Westminster Seminaries’ PR Problem (and Covenant Seminary’s Teflon)

Now that Glenn Beck seems to have moved on from the faith of the founders to the faith behind the Pledge of Allegiance, taking stock of the minor celebrity of a Westminster Seminary president courtesy of the talk-show enfomationist is possible. What stands out is how little controversy Peter Lillback’s ideas about the faith of George Washington or the Christian origins of the United States created.

One looks in vain through Google’s various search oppositions for a blogger or writer who questions Lillback’s interpretation. Sure, some have emerged. The folks over at American Creation have given serious attention to Lillback’s claims on behalf of Washington. Also, another student of the founding history professor, Brad Hart (no known relation) subjects Lillback’s Washington to the kind of inspection you’d expect from an Orthodox Presbyterian. But aside from the efforts of your humble oldlife servants, the conservative Reformed world seems to be willing to give Lillback a pass. (By the way, of some interest in this regard is the absence of news about Lillback’s appearance on the Beck show at the WTS website. When one of your faculty or administrators appears on a nationally televised broadcast – or even in the pages of the London Times – your institutional public relations engines generally rev, not to mention when one of your faculty member’s books ascends to number one at Amazon.)

Meanwhile, the folks at Westminster California can’t get off their beach blanket to enjoy the surf without the anti-2k bullies kicking sand, talking trash, and heaping scorn. (Many of these kerfuffles have received comment at oldlife. Curious readers should take advantage of the search capacity and look for “Westminster.”) Whether it is Machen’s Warrior Children, two-kingdom theology, the framework hypothesis, the republication doctrine, or natural law, the faculty at WSC have the reputation of being viral among many people (or is it a vocal minority?) who lead and flock to conservative Reformed and Presbyterian communions in the United States.

One can plausibly conclude that Lillback’s ideas are much more acceptable than those, for instance, of Meredith Kline, the apparent font of WSC’s worst features. For those who are genuinely concerned about the insights of biblical theology – and Kline was certainly in the tradition – this is a depressing even if unsurprising conclusion. Change happens slowly and convincing American Protestants, with habits of considering the United States as the New Israel, that their nation is not the site of God’s redemptive plan but that his work of salvation takes place in the church, an institution that transcends races, nations, and languages, is a hard sell. Even so, it is surprising that more people who have a background with WTS, another institution where biblical theology runs deep if not in the same direction as Kline, would not be more vocal in raising questions about Lillback’s understanding of the United States’ religious meaning and its first president’s faith.

What makes this lack of interest in Lillback’s understanding of Christian America all the more remarkable is that it goes beyond how to read George Washington to how to interpret the Bible. Lillback’s non-profit organization dedicated to faith and freedom in America, the Providence Forum, has published a Faith and Freedom Guide to Philadelphia in which the city’s top fifty historic sites are paired with biblical texts that illustrate the religious significance of the history made in the United States’ first capital. For instance, the nation’s first Supreme Court building comes with these remarks: “The Bible’s teaching on the importance of the judges maintaining justice is declared in Deuteronomy 25:1, ‘When men have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty.’” This may seem harmless enough but it is likely not the best way to divide rightly the word of truth.

When the guide comes to the Masonic Cathedral, across the street from City Hall, the brochure goes off the rails:

The Masonic Order is an international, secret fraternity that played a significant role among the officers of the American revolution. The most famous member of the Masonic Order was George Washington. While their history is debated, the tradition argues that Masonry can be traced to Hiram, who helped build the temple of Solomon that is recorded in 1 Kings 6-7. Their classic symbol is a builder’s square with a compass and the letter G. This symbol is called “GAOTU,” which is an acrostic for “Great Architect Of The Universe” suggesting the geometric orderliness of the universe that argues for a creator and designer of all things. Genesis 1:31 says, “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day” (KJV).

Not only is an effort to find a biblical origin for Free Masonry highly dubious on historical and theological grounds, but the guide seems to have little awareness that Reformed and Presbyterian churches in Europe and the United States have staunchly opposed to membership in Masonic Lodges as activity worthy of discipline. The only explanation for this intellectual construction of Masonry would appear to be George Washington’s membership. So instead of using Masonry against Washington as something that would raise questions about his orthodoxy, his identity as a Mason becomes a reason to delve into the Free Masons’ biblical origins. This raises an important question for WTS and her alumni – if it is wrong to read the Old Testament through the lens of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, is it any better to read it through the squint of contemporary America’s culture wars?

And through it all, Covenant Seminary goes on its merry way with a president who has shepherded through the PCA’s Strategic Plan and takes a very different estimate of the United States founding from Lillback. The lack of response to Bryan Chapell’s video about America’s Christian identity, combined with his slugging percentage in PCA politics, suggests there is hope for WSC faculty who would like to enjoy the waves.

20 thoughts on “Westminster Seminaries’ PR Problem (and Covenant Seminary’s Teflon)

  1. Darryl, You just made my little Augustinian heart go pitter patter. This essay wasn’t a home run, it was a grand slam. Like you I’m shocked and ashamed at how little response has occurred among the conservative Reformed community to not just the Beck/Lilliback connection, but, as you said, to the basic hermeneutical problems regarding our ecclesiology. But then again I’m an Escondido kind of guy,so I don’t have anything of value to offer according to our FV friends. 😉

    Please keep fighting the good fight!

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  2. Skimmed the Faith & Freedom Guide. It’s a misuse of the Bible to tack a verse onto each section of their Tour sheet. How wrong and how puerile.

