What Kind of Christian is John Fea?

John Fea responds to my post that wondered about his ongoing criticism of David Barton, Donald Trump, and the evangelicals who support the POTUS. As convenient as social media is (are?) for carrying on discussions, this one may be bordering on excess.

The nub of the disagreement seems to be the degree to which Christianity should inform judgments about secular politics (I sure hope John agrees that the U.S. is a secular government — it sure isn’t Throne and Altar Christendom). But even behind this question is one about Christianity itself. What kind of religion is Christianity and what are its political aspects?

John’s own religious convictions seem to veer. In one case, he objects to my raising the question of virtue signaling, that by opposing the “right” kinds of bad things, he shows he is not that “kind” of evangelical.

Hart implies that my convictions are not really convictions, but a clever ploy to show people that I am “not that kind of evangelical.” I will try not to be offended. And yes, Hart is correct. Indeed, some of my evangelical readers do understand the difference between Messiah College and Liberty University or David Barton U. I also think that many of my non-evangelical readers and non-Christian readers who may not have understood the difference between these schools have learned from reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home that the world of evangelical higher education is more diverse than they originally assumed. But I also get new readers every day. If my experience is any indication, many folks out there still don’t understand the difference between Messiah College and Liberty University or David Barton University. I hope my blog will teach people that evangelicals are not all the same when it comes to their approach to higher education or politics.

If John has to try not to be offended, I must have offended. My bad. But don’t Christians generally worry about posturing, pride, self-righteousness? Not much these days. And that could be a problem with a certain kind of Christianity, no matter how right in its public interventions, that comes across and being more moral than others. Jesus warned about public piety in the Sermon on the Mount. As a self-acknowledged Christian, should not John be thankful for someone who warns him about the dangers of moral preening?

But John retaliates kind of by locating me in the religious backwaters of Reformed Protestantism:

I should also add that The Way of Improvement Leads Home is not a Reformed Christian blog, a paleo-conservative blog, or a denominational (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) blog. In this sense, it is different than Old Life.

He is broad while Old Life is narrow. But then, even though I am narrowly Reformed (agreed), he faults me also for being secular.

I realize that the kind of approach to government I am espousing here is different from the kind of secularism Hart has written about in his book A Secular Faith: Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State. According to one synopsis of the book, Hart believes that “the only role of government is to ensure that the laws do not injure faith and its practices.” (This, I might add, is the same kind of thinking put forth by court evangelicals such as Robert Jeffress).

In the end, I think Hart’s warning about mixing church and state is important. You should read A Secular Faith. I read it, enjoyed it, and learned much from it. I also agreed with much of it. I just don’t go as far as Hart in my secularism. This apparently makes me a Christian nationalist.

John does not try to make sense of being narrowly Reformed in church life and broadly secular in politics. His Christianity simply faults me for either being too narrow on religion or too secular on politics. This makes me wonder if John has thought much about two-kingdom theology, whether from Lutheran, Reformed, or Roman Catholic sources. If he had 2k in his tool kit, he might understand that his own evangelical approach to national politics very much follows the play book of neo-evangelical leaders from the 1940s, who followed the national politics (though with revivals thrown in) of the mainline churches. In both cases, ecumenicity, not being narrow in religion, was a way to build coalitions across denominations that would preserve or build (depending on the timing) a Christian America. Now of course, America is a good thing. But to look at the church or Christianity through the lens of its capacity to help the nation is one more instance of immanentizing the eschaton. In other words, you make Christianity (a global faith) narrow on nationalist grounds.

By the way, John’s quote of the synopsis of A Secular Faith — “the only role of government is to ensure that the laws do not injure faith and its practices” — is actually off. The summary of the book from Booklist included this: “That is Augustine’s distinction of the holy city of God from the secular city of man. Christians are perforce citizens of both, but their only specifically Christian obligation concerning secular citizenship is to ensure that the laws do not injure faith and its practices.” John’s quote of the synopsis does allow him to link me to Jeffress. But again, if he knew 2k, he’d be scratching his head over that comparison. Still this tie typifies the way many evangelicals read 2k: if you aren’t with them, you’re on the fringes, either sectarian or secular.

When John moves beyond tit-for-tat, he explains his understanding of government and Christianity’s place in America:

I believe that government has a responsibility to promote the common good. It should, among other things, protect the dignity of human life, encourage families, promote justice, care for the poor, and protect its citizens and their human rights. I also believe in something akin to the Catholic view of subsidiarity. This means that many of these moral responsibilities are best handled locally. This is why I am very sympathetic to “place”-based thinking and find the arguments put forth by James Davison Hunter in his book To Change the World to be compelling.

