How Small Are Your Ten Commandments?

Jake Meador addresses the question of whether to support impeachment of President Trump on the basis of the Decalogue (as the Christianity Today editorial did implicitly). After all, if you argue that Trump lied and broke the 9th commandment, what about other presidents who were not exactly truthful about intelligence and wars?

He goes on to say that the Ten Commandments are the basis of Protestant political reflection:

First, the Ten Commandments are central to traditional Protestant political theology. Indeed, the Reformed political theorist Johannes Althusius says that you destroy all possibility of symbiotic human community if you remove the Ten Commandments from public life. (In as much as many of our arguments about symbiotic communal life today depend on structuring our economy in such ways that human selfishness is ingeniously twisted to promote mutual material prosperity, I think Althusius is almost certainly correct.)

Likewise, many early Protestants, Melanchthon included, would argue that the Ten Commandments are simply a distillation of the Natural Law and so to remove the Ten Commandments from all consideration in public life is to render public life lawless; it is to make the norms of public life equivalent to the wishes of the powerful, who have the ability to wield the power of government to their own ends and who, apart from the law, have no mechanism to limit their power. This, of course, is an echo of Augustine’s much-cited line when he says that kingdoms without justice are but little robberies. Given the state of our republic, I, once again, find this line of thought highly persuasive. Therefore, any attempts to push the Ten Commandments to the center of Protestant political thought is quite welcome, for it is an attempt to return Protestantism to its historical roots.

… The magistrate’s responsibility is to preserve the peace of society through protecting the good and punishing the bad. So while I might sin in my inner life through impure thoughts, coveting, or some other vice, these things are not crimes, properly speaking, because they are strictly internal; if these thoughts are externalized in my conduct then they could become subject to civil law.

But what about the sins of the First Table that, as Protestant political theology teaches, magistrates are supposed to enforce? Don’t people remember the original Westminster Confession?

The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he has authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordainances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he has power to call synods, to be present at them and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God. (23.3)

That might be a good idea — having the magistrate (as long as it’s not Donald Trump or Anthony Weiner) evaluate worship — if the church is struggling with veneration for POTUS:

For Rose Ann Farrell, 74, from Florida, the claim rang true. “I really believe he was sent to us,” she said. “From one to ten, he’s a ten. He lives in a Christian world and we needed a strong Christian, somebody who is not afraid. He speaks for us, has the guts and courage to speak what we want to say. His actions, his intentions, are Christian.”

But is it such a good idea to enforce the First Table of the law on Muslims and Mormons?

Plus, why do Protestants concerned about public life so often reduce the Decalogue to the Second Table? That was not the way old Protestant political theology had it. Not only did the First Table restrict religious expression and worship, but the magistrate — maybe someone like Barack Obama — was supposed to enforce worship and morality. It doesn’t get much older for Protestant political theory than Calvin:

no man has discoursed of the duty of magistrates, the enacting of laws, and the common weal, without beginning with religion and divine worship. Thus all have confessed that no polity can be successfully established unless piety be its first care, and that those laws are absurd which disregard the rights of God, and consult only for men. Seeing then that among philosophers religion holds the first place, and that the same thing has always been observed with the universal consent of nations, Christian princes and magistrates may be ashamed of their heartlessness if they make it not their care. We have already shown that this office is specially assigned them by God, and indeed it is right that they exert themselves in asserting and defending the honour of him whose vicegerents they are, and by whose favour they rule. Hence in Scripture holy kings are especially praised for restoring the worship of God when corrupted or overthrown, or for taking care that religion flourished under them in purity and safety. (Institutes, IV, 20. 9)

I understand Meador wants to promote the common good and to do so as a self-conscious Protestant. I don’t understand, though, in a nation that prizes freedom — even religious freedom — how that common good is going to come from the Decalogue if the whole of it is in view.

What Would It Take for Christians to View the World Like This?

Instead of character, the virtues recommended by the Founders, God’s law, or deviations from it, what about war, American workers, and U.S. involvement in the Middle East?

