Does Cultural Christianity Advance the Gospel?

Missionaries tell us no. Convincing indigenous peoples that they don’t need to become western or American in order to trust Christ has been a chief insight of modern missions at least since 1900. But for some of the younger Calvinistically inclined folks, the push back against liberalism also now includes a defense of cultural Christianity.

Picking your spots for such a faith surely requires discretion since the riots in Philadelphia between nativist Protestants and Irish Roman Catholics had all the earmarks of cultural Christianity. Protestants expected the public schools to use the Bible to reinforce republican norms but Roman Catholics objected that the Protestant Bible was not neutral — it was not even the right one — the Douay version. Those riots were far more about politics and culture, but defenses of cultural Christianity tread gingerly around such episodes.

What is especially perplexing about Stephen Wolfe’s defense of cultural Christianity is not simply how he might make sense of its darker moments in the past, but even how it measures up to the New Testament. For instance, he starts with this assumption:

We should first acknowledge that the civil recognition, establishment, and privileging of Christianity was the received and standard view for most of Christian history, amongst most major Christian traditions, including many Protestants, and only recently has it been rejected by a majority of western Christians.

That may be true after 350 AD, but imagine Peter and Paul thinking the privileging of Christianity was the air they breathed when they were receiving inspired and infallible revelations from the Holy Spirit.

Wolfe later asserts in a way that would have left Paul scratching his head:

Put differently, the civil and ecclesiastical are the twin species of the same genus, Christian communion. The people of God submit to these mutually supporting, separate and independent administrations because Christ is both the Creator and Ruler of creation and the Mediator of eternal life. The Christian communion is not coterminous with ecclesiastical membership, but is rather the same people submitted to both the civil and ecclesiastical.

Again, that might describe Christendom at some point, but how does it make sense of the apostle’s warning to Corinthians against going to court:

If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? 2 Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! 4 Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? 5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? 6 But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers! 7 The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. (1 Cor. 6)

If the civil and ecclesiastical are mutually supporting, why is Paul so incensed with the Corinthians for going to court? Might it be that Paul and the early church had no idea about the state reinforcing Christian norms? That’s what persecution means, I believe.

Calvin’s commentary on this epistle also suggests that he, even though living at a time before 1789 when expectations for Christendom were still in place for all Christians except the Anabaptists, was not as convinced of the easy harmony between church and state. The reason is that the magistrate is an avenger and the church is an instrument of God’s love and mercy:

Those who aim at greater clearness in their statements tell us that we must distinguish between public and private revenge; for while the magistrate’s vengeance is appointed by God, those who have recourse to it do not rashly take vengeance at their own hand, but have recourse to God as an Avenger. This, it is true, is said judiciously and appropriately; but we must go a step farther; for if it be not allowable even to desire vengeance from God, then, on the same principle, it were not allowable to have recourse to the magistrate for vengeance.

I acknowledge, then, that a Christian man is altogether prohibited from revenge, so that he must not exercise it, either by himself, or by means of the magistrate, nor even desire it. If, therefore, a Christian man wishes to prosecute his rights at law, so as not to offend God, he must, above all things, take heed that he does not bring into court any desire of revenge, any corrupt affection of the mind, or anger, or, in fine, any other poison. In this matter love will be the best regulator.

Of course, Calvin is no Anabaptist. He knows the legitimacy of the magistrate and even the competency of unbelieving civil authorities. But he also senses in ways that critics of modern secular liberalism do not seem to that the purposes of church and state are distinct. One implication is that they are not necessarily harmonious. Especially if upholding the Christian ideal of love.

Perhaps cultural Christianity aspires to such an ideal. But chances are what Christian societies produce when the church is established is more on the order of manners or politeness than the spiritual fruit that comes with sanctification.

(more of) Show Me Jesus

To hear some of the recent commentary about Rome’s relationship to modern society, you might wonder about the significance of Jesus. The young journalist, Elizabeth Bruenig, whom Presbyterians baptized, Methodists discipled, and Jews educated (at Brandeis), explained her conversion as finding a refuge from modernity:

Yet the church remains firm, unmoved by this current in modernity. And while it is impossible to speak for all Protestants—and important to note there exists a vast array of opinions on property ownership within the Protestant tradition, some hewing close to the Catholic view—the Catholic Church, at least, bases its position on property in a moral universe far more stable than that which has been constructed since the Reformation. And by the time I neared the end of my time in college, I had become convinced it was the only firm ground from which a Christian could fight back against the domination of the poor by the rich, against poverty, against the destruction of families and communities at the hands of businesses and their political lackeys, against a world stripped of meaning.