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  3. Outstanding post, Darryl. Your point about the strategic reinvention of the Masons (or selective amnesia about them) is right on target. So I will ask the question you often pose: What is at stake here for those who would go to such lengths to defend Washington’s Christianity and the whole apparatus of the American Civil Religion? Why does the orthodoxy of the ACR (Walter McDougall gets credit for the acronym) matter more than orthodoxy? Getting right with Americanism is the altar call of the new anxious bench.

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  4. Richard, thanks for giving me rope to hang myself. Wouldn’t the Baylys say the problem cowardly, sinful obsfucation? Since I am oh so charitable, I chalk it up to flawed eschatology. This is why conservatives and confessionalists get along so well. If you don’t immanentize the eschaton, you can live with a modest republic and a high church.

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  5. Do you know the essay Dan McCarthy wrote for the American Conservative about a year ago on what he called “High Church Conservatism”? You won’t agree with all of it, but it’s worth a look.

    At the moment I’m trying to figure out how much to blame the New England Puritans for that flawed eschatology you mention. Too many historians over the past fifty years have exaggerated the millennial utopianism of the “city on a hill.” That said, Winthrop and Co certainly did collapse the two kingdoms no matter how much they kept church and state technically distinct. The really dangerous question is to what degree is the US (or one region of the US) was founded on bad political theology.

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  6. OK…I’m new to this discussion. Can someone help me out with why the title asserts that CTS has “teflon”? I’m not seeing the connection in the story….thanks!

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  7. David, Watch the video. Chapell denies that the U.S. is a Christian nation. He also led the charge for a highly contested plan within the PCA. Where are the criticisms, especially compared to those leveled at WSC? May not be Teflon, but something definitely non-stick. (And what’s really odd is the way that two Yankees — Keller and Chapell — with roots in the RPCES, have taken over the southern PCA.)

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  8. Richard, yes I have seen Dan’s piece but it is worth taking another look at. For those interested, here is a link and a quote (don’t let the works over faith bit fool you, McCarthy is talking in cultural categories, not theological ones):

    “High church conservatism is the opposite of low church. It privileges works over faith, being more concerned with prudent policy than with the inner moral character of politicians or what they profess. It is deferential (sometimes to a fault) to hierarchy and suspicious (also sometimes to a fault) of popular movements and enthusiasm. It is leery of eschatological passions. And above all it works to avoid schism—the high church conservative’s objective is to preserve the fabric of society and, so far as possible, elevate its culture. This, he believes, can only be done within the mainstream of national life. For Coleridge and the 19th- century poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold, the function of an established church is less religious than cultural. As Coleridge writes, “Christianity, and a fortiori any particular scheme of Theology derived and supposed (by its partizans) to be deduced from Christianity, [is] no essential part of the Being of the National Church, however conducive or even indispensable it may be to its well-being…” Its being, or essence, is in the preservation of culture.” http://www.amconmag.com/article/2009/may/04/00010/

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  9. Good post, Darryl. You’re right that the institution isn’t making a big deal out of this. There’s a distinct whiff of embarrassment, since as you point out they (and most institutions) would normally be all over this news.
    WTS alumni haven’t been entirely quiet about this stuff, though. Some of us spoke up, back in 2006 and 2007, about Dr. Lillback’s reputation as a defender of the Christian America myth. His speeches at Vision Forum, his odd etymology of “America” as related to “Kingdom of Heaven,” etc. I seem to recall that he has a guitar made from the wood of the Liberty Tree or something like that. He’s not a bad guitarist, either.

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  10. I can’t help but wonder how much of the apparent lack of concern has to do with the desire of WSP faculty to keep up the good work rather than wasting a lot of time and energy dealing with what might be considered an annoyance at most. After all, WSP is only one letter away from WASP.

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  11. dgh,

    I am not really in the know on this stuff at all, but one reason I think Lillback has gotten a pass on his poor historiography is that WTS-P has had a few bigger fish to fry in recent years, cf. Enns, and Lillback has been on the right side of that issue, and thus it seems like many are willing to put up with this side show.

    Still not sure how the CTS thing relates though… why shouldn’t CTS be given a pass on this since Chapell is more correct than Lillback on this point? I must be missing your point.

    By the way, I understand (ironically) that new church history professor at WTS-P, Jeff Jue, demonstrated in his doctoral thesis that the Puritans were hardly all post-millenial, and there is good reason why the WCF is ambiguous on the point.

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  12. Chris, but if Lillback misreads Scripture for his patriotic ends, and Enns misused Scripture for his scholarly ends — well, I guess you can figure out the question.

    The Teflon for CTS is that Chapell has not been the object of say the Baylys or Rabbi Bret’s critique. But if WSC can’t move without an objection about 2k. Chapell’s view of the U.S. is not that far from 2k on the specifics of the nation’s Christian identity.

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  13. Ah, Teflon compared to WSC in regard to 2k stuff. Got it.

    Re. the question on Lillback, and the use of Scripture, I am not sure where to even begin tackling the vast inconsistency on many things across the PCA. Picking one’s battles, etc.

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  14. But the US ISN’T a Christian nation. What is so offensive about that?

    Again…not trying to be contentious. Summer Greek is killing me and I’m probably just missing something terribly obvious. Thanks for the patience in explaining it to me.

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  15. David, do you mean to imply that there are a lot of square inches, of both body mass and territory, not under the Lordship of Christ? Is this ringing a bell?

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  16. Being “under the Lordship of Christ” and being “a Christian nation” are two very different things. Babylon was “under the Lordship of Christ” but was not, in fact a covenant nation (Daniel 4:28-35). Have I misrepresented this passage?

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