Caveat Lector • 8/19/2015

Caveat Lector

[By: Nicolas Alford]

In the past I’ve used the “caveat lector” category to signal a slightly off-beat Decablog post, or a clumsy attempt at humor. Today I’m resurrecting the tag and starting what will be something of a regular column out of it. How regular? I have a plan in mind–but it’s secret. Basically, I don’t want to be held to it if I don’t keep up. How’s that for transparent opacity?

I intend this to be an outlet for occasional riffing on current events, shorter blurbs, and highlighting helpful links.

And so, into the breach.
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While John Oliver’s devastating takedown of the Prosperity Gospel is pretty vulgar (I guess he only had the Sesame Street video for the letter “F”), he is spot on. Two things are especially tragic: that hurting people are preyed on by these jackals and that their shenanigans make such a mockery of the Biblical gospel. The church must be clear in denouncing such heresy, or the comedians of the culture will do it for us.
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The press release put out from a recently hacked website that coordinates clandestine affairs for married people is a fascinating study in a convoluted worldview. The gist of the story is that hackers have stolen the user data of some tens of millions Ashley Madison.com customers–names, home addresses, credit card numbers, etc–and posted it all online to the delight of identity thieves everywhere and the dismay of tens of millions of betrayed spouses.

Important caveat: stealing personal data and using it either to shame or to steal from private parties is difficult to defend even in these shameful circumstances. But the fascinating part of this is the way that the company has chosen to not only condemn the theft, but to astonishingly also attempt to defend the morality of the affairs they facilitate. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

This event is not an act of hacktivism, it is an act of criminality. It is an illegal action against the individual members of AshleyMadison.com, as well as any freethinking people who choose to engage in fully lawful online activities. The criminal, or criminals, involved in this act have appointed themselves as the moral judge, juror, and executioner, seeing fit to impose a personal notion of virtue on all of society. We will not sit idly by and allow these thieves to force their personal ideology on citizens around the world. We are continuing to fully cooperate with law enforcement to seek to hold the guilty parties accountable to the strictest measures of the law.

Every week sees new hacks disclosed by companies large and small, and though this may now be a new societal reality, it should not lessen our outrage. These are illegitimate acts that have real consequences for innocent citizens who are simply going about their daily lives. Regardless, if it is your private pictures or your personal thoughts that have slipped into public distribution, no one has the right to pilfer and reveal that information to audiences in search of the lurid, the titillating, and the embarrassing.

Note three moral stances taken in this incredible statement.

1. The perpetrator(s) of this hack have no right to act as “moral judge” or “impose a personal notion of virtue on all society.” Notice that not only is the hacked website protesting the criminal act of invading their servers and taking user data, they are protesting the idea that there is anything immoral about the services they provide. So apparently, to think that it is immoral to secretly carry on an affair behind the back of your spouse is to appoint yourself an illegitimate “moral judge.” Honesty with your spouse and fidelity in marriage are merely “personal notions of virtue,” and “personal ideology.”

2. Yet even as they deny the legitimacy of morally condemning people having secret affairs, Ashley Madison.com has no hesitation condemning the hackers in explicitly moral language. Note that the hackers are “thieves” and “guilty parties.” They have no right to “pilfer and reveal” that which others want kept private. Now, the website probably has a point, but the thundering question is, on what possible consistent grounds do you deny the right of others to “impose a personal notion of virtue,” while at the same time decrying that act in the most morally laced language possible?

3. It doesn’t even stop there. There are incredible statements used defending the adulterers who this site caters to. They are actually described as merely “freethinking people,” and–astonishingly– “innocent citizens simply going about their daily lives.” So there you have it: the hackers have no right to impose their morality on Ahsley Madison.com and it’s clientele, Ashley Madison.com has every right to impose their morality on the hackers, and meanwhile, the clientele in question is utterly “innocent.” Never mind, of course, the frank admission that the stolen data most likely contains “the lurid, the titillating, and the embarrassing.” Not exactly the language of innocence.