I don’t know. To say that the church remains unmoved while failing to mention the about-face involved in the 1864 Syllabus of Errors when Piux IX sneered at the church making any adjustment to modernity (does she really want that?) and the 1962 Second Vatican Council where John XXIII called the church to update its relationship to modern society is quite the claim. You might think a journalist would look a little more carefully at her sources.

Then there is praise from Anthony Annett at Commonweal for the Jesuit article that condemned U.S. evangelicals and Roman Catholics together for an “ecumenism of hate”:

the basic thesis is certainly correct—that a small but vocal and influential segment of American Catholicism is now far more comfortable with the world of right-wing political evangelicalism than with global Catholicism. (Commonweal’s editors commented on it here, and contributing editor Massimo Faggioli wrote on it here.) This world is a Calvinist world, manifesting politically in the twin ideas that the United States is God’s chosen country with a unique destiny in the world’s history, which gives rise to a dualistic outlook, and that God bestows material rewards on his favored, which leads to a full-throttled embrace of capitalism. This latter pathology comes in different levels, of course, the nadir being the appalling “prosperity gospel.”

Annett too fails to mention how a church that so resolutely opposes modernity (according to Bruenig) is so susceptible to its members doing back flips to join Calvinists in the public square. If you have all that history, authority, and tradition, what happened?

For example, at the church frequented by my in-laws in New Jersey, I’ve heard homilies glorifying the military, calling for higher military spending, criticizing Muslim immigrants, and comparing the hill of Calvary with the hill of Iwo Jima. Seriously. This is horrific, but the overwhelmingly white middle-class Mass-goers seem to lap it up. It’s no wonder that they find no contradiction between Catholicism and Trumpism. It’s no wonder that Donald Trump enjoys their support while the rest of the Catholic world views with him with askance and horror.

Clearly, episcopacy has some bugs that not even papal infallibility (determined just on the heels of the Syllabus of Errors) cannot fix.

In fact, as much as Annett and Bruenig believe that real Roman Catholicism is on the side of left-of-center politics, Matthew Schmitz agrees but also notices how out of step Rome’s liberalism is with Rome’s history. The ultramontanism that sustained Pius IX’s quest for papal infallibility also supported integralism, a form of church-state relations that conservatives and liberals in the United States might find a tad overwrought:

Integralism was the system in which church and state collaborated to secure man’s peace on this world and salvation in the next. Joseph de Maistre defended it with a formula binding pope to king: “No public morals nor national character without religion, no European religion without Christianity, no true Christianity without Catholicism, no Catholicism without the Pope, no Pope without the supremacy that belongs to him.” Essential to this arrangement was the idea that the state must be subordinate to the Church.

With Francis has come a different kind of integralism:

Today a new kind of integralism operates, in which the Church is subordinated to the state as the two conspire to uphold liberal values. If one were to update de Maistre’s syllogism, it would go something like: No cheap consumer goods or avoidance of genocide without liberalism, no liberalism without true Christianity, no true Christianity without an undogmatic Church, no undogmatic Church without a liberalising Pope, no liberalising Pope without accountability to the age and freedom from tradition.

It is in this context that one must understand the Vatican’s recent sally against America in the unofficial papal organ La Civiltà Cattolica. Written by Fr Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, another papal confidant, the article is not merely an expression of anti-American spite or an attack on ecclesial enemies. It is an attempt to defend the liberal order against what is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an existential threat.

Sorry, but I’m just not seeing the unity or the authority that wow converts. Plus, did you notice that all of these opinions come from the laity. What would make Roman Catholicism from Protestantism is if lay members kept quiet and deferred to their ecclesiastical superiors. I wonder what that kind of pre-modern ecclesiastical order would do to those converts who find in Rome a horse that rides even higher than the Bible or the Holy Spirit.

Meanwhile, do Roman Catholics actually worry about personal sins, God’s judgment, and whether they are going to purgatory?

Professional Historians Don’t Do Religion

That is one way to explain why the editors of the American Historical Review, the flagship journal for professional historians in the United States published by the American Historical Association, let Randall Balmer, a long time student of American evangelicalism, open his book review of Darren E. Grem, The Blessings of Business — when will this sentence end!?! — this way:

On the face of it, the evangelical embrace of capitalism and free enterprise should be a tough sell. Jesus himself warned that rich men face long odds against entering the kingdom of heaven and that it is impossible to serve both God and Mammon. First-century Christians, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, held goods in common, a nascent form of socialism. So how is it that many contemporary evangelicals who trumpet their fidelity to the Bible have become such ardent evangelists for affluence and free-market capitalism? How could Jerry Falwell plausibly argue that “God is in favor of freedom, property, diligence, work, and acquisition”? (AHR, June 2017)

Does this mean that the AHA favors socialism even though it requires members to pay upwards of $200 to attend annual conferences where hotel rooms often go for at least $150 per night? Are we supposed to believe that in a socialist world the workers would unite to underwrite historians gathering annually to hear and present papers, meet with editors, and wine and dine with old colleagues?