Like a certain percentage of his voters, I had supported Trump in great part because he challenged the Bush, Cheneyite Republican conventional foreign policy wisdom. Trump wasn’t an active Iraq war opponent, and his social milieu in New York was hawkish, but he was clearly lukewarm when prompted by Howard Stern in 2002 to tout the pending invasion of Iraq. In a 2008 interview with Wolf Blitzer, he wondered why Nancy Pelosi hadn’t sought to impeach George W. Bush for lying the country into war with Iraq. He began calling the Iraq war a big fat mistake, most notably in a debate before the 2016 South Carolina primary, perhaps the nation’s most hawkish state. He won that primary, and later the nomination, establishing that pro-war views were no longer necessarily majoritarian in the GOP. His messaging was mixed, ambiguous, perhaps intentionally, perhaps instinctively.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along with Russia?” he said, a sentiment I shared. He seemed implicitly to acknowledge that the bipartisan policy of trying to expand NATO up to the Russia’s borders and fomenting pro-Western coups in Russia’s neighbors was perilous and self-defeating. But he came across as tough and hawkish too. He praised tough generals and said he would “bomb the shit out of ISIS.” But since ISIS was a genuine enemy, then actively recruiting and training terrorists to kill civilians inside Western countries, hawkishness seemed altogether appropriate. A certain Jacksonian bluster about killing America’s enemies seemed an appropriate way to steer the Republican foreign policy away from neoconservatism and back towards realism….

There was an argument during the last campaign, expressed most notably by Michael Brendan Dougherty, that the worst possible thing for those who wanted a different kind of American conservatism—an end to stupid wars in the Mideast, a more controlled immigration flow, an industrial policy that valued something other than cheap goods and “free trade”—might be a victory for Donald Trump, who campaigned for all of these things. Whether he believed in them or not, Trump recognized that this is what many voters wanted, that this was an open political lane to run in, an untapped yearning. I think, to an extent, he did believe in them, but had no idea, no real plan how to bring them about.

Faced with unrelenting hostility from the Democrats, the media and the permanent class of Beltway bureaucrats which began before he took office, and no real base in the organized Republican Party, he floundered. No wall was built. No immigration legislation was passed. No grand and necessary Rockefellian infrastructure initiatives were initiated. He has hired to key positions Beltway types who had nothing but contempt for him, and they have led him down well worn paths. One of those paths leads to a major war with Iran, an obsessively pursued project of the neoconservatives since long before 9/11.

Of course, to think like this means not taking your cues from the Bible or God’s law (directly anyway). It means thinking less like the way you think a person who believes in Jesus should think than using your academic training, professional experience, insights from experts (who are usually not using w-w). In other words, explicit Christian thinking may be a road block to what’s best for the nation and the world politically and economically. But it does seem to let you think you are doing what Jesus would do when in fact by God’s providence Jesus is using non-Christian policy experts and wicked rulers to get things done.

Maybe not Consistency (and its goblin) but How about the Same Standard?

When Barack Obama was the most Christian POTUS in US history:

I am also intrigued by the way this speech is saturated with Christian theology and Biblical references (including multiple references to Jesus Christ). I have said this before, but if we evaluate Obama’s faith in the same way that we evaluate the faith of the Founding Fathers (in terms of references to God, Jesus, the Bible, etc… in public addresses), then Obama may just be the most Christian president in American history. For example, he has mentioned Jesus Christ dozens of times more than George Washington, who only mentioned him once or twice (depending on how you count).

I don’t know Obama’s heart, but he sure understands Easter.

When President Trump is wicked and unfit:

what do the court evangelicals mean when they say “we didn’t need a preacher in the Oval Office?” They seem to be suggesting that they don’t need to have a person of Christian character in the office as long as he is delivering on Christian Right policy. The court evangelicals are essentially saying that Trump’s character–the lies, the misogyny, the narcissism, the demonization of enemies–don’t matter. “Sure he is a rough dude, and we don’t like some of his tweets, but look what he is doing for us!” Or “At least he’s not Hillary!” (Christians are not supposed to hate, but they sure hate Hillary).

The court evangelicals have every right to think about politics in this way. They are free to ignore Trump’s many indiscretions because he is delivering on the things they hold dear. But if they are going to take this route they need to stop appealing to the Founding Fathers. These framers of the Constitution understood that the leader of the United States needed to be a person of character.

So far a sliding scale. You can judge a president by affirmations of faith, sins against God’s law, an incapacity to put aside self-interest for the common good.

But don’t forget that none of this matters because the swamp is and always has been a swamp:

In his well-known guide to court life, 16th-century Italian courtier Baldesar Castiglione described the court as an “inherently immoral” place, a worldly venue “awash with dishonest, greedy, and highly competitive men.” One historian has described courtiers of the time as “opportunistic social ornaments”; another described them as “chameleons.”