This is what happens when you cut the societal tether to objective moral absolutes. Behold the worldview of autonomous moral authority. If you think it doesn’t make any sense, that’s because it doesn’t. We’re living in a culture where the only sin is believing that someone else is sinning, expect for when they’re sinning again you, but meanwhile, it’s not sin to provide a website for others to sin against their souses! The whole convoluted mess would be laughable, if it didn’t represent tens of millions of broken hearts and shattered vows.

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If you missed Mark Nenadov’s piece on Elijah Craig, you shouldn’t have.

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Free The Rhino Room!

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Today the seventh Planned Parenthood expose was released. Here’s a thorough roundup from The Gospel Coalition.

Here’s my eleven word commentary:

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 3.24.05 PM
Come quickly Lord Jesus.

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That concludes the maiden voyage of Caveat Lector. Until next time,

Grace and Peace.


The Bourbon Baptist: A Look at Elijah Craig’s Life

Church History

[By: Mark Nenadov]

Introduction

The vaults of church history are rich storehouses that should be plundered regularly. We have an embarrassment of riches and yet at times large swaths of history lay on the shelf, dusty.

It can be tempting for us Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians to jump from the New Testament times to the 16th and 17th century and then into the 20th century. And yet, the American Baptist community of the 18th and 19th century is, in my opinion, comparatively neglected. I love and appreciate the life and theology of the 17th century Particular Baptists, but sometimes I think we’ve underestimated the legacies of those who came after them.

As an independent, amateur researcher, I’ve been writing short biographical sketches of some noteworthy and yet sorely neglected individuals in 19th century American Baptist history. For instance, I’ve written two soon-to-be-published papers on John Newton Brown: “A Recipient of Inestimable Legacies”: The Early Life of J. Newton Brown (1803-1868) and “Sweet Temper, High-toned Piety”: The Life of John Newton Brown (1803-1868). They should be appearing in Kettering soon. And I’ve focused in on S. Dryden Phelps in “An Eloquence in Nature’s Voice” The Pastor-Poet S. Dryden Phelps (1816-1895).

11748618_10153214268454342_914956416_nMost of my writing has been about Baptists in New England. The Baptist community there was surprisingly vital just a couple centuries ago! As of late, though, there is an intriguing character who takes me further down South: the 18th-19th century Virginia and Kentucky Baptist preacher and entrepreneur Elijah Craig (1745?-1808).

This article is much less formal than the other ones I’ve written recently. Also, I do not pretend to have researched Elijah Crag’s life as thoroughly as John Newton Brown or S. Dryden Phelps. Nevertheless, I aspire here to a lighter, more casual treatment of his life, which brings into focus some interesting angles in an age of perennial concerns about religious liberty!

Early Life and Conversion

Though Elijah Craig was “one of the most remarkable of the early Kentucky Baptist preachers,” very little is known about his early life in Orange County, Virginia. We don’t even know whether his birthdate was in the 1730s or 1740s and have essentially no details dating before 1764.

By the mid-1750s, colonial American Baptists were often identified as either “Regular” or “Separate.” Both were solidly Calvinistic in their theology, but the “Separate Baptists” closely identified with the Great Awakening and are known for emphasizing evangelism and heart-felt religion, whereas the “Regular Baptists” in some ways distanced themselves from this orientation.

In 1764, Elijah was converted while sitting under the preaching of the Regular Baptist David Thomas (1732-1812), who had organized one of the first Regular Baptist churches in Virginia. Almost immediately upon conversion Elijah “began, at once to exhort.” In the early days, his chapel was located in his tobacco house! By 1766, he became a Separate Baptist.

Ministry in Virginia

Elijah’s preaching was “of the most solemn style,” often bringing listeners to tears. He had “a thin visage, large eyes and mouth” and was “of great readiness of speech.” His voice was melodic, and both his preaching and singing were so loud that it “bore all down.”

At some point, Elijah married Frances Smith and had three children: Joel, Simeon, and Lucy. When Frances died, Elijah married a widow, Margaret, and had three more children: Lydia, Polly, and John.

