The Last Time a Pope Died (III)

From the October 2005 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal

The Pastor with the Funny Hat

With the passing of John Paul II Protestants might be able to breathe a sigh of relief. For at least fifteen years, the papacy, through John Paul’s skillful handling of his responsibilities, has emerged as arguably the most prominent voice opposing the sins of modernity. As the veteran evangelical apologist, Norman Geisler, put it, John Paul stood up to the three main foes of evangelicalism, namely, “relativism, pluralism, and naturalism.” The best evidence of this opposition was the pope’s defense of the culture of life, which in the words of Southern Baptist theologian, Timothy George, “provided a moral impetus that [evangelicals] didn’t have internally within our community.” The papacy’s understanding of the sacredness of human life, its teaching on sexual ethics, in addition to any number of other declarations or encyclicals affirming the absolute truth of Christianity, made Roman Catholicism an attractive option for young (and sometimes old) Protestants in search of a church that would stand up for the truth, for what Francis Schaeffer used to call “true truth.” While mainline Protestant denominations descended farther into the abyss of moral relativism thanks to their fear of giving offense, and while evangelicals floundered about trying to find hipper ways to super-size their churches, John Paul II was a popular figure, seemingly approachable like the affectionate grandfather, who also refused to equivocate on some of the most important fronts of the culture war.

At his death, several pundits and journalists assessed the way in which John Paul II changed the face of Christianity around the world, improved the health of Roman Catholicism in the United States, and fundamentally altered the relations between Protestants and Roman Catholics, at least in America. Seldom mentioned is how little the Vatican changed during the deceased pope’s tenure and how much the surrounding situation did, thus significantly altering perceptions of the pope and his accomplishments. Back in 1979 during the pope’s first visit to the United States, evangelicals were still worked up about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, even having the Roman Catholic conservative, William F. Buckley, give the opening address at one of the assemblies of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The Bible was then thought to be the bulwark against relativism, materialism, and atheism, and its cultural significance was such that a prominent conservative spokesman, even from the wrong church, could offer encouraging words to conservative evangelicals.

But in the quarter of a century since then, the Bible seems to have run out of gas for Protestants as an authoritative guide to truth. Instead, the imposing voice of one person in a high-profile office (which happens to be in Vatican City) appears to be more effective in countering the drift of secularism and relativism. After all, the Bible’s truth can be fairly relative depending on the eye of the beholder. Much harder is it for one person to equivocate. This has always been the dilemma of Protestantism – its tendency to speak in multiple and conflicting voices compared to the relative unity of the papacy (some of us still remember church history lectures on the difficulties of Avignon and Rome). Before, Protestants would band together in either the National Association of Evangelicals or the National Council of Churches to try to achieve clarity. Today, the conservative ones seem to be willing to rely on the extraordinary ability and connections of the bishop of Rome.

Yet, for all of John Paul II”s gifted use of his bully pulpit, was he opposing secularism and relativism any more than my local Orthodox Presbyterian pastor? My minister has been no less clear over the course of his ten-year (and still counting) tenure in denouncing relativism and secularism. Nor was he any less forthright in condemning sexual immodesty or immorality. In fact, if anyone in our congregation had slept around or received (or performed) an abortion, discipline would definitely have followed. My pastor may not have had Continental philosophy informing his sermons or speeches at session, presbytery, or General Assembly meetings, but this may have made him even more accessible and clear than John Paul II.

Equally important to consider is whether the pope’s courage in opposing relativism, secularism and sexual license was any more effective than my pastor’s. To be sure, the local Orthodox Presbyterian minister never attracts the front pages of the New York, London, Paris, Rome or even Glenside, Pa. dailies. But that may be a blessing. It may also be a lesson that the much vaunted Roman Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity teaches. That idea says that authorities of higher rank should not do what is necessary for lesser authorities to perform. This is partly an argument, for instance, against a federal welfare system that is inefficient, impersonal, and creates a culture of dependence by either upending the work of local charities and government social programs, or by taking over duties that families and individuals themselves should perform.

The doctrine of subsidiarity, likewise, should warn against becoming dependent on the worldwide, highly orchestrated statements of one church official when what is needed is the week-in-week-out teaching and counsel of local pastors who minister to their flocks. Indeed, it is ironic to this Protestant that many young evangelicals convert to Rome because of the pope’s moral stature and careful reflection and yet find themselves in parishes and dioceses where the application of his moral teaching is very often lacking. Without wanting to beat a proud denominational breast, it does seem probable that any number of small, insignificant and seemingly sectarian denominations like the OPC or the Presbyterian Church in America or the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or the Reformed Episcopal Church (to try to be ecumenical) are more disciplined in their sexual practices than American Roman Catholics despite those Protestant denominations’ meager public statements or formal teachings. This is not to say that John Paul II’s encyclicals are without merit – far from it. But the point stands that an encyclical is only as effective as the willingness of the local priest or bishop to apply such truth.

Golfers have a saying that you drive for show and putt for dough, which is the duffer’s way of saying that the church universal may be great on paper but is only as faithful as the local church. John Paul II used his powers as the head of the Roman Catholic church to raise the visibility of the universal church’s power and wisdom. Seldom noticed is the unintended consequence of making local clergy, church members and even Protestants dependent on a universal voice when what is most needed is the fidelity of local clergy and church members. The Protestant Reformation was partly a reaction by local churches against religious dependence on Rome. If only evangelicals were more concerned about their ecclesiological heritage and the difficult responsibilities it includes than they seem to be in seeking encouragement and affirmation from a pastor who is as far removed from their churches as Tiger Woods’ drives are from mine.

DGH

The Last Time a Pope Died (II)

From the October 2005 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal

Where’s the Pope?

The question of pope John Paul II’s present location is, to say the least, a controversial one, not so much between Protestants and Roman Catholics as among Protestants. Has his soul been “made perfect in holiness and immediately pass(ed) into glory” while his body “being still united to Christ – rests in (its) (grave) till the resurrection”? (WSC 37). Or, has his soul been “cast into hell, where (he) remain(s) in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day”? (WCF 32.1) We are shut up to these two possibilities because “Besides these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none” (WCF 32.1).

Even to entertain the possibility that the pope is not in heaven can get you fired. Pittsburgh Christian talk radio host (WORD- 101.5FM) Marty Mintor found that out on Friday, April 8, when he was called into general manager Chuck Gratner’s office after his 3:00 to 6:00 P.M. show and told he was being let go. His offense? Innocuous enough. In response to a caller’s question about whether the pope was in heaven, he said that many evangelical Christians believe that one must be a “born-again believer” to go to heaven, but added that “the question of whether a person is born again is something personal, something between an individual and the Creator.” He also “made it clear that the discussion was not an attack on the character of the pope but, rather, a look at the teachings — not only of John Paul, but the Catholic Church in general.” No Knox or Calvin (or Ian Paisley or Bob Jones) he. But he had to go because he was “alienating the listeners.” Gratner said, “We ended our relationship” with Mintor because of differences in how he conducted his show. WORD-FM needs to function in this city in support of the entire church — that means everybody — and not focus on “denominational issues.”

