Which Historical Actors Will Stand In That Great Day?

Something that Bill Evans wrote about 2k has me wondering about the way we use and abuse the past. He made the standard reductio ad hitlerum argument that discredited an idea by historical actors who used it. In this case, Evans tried to show how 2k prevented German Lutherans from standing up to Hitler, and from there it was an easy leap to tar 2k with defenses of slavery:

. . . we do well not to underestimate the impact that our increasingly negative cultural situation has on our theology. To paraphrase Peter Berger on the sociology of knowledge, this cultural context provides a key “plausibility structure” for our thinking. It informs our sense of what is plausible and possible. And so, in the face of an increasingly hostile and seemingly intractable cultural situation many are concluding that real transformation is impossible. It is to be lamented that, in order to provide an ecclesiological framework for such pessimism, some have turned to positions that have been implicated in the toleration of real and palpable evil by Christians. Here I’m thinking of the Two-Kingdoms doctrine employed by some so-called “German Christians” to justify silence in the face of the Nazi regime, and the exaggerated conception of the spirituality of the church as it was used to defend the institution of chattel slavery in the antebellum South.

This was roughly the same time that Mike Horton also tried to separate himself from certain proponents of 2k who defended slavery:

. . . Southern Presbyterian theologians who labored indefatigably to defend slavery may have cloaked some of their arguments in appeals to the church’s spiritual mission, but they were calling the state to perpetuate the institution from the pulpit and classroom lectern. I have in mind especially R. L. Dabney and James Henley Thornwell, who based their arguments on a vision of a Christian society that would make the South the envy of the world and enemy of revolutionaries everywhere. Their arguments for slavery were not based on the spirituality of the church (I’m not even sure how they could be) but on racist dogmas, Scripture twisting, and wicked cultural prejudices that vitiated the gospel. Charles Hodge was exactly right when he said that Thornwell was using the spirituality of the church as a cover for his errors. Assimilating Christ to culture is the sort of thing that the spirituality of the church is especially designed to guard against.

(By the way, the way you use spirituality of the church to defend slavery is to argue, as folks like Charles Hodge did, that the Bible does not condemn slavery. I understand that introduces a touchy subject. But to do justice to the southern Presbyterians, you do need to do justice to their exegetical arguments, something that Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese did — and if a former Marxist turned Roman Catholic can perform that feat, surely a Reformed Protestant can.)

You can go to other places to see how these ways of posing the issue don’t do justice to the historical actors. For instance, Matt Tuininga did a good job of showing that Lutherans were as much responsible for the Barmen Declaration as was the Reformed Barth (even though practically no one, neither Lutheran nor Reformed, was interested in severing ties between state and church). And others point to a troubling relationship between at least some neo-Calvinists and those who collaborated with the Nazis who occupied the Netherlands. Meanwhile, I tried to point out that racism was not something that exclusively afflicted the Southern Presbyterian theologians who defended slavery. It even afflicted the pretty good emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, who on the eve the Emancipation Proclamation told a “Committee of Colored Men,” “even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race.” Lincoln added, “It is better for us both to be separated.” (Quoted in Louis P. Masur, The Civil War, 43) (This was the same Lincoln who also said in his first inaugural that slavery was legal according to the Constitution. In other words, slavery was a legally and theological contested issue then even if it is not today.)

The dead, in other words, are people too. Scoring points on their failings does not seem to be particularly charitable or self-interested (since one day we won’t be around to defend ourselves or the limitations of our historical moment). It is not simply bad history to sort through the past for heroes and villains, since part of what historical scholarship attempts to do is understand something that is a foreign place. Such sorting also presumes that we are free from similar historical constraints that color our judgments and actions, or worse, that we reside at a time when moral reflection is as good as it ever was — the ethical parousia.

Of course, Jason and the Callers have a different problem with history — one where they do not seem to be able to comprehend the villainous things their heroes did. And since their heroes are supposed to protect the church from error, it supplies a little glitch in their argument to find that the alleged heroes erred.

But if Jason and the Callers ignore the past, Protestant historical cherry-picking is no less troubling. The past should help us to understand the clay feet that we all have. It should also make us cautious about determining the good and the bad saints. Of course, it is impossible today to defend Nazism or slavery. But part of what history does is help us understand why people even with good intentions (paving the road to hell) were loyal to Hitler or defended slavery. For Calvinists this is Total Depravity 101. Sin afflicts everyone, even when we try to show that we are better than our ancestors, or when we try to discredit our neighbors on the basis of what ancestors did or thought.

History doesn’t come to us wrapped in a pretty package that opens to reassuring truths. Just read the Old Testament. It’s a troubled world back there. It still is.


13 thoughts on “Which Historical Actors Will Stand In That Great Day?

  1. To the extent we come to really know the history, to that extent we come to repudiate the history, and to appreciate the discontinuity.

    But the addiction to Constantinianism is a tough habit to quit. For example, Old Colony Mennonite exiles in Argentina and Bolivia in time set up their own Christendom. Despite the anabaptist claim that “God has no grandchildren”, they saw the second and third generations (family!) as their basic defense against “secularization” and assimilation.