The skills needed to thrive in the court, in short, are different from the virtues needed to lead a healthy Christian life or exercise spiritual leadership in the church. Most medieval courts had their share of clergy, bishops and other spiritual counselors, and historians agree that their behavior was indistinguishable from that of secular courtiers, whom Damiani described elsewhere as “ruthless, fawning flatterers” in a “theater of intrigue and villainy.”

If politics is truly immoral, why judge Trump for his wickedness? And why would you ever trust anyone else?

Putting the Nationalism in Denominationalism

Colin Hansen makes an arresting admission in his piece about having grown up a Methodist and how he left the communion:

As a former United Methodist, I thank God for these friends and co-laborers in the gospel, even if I no longer share all their theological views. I recognize my spiritual debt. They were my family. They are my family.

I’m in no position to advise these people called Methodists. I forfeited that right when I left. And no one is asking for my advice, anyway. But I want my United Methodist friends to know something important. I did not leave because of your views on sexuality. By the time I left in the early 2000s I didn’t even realize you had been debating sexuality for decades. I left to find the theology of George Whitefield and Howell Harris that converted the Welsh, including my Daniel kin. I left to learn the spiritual disciplines that sustained the Wesleys amid their conflicts with established church leaders and quests to reform British society. I left to find the spiritual zeal that made my grandfather belt out the Methodist hymnal by heart as cancer ravaged his body.

I left the United Methodist Church to find Methodism.

Imagine if New Calvinists and Gospel Allies followed the same logic. “We do not belong to the PCA or the OPC or the URC, so we have no reason to offer you advice or criticism. By virtue of our not being members in your communion, we are in no place to tell you about Reformed Protestantism.”

Imagine too if those who associate or form alliances with New Calvinism — ahem — also followed what is implicit in Hansen’s understanding of membership. Imagine if a Presbyterian ally of the gospel said, “well, because I am a member of the PCA, even ordained in it, my first duties (PCA First) are to the denomination where I serve. That means, I might have to cut down on participating with non-Presbyterians. I might even reconsider my relationship to non-Presbyterians because we are merely allies, not fellow members of the same body.”

But I also noticed what Hansen did with Methodism. He did with it what he did with Calvinism. “I left the United Methodist Church to find Methodism.” The same goes for Gospel Allies. The identify less with Calvinist communions to find Calvinism.

And so, the problem of belonging to the church, the ministry of the church, ordination, and membership rears its head again. To parachurch or to church?

But Hansen did seem to acknowledge that not being a member of an institution means he loses standing for being heard by members of a denomination. That point also suggests that someone who is more involved in parachurch endeavors while belonging to a body of Christians also loses some of his or her standing for dialogue and instruction. As if.

After all, if borders between countries matter, if governments of nations matter, why shouldn’t the borders and polities of Christian communions also matter?

How Did it Become So Easy to Get Out of a United Church?

In the United States, we put “the union” in USA. We are as much a republic as France, though we are still in our first iteration (some say Lincoln started our second republic) and the French are up to five. But in a few weeks, POTUS will deliver not “The State of the Republic” but “The State of the Union.” Union matters in part because the Civil War was so traumatic (and deadly). To consider separating from the U.S. is tantamount to the sin of schism. And yet Scotland can hold a referendum on leaving the UK or Britain can do the same to vote on leaving the European UNION! and no one fights a war to protect such unions, maybe because no one like an Abraham Lincoln was around to call these political arrangements “perpetual.”

The effects of political union on Christianity in the United States has been huge. Soon after the Civil War the Old and New School Presbyterian churches in the north reunited, with a large part of the rationale coming from imitating the Union. That merger launched a wave of ecumenical affiliations and networks that resulted in the Federal Council of Churches (1908) and a proposal to unite all Protestant communions in one United Church of the United States (comparable to the United Church of Canada). “United” has been a common part of Protestant church names, Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Presbyterian Church in the United States, United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the United Churches of Christ, the United Reformed Churches, and the United Methodist Church.

Now comes word that the Methodists are about to break apart into two denominations, one traditionalist (at least about marriage and sex) and one progressive (at least about marriage and sex). All it takes these days is a vote. No theological battles, no warring pamphlets. No one has even mentioned the s-word of schism. Although, Episcopalians still do not look favorably on leaving the Anglican communion.

