Foundations: No.73 Autumn 2017

Book Reviews

Divided We Fall: Overcoming a History of Christian Disunity

Luder G. Whitlock, P&R Publishing Co., 2017, 213pp, £11.19 (£7.75 Kindle)

Luder Whitlock was president of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) from 1978–2001. During his time there the seminary grew to become one of the ten largest in North America. For eight years he was president of the Fellowship of Evangelical Seminary Presidents, and also served on the boards of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. The list of his involvement in various evangelical organisations is extensive and this gives a weight to the book as he appeals for unity across the evangelical divides.

Ligon Duncan, who writes the forward, has admired Whitlock’s dedicated service to promote unity across denominational lines with an unwavering commitment to truth and a convictional kindness in dealing with others. The book has a definite focus on the American context, and is replete with examples and experiences, in particular the divisions and mergers of American Presbyterianism. Whitlock states, “it will quickly be apparent that this was written primarily for Presbyterian Reformed evangelicals”. He summarises his goal: “This is a call to repentance for our failure to be the church God wants us to be.”

The first chapter outlines several biblical principles that show the importance of working for church unity. After the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of humanity, he turns to look at the doctrine of the church: “The New Testament acknowledges only one church, comprising all those who are in Christ.” He acknowledges that the early churches were not a corporate organisation but a network of personal contacts. He writes, “Given such an undeniably clear emphasis by Jesus on the importance of unity, how can his people afford to neglect it or treat it lightly?”

The second chapter highlights some lessons from church history. On the early church he summarises, “As ecumenical scholars Rouse and Neill observed, ‘If this great age of the church was marked by endless division, it was marked also by endless efforts for the restoration of unity’.” During the middle ages the focus of church unity moved from doctrinal unity (the creeds) to organisational unity (the authority of the pope). At the Reformation, when Luther called for a church council, “The Pope refused, and, by blocking a council meeting, he essentially destroyed the last chance of maintaining the unity of the Western church.” The Reformers were assured that they were the true perpetuators of the catholic church. They “continued to prize the concept of one holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic church”. Calvin desired unity between Protestant churches, writing, “Amongst the greatest evils of our century must be counted the fact that the churches are so divided from one another that there is scarcely even a human relationship between us”.

Jumping forward to the last century Whitlock speaks of “two major religious earthquakes”, the first of which he calls the “Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy”, the second he doesn’t name but says it hit America in the 1960s and 1970s. (I guess he is referring to the Charismatic movement but he seems to side-step this significant issue.)

Chapter three is entitled “The communion of Saints”, and after summarising America’s social transformation through urbanisation, and the loss of social community, he reminds us that churches should be communities of love not just preaching centres and that it is impossible to live the Christian life in the abstract; we need a church body life. He considers that the Reformation and the Fundamentalist controversy became the “two defining events for the church” leaving a legacy of “an enduring vigilance for doctrinal orthodoxy as a high priority. The mere suggestion of compromise became repugnant to evangelicals”. Again, “these experiences engendered a mentality that minimised a concern for unity, with lasting deleterious effects”. Again, “Evangelicalism, molded by this negative reactive behaviour, morphed into a different kind of Christianity.”

In chapter four he deals with Sectarianism, Schism and Ecumenism. Before the Fundamentalist controversy, “Protestants in America generally regarded themselves as members of a family of related religious bodies called denominations. They were heirs of a common faith and saw themselves as part of a larger body called the church.” With numerous examples he exposes both the sectarian spirit of liberal Presbyterianism towards evangelical Presbyterians and also the sectarianism between evangelicals. But what then is schism? “Essentially, schism is a separation from the organized church without just cause. This is different from sectarianism”. Again, liberal and evangelical examples are given. Finally, after pronouncing the old Ecumenical Movement as “dead”, he supports the approach of the NAE, which he considers a “potential umbrella organisation” for the “dynamic network of evangelical ministries” such as Acts29, Together for the Gospel, Desiring God and the Gospel Coalition. He is enthused by “this new evangelical ecumenism”, quoting the Manila Manifesto as an example among others. He appeals, “Shouldn’t we find fresh motivation to prioritize the unfulfilled Protestant mission to achieve greater visible unity in the aftermath of the Reformation?” Again, “shouldn’t it also be a biblical mission to work toward a united evangelical Protestantism to the greatest degree possible?”

In the final two chapters, he presses the appeal home, working to overcome evangelical apathy towards evangelical unity. He quotes Carl Henry: “If unity based on theological concession is undesirable, disunity alongside theological agreement is inexcusable.” He also offers “a few suggestions regarding ways in which we may seek a greater expression of unity and fellowship”. We should love one another, learn how to build trust, really listen to each other’s different views, be kind, and discuss how we should seek the unity of the Spirit. He brings the book to a conclusion with two important statements: “Believers today are justified, as were the Reformers, in separating from those who deny the gospel and refuse to place themselves under the authority of God’s Word.” But also, “It should be equally apparent that the fragmented church of the modern period is a tragic expression of human sinfulness, and greater priority should have been given and should be given to achieving the oneness for which Jesus prayed.”

Divided we Fall is easy and interesting to read; its central appeal is for gospel unity. The book challenges our apathy and enthuses us to express primary evangelical unity across secondary divisions. Many pastors and churches are indifferent to issues of interdenominational unity in the gospel, and Divided we Fall could encourage an increase in convictional church unity.

There are some matters over which I could not agree with the author. Whitlock outlines the threefold categories of Primary, Secondary and Tertiary issues. He affirms that, “primary doctrines are essential to being a Christian. The secondary doctrines could be those that are essential to being Presbyterian” or whatever other denominational distinctives. Tertiary are nonessentials within the local church or denomination. But who decides which issues fit into which categories? He approves of the EPC position of neutrality regarding women elders and regarding charismatic gifts: “Confessional Presbyterianism transcended these and other differences.” I think he is wrong to regard female elders as a tertiary matter.

He gives the example of a Wheaton college professor who claimed that Muslims “worship the same God”. This he rightly affirms as a gospel issue, it is a primary issue. But the next example – a Christian college announcing that they would accept faculty who were engaged in same-sex marriages – this he considers to be only a moral issue, “not a doctrine essential to salvation”. But surely the doctrine of repentance from sin is essential to salvation? Homosexuality cannot be put in the same category as alcohol, tobacco, movies and dancing.

I think the book was weakened by separating the pursuit of the unity of the church from the pursuit of the purity of the church. By doing so, the book fails to give the necessary warnings regarding the ease with which compromising accommodation takes place. For example, Whitlock seems to shake his head at Piper’s confrontation of an emerging church pastor who rejects penal substitution. This imbalanced perspective has emerged because he has focussed exclusively on unity.

Underlying it all, I think he fails to properly define a Christian in terms of both faith and repentance and this results in an ambiguous foundation for church unity. For these reasons, it is not a book I would recommend, but its central appeal for gospel unity should be pursued.

Nathan Pomeroy
Pastor, Arnold Road Evangelical Church, Nottingham

 

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