Baptists were persecuted in 18th century Virginia. Like the Carolinas, Georgia, and Maryland, Virginia had an established church—the Church of England. The principle of religious liberty had not taken hold in the social culture of the day and “the rage of the persecutors had in no wise abated.” Baptist pastors were often mocked, slandered, and jailed. In 1779, over 40 pastors were placed in jail. Elijah was arrested twice.

While ploughing his field in 1768, Elijah was arrested and imprisoned for seventeen days for preaching “schismatick doctrines.” Apparently, prison couldn’t keep Elijah down and he preached the gospel through the bars of his jail window and, consequently, the authorities built a high wall around the prison to keep people from hearing.

After release from prison, Elijah pastored Blue Run Baptist Church, which gathered just a few miles from the Madison family plantation. The church chose him as their pastor upon constitution in 1769, and formally ordained him into the ministry in 1771. Under his pastoral care, the church flourished.

Though political upheaval began earlier, it wasn’t until 1775 that the American Revolutionary war began. During the war, Elijah served as a chaplain. He also “played a vital role in communicating the views of the Virginia Baptists to the new state government.” It is highly likely that Elijah Craig played at least an indirect role in some of the early musings that eventually led to the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Life in Kentucky

In early 1786, Elijah brought his congregation, the Great Crossing Church, from Virginia into the vicinity of present day Lancaster, Kentucky. It was a large group of perhaps half a thousand people. Persecution hastened the move. Hence, Virginia’s established church appears to have brought many Baptists to Kentucky.

While in Kentucky, Elijah got busy. He laid out plans for the town of Lebanon, later renamed Georgetown. He also founded one of the earliest classical academies in the state, the Rittenhouse Academy, which according to some would evolve into Georgetown College, though the connection is somewhat debatable. An advertisement for the academy in the Kentucky Gazette observed that it “will teach the Latin and Greek languages, together with such branches of the sciences as are usually taught in public seminaries.” Legend has it that the “stately columns” of Giddings Hall at Georgetown College hide “a keg of whiskey belonging to Elijah Craig.”

Speaking of whiskey, Elijah distilled whiskey. He may have begun as early as 1789. Yes, Baptists used to distill whiskey. Just two years earlier, a Baptist minister, James Garrard, was indicted for retailing whiskey without a license. One source notes that John Schackelford received thirty-six gallons of whiskey for his preaching in 1798. In 1796, the Elkhorn Baptist Association, a Kentucky association (constituted in 1785), ruled that denying a member church membership because he sold intoxicants was unjustified. It should also be remembered that it wasn’t until 1886 that the Southern Baptist Convention began passing resolutions against alcohol.

11721425_10153214268419342_1283120141_nBaptists who enjoy reading this article and are not teetotalers may like to know that they can indeed drink the Elijah Craig brand bourbon whiskey this very day. There is a bit of legend swirling around about Elijah’s involvement in the whiskey trade. It is commonly stated that he was the first person to make bourbon, but that is likely untrue. The legend states that Elijah accidentally charred some white oak staves and, due to frugality, stored the whiskey in them anyway, noticing the taste difference and afterwards producing it that way purposely. This legend seems to have its origin in a history of Kentucky from 1874 and has been further propagated by Heaven Hill Distillery who produces the Elijah Craig brand bourbon whiskey.

In reality, Elijah was probably making the same sort of whiskey that others in Kentucky were making at the time. Whatever we may make of the legend, it is clear that Elijah was a prominent distiller and one of Kentucky’s earliest and most zealous “industrialists.” Beside his whiskey production, Elijah kept busy building a saw mill, a grist mill, making paper and rope, and fulling cloth. He also got caught up in some land speculating, which involves risky financial transactions which attempt to profit from fluctuation in real estate prices. As we shall soon see, the speculating seems to have had a negative effect on him.

