Russell Moore’s interview with Beth Moore got me thinking. Why is her experience with abuse such a big deal right now? And why didn’t Russell Moore do more (along with editors at Christianity Today) to… More
The Last Time a Pope Died
From the October 2005 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal
The Faith of Modernism
When John Paul II was elected pope in 1978, some American evangelical observers of Rome referred to him as “J2P2.” About ten years later that nickname receded, an indication of a significant transition in his pontificate: this pope was becoming even more popular than Star Wars. It is easy to see now why American evangelicals fell in love with pope John Paul II. He was instrumental in the defeat of Communism, courageous in defense of traditional marriage, and relentless in his advocacy of the culture of life.
Why didn’t Paul VI a enjoy similar press? After all, a re-reading of his widely lampooned Humanae Vitae reveals it to be a brilliant, if flawed, critique of our technological age. But Paul VI’s tired and melancholy demeanor lacked the vigorous and telegenic charisma of John Paul II, a master of modern media.
Timothy George compared the winsome attractiveness of John Paul II to the ultimate American evangelical icon, Billy Graham. “Many of the things said of the pope you’d say of Billy Graham,” George recently told Christianity Today. “From an evangelical base he’s tried to reach out and be embracing and yet be faithful to the gospel. And you put those two together, Billy Graham and the pope, you have there the winsome, visible face of world Christianity in the last half century.”
Again, this is understandable, and there is much for Protestants to be thankful for in this remarkable 25-year pontificate. But can it be said from a Protestant perspective that John Paul II’s legacy was marked by theological progress? How ought we to evaluate what Mark Noll described as Roman Catholicism’s “dramatically altered relations with Protestant evangelicals”? Are we led to imagine that the Reformation is over? There are reasonable grounds for skepticism on the part of Protestant confessionalists.
This is not to question the pope’s openness to the theory of evolution, as some Protestant fundamentalists and Roman Catholic traditionalists have. John Paul II hardly endorsed Darwinism; he merely invited Christians to engage in legitimate scientific inquiry without succumbing to scientism. No, John Paul II was clean here, although it was left for his successor, Benedict XVI, to state the matter with greater theological precision when he emphasized that “we are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution.”
In following through with the work of Vatican II, John Paul proclaimed the church’s openness to the future. But should Protestants be encouraged when “aggiornamento” replaces the take-no-prisoners exclusivism of pre-Vatican II Rome with the universalism of Vatican II? A perusal of Crossing the Threshold of Hope should dispel any doubt that John Paul II is a modernist, especially with regard to his attitude toward other religions. John Paul II seems to articulate his own version of Open Theism here: salvation is open to all “people of good will” (though only Rome possesses the fullness of that salvation). Jews are older brothers in this vague and universal faith, and he goes on to make frightening concessions to the “deep religiosity” of Buddhists, Hindus, and Moslems, reserving his criticism of the latter to the “fundamentalists” among them. “It will be difficult to deny that this doctrine is extremely open,” he writes. “It cannot be accused of an ecclesiastical exclusivism” (emphasis original).
The old-style Protestant modernist Shailer Mathews insisted that Modernism was not liberalism. Modernists, he wrote, were evangelicals who use the scientific, historical, social method in understanding and applying evangelical Christianity to the needs of living persons. Mathews’ call for Christian accommodation to modern times reads much like John Paul II’s. Perhaps there is no American Protestant he may resemble so much as Charles Briggs, who though conservative by inclination and committed to traditional doctrines such as the virgin birth, sought to bring American Presbyterians into the modern world, introducing them to confessional revision, higher criticism and doctrinal tolerance.
Another similarity between the recent pope and Protestant modernism was his reticence to apply church discipline to Roman Catholic dissenters. Rising to his defense, many have pointed out how imprudent excommunication would have been. Dissent was far too entrenched in the American Roman Catholic higher education, which had become a barren wasteland beyond correction. A crackdown would involve not just the prominent – he could not limit it to the likes of Hans Küng – but would have involved tens of thousands. So the pope was between a rock and a hard place, and his hands were tied.
Somehow that rings hollow for a pope credited with dismantling communism. Where is the sign of contradiction? And whatever happened to his slogan, “Be not afraid”? He’s the POPE, for crying out loud. A more plausible explanation seems to be that discipline was less beyond his power than contrary to his style. So the dirty work was inherited by his successor, Benedict XVI, and Roman Catholic conservatives have already appealed to him to take serious disciplinary action.
Where Noll’s “dramatically altered relations” is most evident is in ways John Paul II’s papacy has encouraged American evangelicals to collapse spiritual warfare into cultural warfare. Under the pope’s leadership and example American Roman Catholics and evangelicals have found common cause in lobbying for the culture of life. This has led to the confusing and divisive work of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” in 1994 and its successors. To be sure, evangelicals argue that theological differences remain – there’s the whole Mary thing – but these are relegated to the theological periphery. “The disagreements that Protestants have with John Paul II are things that are in addition to the foundations of the faith,” said Southern Baptist Richard Land. In a more theologically literate age, confessional Protestants would call that doctrinal indifference.
