiming a message of individual salvation.
Basically his complaint was that these pastors from the Reformed movement have been prioritizing the proclamation of "a message of individual salvation" and by so doing have deviated from the rich heritage set by John Calvin himself, namely the championing of "social transformation".

Then Vinoth went on (emphasis added):
But perhaps not so strange, once we recall that our personal experiences, social and political contexts, profoundly shape the way we read both Scripture and the world. That is one reason why we need to listen to each other in the global Body of Christ. Authentic Christian witness has to be ecumenical and trans-cultural. (Italics original)

We have a long way to go in developing such theological maturity despite all the deceptive language of “partnership” and “equipping”. Below is one example of the huge obstacles we face.

A group of North American pastors calling themselves The Gospel Coalition of International Outreach is engaged in what they call “a mission of Theological Famine Relief for the Global Church”. They state on their website: “We are partnering with translators, publishers, and missions networks to provide new access to biblical resources, in digital and physical formats. Our goal is to strengthen thousands of congregations by helping to equip the pastors and elders who are called to shepherd them.”

Sounds loving, until one asks: who decides who is theologically famished and who is not? who selects what “resources” to send the famished? who decides what constitutes “equipping” and who should be doing it? The answer is always the same. A small group of white, well-to-do American or British males. We have experienced such paternalistic, colonial “mission” before- others deciding what is the “Good News” for us, what is “sound doctrine”, which authors to read and whom to avoid, etc. They have exported their theological blind-spots and sectarian rivalries, reproducing carbon-copies of themselves in the global South rather than nurturing real leaders. The learning and theological traffic is all one-way.

Perhaps a day spent with leaders like Pope Francis or Desmond Tutu may be more useful for African pastors than all the “resources” from north America.
We get a better picture here that the Reformed "influential pastors in US and UK" whom Vinoth refers to are "a small group of white, well-to-do American or British males" of which The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is an example.

In other words, Vinoth is saying that certain contemporary Reformed pastors, such as those involved in TGC, have been prioritizing the proclamation of "a message of individual salvation" and by so doing have deviated from the rich heritage set by John Calvin himself, namely the championing of "social transformation". What is worse, to Vinoth, is that these Reformed pastors are exporting "their theological blind-spots and sectarian rivalries, reproducing carbon-copies of themselves in the global South rather than nurturing real leaders."

In a comment on his blog, Vinoth further reveals his failed attempt to get an audience from TGC. He is concern that such exclusiveness has likewise being exported to churches in the global south: 
"If you can get around the firewalls of these super-pastors and invite them and their fans to read my posts and engage with the likes of me, I would be delighted. I have tried and failed.

"Also the local churches in Asia which are linked to the GC have a reputation for being isolationist and exclusivist. They refuse to talk with- let alone work with- other churches and local theologians/institutions that do not share their views."  
I find Vinoth's post and comment problematic for three reasons. First, Vinoth's portrayal of John Calvin is questionable. Second, Vinoth's description of TGC is ignorant. Third, Vinoth's critique on TGC's exporting their theology is unfair.

1. Vinoth's 'John Calvin'
Vinoth portrays John Calvin as a liberation theologian and social activist who did not prioritize the proclamation of a message on individual salvation. Vinoth charges certain contemporary Reformed pastors, like those affiliated with TGC, to have abandoned this "rich heritage" for thinking that the "church’s mission is primarily one of proclaiming a message of individual salvation".

What did Calvin say?
"Yet, whatever result may at length follow our efforts, there never will be reason to regret that we showed both pious and grateful obedience to God, and, what we will be able to relieve our sorrow even in the greatest catastrophes, that we faithfully served both the glory of Christ, which is preferable to all the kingdoms of the world, and the salvation of souls, which is more precious than the whole world."
(John Calvin, Concerning Scandals, trans. John W. Fraser [UK: St Andrew Press, 1978], p.115. Emphasis added.)