In 1791, for some reason Elijah became “obnoxious” to his church and was excommunicated. Very little is known about the specific circumstances, but we can infer a few things from what was going on in Elijah’s life at the time. He remained excommunicated for some amount of time, but was eventually restored to fellowship. We may speculate that Elijah’s excommunication was related to a spiritual decline which may have been in some way connected to his involvement in land speculation, a trajectory which appears to have dragged down his ministry. Robert Baylor Semple, who wrote A History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia, observed that Elijah had a “censorious” temper, a temper that was kept in check as long as he was “warm in religion.” However, Semple opines that a period of religious decline in his life connected with his land speculation involvement might have caused his censoriousness to become unchecked.

Semple cites Elijah’s two published works as examples of his censoriousness. While in Kentucky, Elijah published A Few Remarks on the Errors That Are Maintained in the Christian Churches of the Present Day (1801), in which he argued that “pastors…are precluded by the Scriptures from receiving any compensation for their services,” and A Portrait of John Creath (1807), which is the account of some private dispute between a Mr. Creath and a Mr. Lewis. The later pamphlet is no longer accessible. Semple described it colorfully as having been written with a pen “dipt in poison.”

We do not know when and under what circumstances Elijah was restored to fellowship, we merely know that he was a member of the congregation when he died in 1808.

Whereas John Newton Brown, who also ministered for a time among slave-owners in Lexington, Virginia, spoke loudly and clearly against the institution of slavery, Elijah Craig, like many Southern Baptists, seems to have quietly profited from the cruel institution of American slavery. According to tax records from 1800, Elijah owned “over 4,000 acres of land, eleven horses, [and] thirty-two slaves.”

His Death

For one reason or another, Elijah lost a good deal of his wealth by the time of his death. According to his last will and testament, he had only one slave left to leave for his children, a slave boy named Harry.

On May 13, 1808, Elijah was “in a low state of health but of sound mind & memory,” and penned his last will and testament. He died by May 18, 1808. On May 24th, the Kentucky Gazette wrote the following eulogy:

“He possessed a mind extremely active and his whole property was expended in attempts to carry his plans to execution—he consequently died poor. If virtue consists in being useful to our fellow citizens, perhaps there were few more virtuous men than Mr. Craig.”

Conclusion

You will find the story of Elijah Craig’s life unsatisfying if your use history to cherry-pick laudable heroes in which you expect to find no wrinkles or complications. If you want a hero, I’d argue you can find much more unalloyed hero material in someone like John Newton Brown or S. Dryden Phelps.

Nevertheless even this slave-owning and allegedly censorious Baptist makes for a fascinating historical study in our Baptist heritage. In particular, his involvement in pre-Revolutionary happenings concerning religious liberty and his location at the early development of the Baptist church in America makes him a remarkable character. He also provides a fascinating early case study for a variety of other reasons. He provides us with an early example of Baptist church discipline being put into practice. He shows how the earliest Baptists were generally not teetotalers or prohibitionists. He is an early example of a Baptist entrepreneur. He is involved in debates for and against bi-vocational pastorates.

We do not know enough about Elijah Craig to form a substantial impression of his theology and piety. There are, however, a number of fascinating aspects of his life which would make him an interesting study, if more information could be found.

I don’t pretend to have done Elijah Craig’s legacy justice, nor do I claim to well-suited to be the individual to uncover and connect further details about him. I merely hope I can stir up some interest in him. We can only hope that some more information is uncovered in the future! Such is the optimism of history, there is always the hope that more will be discovered some day.

Mark Nenadov blogs regularly at All Things Expounded.

Thoughts For Keach’s Warrior Children: Confessionalism

Confessionalism

[By: Mark Nenadov]

keach_bIntroduction

The title of this post comes from the title of John Frame’s essay regarding the squabbles in American Presbyterian history, Machen’s Warrior Children. This title is a spin-off of that article. That’s about where the similarity ends. The “Keach” part, of course, refers to the English Particular Baptist, Benjamin Keach (pictured here in what might be said to be the artistic tradition of “partial realism”). Keach was a signer of the Second London Baptist Confession. I will hereafter refer to the confession as “the 1689 Confession”, which is its common name, even though it was actually first published in 1677.