In a commonly misunderstood section in his book, Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen suggested that Presbyterian orthodoxy had more in common with Rome than with Protestant liberalism. Machen’s predicament was that if forced to choose between Protestant modernism, which had all but abandoned the exclusivity of the Christian religion, and Roman Catholicism, a faith that in the 1920s was still affirming that outside the church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation, the decision would have been to side with the Christian though flawed expression. That choice took on a different dimension after Vatican II when in its effort to engage the modern world the Roman Catholic hierarchy embraced modernism. So with the magisterium of John Paul II, who fleshed out Vatican II’s modernism, Machen would not have been confronted with a choice. For all of his gifts and virtues, John Paul II was a theological modernist. Evangelical adulation of his papacy gives every suggestion of a dance with modernism.
Machen Death Day 2023
A little tide me over for post-Christmas blues:
Would our knowledge of our Saviour be essentially complete if the New Testament did not contain the passages which narrate the virgin birth?
That question, we think, should be answered with an emphatic negative; without the story of the virgin birth our knowledge of our Saviour would be impoverished in a very serious way. Exaggerations, indeed, should be avoided at this point. Even without the infancy narratives we should have much upon which to rest our faith. Christ would still be presented in the New Testament as both God and man in two distinct natures and one person forever; the significance of His Cross would still stand out in all its glorious clearness; He would still be offered to us in the gospel as our Saviour.
Yet there would be a serious gap in our knowledge of Him, and questions would arise which would be full of menace for the souls of men. How did this eternal Son of God enter into the world? Did the Son of God unite with the man Jesus at the baptism as the Gnostics supposed; was the man Jesus received up gradually into union with the eternal Son? Erroneous answers to such questions would, without the story of the virgin birth, be all too ready to hand. No doubt those erroneous answers would still be capable of refutation to a mind ideally logical and really filled with the convictions which all the Gospels and Epistles would provide. Yet they would be only too natural to the minds of men as they actually are. Without the story of the virgin birth we should be living constantly in a region of surmises like the errors of the heresiarchs in the ancient Church.
Such surmises would deprive us of the full doctrine of the incarnation upon which our souls can rest. To that doctrine it is essential that the Son of God should live a complete human life upon this earth. But the human life would not be complete unless it began in the mother’s womb. At no later time, therefore, should the incarnation be put, but at that moment when the babe was conceived. There, then, should be found the stupendous event when the eternal Son of God assumed our nature, so that from then on He was both God and man. Our knowledge of the virgin birth, therefore, is important because it fixes for us the time of the incarnation. And what comfort that gives to our souls! Marcion, the second-century dualist, was very severe upon those who thought that the Son of God was born as a man; he poured out the vials of his scorn upon those who brought Christ into connection with the birth-pangs and the nine months’ time. But we, unlike Marcion and his modern disciples, glory just in the story of those things. The eternal Son of God, He through whom the universe was made, did not despise the virgin’s womb! What a wonder is there! It is not strange that it has always given offence to the natural man. But in that wonder we find God’s redeeming love, and in that babe who lay in Mary’s womb we find our Saviour who thus became man to die for our sins and bring us into peace with God.
Moreover, the knowledge of the virgin birth is important because of its bearing upon our view of the solidarity of the race in the guilt and power of sin. If we hold a Pelagian view of sin, we shall be little interested in the virgin birth of our Lord; we shall have little difficulty in understanding how a sinless One could be born as other men are horn. But if we believe, as the Bible teaches, that all mankind are under an awful curse, then we shall rejoice in knowing that there entered into the sinful race from the outside One upon whom the curse did not rest save as He bore it for those whom He redeemed by His blood.
How, except by the virgin birth, could our Saviour have lived a complete human life from the mother’s womb, and yet have been from the very beginning no product of what had gone before, but a supernatural Person come into the world from the outside to redeem the sinful race? We may not, indeed, set limits to the power of God; we cannot say what God might or might not have done. Yet we can say at least that no other way can be conceived by us. Deny or give up the story of the virgin birth, and inevitably you are led to evade either the high Biblical doctrine of sin or else the full Biblical presentation of the supernatural Person of our Lord. A noble man in whom the divine life merely pulsated in greater power than in other men would have been born by ordinary generation from a human pair; the eternal Son of God, come by a voluntary act to redeem us from the guilt and power of sin, was conceived in the virgin’s womb by the Holy Ghost. (The Virgin Birth of Christ , 394-395)
(From the current issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal)
Tim Keller is a biblicist (at least more than you think). Carl Trueman is not. Now for an explanation.
