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Book Review: Youth Ministry in the 21st Century: Five Views

youthminMy first thought when I saw the title of this book: “I didn’t even know there were five distinct views, what could they possibly be?” Here they are, in a nutshell:

The Gospel Advancing View by Greg Stier: This view focuses on evangelism, on saving the lost. Stier believes that discipleship happens when the mission (the Great Commission, the “Cause”) is at the forefront.

The Reformed View by Brian Cosby: This view attempts to apply consistently Reformed beliefs and practices to Youth Ministry. This includes an emphasis on faithfulness instead of “success” and a emphasis on the “means of grace”: the Word, prayer, and sacraments, as the primary drivers for youth ministry.

The Adoption View by Chap Clark: Clark believes that we have erred and become too individualistic in our view of discipleship and need to focus, instead, on building up the body of Christ. This view emphasizes the need for churches to “adopt” children into “family” of God by including them more deeply within the broader church.

The Ecclesial View by Fernando Arzola: Like the Adoption view, the Ecclesial view focuses on the Church. Where the adoption view emphasizes the local church congregation, the ecclesial view focuses on the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic” church. It emphasizes connecting youth with the historic church.

The D6 View by Ron Hunter: “D6” stands for Deuteronomy 6. This view argues that it’s God’s design that parents should play the primary role in discipling their children and that the church’s job is to lay the theological foundation, equip the parents for their work, and come along side the parents in a supporting role. The D6 model also emphasizes having and integrated approach to children, youth, young adult, and family ministry where ministry leaders work towards a common goal.

Analysis: In my initial estimation, the Adoption view and the D6 view made the strongest case for being the overarching philosophy for youth ministry. The others are important to keep in mind as well, though, and could provide necessary correctives when things get out of balance.

I’m curious, which of these types of youth groups did you grow up with? What worked and what didn’t?

The two paradigm shifts that finally helped me find peace with the doctrine of election

This post isn’t a defense of a theological position, though it contains a fair amount of theology. Instead, it’s the story of my theological journey (thus far) regarding the doctrine of election. I’m not even exactly sure how to categorize where I currently stand, or where I would fall on some Calvinist/Arminian spectrum.

When I was a teenager most of my angst, as near as I can recall, came from three places – worry about why I didn’t have a girlfriend, fear of death, and frustration that I either could not understand, or did not want to accept, certain theological positions of those around me. I found the doctrine of election, of predestination, particularly noxious. To me it was an offense to man’s free will and to God’s love and justice. I believed that God could simply not be good if God predestined certain people for salvation, and not others. And, since God was good (to think otherwise is certainly the most terrifying of all possible realities) predestination must be false and so I sought every possible escape hatch I could find. This feeling persisted into my college years, and I think that the book Why I’m Not a Calvinist still sits on one of my bookshelves. It’s been a number of years since I read it and I remember it being quite good. I would still recommend it (along with other complementary books on the subject).

Since that time I’ve had two major paradigm shifts in my thinking that have helped me “find peace” with the doctrine of election. The first one was in my conception of God. The second one was in my conception of the doctrine itself. It’s important that both came to me at about the same time. I should say that the two were in process at the same time since each was years in the making.

I’m telling this story now because in a couple of months I will begin preaching through the book of Ephesians, and right from the start Paul declares that God “chose us in [Jesus] before the creation of the world… in love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:4-5). The topic is inescapable. And since I want to be faithful to the whole council of God, I’m preparing now for what I plan to say on the subject.

Paradigm shift #1: From formula to Person

The first paradigm shift started when I was a freshman in High School, though it took years to come to fruition. During that time I began to realize that God was not a formula to be solved, but a Person to be known and trusted. In my theological wrestling I was trying to reduce God to a series of finite propositions. The problem with this methodology was that it rested on a misunderstanding of who God was. I wanted him to conform to my understanding of things like justice and love and fairness. But if God was really God, this was never going to work, and through God’s grace he let a light bulb come on in my head. I realized then that God was a Person who could be known – even if not fully known – and who could be trusted – even if I didn’t understand all of his actions. When that happened all I needed was to know two things about God, that he was good and that he was powerful. From there I could simply trust his person that he would never do anything which violated those two first principles. Instead of deciding whether or not God was good based on based on my judgment, I accepted that he was good, and adjusted my judgment accordingly. I didn’t need to understand everything anymore, I just needed to trust him.