But when morality fails at the local level, such moral failures must be dealt with by higher governmental authorities. For example, I believe that the intervention of the federal government in the integration of schools during the era of the Civil Rights Movement was absolutely necessary. Local governments and white churches in the South failed on this front. Moral intervention was necessary. I use the term “sin” to explain understand what was going on in these racist Southern communities. Others may not use such theological language and prefer to call it “unAmerican” or simply “immoral.” But whatever we call it, I think we can still agree on the fact that what was happening in the Jim Crow South was morally problematic and the federal government needed to act. I hope Hart feels the same way. If he does, I wonder what set of ideas informs his views on this.

Here John identifies Christianity with morality. Not good. Christianity does point out sin through the moral law. But Christianity actually provides a remedy. Without the remedy, Jesus and the atonement, the moral law is just one big pain in the neck (for the lost, at least). A policy that enacts something that seems like Christian morality is not itself Christian without also including the gospel. This may be the biggest disagreement between John and me. He is willing apparently to regard mere morality as Christian. That means taking to the lost all the imperatives to be righteous without any way to do so. Christian morality, without the gospel, scares the bejeebers out of me (and I don’t think I’m lost), which is another reason for being wary of seeming self-righteous. Who can stand in that great day by appealing to Christian morality? What good is Christianity for America if it doesn’t lead to faith in Christ?

Another larger problem goes with looking to Christianity for moral authority or certainty. This is an old theme at Old Life, but how do you follow the second table of the Ten Commandments — many of which encourage the policies that John thinks government should pursue — without also taking into account those about idolatry, blasphemy, and keeping the Lord’s Day holy. I don’t see how you set yourself up as a follower of Christ while disregarding some of your Lord’s directives?

The kicker is that John admits he could support a president quoting Muslim sources to uphold American ideas:

I think much of what Obama celebrates in Pope Francis’s ideas is compatible with American values. If Obama quoted a Muslim thinker who spoke in a way compatible with American values I would say the same thing.

So is America the norm? Is it Christianity? Or is it John Fea’s moral compass?

John concludes by admitting:

I am opposed to Trump for both Christian and non-Christian reasons and sometimes those reasons converge.

I appreciate the candor but I wonder why John doesn’t see that he here identifies with every other evangelical — from Barton to Jeffress — who merge their political and religions convictions to support a specific political candidate or to argue for their favorite era of U.S. history. Because John converges them in a superior way to Barton and Jeffress, is that what makes his views on politics more Christian, more scholarly, more American?

John is willing to live with the label of Christian nationalist if it preserves him from the greater error of secularism. What I think he should consider is that converging religion and politics is how we got Barton and Jeffress. If John wants to stop that kind of Christian nationalism, he should preferably embrace two-kingdom theology. If not that, at least explain why his version of convergence is better than the court evangelicals, or why he is a better Christian.

Advertisements

21 thoughts on “What Kind of Christian is John Fea?

  1. You’ve given the seats at the right and the left to the wrong people. They are just court evangelicals. You should give them to the real evangelicals – meeeeeee. [/sarcasm]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. mcmark–I am not “Reformed” because being “Reformed” is so much more than hoping in definite just effectual atonement. Indeed, you can be “Reformed” and never talk about election, since we know “the covenant” includes the non-elect. But if you are not “Reformed” (or Lutheran), and if you say that Christ is our law-giver (not secular consensus), then you will probably be accused either of self-righteousness or of equating Christian morality with the gospel. And if you go on to say that “Christian morality” applies to Christians even when they act outside a church (the covenant barrel), then you will be identified as being located in an impossible to sustain “place”

    Many of the professors at Messiah College have made it their agenda to remind as many as they can that they are the kind of Christians who hate the doctrine of penal substitution.
    https://homebrewedchristianity.com/2014/11/08/executing-god-with-sharon-putt/

    And patriots like Jeffress claim to love penal substitution. But like the Lutherans, Jeffress teaches a version of the atonement in which Christ died for all sinners but in which that death fails to save many of those sinners.

    is it being too “narrow” to say that there is no long term practical theological difference between folks at Messiah College rejecting penal substitution and the many Southern Baptists (patriots or not) who teach a “substitution” which neither propitiates God nor expiates sin?