    Here’s another link to the Matt Tuininga essay.



  2. sw: “Having already spoken against Barthianism, which Schilder saw as an outgrowth of Hegel’s though, Schilder also was quick to criticize the ideology behind the Dutch Nazi movement as coming from the same wellspring and contrary to the word of God. This led to De Reformatie being blacklisted in Germany, and when the Nazis eventually invaded The Netherlands it would lead to Schilder’s imprisonment. The Synod of Amsterdam in 1936 rejected the Dutch Nazi movement due in part to Schilder’s efforts, but support for Nazism remained even in the Reformed churches.”


  3. “Ethical parousia”—good one! Did you come up that today, or have you used the phrase before?

    Don’t you know the central place of 9/11 in redemptive history? The world has now changed, and we will never be the same again as we were before….


  4. Perhaps a more instructive example is that of legal american segregation and Jim Crow. We decry it as a political evil now, but in recent memory, not history, there have been attempts (sucessful?) to say that belief in the acceptability of segregation is a matter of christian adiaphora, and the church has no say in mandating a particular political belief in its members. The founding of the PCA was in some respects a move against liberal Christianity that wanted to decry segregation politically.


    I’m never sure how far that principle would go. On the one hand, Christianity isn’t inherently against monarchy, is it? Where the franchise is restricted to one man. Could a system of democracy where only landowners (of any race) had the franchise be acceptable to the church? If not, is it wrong that the votes of Rhode Islander’s count way more than Californians in the senate? And if those are both acceptable, by what principle is segregation or denial of voting rights by literacy tests unacceptable.

    Its fine for folks to say the Spirituality of the church wouldn’t really apply to slavery, as slavery is a clear biblical sin. But we are tempered by our contexts to see many things in less black and white terms. How does the church decide that acceptance of segregation is a punishable offense, and not a matter of christian liberty under 2k or Spirituality principles? And if it leaves it alone, does it perpetuate evil?


  5. Matt T: Despite Luther’s early two kingdoms theology, which implied that church and state could be separated , Lutheranism followed the reformer’s later willingness to give magistrates a prominent ’emergency’ role in church governance by developing a system in which church and state had complementary roles. Magistrates were to rule over the church. Early Lutherans would have been surprised to hear that the two kingdoms doctrine implied anything like a separation of church and state, let alone of Christianity and politics.”

    Paul: “… matter of christian liberty under 2k or Spirituality principles? And if it leaves it alone, does it perpetuate evil?

    mcmark: Questions for Paul. First, under your own principles (I am not sure what they are), is there such a thing as “spiritual liberty” or a “voluntary church”? Or are these only two modern bad ideas? Two, unless we ourselves are sovereign (God), why should be blamed for the evil that other sinners do? If there is to be no difference between sin and crime, won’t that mean that we ourselves are criminals?


  6. Mark

    Yes, there is spritual liberty in actual adiaphora.

    My question is not so much about blame for evil that others do. Its about toleration for evil within the church because it doesn’t rise to some arbitrary level where its a political question (mixed race marriages, segregation, voting rights, etc)

    so any answers to my questions, even if you don’t like my answers?


  7. It’s the same business with early-church promoters, as if Paul didn’t face divisions in the church (nearly every epistle written to combat heresy & division), amongst apostles (a la Peter & Paul in Galatians) or ministry partners (Paul & Barnabas/Mark). If the church is already in such disarray not even one generation removed from Christ, and this doesn’t take a PhD to see, I don’t understand how the RCs get so high-‘n-mighty when it comes to the early church.


  8. In this case, Evans tried to show how 2k prevented German Lutherans from standing up to Hitler, and from there it was an easy leap to tar 2k with defenses of slavery:

    This was roughly the same time that Mike Horton also tried to separate himself from certain proponents of 2k who defended slavery:

    For instance, Matt Tuininga did a good job of showing that Lutherans were as much responsible for the Barmen Declaration as was the Reformed Barth

    Of course, Jason and the Callers have a different problem with history

    And you have been worthless in all of this, and about the evil and the confusion on earth when it comes to the present. And the Lord will say, “Well done.”

    Or not.

    You’ve rounded up many solid criticisms of your [radical] “Two Kingdoms” theology here, Darryl. Great post–I couldn’t have written the indictment any better.

    The guilty accuse themselves. This is the natural law.


  9. Tom, could I ask you a question? did you read Matt T’s essay on German Protestants? it wasn’t a separated church which supported Hitler. But it was a politically active state-church opposing socialism and revolution which supported Hitler.

    Read all the evidence, even that which is historical and not merely ideological.


  10. Evans makes a great point. The revivalists’ Jim Crow South was such a shining example of justice and humanity. Besides, Hitler’s base was among the Roman Catholics of southern and eastern Germany, and the Nazi rise to power was aided substantially by Pope Pius XII (aka “Hitler’s Pope”). Why must Hitler’s rise therefore be laid at the feet of Lutherans? And if Lutheranism is so vile, as Evans alleges, then how does he explain the Danish resistance? Denmark, after all, was nearly 85% Lutheran at the time.

    And what good did we do to earn the return of Game Show Man…non sequiturs and all?


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