The second major step logically flowed from the first but the foot didn’t fall for me until I took Systematic Theology in Seminary some 13(?) years later. My professor, Mike Wittmer, was explaining that certain elements of God’s divinity were incomprehensible to finite minds. In the created realm certain things could not be true – something could not be three and one at the same time – but in the uncreated realm this was possible. Hence, the Trinity. These attributes of God are therefore a mystery to us which will never be understood but which are no less true. Furthermore, God is glorified in this mystery, because it helps us know that we are really talking about God and not something devised by man. If we could fully understand or quantify God, then it would be likely that we were really speaking of something other than God. Such is the case with the apparent paradox between God’s election and man’s free will. It would seem, from the human perspective, that either man is free or God is sovereign. The one would destroy the other. If God chooses, then man’s “choice” is a mere illusion. If man chooses, then God is not fully sovereign (at least, not the the kind of sovereignty required by the doctrine of election). But in the uncreated realm, man’s freedom and God’s sovereignty can exist without contradiction. It’s a mystery. And, for my story anyway, that was a big paradigm shift.

At the time I had an objection: My professor argued that God’s mystery added to his glory. My argument was that it was not God’s mystery which added to his glory but his revelation. Isn’t Jesus, God’s ultimate self-disclosure, “the radiance of God’s glory?” I still think I had a point, but now I know that the flaw in my argument was that it was a false dichotomy. God is glorified in his mystery (because then we know we are reaching towards the divine) and in his revelation (because then we know the character of his divinity: his holiness, his justice, his love).

Paradigm shift #2: A shift in how I understood the doctrine of election

The second shift had to do with how I understood the doctrine of election. This shift is connected (though I don’t know the nature of the relationship) to a broader shift in my thinking – from an individualistic worldview to a community oriented worldview. For a long time everything was connected to the individual, and the individual only. This was particularly true in my theological thinking. It’s all about me and my relationship with Jesus. The broader community – the church – exists solely for the purpose of helping individuals come to know Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, to get out of hell, and to live a reasonably holy life. I perceived election in the same paradigm – God capriciously picking out some random assortment of individuals for personal salvation. For fairly obvious reasons this seemed blatantly unfair (especially if human free will was a mere illusion and so man had no real say in the matter). Now, I don’t want to discount the importance of the individual’s relationship with God. We all will ultimately stand on our own before the judgment seat and we are each accountable for our own response to God. But sometime around my time in Seminary I added an important component to my faith: a more robust theology of community.

Specifically, I began to see the connection between a believer’s “election” and God’s election of Israel. God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (individuals, to be sure) in order to create for himself a community and a nation. That nation, Israel, was God’s chosen people. They were his elect. As members of his chosen people they received certain privileges: the law, the prophets, the priestly system, victory in battle, supernatural abundance from the land, etc. They also had certain responsibilities: a requirement to follow the law or experience the weight of the curses and exile from the land. They had a mission: to be a light to the surrounding nations. God’s election of Israel, then, was both exclusive and inclusive. It was exclusive in the sense that out of all the nations God only chose Israel. It was inclusive in the sense that if other nations were to see Israel acting out its mission they could themselves glorify God and be “saved.” Consider Ninevah. The story of Jonah includes the story of their repentance and salvation, even though they were not part of God’s people. Or consider Ruth. She began as a foreigner, but through faith she became a member of the people of God. She joined the elect.

Israel never quite fulfilled its mission as the people of God. It consistently turned to idols and therefore experienced the curse of the law and was sent into exile. Even after its return from exile and renewal of the covenant, it remained a shadow of what it was.