    I don’t think it’s a good starting point for you to suggest to Fea that the reason he does not agree with the “two kingdom” paradigm is that he has not read enough about it. It seems likely that he has read enough (if not you, some Lutheran or Mennonite) to know that your version of two kingdoms is not the only one now competing for favor. As you would agree, your version of two kingdom is not even the same as that of Calvin and Luther.

    The magisterial Reformers said to those who rejected “the bread god” —we don’t drown you for your views on theology but rather for your political sedition in sharing those views publicly and acting on them. And now American Christians say—we don’t kill you for being Muslim. We are ‘secular” We kill you before you can kill us, because we know you would kill us simply because we are Christians (even though we are both secular and Christian at the same time). We kill you because only those Muslim nations which allow us to have military bases can prove to us that they can be both secular and Muslim at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved this paragraph. Couldn’t agree more.

    “Here John identifies Christianity with morality. Not good. Christianity does point out sin through the moral law. But Christianity actually provides a remedy. Without the remedy, Jesus and the atonement, the moral law is just one big pain in the neck (for the lost, at least). A policy that enacts something that seems like Christian morality is not itself Christian without also including the gospel. This may be the biggest disagreement between John and me. He is willing apparently to regard mere morality as Christian. That means taking to the lost all the imperatives to be righteous without any way to do so. Christian morality, without the gospel, scares the bejeebers out of me (and I don’t think I’m lost), which is another reason for being wary of seeming self-righteous. Who can stand in that great day by appealing to Christian morality? What good is Christianity for America if it doesn’t lead to faith in Christ?”

    Like

  4. mcmark, I don’t think John has thought seriously about the spirituality of the church. I think he is much more inclined to think about church and state as an outworking of religion and politics. The former is much more precise than the latter.

    Like

  5. McMark, btw, Drewdill8 gets what’s at the heart of the spirituality of the church — how to protect the gospel from neo-nomianism. For many evangelicals, John included it seems, it’s either Christian influences or secularism. There’s a whole lot more to consider than that.

    Like

  6. But better to begin to root out the neonomianism from the OPC before starting in the Brethren in Christ (Messiah College) Or more simply put, better to begin by saying what the gospel is…..

    Gaffin ( By Faith, Not By Sight, p 38)—”The antithesis between law and gospel is not a theological ultimate. Rather, that antithesis enters not be virtue of creation but as a consequence of sin, and the gospel functions for its overcoming. The gospel is to the end of removing an absolute law-gospel antithesis in the life of the believer.”

    Cunha—The foreword to the recently published second edition of Gaffin’s By Faith, Not By Sight is written by pastor Mark Jones and is fully consistent with the understanding that there has been no positive change in Gaffin’s teaching on justification.Jones says that Reformed theologian Peter Van Mastricht (1630-1706) taught that there are three stages of justification and that in the third and final stage “in which believers gain possession of eternal life, good works have a certain ‘efficacy,’ insofar as God will not grant possession of eternal life unless they are present.”

    Cunha–Jones goes on to say that, based on what he discerns to be Paul’s teaching in the first half of the second chapter of Romans, both Gaffin and Van Mastricht “hold firmly to the Reformed view that good works are a necessary condition (consequent, not antecedent, to faith) for salvation.”

    Cunha— When I first read this last statement, I was struck by Jones’s sudden shift from the word “justification” to the word “salvation” at this place. The word “salvation” can be used to denote something broader than the word “justification” (e.g. encompassing sanctification and glorification), but, based on the context, is clearly being used here as an equivalent term for justification….

    Cunha–“Jones suggests, approvingly that both Van Mastricht and Gaffin stretch justification out into multiple stages and that good works are in some way efficacious in the final stage. Such a scheme violates the antithesis between works (Law) and faith (Gospel) with respect to justification.