. . . Ever since Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self caught a wave among New and Old Calvinists – not to mention the following he has cultivated at First Things as the Presbyterian edition of Christopher Rufo – early returns on the book were striking for not mentioning the author’s insights into Scripture. Trueman did not even go to the w(orld)-(vie)w tool kit of applying the anti-thesis – the chasm between the regenerate and unregenerate – to explain contemporary society’s capitulation to gender fluidity and its related detritus. He was seemingly only loosely on board with Van Tillianism while he taught at Westminster Seminary but the Van Tillians’ praise for his book has been a wonder to behold.
Instead of the Bible or the transcendental method, Trueman relies on the work of Philip Rieff (Jewish-American sociologist), Alasdair McIntyre (Roman Catholic philosopher) and Charles Taylor (Roman Catholic philosopher) to assess the current debates about self-expression. This is actually a virtue of the book at least for those who complain that evangelicals and Reformed are insufficiently conversant with (and seemingly unwilling to use) the knowledge produced by thinkers who do not start from Christian truths or draw insights from Scripture. Trueman unwittingly freed up conservative Protestants to think thoughts after writers who do not start with God or the Bible.
. . . The same cannot be said for Tim Keller, at least when he dissects Critical Race Theory, a buzz word whose excitement seems to have dampened thanks to the price of consumer goods (rising) and bail (falling). The retired Presbyterian pastor, in a two-part series at the online quarterly, “Gospel In Life,” goes right to the heart of the issue when he starts with a contrast between biblical and non-biblical justice. Amid all the debates and contrasting views of justice, Keller argues, the biblical understanding is best even if believers seldom know it or appeal to it.
To set up his exposition of biblical justice, Keller clears the ground in a non-biblicist way – like Trueman – by using Alasdair MacIntyre to show that Enlightenment notions of justice have run out of gas (good for the climate, though). The idea that society could leave religion behind in pursuit of secular justice has proved an intellectual quicksand. For Keller, all notions of moral goodnesss, without a transcendent reference, are merely constructed. This would have been another time when a former Westminster professor might have used Van Til for good effect.
Sectarians All (NTJ April 1998)
(The Fall 2022 issue is in production.)
SUPPOSE A HISTORY PROFESSOR at an evangelical liberal arts college were teaching a course on American church history. His course did not follow the world religions approach but instead covered the religious traditions most numerous and most influential in America (though those are not synonymous) and so slanted the course to Protestants, Catholics and Jews. For the final exam the professor asked students to describe the teaching and practice of the average observant Catholic before Vatican II. If a student answered the question by ignoring Roman Catholic worship (the Mass), customs (fish on Fridays) , institutions (parochial schools), and teaching on justification, but answered instead with a description of an Irish immigrant in Boston who bucked the repressive pedagogy of local nuns, complained about never understanding the Mass, then went to Boston University, joined InterVarsity, attended Park Street Church, and read his Protestant Bible daily during his “quiet time,” should the professor give the student a passing grade? Such an answer would not be surprising given the historic anti-Catholic bias among Anglo-American Protestants. But wouldn’t the professor be delinquent in his duties as a professor of history to approve such an answer? In other words, is it possible for a Protestant to hold that a Catholic is “good” even if he believes his practices idolatrous?
LET’S TAKE ANOTHER EXAMPLE. This one from real life. J.I. Packer was one of the original Protestant signers of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” the first statement (1994) that called for a joint mission of Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants in a limited number of endeavors. In an article he wrote explaining his decision (Christianity Today, Dec. 12, 1994), Packer applied the very language of “good Catholic” to those with whom Protestants ought to cooperate. Now Packer does not spell out exactly what such a good Catholic looks like. But the reasons he gives for not being able to become a Roman Catholic are helpful. For instance, Rome has a “flawed” understanding of the church, its sacramental theology “cuts across” the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith, the “Mary cult,” the doctrine of purgatory, and the “disbursing” of indulgences all “damp down” biblical teaching about assurance of salvation. What is more, papal claims to infallibility make the “self-correction” of the church impossible. So the communion of Rome is still “unacceptable” to Packer. But the Catholics who are willing to sign a declaration with Packer, despite his reservations and objections, are “good” Catholics. These Catholics most likely are ones who do not observe the faith in ways that Packer deems flawed or, at least, are not strict about them. Ironically, then, Packer’s assessment of Catholicism should fail to earn an A-grade on an undergraduate American church history final exam but is supposed to be persuasive to evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics as the first step in ecumenicity.
WHY DOESN’T SUCH AN understanding of Catholicism earn the strong rebukes of condescension and paternalism? Isn’t Packer saying, in effect, that a good Catholic is one who has given up distinctively Catholic teachings and practice? What is more, why isn’t Packer criticized for harboring the kind of anti-Catholic sentiments that used to inform America’s progressive reformers who desired the assimilation of all immigrants to the United States into WASP culture? Liberal Protestants have a long history of including Roman Catholics at their gatherings and institutions who resemble themselves, that is, believers who have given up the more particular aspects of their tradition in order to fit in to American Protestant norms. That kind of treatment used to be called “illiberal” by Roman Catholics, such as when John Gilmary Shea in the 1880s accused the Puritan tradition of being “narrow-minded, tyrannical, and intolerant” of those who “refused to submit to their ruling.” But now, thanks to the wonders of modern ecumenism, Catholics who are not concerned about Rome’s historic teachings and practice are considered “good.”