One must resist the temptation to engage Mr. Mintor and Mr. Gratner’s soteriology and ecclesiology, which reflect much that is wrong with evangelicalism, and confine oneself to the fact that these two evangelicals disagreed about whether one could, as a talk radio host, even allow for the possibility that the pope is not in heaven. Not even Al Mohler, for all his excellent analysis of the pope’s and the Church’s errors, noting that John Paul II was a vigorous proponent of the cult of Mary and that he taught that the work of Christ made up for what was lacking in human merit and that he rejected justification by faith, could summon up the strength to say, “The pope, having held these errors, is not in heaven.”

Of course, in one sense no one can know with absolute certainty about anyone’s eternal destiny. We must of necessity leave those ultimate judgments in the hands of an all-knowing God. Nevertheless, we as individuals do make such measured judgments. (Anybody uncomfortable with saying that Hitler is in hell and that Calvin is in heaven?) And the church is given the power of the keys by which she excludes or includes in the kingdom of heaven applying, the standards given by the king of the church.

In my Presbyterian denomination we have standards of admission into membership in the visible church (“out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation”) that are consistent with historic Presbyterianism’s commitment to exclude from the church none that Christ includes. Thus we ask for a credible profession of faith. We do not claim that all who make credible professions will be in heaven (we are fallible even in the use of our lawful powers), but we do treat them as such so long as they are communicants in good standing (their professions remain credible). Moreover, we do not regard as unbelievers those who are members of erring churches of Christ. Again, it is the gospel (whether the church is evangelical) and the credible profession (communicants in good standing) that determine whom we invite to share in the common Table of our Lord.

Now a simple question: could the pope have been received into a Presbyterian church holding to the historic Reformed standards of communicant membership? Could he have been invited to the Lord’s Table (where the Lord Himself welcomes and feeds His people) in a Presbyterian church practicing the Reformed fencing of table? Hence, if we regard as heaven-bound those whom we receive into communicant membership and those whom other evangelical churches receive, then do we not regard the others to be, so far as we know, hell-bound? When we apply the liberal and charitable standards by which Presbyterian churches have judged who are Christians, the pope was not one. He did not “acknowledge himself to be a sinner in the sight of God justly deserving his displeasure and without hope save in his sovereign mercy.” He did not “acknowledge Jesus Christ to be the son of God and Savior of sinners and receive and rest upon him alone as he is offered in the Gospel.” He held no membership in an evangelical church on earth.

He was a good man, a courageous man, a pious man, an admirable man, a man who did much good in his lifetime. But do we not agree that such things are not sufficient to make one acceptable to God? Do we not still believe “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling”? Do we not still believe that a man is justified by faith apart from all human righteousness, or devotion, accomplishment?

A little Protestant girl and a little Roman Catholic boy found themselves walking together toward their homes wearing their Sunday best (yes, I know that is now a meaningless description, but bear with me). They came to a low spot in the road where spring rains had partially flooded the road. There was no way that they could get across to the other side without getting wet. “If I get my new Sunday dress wet my Mom’s going to skin me alive,” said the little girl. “My Mom’ll tan my hide too if I get my new Sunday suit wet,” replied the little boy. “I tell you what I think I’ll do,” said the little girl. “I’m gonna pull off all my clothes and hold them over my head and wade across.” “That’s a good idea,” replied the little boy. “I’m going to do the same thing with my suit.”

So they both undressed and waded across to the other side without getting their clothes wet. They were standing there in the sun waiting to drip dry before putting their clothes back on when the little boy finally remarked, “You know, I never did realize before just how much difference there really is between a Protestant and a Catholic.” Yep. I wish the pope were in heaven, but I have reasons for fearing otherwise.

William H. Smith is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America

The Last Time a Pope Died

From the October 2005 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal

The Faith of Modernism

When John Paul II was elected pope in 1978, some American evangelical observers of Rome referred to him as “J2P2.” About ten years later that nickname receded, an indication of a significant transition in his pontificate: this pope was becoming even more popular than Star Wars. It is easy to see now why American evangelicals fell in love with pope John Paul II. He was instrumental in the defeat of Communism, courageous in defense of traditional marriage, and relentless in his advocacy of the culture of life.

Why didn’t Paul VI a enjoy similar press? After all, a re-reading of his widely lampooned Humanae Vitae reveals it to be a brilliant, if flawed, critique of our technological age. But Paul VI’s tired and melancholy demeanor lacked the vigorous and telegenic charisma of John Paul II, a master of modern media.

Timothy George compared the winsome attractiveness of John Paul II to the ultimate American evangelical icon, Billy Graham. “Many of the things said of the pope you’d say of Billy Graham,” George recently told Christianity Today. “From an evangelical base he’s tried to reach out and be embracing and yet be faithful to the gospel. And you put those two together, Billy Graham and the pope, you have there the winsome, visible face of world Christianity in the last half century.”

Again, this is understandable, and there is much for Protestants to be thankful for in this remarkable 25-year pontificate. But can it be said from a Protestant perspective that John Paul II’s legacy was marked by theological progress? How ought we to evaluate what Mark Noll described as Roman Catholicism’s “dramatically altered relations with Protestant evangelicals”? Are we led to imagine that the Reformation is over? There are reasonable grounds for skepticism on the part of Protestant confessionalists.

This is not to question the pope’s openness to the theory of evolution, as some Protestant fundamentalists and Roman Catholic traditionalists have. John Paul II hardly endorsed Darwinism; he merely invited Christians to engage in legitimate scientific inquiry without succumbing to scientism. No, John Paul II was clean here, although it was left for his successor, Benedict XVI, to state the matter with greater theological precision when he emphasized that “we are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution.”

In following through with the work of Vatican II, John Paul proclaimed the church’s openness to the future. But should Protestants be encouraged when “aggiornamento” replaces the take-no-prisoners exclusivism of pre-Vatican II Rome with the universalism of Vatican II? A perusal of Crossing the Threshold of Hope should dispel any doubt that John Paul II is a modernist, especially with regard to his attitude toward other religions. John Paul II seems to articulate his own version of Open Theism here: salvation is open to all “people of good will” (though only Rome possesses the fullness of that salvation). Jews are older brothers in this vague and universal faith, and he goes on to make frightening concessions to the “deep religiosity” of Buddhists, Hindus, and Moslems, reserving his criticism of the latter to the “fundamentalists” among them. “It will be difficult to deny that this doctrine is extremely open,” he writes. “It cannot be accused of an ecclesiastical exclusivism” (emphasis original).

The old-style Protestant modernist Shailer Mathews insisted that Modernism was not liberalism. Modernists, he wrote, were evangelicals who use the scientific, historical, social method in understanding and applying evangelical Christianity to the needs of living persons. Mathews’ call for Christian accommodation to modern times reads much like John Paul II’s. Perhaps there is no American Protestant he may resemble so much as Charles Briggs, who though conservative by inclination and committed to traditional doctrines such as the virgin birth, sought to bring American Presbyterians into the modern world, introducing them to confessional revision, higher criticism and doctrinal tolerance.