If J. Gresham Machen had tried that back in the 1920s, he would (and did) have faced charges of disloyalty, unfaithfulness, and disobedience. In fact, when he called for a separation of conservatives and liberals, it was as if he had suggested Social Security should be privatized:

whether or not liberals are Christians, it is at any rate perfectly clear that liberalism is not Christianity. And that being the case, it is highly undesirable that liberalism and Christianity should continue to be propagated within the bounds of the same organization. A separation between the two parties in the Church is the crying need of the hour.

Many indeed are seeking to avoid the separation. Why, they say, may not brethren dwell together in unity? The Church, we are told, has room both for liberals and for conservatives. The conservatives may be allowed to remain if they will keep trifling matters in the background and attend chiefly to “the weightier matters of the law.” And among the things thus designated as “trifling” is found the Cross of Christ, as a really vicarious atonement for sin.

Such obscuration of the issue attests a really astonishing narrowness on the part of the liberal preacher. (Christianity and Liberalism)

Something is changing out there. The old liberal internationalist order is breaking up. The election of Donald Trump was one sign, Brexit was another. The change also is having effects on the ecclesiastical world.

Machen Death Day 2019: Elites in the Ancient Church

It must be remembered that what Paul in Gal. ii. 1-10 desires most of all to prevent is the impression that he is appealing to the Jerusalem apostles as to a higher instance. He is not basing the authority of his preaching upon any authorization that the apostles gave him; he is not saying that he has a right to be heard because those who were the pillars of the Church endorsed his message. Such a representation of the conference would have cast despite upon all the work which he had done before, and would have made it necessary for him in the future to prove constantly against all Judaizers and other opponents his agreement with the Jerusalem authorities. The profound consciousness which he had of his apostolic authority did not permit any such course of action; and such restrictions would have hindered his work wherever he went. It was absolutely essential in the economy of God that the leader of the Gentile work should have independent authority and should not be obliged to appeal again and again to authorities who were far away, at Jerusalem. Hence what Paul desires to make clear above all in Gal. ii.
1-10 is that though he appealed to the Jerusalem authorities it was not necessary for his own sake for him to appeal to them.

They were great, but their greatness had absolutely nothing to do with his authority; for they added nothing to him. It was therefore not the real greatness of the original apostles which caused him to appeal to them (for he needed no authorization from any man no matter how great), but only the greatness which was attributed to them by the Judaizers. They really were great, but it was only the false use which had been made of their greatness by the Judaizers which caused him to lay his gospel before them. The Judaizers were to be refuted from the lips of the very authorities to whom they appealed. (The Origin of Paul’s Religion, 121-22)

Ordinary Posts from 2019 (and before)

A sampling:

You Don’t Have to Untuck Your Shirt (partially) to Follow the OPC

The Missional Church in Free Fall?

Presbyterian Sex

Transforming New York City was Always Going to be a Slog

When the PCA Might Actually Want to Follow the Southern Baptists

Those were the days.

The Significance of Jesus’ Birth

From J. Gresham Machen’s “magnum opus”:

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.

… 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.

What, then, is our conclusion? Is belief in the virgin birth necessary to every man if he is to be a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ? The question is wrongly put when it is put in that way. Who can tell exactly how much knowledge of the facts about Christ is necessary if a man is to have saving faith? None but God can tell. Some knowledge is certainly required, but exactly how much is required we cannot say. “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbellef,” said a man in the Gospels who was saved. So today there are many men of little faith, many who are troubled by the voices that are heard on all sides. It is very hard to be a Christian in these times; and there is One who knows that it is hard. What right have we to say that full knowledge and full conviction are necessary before a man can put his trust in the crucified and risen Lord? What right have we to say that no man can be saved before he has come to full conviction regarding the stupendous miracle narrated in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke?

We desire, however, at this point not to be misunderstood. We do not mean by what we have just said that denial of the virgin birth is to be treated as a matter of indifference by the wise pastor of souls. The soul of man in its depths, indeed, is beyond our ken; our judgments regarding those depths are not the judgments of Him who “needed not that any should testify of man,” because “He knew what was in man.” Yet if we are to help our fellow-men we must give counsel on the basis of the best knowledge that we in our weakness can obtain. And certainly even with that weakness we can say that perhaps not one man out of a hundred of those who deny the virgin birth today gives any really clear evidence of possessing saving faith. A man is not saved by good works, but by faith; and saving faith is acceptance of Jesus Christ “as He is offered to us in the gospel.” Part of that gospel in which Jesus is offered to our souls is the blessed story of the miracle in the virgin’s womb. One thing at least is clear: even if the belief in the virgin birth is not necessary to every Christian, it is certainly necessary to Christianity. (The Virgin Birth of Christ, 394-96)

Not Exceptional, But Not Abysmal

David French thinks American conservatives have a race problem (but, of course, he is not one of those conservatives):

In powerful right-wing populist circles—talk radio, Fox prime time, etc.—the absolute last thing you can argue is that right-wing populism has a race problem. The last thing you can say is that the big white populist tent includes too many racists, and is cozy with too many racists. No sir. The last thing you can say is that some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric is motivated by racial animus against Latino immigrants. Nope. Can’t say that. Then you’re being politically correct. You’re giving in to the left.

