A tale of two (learned) men

It’s infamously hard  to get a man to agree to something if his paycheck depends on it being false (or at least unimportant).

I’ve seen men struggle with this, and when they have families to support, there’s nothing risible about it — even if the aphorism provokes a chuckle.

Imagine, if you will, two men, each of whom has spent his lifetime mastering a subject. Each now faces the prospect that his life’s work is in danger of obsolescence if a certain proposition is true (and important). One affirms that career-imperiling proposition despite the likely cost. The other denies it.

Or imagine that two competing witnesses are in court. One says that something is true even though saying it may hit him hard in the pocketbook. The other denies that it is true, or explains that the first witness must have been looking at from a poor perspective, and he’s benefitted financially by either of his versions.

Those two men are:

  1. Hank Hanegraaf, the Bible Answer Man, whose reception into Orthodox Christianity two weeks ago today has stirred up some sane (if lame) and insane criticism.
  2. Ed Stetzer, Wheaton College missiologist and one of the saner critics.

Say whatever else you will about the Hanegraafs’ decision (his wife accompanied him into Orthodoxy), but you cannot say that it was a cynical career move. Hanegraaf family finances would have been much better served by him remaining affiliated with an Evangelical, not an Orthodox, Church.

Why? Apart from there being more American Evangelicals than American Orthodox to sell any goods and services to, it’s because the Evangelical subculture considers it axiomatic that it has a uniquely excellent grasp of the Bible.

  • They have “Bible Churches,” a whole quasi-denomination of its own (into one of which, by the way, I was baptized at age 17 and by whose successor pastor I was joined in lawful matrimony to Mrs. Tipsy, my bride of well-nigh 45 years).
  • They do “sword drills,” seeing who can find a random passage quickest.
  • They memorize Bible verses to fortify them against temptation and to prove the Biblical basis of their tradition (or they did in olden days of 50-60 years ago).
  • They sometimes call themselves “Bible Christians” instead of Evangelicals.
  • Etc.

So surely anyone who really understands and believes the Bible (the canon of which apparently is self-authenticating; no need for some uppity Church to say what is and is not Holy Writ) will be or become an Evangelical (one of thousands of varieties, none of which apparently can completely agree with any other on what the Bible teaches. But that’s a topic for another day. Let’s pretend for now that Evangelicalism is a Thing).

So it’s especially shocking when Bible Bible Answer Man, whose claim to fame is a particularly excellent grasp of the Bible, decides that Orthodox Christianity is more compelling than Evangelicalism. Evangelicals by and large are not likely to take kindly to being instructed on their Bible by someone who, they just know, deep down inside, mustn’t really believe it any more.

So Bible Answer Man has already been dropped by one Baptist radio network. Much more of that sort of rejection and the Board of CRI, Hanegraaf’s employer, will be mightily tempted to throw Hank under the bus. “It is expedient for the corporation that one man should die,” and all that. I can only hope that at age 67, he has a “Plan B.”

Contrast the intrinsic credibility of Hanegraaf’s “declaration against interest” with Ed Stetzer’s comparatively self-serving criticism of Orthodoxy, which I’ve snarkily summarized as “trust me, I’m a missiologist.”

Maybe I should unpack “comparatively self-serving” and my snarky dismissiveness.

Missiology deals with adapting the Christian message to various cultures for missionary purposes.

Missiology is a multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural field of study incorporating theology, anthropology, history, geography, theories and methods of communication, comparative religion, Christian apologetics, education methodology, and interdenominational relations.

Wow! That sounds complicated! We need credentialed experts for sure!

Missiology obviously will tend to prosper and gain prestige when the Christian faith needs to be significantly remodeled for every recipient culture. Not surprisingly, missiology emerged as a discipline only after varieties of emotionalistic revivalism replaced any venerable liturgy as the Protestant norm — specifically, the late 19th Century, when my great-grandparents likely were already living. Missiology has a stake in keeping liturgy at bay. Stetzer:

The early church was indeed more focused on the Eucharist and was more liturgical in structure, nature, and expression. There are things we can learn from that today, but we have to also acknowledge that much of what we see was, indeed, cultural. As a missiologist, I’m not drawn into early Christian cultural forms and am concerned that some are equating them with eternal truth.

The question I want to answer: Are we looking for the right things? Do we want to model with exactitude the cultural form of the early church? Is that the ultimate value?

To be fair to those who embrace such approaches, some see the liturgical forms as part of what is mentioned in Jude 3, “The faith that was delivered to the saints once for all.” In other words, this is not tradition, with a lower case t, but rather part of the big-T Tradition that was passed on and intended to be normative two thousand years later.

It’s true that various ethnicities of Orthodox Christians carry cultural baggage. Despite its self-confidence, so does North American Evangelicalism (the Babylon Bee is mostly fed by Evangelical cultural foibles). So does every group of anybodies.

There’s little Stetzer can do to blunt this criticism, and it doesn’t prove he’s wrong, but his academic discipline thrives in the Evangelical environment where worship is negotiable according to putative missiological expertise — lex orandi, lex credendi be damned.

In contrast to academic missiology’s multivariate approach, when Saints Cyril and Methodius set out to convert the Slavs 1100 or so years ago, they found a people with no alphabet. So these poor benighted missionaries with their cultural insensibility and lack of missiological moxie simply learned the language and made the alphabet that evolved into the appropriately named Cyrillic. They then translated the Bible and the liturgy in the Slavs’ language, which is still pretty much in use in the Liturgies of Slavic lands.

So sorry, Stetzer san. We have no great need of your novelties. Liturgical worship teaches the faith so long as it’s in a language the auditor understands. Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green explains how that works here. From our shared liturgy and divine protection, the things Orthodox are left to argue about (we’re human; unfortunately, that means we argue) are not the faith.

If a culture rejects the Christian liturgy in their vernacular, it’s not the liturgy’s fault. Maybe missiologists should shift their focus to fixing culture rather than pandering to it.

If I stop now in my treatment of Stetzer, you might accuse me of the genetic fallacy or even of Bulverism, but this isn’t my first rodeo. My prior comments are here, here, here, here and here. But the best argument that Stetzer isn’t just motivated to say what he says, but is actually wrong, is not mine but Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s (note especially his “Orthodox Conclusions” at the end).

Of course, neither Stetzer’s wrongness nor Hank Hanegraaf’s sincerity is an ironclad guarantee that Hanegraaf is correct, but the whole gestalt of this story is that a recognized Evangelical Bible expert has willingly left communion with Evangelicalism in favor of something he somehow thinks better.

He must think he has weighty reasons even if he weighed them wrongly. Do you think this Orthodoxy thing just might merit personal investigation?

* * * * *

Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.