Commenting on Isaiah 2:3, Calvin wrote: "By these words he first declares that the godly will be filled with such an ardent desire to spread the doctrines of religion, that every one not satisfied with his own calling and his personal knowledge will desire to draw others along with him. And indeed nothing could be more inconsistent with the nature of faith than that deadness which would lead a man to disregard his brethren [...]. The greater the eminence above others which any man has received from his calling so much the more diligently ought he to labor to enlighten others. This points out to us also the ordinary method of collecting a Church, which is, by the outward voice of men; for though God might bring each person to himself by a secret influence, yet he employs the agency of men, that he may awaken in them an anxiety about the salvation of each other."
(Emphasis added.)

Commenting on Psalm 109:16, Calvin wrote: "...as we cannot distinguish between the elect and the reprobate, it is our duty to pray for all who trouble us; to desire the salvation of all men; and even to be careful for the welfare of every individual." (Emphasis added.)

Commenting on John 1:40, Calvin wrote: "The circumstance of Andrew immediately bringing his brother expresses the nature of faith, which does not conceal or quench the light, but rather spreads it in every direction. Andrew has scarcely a spark, and yet, by means of it, he enlightens his brother. Woe to our indolence, therefore, if we do not, after having been fully enlightened, endeavor to make others partakers of the same grace."
(Emphasis added.)

Commenting on Mark 8:12, Calvin wrote: "By these words Mark informs us that it occasioned grief and bitter vexation to our Lord, when he saw those ungrateful men obstinately resist God. And certainly all who are desirous to promote the glory of God, and who feel concern about the salvation of men, ought to have such feelings that nothing would inflict on their hearts a deeper wound than to see unbelievers purposely blocking up against themselves the way of believing, and employing all their ingenuity in obscuring by their clouds the brightness of the word and works of God."
(Emphasis added.)

In his sermon on 1 Timothy 2:3-5, Calvin wrote: "God will have His grace made known to all the world, and His gospel preached to all creatures. Therefore, we must endeavor, as much as possible, to persuade those who are strangers to the faith, and seem to be utterly deprived of the goodness of God, to accept of salvation."
(Emphasis added.)

"For God there is nothing higher than the preaching of the gospel... because it is the means to lead people to salvation."
(John Calvin, Supplementa Calviniana, Sermons inedits, ed. Erwin Mulhaupt [Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag der Buchhandlung des Erziehungsvereins, 1961], 8:21, quoted in Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life [USA: IVP Academic, 2009], p.111. Emphasis added.)
From the quotations above, we know that Calvin certainly prioritized the proclamation of a message of individual salvation (or in his parlance, the "salvation of souls"). Due to his missionary enthusiasm, the Genevan church's mission expanded tremendously. As Bruce Gordon wrote:
"In the years between 1555 and 1562 just under a hundred ministers left the relative safety of Geneva and the Vaud to face appaling risks; they travelled in clandestine manner to avoid detection, and knew that capture meant torture and death. [...] Calvin recognized the opportunities and the challenges and sought to educate the ministers as best he could [...]. Calvin was involved in every aspect of this missionary activity. He taught scripture to the ministers, oversaw their pastoral training in Geneva, Neuchatel and the Vaud, examined them and presented them to the council. [...] During the years 1560-1 the growth of the Reformed churches in France was nothing short of spectacular. In Rouen about 20 per cent of the population had embraced the faith."
(Bruce Gordon, Calvin [USA: Yale University Press, 2009], pp.312-315.)
This is not to dismiss Calvin's social activism but to point out his enthusiam in missionary work and his prioritization of proclaming the message of salvation. As shown in one of the quotations above, Calvin even saw that nothing is higher for God than the preaching of the gospel which leads people to salvation. 
 
It is unfortunate that Vinoth had to make John Calvin into his own image to suit his complaint against some contemporary Reformed pastors. To think about it, it is rather ironic that Vinoth is presenting a false picture of Calvin in the world-wide-web while accusing some Reformed pastors for exporting "their theological blind-spots" to the global south. 

2. Vinoth's TGC
The Reformed movement, of which TGC is part of, traces their heritage back to Calvin (some to Zwingli). If Calvin had indeed prioritized the proclamation of a message of individual salvation while remained a social activist, then it is only fair for those in the present who claimed to be guardians of Reformed orthodoxy to follow suit. 