Or could it be that Balmer thinks the Bible, which talks about the sin of stealing in pretty big letters, favors “a nascent form of socialism,” one without Gulags or walled cities?

And how is it that Balmer, historian of the United States, is such an expert about religion and society in first-century Palestine? “On the face of it” is not the kind of intellectual muscle needed to master the kinds of research techniques that antiquity requires.

And does Balmer actually believe that Jesus is opposed to property but favors freedom, especially liberty for consenting adults to experience sexual pleasure?

My sense is that the editors understood they had no dog in this hunt — the evangelical left versus the evangelical right — and let Balmer take his swipes.

I do wonder though how Balmer gets up in the morning and goes to lecture in classrooms at Dartmouth College, an institution which boasts an endowment of $4.5 BILLION (according to Google). That, my friends, is a lot of property that resulted from a lot of acquisition. Does Balmer ever trumpet Jesus’ teaching about rich men and serving Mammon with Dartmouth’s administration?

Liberalism Does Not Frame 2k

When I read Jake Meador’s index of political theologies, I was generally in agreement and thought he accurately describe 2k. I guess my biggest disagreement was over his definition of liberalism:

When I speak of liberalism, I am referring to something broader than just left-wing politics or even some brand of liberalism realized in a single discipline, such as theological liberalism.

At its heart, liberalism is concerned with how human beings know things. As a system, it is suspicious of knowledge not derived from empirical observation. Thus it is suspicious of the claims of religious faith as they inform social life. Religious practice is fine for individuals, but any attempt to enforce a set of religiously based moral norms beyond the religious individual or maybe a voluntary religious community is suspect because the knowledge is not sure enough to justify political application. Indeed, this skepticism goes beyond a skepticism toward religious faith and goes so far as a skepticism toward any kind of comprehensive moral system that claims to be true in anything beyond a particular, local sense. We simply do not trust our moral judgments enough to think they can be binding in anything beyond an individualistic, voluntaristic sense. When this epistemological agnosticism becomes pervasive in a social order, you basically have some species of liberalism.

In an odd way, these instincts can make liberalism like a more traditional Christian sort of social order. It tells us that men should be persuaded rather than coerced into belief. It tells us that there is, as one friend put it, a “just area of sovereignty,” that each person possesses. However, the way that liberalism arrives at these ideas is not necessarily through the belief in a God who rules over creation and endows his creatures with dignity, honor, and freedom. Rather, they arrive at it through a lack of confidence in the ability of anybody to wield coercive authority justly or to infringe upon a person’s autonomy.

I don’t understand why you conceive of a political order in epistemological or philosophical categories. For mmmmmeeeEEEE, liberalism was mainly a way to overcome divine right monarchy that extends from Hammurabi through to those audacious claims for the papacy by canon lawyers in the thirteenth century down to French and British kings (among others) who objected to checks upon their power. The question that liberalism (classical) tackled was not how we know but what authority is legitimate. I guess you could push that back to epistemology. But why unless you privilege philosophy?

Meador went on to describe 2k’s relationship to liberalism this way:

The best way to get at the key difference between this group and the Radical Anabaptists is to highlight the differences in how they see the church’s relationship to civil society. For these thinkers, there is no problem with Christians participating in civil society. Indeed, such participation is inevitable. That is why Dr. Moore heads up an organization dedicated to protecting religious liberty and why Dr. Leeman and a number of his colleagues with 9 Marks pastor in Washington D.C. and support church planting efforts in the capitol city.

However, the good that these thinkers hope to achieve in all societies outside of the institutional church is purely natural while the goods they hope to achieve within the church are supernatural. The institutional church is, in Leeman’s understanding, an embassy for the Kingdom of God. Thus the institutional church as such is an institution of a qualitatively different sort than any other physical, visible institutions in the world. Likewise, Drs. VanDrunen, Hart, Clark, and Trueman have all at various times gotten very nervous about what they see as an attempt to sacralize work that is rightly understood as secular.

Thus there are two core pieces that unite the Post-Liberal Retreatists:

First, they have what I take to be a realistic and appropriately sober assessment of our cultural state.

Second, they see the work to be done in non-ecclesial institutions as being primarily defensive not only in our current moment, but in principle.