THE POINT HERE IS NOT SO much the problems of recent Catholic and evangelical statements (though we do dissent from those affirmations). Rather our concern is with the understanding of religious traditions and their truth claims that undergirds not simply such statements as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” but also Bible-only evangelicalism, New Life Presbyterianism, and proponents of “mere Christianity.” Underneath all of these expressions of Christian faith is, it seems to us, is the Enlightenment’s hostility to tradition, history, and particularity.
This an especially important concern to the editors of the NTJ because we have been accused of narrowness, rigidity, and sectarianism in our effort to defend not simply the theological truths of the Reformed creeds and confessions (specifically the Westminster Standards) but also the Reformed practices articulated in our creedal statements. In other words, from Packer’s perspective, or that of the evangelical undergraduate, we here at the NTJ are “bad” Presbyterians because we are unwilling to let go of such practices as Reformed liturgy (it does exist — just see Evelyn Underhill’s discussion in Worship ), the sanctification of the Lord’s Day, Reformed sacramental theology, Presbyterian polity, and the avoidance of the liturgical calendar. We feel like ethnic Americans who are being forced to assimilate to the demands of a melting-pot Christianity. If we retain our distinctive ways we will be un-American or, worse, Amish.
ON THE ONE HAND, OUR CLAIMS are very modest and have to do with the simple methods used by historians (when not under the influence of modern literary theory that turns the meaning of words into jello). Presbyterianism may be historically defined as arising at a particular time and standing for certain convictions (predestination) and practices (infant baptism). Like it or not, the first proponents of any group, whether religious, political, or educational, set the standards for all who will follow in their name. So, if a later group bearing the name Presbyterian no longer believes in predestination and no longer baptizes their infants, do we still call them Presbyterian, or might we conclude that something akin to denial or stupidity is underway? The same goes for Agrarians or Unitarians. If someone claims to be an Agrarian and yet promotes the Internet and invests heavily in Texaco, calling into question his claim would not be irresponsible. Or if you find a Unitarian who believes Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity we might have some reasonable justification for concluding this person has departed from the teaching of William Ellery Channing, no matter how much we might be heartened by the expression of orthodox belief. In other words, tradition in a historical sense matters for Protestants as much as it does for Catholics. We may not believe in a magisterium but we do believe that Protestants may not rewrite the past.
ON THE OTHER HAND, WE WANT to make the immodest claim that the doctrine of sola scriptura is dangerous and not a separate doctrine in the Reformed tradition. By this we do not mean that we deny what the Westminster Confession says (and what was the formal principle of the Reformation) that “the Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined” is “the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture.” Our problem is with those who isolate the doctrine of sola scriptura from all other doctrines, as if the Bible exists without any interpretation, or apart from all confessional or creedal statements. In other words, we deny the biblicism that often masquerades under the banner of “the Bible only.” Technically speaking, which is the way the proof-text-approach to the Bible usually runs, “the Bible only” will not give us the Bible only since Scripture itself does not list its own table of contents. This means that even sola scriptura requires some human effort and interpretation. That is why Zacharis Ursinus wanted the Heidelberg Catechism bound at the front of Bibles published for the laity, and why the Geneva Bible came with notes (not unlike the NIV Bible for Women). Proponents of “the Bible only” want to protect God’s word from human hands, and so want to avoid going through any human tradition before arriving at the pure teaching of Scripture. But such a desire for a direct communication from God, which “the Bible only” appears to give, will not settle what the Bible only means. As George Marsden remarked several years ago, the doctrine of inerrancy might preserve the authority of the Bible but it could not even settle the question of the Trinity since, for example, some nineteenth-century Unitarians believed an inerrant Bible revealed an Arian Christ.
CHRISTIAN HISTORY IS littered with Protestant groups who have pitted the Bible against man-made creeds. Pietism was arguably the first to do serious damage to the necessity of confessions for the health of the church. Pietists argued that the gospel had atrophied and died because the doctrinal precision advocated by scholastics extinguished real piety. They also believed that bickering over church polity had vitiated the body of Christ, and that ritualism and clericalism were stifling worship. “Back to the Bible” became the pietist slogan (and continues to be a reliable index to extant Pietists). As James Tunstead Burtchaell observes in a forthcoming book on Christian higher education in America, “by turning from the cumulative tradition of biblical commentaries, symbolic definitions and theological disputation, and by drawing upon Scripture as a basis for doctrine and morality, the adherents of reform did not successfully set aside the thoughts of man in favor of the thoughts of God” (as if such a Gnostic denial of creation is ever possible by creatures). Instead, Pietists “simply exchanged the agenda of the sages of the past for the agenda of the preachers of the present.” Untethered to the wisdom of the past, Pietism quickly degenerated – SURPRISE! – into rationalism, which is simply another tradition, but one which interprets the Bible according to the lights of what is reasonable and responsible, rather than one cultivated and sustained by an interpretive community (i.e. the church). According to Burtchaell, “Pietism was surely not an early, soft variant of the heathen gentility of the later rationalism which followed close upon it, but there was a kinship between them.” Pietism and rationalism both “deplored the confessional particularities of the churches, referring to them contemptuously as ‘sectarian.’”