But the mission of the elect was fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is the “chosen one” par excellence. Those who are united to Jesus through faith become part of the chosen people. To borrow the metaphor from Paul: “You [Gentiles] have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root” (Romans 11:17). Notice the connection between predestination and our relationship to Christ in Ephesians. We were chosen “in him”. We were predestined for adoption “through Christ.” Later in Ephesians 1 Paul states the “we were also chosen in him, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity to the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of salvation” (Ephesians 1:11-13a). I added the italics to highlight the progression of the “we” who are chosen and predestined as a first to put their hope in Christ to the “you” who were later included in Christ when they heard and believed the gospel. When that happened, it could be well said that they are part of the “us” who were “chosen in him before the creation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4).

The implications of this paradigm shift for the doctrine of election are significant for me. Most importantly, it emphasizes the responsibilities and mission of the people of God. Israel’s mission was to be a a light to the Gentiles by faithfully holding to the covenant and bringing the prophetic warning of coming judgment. The church has a more explicit mission, to invite people to become united to Jesus through faith and, in so doing, become part of the people of God. It adds an inclusive element to what is usually seen as a radically exclusive doctrine.

But I want to hasten to add that this new paradigm does not remove the mystery of God. For me, this explains well how Paul is using “chosen” and “predestined” in Ephesians, but it doesn’t carry as easily over to Romans 9 where we see another sort of glory revealed: The glory of God’s sovereignty to show mercy on whom he will show mercy, apart from human will. When I read Romans 9 I always need to fall back onto my first paradigm shift and decide to trust God, not my ability to solve an equation. I’m not sure I will ever (on this side of glory) be fully satisfied with Paul’s answer to the question posed in Romans 9:19 (Q: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will? A: “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?”), but I know my Father in heaven well enough, and I see his love and goodness clearly enough, to find rest in him.

Coming Soon: Growing in the Gospel: Ephesians

If the Slasher Pastor blog goes quiet for a little while, it’s because I’m devoting more of my writing and study efforts to this study in Ephesians. I encourage you to check it out.

Growing in the Gospel

As a pastor, one of my key responsibilities, and indeed the mission of the whole church, is to make disciples of Jesus. Making disciples includes includes evangelism -sharing the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and calling people to repentance and faith – and discipleship – helping believers grow in their faith, move from spiritual immaturity to maturity, grow in the knowledge of God, bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and so on.

But how do we grow in our faith? I’ve learned that the answer to this question is complex. I’ve also learned that one of the key elements of spiritual growth is knowledge and application of Scripture. Faith comes from knowledge and knowledge – the kind needed for spiritual maturity – comes from the Word of God, His trustworthy revelation. Knowledge is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Knowledge, by itself, merely puffs up and makes us…

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The Golden rule vs The Silver rule

In Pursuing Justice Ken Wytsma makes a distinction between the golden rule and what he calls the silver rule. The golden tells us to “do unto others and you would have them do unto you.” The silver rule just adds the word “not” in strategic locations: “do not do unto others as you would have them not do unto you.” Or, essentially, it’s the principle “do no harm.” Unfortunately, we often substitute the golden rule for the silver rule and move from active love, to just trying to avoid doing harm.

It’s a lot easier to live by the silver rule. It’s not that hard to go through your day simply not hurting other people. At the end of the day we can begin to think we’re pretty good people.

But God calls us to more than simply doing no harm – the silver rule – but to actively love others. Following the golden rule is risky. It requires us to put ourselves on the line, to give of our resources and time. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the Priest and the Levite did no harm to the injured man. The followed the silver rule, risking nothing, but also not acting with love or justice. The Good Samaritan, however, took risks and gave of himself to show active love, to practice the golden rule.

Wytsma concludes by suggesting we flip the question around that often prevents us from following the golden rule. We ask the question, “If I help, what could happen to me?” Wytsma suggests we ask a different question, “If I don’t help, “what will happen to them?”

On the inevitability of structural racism

This article is a summary of John Piper’s article Structural Racism: The Child of Structural Pride. My purpose in summarizing it here is (1) to disseminate its ideas to my readers and (2) to reinforce and crystalize those same ideas in my own mind by writing them down. As is usually the case, reading the primary source is more beneficial than then its derivatives.