The positive work of taking hold of supernatural goods happens primarily in the institutional church. Thus the Post-Liberal Retreatists are suspended, as it were, between the Post-Liberal Protestants and the Radical Anabaptists. They share a similar read of the current cultural moment with both groups. Like the Post-Liberal Protestants, they still have a place for Christian participation in civil society. Like the Radical Anabaptists, they see the work of the institutional church as being qualitatively different than the work Christians do outside the church and essentially constructive in a way that civil society participation cannot be. So they would say, with the Anabaptists, that the church is a polis, but that it is not a comprehensive polis in the way that the Anabaptists use the term.

That sounds fair enough. But it locates 2k too much within the categories of the pre-modern and modern West. In fact, much of the blow back that 2k receives comes from Protestants who have a soft spot for Christian establishment in the form of the confessional state, whether Geneva’s City Council, Scotland’s monarch, or the Netherlands’ republic. Most critics of 2k want a Christian society of some kind. 2k is suspect, then, because it won’t support such a desire or programs to achieve such a society.

But what if Christendom or post-Christendom are not the only options? What about pre-Christendom? Here the idea is not that the time before Constantine was ideal but that a religiously diverse or even a religiously hostile environment is normal. It’s what Jesus and the apostles faced. Those are the conditions under which the church emerged and the canon established. For that reason, modern Christians should not think that either Christendom or a Christian friendly liberal government (like the U.S. before 1965) are the default settings for the church. Christianity can persist in any number of circumstances. It can be like the Old Testament promised land, like the Israelites in exile, like the early church under the domination of Rome, or even like Scottish Presbyterians in covenant with a divine-right monarch. Christianity is flexible. It’s not tied to one political order.

This perspective seems to inform Proto-Protestant in his assessment of political liberalism. Notice that he starts by identifying the way that Rome used to regard liberalism and the United States:

Classical Liberalism so poignantly represented by the United States was viewed as poison and a triumph of the secular over the sacred. Rome sought to protect its flock from the influences of American ideology. Classical Liberalism was the spawn of the Reformation’s triumph of the individual. The lone man was allowed to challenge and cast down all authority. This is the sociological aspect to Luther that many Protestants have failed to grasp. The individual gets to decide what is right and wrong and the Reformation unleashed epistemological uncertainty and the social chaos which began the long process of dismantling Christendom.

The Reformation led to Modernism and as a consequence Post-Modernism and now Nihilism.

Undoubtedly there is some truth to this narrative and the post World War II period has brought about a time of intellectual reconsideration on the part of Evangelical Protestants and not a few defections to both Rome and Constantinople. The political Papacy utterly defeated by the late 19th century reformed its teaching and came up with a new paradigm for the industrial secular age. Consequently it allied first with Fascism then with the West (in general) at the conclusion of the war. It began to build a new empire, one wed to the Capitalist forces so dominant in the Protestant world and joined the fight (real or imagined) against world Communism. Today Rome no longer rules a geopolitical realm but instead reigns over a vast financial empire and has regained a little of its lost ground.

Evangelicals have been forced to reckon with the problems of Christianity wed to Classical Liberalism and as I’ve written elsewhere there are tendencies both toward revisionist history and increasingly in the direction of abandoning Liberalism for a more Roman Catholic-friendly Throne and Altar type paradigm.

So if Protestants don’t follow Roman Catholics, where do they turn? The Bible and in so doing they abandon the sufficiency of Scripture. Protestants have made Scripture do more than it was supposed to:

There is undoubtedly much that is valid in the critique of Classical Liberalism and in what the Reformation unwittingly unleashed. And for this reason the glorification of Protestantism which is at its zenith in this 500th anniversary year, ought to be weighed carefully if not rejected.

But the truth of the critique is limited to the sociological realm.

The true problem is not individualism (which can indeed work to destroy society) but the attempt to formulate Sola Scriptura into a comprehensive societal worldview. That was a rival philosophical project rooted in speculation and dependent on speculative philosophical coherence… thus it fragmented.

The Reformers only began to toy with this question. Luther, perhaps the more conservative of the Reformers was content to sustain the Medieval-Renaissance order and sit under the protection of a so-called Christian prince. Calvin’s Geneva moved in the direction of Authoritarian Republican government. Zwingli took up the sword (so to speak) and died by it on the battlefield.

It was in the 17th century that Protestant Scholasticism began to earnestly reckon with the implications of the Reformation applied to society. It was at this point that Sola Scriptura as a social organising principle failed. Rightly so I would add, as the New Testament nowhere even envisions a Christian State/Christendom project. In fact it repudiates the very notion of it.

In wedding Reformation theology to the Christendom project the Protestant Reformers and certainly the Scholastics after them undermined their own vision and sowed the seeds for epistemological collapse. They employed (and even exploited) the Scripture for something it was not meant to be used for. In the end their project exploded into the 17th century Wars of Religion and ultimately undermined not only their social vision… but their theological and ecclesiastical hopes as well….