As far as I can see, those involved in TGC are faithful to Calvin and the Reformed tradition in that they see the church's mission as primarily one of proclaiming a message of individual salvation while maintaining social activism.

The reason why Vinoth does not see certain contemporary Reformed pastors (of which some are involved with TGC) following the footsteps of Calvin is because Vinoth has a wrong impression of the magisterial reformer. In other words, Vinoth's critique is based on his own mistake.

Besides, it seems that Vinoth has no idea what TGC is about. The coalition's theological vision for ministry lists 5 characteristics of a gospel-centred ministry: (1) Empowered corporate worship, (2) Evangelistic effectivenes, (3) Counter–cultural community, (4) The integration of faith and work, and (5) The doing of justice and mercy.
 
As reported of its first national conference in 2007, TGC aims to create "an evangelical movement led by churches that grow by multiplying, preach with theological substance and winsome apologetics, encourage holiness among members, engage their communities in areas such as politics and art, and even share economic resources and welcome the poor."

TGC is more holistic than the one portrayed by Vinoth. One (like myself) does not need to be affiliated with TGC to see the wrong in Vinoth's misrepresentation of the group.
 
3. Vinoth's Unfair Critique on TGC's International Outreach
Vinoth critiques TGC's International Outreach as "paternalistic, colonial “mission”" that reproduces "carbon-copies of themselves in the global South rather than nurturing real leaders." 

Vinoth stated rhetorically,
"who decides who is theologically famished and who is not? who selects what “resources” to send the famished? who decides what constitutes “equipping” and who should be doing it? The answer is always the same. A small group of white, well-to-do American or British males. We have experienced such paternalistic, colonial “mission” before- others deciding what is the “Good News” for us, what is “sound doctrine”, which authors to read and whom to avoid, etc. They have exported their theological blind-spots and sectarian rivalries, reproducing carbon-copies of themselves in the global South rather than nurturing real leaders. The learning and theological traffic is all one-way."
First, I think Vinoth is aware that one of the resources that TGC is sponsoring is a book written by Vinoth's own countryman, Ajith Fernando. If so, how can one just dismiss TGC's project as paternalistic and colonizing?

Of course Vinoth can argue that Ajith though a Sri Lankan is a colonized theological victim. If that is the case, we have to ask Vinoth, so who is not a theological victim to him? Only those who accept Vinoth's false portrayal of John Calvin is considered "real leader"?

Second, TGC's project is not "colonizing" in the sense of forcing people to accept what they have to offer. People are free to ask for the resources. TGC does not demand those who accept these free resources to commit to their doctrinal statement. How is this being theological colonizing? 

If so, then am I being paternalisitc and colonializing when I buy Vinoth's books and give them to a friend for free? Or I am being paternalistic and colonializing only when I buy books authored by TGC's members and pass them around for free? 

Besides, how is passing books written by white well-to-do American and British males is paternalistic and colonializing, while passing books written in English by a Sri Lankan who holds doctoral degrees in nuclear engineering from University of London is less so?

I think it is unfair to categorize people as paternalistic and colonializing only when they pass TGC's books around, and not so when it comes to Vinoth's books. If this is what Vinoth thinks, then it is (again) ironic for someone who champions fairness can be so unfair.

In his comment, Vinoth said that he failed to get an audience with the TGC members and hence they are "isolationist" and "exclusivist", a resemblance he noticed in Asian groups that are linked to TGC. But is not the case that any correspondence between two willing persons needs, well, two willing persons?

Can we fault people as isolationist and exclusivist simply because they do not want to talk to us? It requires a huge ego to think that people should talk to us no matter what. Of course, we can ascribe impoliteness to those who do not want to talk to us even after we initiated the correspondence. But not so much of "isolationist" and "exclusivist", I think.

Anyway, someone who is affiliated with TGC has notified Vinoth of his availability to talk.

These are the problems that I have observed in Vinoth's post. Agree, disagree?

No comments: