Make Christianity Pretty Good Again

That is more or less the idea that Donald Trump (on America) inspired Chris Gerhz to ponder. Here is an indication of when Trump supporters thought/think the nation was greatest (compared to other voters):

In general, Republican respondents favored the Eisenhower and Reagan eras. Democrats looked to the much more recent past: the 1990s, or even later. 2016 was the second most popular choice among Democrats.

Even among Trump supporters, the year 2015 was one of the 10 most popular choices. But there was no discernible pattern: 1955, 1960, 1970, and 1985 were all mildly popular, and the single most common response (8%) was the year 2000.

And that was true in general for Americans, regardless of party or other variables. Sanger-Katz observed that “The year’s popularity may partly reflect people’s fondness for round numbers. But many voters explained their choice by referring to a greater sense of security. The Sept. 11 attacks occurred the following year.”

The vast majority of votes were cast for years since the end of WWII, and almost no one opted for a year before 1900. (1776 did get some support.)

So I’ll ask Gerhz’s question: when was the church at its best? I imagine Protestants will not select dates between 350 and 1515. I’ll also wager that Roman Catholics (who read here) will not choose dates between 1965 and 2015. But in light of recent discussions about Mary, will Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox pick a date when the virgin lived on earth. In the realm of sectarian Protestantism, I suspect that Orthodox Presbyterians will not choose from the 1936 to 2016 era but prefer instead the time of the Puritans, Westminster Assembly, John Knox, or John Calvin’s Geneva.

My own preference is the antebellum period (after 1837) when Old School Presbyterians was at its height. The church was pretty sound, liturgy was sensible, theologians knew to be on the lookout for compromise, and Presbyterians were not tempted by the status (and loss of independence) that comes with ecclesiastical establishment.

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44 thoughts on “Make Christianity Pretty Good Again

  1. DG Hart says: when was the church at its best? …My own preference is the antebellum period (after 1837) when Old School Presbyterians was at its height. The church was pretty sound, liturgy was sensible, theologians knew to be on the lookout for compromise, and Presbyterians were not tempted by the status (and loss of independence) that comes with ecclesiastical establishment.

    then?
    …By the 1830s, American per-capita income was already the highest in the world…. prosperity is one strong causal factor for religion corrosion … Prov 30:8-9 Is that what always happens?

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  2. “My own preference is the antebellum period (after 1837) when Old School Presbyterians was at its height. The church was pretty sound…”

    You should really hope that the Racial Reconciliation Industrial Complex doesn’t see that seemingly innocuous statement. 1837. Please ponder the implications. The Gospel Coalition would have a field day. The virtue signaling would cause a Category 5 Tweet-Storm. You would be denounced coast to coast and border to border by the Cultural Engagement types. Remember this is an election year and we all have to be on our P’s and Q’s.

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  3. DG Hart says: Ali, it’s what happens to nations in covenant with God.

    Not sure what your saying. I was talking individual hearts, (also realizing that it might be futile to say “Why is it that the former days were better than these?) so, since we know that it is all about a heart/hearts that turn away/are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them and not about whenever, whatever ,circumstance,the times, conditions sturctures, etc…but guarding heart/hearts the key
    already having been warned/reminded about the propensity of individual and collective hearts ‘in these last days’…… men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power..
    that thinking ‘making Christianity Pretty Good Again’ or thinking ‘when was the church at its best’ would be when one/and collective ones, not denying God’s power, are fully and sincerely relying on/trusting in the LORD?

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  4. Our pastor in one simple sentence gave what seemed to me a simple but profound truth, that God’s covenant today is only with His church, His people redeemed by the Lord Jesus Christ. So that made me think how God has no covenant or obligation to any nation, including the ‘exceptional’ USA and any other country for that matter. I’d like to know what Kevin Swanson, David Barton and all their theonomist buddies would say in reply to that.
    Going back to the post, I was genuinely delighted to see Old School Presbyterian teaching once again being mentioned. Can we have a lot more of this please? The contrast between this and modern day evangelical tinged Presbyterianism is illuminating, to say the least.

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  5. D. G. Hart says: Ali, then I’m not sure what you’re saying. You refer to Proverbs. So what’s your point?

    Oh sorry, I think what I was saying (not always sure myself til later) is – when ‘ was the church at its best?’ , when is ‘Christianity Pretty Good?’ – is when God is moving, accomplishing all His good pleasure. It is when the goal- the chief end of man- a people gathered who glorify God and enjoy Him forever is greater (in extent, depth, truth) than ever before. For sure, personally, ‘times are good’, when one’s own heart is more so inclined that way than ever before.

    Bringing Mary in, it is when those who hear the word of God, observe it, and worship, in spirit and truth, God Most High, the One Who accomplishes all things for us….when ….
    .”my soul exalts the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; for the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name; and His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him; He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart; He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent away the rich empty-handed; (Luke 1:46-55)

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  6. D. G. Hart says: Ali, don’t give me pious generalities. When historically?

    Oh DG, do not say, “Why is it that the former days were better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this. Eccl 7:10

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  7. Ali, what about Josiah?

    Moreover, Josiah put away the mediums and the necromancers and the household gods and the idols and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, that he might establish the words of the law that were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the LORD. Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him. (2 Kings 23:24-25 ESV)

    Mind the rakes.

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  8. D. G. Hart says: Ali, what about Josiah? Moreover, Josiah put away the mediums and the necromancers and the household gods and the idols and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, that he might establish the words of the law that were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the LORD. Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him. (2 Kings 23:24-25 ESV)

    interesting, thanks DG, have to study why the Lord said that of him beyond my bible notes sometime….
    “Of all the kings in David’s line, including David himself, no king more closely approximated the royal ideal of Deut 17:14-20 than Josiah (cf Matt 22:37). Yet even Josiah fell short of complete obedience because he had multiple wives (cf 2 Kings 23:31-36). However, even this righteous king could not turn away the Lord’s wrath because of Manasseh’s sin (2 Kings 23:26-27).

    with no further studying right now though, that note a reminder, as always, as everything is a reminder…
    of JESUS, for ‘when was the church at its best?’ ‘when is ‘Christianity Pretty Good? is about all that JESUS accomplished/ is accomplishing.

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  9. “My own preference is the antebellum period (after 1837) when Old School Presbyterians was at its height. The church was pretty sound, liturgy was sensible, theologians knew to be on the lookout for compromise, and Presbyterians were not tempted by the status (and loss of independence) that comes with ecclesiastical establishment”

    I’ve heard it said( and I hope I get these numbers correct) that the 20th century had more Christian martyrs than the rest of history, since the beginning of Christianity, combined.
    Since I’ve only existed since the middle of the 20th century, I haven’t experienced any personal persecution, except for secularismism’s intoleration( and mockery) of Christianity in particular, so I don’t really have a favorite time period.

    I know that I’m proud of America’s( and Thatcher, John Paul II) under Reagan, involvement in ending the Cold War( good for all souls).
    I guess I’m just happy when any Continent, country, and period has a public policy that defeats darkness.

    The period of time around 1837 was a “Providential” time for French Canadian(Quebec) immigrants, I think, especially if their forefathers served under Washington.
    Irish Catholics had a hard time of it in America, I understand.

    “Most people want a useable past regardless of their religious beliefs or where they called home. Look at the great stories by writers as different in time and place as William Faulkner and Philip Roth. Both develop fascinating characters whose pasts contribute to self-awareness. There is something universal in this quest. In this regard, I don’t think antebellum evangelicals are very different from other people or groups. What is somewhat unique is the way they used the past and what they emphasized. Northern evangelical leaders recognized a threat in the articulate and intellectually talented American Catholic hierarchy. Yet, they also understood the hierarchy had roots in Europe, and they were convinced that Rome was in some way behind all of Europe’s political problems.”

    http://histsociety.blogspot.com/2013/04/catholics-protestants-and-sectionalism.html?m=1

    As I age, I’m becoming more and more adoring of America in the 1950’s. I wonder if the ideals of classical liberalism reached it’s apex at that time and joined to itself to Christianity at that time in America. Something beautiful had socially evolved( not fully of course). But we still knew( thanks to Christianity) that we were more than trousered apes. Looking at America today, communal decency has to be vigilently safegarded.
    We all have our parts to play.

    Anyways, I’m very grateful for all the Christians who have tried to build unity where we can, and for our coordinated efforts with those who share our at least values so as to try to make American society just for all.

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  10. Oh Darryl,

    Well, you like America when the church (Presbyterianism) was at its height.
    What was this post about again?

    “For those who like their history complicated, Jason Wallace’s book should be at the top of their reading list” Dr. Hart of Westminster Seminary

    It certainly is complicated. Clarity is hard to come by.

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  11. If we’re talking about the golden age of a day gone by, I will mention 3 movies quickly. Pleasantville was waaay better than Midnight in Paris. And a quote from Hector and the Search for Happiness: “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”

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  12. Hi Walton,

    I don’t think there is a perfect golden age. There are degrees, no perfections, in a fallen world. But that’s how we know that perfection is “a thing”.
    I never did see Pleasantville, although I understand the story’s premise( I don’t appreciate movies that are predictable and self-aware)
    I don’t see the correlation with Midnight in Paris though( I loved that film).
    If your saying that the 50’s had problems and didn t look like Leave It to Beaver , yes, I know. That doesn’t mean that the only alternative is the Rosanne Barr Show.
    We can only improve and grace makes that possible.

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  13. Pleasantville is super self-aware so it sounds you made the right call skipping it. But both movies are about characters who feel like they belong in some other time and go back there and find out it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

    What kind of grace do the non-believers get if it only makes them do “good” things, like improve the culture? Or does everybody get the same kind of grace and it just depends on what you do with it that makes you a Christian or not? But isn’t getting more grace (going to church, confession, praying) a good work anyway, which is impossible without previous grace? So what if you don’t have enough grace to get the next dosage of grace?

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  14. Susan, the perfect converts response. “you do it too.” But you have more championships and are so much older – 1500 years. Why not set an example for your unruly, younger (separated) siblings. (Maybe because you’re newer to Rome than Protestantism is to the world?)

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  15. Hi Walton,

    The thing I dislike about the premise of Pleasantville most is that it seems to question whether great good can be achieved, but instead of recognizing where it does exist, it tries to show us that everyone is wrong except them, the enlightened ones, who know that some particular time( especially if it has a positive stereotype of being uber “prudish”) isn’t more deserving, over another,of praise. If the message is that “there is no perfect era”, then I agree( and I didn’t need them to tell me so; I read Kerouac, Ginsberg, T. Williams…)but if it tells me that that era’s needed liberation from its values, I won’t take the bait. Ironically, someone who preaches that 1950’s civil values needed changing, is often seeking a utopia of their own liking.

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  16. “What kind of grace do the non-believers get if it only makes them do “good” things, like improve the culture? Or does everybody get the same kind of grace and it just depends on what you do with it that makes you a Christian or not? But isn’t getting more grace (going to church, confession, praying) a good work anyway, which is impossible without previous grace? So what if you don’t have enough grace to get the next dosage of grace?”

    To go back for a minute. I agree that the kingdom of this world is not good. All goodness comes from God though. So if a non believer does good, it is still a real good. Just like If he experiences a good, that experience( beautiful music, wine, food, art, nature) is very good. But all those goods have natural ends. They do show us that there is a source of all that is good, so that we will seek our supernatural end. Actual grace works upon us as a prod so that we will seek sanctfying grace.

    It’s been nice talking to you, Walton.

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  17. D.G. says: But in light of recent discussions about Mary, will Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox pick a date when the virgin lived on earth.

    would it be then, originally, or when she has reappeared?

    “Undoubtedly, however, the greatest stimulus to Marian devotion in recent times has been afforded by the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin in 1858 at Lourdes, and in the numberless supernatural favours granted to pilgrims, both there and at other shrines, that derive from it. The “miraculous medal” connected with the church of Notre-Dame des Victoires at Paris also deserves mention, as giving a great stimulus to this form of piety in the first half of the nineteenth century.” newadvent

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  18. Paul,

    That’s very t rue. There’s a lot of “British exceptionalism” surfacing at the moment (although by British is usually meant English) as the EU referendum campaign hots up. So many “biblical cases” for Brexit, so very little sense of how contingent and pragmatically determined are questions of national borders and centres of political power.

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  19. For the church at its best, I’ll choose the second half of the 19th century, after the Disruption, when the presbyterian church had freed itself from state interference yet maintained the establishment principle, when people like Hugh Martin, George Smeaton, James Buchanan had the opportunity to produce meaty works on the atonement, justification, inspiration, pneumatology, etc, and when there was still widespread purity of worship according to the regulative principle.

    But with the awareness that every peak in the church’s history contains the very elements that will lead to its next trough. Eg freedom from state interference was achieved at the cost of dividing the one church in Scotland, which weakened its witness overall. And the orthodox affirmations of the nature and extent of the atonement, the authority of scripture, etc, were prompted by controversies in which the erroneous views eventually became the more widely accepted.

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  20. cath says:… erroneous views…

    How kind of the Lord to have warned us to always be on guard, to be vigilant
    ….for many false prophets will arise and will mislead many.. false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect…false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Matt 24:11 ,24; 2 Pet 2:1

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_new_religious_movements

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  21. cath, why the establishment principle when you give up establishment? I admire the Free Church and strong parallels and ties exist between the FCoS and the Old School. But I’ve never really understood the establishment principle except as like the Scottish church in exile.

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  22. Well, I can believe in tenure for academics in principle, but if the conditions for tenure in some specific case are intolerable (maybe I need to suppress results or falsify data) then thanks, but I’ll just carry on as a jobbing postdoc. The terms of establishment up till the 1830s had been perfectly compatible with the church’s spiritual independence. It was only when the terms changed so as to compromise spiritual independence that they gave the establishment up, but establishment per se was not the problem.

    Establishment is obviously not essential to the being of the church, but it is good for its wellbeing, and even more so the wellbeing of society in general.

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  23. Cath,
    Good to see you contributing and your words demand careful reflection. But I also can never fathom the Establishment Principle. It seems to claim church independence from the state but then the church demands ‘Biblical’ principles in matters such as education and much more beside, if I understand it correctly.
    As for Brexit, there is no Biblical input to the issue at all or English exceptionalism. It is primarily a matter of power being sucked ever more into a failing supra state (the EU) which is on a path to destruction in many ways if it carries on it’s barmpot ways. The youtube film ‘Brexit – the movie’ which runs for around an hour or so brilliantly sums up the lunacy – admittedly with some ripe words – of the EU which works very well for a few.

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  24. CW, part of the problem is that “establishment” means different things in different contexts. In England it was part of the deal that they recognised the monarch as the head of the church. So by definition, that was not good for the church of Christ or anyone else. But in Scotland, the establishment acknowledged the headship of Christ over the church and recognised the right of ecclesiastical courts to operate independently of the state. So the church did churchly things free from state interference, while the state did its stately things free from church interference. The church doesn’t *need* to be acknowledged to be the church by the state, but it’s helpful when it is. The church doesn’t *need* to have its ministers’ stipends paid by the state, but it’s helpful when they are. Etc.

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  25. Paul,
    Well, the Scottish version claims independence from the state for church courts (so a civil court can’t overturn the ruling of a presbytery, etc) but also keeps the church out of state business. (Personally I think that that rules out the legitimacy of Christian political parties, but nobody seems to agree with me so it probably doesn’t.) They saw education as being one area where the interests of both state and church coincided and therefore envisaged church and state cooperating, but that would have involved as much a demand of the state on the church (for prayer, moral guidance, etc) as a demand of the church on the state (providing school buildings, paying teachers, eg) and it wouldn’t have meant the state taking part in preaching or discipline or the church helping to wield the magistrate’s sword.

    Re Brexit, I can handle that kind of argument – that in *these* circumstances, *that* option is doomed to failure/ guaranteed to bring utopia. Maybe you don’t see the same sort of literature as me but we were recently given a leaflet of ‘Biblical reasons’ why Christians ought to vote out, which did rely on much mysterious exegesis and prooftexty handwaving. Be thankful you were spared.