The goal of Piper’s article is to “reduce the instinctive, white, evangelical reaction against the idea of structural racism or systematic racism.” I share the same goal here. As I have navigated the dangerous waters of discussing racism one of the major obstacles has been discussing the idea of systematic racism. A fair number of white evangelicals I have interacted with are eager to condemn personal racism but are convinced that (a) systematic/structural racism is a thing of the past and that there are only small pockets of individual racists and (b) that by talking about systematic racism we either label everyone a racist or somehow devalue discussions of personal responsibility. I think that both of these convictions are wrong – that structural racism is both inevitable and more pervasive than most white people realize (including myself) – and that talking about structural racism doesn’t need to lead to either a false sense of guilt (“everyone is a racist”) or reduce the need to talk about personal responsibility.

Piper’s strategy is to focus on the theological question of systematic racism rather than particular instances of it. He aims “to show that, if your mind is Bible-saturated, you would consider it absolutely astonishing if structural racism were not pervasive wherever sin is pervasive.” In other words, Piper sees structural racism as inevitable in a fallen world, kept in check only by the grace of God.

First, some definitions. Piper chooses a “street-level” definition of race as “a group of people distinguished primarily by skin color, but also by facial features and hair type.” Racism, then, is “an explicit or implicit feeling or belief or practice that values one race over other races, or devalues one race beneath others.” Finally, he defines structural racism as “the cumulative effect of racist feelings, beliefs, and practices that become embodied and expressed in policies, rules, regulations, procedures, expectations, norms, assumptions, guidelines, places, strategies, objectives, practices, values, standards, narratives, histories, records, and the like, which accordingly disadvantage the devalued race and privilege the valued race.”  What is important in this final definition is that the effects of structural racism may linger “even if non-racist people now inhabit the institutions where the racist structures still holds sway.” To say that an institution, law, practice, procedure, etc. contains structural racism is not necessarily to impugn the people that inhabit that institution as being racist. (I’ll note, though, that sometimes we are culpable of our own blindness, lack of empathy, failure to listen, and/or failure to act. To speak of structural racism should also not absolve individuals of personal guilt when it is present.)

From there Piper outlines three realities of our world which makes structural racism inevitable.

First, personal human sin: Rebellion from God is characterized by hostility toward God and hostility towards our fellow man and hostility towards those different from us is generally easier than towards those who are like us. “If we are ‘malicious,’ how much more with those who are different from ourselves. If we ‘murder,’ how much more those who are different. If we ‘deceive,’ how much more the alien.”

Second, a supernatural devil: The task of the devil is to lie, kill, and destroy and he is constantly working against us – or rather with the sinful natures within us. Given this reality Piper asks “can we be surprised if he works through all the social institutions of this world to cultivate misunderstanding, distrust, bias, partiality, suspicion, ill-will, antagonism, hostility, murder, pogroms, lynchings, ethnic cleansing, holocaust, genocide?” The history of ethnic and racial strife bears witness to the reality of this evil.

Third, evil world systems: Finally, the Bible speaks of a “present evil age”, a “present darkness”, a world system which enslaves. What Piper aims to show here is that while evil exists within the human heart, it is “strengthened and extended by Satan into a global matrix of evil.” The evil that exists within the world is greater than the sum of its parts. The overall evil in the world is more devastating than just the addition of all the sins of the human race. Instead it becomes embedded in a system, a mindset, a culture, and pervades our policies and institutions.

Piper concludes this section: “I can think of no sin that is not systematic or structural.” If no sin is spared the inevitability of becoming systematic or structural, why should we make an exception for racism?

Next Piper looks at the sins of pride, greed, fear, and lust and shows how they all pervade the systems of the world and, then, how they relate to racism. I will simply quote Piper at length here:

In such a world, it would be inconceivable and utterly astonishing if there were no such thing as structural racism. In this world of sin and Satan and a decadent world system, it is incomprehensible that one sin would be privileged to escape systemic expression. This is true not only for statistical reasons, but for organic ones. Racism is the spoiled child of pride. And structural racism is the sturdy child of structural pride. They are organically connected. Pride gives birth to racism. Structural pride gives birth to structural racism.