But even granting the narrative that Liberalism and Modernism were the natural outgrowth of Protestant theology applied to society, then such a notion must be condemned as sub-Biblical. It does not represent New Testament doctrine either in its concepts of values. Confidence in reason? I think not. Rights? The individual? Progress? None of the concepts are found in the New Testament. Only deformed Judaizing hermeneutics can locate them through distorted readings of the Old Testament.

If liberalism is not the basis for evaluating politics or its reaction to Christendom, the proper starting point for political theology is as Paul Helm recently observed Christ’s teaching that his kingdom is not of this world. Proto-Protestant explains what that means for 2k (even if he does not self-identify as 2k):

Speaking generally if both paradigms were and are wrong, what then are we to make of the so-called and very misnamed Judeo-Christian West? Not much. As a society it has some very good things about it and many that are rightly condemned. Christian it is not. And the more it is associated with Christianity the more problematic it becomes.

As pilgrims we understand that this world is not our home. We look for a city to come, a new heavens and new earth. We can live and function as the salt and light Oracular Church in any culture and civilisation. That said, some will be more pleasant than others. But pleasant isn’t always better, especially if it leads to laxity, complacency and confusion. Though not pleasant the most spiritually vivacious times of my life have been during periods of hardship and opposition. It’s not pleasant to live that way but the antithesis becomes razor sharp which spiritually speaking is healthy. It’s a good place to be. If goods, lands, and prosperity are set aside and no longer important to me, then hardship becomes certainly less hard. The yoke of suffering, the burden of Christ to which we are called, becomes a little lighter.

And though on a practical level I lament the downfall and paganising trajectory of the West … spiritually speaking it’s probably the best thing that could happen. The widespread apostasy is like a forest-burn. In the end it will make for a healthier forest. The forest to which I refer is not society, but the Church. Don’t ever confuse the two.

While on the one hand I celebrate the fact that the Protestant Classical Liberal narrative is being exposed as a lie… both doctrinally and historically, I am concerned that many Protestants are quickly succumbing to an equally problematic lie… the Pre-Liberal Throne and Altar vision of Medieval Roman Christendom.

If Jake Meador had started with the church in exile and Christians as pilgrims as the frame for his index, he might have used a this-worldly (immanentize the eschaton) vs. an otherworldy (don’t immanentize the eschaton) division. That one even pits 2k against Anabaptists since the latter regard (as I understand it) the company of believers as an outworking of “the perfection of Christ.”

Remember when Global Christianity was Shaming the Church in the West?

Fifteen years ago, bookies were betting on the Global South:

Today the Christian total stands at 360 million out of 784 million, or 46 percent. And that percentage is likely to continue rising, because Christian African countries have some of the world’s most dramatic rates of population growth. Meanwhile, the advanced industrial countries are experiencing a dramatic birth dearth. Within the next twenty-five years the population of the world’s Christians is expected to grow to 2.6 billion (making Christianity by far the world’s largest faith). By 2025, 50 percent of the Christian population will be in Africa and Latin America, and another 17 percent will be in Asia. Those proportions will grow steadily. By about 2050 the United States will still have the largest single contingent of Christians, but all the other leading nations will be Southern: Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. By then the proportion of non-Latino whites among the world’s Christians will have fallen to perhaps one in five.

What could go wrong? All indexes were pointing up.

But human sinfulness even among the saints has a way of defying prognosticators:

Christians in Nigeria are dancing on the brink of moral and ethical collapse. Many Christians who hold public office have become corrupt or immoral, betraying their public Christian testimony. They lack integrity and cannot present a strong moral and ethical witness. They lack the virtue of honesty in public life.

Nigeria is considered a very religious country. Christianity is not limited to churches and prayer meetings. Prayer and Bible readings are found in boardrooms and government offices. Billboards announce upcoming crusades, and exclamations like “to God be the glory” and “praise the Lord” easily fall from the lips of Nigerian Christians, even in public.

But as the well-known and respected Catholic priest George Ehusani has noted,

Alongside religiosity, corruption in its many shapes and sizes is booming in Nigeria—from the petty bribery taken by the clerk in the office or the policeman at the checkpoint, to the grand corruption by which huge project contracts are hurriedly awarded, not for the sake of the common good, but because of the greed of the awarding official, who requires some money via contract “kickbacks.”
He also notes that activities like embezzling and cheating—ranging from school children to high-profile public figures—often go hand in hand with outward expressions of piety. Many Nigerians obtain fraudulent medical certificates, as well as fake birth and citizenship certificates, to be admitted to good schools or to get choice jobs. They evade taxes, over- and under-invoice customers, perform fake audits, and on and on. He concludes, “All these practices are so commonplace and so widespread that many young Nigerians are unable to distinguish between good and evil or between right and wrong.”