Another similarity between the recent pope and Protestant modernism was his reticence to apply church discipline to Roman Catholic dissenters. Rising to his defense, many have pointed out how imprudent excommunication would have been. Dissent was far too entrenched in the American Roman Catholic higher education, which had become a barren wasteland beyond correction. A crackdown would involve not just the prominent – he could not limit it to the likes of Hans Küng – but would have involved tens of thousands. So the pope was between a rock and a hard place, and his hands were tied.

Somehow that rings hollow for a pope credited with dismantling communism. Where is the sign of contradiction? And whatever happened to his slogan, “Be not afraid”? He’s the POPE, for crying out loud. A more plausible explanation seems to be that discipline was less beyond his power than contrary to his style. So the dirty work was inherited by his successor, Benedict XVI, and Roman Catholic conservatives have already appealed to him to take serious disciplinary action.

Where Noll’s “dramatically altered relations” is most evident is in ways John Paul II’s papacy has encouraged American evangelicals to collapse spiritual warfare into cultural warfare. Under the pope’s leadership and example American Roman Catholics and evangelicals have found common cause in lobbying for the culture of life. This has led to the confusing and divisive work of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” in 1994 and its successors. To be sure, evangelicals argue that theological differences remain – there’s the whole Mary thing – but these are relegated to the theological periphery. “The disagreements that Protestants have with John Paul II are things that are in addition to the foundations of the faith,” said Southern Baptist Richard Land. In a more theologically literate age, confessional Protestants would call that doctrinal indifference.

In a commonly misunderstood section in his book, Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen suggested that Presbyterian orthodoxy had more in common with Rome than with Protestant liberalism. Machen’s predicament was that if forced to choose between Protestant modernism, which had all but abandoned the exclusivity of the Christian religion, and Roman Catholicism, a faith that in the 1920s was still affirming that outside the church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation, the decision would have been to side with the Christian though flawed expression. That choice took on a different dimension after Vatican II when in its effort to engage the modern world the Roman Catholic hierarchy embraced modernism. So with the magisterium of John Paul II, who fleshed out Vatican II’s modernism, Machen would not have been confronted with a choice. For all of his gifts and virtues, John Paul II was a theological modernist. Evangelical adulation of his papacy gives every suggestion of a dance with modernism.

JRM

Sectarians All (NTJ April 1998)

(The Fall 2022 issue is in production.)

SUPPOSE A HISTORY PROFESSOR at an evangelical liberal arts college were teaching a course on American church history. His course did not follow the world religions approach but instead covered the religious traditions most numerous and most influential in America (though those are not synonymous) and so slanted the course to Protestants, Catholics and Jews. For the final exam the professor asked students to describe the teaching and practice of the average observant Catholic before Vatican II. If a student answered the question by ignoring Roman Catholic worship (the Mass), customs (fish on Fridays) , institutions (parochial schools), and teaching on justification, but answered instead with a description of an Irish immigrant in Boston who bucked the repressive pedagogy of local nuns, complained about never understanding the Mass, then went to Boston University, joined InterVarsity, attended Park Street Church, and read his Protestant Bible daily during his “quiet time,” should the professor give the student a passing grade? Such an answer would not be surprising given the historic anti-Catholic bias among Anglo-American Protestants. But wouldn’t the professor be delinquent in his duties as a professor of history to approve such an answer? In other words, is it possible for a Protestant to hold that a Catholic is “good” even if he believes his practices idolatrous?

LET’S TAKE ANOTHER EXAMPLE. This one from real life. J.I. Packer was one of the original Protestant signers of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” the first statement (1994) that called for a joint mission of Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants in a limited number of endeavors. In an article he wrote explaining his decision (Christianity Today, Dec. 12, 1994), Packer applied the very language of “good Catholic” to those with whom Protestants ought to cooperate. Now Packer does not spell out exactly what such a good Catholic looks like. But the reasons he gives for not being able to become a Roman Catholic are helpful. For instance, Rome has a “flawed” understanding of the church, its sacramental theology “cuts across” the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith, the “Mary cult,” the doctrine of purgatory, and the “disbursing” of indulgences all “damp down” biblical teaching about assurance of salvation. What is more, papal claims to infallibility make the “self-correction” of the church impossible. So the communion of Rome is still “unacceptable” to Packer. But the Catholics who are willing to sign a declaration with Packer, despite his reservations and objections, are “good” Catholics. These Catholics most likely are ones who do not observe the faith in ways that Packer deems flawed or, at least, are not strict about them. Ironically, then, Packer’s assessment of Catholicism should fail to earn an A-grade on an undergraduate American church history final exam but is supposed to be persuasive to evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics as the first step in ecumenicity.

WHY DOESN’T SUCH AN understanding of Catholicism earn the strong rebukes of condescension and paternalism? Isn’t Packer saying, in effect, that a good Catholic is one who has given up distinctively Catholic teachings and practice? What is more, why isn’t Packer criticized for harboring the kind of anti-Catholic sentiments that used to inform America’s progressive reformers who desired the assimilation of all immigrants to the United States into WASP culture? Liberal Protestants have a long history of including Roman Catholics at their gatherings and institutions who resemble themselves, that is, believers who have given up the more particular aspects of their tradition in order to fit in to American Protestant norms. That kind of treatment used to be called “illiberal” by Roman Catholics, such as when John Gilmary Shea in the 1880s accused the Puritan tradition of being “narrow-minded, tyrannical, and intolerant” of those who “refused to submit to their ruling.” But now, thanks to the wonders of modern ecumenism, Catholics who are not concerned about Rome’s historic teachings and practice are considered “good.”

THE POINT HERE IS NOT SO much the problems of recent Catholic and evangelical statements (though we do dissent from those affirmations). Rather our concern is with the understanding of religious traditions and their truth claims that undergirds not simply such statements as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” but also Bible-only evangelicalism, New Life Presbyterianism, and proponents of “mere Christianity.” Underneath all of these expressions of Christian faith is, it seems to us, is the Enlightenment’s hostility to tradition, history, and particularity.

This an especially important concern to the editors of the NTJ because we have been accused of narrowness, rigidity, and sectarianism in our effort to defend not simply the theological truths of the Reformed creeds and confessions (specifically the Westminster Standards) but also the Reformed practices articulated in our creedal statements. In other words, from Packer’s perspective, or that of the evangelical undergraduate, we here at the NTJ are “bad” Presbyterians because we are unwilling to let go of such practices as Reformed liturgy (it does exist — just see Evelyn Underhill’s discussion in Worship [1937]), the sanctification of the Lord’s Day, Reformed sacramental theology, Presbyterian polity, and the avoidance of the liturgical calendar. We feel like ethnic Americans who are being forced to assimilate to the demands of a melting-pot Christianity. If we retain our distinctive ways we will be un-American or, worse, Amish.