    Scott Clark – “I have the original Shepherd controversy documents and Gaffin was defending a complex instrument of justification, i.e. faith and works on paper and in faculty discussions. Dick defended not only Shepherd’s right to hold his views but the substance of his views

    Lee Irons–Now if adoption is both “already” and “not-yet,” Gaffin reasons, and if all of the benefits of salvation are enjoyed in union with Christ, then it stands to reason that justification would also have both dimensions. .. Gaffin teaches that we will be openly acquitted and vindicated insofar as the transformative benefits of union with Christ will have worked themselves out in our lives as the effectuation of the totality of our salvation in union with Christ. But The “not-yet” aspect of justification (if we must speak of such a thing) is bodily glorification, not the vindication of the profession of one’s faith on the basis of the fruit of faith, i.e., evangelical obedience.

    http://upper-register.typepad.com/blog/2010/07/romans-2613-response-to-sam-waldron-pt-3.html

    Like

  7. Having just toured the National Museum for African-American History and Culture along with the Holocaust Museum, if the Church’s speaking out against the sinful practices of an economic system that relies on the barbarity of slavery and slave trading or a government that uses the sword to conquer and exterminate is virtue signalling and only virtue signalling, then I will passionately embrace virtue signalling. For since silence ‘like a cancer grows,’ it spreads the guilt of complicity as it metastasizes and allows for extreme atrocities to increase. That silence would invite both the Nazi soldier and the Jew to join the Church without challenging the Nazi soldier to stop using the power of the sword to persecute the Jew while telling the Jew that when the Nazi soldier shoots him/her or sends them to the gas chamber, not to worry because that soldier has been given the power of the sword. And that silence would invite the slave trader, slave owner, and the Black person to join the Church without challenging the slave trader and slave owner to free the Black person while telling the Black person that what the slave owner and slave trader are doing is moral because it is legal.

    We should also note that it seems that for D.G., siding with a moral cause is the same as identifying Christianity with a moral cause so that the two become indistinguishable. Thus, we have another D.G. reason why it is verboten for the Church to take a public moral stand on important issues that all people deal with.

    Of course absence of the Church speaking out against corporate sins allows the Church, at least its leadership, to cozy up to those with wealth and power. It allows the Church, at least its leadership, to join the privileged in society. It allows the Church to enjoy riding in on the coattails of the elites of society. But while it continues to repeat history, it fails to listen to the messages from the OT prophets.

    If Church’s speaking out against corporate sins and the immoral practices of society and the state is nothing but virtue signalling and siding with moral causes means that the Church becomes the moral cause, then we live in a very simplistic, all-or-nothing world. But if neither one is the case, then that simplistic all-or-nothing world is simply in the mind of the beholder.

    Like

  8. Curt, “Church’s speaking out against the sinful practices of an economic system that relies on the barbarity of slavery”

    You’re killing me. The economy hasn’t relied on slavery for over 150 years. But that hasn’t stopped your b-wording about the economy.

    Any chance to grandstand for socialism, you’ll take it. The abolitionists favored capitalism, dude. Free labor, free soil, free men. Nothing collective about that.

    Like

  9. D.G.,
    You don’t think that our economic system partially relies on slavery? Is that because you are not aware of the slavery that still exists here let alone in other nations where we get some of our food from?

    And is slavery the only way workers can be exploited?

    And actually, Lincoln referred to how workers were paid in factories as wage-slavery.

    Like

  10. PAHstin,
    Who cares who I sound like. I’ll ask you the same questions I asked D.G.:


    You don’t think that our economic system partially relies on slavery? Is that because you are not aware of the slavery that still exists here let alone in other nations where we get some of our food from?

    And is slavery the only way workers can be exploited?

    BTW, make sure you don’t sound like Fitzhugh when you answer.

    Like

  11. Curt, I’m not sure that your questions are relevant to this post. Is there another platform for us to discuss this topic?

    (I just don’t want to get into a capitalism v. Socialism fight on Old Life).

    Like

  12. D.G.,
    Actually, ‘partially relies.’ And so what if 1863 happened. That implies nothing regarding what Lincoln referred to when he mentioned ‘wage slavery.’

    Like

  13. PAHstin,
    The question implies no debate about Socialism vs Capitalism. The question is about whether a certain fact occurs within our economic system. And the only subject that follows the fact being true is what can we do to change things so that such does not occur in our system.

    Like

  14. Curt, I’m not an expert on the subject, but I believe that the vast majority of slaves in America today are tied up in the sex industry somehow. So maybe the best way to end slavery in the U.S. would be to better enforce the laws in place? Your point on slavery overseas is much stronger. I can go into any given store in America, and that product may have, in part, been created through slave labor. All we can do here is try to be better consumers and let our elected officials know that we do not approve of slave labor overseas.

    A better question for Dr. Hart, I know of churches (think evangelical megachurches) here in America that advocate for ending modern day slavery. What would you say are the dangers with that (if there are any)?

    And yes Curt… implying that workers who voluntarily take a wage are somehow slaves will force us to engage in a capitalism vs. socialism debate.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s