Church history of full of the same pattern. The no-creed-but-the-Bible mentality that Nathan O. Hatch documents so well (Democratization of American Christianity) within two or three generations gave way to liberal Protestantism. Conservative Protestants are prone to think that liberal Protestants were wicked men who drank, danced, chewed and denied Christ and the Bible openly. But much like evangelicals, Protestant liberals were guardians of middle-class respectability and morality. What is more, they gained considerable leverage against their confessional rivals by trumpeting the slogans of “Back to Christ” and “Back to the Bible.” This genteel variety of primitivism (Pentecostalism was a less genteel form) not only freed liberal Protestants from the creeds to which they had subscribed but also gave room to maneuver in the wider world of modern science and learning. Gone was the Christ of Chalcedon and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. In their place came the Christ who stood at the apex of evolutionary development and the righteousness secured by following Christ’s Golden Rule.
AMERICAN PRESBYTERIANS have been big suckers for Bible-onlyism because of their embrace of the Enlightenment. Unlike their counterparts in the Netherlands, American Calvinists developed no anti-revolutionary ideology. They not only endorsed Enlightenment politics when advocating the valuable principle of limited government. But in the euphoria of the American Revolution, a revolt inspired by the Enlightenment (of a the moderate Scottish sort), Presbyterian clergy also endorsed an Enlightenment view of history. According to the American Protestant reading of Christian history the Reformation was a forerunner to the Enlightenment; both Protestantism and science were responsible for dispelling ignorance, superstition, bigotry and intolerance and for advancing the cause of truth, reason, knowledge and progress. In this unfolding of western civilization, Catholicism, which was responsible for the “Dark Ages,” was the villain. For that reason, American Protestants had no trouble including a tepid version of their religion in public schools but objected vigorously to either parochial schools receiving tax funds or granting Catholics privileges in the common school. In The Soul of the American University George Marsden identifies this outlook as “the Whig Ideal.” Protestantism was synonymous with “the advances of civilization and the cause of freedom,” that is, freedom not only for civil liberty but also for scientific inquiry. In contrast, Catholicism “represented absolutism, suppression of individual development, and suppression of free inquiry.”
UP TO THE FUNDAMENTALIST controversy confessional Presbyterians perpetuated this Whig outlook. But thanks to contacts with Dutch Calvinists, who knew the downside of enlightened politics, and owing to the leaven of Cornelius Van Til’s apologetics, conservative Presbyterians and some evangelicals saw the incompatibility between the Enlightenment ideal of autonomous inquiry and the Christian notion of submission to revealed truth. It became much easier to admit that “nothing is neutral.” The lone natural scientist or scholar, many conceded, was just as prone to a prejudiced reading of the facts as any cleric, Roman Catholic or not.
STILL, THE ENLIGHTENMENT lives on. Van Til’s insights about presuppositions and the bias of the human heart have only penetrated so far into the American Presbyterian brain. Some Van Tillians continue to appeal to the doctrine of sola scriptura in Whig fashion and pit traditionalism (i.e. “rigid” and “sectarian” adherence to the Presbyterian creeds and directories for worship) against the Bible only. It is as if once the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit has regenerated the blind and prejudiced human heart the regenerated individual, in autonomous and rational fashion, can plumb the depths of the Bible and do so free from the prejudice and bigotry of strict subscription. So much for the contamination of the human soul that continues after conversion.
Even worse, so much for the naivete, blindness and pride of the Enlightenment’s faith in reason and the possibility of arriving at objective, global, cosmopolitan truths to which everyone in the world agrees once the right methods of inquiry have been adopted. Some Van Tillians make it seem that once the switch of regeneration is flicked on everyone who picks up the Bible will read it the same way. Which is another way of denying the history of the Christian church in all its variety and the claims of all those professing Christians throughout the ages who believe they are biblical. The Bible-only approach, in good Enlightenment fashion, presumes the possibility of escaping all the prejudice, bigotry and darkness of the past and arriving at an unprejudiced understanding of the Christian religion. In effect, nothing is neutral except for the Bible, which is an ironic twist considering how divisive the Bible is compared to the homogenous assessment given by some conservative Presbyterians to such human sciences crying out for Christian interpretation as history, chemistry and even politics. And without the aid of the past the regenerated individual may now sit down with his Bible alone (no notes, please) and figure out the two natures of Christ, the bondage of the will, the nature of the atonement, and the imputation of Adam’s sin, for starters.