ON THE ONE HAND, OUR CLAIMS are very modest and have to do with the simple methods used by historians (when not under the influence of modern literary theory that turns the meaning of words into jello). Presbyterianism may be historically defined as arising at a particular time and standing for certain convictions (predestination) and practices (infant baptism). Like it or not, the first proponents of any group, whether religious, political, or educational, set the standards for all who will follow in their name. So, if a later group bearing the name Presbyterian no longer believes in predestination and no longer baptizes their infants, do we still call them Presbyterian, or might we conclude that something akin to denial or stupidity is underway? The same goes for Agrarians or Unitarians. If someone claims to be an Agrarian and yet promotes the Internet and invests heavily in Texaco, calling into question his claim would not be irresponsible. Or if you find a Unitarian who believes Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity we might have some reasonable justification for concluding this person has departed from the teaching of William Ellery Channing, no matter how much we might be heartened by the expression of orthodox belief. In other words, tradition in a historical sense matters for Protestants as much as it does for Catholics. We may not believe in a magisterium but we do believe that Protestants may not rewrite the past.

ON THE OTHER HAND, WE WANT to make the immodest claim that the doctrine of sola scriptura is dangerous and not a separate doctrine in the Reformed tradition. By this we do not mean that we deny what the Westminster Confession says (and what was the formal principle of the Reformation) that “the Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined” is “the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture.” Our problem is with those who isolate the doctrine of sola scriptura from all other doctrines, as if the Bible exists without any interpretation, or apart from all confessional or creedal statements. In other words, we deny the biblicism that often masquerades under the banner of “the Bible only.” Technically speaking, which is the way the proof-text-approach to the Bible usually runs, “the Bible only” will not give us the Bible only since Scripture itself does not list its own table of contents. This means that even sola scriptura requires some human effort and interpretation. That is why Zacharis Ursinus wanted the Heidelberg Catechism bound at the front of Bibles published for the laity, and why the Geneva Bible came with notes (not unlike the NIV Bible for Women). Proponents of “the Bible only” want to protect God’s word from human hands, and so want to avoid going through any human tradition before arriving at the pure teaching of Scripture. But such a desire for a direct communication from God, which “the Bible only” appears to give, will not settle what the Bible only means. As George Marsden remarked several years ago, the doctrine of inerrancy might preserve the authority of the Bible but it could not even settle the question of the Trinity since, for example, some nineteenth-century Unitarians believed an inerrant Bible revealed an Arian Christ.

CHRISTIAN HISTORY IS littered with Protestant groups who have pitted the Bible against man-made creeds. Pietism was arguably the first to do serious damage to the necessity of confessions for the health of the church. Pietists argued that the gospel had atrophied and died because the doctrinal precision advocated by scholastics extinguished real piety. They also believed that bickering over church polity had vitiated the body of Christ, and that ritualism and clericalism were stifling worship. “Back to the Bible” became the pietist slogan (and continues to be a reliable index to extant Pietists). As James Tunstead Burtchaell observes in a forthcoming book on Christian higher education in America, “by turning from the cumulative tradition of biblical commentaries, symbolic definitions and theological disputation, and by drawing upon Scripture as a basis for doctrine and morality, the adherents of reform did not successfully set aside the thoughts of man in favor of the thoughts of God” (as if such a Gnostic denial of creation is ever possible by creatures). Instead, Pietists “simply exchanged the agenda of the sages of the past for the agenda of the preachers of the present.” Untethered to the wisdom of the past, Pietism quickly degenerated – SURPRISE! – into rationalism, which is simply another tradition, but one which interprets the Bible according to the lights of what is reasonable and responsible, rather than one cultivated and sustained by an interpretive community (i.e. the church). According to Burtchaell, “Pietism was surely not an early, soft variant of the heathen gentility of the later rationalism which followed close upon it, but there was a kinship between them.” Pietism and rationalism both “deplored the confessional particularities of the churches, referring to them contemptuously as ‘sectarian.’”

Church history of full of the same pattern. The no-creed-but-the-Bible mentality that Nathan O. Hatch documents so well (Democratization of American Christianity) within two or three generations gave way to liberal Protestantism. Conservative Protestants are prone to think that liberal Protestants were wicked men who drank, danced, chewed and denied Christ and the Bible openly. But much like evangelicals, Protestant liberals were guardians of middle-class respectability and morality. What is more, they gained considerable leverage against their confessional rivals by trumpeting the slogans of “Back to Christ” and “Back to the Bible.” This genteel variety of primitivism (Pentecostalism was a less genteel form) not only freed liberal Protestants from the creeds to which they had subscribed but also gave room to maneuver in the wider world of modern science and learning. Gone was the Christ of Chalcedon and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. In their place came the Christ who stood at the apex of evolutionary development and the righteousness secured by following Christ’s Golden Rule.

AMERICAN PRESBYTERIANS have been big suckers for Bible-onlyism because of their embrace of the Enlightenment. Unlike their counterparts in the Netherlands, American Calvinists developed no anti-revolutionary ideology. They not only endorsed Enlightenment politics when advocating the valuable principle of limited government. But in the euphoria of the American Revolution, a revolt inspired by the Enlightenment (of a the moderate Scottish sort), Presbyterian clergy also endorsed an Enlightenment view of history. According to the American Protestant reading of Christian history the Reformation was a forerunner to the Enlightenment; both Protestantism and science were responsible for dispelling ignorance, superstition, bigotry and intolerance and for advancing the cause of truth, reason, knowledge and progress. In this unfolding of western civilization, Catholicism, which was responsible for the “Dark Ages,” was the villain. For that reason, American Protestants had no trouble including a tepid version of their religion in public schools but objected vigorously to either parochial schools receiving tax funds or granting Catholics privileges in the common school. In The Soul of the American University George Marsden identifies this outlook as “the Whig Ideal.” Protestantism was synonymous with “the advances of civilization and the cause of freedom,” that is, freedom not only for civil liberty but also for scientific inquiry. In contrast, Catholicism “represented absolutism, suppression of individual development, and suppression of free inquiry.”

UP TO THE FUNDAMENTALIST controversy confessional Presbyterians perpetuated this Whig outlook. But thanks to contacts with Dutch Calvinists, who knew the downside of enlightened politics, and owing to the leaven of Cornelius Van Til’s apologetics, conservative Presbyterians and some evangelicals saw the incompatibility between the Enlightenment ideal of autonomous inquiry and the Christian notion of submission to revealed truth. It became much easier to admit that “nothing is neutral.” The lone natural scientist or scholar, many conceded, was just as prone to a prejudiced reading of the facts as any cleric, Roman Catholic or not.

STILL, THE ENLIGHTENMENT lives on. Van Til’s insights about presuppositions and the bias of the human heart have only penetrated so far into the American Presbyterian brain. Some Van Tillians continue to appeal to the doctrine of sola scriptura in Whig fashion and pit traditionalism (i.e. “rigid” and “sectarian” adherence to the Presbyterian creeds and directories for worship) against the Bible only. It is as if once the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit has regenerated the blind and prejudiced human heart the regenerated individual, in autonomous and rational fashion, can plumb the depths of the Bible and do so free from the prejudice and bigotry of strict subscription. So much for the contamination of the human soul that continues after conversion.