Father Ehusani is merely describing what is common knowledge to all Nigerians. These matters are more lethal to the Christian faith than any Islamization agenda.

In the 20th century, indigenously founded churches sprang up across Africa, particularly in Nigeria. After the Nigerian civil war (1967–70), Christians who saw the conflict as a sign of the end times embarked on a massive campaign to spread the Good News of Christ across Nigeria. Student associations and missionary movements sprang up. Nigerian Christians were determined to re-enact what happened in the Book of Acts: turning “the world upside down” (17:6 ESV).

Sadly, today the story has changed. Both mainline and Pentecostal Christianity in Nigeria are still committed to reaching out to the unreached, but the undue emphasis on health and wealth has permanently changed the face of Christianity in Africa and the world at large. Pastors and church members are now more interested in building beautiful and massive edifices than in reaching out to the unreached people groups of the world. Many pastors are obsessed with material possessions, sometimes owning one or more private jets! The corruption of Christian moral values has now given way to the worship of materialism and pleasure. Our real god is now mammon (Matt. 6:24). We have become devoted to what American theologian and social critic Reinhold Niebuhr called self-love, self-interest, and the will to power.

Some of us wondered way back when about the way historians and journalists were evaluating the success of the church in the Global South with Christianity in the West:

The differences between the old and new Protestantism are not simply in the realm of perception, one being invisible or hard to discern, the other being very visible because of its numbers, intensity, and dramatic displays of divine power. Perhaps a more fundamental difference is the one between the eternal and the temporal. As the Brazilian pastor quoted in Jenkins’ book put it, “Most Presbyterians have a God that’s so great, so big, that they cannot even talk with him openly, because he is far away. The Pentecostal groups have the kind of God that will solve my problems today and tomorrow. People today are looking for solutions, not for eternity.” This assertion may not be representative of most pastors ministering in the context of southern Christianity. But its bold contrast between the temporal and the eternal, between the South and the West, does help to illustrate the outlook that has dominated the analysis of global Christianity. Southern Christianity is alive and booming because it daily proves its efficacy in providing real, tangible relief for those enduring great suffering. Western Christianity, by contrast, offers theological complexity or liturgical precision but hardly has the goods to make a difference upon those people most in need.

Without wanting to diminish the difficulties that southern Christians face in their economic, political and physical conditions, is it possible to suggest that concentrating on these realities is short-sighted? What happens if another political or economic system takes better care or if another religion provides more control over the spiritual forces seemingly causing so much affliction for Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians? But this is more or less a pragmatic question. The ultimate question is the eternal one of death. Will those Christians miraculously healed or even the ones benefiting from modern medicine still face death? Or how about those believers for whom Christianity has instilled a work ethic that yields physical comfort, whether it be clothing for children or a brand new Ipod? Will these benefits make much difference when men and women, as the prophet says, fade like the grass? And what of the significant manifestations of the Spirit in the worship of Christians, whether in Lagos or Minneapolis? What will be the advantages or benefits of these spiritual gifts on judgment day? To be sure, such questions may sound sanctimonious or wrongheadely obtuse. But if Christianity is at least in part a religion that promises eternal life, that no matter how difficult the sufferings of this life may be, believers have hope for relief in the world to come, then questions of eternal significance have genuine merit in evaluating contemporary Christianity, whether in the global South or West.

No delight here in what’s happening in Nigeria. And the troubles of Christians in Africa in no way proves the health of churches in North America and Europe. It is only a way to raise questions once again about the way scholars analyze and journalists cover religion. Generally speaking, the spirituality of the church is not sexy and enthusiasm (especially among the marginal) is.

And where did academics and reporters receive their training in Christianity?

Why Crawford Gribben is Holier than I

He has read much more John Owen than I and in the introduction to his recent book, John Owen and English Puritanism, he explains that one of the ways to mortify sin is to read Owen:

My own sense in preparing this book is that biography is an especially demanding medium that continually refuses to permit intellectual shortcuts: at times, when I was overwhelmed by the demands of reading Owen’s millions of words in their very different contexts, I felt that he could not die soon enough. (20)

Sometimes when I read Owen, I think I can’t die soon enough.

So Owen’s affect on Gribben and me is opposite, either to wish the Puritan or the reader dead.

Wait, doesn’t that make me holier?

Married Presbyterian Pastors

Protestants do not receive nearly the credit they should for seeing 500 years ago what George Weigel recently observed (and it took Hillary Clinton — a Methodist).