Racism is an explicit or implicit feeling or belief or practice that values one race over other races, or devalues one race beneath others. Why do we do this? Because of pride. Egotism. Haughtiness. Vain-glory. What could be clearer than the fact that we devalue other races in order to exalt our own, and gain the advantages that go with it? This is why racism is also the sibling of the fraternal triplets greed, fear, and lust. We value our own race, and devalue others to gain benefits (greed), avoid perceived loss (fear). And all the while lust aids and abets the process by sucking the vestiges of decency out of our souls.

Note that Piper is not saying that institutions, procedures, etc. feel or are guilty of pride or racism, but that they “institutionalize the minds of the proud, greedy, fearful, lustful people who create them.” They allow the evil of their creator to live on even when that creator is no longer present. They pave the way for injustice, and block the path of righteousness.

“There will be policies that promote a visible pecking order that feeds on and furthers pride. There will be strategies of cut-throat competition that grow with the nutriments of greed. There will be procedures of micro-management that waken and exploit fear. There will be assumptions of dress that exploit lust.”

It should come as no surprise to us that Piper finds the solution to the problem of personal and individual racism in the gospel. The gospel begins by destroying our pride and then enables and emboldens us to dismantle first the evil in our own hearts and then that which exists in the structures which surround us.

One of the big payoffs for me here is that when we understand the inevitability of structural and systematic evil – including racism – we’re in a better position to hear our brothers and sisters when they point to a particular instance of it. We ought to be cautious of just “blaming the system” – as Piper certainly is – and each supposed instance can be evaluated in its own right, but nor should we just dismiss it out of hand. If we refuse to see it where it is present, we won’t have the tools needed to work for justice.

What does it mean to be “blessed”?

“Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in obedience to him.” Psalm 128:1

According to Psalm 128:1, those who “fear the Lord” will be blessed. But what does it mean to be blessed by God? There are four categories of blessing: Present physical, present spiritual, future spiritual, and future physical.

Present physical

The focus in Psalm 128 is on present physical blessings. Verse 2 expands on the blessing of verse 1 to describe productive and fruitful labor: “You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours.” Verse 3 describes the blessing in terms of a fruitful marriage and children. Verse 5 speaks of “prosperity” and verse 6 describes blessing as being able to “live to see your children’s children.”

The focus of this Psalm is typical of how blessings are described in the Old Testament. Blessings take the form of land, fruitful fields, prosperity, military victory, security, large flocks, good health, long life, a good spouse, and the presence of children and grandchildren. And, while the emphasis on this sort of blessing is lessened to some degree in the New Testament, it is not entirely removed. Proverbs instructs us to connect the dots between living in accordance with God’s law and experiencing some measure of present physical blessings from God.

But, this doesn’t always happen and there are many counter-examples. Psalm 129, the vert next psalm, is the first-person account of someone who has been beaten and oppressed. There’s no indication that such a person was in that place because they failed to properly “fear the Lord.” It’s usually wrong to look at a lack of blessing and infer a lack of faith. Instead, suffering and hardship are a “natural” part of living in a fallen and sinful world. If we limit “blessing” to physical blessings in this life, we will miss out on the much broader picture of what God has in store for those who follow Him.

Present spiritual

God also gives present “spiritual blessings.” Examples abound but are several listed in Philippians 2:1

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion.”

These words describe gifts which we receive by being united with Christ. We can experience these blessings completely apart from our circumstances. Paul speaks of learning to be content in all situations. This, too, is a spiritual blessing. These may not be tangible, buy they are no less real. If pressed, it is easy to think of individuals who lack some of the physical blessings listed above but who are far more blessed in this spiritual sense. They are poor yet rich.

Future spiritual

But even these present spiritual blessings pale in comparison to the spiritual blessings we can expect to experience in heaven. Even now we can experience the presence of Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But in heaven we will experience his presence “face to face”. We will go from seeing dimly to seeing clearly. Right now, we experience joy, but it is always tinged with some level of pain or worry. Then all our tears will be washed away. We will no longer experience pain in a way that diminishes our eternal joy in the presence of God.