Even worse, so much for the naivete, blindness and pride of the Enlightenment’s faith in reason and the possibility of arriving at objective, global, cosmopolitan truths to which everyone in the world agrees once the right methods of inquiry have been adopted. Some Van Tillians make it seem that once the switch of regeneration is flicked on everyone who picks up the Bible will read it the same way. Which is another way of denying the history of the Christian church in all its variety and the claims of all those professing Christians throughout the ages who believe they are biblical. The Bible-only approach, in good Enlightenment fashion, presumes the possibility of escaping all the prejudice, bigotry and darkness of the past and arriving at an unprejudiced understanding of the Christian religion. In effect, nothing is neutral except for the Bible, which is an ironic twist considering how divisive the Bible is compared to the homogenous assessment given by some conservative Presbyterians to such human sciences crying out for Christian interpretation as history, chemistry and even politics. And without the aid of the past the regenerated individual may now sit down with his Bible alone (no notes, please) and figure out the two natures of Christ, the bondage of the will, the nature of the atonement, and the imputation of Adam’s sin, for starters.

OF COURSE, ONE PROBLEM WITH the anti-traditionalist outlook of “no creed but the Bible” is that it is itself an interpretive tradition. The desire to return to a pure gospel unadulterated by creeds or human authorities is about 300 years old and has demonstrated a remarkable consistency through the years. But because of Bible-only Christians’ hostility to tradition they can’t spot the one they follow. The result is an uncritical and unaware outline that functions as trump in any card-game of rival traditions. According to Bible-only logic, if it comes from man then it can’t come from God and so must be a tradition. Never mind that God sets up men with legitimate authority to rule over others, such as those found in the visible church. The Westminster Divines are just as fallible as the Pope and so must not be obeyed uncritically, an interesting and no doubt uncomfortable position for anyone who has subscribed to the Westminster Standards.

The other problem is that Bible-onlyism never delivers what it promises. It is supposed to provide an unprejudiced reading of the Bible that will unite all true believers on the essentials of the faith. Does it not seem a tad audacious and perhaps a bit prejudicial for some individuals, freed from the interpretive constraints of ecclesiastical accountability, to sit down and determine just what is essential in the Bible? Where would we find those essentials? In the Epistle to Jude or maybe one of the Synoptic Gospels? Isn’t this exactly what Marcion and Thomas Jefferson had in mind when they cut and pasted the Bible according to their understanding of what was essential and genuine? Aside from its audaciousness, the effort of Bible-only believers to arrive at a “mere” expression of the gospel nurtures its own form of rigidity, narrowness and intolerance. The inclusive center is never sufficiently broad to include Mormons and Unitarians, suggesting that some intolerance is worthwhile. Meanwhile, the Bible- only creed excludes those believers whom professors of history might describe as “good” Presbyterians, “good” Lutherans, “good” Anglicans, “good” Catholics, and, yes, “good” Amish. When liberal Protestants told fundamentalists that all Christians were one in the Lord, Walter Lippmann observed that the liberal approach was akin to telling fundamentalists, “smile and commit suicide.” Which only proves the rule that those who live by the ideals of tolerance and sensitivity are generally intolerant and insensitive. Or to borrow Richard John Neuhaus’ rule, when orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy is soon proscribed.

The Bible never exists, then, in an “only” state. It must always be interpreted. At which point the interpretation of the “Bible only” needs to be held up against the Bible as interpreted by the various Christian communions. But the Bible as understood by those communions, we believe, will always be superior to the interpretive strategy of the Bible-only Christians because the former recognize the importance and necessity of the visible church while the latter places all authority and wisdom in the autonomous individual. Though liberal economic and political thought lauds the virtues of the individual, Christians who confess the doctrine of original sin should be wary of modernity’s handling of ancient texts. Christ gave to his people the church and her ministry for a reason, not simply to edify but also to restrain. The church is necessary for rightly understanding the Bible. Despite her divided state, she is an interpretive community that checks and balances the excesses of private interpretations (including Quiet Times). This may sound like a Roman Catholic sentiment. We would deny this. We still believe that churches err and have erred. And we believe that the Bible is the place to go to resolve religious controversies. Quoting the Shorter Catechism will not. But this does not mean that each generation has to start from scratch, as if the history of the church, her controversies, her various creeds and varying communions do not exist. Nor does it mean that the church as an interpretive community has no authority because it is human while the Bible is divine. As the Confession of Faith puts it, the “decrees and determinations” of the church should be received with “reverence and submission” not simply because they agree with the Bible but also because the “power” of the church is “an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his word” (31.ii).

IN THE END THE CHOICE IS not between the Bible and tradition. Rather it is between traditions accountable to the visible church or those of either individualistic (e.g. private) or parachurch origins. We can never escape tradition, the dogma of the Enlightenment to the contrary. So which will it be, the Bible interpreted self-consciously by communions shaped by the history of the Christian church, or the Bible as understood by collections of autonomous individuals being swept along by the flood of Enlightenment innocence? Which is better, an observant Catholic or a “Bible-only” Protestant? As much as we disagree with Rome and as rigidly Presbyterian as we are, we will take our chances with Packer’s “bad” Catholics any day. At least with them we can agree to disagree. But with creedless Protestants, whether evangelical or liberal, we will always be disagreeably forced to agree.

Every Minor Order Ministry

If you’re ever tempted to think that Rome’s church government is ancient, consider how much it has always been a work in process (with notable interventions from Trent and Vatican II):

On the Sunday of the Word of God this year, Pope Francis solemnly instituted lectors and catechists. They were drawn from nations around the world. The pope gave to each of the lectors a book of the Scriptures, and to the catechists a cross. There were prayers, and he enjoined these servants of the word to bring the Gospel to the world through their ministry. None of this was truly extraordinary, however. What made the event historic was that, for the first time, the rite included women.

It was a long time coming. In 1965, a subcommittee of the Consilium (the body of scholars and churchmen who crafted many of the liturgical reforms after the Second Vatican Council) gathered to study what was then called “minor orders,” including what we now call instituted lectors and acolytes. In Christian antiquity various people held these offices, but gradually they were restricted to seminarians on their way to being ordained to the priesthood. Over time, the priesthood assumed all the roles formerly held by a variety of ministers. The committee acknowledged the possibility of turning the page on this clericalization of ministry, but they did not discuss including women out of deference to those bishops who believed that the minor orders were part of the sacrament of Holy Orders, rendering women ineligible.

Nevertheless, a door was opened by the Consilium’s final report in 1967, which affirmed that the Church has considerable flexibility in reforming the offices below the level of deacon. The minor orders, although rooted in antiquity, can be reconfigured, they argued—some abolished, others added or adapted—to respond to the needs of the Church. The question of who receives them, and whether they are permanent or temporary, was not settled.