I’ve had this post bouncing around in my head for quite some time now. It wasn’t until more recently, though, that its come down to the tips of my fingers. This post is best understood as a bit of reflection on my readings of recent Reformed Baptist interactions on the Internet. I hope and trust you will find these observations charitably written, if not always agreeable to everyone. I write this both so others can hopefully benefit from it, but also so I can further clarify my thoughts and continue to apply these things to myself.

A Goodly Heritage

As Reformed Baptists, we have a wonderful heritage in the 1689 Confession. We also have some wonderful catechisms (such as Keach’s Catechism and An Orthodox Catechism). It would behoove us, however, to examine how we are using these excellent documents and also whether we are using them in a way that is consistent with the main objectives for which they were written. I will not purport to put forward such an examination in this post. Rather, I will just offer a few “thoughts for the journey”, so to speak.

Functional Thoughts

In my mind, a healthy confessionalism balances two functions: a restrictive function and a permissive function. On one hand, it narrows, restricts, and provides shelter from the other side of the line. On the other, it is generous, permissive, expansive, and fosters diversity, and provides leeway for genuine differences. When either one of these aspects take an unhealthy prominence to the exclusion of the other, problems arise and confessionalism becomes ugly.

Reformed Confessionalism, in general, can be a wonderful thing. And we have much reason to rejoice in somewhat of a revival in Baptist confessionalism over the last several decades.

However, when confessionalism turns elitist or provincial in nature, it becomes ugly, no matter how historic or doctrinally solid it is. Much attention is paid to the “what” of confessionalism, but we ought to pay attention to the “how” also.

Respect The Intent Of The Framers

Besides respecting and noting the intent of the framers in the doctrinal formulations contained in a confession, we should also respect and notice their overarching purposes, as those will be very helpful in looking at “how” we should be confessional.

Anyone who wants to use the 1689 Confession to produce an exclusive, critical, elitist, and narrow community seems to run counter to the framer’s stated intention that it be “for the information and satisfaction of those that did not thoroughly understand what our principles were”.

The document also was ecumenical, in the good sense of the word. It had the goal of standing “with many others whose orthodox Confessions have been published to the world”. Clearly, the signers themselves (especially Mr. Keach) were comfortable with diversity in at least some areas and unafraid to think outside of the box and even disagree with their brethren at times. And that’s without even knowing all the historical details of who was in the minority report in various areas of the confession.

Anyone who wants to hit someone over the head with the 1689 Confession should read the preface: “we hope we have also observed those rules of modesty and humility as will render our freedom in this respect inoffensive, even to those whose sentiments are different from ours”.

Our Posture To Others

In the spirit of our confession’s preface, we should give due honor to other good, orthodox confessions of faith such as the Westminister Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Abstract of Principles, the New Hampshire Confession, and others. It is, of course, appropriate to prefer the confession we subscribe to, but we need to guard against a provincial, dismissive attitude and the impulse to enlarge the “faults” of other confessions to just win some sort of playground game. That is ugly confessionalism. We should also, incidentally, be careful to not carelessly assume that being older and more detailed necessarily makes a confession better!

If we love and treasure our historic Reformed confessions, then it behooves us to adorn those confessions well, in gentlemanly and gracious conduct and kindness to those we interact with. 17th century theology doesn’t show well when elucidated by curmudgeons. Not that a curmudgeonly slant is always necessarily wrong, but we must seek balance! I think, in general, the Reformed community has enough warriors and bull dogs. We need more statesmen and ambassadors. But are we producing more statesmen and ambassadors? This is an important question to consider.