OF COURSE, ONE PROBLEM WITH the anti-traditionalist outlook of “no creed but the Bible” is that it is itself an interpretive tradition. The desire to return to a pure gospel unadulterated by creeds or human authorities is about 300 years old and has demonstrated a remarkable consistency through the years. But because of Bible-only Christians’ hostility to tradition they can’t spot the one they follow. The result is an uncritical and unaware outline that functions as trump in any card-game of rival traditions. According to Bible-only logic, if it comes from man then it can’t come from God and so must be a tradition. Never mind that God sets up men with legitimate authority to rule over others, such as those found in the visible church. The Westminster Divines are just as fallible as the Pope and so must not be obeyed uncritically, an interesting and no doubt uncomfortable position for anyone who has subscribed to the Westminster Standards.
The other problem is that Bible-onlyism never delivers what it promises. It is supposed to provide an unprejudiced reading of the Bible that will unite all true believers on the essentials of the faith. Does it not seem a tad audacious and perhaps a bit prejudicial for some individuals, freed from the interpretive constraints of ecclesiastical accountability, to sit down and determine just what is essential in the Bible? Where would we find those essentials? In the Epistle to Jude or maybe one of the Synoptic Gospels? Isn’t this exactly what Marcion and Thomas Jefferson had in mind when they cut and pasted the Bible according to their understanding of what was essential and genuine? Aside from its audaciousness, the effort of Bible-only believers to arrive at a “mere” expression of the gospel nurtures its own form of rigidity, narrowness and intolerance. The inclusive center is never sufficiently broad to include Mormons and Unitarians, suggesting that some intolerance is worthwhile. Meanwhile, the Bible- only creed excludes those believers whom professors of history might describe as “good” Presbyterians, “good” Lutherans, “good” Anglicans, “good” Catholics, and, yes, “good” Amish. When liberal Protestants told fundamentalists that all Christians were one in the Lord, Walter Lippmann observed that the liberal approach was akin to telling fundamentalists, “smile and commit suicide.” Which only proves the rule that those who live by the ideals of tolerance and sensitivity are generally intolerant and insensitive. Or to borrow Richard John Neuhaus’ rule, when orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy is soon proscribed.
The Bible never exists, then, in an “only” state. It must always be interpreted. At which point the interpretation of the “Bible only” needs to be held up against the Bible as interpreted by the various Christian communions. But the Bible as understood by those communions, we believe, will always be superior to the interpretive strategy of the Bible-only Christians because the former recognize the importance and necessity of the visible church while the latter places all authority and wisdom in the autonomous individual. Though liberal economic and political thought lauds the virtues of the individual, Christians who confess the doctrine of original sin should be wary of modernity’s handling of ancient texts. Christ gave to his people the church and her ministry for a reason, not simply to edify but also to restrain. The church is necessary for rightly understanding the Bible. Despite her divided state, she is an interpretive community that checks and balances the excesses of private interpretations (including Quiet Times). This may sound like a Roman Catholic sentiment. We would deny this. We still believe that churches err and have erred. And we believe that the Bible is the place to go to resolve religious controversies. Quoting the Shorter Catechism will not. But this does not mean that each generation has to start from scratch, as if the history of the church, her controversies, her various creeds and varying communions do not exist. Nor does it mean that the church as an interpretive community has no authority because it is human while the Bible is divine. As the Confession of Faith puts it, the “decrees and determinations” of the church should be received with “reverence and submission” not simply because they agree with the Bible but also because the “power” of the church is “an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his word” (31.ii).
IN THE END THE CHOICE IS not between the Bible and tradition. Rather it is between traditions accountable to the visible church or those of either individualistic (e.g. private) or parachurch origins. We can never escape tradition, the dogma of the Enlightenment to the contrary. So which will it be, the Bible interpreted self-consciously by communions shaped by the history of the Christian church, or the Bible as understood by collections of autonomous individuals being swept along by the flood of Enlightenment innocence? Which is better, an observant Catholic or a “Bible-only” Protestant? As much as we disagree with Rome and as rigidly Presbyterian as we are, we will take our chances with Packer’s “bad” Catholics any day. At least with them we can agree to disagree. But with creedless Protestants, whether evangelical or liberal, we will always be disagreeably forced to agree.
Mencken Day 2022
Remember when American became a monarchy?
The abdication of Congress is certainly not as overt and abject as that of the German Reichstag or the Italian Parliamento; nevertheless, it has gone so far that the constitutional potency of the legislative arm is reduced to what the lawyers call a nuisance value. The two Houses can still make faces at Dr. Roosevelt, and when a strong body of public opinion happens to stand behind them they can even force him, in this detail or that, into a kind of accounting, but it must be manifest that if they tried to impose their will upon him in any major matter he could beat them easily. The only will left in the national government is his will. To all intents and purposes he is the state.
We have thus come to a sort of antithesis of the English system, under which Parliament is omnipotent and the King is only a falseface. It would be rather absurd to call the change revolutionary, for it has been underway for more than a hundred years. Since Jackson’s first election, in fact, Congress has always knuckled down to the President in times of national emergency. After 1863 Lincoln ruled like an oriental despot, and after 1917 Wilson set himself up, not only as Emperor, but also as Pope.