By the time of the council, everyone recognized that the Church’s practice of minor orders had become incoherent. The history was venerable, but modern-day seminarians were deriving little benefit from being ordained into these roles. It was more or less a formality they went through, with the rites serving as stepping stones in a cursus honorum that led to priestly ordination—their real goal. They moved through the minor orders quickly, sometimes celebrating two at a time. Some found it embarrassing to receive deputation, in solemn ceremonies, for tasks other people carried out. The role of doorkeeper was, for example, already filled by sacristans and ushers. Altar boys performed the role of acolyte. The priest read the readings at Mass. To be an actual exorcist was an advanced and specialized role quite separate from the “order of exorcist” conferred on them, which really meant nothing. One of the principles of the reform was “truthfulness.” By this canon, the minor orders were failing badly.

Pope St. Paul VI was interested in keeping the minor orders as a part of seminary formation. His focus was on renewing them and establishing a more coherent plan. Pastoral bishops saw this in a wider frame of reference, however, and had more ambitious goals. They wanted to simplify the preparation for priesthood and render it more realistic, but they also kept an eye on the horizon of lay ministry, which was a growing phenomenon. There was considerable interest, especially in mission dioceses, in strengthening lay ministries and finding ways to bless them. There were requests not only to institute women as lectors and acolytes, but also to consider instituting ministries of catechesis and various forms of pastoral service, which were already being filled successfully by women. There was also the question of allowing lay people to preach and conduct worship services in the absence of a priest. Some kind of blessing for music ministers, such as cantors, psalmists, and organists, was on the wish list too.

The topic of minor orders continued to be discussed among the various dicasteries of the Curia during the period immediately following the council, prompted at times by interventions from local churches and from the pope, but the conversation dragged on without resolution, at least in part because there were so many different discussions going on at the same time. It wasn’t even clear where this topic belonged in the flow chart of the reform: Holy Orders? Baptism? Blessings? Clergy formation? Liturgy? Evangelization and mission? All of the above?

In 1972, Pope Paul VI issued his motu proprioMinisteria quaedam, which put an end to the discussion. He suppressed the orders of doorkeeper, exorcist, and subdeacon. He changed the terminology of “minor orders” to “ministries” and defined the ministry of lector and acolyte as lay ministries. Following an obscure precedent set by the Council of Trent, he added that “ministries can be entrusted to the lay Christian faithful; accordingly, they do not have to be reserved to candidates for the sacrament of Orders” (MQ III). Nevertheless, he reserved the instituted lay ministries of lector and acolyte to males “according to the venerable tradition of the Church” (MQ VII). . . .

What Protestantism Tried to Fix

(By the way, some of Roman Catholicism’s antiquity is not ancient.)

“How the Irish Changed Penance,” by John Rodden, Commonweal Magazine, January 26, 2022

Most Catholics are probably unaware that what we today call the sacrament of Reconciliation existed in a completely different form during the early Christian era. Even those who are aware of this fact may not know that it was a group of Irish monks who were largely responsible for transforming this sacrament into the version with which we’re familiar. It is all too easy to imagine that the seven sacraments have existed in something like their present form from the moment they were instituted. In truth, all of them have changed in important ways over the course of the Church’s history, and none has changed more than the sacrament of penance.

For the Church’s first seven centuries, penance could be received no more than once in a lifetime. That policy dated back to the time of St. Peter. The New Testament tells us that Jesus gave the power of forgiveness to his disciples, but it says almost nothing about how they were to exercise it. In the early Church, the prevailing belief was that baptism was the celebration of the forgiveness of sin, and that the baptized, having turned away from sin, would not need to be forgiven again. As St. Paul wrote, “How can we who died to sin yet live in it? You must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6). 

Nevertheless, the Church Fathers soon realized that they needed a way to deal with post-baptismal sin because many baptized Christians were slipping back into their old way of life. A formal system of public penance was devised to handle such setbacks. Typically, after penitents confessed to the local bishop, they were assigned an onerous penance that lasted several years. During this time they wore sackcloth and garments that scratched or tore the skin, as a modest reminder of Christ’s scourging. They were also required to leave Mass immediately after the homily and forbidden to receive the Eucharist. At least part of their penance consisted of long hours of prayer and fasting. Not until they had completed this long and arduous penitential period were they “reconciled” with the Church and welcomed back into full communion. For the Church’s first seven centuries, penance could be received no more than once in a lifetime.

But reconciled penitents were expected to continue some penitential practices, such as abstinence from sexual intercourse, for the rest of their lives. Those who had been thus reconciled could not be admitted to the clergy or to most public offices. They remained permanently in a somewhat inferior position within the Church, partly for social reasons and partly as an explicit reminder of their lapse. Moreover, such a reconciliation was permitted no more than once in a lifetime, and it was required only for what were regarded as mortal sins, such as murder, adultery, and apostasy. Those guilty of what we now call venial sins were not expected to undergo any formal process; instead, they found forgiveness for their sins by participating in the Eucharist, almsgiving, and seeking forgiveness from those whom they had offended.

Christians who lapsed again into grave sin after they had been formally reconciled found themselves without recourse. “Now,” your local bishop or priest informed you, “you are left to the mercy of God.” The early Church feared that allowing sinners to be sacramentally reconciled more than once would encourage sin. But the rigors of penance and the practice of allowing Christians to receive the sacrament of penance only once had an unforeseen and highly problematic effect. Many people postponed their baptism for decades, because baptism offered forgiveness for a whole lifetime’s worth of sins without the rigors of penance. Plus, those who waited until old age to be baptized were unlikely to lapse thereafter into serious sin more than once. Emperor Constantine, who had declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313, remained a catechumen until his own deathbed baptism in 337. 

By the seventh century, it had become obvious to many that the Church’s rules for penance were not working as they were intended to, but there were still no plans in Rome to reform them. It was precisely at this time that Irish monks began to travel to the European continent to proselytize the heathen Franco-German tribes. At least a century earlier, these monks had developed a different practice of penance within their own communities, adapting a little-known tradition traceable to the first monastic communities in the Egyptian desert. St. John Cassian, who had lived with these desert monks, took their practices with him when he founded a monastery in France. His writings were later taken to Ireland and it is there that they found fertile soil. Traditional public penances of the kind practiced in the early Church were not an option for the desert monks: there were no Christian communities, let alone dioceses, in the Egyptian desert. Like the monks in Ireland after them, they were struggling to overcome venial “faults” in their quest for saintliness, not seeking reconciliation after committing grave offenses such as murder, adultery, and apostasy. The Irish monks refined the work of Cassian, developing a system of confession in which the private recitation of sins was followed by the private performance of penance. Crucially, they not only adopted this practice themselves, but introduced it to the faithful outside the monastery, making it applicable to all sins and available to all sinners.

Then, without formal ecclesiastical approval, the missionary monks shared these more relaxed and flexible practices with the new converts in Europe. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes it: “During the seventh century Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the ‘private’ practice of penance, which does not require public and prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with the Church. From that time on, the sacrament has been performed in secret between penitent and priest.” This was a radical change in the history of the sacraments. Gradually, confession went from being public to private, and from a once-in-a-lifetime rite to an as-often-as-needed practice. The “order of penitents,” segregated from the rest of the community, disappeared. 