Could it be that some are so focused on negatively defining their theology, that they are losing a positive presentation of it? One can be so wrapped up in being not-dispensationalist, not-new-calvinist, not-charismatic, not-fundamentalist, not-new-covenant-theology, not-plain-vanilla-evangelical, not-baxterian, not-paedobaptistic, not-presbyterian, not-arminian, not-federal-visionist, etc., that they forget who they really are and end up presenting a very truncated and negative identity. Not to say that these areas of controversy are unimportant. It’s just that defining a community’s theology too exclusively on these lines may result on a stunted community that isn’t very robust.

Is easy (and true) to say that we must engage in polemic at times. It is far harder to have the discernment to have the necessary balance–to know how and when to do it. We must lose our proclivity to squabble at a drop of a hat. Sadly, sometimes contending becomes a pastime (and all-encompassing project in and of itself). Alas, to a man with a hammer, everything is a nail! For instance, many have been eager to engage with the topic of “New Calvinism”. Sadly, though, some have proceeded with an unfortunate style of polemic that lacks charity and lacks accuracy. I personally, along with Iain Murray from the Banner of Truth, have questions about the accuracy and usefulness of a strict Old/New dichotomy when it comes to modern Calvinism. But, in any case, if any “Old Calvinism” is not characterized by humility or brotherly love, it is worse than worthless.

Here is a burning question: Are we teaching the up and coming generation to thoughtfully engage the scriptures on these issues in a way that shows historic continuity and confessional integrity, or are we just trying to enlist new warriors to be “on our side” and subscribe fully without question to a confession? Ironically, ugly confessionalism turns into a subtle form of anti-confessionalism, turning people away from confessionalism in droves.

Guard Against Overplaying Confessionalism

It’s been often repeated that here is a “cage stage” with the Doctrines of Grace, when people who newly discover them need to be careful about being a little too zealous. What if the same thing applies to confessionalism? What if it is easy to overplay the benefits of confessionalism, especially before we’ve ridden along for the long-haul, and haven’t yet seen how messy and difficult some confessional issues can really be?

Perhaps some eager advocates of confessionalism, in overplaying their hand a bit, are over-promising in their rhetoric regarding confessionalism, and that makes confessionalism ugly. From watching people talking about confessionalism over the last several years, I’ve become convinced that sometimes confessionalism has even become a fad (old things can be fads too!) or “the cool thing to be” in the Reformed community. And then, of course there is sometimes a smug “and they aren’t confessional”. Almost but not quite accompanied by a proverbial thumb to the nose with a “na na na na na”.

Furthermore, I believe we must watch out that we don’t turn confessionalism into some sort of “blue pill” or panacea. As good and necessary as confessions may be, they are not panaceas! If we are going to adhere to Sola Scriptura, the church’s struggles are never going to be quite as simple as “just grab a confession and run”.

It is one thing to say that confessions are scripturally (or pragmatically) necessary, it is another to treat them like panaceas. They are not going to magically confer doctrinal stability, soundness, and accountability. They do not remove or necessarily solve some of the thorniest questions that are facing the church. Their effectiveness will also depend on our church polity. They come with a whole host of practical issues that must be resolved.

And then there are a host of other issues such as what level of subscription will be require, what role the confession plays in everyday church life, and many other issues. Are some of us, perhaps, in our zeal for the historic Reformed confessions, giving the wrong impression about what confessionalism actually accomplishes? Are the value of historic Reformed confessions, as valuable as they are, sometimes oversold? I would suggest that we lose credibility when we overplay what confessionalism actually confers.

Conclusion

So, in conclusion, we Reformed Christians have great confessions and catechisms. And yet, before smugly looking at all those non-confessional Christians, we ought to ask ourselves if we are actually living up to our creeds! Confessionalism must be something richer than merely being the “cool thing to do if you are Reformed”. We ought to conduct ourselves in ways that adorn our creeds, not in ways that make them ugly. And we must give careful thought to the HOW of confessionalism. Hopefully this will be an area which is thoughtfully explored further within the international Reformed Baptist community.

Here are three articles from Bob Gonzales (of Reformed Baptist Seminary) which are very much worth reading and hopefully will spur readers on in this direction:

This post originally appeared at All Things Expounded and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.