Future physical

Many of us will stop here. Given the experiential reality that sometimes those who trust in God do not experience material blessings in this life, or that those in open rebellion live in opulence, there is a tendency to spiritualize every blessing. When combined with a latent platonic worldview that sees the physical world with suspicion we get a purely spiritualized otherworldly experience. But this is not the biblical perspective. The glorious physical bounties of Eden will be restored on the New Earth. We will indeed experience physical blessings in our Resurrected bodies. The “prosperity gospel” gets it right that God wants us to be healthy and wealthy. They just get the timing wrong when they assume it will happen in this life. Those who fear the Lord will have never-die health and will be inheritors of the earth, it just won’t happen on this side of the resurrection.

Best yet, we will be able to experience the future physical blessing while also experiencing the future eternal spiritual blessings of being with Jesus. We get to enjoy both the gift and the Giver to the full.

If you’re in Christ, you are #Blessed

The path to authoritarianism?

Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto is a lot to take in but for this post I want to just elaborate on one short paragraph. Before we get there, though, we need to understand Schaeffer’s broader point and his use of language. His thesis is that there are two competing worldviews in America and Northern Europe, an older Judea-Christian worldview which places God at the center of all reality, and a “humanist” worldview which denies the presence of God and places material, energy, and chance as the only basis for all reality. “Humanism” for Schaeffer, doesn’t mean having a high regard for human life – or being “humanitarian” – but rather subverting God’s place in the universe with Man. Ironically, when God is removed and only material, energy, and chance remain, the dignity of human life is undermined. It is this great clash of worldviews which for Schaeffer stands at the root of great societal shifts, particularly in America. A Christian Manifesto, written in 1981, the year before I was born, is a call to cultural and political action to turn the course back toward a Judea-Christian worldview.

Humanism leads to chaos by undermining the basis of law

Now to the paragraph in question:

“The humanists push for “freedom,” but having no Christian consensus to contain it, that “freedom” leads to chaos or to slavery under the state (or under an elite). Humanism, with its lack of any final base for law, always leads to chaos. It then naturally leads to some form of authoritarianism to control the chaos. Having produced the sickness, humanism gives more of the same kind of medicine for a cure. With its mistaken concept of final reality, it has no intrinsic reason to be interested in the individual, the human being. Its natural interest is the two collectives; the state and society.” (A Christian Manifesto, p. 29-30)

There are two important points here. First, that the “freedom” offered by humanism always leads to chaos. This is a bold statement but it flows logically. A materialistic worldview leaves no ultimate basis for moral or political law. Instead, laws become arbitrary, or at least becomes based on some sort of arbitrary set of standards. Schaeffer makes a strong case elsewhere the constitution is also undermined and provides no final defense of law either. For an historical illustration, Schaeffer compares the American revolution with the French revolution. The American revaluation, strongly influenced by Reformation ideals, led to a balance of form-freedom in government. The French revolution, based on humanist ideals, led to chaos.

Authoritarianism steps in to reign in the chaos

Schaeffer’s second point is that humanism then leads to authoritarianism. The chaos must be reined in and the most convenient way is through force – which is the basis of all governments based purely on a materialistic worldview. In a Judeo-Christian worldview, the government is still subject to a higher authority. But in the humanist worldview, there is simply no higher authority to which we can appeal. So the state – or as Schaeffer understands it, some sort of intellectual or technocratic elite – steps in to control the chaos through authoritarian control. How this authoritarianism takes hold is a question he leaves open but he guesses that it could easily be done through the promise of better economic conditions.

Conclusion – Modern equivalence?

This paragraph struck me because I immediately drew a connection to our present political situation, though whether this connection is warranted is another discussion. Regardless, we have been on the steady slope of humanism in every area of culture and government since Schaeffer wrote this book. And, this steady “progress” has led to greater levels of social chaos (at least perceived). One of the reactions against this “chaos” was the election of Donald Trump, seen by many as having authoritarian tendencies. He rose to prominence primarily by promising to rein in chaos and by promising an economic resurgence.

If that interpretation of Trump is correct, then America is not heading “back” to a better time (if one really existed) where a humanistic liberalism is held back, but is simply on the next leg of the humanist journey. I hope that this interpretation is wrong. Time will tell. Meanwhile, we are still wise to heed Schaeffer’s warning.