The great virtue of the Irish monastic approach was how it aided the monk’s quest for holiness. Regular confession became the supreme weapon of Celtic spirituality in the ceaseless spiritual combat against sin. Irish monks would regularly confess their faults to the presiding abbot of the monastery. As Joseph Stoutzenberger notes in Celebrating the Sacraments, gradually the practice came to include confessing faults to a highly trusted brother monk, who became known as the anamchara (animae carus), or “soul friend.” The abbot or fraternal anamchara would pray with the penitent and prescribe actions to help him overcome his failing. Certain monks renowned for their spiritual advice became popular confessors. Eventually, people outside the monasteries began coming to those monks to confess their sins. Because the whole Irish Church was organized around the monasteries, Irish bishops were sympathetic to the monks’ approach to penance and did not regard it as lax or permissive. They recognized its practical and spiritual advantages and allowed it to continue.

But bishops elsewhere did not look so favorably on this alternative approach. Scholars such as Kate Dooley believe that the condemnation of private confession in Canon 12 at the Third Council of Toledo in 589 referred to the Irish monastic practice. That council reaffirmed the traditional rite, whereby reconciliation could be granted only once in a lifetime.Over time, fewer Christians sought the older form of penance, precisely because it was public, long, and severe.

Undeterred, the Irish monks maintained their alternative practice and disseminated it in their missions abroad. Until the twelfth century, both the traditional rite of public penance and the Irish practice of private confession co-existed uneasily. Over time, however, fewer Christians sought the older form of penance, precisely because it was public, long, and severe. Where the older form was still favored, the faithful often treated penance exactly as previous generations had treated baptism: excommunicated members of the community chose to wait until they were on their deathbeds to be reconciled to the Church because the dying sinner could receive the sacrament without performing grueling public penances.

Would Moderates Let Slavery Split the PCA?

Maybe it was a different time. It was at least before Mike Brown, Carter Paige, “both sides” in Charlottesville, Robert Mueller, Volodymyr Zelensky, Brett Kavanaugh, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Anthony Fauci — June 2010 to be precise. But it is hard to imagine any moderate or progressive in the PCA today, after George Floyd, describing the place of slavery in the Old School vs. New School Presbyterian split (1837) the way Tim Keller does. This is from his essay about his positive regard for the PCA:

There is a third reason that we should learn to live together. Because we are brethren, we need each other. Let’s recount a sad case study that illustrates this–the issue of 19th century African slavery. The New Schoolers lacked doctrinal robustness but they were strongly abolitionist. The Old Schoolers saw the danger of the New School’s intense campaigns to reform society—they saw how they could distract from the ministry of the Word, evangelism, and the sacraments. They saw how the New School’s cultural accommodation was leading to doctrinal decline. As a consequence, much of the Old School, especially in the South refused to denounce African chattel slavery as being the evil that it was. Mark Noll has shown in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis and America’s God that the church’s inability to agree that slavery was evil directly led to the disaster of the Civil War and that was the reason that evangelicalism has never again had the cultural credibility in the U.S. that it had before the 1830s. Old School leader Charles Hodge was caught in the middle of this, perhaps because he was one of leaders who tried to achieve a balance of confessionalism and revivalism in the Presbyterian church. On the one hand, he saw what poor theological reasoning lay behind the arguments of the abolitionists and the New School. On the other hand, he rightly sensed the danger that ‘the spirituality of the church doctrine’ could lead to cultural captivity in the other direction—the conservative one. Noll points out that Hodge began to criticize slavery too late to have brought about unity within Presbyterianism on the subject. In short, the Old School’s fear of cultural engagement caused it to fail this great test. And yet the New School’s overinvolvement in politics and social reform did indeed lead it later to doctrinal compromise. So both schools were right in their criticism of the other.

Can anyone imagine a PCA pastor today arguing that opposition to slavery resulted in theological decline? For that matter, has anyone but a few conservatives recently worried out loud that Christian support for defunding police, wearing masks, or mocking elected officials could actually be at odds with biblical teaching and church conviction? To his credit, Tim Keller did.

But eleven years later, that same argument against splitting the PCA is part of the set of convictions that run along with Revoice. If slavery shouldn’t have split Presbyterians, surely Presbyterian pastors who identify as homosexual in orientation (not in practice) will never break up the PCA.

What about Jesus’ Whataboutism?

Our Lord could be hard to pin down (so to speak):

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

8“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
9in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
(Matthew 15)

Imagine how he would have gotten ratioed on Twitter.

Postscript

Was Supposism the Hebrew equivalent for Whataboutism?

23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” (Genesis 18)

How Liberal Protestantism Happens (and it’s even worse when it claims to be conservative)

When you ask the church to do something that it can’t, you have a problem.

Here is the premise for Mark Tooley’s brief for churches building community: Matt Yglesias.

Left leaning commentator Matthew Yglesias, who’s Jewish, tweeted today: “Think I’m becoming a Straussian/Putnamist who instrumentally wants to get everyone to go to church again.” Columnist Ross Douthat, who’s Catholic, responded: “Be the change you seek.” Yglesias retorted: “Not gonna sell out the chosen people like that! But I’m gonna go neocon and root for the Christians vs the post-Christians.”

Tooley then goes on about how much Protestant churches civilized America:

Churches and denominations were central to building America’s democratic ethos. They civilized and socialized the early frontier. They created a wider civil society supporting politics, education, charity and community building. Regular church goers have never been a majority in America. But churches as institutions were foundations and pillars of wider society that benefitted all. Typically savvy non religious people have recognized their centrality to American culture and civic life.

He even defends civil religion:

What critics of civil religion fail to see is that Christianity has a duty to society to help create the language and architecture for constructive civil life that benefits all. Christianity wants all to be fed, clothed, housed, provided health care, treated with dignity, given security, and equipped with the political tools to live harmoniously in peace. Christians seek the common good for all society, not just what directly benefits themselves. But this promotion of the common good certainly benefits Christians and itself witnesses to the power, grandeur and truth of the Gospel.

This is out of the playbook of Tim Keller on the church and social capital.

Tooley thinks that evangelicals and secularists fail to see the value that churches add to civil society:

Nondenominational Christianity and evangelicalism often lack this long history and self-understanding as cultural stewards. They often focus more exclusively on individual faith and spiritual needs sometimes from a consumerist perspective. Sometimes their adherents see themselves more as a tribe or a subculture than as parcel to wider society with wider responsibilities.

That could be the reason for some. But for others, the problem is that the social mission of the church is not only hard to find in Peter or Paul or Jesus (is that bar too high?), but also that when Protestants were best at creating social capital, they forgot about Jesus and the world to come. That’s why Machen was important. He saw what the social purpose of the church was doing to stuff like doctrine, preaching, evangelism, and missions.

The rejection of the Christian hope is not always definite or conscious; sometimes the liberal preacher tries to maintain a belief in the immortality of the soul. But the real basis of the belief in immortality has been given up by the rejection of the New Testament account of the resurrection of Christ. And, practically, the liberal preacher has very little to say about the other world. This world is really the center of all his thoughts; religion itself, and even God, are made merely a means for the betterment of conditions upon this earth.