First, marriage can be a good thing:

The Church’s unique, Christ-given structure invests great authority in bishops. And that, in turn, puts a high premium on the ability of the bishop to know his weaknesses and learn from his mistakes. But to know and learn from his weaknesses and mistakes, the bishop has to recognize them – or be invited to recognize them, if one of a number of vices prevents him from seeing himself making mistakes. Wives and children do this charitable correction for husbands and fathers. But Catholic bishops don’t get that form of correction because they don’t have wives and children. So it has to come from somewhere else.

Second, regular assemblies of clergy (think presbyteries or classes) also have their advantages:

“Fraternal correction” among bishops is an ancient and honorable tradition in the Church. Patristic-era bishops practiced it with some vigor, the most famous case being the controversy between Cyprian of Carthage and Stephen, Bishop of Rome. Today, bishops’ respect for each other’s autonomy tends to mitigate against the practice of fraternal correction. Still, if “affective collegiality” means anything, it ought to mean having enough care for a brother-bishop, no matter his position in the episcopal college, to suggest to him that he is off-course, if that is one’s conscientious judgment, tempered by prayer.

Fraternal correction is a delicate instrument, to be used with care. If its use completely atrophies, however, the Church risks becoming an ecclesiastical version of Clintonworld.

Hello! The conciliarists of the 15th century knew this. But when you hold on to “venerable” institutions, it’s hard to change (or admit when you do).

TKNY Even in UK

Even while in Ireland, I could not evade Tim Keller. One morning while reading the magazine Standpoint, I read a column which contained this:

As well as being one of the great delaying mechanisms of modern times, YouTube is one of the great gifts of our age. It not only allows us to watch videos of cats and people falling over, but also serious discussions like the recent one between Tim Keller and the sociologist Jonathan Haidt at NYU. What a model discussion it was. Haidt (whose book The Righteous Mind is one of the best explanations of modern politics I know) is respectful towards religion while being an atheist. Keller is a deeply learned reader of philosophy and sociology, and a pastor. Perhaps most striking was the agreement from both speakers over not only what is broken in our culture but what might be done to fix it. Particularly interesting was the observation that our society’s rewarding of outrage (fuelled by social media) means that we are ever less-inclined to give people what we used to call “the benefit of the doubt”. Increasingly, we put the worst possible gloss on people’s words and intentions so that any discussion across boundaries (believers versus non-believers, Left versus Right) becomes almost impossible. Can the urge be resisted? Perhaps, but we would have to have the right role models. Haidt and Keller are certainly two such.

A deeply learned reader of philosophy and sociology? That does not sound like Machen’s “specialist in the Bible.” But how would the op-ed writers and journalists know whether a pastor was properly explaining God’s word?

In the same issue, though, I read a review of Rodney Stark’s book about anti-Catholic myths:

Few now believe in the teaching of Luther or Calvin on Justification, or sola scriptura, but, as we see in the case of Sir Simon Jenkins, the myths of Catholic iniquity are embedded in many a Briton’s sense of who they are. Just as the French do not like to admit that their philosophes paved the way for totalitarianism, or Americans that the founding fathers of their Land of the Free owned slaves, so no amount of historical research will persuade today’s sceptics and secularists that, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the rise of the nation state, the Catholic Church was the source of most that is best in our civilisation; and that death camps and gulags are only to be found when Christianity lost its hold on the conscience of Europeans.

Imagine if Tim Keller had spent as much time defending the imputed righteousness of Christ as making belief in God plausible. Would he be as popular as he is? One reason for asking is that all the hype about New York City has not put a dent in the Roman Catholic apologists’ argument that the future of western civilization hangs on the fortunes not of the Big Apple but The Eternal City.

In the hierarchy of cities, New York may have to get in line behind Rome. Doh!

Jamie Smith’s Bait and Switch

I was afraid that neo-Calvinism’s refusal to distinguish the sacred and secular would go here — that is, to a defense of civil religion. Jamie Smith’s latest editorial does just that.

Mind you, he is aware of the defective versions of civil religion, especially the one that has sent U.S. soldiers “to die face down in the muck of Vietnam” (thank you, Walter Sobchak):

civil religion is what we get when we divinize the civitas, when devotion to “the nation” trumps other allegiances and inspires a fervor and passion that is nothing short of religious. David Gelernter names this in his 2007 book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. Walter McDougall’s more recent book The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, which Robert Joustra reviews in this issue, identifies the same problem in its subtitle: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest. In McDougall’s argument, civil religion carries the usual whiff of irrationality: the hard-nosed rationality of national interests is compromised because of vaunted values and misguided mythologies.

But Smith still thinks civil religion is salvageable.