Is it a problem for the populist right that an immense right-wing platform like Breitbart engaged in race-baiting with a “black crime” tag and its flattering coverage of the alt-right? Is it a problem that the head of Breitbart, Steve Bannon, told a reporter that he wanted to make the site the “platform” for the alt-right? Is it a problem that Tucker Carlson declares the threat of white supremacy a “hoax,” accuses immigrants of littering too much based on his fishing trips to the Potomac, and invites an actual alt-right congressional candidate on his show to discuss a moratorium on immigration? This candidate is a man who declared that white Americans were “being replaced by third world peasants who share neither their ethnicity nor their culture.”

I understand the word ethnocentrism doesn’t carry the force of the epithet racism, but why is opposition to Mexican-American immigrants racist? Doesn’t that cheapen the racial divide between descendants of African slaves and European-Americans? But I digress.

Imagine what French would write about politics in Northern Ireland where a candidate refused to condemn a terrorist act:

Sinn Fein’s North Belfast General Election candidate John Finucane has refused to condemn the IRA’s attempted assassination of DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds.

In December 1996, an RUC officer was injured when IRA gunmen opened fire on police officers guarding Mr Dodds when he was visiting his seriously ill son at the Royal Children’s Hospital in west Belfast.

Gunmen fired four shots at officers in a hospital corridor as children were being treated close by. One bullet struck an officer in the foot, while another hit an empty incubator in the intensive care unit.

Incumbent North Belfast candidate Nigel Dodds is running against John Finucane for the Westminster seat, in what is expected to be one of the closest contests of election.

Speaking to the New Statesman, Mr Finucane, whose father Pat was murdered by the UDA in 1989, was asked if he would condemn 1996 IRA attack.

He said: “I have an issue with selective condemnation. I think it cheapens our past. I think it is a barrier to reconciliation… I know that the pain of the Troubles visited everybody, regardless of where they came from. I want that to be dealt with.”

That is a serious problem if representatives of established parties cannot condemn non-state acts of violence against members of the opposing political party. It might be like a former POTUS praising a paramilitary leader the way Teddy Roosevelt spoke favorably of John Brown in his famous speech, The New Nationalism:

Now, with this second period of our history the name of John Brown will forever be associated; and Kansas was the theatre upon which the first act of the second of our great national life dramas was played. It was the result of the struggle in Kansas which determined that our country should be in deed as well as in name devoted to both union and freedom; that the great experiment of democratic government on a national scale should succeed and not fail.

The United States is not as close to that kind of violence as Northern Ireland is. Sure, we are only four decades from the last of the Weather Underground’s violence against police and twenty-five years from Timothy McVeigh’s bomb. Some even think violence be in the United States’ future.

But we have not had political parties that were arms of terrorist organizations. Shouldn’t David French know the difference between being in denial about violence and opposition to immigration?

Moderate Presbyterians, Irish or American

Seeing the looks on Ben Preston and Craig Lynn’s faces last week while recording a session on J. Gresham Machen, I worried not only that American indelicacy had run up against Irish sensitivities, but also that the Orthodox Presbyterian habit of being opinionated had offended the moderate sense of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland ministers.

As it happens, while waiting for a meeting with staff at Union College (Ireland’s equivalent of Princeton Theological Seminary), I found a copy of the Presbyterian Herald, the Irish equivalent of New Horizons. I read an article about church attendance that I am not sure could have been published in the OPC’s magazine. The author wrote this:

Christian ought to be encouraging of and encouraged by para-church organisations which seek to spread the gospel. Being committed to such enterprises, however, before the local church is idolatry, for God will not share the glory of his church with another (Isaiah 42:8).

Shazam!

Membership of and support for para-church organisations, whether mission agencies, evangelicist bands or cultural/religious institutions must all come after commitment to the local church and never before.

Imagine what American Protestantism would look like if The Gospel Coalition adopted that set of priorities.