Thus religion has become a mere function of the community or of the state. So it is looked upon by the men of the present day. Even hard-headed business men and politicians have become convinced that religion is needed. But it is thought to be needed merely as a means to an end. We have tried to get along without religion, it is said, but the experiment was a failure, and now religion must be called in to help. (Christianity and Liberalism)

How does Tooley think the mainline churches went off the rails? Some conservatives believe it happened because pastors let this world become as important as the world to come, not to mention that talking about otherworldliness with members of Congress and professors at Yale produces cringe.

But if you want to see Tooley’s argument salvage a Protestant liberal as a conservative, look at Geoffrey Kabaservice’s rendering of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who according to the New York Times combined the social gospel with 1960s activism (at Riverside Church, “an institution long known for its social agenda — he used his ministry to draw attention to the plight of the poor, to question American political and military power, to encourage interfaith understanding, and to campaign for nuclear disarmament”).  But liberal Protestantism can become conservative when it supplies social glue:

In doctrinal terms, Coffin was indeed a conservative, even an orthodox one. He retained the traditional Protestant liturgy, from the opening prayer to the confession to the benediction, resisting the wave of reform that swept over most denominations in the 1960s. His congregation sung the powerful old New England hymns. . . . The civil rights and antiwar activism of the 1960s seemed part of a much older American history when set to the hymn’s ominous, rolling cadences and the spine-tingling words of McGeorge Bundy’s ancestor, the nineteenth-century poet James Russell Lowell: “once to every man and nation / Comes the moment to decide, / In the strife of truth with falsehood, / For the good or evil side; / Some great cause goes by forever / ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.”

If social ministry can turn Coffin into a conservative, even doctrinally orthodox Protestant, Tooley has some work to do.

Here’s maybe not the but a thing: civil society does not depend on Christians. Believers often make good neighbors, though you’d never know from evangelical scholars these days. Invariably, Christians take out the trash, support Little League, donate books to the public library’s book sale fund raiser, approve of taxes to support police and fire departments. They also vote, which can be an anti-democratic form of social behavior if the ballot goes for the wrong candidate. If civil society has declined in America, it is not because of churches or their members. Rotary, the Elks, and Odd Fellows have also faded in the fabric of American society. For a host of reasons, Americans don’t join a host of voluntary organizations any more. One hunch is the social world that the internet has created. Another factor may be the outgrown size of national politics in the attention of journalists, teachers, and even radio talk show hosts.

But even if the path to a health America went through the social capital generated by churches, the question remains: is this what Scripture teaches?

Can The PCA Turn Back the Clock to 2001?

James Kessler doesn’t think so:

The PCA is not going back to 2001. Rewriting our constitution is not going to happen, not only because no party has sufficient numbers to accomplish that, but also because there are too many men and women committed to a biblically defined Confession and the great commission who are located in contexts that are more diverse, more agnostic and apathetic, more questioning and less steeped in a church tradition while being more hospitable to Gospel conversations than ever. Every year we plant dozens of new churches in an age of de-churching. When I began in ordained ministry in 2006, in Columbus Ohio, outside the traditional region of the PCA, we had three churches in a city of more than two million. Now we have seven, with more on the way. Every year RUF takes on scores of campus ministry interns seeking to learn how to minister the Gospel in a pluralistic society. The Unity Fund produced 48 minority ordination scholarships last year. Even the places where the PCA was born have been changing, and there is no going back because the harvesters in the white fields are not who they once were. Friends, this PCA is not going away as long as you are on mission. But preserving it will not only require your good will, it will require your work.

The odd thing is, the group responsible for that change in the PCA, the Presbyterian Pastoral Leadership Network, doesn’t seem to exist. It has zero assets and zero income.

But PPLN was responsible for the shift in the PCA that Pastor Kessler celebrates. This is how the Nicotine Theological Journal (July 2002) rendered the 2002 PCA General Assembly:

The defection of the Briarwood associate pastor [to First Baptist Birmingham] hardly reduced the ranks of its delegates to the 30th General Assembly of the PCA. Briarwood sent 21 delegates to the GA that met in Birmingham last month, more than many presbyteries sent. These commissioners were not merely availing themselves of a home court advantage, but they were on a mission, representing a portion of the Presbyterian Pastoral Leadership Network’s effort to stack the Assembly with votes. The PPLN voter turnout drive proved enormously successful. Though we did not attend the PCA Assembly, we have struggled to read some reports about its deliberations. Our struggle has mainly to do with working through the awful “TE”/“RE” nomenclature. (A compelling case against the two office view can be made simply on the basis of English prose.)

REPORTS WE READ HAVE varied from denial – “things went much better than anyone had ever expected,” gushed Clair Davis in pcanews.com – to disaster – “we were more than just defeated, we were routed,” wept Andy Webb on his Warfield elist. Of course, post mortem rhetoric of this sort is typical, and we should forgive exhausted commissioners who lapse into hyperbole.

But there is one aspect of PCA analysis that we cannot abide. It is the recurring habit to link the denomination’s fragmentation with the struggles of youth. The PCA is a young church, so goes this line of thinking, and its indiscretions will naturally accompany the awkwardness of childhood. World magazine displays the most recent example of this reasoning. Its July-August 2002 issue euphemistically described the victory of PPLN juggernaut under the heading, “Growing Pains in the PCA.” This toddler of a denomination is still growing, and the PPLN initiatives were helpful means of promoting further growth in the young church. As the old commercials put it for Wonder Bread, PPLN builds strong bodies.

HOWEVER ONE INTERPRETS THE struggles in the PCA, one cannot distort them into the pains of youth. Rather, they more closely resemble the symptoms of an old and dying church. Pre-Assembly caucusing, bussing in votes, stifling the voice of the minority, establishing competing websites – these are not the indiscretions of the young and the naïve. Indeed the actions of the last Assembly have even prompted some TE’s and RE’s (see, now we’re doing it) to propose that PCA presbyteries redesign themselves along ideological rather than geographical lines. This is not a novel idea within American Presbyterianism. It is generally floated as the desperate attempt to maintain a semblance of unity in worn out and creaky denominations, and ideological presbyteries are often predecessors of church divisions.

Curiously, Clair Davis argued, contrary to the claims of World magazine, that the PPLN initiatives were wise precisely because the PCA was not numerically growing. 80% of the PCA had not shown any growth during the previous year. Whether or not the church is growing numerically, at least this much is clear: the PCA is a thirty-something denomination that shows all the indications of premature aging.

Will the National Partnership to which Pastor Kessler belongs have a fait similar to PPLN? If the past is not as important as the current, if what Presbyterians used to fight about no longer make sense in pluralistic, urban, and socially aware settings, what will come of the National Partnership by 2040? Chances are they will be as relevant then as Charles Erdman is to the PCUSA today — not much.

That’s not the fault of Pastor Kessler or his colleagues. It is the function, though, of updating the church to contemporary developments. The flower fades. So do the headlines.

By the way, what does “good faith subscription” do to confessionalism? What is the point of having a long, scholastic, and elaborate confession when all you want are the fundamentals of the confession and catechisms? Why not switch from the Westminster Standards to the Gospel Coalition’s Confessional Statement? Presbyterian nostalgia?