My gifts as a constructive critic are of low visibility, but the state of affairs thus confronting the country prompts me to make a simple suggestion. It is that a convention be called under Article V of the Constitution, and that it consider the desirability of making Dr. Roosevelt King in name as well as in fact. There is no constitutional impediment to such a change, and it would thus not amount to a revolution. The people of the United States are quite as free, under Article V, to establish a monarchy as they were to give the vote to women. (“Vive Le Roi! 1933)
Summer 2022 Nicotine Theological Journal
Machen Day 2022: Been There, Done That
In What is Faith?, Machen defended the intellectual nature of faith and needed to counter trends in American higher education. Sounds relevant.
The intellectual decadence of the day is not limited to the Church, or to the subject of religion, but appears in secular education as well. Sometimes it is assisted by absurd pedagogic theories, which, whatever their variety in detail, are alike in their depreciation of the labor of learning facts. Facts, in the sphere of education, are having a hard time. The old-fashioned notion of reading a book or hearing a lecture and simply storing up in the mind what the book or the lecture contains this is regarded as entirely out of date. A year or so ago I heard a noted educator give some advice to a company of college professors advice which was typical of the present tendency in education. It is a great mistake, he said in effect, to suppose that a college professor ought to teach; on the contrary he ought simply to give the students an opportunity to learn.
This pedagogic theory of following the line of least resistance in education and avoiding all drudgery and all hard work has been having its natural result; it has joined forces with the natural indolence of youth to produce in present-day education a very lamentable decline. . .
The undergraduate student of the present day is being told that he need not take notes on what he hears in class, that the exercise of the memory is a rather childish and mechanical thing, and that what he is really in college to do is to think for himself and to unify his world. He usually makes a poor business of unifying his world. And the reason is clear. He does not succeed in unifying his world for the simple reason that he has ho world to unify. He has not acquired a knowledge or a sufficient number of facts in order even to learn the method of putting facts together. He is being told to practise the business of mental digestion; but the trouble is that he has no food to digest. The modern student, contrary to what is often said, is really being starved for want of facts.
Certainly we are not discouraging originality. On the contrary we desire to encourage it in every possible way, and we believe that the encouragement of it will be of immense benefit to the spread of the Christian religion. The trouble with the university students of the present day, from the point of view of evangelical Christianity, is not that they are too original, but that they are not half original enough. They go on in the same routine way, following their leaders like a flock of sheep, repeating the same stock phrases with little knowledge of what they mean, swallowing whole whatever professors choose to give them and all the time imagining that they are bold, bad, independent, young men, merely because they abuse what everybody else is abusing, namely, the religion that is founded upon Christ. It is popular today to abuse that un-popular thing that is known as supernatural Christianity, but original it certainly is not. A true originality might bring some resistance to the current of the age, some willingness to be unpopular, and some independent scrutiny, at least, if not acceptance, of the claims of Christ. If there is one thing more than another which we believers in historic Christianity ought to encourage in the youth of our day it is independence of mind. (What is Faith?, 15, 16-17)
Yuge, If True!
Pardon the click bait (as if).
Roman Catholics in America (CH 555) will be offered at Westminster California the first week of August (2-5). Listener passes for the general public are available. (Members of the specific public are on their own.) Auditing is also available.
Here is the course description:
This course covers the transformation of Roman Catholics from cultural and religious outsiders (1800-1950) to leading figures in the conservative movement that launched Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and even Donald Trump. Students will examine the assumptions that Protestants made about America (that also marginalized Roman Catholics) and the ways post-World War II Roman Catholics Americanized. This transformation of Roman Catholicism is largely responsible for many Protestants converting to Rome. As such, the course has implications for Reformed ministry in contemporary American society.
Would readers exist for Herman Bavinck’s writing, increasingly available thanks to the good work of translators, without the ground already fertilized by evangelicals trying to overcome “the scandal of the evangelical mind” through w-w? James Eglington’s biography prompted a think:
The much more common Dutch theological heavyweights were Abraham Kuyper (positive estimate), Klaus Schilder (negative), and G. K. Berkhower (mixed but mainly positive). Then came the names, much more widely known, of Dutch-American scholars at Westminster and Calvin seminaries, such as Cornelius Van Til and Louis Berkhof (respectively), and before them, the one blazing the trail between Dutch and American theological circles, Geerhardus Vos, the biblical theologian at Princeton Seminary from the 1890s to the 1930s.
Many of these names, however, will be unfamiliar to pastors and church members without some link to the Christian Reformed Church or the United Reformed Churches. This is only to say that the main thread of Anglo-American theology largely runs through New England and Presbyterian sources, beginning with the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards, through to Old Princeton (from Charles Hodge to J. Gresham Machen), and down to professors who taught at Westminster, Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. To that lineage, adding another Dutch theologian is a stretch.