The envisioned good of a diverse, pluralistic, yet civil society that liberal democracies hope for is not a generic vision. It has a particular history—rooted in Christianity—and demands particular virtues. In short, the very project of a well-functioning, pluralistic, liberal society depends on the formative power of tradition-specific, “illiberal,” non-democratic communities that can inculcate virtues of hope, respect for dignity, commitment to truth, and more. Families, synagogues, churches, mosques embed their members in a Story that makes such virtues “make sense.” These non-political spheres of society cultivate people who become the sorts of citizens who know how to be patient and forgiving precisely because they believe in something beyond the state.

See what he did there? Civil society in liberal democracies owes its existence to Christianity. In those societies synagogues, churches, and mosques embed citizens in “a Story.” They become patient and forgiving.

Christianity did that? Or was it the Enlightenment (which owes its existence in part to medieval and early modern Europe). Maybe by using the indefinite article in “a Story” you can get away with blurring churches, synagogues and mosques into one happy, fuzzy, gentle, and kind civil society. But that is certainly not the experience of most western societies where Christians ran things and established their churches.

Smith really pours it on when he leads the following cheer:

But one of the by-products of a healthy church forming citizens of kingdom come is that they are then sent into the earthly city with Christlike virtues that also contribute to the common good. We might miss this because it doesn’t primarily play itself out on a national scale; rather, it is enacted at the parish level, in a thousand different neighbourhoods. There we also find Christians, Jews, and Muslims collaborating for the sake of the vulnerable, the lonely, and the marginalized while also nourishing the virtue incubators we call families.

Well, in point of fact, when Christians go into public with a comprehensive w-w they have to be especially aware that they are not like Jews or Muslims. Pot down the w-w gauge and perhaps you have less conviction about being distinct from those people who do not profess Christ. But I don’t know how Smith gets the Chamber of Commerce view of Christianity’s civil nature from Christ’s own words:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Matt 10:34-35)

That explanation of the antithesis is what makes Abraham Kuyper’s pillarization of Dutch society so intriguing. The Netherlands was not the American melting pot (or even the Canadian multicultural stew). It was a series of religious subgroups that kept to themselves the way that states’ rights advocates in the United States thought about relations between local and federal government.

But if Christians want a seat at the table of a liberal international order that preserves democracy from autocracy, Smith does a pretty good impersonation of 1950s mainline Protestantism.

Which Matters More, Branding or Order of Precedence?

Old Life took a wee vacation last week thanks to (all about) my trip to Belfast which included delightful discussions with a historian who must remain anonymous for the sake of his good name and sightseeing with an old (not as old as mmmmeeeeeeEEE) friend who also deserves protection from tawdry associations with this blog.

I had the privilege of speaking informally with folks from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Those communions are not in fellowship thanks to the split in 1927 over liberalism in the PCI, a debate that has all the earmarks of the so-called fundamentalist controversy in the U.S. In fact, W. J. Grier, who studied at Princeton Seminary with J. Gresham Machen, took some inspiration from conservatives in the U.S. to oppose the teaching of J. E. Davey, who taught church history and theology at Union College (in effect the seminary for Irish Presbyterians). When the trial against Davey failed, Grier led the formation of a new Presbyterian communion.

That parallel suggests that PCI is to the EPC what the PCUSA is to the OPC. But such reading of American dynamics into Ireland misses how different American Presbyterianism is. If anything, the U.S. equivalent to the PCI is the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (the American one that had Tim Keller speak at its GA). The PCI is more evangelical than the PCUSA and does not go out of its way to be inclusive. Whether it will ever go out of its way to discipline erroneous views is another matter.

Another difference is that the PCI’s moderator is tenth in the Orders of Precedence in the United Kingdom.

I have no idea how to reconcile the Wikipedia chart with the church’s website about political status in Northern Ireland. But I do suspect the matter has something to do with the Regium Donum, a “royal gift” from Charles II to dissenting Protestants (outside the Church of Ireland — Anglican) to support their ministry. In fact, the royal recognition of the PCI’s moderator means that he receives invitations to affairs in London held by the British government. I suspect it also means some sort of royal representative at PCI General Assemblies the way that the Queen still sends a delegate to the Free Church of Scotland.

This difference with the USA is striking. The federal government or POTUS never sends representatives or invitations to moderators of Presbyterian communions in the U.S. Not even the Presbyterians in the “Protestant establishment,” the PCUSA, have the standing that Presbyterians do in the UK. American Presbyterians are pikers compared to Presbyterians in the British Isles.

But we American Presbyterians compensate with celebrity.

Which raises the question whether a brand like Tim Keller has more influence in national (or urban) life than a royal gift. I am asking because inquiring minds want to know.