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  26. Cath, I mean, when you are part of the establishment (think Eusebius and Constantine), you trim your sails in ways to maintain your status. It happens all the time to authors. They lose their edge when they become established or friends with the ruling party. I don’t know why it would be hard to imagine that happening to the church. It certainly happened to the so-called Protestant “Establishment” in the U.S., the home of modernism.

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  27. Cath,
    Thankfully I haven’t seen any literature claiming to give supposedly Biblical reasoning on Brexit. Whenever any political party has claimed a Christian status they looked to me plain daft. It never ceases to amaze me how Americans buy into ‘Christian’ politics through the back door of conservatism, the epitome being Sarah Palin and more recently carpet bomb Cruz. The cocky, sure ass, “Don’t mess with me/don’t tread on me” attitude of such folks is puke inducing and so ironically contrary to so much Gospel living like that commanded in the Sermon on the Mount. I get the sense such conservatives are more passionate about their Second Ammendment so called rights and the Constitution rather than gracefully living by the Scriptures, creeds and confessions.

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  28. DG, agreed, it isn’t hard to imagine that happening at all. But it also shouldn’t be hard to imagine an establishment where it didn’t happen, because that was the case in Scotland for hundreds of years prior to the 1830s. I thought you were going to blow me out of the water with a concrete example of how Moderatism could be traced to the establishment, but what makes me find that implausible is that the c19th Evangelicals, who were hotly against Moderatism, were almost invariably equally hotly in favour of establishment. According to them, it was unheard of that a civil court would contradict the ruling of a presbytery, especially in things directly to do with ordaining men to the ministry, until the various cases cropped up in the 1830s – ie the temporal/material support provided by the state to the church had never before been conditional on church courts giving way to civil courts – the church retained its spiritual independence even while it and the state mutually supported each other in areas of common concern.

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  29. Cath, I don’t read 18th c. Scottish church history that way. I doubt the Associate Presbyterians do as well. In fact, it’s hard to find an established church in that century that remained theologically sharp — from Geneva to Boston. I hope you’re not a Scottish exceptionalist.

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  30. Were the Moderates not theologically sharp? What would your problem with Moderatism be?

    I mean, when it looked like the established church would have to trim its sails in the 1830s-40s, the very sharpest simultaneously refused to trim and continued to hold the state responsible for its side of the establishment bargain.

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  31. cath, well my understanding is that the Moderate Party was pretty neo-nomian and that makes sense when you need to justify the church as part of the establishment — you all want to uphold civic virtue. Saying that conformity to civil law wouldn’t amount to much on That Great Day was not a recipe for political stability.

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  32. Oh, ok. But it’s not as if the state changed the terms of the establishment to insist that the church became neonomian in order to maintain its established position. How would you show that neonomianism was a consequence of being established, rather than self-induced? Especially considering that in England the neonomians were Non-Conformists, outside the establishment? Meanwhile, the Evangelical reaction against Moderatism took place within the still-established church, so it cannot be the case that simply being established automatically leads to error (or that the specifically Scottish variety of establishment led directly to this specific error).

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  33. Cath, it’s not an absolute cause and effect. It’s called wisdom. The church had plenty of examples of the compromise that comes with establishment. The Reformation even saw some of that. Do you think the corruption of the papacy was merely a function of personal desire, as if playing the politics of Christendom had nothing to do with it? So why when you do decided to leave the established church for a voluntary (synonymous with free) one, why do you fail to see the danger of establishment? And you think you’d have a different kind of moderator if you gave up on establishment? Heck, if Scotland can leave the UK, can’t the Free Church leave establishment?

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  34. Wisdom also says it’s not such a strong argument against establishment if the problems you cite arise equally badly outside establishment. Until the onset of the Ten Years Conflict, I’m not getting the sense that we’re inundated with examples of the established church in Scotland compromising for the sake of being established.

    For those very people who claimed themselves to be Free, free was not synonymous with voluntary.

    The dangers of a bad establishment is totally clear to me. There’s nothing good about being established if you have to (eg) affirm that someone other than Christ is head of the church, or (eg 2) make ecclesiastical courts subordinate to civil courts. But where establishment respects the headship of Christ and provides legal safeguards for the church’s spiritual independence, why are the advantages so difficult to see?

    (Won’t be checking back till Monday now.)

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