But this does not mean Bavinck’s time in any way has passed. As Eglinton explains in answer to his own question, Bavinck, who was “brilliant theologian” and “household name” in the Netherlands, taught at Kampen Theological School and the Free University in Amsterdam, wrote a four-volume dogmatic theology in addition to books on child education, psychology, women’s rights, and a host of ethical topics.
Bavinck was also known in the United States. He gave the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary in 1908 ten years after Abraham Kuyper had given them, and on his visit to the States president Theodore Roosevelt, a Dutch-American of some remove from colonial migration, welcomed the Free University theologian to the White House.
That may sound like old news and readers may be wondering what Bavinck has done for American readers lately. The answer here is a lot of thanks to the efforts of the Bavinck Institute which over the past decade sponsored the translation of Bavinck’s corpus in English, such as God and Creation (2004); Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (2008); Reformed Dogmatics, 4 volumes (2004-2008); Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (2008); The Christian Family (2012).
Eglinton himself, a lecturer in theology at the University of Edinburgh, has overseen dissertations by several graduate students on aspects of Bavinck’s thought. In some ways, the answer to Eglinton’s question – why a Bavinck biography – owes as much to the recent output of Bavinck’s writings as to the circumstances that made Bavinck one of the Netherland’s greatest theologians of the first half of the twentieth century.
Another reason for appreciating Bavinck and Eglinton’s biography is the importance of neo-Calvinism among American evangelicals for at least the last fifty years. For doctrinal and devotional inspiration evangelicals have drawn heavily from usual suspects like the Banner of Truth, seminaries like Westminster, Gordon-Conwell, and TEDS, and popularizers like R. C. Sproul and John Piper.
At the same time, evangelicals have also undertaken what may be called worldview analysis. That inelegant phrase stands for trying to understand all of creation, not just redemption, from a perspective informed by biblical teaching and theological fundamentals. This way of thinking has inspired Protestants to venture into fields in the humanities and sciences in the name of Christ. Sometimes they even repeat Kuyper’s famous phrase, that Christ claims “every-square inch” as his own. Francis Schaeffer may have first made this outlook popular, with help later from Chuck Colson. But even more important were scholars at Calvin College and Calvin Seminary who set the bar high for professors at many evangelical colleges and attempted to pursue scholarship from a Christian outlook.
Bavinck fits in this line of endeavor since he himself wrote on political and cultural topics from a Reformed perspective. But what is often missing from the American Protestant appropriation of neo-Calvinism is the serious theological underpinning on which it rested. Bavinck is as good an example of serious theological investigation in the neo-Calvinist tradition as anyone can find. Eglinton’s biography in turn may be news to many readers that the neo-Calvinists were no slouches when it came to doctrine, worship, and the church.
Before Lin-Manuel Miranda, H. L. Mencken
If Miranda updated the Founders (Happy July 4th, by the way) in the vernacular of hip-hop (or is it rap?), Mencken was two steps ahead when he put the Declaration of Independence into the language of the common American circa 1920. So he began:
WHEN THINGS get so balled up that the people of a country got to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are not trying to put nothing over on nobody.
All we got to say on this proposition is this: first, me and you is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time whichever way he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man them rights ain’t worth a damn; also, people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any government don’t do this, then the people have got a right to give it the bum’s rush and put in one that will take care of their interests. Of course, that don’t mean having a revolution every day like them South American yellow-bellies, or every time some jobholder goes to work and does something he ain’t got no business to do. It is better to stand a little graft, etc., than to have revolutions all the time, like them coons, and any man that wasn’t a anarchist or one of them I.W.W.’s would say the same. But when things get so bad that a man ain’t hardly got no rights at all no more, but you might almost call him a slave, then everybody ought to get together and throw the grafters out, and put in new ones who won’t carry on so high and steal so much, and then watch them. This is the proposition the people of these Colonies is up against, and they have got tired of it, and won’t stand it no more.
It goes on, and on, probably too on. Mencken made his point with those first two graphs.
But those who admire his cleverness, usually miss Mencken’s point for putting the vaunted Declaration in the idiom of Woodrow Wilson’s America. The reason was to defend civil liberties at a time when war policies had not been particularly sensitive to constitutional provisions. He was not mocking the Founders. He was deriding his fellow American who had lost sight of limited government and civil liberties. You’d almost think he was writing about America during a pandemic (I mean war on virus):
When, during the Wilson-Palmer saturnalia of oppressions, specialists in liberty began protesting that the Declaration plainly gave the people the right to alter the goverment under which they lived and even to abolish it altogether, they encountered the utmost incredulity. On more than one occasion, in fact, such an exegete was tarred and feathered by the shocked members of the American Legion, even after the Declaration had been read to them.
What ailed them was that they could not understand its 18th-century English. I make the suggestion that its circulation among such patriotic men, translated into the language they use every day, would serve to prevent, or, at all events, to diminish that sort of terrorism.